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April 13, 2009

Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Mozart's "Lacrimosa": Part II.

By: Bernard Chazelle

"Angels sing Mozart among themselves and Bach when they're with God,"

said a famous theologian. For all its shortcomings, the Requiem's Lacrimosa, which allegedly moved the composer to tears on his deathbed, would have pleased Bach. It has moments of sublime, transcendent, absolute, drop-dead Bachian beauty. It brings to mind Kant's saying that "a genius is one who discloses to art its rules." The first minute packs a wallop of disclosure.

Take the first climax at 0:50-0:53, a 3-note phrase, immediately reprised a fifth higher, which incidentally forms the defining riff of countless popular tunes (eg, "Ne Me Quitte Pas," "Dark Eyes"). Mozart prepares you for these 3 notes with one of the most stunning ascending lines you'll ever hear. The 30-second lift-off is first diatonic (0:25-0:37), and then brilliantly switches to chromatic (0:37-0:50) as the dynamics kick in and the volume swells up, up, and up. In the last measure you can hear the timpani get into action on that final A, then repeated one octave lower. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that only the soprano line rises into the sky. The other voices (alto/tenor/bass) merely harmonize the ascent.

Once the rocket is in orbit, the noisy boosters are ditched and the craft floats smoothly in outer space (0:50-1:00). All the wind instruments are shut down and the orbiting is performed only by the 4 voices and the strings. I've never been in a rocket but I've been in a glider, and that's the feeling you get when the clunky propeller plane that pulls you up finally lets go and all you hear is the soft, eerie swoosh of the wind flowing along the wings. It's the same sense of liberating magic you get in that sustained A/C# (0:50-0:52) followed by Bb-A/F (0:52-53). The two As play very distinct harmonic functions: the first one provides the key's dominant sound while the second one, with the minor 3rd added in the bass, brings us back to the root chord of Dm. This tiny little phrase is then repeated over and over. Very Bach-like, the piece is a pointillistic juxtaposition of myriads of clones of miniature phrases.

The piece is in Dm but the very end modulates to D major. (That F# does not belong there.) ATR readers will remember we encountered the Picardy third earlier in the SMP "Sind Blitze." It's interesting because the practice disappeared almost completely after Mozart (with a few notable exceptions in the Romantic era).

Sadly, the end of the Lacrimosa is as trite as the beginning of Cohen's Hallelujah. The final Amen doesn't work and the lead-up to it is hardly better. We know from DNA analysis that Mozart was genetically incapable of writing such uninspired music, so the theory goes that he died and a student completed the movement. Some scholars believe Mozart had intended to end it with a fugue, something well within his composing abilities but probably too exhausting for him to do on his deathbed. Unfortunately, his pupil lacked the contrapuntal chops to pull it off and, to make it worse, Mozart's wife asked him to rush it out the door because she needed the money. So there you have it. Shakespeare has died half way through King Lear and now you have to finish the play. You have 24 hours to do the job, and nasty bloggers will have 1,000 years to make fun of you.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at April 13, 2009 12:17 PM
So there you have it. Shakespeare has died half way through King Lear and now you have to finish the play. You have 24 hours to do the job, and nasty bloggers will have 1,000 years to make fun of you.

That's quite over the top and says something about the state of the current culture -- that we draw more value from navel-gazing vs. actually doing something minor, anonymous, yet productive.

He's heir to Woody Guthrie's throne, not Dylan Thomas's (yes, the irony).

Throne? Is there a comparison on the impact each made on the world?

Posted by: Angryman@24:10 at April 13, 2009 01:09 PM

Thank you, again. The final "amen" had always bothered me, but I thought it was my lack of musical education for not getting it. Me, critique Mozart? Not bloody likely. It's still a stunningly beautiful piece of music.

Posted by: Svensker at April 13, 2009 02:13 PM

beautiful Bernard. thanks.

Posted by: ran at April 13, 2009 10:26 PM

Simply GORGEOUS piece of music! Many thanks Prof Chazelle.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at April 14, 2009 10:30 PM