The Timelessness of Beauty

January 19th, 2017 No comments
Van Eyck Annunciation

Annunciation

Last Sunday, I attended Artek’s performance of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine at the National Gallery in Washington DC. It was lovely to hear a fine performance of this masterpiece (a piece I’m thinking about alot these days) in one of my favorite buildings in the world. We arrived through the East entrance and were directed by the guards up to the second floor, which meant that we got to have a glimpse of a Cranach alterpiece, Gentileschi’s lute player (which is not a portrait of Francesca Caccini by the way), and several Vermeers and Rembrandts before hearing Monteverdi’s magnificent music.

Almost as if it had been planned I turned one corner and there was the magnificent Annunciation by Van Eyck. I first saw this extraordinary painting shortly after it was restored. A whole room had been dedicated to its display. Now it occupies a more modest space but it is just as stunning.

Magnificat’s will perform the Vespers within the context of Second Vespers for the Feast of Annunciation and there was something very satisfying about having Van Eyck’s colors in my head as I heard the fanfare of the opening response of Monteverdi’s 1610 collection. The dislocation of the 15th century painting, the 17th century music and the 21st century setting emphasized the unspeakable timelessness of beauty.

Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

December 26th, 2016 No comments
Musicians at San Marco in Venice

Musicians at San Marco in Venice

As Magnificat turns our attention to December’s performances of the mass setting by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, I decided it would be a good time to repost and expand this article that I wrote two years ago after our performance of a reconstruction of the mass celebrating the 1607 re-dedication of St. Gertrude’s Church in Hamburg. The performance of sacred works within a re-construction of a contemporaneous liturgical context has been of feature of Magnificat’s concert series since our first season in 1992 with our performances of Schütz’s Weinachtshistorie (Christmas Story) in collaboration with the San Francisco Early Music Society. Since then, Magnificat has performed over two dozen programs based on reconstructions of historical liturgies.

It has almost become an “article of faith”, reinforced by comments from members of our audience and the musicians who have contributed their talents to these performances, that the experience of the work, whether a setting of the mass by Gabrieli or vespers music of Cozzolani, is enhanced by the accompanying liturgical texts and additional music that the composer took for granted when conceiving the work.

As I have researched and constructed these programs over the years, the polyglot stylistic brew that inevitably results from a liturgical reconstruction has sometimes felt like cheating. After all, the Roman liturgies had a millennium of gestation before the composers of 17th century applied their talents to its elaboration. The architecture provided by the liturgy almost guaranteed a balanced and coherent concert program. Additionally, the 16th and 17th centuries saw a remarkable revitalization of the ancient structures as a result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the integration of new musical styles. The genius and inspiration of many of the finest musicians of the period were devoted to the elaboration of liturgy – and not just the mass ordinary or the festal psalms and Magnificat of Vespers.

Important scholarship by Jerome Roche, Robert Kendrick, Jeffrey Kurtzman and many others have demonstrated that sacred music in the 17th Century was not merely reactive – incorporating stylistic developments from the world of sacred music – but was an equally innovative and vibrant sphere of musical composition in it’s own right. The exquisite motets of Monteverdi or Cozzolani the many cycles of instrumental sonatas and organ versets, intended as substituitons for vespers antiphons or mass propers as well as private devotional situations, demonstrate the same vibrance and experimentation that makes the secular music of the 17th Century so compelling.

A liturgical reconstruction does alter the traditional, largely 19th Century, norms of concert protocol – and this is no doubt what new audiences notice first. Most obviously – no intermission and no applause until the end. This is rough on performers, as it eliminates the most obvious interaction between them and the audience. On the other hand, the intensity that results from the unbroken attention and the inexorable flow of the liturgy creates a atmosphere that is in some more intense than formalized clapping and bowing. (For me, the sound of hundred of pages turning in unison – an indication that many in the audience are intently following the translations is more than adequate compensation for the absent applause!)

Magnificat will present two programs this season constructed around liturgies: the Christmas Mass program featuring music by Cozzolani December 4-6 and our performances of Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 on the weekend of April 23-25. Every performance is a journey of discovery, so I will probably update this post again later this season to reflect those experiences. Read more…

Falconieri, Feminine Endings, and Synchronicity

September 22nd, 2016 4 comments

A very 2009 moment occurred the other day when, allowing myself to be distracted from working on the score for La Liberazione di Ruggiero, I noticed a tweet from @krashangel about the fact that the ciaconna used in Rene Jacobs’ recording  and DVD of Cavalli’s La Calisto was actually not by Cavalli, but rather by Tarquinio Merula. Before I had a chance to marvel at the fact that Tarquinio Merula had actually been mentioned in Twitterspace, there was a follow up tweet observing, accurately, that “it was the custom to use ritornelli and sinfonie composed by others as a contingent ‘filler’ in Venetian operas in the 17th century”.

