Music with Ease > Classical Music > Concert Guide: Romantic Era > Mors et Vita - Gounod
Mors et Vita
The oratorio "Mors et Vita" ("Death and Life") is the continuation of "The Redemption," and was first performed at the Birmingham Festival, August 26, 1885. It is divided into a prologue and three parts.
The prologue, which is sustained by the chorus and baritone solo, declares the terrors of death and the judgment. The chorus intones the words ("It is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the living God"), and in this phrase is heard the chief motive, heavily accented by the percussion instruments -- the motive which typifies death both of the body and of the unredeemed soul. Immediately after follows the baritone voice, that of Jesus, in the familiar words ("I am the Resurrection and the Life"). The chorus repeats the declaration, and a Requiem Mass then begins, divided into various sections, of which the "Dies Irae" is the most important; this in turn subdivided in the conventional form. After an Adagio prelude and the intonation of the "Requiem aeternam," an interpolated text occurs ("From the Morning watch till the Evening"), set as a double chorus without accompaniment. It leads directly to the "Dies Irae," in which the death motive already referred to frequently occurs. It is laid out in duets, quartets, and arias, with and without chorus, very much in the same tempo and of the same character of melody. The verse ("Ah! what shall we then be pleading?") for quartet and chorus is remarkable for its attractive melody. It is followed by a soprano solo and chorus of a reflective character ("Happy are we, with such a Savior"). The hymn is then resumed with the verse ("Faint and worn, thou yet hast sought us"), for duet and chorus, which is of the same general character. The next verse ("Lord, for Anguish hear us moaning"), for quartet and chorus, is elaborate in its construction, particularly as compared with that immediately following ("With the Faithful deign to place us"), a tenor solo of a quaint and pastoral character. The next number for chorus ("While the Wicked are confounded") affords still another striking contrast, being in the grandiose dramatic style closing with phrases for the solo voices expressive of submission and contrition. Up to this point the "Dies Irae" has been monotonous in its sameness of general style; but the next verse ("Day of Weeping, Day of Mourning") is a beautiful and thoroughly original number of striking effect. It leads directly to the offertory ("O Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory"), which is composed of a chorus for eight parts, a soprano solo ("But, Lord, do thou bring them evermore"), a chorus ("Which once to Abraham"), and a second chorus ("Sacrifice of Prayer and Praise"). The soprano solo is a delightful melody, sung to a delicate accompaniment in the strings, with occasional chords in harp, and based upon the beautiful second typical motive, which the composer styles ("The Motive of Happiness"). The chorus ("Which once to Abraham") is set in fugue form, the conventional style among composers with this number. The next number is the "Sanctus" -- a beautiful tenor aria, followed by the quartet ("Mighty Savior, Jesus blest"), which is deeply religious in character; the lovely soprano solo and chorus ("Agnus Dei"); and the chorus ("Lord, forever let Light eternal"). The first part is rounded off with an epilogue, an interlude for full orchestra and organ, based upon the first and second typical melodies.
The second part opens with a well-sustained, gentle adagio movement, entitled ("The Sleep of the Dead"), which at times is somewhat harshly interrupted by the third typical melody, announcing the awakening of the dead at the terrifying call of the angelic trumpets. This is specially noticeable in that part of the prelude called ("The Trumpet of the Last Judgment"), in which the trombones, trumpets, and tubas are employed with extraordinary effect. Still a third phrase of the prelude occurs ("The Resurrection of the Dead"), which is smooth and flowing in its style, and peculiarly rich in harmony. A brief recitative by baritone ("But when the Son of Man") intervenes, immediately followed by another instrumental number, entitled "Judex" ("The Judge") -- one of the most effective pieces of orchestration in the oratorio, given out by the strings in unison. It preludes a short chorus ("Sitting upon the Throne"), the previous melody still continuing in the orchestra. "The Judgment of the Elect" follows, pronounced by the baritone voice in recitative, and leading directly to the soprano solo ("The Righteous shall enter into Glory eternal") -- the most exquisite solo number in the work -- followed by an effective chorale ("In Remembrance everlasting"). Then follows "The Judgment of the Rejected," consisting of baritone solos and chorus, closing the second part.
The third part is bright, jubilant and exultant throughout. The title of the prelude is ("New Heaven, New Earth"). The baritone intones the recitative ("And I saw the New Heaven"), which is followed by another delightful sketch for the orchestra ("Celestial Jerusalem") -- a most vivid and graphic picture of the subject it describes. The remaining prominent numbers are the "Sanctus" chorus, the celestial chorus ("I am Alpha and Omega"), and the final chorus ("Hosanna in Excelsis"), which closes this remarkable work.