German has been a central love of mine since my early teenage years. My first lightbulb moment was in my last year in the Sydney Children’s Choir when we performed Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It was an emotionally charged event for me anyway as I knew that my voice was changing and this would be one of my last performances (understandably, the focus may well have been on maestro Edo de Waart, for whom it was a final engagement as Chief Conductor!). I can still remember being completely transported in the final movement by music which was so emotionally intense, that it was like having an out of body experience.
The inevitable voice change happened but I was lucky to continue this journey with German music as a young organ student at Sydney Grammar School where I also sang in the Sydneian Bach Choir, performing Sunday concerts of three cantatas each, six times a year. And so for quite a while, I was happily absorbed by the music of Bach and his other baroque contemporaries, like Dietrich Buxtehude (whose organ music was incredibly satisfying to play).
Conductor Sam Allchurch. Photo © Nick Gilbert
It was really only as a graduate student at Cambridge that I rediscovered my love for German music of a much later period, in an inadvertent way. I was enjoying my lessons with Geoffrey Webber at Gonville and Caius College – Geoffrey had recently recorded a disc of German Romantic music with his own choir at Caius and King’s College London. He asked me to sing in the CD launch concert which meant learning Richard Strauss’s incredibly challenging Deustche Motette. The score is extremely complicated – 16 separate parts, constantly modulating, with tenor clefs. I will never forget when Geoffrey, quite unassumingly, sat down at the piano to take a rehearsal and proceeded to play a particularly tricky part with no piano reduction. After that concert, I had fallen in love with the rich sound of 40 voices of highly-skilled singers performing this emotionally intense music.
When Richard Gill asked me to propose a programme for Sydney Chamber Choir, the initial variety of choice was a bit bewildering. Being a group of highly-skilled and experienced singers, few of the restrictions of difficulty applied. It didn’t take long though to realise that this was an ideal opportunity to explore the German Romantics. These composers – Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schubert – form the staple of the orchestral concert repertoire but aren’t often recognised for the beauty of their choral writing.
So I set about devising a programme – beginning with two substantial motets of Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben? which universalises the suffering of Job from the Old Testament and Schaffe in mir Gott, which sets a portion of Psalm 51. I had first sung these works as an undergraduate in Melbourne and was struck by their combination of incredible technical complexity and direct emotional impact – this is music that spoke equally to the head and the heart.
Brahms was raised in a Lutheran household in Hamburg but his own beliefs are much less obvious than those of a composer like Bach. His selections of Biblical texts throughout his choral music, but especially in these two motets, belie a concern with the more universal themes of patience and endurance through earthly suffering. What lies on the other side of the curtain is less clear but hinted at in the beautiful fourth movement of his German Requiem – ‘how lovely are thy dwellings, O Lord God of hosts’ – which concludes the first half of this programme.
Sydney Chamber Choir. Photo © Nick Gilbert
The other pillar of the programme is its final piece – Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on earth). Schoenberg is perhaps most known as one of the wrecking balls to tonal harmony for his pioneering of serialism, a compositional method based on the equality of each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. He wrote Friede auf Erden in his early thirties and later referred to it as an ‘illusion’ due to its fundamentally tonal structures.
This work is not often performed, I suspect due to its being harmonically complex and unaccompanied! As we’ve been rehearsing this piece, it’s become increasingly clear just how romantic the music is and how optimistic the vision for peace is. It sets a poem by Conrad Meyer which uses the nativity scene as an opportunity to reflect on peace and the epic struggle between good and evil – both in its musical language and its subject matter, this piece strikes me as a miniature Mahler symphony – and perhaps it’s this connection to my first encounter with this music that makes it so rewarding for me.
Between the two pillars of Brahms and Schoenberg, we hear the music of Mendelssohn, whose choral music was deeply connected to the church both in Germany and England where he became the successor to Handel as the master of oratorio composition. We also hear Schubert, Bruckner, Rheinberger and the little known Heinrich von Herzogenberg, who wrote music in the style of the high renaissance composers such as Palestrina.
In one way or another, all of the music in this programme is concerned with faith and belief – how these concepts were worked remains for me the most interesting side of the 19th century. After the liberalising and secularising effect of the Enlightenment, one might expect a decline in the composition of sacred music – but instead we have the great composers of the time writing some of their most beautiful and enduring music in this genre. Here we have music that appeals both to head and heart, eschewing religious dogma in the search of something much more universal.
Sam Allchurch and Sydney Chamber Choir perform German Romantics at Sydney University’s Great Hall April 8