What made this tweeting encounter remarkable was that at that very moment (or at least before being distracted) I was in the process of doing just that: inserting incidental music into an opera score (albeit a Florentine opera) to allow for scene changes, extra long sword fights, flights of hippogryphs and the like. Synchronicity!

A 17th century lutenist, not Falconieri

A 17th century lutenist, not Falconieri

For the upcoming Francesca Caccini opera I decided to turn the necessity of incidental music into an opportunity to explore a composer that Magnificat’s audiences hadn’t had the chance to hear before. I was fortunate that I could draw almost all the music I needed from a single collection by the lutenist and composer Andrea Falconieri – obscure even by Magnificat standards, though he does pop up sometimes in programs of early Italian music. (There are no known images of Falconieri, so the painting here is not him – but it’s a terrific expression!)

A talented lutenist and composer, Falconieri (sometimes written Falconiero) was born in Naples in 1585 or 86, making him a contemporary of Francesca, who was born in 1587. He had a long career working as a singer and composer in several Italian cities including Parma, Mantua, Rome, and Florence. He employed in Modena in 1620, where he married, and then spent the next seven year traveling widely about France and Spain, apparently without his wife. Read more…

A Word About Translations

September 18th, 2016 2 comments

One of the fascinating aspects of presenting this old music for a new audience is the question of translations. Attitudes to translation change and different circumsstances require different approaches to transaltion. When we’re performing liturgical music in Latin, many traditional translations exist. I have long prefered to draw biblical translations from the Douay translation of the Vulgate, first published in 1609, one year before the King James version. More than once after concerts, members of the audience have asked why the translation of some psalm wasn’t the one they’d always known. After all the King James translation is a 17thy century transaltion. In a way though King James is a bit too good.

The King James version is a translation of the original languages, Hebrew in the case of the psalms, and is therefore a more “accurate” translation of the original. The Douay version is a translation of the Vulgate, which is itself a translation of the original, traditionally ascribed to St. Jerome in the 3rd century. My point is that the singers are singing the Vulgate, not the Hebrew, the audience are best served by a literal translation of what the singers are singing, even if it doesn’t match the “original”. Read more…

Is Every Performance "Site Specific"?

August 31st, 2016 No comments

Chloe Veltman recently posted an interesting commentary on the notion of “site specific theatre” with reference to the recent production of Dido and Aeneas by San Francisco’s Urban Opera (“Not All Site Specific Theatre is Created Equal”). She proposed that “in order for a theatrical production to be site specific, it needs to be conceived specifically for the space in which it is produced,” and therefore “space becomes a performer, with the potential to change the entire relationship between text, visuals, sounds and the human body in fascinating ways.”

In the context of her article I personally like her narrow definition, but it got me thinking that since any work of performance art exists only in the moment of performance, each performance is in some sense a new work, created freshly in a new “site” and therefore “site specific” for that performance.

Of course what Chloe was refering to with her definition was “environmental theatre” troupes like Reial Companyia de Teatre de Catalunya or Walkabout, and indeed it’s difficult to imagine such productions mounted outside their original “sites”. However, in the case of canonical “works” like Hamlet or Dido that she mentions in her article, I question the privileging of the original performance circumstances, in spite of the fact that I spend my life mounting “historically informed” performances.

I think “around” this issue all the time, as most of the music that Magnificat performs was “site specific” when it was composed and, in fact, there was never a thought at the time that it might be performed again, much less in another site. So every concert involves a reinvention, shaped to some degree by the environment – not only the venue of course, but the specific performers, the time of day, the audience, etc. Read more…

The Road Map for Ad Pedes from Membra Jesu Nostri

February 28th, 2016 No comments

pedesMusicians often refer to the ‘road map’ for a performance of music with repeats, da capos or added codas – music that, explicitly or not, offers the performer options in determining the structure of the work. “How many times do we repeat the A section when we make the repeat?” Rehearsal decisions often lead to cryptic notations of letters and numbers in the margins of parts and scores. Ad Pedes, the first cantata in Buxtehude’s cycle Membra Jesu Nostri presents options for several ‘road maps’ that stem from the circumstances of its transmission.

