COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 57

Symphony No. 5, “Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina” (1973)

for Orchestra
  • Kyrie
  • Gloria
  • Credo
  • Sanctus
  • Agnus Dei

Duration: 33 min.

Dedication: to George McGovern

Recording: Naxos 8.559347

Premiere: 1975; Colorado PO; A. Rosner

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Why would a composer of unmixed Jewish ancestry choose to set several Roman Catholic texts for chorus, write instrumental fantasies based on Protestant hymns, or compose a full symphony in the design of a Mass without singers—and then to dedicate that work to George McGovern, the candidate who suffered the most devastating electoral defeat in the history of the American presidency? Now, some thirty-odd years later, perhaps some explanation is in order.

To start with, during the eighteenth century, music history stepped both forward and back. The progress was in the tightening of form and structure, and in the expansion of the orchestra; but the regression was in the language of harmony, especially harmonic progression. The chief rôle of harmony became a subordinate reinforcement of a restricted and highly formulaic notion of tonality. Prior to that, modal and chromatic activity, with its attendant richness, variety, and pathos had reached a high plateau around 1600, as in the works of Victoria and Lassus. Indeed, one might argue that Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers reached a peak not attained again for centuries.

I am hardly the only composer to be drawn to pre- and early-baroque polyphonic language. Beside the obvious cases, Bohuslav Martinů stated that English madrigals were his favourite pieces; Anton Webern was a major editor of the music of Heinrich Isaac. There is a difference, of course, between a twentieth-century composer’s appreciating an earlier language, and actually using it; and then, does it become all or only part of his style. (I sometimes find myself at pains to point out that for me, I think it is just a part, important though it may be.)

Symphony No. 5, “Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina” is the most extended of my neo-modal works. As the entire Salve Regina hymn is quite long, I have used mostly the first three phrases as cantus firmus in all but the second movement of my piece. There I revert to a later phrase, treated in an almost dance-like 6/8 rhythm. The clearest statement of the fundamental chant melody is heard at the beginning of the fourth movement.

When one is in one’s twenties, one tends to see things in perhaps too simple a way. At the time I was very attracted to the peaceful aspects of Christianity—Dona nobis pacem, “turn the other cheek”, and so forth. The United States was mired in the war in Vietnam and many churches were active in rallies and other projects of the Peace Movement. I somehow overlooked the history of the inquisitions and crusades, and hardly anticipated the trend of very recent history towards church support of capital punishment and various military endeavours. Thus the “Mass without Singers” was for me an anti-war statement, and I chose George McGovern as my dedicatee, believing that despite his tremendous loss in the 1972 election, his campaign had given legitimacy to the cause of peace.

On the other hand, the rabbis and sages of the Jewish tradition—again in perhaps an oversimplified view—had hardly encouraged polyphonic composition of religious music. Although there were recent Sacred Services by Milhaud and Bloch, and a whole body of Palestrina-esque works by Salamone Rossi, these were few and far between: The general stylistic range of synagogue cantorial and choral music was narrow indeed. To those who question my composition of neo-Christian works I might point out that early on I wrote a Sacred Service, and more recently Etz Chaim (The Tree of Life) for solo piano, A Sephardic Rhapsody for orchestra, and an operatic setting of the folk-story Bontsche Schweig. In the last analysis, my answer—if not too glib—is: Music is my Religion. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)