Dear Mozart … and a note on Einstein, Saint-Saëns, and musical colours


“Dear Mozart, what did you intend here?”

Many of us have sung the Mozart Ave Verum in D major before.  It is a beautiful and luminous piece of music.

We loved the marking of “sotto voce” – which really translates into “in a hushed voice”.

But while we think we all know this piece, as we started practising, we couldn’t help noticing that there is the intensely effective interpretation Leonard Bernstein made of this piece where he took a slow tempo!

And so we looked at the score intently, and indeed, it does say “Adagio”!  So, Bernstein is right – Adagio is normally round a beat of 60 to 76 beats per minute.  It’s hard for singers to sustain legato for long lines at that slow tempo!  So, we asked ourselves, Dear Mozart, what did you intend?”  And so, I looked up Mozart’s original 1791 manuscript (or the scanned version of it – thanks to the great IMSLP) and indeed, we find clearer clues, even if you need glasses to read this.  There are very few markings except for many instances of “sotto voce” and one marking of “Adagio”.

And so, let’s do as Adagio as we possibly can and let’s do sotto voce.  All I can say is that Mozart requires a lot from his singers!  And Leonard Bernstein did a fantastic job to conduct the choir in a way that was very legato and the lines did not break.

One of the most important scientists of our times, Albert Einstein, loved and played Mozart, commenting that his music is “of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed”.  This can certainly be said of the Ave Verum, which is considered by some to be Mozart’s most “perfect” composition.  

We are also learning the Saint-Saëns Ave Verum.  We thought it will be interesting to pair these two well-loved Ave Verum side by side.  We must note, nonetheless, that there are many other SATB settings of the Ave Verum, including that of William Byrd, Edward Elgar, Charles Gounod, Gabriel Fauré.  The text is also used in Francis Poulenc’s opera, Dialogue of the Carmelites.

Saint-Saën’s E flat major Ave Verum is quite different.  One could say it is filled with French romantic harmonies but set within a very classical purity and balance.  Famously, Saint-Saëns once said that Mozart’s “is the only Ave Verum“.  Though less performed than Mozart’s Adgio setting that is in D major and is written for choir with strings accompaniment, this Ave Verum (marked moderato and written to be sung a cappella) is, like Mozart’s, simple, luminous and beautiful.

And of course, the colours of a D major piece (Mozart’s) and an E flat major piece (Saint-Saëns’) is quite different.  More on this next time!

P.S. Liszt’s piano composition from his late period, A la Chapelle Sixtine, actually references the Mozart Ave Verum, essentially in its entirely and transposing it to B major!  Liszt, as the pianists among us would know, did many transcriptions of vocal music but this one is lesser-known and not often played – a good interpretation by a young Japanese pianist of this Mozart-Liszt piece can be found here (Mozart’s theme starts around the 5th minute) and still on the theme (of both Lisztian transcriptions and of young pianists) worth listening to is Yuja Wang of Liszt’s transcription of a few of Schubert’s lieder).        

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