Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

As one of several projects posting out-of-copyright books on music, Project Gutenberg has posted an 1886 book Standard Oratorios. To quote from the preface:
The main object has been to present to the reader a comprehensive sketch of the oratorios which may be called "standard," outlining the sacred stories which they tell, and briefly indicating and sketching their principal numbers, accompanied in each case with a short biography of the composer and such historical matter connected with the various works as is of special interest....

[T]he work has been prepared for the general public rather than for musicians, and as far as practicable, technical terms have been avoided. Description, not criticism, has been the purpose of the volume, and the various works are described as fully as the necessarily brief space allotted to each would allow. The utmost pains have been taken to secure historical and chronological accuracy, inasmuch as these details are nearly always matters of controversy.
The book talks about three Bach pieces (including my favorite piece of religious work, the Matthew Passion) and Beethoven’s Mount of Olives. It also talks about requiems by Berlioz, Brahms, Mozart and Verdi, as well as multiple religious pieces by Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn.

The blog Hymnography Unbound focuses on the description of Handel’s Messiah provided by the book, which it calls “a delightfully chatty late-19th century ebook about the major oratorios.” Alas, outside the Messiah, few of the works are performed in churches, other than occasional excerpts of the requia as service music for the Mass.

Despite the century-long role of the Roman Catholic church as a musical sponsor, many of the oratorios have a distinctly Protestant origin. Bach is the world’s most famous Lutheran Kappelmeister. Both Handel and Mendelssohn composed in England, although the Messiah premiered in Ireland using choirs from the Church of Ireland.

For us Yanks, the book includes a fascinating 20 page epilog on “Sacred Music in America.”

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