* Nicolas Flagello: Missa Sinfonica (1957)
* Arnold Rosner: Symphony #5 "Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina"
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine/John McLaughlin Williams
Naxos 8.559347 Total time: 74:45
Summary for the Busy Executive: Two powerful symphonies: one a meditation
on the self, the other a sermon for the world.
One of the byways of the symphony meanders into the territory of the
symphonic mass - that is, a symphony, with or without singers, that takes
its structure or its inspiration, at least in part, not from classical
forms like sonata-allegro, but from the Roman Catholic Ordinary mass:
Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. The mass, of
course, with its mix of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew elements, is one of the
great (as well as one of the oldest) intellectual objects of European
civilization, and no small part of its fascination for artists, poets,
and symphonists stems from the great body of musical settings from Machaut
The CD offers two approaches to this genre - one from Italian-American
composer Nicolas Flagello, the other from the contemporary Arnold Rosner.
Both men have been called Neo-Romantics, which just lets you feel the
inadequacy of the term. For me, it suits Flagello more than Rosner.
Flagello came from a musical family. His brother Ezio had a successful
operatic career. He came into prominence during the Fifties - that is,
at exactly the wrong time. The Second Viennese School, and Webern in
particular, occupied the catbird seat in contemporary music, at least
as far as contributing to new notions of harmony and structure. Other
avant-gardistes were extending rhythm and phrase away from traditional
bases in song and dance. Even others, like John Cage, were busy redefining
what exactly music was. Nevertheless, traditional composers still
received commissions and even academic appointments. However, Flagello
seemed to run with the wrong crowd: tonal, but not Barber, Menotti, or
Schuman. I suspect as well a rather difficult personality that put off
those he couldn't afford to offend. However, he had strong loyalty from
his colleagues at the Manhattan School of Music, and indeed he owes his
revival to some of them. By the time the musical pendulum had swung
Flagello's way again, he was dying of a degenerative brain disorder.
He could no longer carry out the simplest musical task. Many of his
works remain in short score.
Of the Neo-Romantics, I think he comes closest to Barber, although,
as you might expect, his personality is strong and distinct. I had
encountered some of his music back in the Sixties through recordings,
and nothing particularly impressed me then. I blame the luck of the
draw as to what got recorded. I owe my enthusiasm for Flagello's music
to Walter Simmons - musicologist, critic, producer, and one of the
motivating powers behind this CD - who kept me at it. I think of
Flagello's music as passionate and dark. He seemed drawn especially
to melancholy texts but occasionally could also exercise great wit.
As his career progressed, however, the moodiness tended to dominate.
I mentioned that Flagello's approach to the symphonic mass differs from
Rosner's, and I think it comes down to the difference between insider
and outsider, the difference between the Catholic-raised Flagello and
the Jewish Rosner. Flagello's Missa Sinfonica, while it occasionally
quotes from chant, nevertheless doesn't make chant its raison d' =EAtre.
Flagello's idiom has far more in common with Barber than with Vaughan
Williams, Hovhaness, or even the Rokstro-influenced Edwardians. Many
symphonies based on the mass are, to some extent, sermons criticizing
the culture at large: Honegger's Third Symphony "Liturgique" or Britten's
Sinfonia da Requiem, for example. Flagello avoids this. The symphony's
five movements - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus
Dei - correspond to a moderato, scherzo, slow movement, second scherzo,
and slow finale, respectively. The proximity to the structure of the
mass comes and goes. Sometimes, as in the Kyrie and Gloria, Flagello
mainly gives you a mood. Sometimes, you can practically fit the words
of the mass to Flagello's music, as in the Credo, with its repetitions
of "Patrem omnipotentem." Above all, however, we get really something
personal. Flagello is so comfortable with the mass, it's so much a part
of him (even though he may not have been a practicing Catholic), that
he relates the mass to himself, rather than the other way around. The
Credo particularly interests me for its rhetoric, its drama, and its
keystone position in the symphony. This is hardly, as in Beethoven's
Missa Solemnis, Christendom's march to faith or even, as in the mass
itself, an affirmation of communal belief. The inwardness of the music,
the rising desperation of repeated calls to the "Almighty Father,"
suggests a spiritual crisis. I admit that by the end of the movement,
Flagello restores calm, but that seems to me a resort to the conventional.
