Germany’s Magnificent Seven
Jeremy Pound selects seven German pieces with links to the number ‘7’
We suspect that people are rather happy in Berlin and Bonn this morning, possibly less so in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. We hope, though, that Brazilians will forgive us as we pay a nod to Germany’s extraordinary 7-1 World Cup victory last night by presenting seven fine German works with a link to, yes, the number seven…
1. Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was, rather appropriately, first performed at a concert held to celebrate a historic victory – though in this case it was that of the British over the French at the Battle of Vitoria. The list of players in the orchestra that day (8 December 1813) reads something like a who’s who of German music of the time: composers Louis Spohr, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Giacomo Meyerbeer etc… Uplifting even by Beethovenian symphonic standards, the Seventh was later described by Wagner as ‘The apotheosis of the dance’.
2. JS Bach: 'Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam', BWV7
The low BWV number of this cantata doesn’t tell us that it was an early piece – Bach’s works were catalogued by theme rather than by date. Written for performance on St John’s Day (24 June) in 1724, it is set in seven movements and performed by three soloists and four-part choir (=7!), accompanied by an ensemble of seven instruments.
3. Richard Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils
‘Tanz für mich, Salome!’ (Dance for me, Salome!) pleads Herod to the eponymous anti-heroine of Strauss’s 1905 opera. What follows is a scene that scandalised opera-goers of Strauss’s day, as Salome does as her stepfather wishes and, in the course of her dance, removes her garments one by one. In a number of productions, this has meant disrobing until there is, ahem, nothing left to come off. Salome’s subsequent action – romantically serenading the severed head of Jochanaan (John the Baptist) – is no less shocking.
4. Mendelssohn: Seven Characteristic Pieces for Piano, Op. 7
Mendelssohn wrote these seven charming pieces at just 18 – for most people a youthful age, but as arguably music’s greatest ever prodigy, he was already well into his maturity as a composer. Each work does pretty much what it says on the tin, namely take a particular characteristic and describe it in music for solo piano. No. 1, for instance, is ‘Mild and with sentiment’, while No. 7 is ‘Light and breezy’.
5. Schutz: Seven Last Words of Christ
The ‘Words’ of the title of Schütz’s 1645 oratorio is a little misleading – what the work really sets is Christ’s seven last utterings from the cross, beginning with ‘Lord, forgive them, they know not what they do’ and ending with ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirits’. Schütz’s setting is just one of a number to have been inspired by this subject. The most famous is Haydn’s orchestral work (later adapted for string quartet) of 1786. Haydn was, of course, Austrian but, as the man who composed Germany’s national anthem, he surely enjoys ‘honorary German’ status here.
6. Kurt Weill: Seven Deadly Sins
In this ‘sung ballet’, Kurt Weill and his librettist Berthold Brecht explore each of the seven sins in turn, each one set in a different US city. So, for instance, we get ‘Wrath’ in Los Angeles and ‘Lust’ in Boston. A splendidly sassy singer is needed for the part of Anna I, the character who leads us on our sinful journey – Lotte Lenya filled the brief perfectly when the work was premiered in Paris in 1933. Brazilian readers will be pleased to know that ‘Dreadful defending’ is not one of the sins.
7. Stockhausen: Licht (The Seven Days of the Week)
We finish with undoubtedly the longest, and least performed, work on our list of ‘seven German sevens’. For his Licht cycle of operas, composed between 1977 and 2003, Stockhausen took each day of the week in turn and wrote a work around it – in total, the cycle amounts to over 29 hours of music. Most famous (or notorious) of the seven operas is probably Mittwoch (Wednesday), thanks largely to the ‘Helicopter Quartet’, that moment where a miked-up string quartet is sent up into the sky in four separate choppers and their playing relayed thorough vast speakers on the ground.
…and, lest we forget, one Brazilian work
By way of a consolation goal, if you like, it is surely only right to include Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, composed in 1930. Scored for an orchestra of just cellos, it may not be as famous as the mournful Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and cello, but is superbly characterful with a gorgeous lilting dance in the opening ‘Introduçao’ movement.