“Befiehl du deine Wege”; music for (the rest of your) life

October 15th, 2003  |  Tags:  |  3 Comments

Here is a less-common text to Herzlich tut mich verlangen, the “Passion Chorale” of Hans Leo Hassler. You can hear this text in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (or on the Hilliard Ensemble’s excellent Morimur CD); unfortunately, it is not widespread in current Lutheran worship. I believe that the only text I’ve sung to that tune in the last five years is the Bernard of Clairvaux one (which is maybe in the top five all-time hymn texts). Anyway, the “Befiehl du deine Wege” is a nice text, and is — as you might expect given that it was written in 1656 — quite pietistic, in the sense that it is oriented toward life for and with God.

Andrea asked me a few months ago what piece of music I could listen to for the rest of my life. I had to think about that one pretty hard, since I harbor no illusions about being the Übermensch, but I eventually answered “the Matthew Passion“, since I don’t think I could live the rest of my life without those chorales, and since the “halo” gives me goosebumps every time. (She was expecting me to answer Die Meistersinger, which is probably my favorite comic opera.) I guess I had to come up with a short-list of some kind; here are a few items, in no particular order, that I’d need with me on a desert island, organized by genre (there’s probably enough here to fit on a few CDs of high-quality AAC; of course, the Matthew Passion‘s presence is implied):

  • Chamber music
    • Bach’s d minor Chaconne for solo violin. I’d want two recordings of this: one on a Baroque violin and one of the Sinopoli transcription for guitar. Perhaps the most emotionally-wrenching piece of instrumental music I know, and certainly one of the best-crafted. (Runners-up in a similar vein: the whole first partita for violin solo, the first ‘cello suite, and the lute suite BWV 999.)
    • Liszt’s b minor Sonata. Not only is this perhaps Liszt’s most philosophically-motivated work, but it is — to use specialist vocabulary — thoroughly “badass”.
    • Haydn’s Gli Scherzi Quartets. If I were on a desert island, I’d need Haydn to keep me sane.
    • Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich’s musical monogram (D-S-C-H) is a memorial to the victims of the Communist and Fascist atrocities of the 20th century.
    • Schubert’s “Erlkönig”. There are few Goethe songs I wouldn’t want, but this is essential. Tied for second: the settings of “Es war einmal ein König” by Beethoven, Wagner, and Busoni.
    • Scarlatti’s Sonata K.117 If I could bring a guitar to the island, this would be the shoe-in, so that I could finally have time to try and arrange it. Otherwise, if would be very difficult to choose!
    • Francois Couperin’s Pièces de clavecin, bk. 1
  • Complete operas
    • Beethoven’s Fidelio. Worth it for the prisoners’ chorus alone, even if the Enlightenment-era notions of freedom are dated. The fact that it contains the chorus and such a good overture puts it over the top.
    • Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Götterdammerung. Die Meistersinger was Wittgenstein’s favorite opera; it treats the issues of genius, artistic criticism, and the growth of art. Götterdammerung should be required listening for anyone who wants to assert that Wagner was the primogenitor of German fascism.
    • Verdi’s Falstaff. My other favorite comic opera; the brilliant final work of a venerable craftsman. “Tutto nel mondo è burla”. Apparently, Boito also wanted to do Lear, but Verdi’s wife wouldn’t hear of it.
    • Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. If I ever get nostalgic for student recitals at my borderline-conservatory liberal arts school alma mater, I need only hear Act I of Figaro, which is basically a song book for young baritones and sopranos. DG was Kierkegaard’s favorite opera, and it ranks pretty highly on my list as well.
  • Opera overtures or excerpts
    • The overture to Act III of Tannhäuser (“Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage”)
    • Rossini’s La gazza ladra and Barbiere overtures I hesitate to put the Barbiere on the list, since I feel that I could probably recall it without the benefit of a recording, but I feel bad about not including it on the list of operas.
    • The prologue to Parsifal
    • Marguerite’s execution from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust
    • Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler suite (The whole opera would be on a “medium-list”.)
    • Act III, Scene iii from Wozzeck
  • Choral(e)
    • All Bach’s harmonizations of the chorales from Luther’s Deutsche Messe I’d take all of the chorales if I could, actually, but there are a lot of good ones in the service music, like Christe, du Lamm Gottes, Jesiah dem Propheten, O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, Kyrie, Gott Vater (a good example of reworking a good old tune), etc.
    • Just about all of Schubert’s male chorus music
    • Josquin’s De profundis The “master of the notes” in an excellent mature work. Just about any of the motets could also come with, as could the Pange lingua Mass.
    • Isaac’s Tota pulchra es
    • Schütz’ Kleine geistliche Konzerte
    • Most of Gibbons’ English cathedral music
    • Purcell’s “Hear my prayer, O Lord”
    • Tallis’ Spem in alium A tough call between a vocal recording and the Kronos quartet’s brilliant overdub-fest quartet arrangement. I’m glad I don’t have to choose.
  • Orchestral works and concerti:
    • Haydn’s Abscheidsymphonie no. 45 Whether this is about death and transfiguration (as some assert) or merely about taking the rest of the summer off from the Esterhazys’ employ, it is my favorite middle Haydn symphony.
    • Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7
    • Liszt’s Les Preludes
    • Mahler’s 2nd Symphony
    • Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony An intensely political and anti-Communist work, perhaps even more so than the 4th, which drew Stalin’s ire. Shostakovich thought he was Mahler’s son, and it’s not hard to hear why in the Scherzo. Also, perhaps the best slow movement of the 20th century.
    • Brahms’ Violin concerto and Haydn-variations I arranged the last of the Haydn variations for organ as the processional for my wedding.

Of course, with everything I add, I think of two things I’ve omitted — glaring omissions, no less. (No Lassus? No Mozart piano concerti? No late Beethoven quartets or piano sonati?) These lists change so often, but it’s interesting to take them down and make a snapshot. Five years ago, my list would have been all Mahler, Strauss, Hindemith, Adams, Crumb, etc. — it’s not that I like those composers any less, but perhaps my aesthetic priorities have changed.