Program notes for Beethoven’s Hallelujah and Choral Fantasy, and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms; performed June 9, 2018 by San Jose Symphonic Choir with Cambrian Symphony at San Jose State University; written by Leroy Kromm.
The opening work of today’s program is the final chorus in Beethoven’s one and only Oratorio that he composed in early 1803, Christus am Ölberg, op. 85. He composed the hour-long work in two weeks, but it did not make a particularly good impression on the Viennese audience, so Beethoven re-wrote it extensively the following year. Rarely performed in its entirety today, the final chorus which you will hear, “The Chorus of Angels” is frequently performed in its English version as The Hallelujah Chorus, rivaling Handel’s familiar Hallelujah Chorus from MESSIAH in popularity. Today you will hear the version with German text by Franz Xavier Huber, ten years older than Beethoven. The Oratorio is based on the biblical account of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the influence of Handel in the final chorus is evident.
The Choral Fantasy, op. 80, was composed by Beethoven to serve as the concluding work for a benefit concert he organized for himself on December 22, 1808; he was also the soloist. The work has always been recognized as a forerunner to his epic Ninth Symphony; even Beethoven remarked as such in a letter from 1824 when he was writing the Ninth Symphony, he described his project as “a setting of the words of Schiller’s immortal “Lied an die Freude” in the same way as my pianoforte Fantasia with chorus, but on a far grander scale.” The Choral Fantasy’s main theme is taken from one of his earlier works, a slightly modified version of his “Gegenliebe” for high voice and piano written in 1795. It bears a striking resemblance to the “Ode to Joy” melody.
The immensely popular Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein was commissioned for Great Britain’s Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1965, held at Chichester Cathedral. Every summer the Cathedral joins forces with its neighbors (Winchester and Salisbury) to produce a music festival. Despite the work’s extreme difficulty, it continues to be frequently performed in various versions, including the fully orchestrated version you will hear today. The text was arranged by Bernstein from the Psalms in the original Hebrew. Part 1 uses Psalms 100 and 108, Part 2 uses Psalms 23 and 2, and Part 3 uses Psalms 131 and 133. (See texts and translations) The second movement, Psalm 23, is to be heard as if sung by the boy David himself.
Chichester Psalms was Bernstein’s first composition after his 1963 Third Symphony (Kaddish). Both pieces represent two of his most overtly Jewish works. While both works have a chorus singing texts in Hebrew, the Kaddish Symphony has been described as a work often at the edge of despair, while the Chichester Psalms is affirmative and at times serene. We are performing the piece today in honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday on August 25, 2018.
Written by Leroy G. Kromm, San Jose Symphonic Choir
Program notes for Bach’s Mass in B Minor, performed by San Jose Symphonic Choir March 25, 2016; written by Leroy Kromm.