In praise of mothers
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Byline: Justine Nguyen
To celebrate Mother’s Day this month, we’re celebrating works that were dedicated to, inspired by, and in praise of mothers. From towering classics like the Brahms Horn Trio, to be performed on tour for Musica Viva in June, to a rapturous song by Amy Beach, and contemporary classics like John Tavener’s deeply felt Two Hymns to the Mother of God, we explore the works’ fascinating origins, intricacies, and place in musical history.
Brahms Horn Trio
Composed in 1865, Brahms’ staggering Horn Trio in E Flat is a masterwork. Raising the bar for all his contemporaries and all the composers that would follow, it is widely saluted as a chamber work that invented a completely new medium. The combination of horn, violin, and piano was then thought of as not only unusual but unwieldy – a less than great horn player could easily overwhelm the fine textures of the piece. Having played the horn in his youth, Brahms’ enduring love for the instrument can be heard across his output, perhaps most notably in the slow introduction to the finale of his Symphony No 1. But it’s in the Horn Trio that Brahms truly showcases its capabilities, where it helps illustrate a mysterious Romantic forest, a boisterous rustic scene, and a slow movement that nearly stops your heart. Maybe it’s no surprise then that a work with so many life-affirming and sombre moments was written in response to the passing of the composer’s mother, Christiane. The pair were especially close – with his father away earning a living as a professional hornist, Christiane, cultured and educated, gave Brahms the keys to the world, introducing him to German literature and Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. After he left home, they kept up a frequent and warm correspondence.
Percy Grainger, Colonial Song
The eccentric and colourful Australian-born Percy Grainger had thoughts of his mother Rose in mind when penning his Colonial Song. Composed as a Yule gift for her in 1911, the song, which exists in a variety of different orchestrations, was intended by Grainger to evoke “feelings aroused by thoughts of the scenery and people of my native land, (Australia), and also to voice a certain kind of emotion that seems to me not untypical of native-born Colonials in general.” It is stirring and melancholic, hopeful and wistful all at once, and was, perhaps with characteristic ego, compared by Grainger to what Mark Twain and Stephen C Foster captured in Huckleberry Finn and My Old Kentucky Home respectively. It nevertheless remains a lovely piece of music dedicated to a mother that Grainger clearly adored – after all, he regifted it to her in its various orchestrations several times!
John Tavener, Two Hymns to the Mother of God
In more recent times, the late English composer John Tavener wrote a pair of sublime choral works, known collectively as Two Hymns to the Mother of God, in memory of his own mother, Muriel. First performed in 1985 by the Choir of Winchester Cathedral, conducted by Martin Neary, the first hymn Hymn to the Mother of God, is a setting of a text from the Liturgy of St Basil, which expresses the near cosmic power attributed to the Mother of God by the Orthodox Church. The second hymn, Dormition of the Mother of God, depicts the Mother asking the apostles to bury her body in Gethsemane, and Christ to receive her spirit. The luminous work is a clear testament to the reverence in which Tavener held his mother.
Rebecca Dale, Materna Requiem
Something of a spiritual follow-up to Tavener’s project is contemporary British composer Rebecca Dale’s Materna Requiem. An affecting, ultimately joyful tribute to her late mother, who died in 2010, it incorporates melodies the composer wrote when she was a child. Having written for both concert and screen, her cinematic impulses are in full flight here – the work is unabashedly sentimental and full of harmonies. While it largely sets the Catholic Mass, the final movement for unaccompanied voices turns to Joyce Grenfell’s beloved poem If I Should Go, which exhorts the living to remember that “life goes on/ So sing as well.”
Experience the power of Brahms’ Horn Trio when Nicolas Fleury, Emily Sun, and Amir Farid embark on a national tour for Musica Viva from 9 June – 26.