Igor Stravinsky's Mass, which was performed yesterday at the Library of Congress, was begun during World War II, more than three decades after "Le Sacre du Printemps." It would be hard to imagine, if we did not know, that both compositions are products of the same creative mind. Yet in its own serene, austere way, this evocation of eternal, transcendent mystery is as startling a break with tradition as was the youthful ballet on pagan fertility rites.
By now, it is clear that Stravinsky will be remembered and respected primarily as the composer of "Sacre"--at least in the mind of the general public. But if he had never composed that spectacular outburst of wild rhythms and brilliant orchestration, the Mass would be enough to keep his name holy among connoisseurs. Among liturgical settings of the Mass (as distinguished from the quasi-operatic works of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and other great classical composers), Stravinsky's is probably the most satisfying musical treatment of the ancient Latin words since the Renaissance. Unlike most great composers who have handled this text, Stravinsky makes his points by understatement--by putting his music completely at the service of the words. The two other post-Renaissance composers who come closest to this ideal, in their totally different styles, are probably Bach and Faure', and it is hardly a coincidence that both were church organists.
The Mass was one of two Stravinsky masterpieces (the other was his glorious octet for winds) on this special program marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. The program was not spectacular as Stravinsky tributes go in Washington this month; none of his Top-40 compositions were played, and there were no star performers comparable to Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas and Pinchas Zukerman, who have already been heard here in Stravinsky programs. But the music at the Library of Congress was carefully selected to fill out the picture of Stravinsky's achievements and the performances were superb.
Also on the program were his Duo Concertant for violin and piano, which is merely brilliant and was brilliantly performed by violinist Junko Ohtsu and pianist William Black; his brief "Fanfare for a New Theatre," which opened the program on a properly festive note (actually a cascade of notes from two trumpets) and a variety of pieces for a cappella chorus.
The "Fanfare," octet and wind parts of the Mass were very capably performed by members of MusicCrafters, a Washington organization that has performed at the Library several times since its establishment and should be welcome in future performances. The chorus was the Norman Scribner Choir, a superbly balanced and disciplined chamber ensemble of 26 voices that was equally impressive in the Renaissance avant-garde style of Gesualdo, the earthy style of the "Russian Peasant Songs"(for women's voices) which have occasional faint traces of the flavor of "Les Noces" and the purer styles of the liturgical music. Scribner's direction suited the music superbly, and he should be specially commended for his careful articulation of the texts and his ear for precise balances. This is obviously the way Stravinsky would have wanted it; you can tell from the kind of music he composed.