Five pieces, in particular, have this special significance for me. Their durations vary from a few seconds to several minutes. They come from diverse historical periods, are composed by highly different musical personalities, and are scored for varying instrumental and vocal resources. Despite their differences, the one thing they have in common is that these five musical miracles, as I call them, have enthralled me for years and through repeated hearings. Their impact has stood the test of time, and the emotional effects they have on me have never waned. What follows is a brief discussion of each, presented in no specific order.
1. “Andern hat er geholfen und kann sich nicht helfen” (No. 58d) from the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach’s great Passion offers a number of miraculous moments, but I have always been especially stirred by the concluding portion of the choral movement “Andern hat er geholfen und kann sich nicht helfen” (He has offered salvation to others, but cannot save himself). In this movement Jesus is crucified on the cross and mocked by the Chief Priests, who derisively challenge him to save himself from impending death. The vocal writing, composed for two SATB choirs accompanied by two orchestras, superbly mimics the condescending tone of those who press Jesus to find his own salvation.
At the movement’s conclusion, the Priests maliciously exclaim that Jesus has declared himself to be the Son of God (“Ich bin Gottes Sohn”), although there is no scriptural evidence that Jesus ever spoke these exact words. What sets this moment apart from the numerous other magical moments in the Passion and thereby emphasizes its significance is its singularity. This is the only instance in the Passion in which the eight parts of the two choirs and the two orchestras are in pitch and rhythmic unison. The four words “Ich bin Gottes Sohn” are set to the pitches C-A-B-B-E in all parts, with metric stress properly placed on “Got-“ and “Sohn”:
2. Rondo-Finale (Movement 5) from Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler
Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 is perhaps the most complicated and the most original of the nine completed symphonies in terms of structure, tonality and orchestration. The concluding Rondo, set in a sunny, “Meistersinger” tonality of C major, may have been the composer’s attempt to contrast the dark characters of the preceding four movements with one of celebration and fanfare. Some critics see this movement as a disappointment in the context of the symphony as a whole; specifically, the symphony lacks a concluding apotheosis. However, I have always regarded it as one of Mahler’s greatest compositional triumphs.
Something wondrous happens in the final two measures of this movement. Racing to the conclusion in a blaze of orchestral fanfare, the music abruptly stops on what Mahler must have intended as a joke, a startling Haydnesque surprise. We expect that this musical rush will conclude on a C-major cadence, but Mahler thwarts our expectations by giving us instead an augmented triad on C that brings the orchestral blaze to a sudden and perplexing halt (all parts in this example are notated at concert pitch):
3. Region IV from Hymnen, No. 22, by Karlheinz Stockhausen
Scored for magnetic tape in its original version, Hymnen (“Anthems”) of 1967 is Stockhausen’s supreme compositional achievement, a climactic point in his output to which all prior works point. Regrettably, for reasons that are not altogether clear, much of what followed has represented a gradual decline in quality and originality, perhaps an inevitable result once such a pinnacle has been reached.
Hymnen is a virtuosic masterpiece in the handling of its materials, namely national anthems and electronic sounds. Featuring, like the St. Matthew Passion, a variety of miraculous moments, the fourth and final movement (or “Region,” as the composer called it), in particular, offers an example of Stockhausen’s heightened compositional prowess at this time in his career. In the opening nine minutes of this Region, a recording of the Swiss national anthem, sung by a four-part chorus, is subjected to a variety of electronic manipulations until it is gradually transformed beyond recognition. Through the sheer patience of these manipulations, the listener experiences not only the compositional process, but also the piecemeal disintegration of the Swiss anthem into the closing part of this Region, the utopian “Hymunion in Harmondy” at 9’17.5”: (This example is taken from p. 45 of the study score prepared by the composer.)
4. “L’ultima prova dell’amor mio” from Don Giovanni, K. 527 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The concluding scene of Mozart’s exquisite opera is a watershed moment. Here, we finally witness Don Giovanni’s true character, which in virtually all prior instances has been disguised by the personalities of those in his company, a shrewd means for the nobleman to manipulate others. In previous scenes, Don Giovanni assumes the nervous hesitancy of Zerlina as he seduces her, the steadfastness of Masetto as he unsuccessfully challenges him, and even the devoted subservience of Leporello as he faithfully serves him. In this scene Don Giovanni shows his true self.
This scene is a moment of truth and is composed around Donna Elvira’s implorations to Don Giovanni to redeem himself for his transgressions. Expectedly, he refuses, in fact taunting her by repeatedly singing “Vivan le femmine, viva il buon vino! sostegno e gloria d’umanità” (Long live women and good wine, the substance and glory of humanity). Set in B-flat major, the first unequivocal instance of Don’s own personal tonality (though anticipated in the famous aria “Fin ch’han dal vino”), we realize that the sole ambition of the nobleman is a life devoted to hedonistic pursuits:
5. “La course à l’abîme,” Scene 18 from La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24 by Hector Berlioz
Berlioz’s “dramatic legend,” based on a French translation of Goethe’s Faust, defies easy categorization. What is clear is that Berlioz’s imagination was intensely stimulated by Goethe’s dramatic poem, in a way that was never to be matched in any other work. Its first performance must have bewildered the audience with its sheer originality in terms of harmony and orchestration, for even to this day many passages in this masterpiece astonish us with its novelty.
The concluding scene of Part 4, deviating somewhat from Goethe’s original script, depicts Faust’s damnation. Faust is tricked by Mephistopheles to believe that Marguerite, his beloved, is imprisoned, to be hanged on the following day for killing her mother. Mephistopheles offers assistance, if only Faust relinquishes his soul, which he impetuously does. Together, they ride off on a pair of black horses to her aid, although in truth they are riding directly to hell. En route, Faust becomes terrified as he witnesses demonic apparitions and observes that the environs are becoming increasingly bleak and grotesque. Once Faust realizes Mephistopheles’ trickery, he is captured by demonic spirits, who lead him, like Don Giovanni, to eternal damnation.
Throughout this three-minute scene, Berlioz marvelously paints the ride of damnation through novel orchestral effects and bizarre harmonic progressions to portray the terror that Faust experiences. In the opening of the scene, the strings depict the galloping of the horses with a repeated dactylic rhythmic pattern (long-short-short, no doubt influenced by the infamous gallop rhythm in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell), while an ominous melody in the solo oboe weaves the hopelessness of Faust’s fate:
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The word “miracle” is defined as an extraordinary event that exceeds all known human or natural powers or explanation, being attributed to a supernatural cause or being (such as a god). I am not suggesting that any one of these five pieces should be understood precisely in this way, for no supernatural agent is involved. But it is quite the case that these five pieces, for me, are wondrous and far beyond the ordinary course of things in terms of the intensity of their emotional impact. I don’t truly understand why, so in that sense they are indeed miracles.