The Gloria, celebrating divine wonders, is appropriately dance-like.
However, the Sanctus-Benedictus - on the other side of the Credo divide
- works against expectations, to the grotesque. Something dark goes on
here, not at all the assurance and calm of, say, Schubert's corresponding
movements in the E-flat Mass. Flagello's symphony overall gives me the
impression of the composer exploring his psyche through the structure
of the mass.
On the other hand, the Jewish Arnold Rosner keeps closer to outward
forms. In his liner notes, Rosner defends himself from the charge of
"This is a Jewish occupation, writing a mass?" It makes as much sense
to me as a white guy apologizing for playing jazz. Jazz and the mass -
like Christmas, incidentally - are the common intellectual property of
anybody with an artistic or historical imagination. I admit that Rosner
probably doesn't get out of a mass what a practicing Catholic does, but
so what? As long as he produces something wonderful. And not every
faithful Catholic necessarily comes up with a great work of art.
I'll say right now that I loved Rosner's music when I first encountered
it, and repetition has only strengthened my attachment to it. Rosner
began to produce serious work as a teen (although he's revised some of
those scores). He studied with avant-garde lights like Lejaren Hiller
but claims he learned practically nothing from them. I hesitate to call
him a neo-Romantic or a neo-Classic, although he has more in common with
pre-World War II composers than with those who came after. Mainly, I've
heard chamber music, because that's less expensive to record, but the
rare orchestral work that came my way impressed the hell out of me.
His string quartets made me want to hear his symphonies. Born in 1945,
he wrote the Fifth Symphony in 1973, the height of the post-Webernian
serialists as well as of the Viet Nam War. Rosner admits to writing the
symphony as partly a protest against that war and dedicated the score
to George McGovern. I don't know whether the symphony had ever been
performed before this recording. In the meantime, what other symphonies
has he written and when will anybody record them? This one's a knock-out.
As shown by his subtitle, "Mass without singers on Salve Regina,"
Rosner updates an old Renaissance practice - the mass based on plainchant.
This comes in three styles - early, middle, and late. The early Renaissance
tended to quote the chants, with skeletal contrapuntal support. The
middle (in my opinion, the height of the genre) used the chant more
abstractly, as an architectural frame which supported an efflorescence
of counterpoint, as in Josquin's Missa Pange lingua. The late Renaissance
tended to use the chant as modern composers use themes. Rosner, it seems
to me, does all three. There is a very abstract element in this symphony,
as if the composer were working out a complicated chess or bridge problem.
In the liner notes, Rosner writes that what aroused him in the first
place was the harmonic ambiguity (to modern ears) of modal music. He
seems to have approached it, at least in part, as a way to reinvigorate
tonality. It works for me. In addition, it's also powerful, even
However, a composer working with modes, rather than harmonies (and there's
a difference), faces some special problems. In fact, few modern composers
other than those trying to prove a point -- work with the modal strictness
of their Renaissance ancestors for the simple reason that harmony and
harmonic progression have become one of the main ways of moving music
forward. Harmonic progression leads you somewhere. Modal music is a
bit like a cup that never tips over. It's hard for us to conceive of a
piece of real length that never moves from a particular tonal center,
but that's pure modality for you. The Renaissance composer created
movement - a sense of going from here to there - in other ways: changing
the matter of discussion, the rhythm, or the choral "orchestration," for
example. The modern composer can get a strong sense of movement simply
by changing the key. Indeed, that's probably the main way tonal composers
do it. Surely, it's the main way we distinguish the big pieces of a
symphonic movement - first- and second-subject groups, for example. Even
the modern composer who takes much of his sound from the modes - Vaughan
Williams or Hovhaness, for example - "harmonically cheats" a bit. Rosner
does what I'd call "overreaching the mode," arriving at a new tonal place
by grabbing a note outside the mode and harmonically "slipping in" to a
new key center. It strikes me as a strategy similar to Hovhaness in his
symphonies, although Rosner writes far more tightly than Hovhaness.
