“I have placed death before life, wrote Charles Gounod, “because in the order of eternal things death precedes life.” The French composer was speaking about his oratorio Mors et Vita. This is a work filled with operatic drama, soaring orchestral music and meaningful solo passages sung with clarity of purpose and diction.
Perhaps the music is exemplified by the middle section of the work, the celebrated “Judex”, with its memorable melody – a signature tune for the whole work. Indeed, it was this piece of music, with its sensuous spirit and captivating appeal, first heard on my car radio, that awakened my interest in the whole work. It was to be some awakening and a recording of the music was immediately purchased.
The chosen recording, the Warner Classics 2-disc digital set from 1992, features a splendid quartet of Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Nadine Denize (alto), John Aler (tenor) and Jose van Dam (baritone), accompanied by Christopher Kuhlmann (organ), the Orfeon Donostiarra Chorus and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. All components are superbly managed by Michel Plasson, a conductor totally inside the music of Gounod. The orchestra is exhilarating and the soloists inspirational across the whole spectrum of this piece. Understandably, Hendricks illuminates the soprano lines with often incandescent singing, and van Dam commands the baritone’s pronouncements.
It is to be regretted that this work seems not to have entered the concert repertoire as it deserves greater recognition and wider appreciation than it apparently has. Perhaps this situation is owed to the fact that the work runs for in excess of 156 minutes. So too, the work is in three parts and, whilst the first part, “Death”, is a requiem that could stand alone as a composition, it is, nevertheless, an intrinsic part of the whole.
Whilst the above may be the case, it is interesting to note that the music itself was composed in the wake of Charles Gounod’s highly acclaimed The Redemption – an attempt to continue the impact and value of that work. According to the musicologist Richard Langham Smith, the Mors et Vita shows the musical influence of Bach and Wagner. It was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII.
Be that as it may, Mors et Vita is itself a composition to be cherished with its musical drama, operatic singing, striking orchestral passages and a primary musical motif which is reiterated throughout the work. According to the composer, the essential features of the ideas in the motif are “the tears which death causes us to shed here below; the hope of a better life; the solemn dread of unerring justice; the tender and filial trust in eternal Love.”
As mentioned in the foregoing, Mors et Vita has three sections:
First Part: Mors (Death), a fully-fledged requiem with a prologue and an epilogue. The music opens with a sombre passage leading to a series of triumphant choruses, with brass predominating, and solo parts for tenor and soprano sung against a lyrical orchestral accompaniment. This flavour of music continues in each appropriate section of the requiem, orchestral drama alternating with individual contributions from the soloist, striking cymbals with quieter passages illuminated by the strings of the harp. A choral component provides something of a heavenly vision. Musically, the seriousness of “Death” is brought to consciousness, but its sting is removed, sorrow is replaced by joy.
Second Part: Judicium (Judgement), the most celebrated component of this delicious oratorio, is first introduced by the violins in concert with the chorus – a languorous idyll that develops into a powerful chorale. It is this section that provides the most eloquent portions of what this oratorio offers: soaring and inspirational choral singing; clear and satisfying, and somewhat seductive, solo contributions; tense and powerful orchestral accompaniment in the louder passages; noble, tender and melodious in the quieter music. As the section nears its conclusion, the latent sorrow of the first part and the “Judgement” of this second part is refined by an expectation of the expulsion of pain.
Third Part: Vita (Life), a section comprising of sustained emotion and the expression of happiness. The above-mentioned qualities of the soloists, orchestra and chorus are all present in this section as the work moves towards a joyful choral finale. “Life” is quietly introduced, again with the use of the baritone voice, and the music gradually builds towards its climax as the chorus reprises the Judex theme of the second part. It could be said that the work had a double ending. The consummate choral ending of the “ergo sum alpha et omega” could well have concluded the work most satisfactorily, but the composer continues with a joyful “Hosanna…”, in order to bring the entire piece to an extended but appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
The version on Warner Classics is probably as good as it comes. The soloists are all first rate and sing flawlessly – it would be difficult to put together a foursome of esteemed soloists as good as those on this recording. The chorus is full-bodied and harmonious, often incandescent, and the conductor is in full control of a strong, responsive and expansive orchestra in a musical composition full of idiomatic structures and musical challenges. The recorded sound is clear and well-spaced, allowing the music to expand at the climaxes with the quieter passages deftly but firmly controlled and sensitively executed.
Charles Gounod’s oratorio, Mors et Vita, is a ‘must have’ piece of music for any lover of classical music, and certainly those with an interest in sacred or secular choral music. This is sublime music, superbly recorded, supremely satisfying. Music to be cherished.