Bux­tehude dedicated Membra Jesu Nostri to the Swedish court organist and Kapellmeister Gustav Düben and the composer’s autograph manuscript, in tablature notation, survives at the music library of the University of Uppsala in the magisterial Düben Collection. German organ tablature notation is one of a variety of shorthand notations used in Northern Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Lacking familiar staves, noteheads and key signatures, tablature notations uses script letters for pitches and flags for duration.

A set of parts for each of the cantatas, copied from the tablature by Düben presumably for his performances at the Swedish Court, are also preserved at Uppsala. Correlating the parts with the tablature provides insight into performance practice issues and the circumstances under which the individual cantatas may have been performed and in n the case of the opening cantata it also presents a ‘road map’ puzzle that has been solved in a variety of ways by editors and performers.

Read more…

2009-2010 – Magnificat’s 19th Season

February 19th, 2016 No comments

DocHdl1OnPRINTREADYtmpTarget2009-2010 was one of Magnificat’s most expansive seasons, featuring music by two remarkable women and two pioneers of the new music of the seventeenth century. The programs ranged from a puppet opera to a liturgical reconstruction and culminated with two appearance at the 2010 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition and the release of volume one of the complete works of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani.

The season opened with the return of the Carter Family Marionettes for an unforgettable production of Francesca Caccini’s opera La Liberatione di Ruggiero. Almost decade had past since Magnificat had collaborated with the Carters on Fuzelier’s parody of Lully’s opera Atys and Melani’s Il Girello. As Magnificat’s artistic director noted in an SFCV review “Hardly a concert has gone by since then when an audience member hasn’t come up to me to ask when we’ll do another puppet show. The Carters are great at connecting with the audience and already had a very funny and engaging production of La liberazione in their repertory.”

The daughter of Giulio Caccini, one of the leading proponents of the nuove musiche of the early 17th century, Francesca had a remarkable career in her own right as a performer and teacher, but above all, as a highly respected composer to the Granducato of Tuscany. We were grateful for the advice and support of Caccini biographer Suzanne Cusick who contributed three excellent essays to the is blog (Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero and the Culture of WomenWhat is Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero About? and Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court.) The role of Alcina was sung memorably by Catherine Webster, with José Lemos in the trangender role of Melissa and Scott Whitaker as Ruggiero. The cast also included Jennifer Paulino, Dan Hutchings and Hugh Davies.  Read more…

Buxtehude in Sweden – The Düben Collection

January 29th, 2016 No comments

Dietrich Buxtehude was born in 1637 in what is now Denmark. At the age of 20 he was appointed organist at St. Mary’s Church in Helsingør, where his father had earlier worked and in 1660, he took a position at another St. Mary’s Church, this time in Halsingborg. For the last forty years of his life he worked in Lübeck, where he was organist at yet another St. Mary’s Church and gained renown for is annual series of Abendmusiken. His fame as an organist during his lifetime was considerable and for the first two centuries after his death, knowledge of Buxtehude’s compositions was limited almost entirely the few organ works that had been preserved. His considerable body of vocal and chamber music were assumed to have been lost through fires and the vagaries of time until researchers began to catalog an extraordinary collection of manuscripts in the university library in Uppsala Sweden.

tablatureThe remarkable Düben collection, which includes a treasure trove of mostly North German 17th Century music, stems from the efforts of Swedish court organist and Kapellmeister Gustav Düben in gathering music for the royal library during the second half of the 17th Century. Born into a family of organists, Düben studied in Germany in the 1640s before returning to Stockholm to assume his duties under the Swedish king. The centerpiece of Magnificat’s program on the weekend of March 18-20, and Buxtehude’s best known work, Membra Jesu Nostri was in fact dedicated to Gustav Düben, whom the composer referring to him as a “most notable and honored friend” on the title page.
Read more…

Magnificat to Perform Advent Mass with music by Johann Sebastian Bach in December

September 15th, 2015 No comments

Thomaskirche_1735Magnificat is excited perform again on the San Francisco Early Music Society series this December in a Mass for the First Sunday of Advent with music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Led by artistic director Warren Stewart, soprano Christine Brandes, countertenor Andrew Rader, tenor Brian Thorsett and bass Robert Stafford will join an instrumental ensemble featuring Sarah Davol and Michael Dupree, oboe, David Wilson and Anthony Martin, violin, Wolfgang von Kessinger, viola, Elisabeth Reed, violoncello, John Dornenburg, violone, and organist Davitt Moroney. The concerts will be Friday December 11 8:00 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto; Saturday December 12 7:30 pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley; and Sunday December 13 4:00 pm at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are available through the SFEMS website or by calling 510-528-1725.