In five movements (again, corresponding to Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus,
and Agnus Dei), this symphony emphasizes counterpoint. The plainchant
isn't always in obvious evidence, or even as half-hidden as the Tallis
theme in Vaughan Williams's Fantasia. However, the "Salve Regina" is a
pretty long chant. Rosner may be using parts of it unfamiliar to me.
In any case, he also chops it into parts and riffs on the pieces. The
Kyrie proceeds in rhythms that seem closely related to the text of the
mass (a feature that seems to me to carry through the whole work). The
music matches the mood "Kyrie eleison" (Lord, have mercy), and the main
theme, although not directly imitative of the plainchant, nevertheless
seems influenced in its shape by that chant. Slightly more than halfway
through, the opening phrase of the "Salve Regina" chant bursts forth as
a climax, which also signals a brief change in mood, and the movement
closes with a quick dance, based more strongly on the chant. The drama
of the movement becomes a plea for mercy, answered by the Queen of Mercy.
The Gloria is both a kind of scherzo and an homage to fugal techniques.
After the incipit of the well-known Gloria plainchant, we get a dance-like
prelude, based on a version of a Salve Regina phrase, although I doubt
most listeners (including me) would get this right away. Indeed, the
Salve Regina chant seems to retreat underground. We then get a fugue
on the Gloria incipit, including a great stretto section, with successive
entries in distantly-related keys. After this comes another fugal
exposition, this time using the bit from the Salve Regina that formed
the little prelude. The incipit occasionally asserts itself against the
fugal texture to build a climax, with the interpenetration of the two
ideas, and we end on a massive restatement of the incipit. The mood of
the movement resembles the Flagello: generally bright. It threatens to
become manic, kept in check mainly by the clarity of its imitative
The Credo, like the Gloria, begins with the appropriate chant, familiar
to listeners who know the Credo movement in Bach's Mass in b-minor.
However, Salve Regina works in the background, shaping musical materials
and determining how the movement proceeds. In this, Rosner seems to
combine his methods of the first and second movements.
Rosner puts the chant front and center in the Sanctus. He makes it
the topic of the movement, which announces it at the very beginning.
It starts as a kind of ritual dance, which gradually becomes more exciting,
perhaps as God's glory fills the heavens and the angels sing hosanna.
Halfway through, the mood once again gets subdued. We hear the chant
again and go through a similar process. This may correspond to the point
where Rosner introduces his Benedictus and hosannas.
In a symphony of beautiful and powerful argument, Rosner saves, to me,
the best for last. The Agnus Dei begins with one lovely tune, cast like
a flyfisher's line out over the water. The chant peeks out here and
there amid the many lines, moving in mysterious ways its wonders to
perform. Again, a climax builds to a phrase with the rhythm of "Dona
nobis pacem" / "Miserere nobis," appropriate to a "war symphony." Whether
the composer actually intended this, I can't say. Perhaps I've seen a
cloud in the shape of Lincoln's face. However, once I have seen it, I
find it difficult to shake the impression. After this, the composer
ends with a dance that makes me think of the innocence of heaven, much
like the "bim-bom" movement in Mahler's Third. It's the end that really
makes it for me. Rather than pound in a message or try to tug our
heartstrings, Rosner gives us an image of play and peace - an impossible
peace, as it turns out, but one well worth working for.
In a way, the social implications of the symphony have fallen away, in
the sense that if you didn't know Rosner's stimulus from Viet Nam, you
wouldn't have guessed it. It has become something more universal: a
work which challenges us to be serious and noble, and to keep our sense
of fun. Not many works of art do this.
John McLaughlin Williams and his Ukrainians have come up with another
winner, although I find them more purposeful in the Rosner than in the
Flagello. Nevertheless, they play the Flagello with commitment. Still,
they have made me hungry to hear someone else tackle it. Rosner should
have no complaints. In fact, he should shoot another symphony over to
these folks as soon as he can. An outstanding release in the Naxos
American Classics series.
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