Have you ever commissioned a new work from a composer? I’ve been through the process a number of times. No work longer than twenty minutes. But when you get the brief of the commission right, which encourages the composer to turn up a bit of magic, it can be one of the more satisfying experiences to log in your memory bank. The Society for Second Performances has a lot of baggage waiting on its books, of course. But on those occasions when the work that you and the composer have jointly created becomes standard repertoire, then you can be happy in the knowledge that a service for posterity has been done. Moreover, if you get your name into the dedication slot, pride of place, up there at the top of the score, then it acknowledges that it sometimes takes two to tango to secure a new piece for our niche-market catalogue.
Occasionally the commissioning agent achieves even greater status if embodied in the work’s nickname: Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, for example. Maybe Peter Maxwell Davies’ ten string quartets, known as the Naxos Quartets (8.505225), fall into the same category. Here’s the Alla marcia from the Ninth Naxos Quartet.
Many works, of course, spring unaided from the composer. Verdi’s Requiem, for example, wasn’t the result of a commission. Nor was Fauré’s Requiem. Penderecki’s A Polish Requiem (8.557386-87) might be said to be a commission from history, the inspiration of milestones, lest we forget:
1979: Polish dock-workers in Gdansk die in confrontations with the authorities
1980: Penderecki’s tribute to the event is the Lacrimosa movement
1981: Cardinal Wyszynski, Poland’s “Warrior for the Faith”, is honoured by the Agnus Dei
1982: The Recordare Jesu pie marks the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe who, in 1941, saved the lives of other Auschwitz prisoners by volunteering to die in their place
1984: The 40th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation is marked by the Dies Irae
It wasn’t until 1993, with the addition of the Sanctus, that the work reached its final form and was premièred at a Penderecki Festival in Stockholm, with the composer himself conducting. Here’s the hellish bite of the Dies irae section.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (8.559622-23) was a more straightforward, high-profile commission, one which threw him back wholeheartedly into composition after his eleven years as music director of the New York Philharmonic, from 1958 to 1969. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis put us all in her debt by providing this kick-start with an irresistible invitation to write the inaugural piece for the opening of the newly constructed Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein’s response was a piece of musical theatre—“MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers”.
Here’s what Bernstein wrote: “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions and sects, of ancient or tribal beliefs, but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a piece dedicated to her late husband…”
Here’s the Trope, I believe in God, for solo voices, choruses and rock singer.
I’m going to end by acknowledging two contrasting characters who served us well with their commissions. One may be familiar; the other possibly not. The first is the Swiss conductor and patron, Paul Sacher, who made numerous commissions from well-known 20th-century composers. He died in 1999 at the age of 93, leaving behind a treasure trove of commissioned works. Among them are Stravinsky’s Concerto in D (8.550979), Frank Martin’s Petite Symphonie Concertante (9.80129), Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (8.570895), plus several works from Bartók, including his Divertimento for Strings (8.550979) and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (8.550261). The list goes on, but let’s listen to to part of Strauss’ ardent Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.
Sacher’s personal wealth and position of musical leadership helped him leave such an incredible list of additions to the masterpieces of the last century. On a more parochial, yet equally valuable level was the Reverend Walter Hussey. I use the word parochial advisedly, since he followed his father as the Vicar of St. Matthew’s Church, Northampton in the UK, a position he held from 1937 to 1955. During that time he commissioned an array of wonderful musical works and visual art for the church from British artists. Space allows for a brief mention of only three of them:
Benjamin Britten wrote Rejoice in the Lamb (8.554791) for Hussey in 1943 for a fee of just £25. It’s a setting of an obscure poem by the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, written during a spell in an asylum for the insane. Here’s an extract: For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey.
Gerald Finzi was commissioned to write his substantial anthem Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice (8.555792) in 1946. Inspired by 16th- and 17th-century poetry, Finzi set Richard Crashaw’s translation from the Latin of St Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro te and Lauda Sion. Here’s an extract.
Finally, to the late John McCabe. He wrote A Hymne to God the Father (8.573053) for Hussey in 1966. Here’s what the composer had to say about the work:
“The tone of the piece is reflective, the questioning textʼs sharpness and pointedness mirrored, I hope, in the musicʼs austere expressiveness. The use of soli for three short phrases (two for Soprano, one for Tenor) reminds one that this is essentially a personal plea, though cast in the form of a communal prayer.”