As a violinist, I initially considered choosing an orchestral movement as the subject of this blog. However, when I really thought about it, one of my all-time favourite pieces of music is entirely choral. I love singing and find it a great way to relax whilst providing a musical outlet at the same time. Therefore, the movement I have chosen, and something that never fails to ‘move’ me, is the Borgoroditsye Dyevo (Ave Maria) from Rachmaninov's Vespers.
The piece is a setting of texts taken from the Russian Orthodox Church ‘All-Night Vigil’. I first came across it at university while singing with Selwyn College Chapel Choir. None of us had heard the vespers before, let alone attempted to sing in Church Slavonic, so learning this fifteen-movement piece was a real challenge! Another difficulty is that it is entirely unaccompanied, which makes for an incredibly atmospheric - if at times exhausting for those singing - performance. Rachmaninov wrote this piece in the midst of the First World War and it was first performed in 1915 to raise money for the Russian war effort. In spite of this context, there are plenty of hopeful moments throughout. The entire work lasts around an hour and is full of dramatic Russian chanting, evocative soprano moments and scarily low bass lines, but if you’ve only got three minutes to spare in your day, the movement that really stands out for me is Borgoroditsye Dyevo (Ave Maria).
One of the easier movements, it begins with a simple lilting melody, with all four voices moving together, reminiscent of a lullaby. This peaceful opening transforms as the basses drop out, and the harmony becomes darker. As this tension builds, the choir gradually get louder until almost out of nowhere the basses suddenly enter again, transporting the whole choir into an amazing triumphant C major chord – the musical equivalent of the sun suddenly shining on a dark room. It’s the climax of the movement, and you definitely can’t miss it. Whether I’m listening or singing I never fail to get goosebumps.
Find out more about Lydia here.
Gustav Mahler was a German composer of Romantic music and is perhaps most famous for his symphonies. All of Mahler’s symphonies are renowned for their incredibly broad scope, both in terms of length and emotional content, in addition to often requiring huge orchestras to perform them.
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is his most restrained in terms of instrumentation and length and is one of the lightest in character, too. It is the last of the Wunderhornsymphonies, a name given to Mahler’s early symphonies which used his earlier song cycle, Das Knaben Wunderhorn, as their primary inspiration for thematic material. The last movement of this symphony, unusually, features a solo soprano and is based on the song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). The song depicts a child’s innocent and naïve view of heaven, and for me is some of the most beautiful music Mahler wrote.
The movement opens with a feeling of total serenity, complete with musical depictions of lambs bleating and the sound of oxen. The soprano enters in a ‘joyous, child-like tone’, singing of the ‘heavenly pleasures’ and the ‘greatest peace’ which the child is witnessing. In between the stanzas, however, the music takes a sharper and more sinister tone, as the child realises everything is not how he had imagined it: the sight of a ‘dear little lamb’ being slaughtered for a feast fills him with shock and fear. After each interlude, the sensation of tranquillity returns once more, and the final stanza opens with the lines ‘There is just no music on earth / that can compare to ours’.
I was lucky enough to perform this piece last summer as part of the St Endellion Festival in Cornwall, and it is one of my most treasured musical memories. The setting for the concert was amazing: in a 15th-century church on the Cornish clifftops. I was playing the bass drum for the symphony, which doesn't actually play at all in this movement. I was secretly thrilled at this - it meant I could just sit and enjoy the music as it engulfed me.
Find out more about Lewis here.
I can remember three occasions where the piece I was playing was so moving that I cried during the performance. The first two instances were during my time with the National Youth Orchestra, one being in the last movement of Strauss’ Four Last Songs and the other in the last movement of Mahler Symphony No.10. The most recent time was during the final performance my string quartet gave together before our 1st violinist moved to Norway for work and our 2nd violinist returned to her medical degree and became a doctor! We had been invited to a chamber music course on the beautiful Isle of Coll in Scotland and were given free rein to study and perform whatever we wished. We had wanted to tackle one of the giants of the repertoire and one of my all-time favourite pieces for a while: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet.
The second movement, a theme and variations, is the one that I find particularly touching. We spent a blissful week exploring the piece in the most inspiring setting imaginable (our rehearsal space was quite literally perched on a river mouth and seals would occasionally swim up to the window!). With the combination of emotions running high, the incredible harmonies of the second movement and the stunning surroundings, I suddenly realised I had tears streaming down my face. It’s a piece that will always hold a special place in my heart and a moment I’ll certainly never forget.
Find out more about Deni here.