Since the nineteenth-century revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, we have become accustomed to hearing the composer’s sacred music performed as autonomous works in concert halls. However, Bach never envisioned such a performance of his cantatas, Passions, and oratorios. As musicologist Robert Marshall has noted, “such compositions were not intended for the ‘delectation’ of a concert public, but rather for the ‘edification’ of a church congregation…Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services.” Magnificat’s program is an attempt to re-create the experience of a Leipzig church-goer who had the unimaginable good fortune each week to be able to hear music written and directed by Johann Sebastian Bach. In undertaking such musical make-believe, we have the chance to experience the theological and textual unity, the heterogeneity of musical styles, and perhaps even some of the spiritual intensity that Bach and his contemporaries may have felt during Hauptgottesdienst on the First Sunday of Advent. Read more…

Ballo Concertato: Magnificat Presents Monteverdi’s Tirsi e Clori

September 4th, 2015 No comments

Dance_to_the_Music_of_TimeMagnificat will perform Monteverdi’s Ballo Tirsi e Clori along with other madrigals by Monteverdi and instrumental music by Dario Castello and Biagio Marini on the weekend of September 25-27 2015. Clori will be sung by Jennifer Paulino and Tirsi by Aaron Sheehan. Tickets are available at magnificatbaroque.tix.com, by phone at  (800) 595-4849. To order by mail download this order form (pdf).

Claudio Monteverdi was dismissed from service at the Gonzaga court in Mantua in the summer of 1612, taking up his new position as maestro di capella at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice the following year. While the precise reasons for his dismissal are unclear, the composer had been unhappy with his working conditions for years and had been actively seeking employment elsewhere.

The Gonzagas continued to hold Monteverdi’s music in high regard however and already at the beginning of 1615, the regent Ferdinando Gonzaga sent a letter with an urgent request for a setting of a ‘favola’ by Ferdinando himself to be performed at Carnival. Monteverdi responded that he would “toil away at it harder than you can imagine, sending you by the courier from week to week what I would keep doing from day to day. In spite of Monteverdi’s enthusiasm, the time was simply too short and plans for the new work were postponed indefinitely.

By the fall of 1615, as a result on the ongoing conflict between Savoy and Mantua over the Principality of Monferrato, Ferdinando was forced to assume the full title of duke. Perhaps for festivities surrounding the event of his coronation, he once again requested music from Monteverdi, but this time for a ‘ballet’ on an unspecified topic. In a letter written in November 1615, Monteverdi proposed a pastoral subject in six sections preceded by a dialogue between a shepherd, Tirsi and his beloved nymph Clori.  Read more…

A Little Work in the Representative Style – Monteverdi’s Combattimento

August 18th, 2015 No comments

Aaron Sheehan in the role of Orfeo at the Boston Early Music Festival (photo by Kathy Wittman)

Magnificat will perform Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda along with other madrigals by Monteverdi and instrumental music by Dario Castello and Biagio Marini on the weekend of September 25-27 2015. The Testo role will be sung by Aaron Sheehan, Clorinda by Christine Brandes and Tancredi by Andrew Rader. Tickets are available at magnificatbaroque.tix.com, by phone at  (800) 595-4849. To order by mail download this order form (pdf).

Claudio Monteverdi’s celebrated Il Combattimento di Tancredi and Clorinda, was first performed in Venice during Carnival of 1624 at the palace of one of the composer’s patrons, though it was only published some fourteen years later in the Eighth Book of Madrigals. In the introductory notes, Monteverdi describes how the piece was first performed “as an evening entertainment, in the presence of all the nobility, who were so moved by the emotion of compassion that they almost shed tears, and who applauded, since it was a genre of vocal music never seen nor heard.” Monteverdi subtitled the Eighth Book Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo (“Madrigals of war and love with some pieces in the theatrical style”), and the texts repeatedly expound the interlocking themes of love and war– the warrior as lover, the lover as warrior and the war between the sexes.

The relationship between love and war had been a common Italian poetic conceit ever since the time of Petrarch in the 14th century, and had been given additional impetus by its prominence in Torquato Tasso’s late 16th century epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata (“Jerusalem Liberated”). This enormously influential work dealt with the first crusade and treated in a dramatic and scenographic manner not only battles between Christian and Muslim knights, but also their love affairs, including the love between the Christian knight Tancrid and the Muslim woman Clorinda, who, disguised as a knight in full armor, fiercely fought for her side.

Monteverdi affixed an explanatory preface to the Eighth Book, a theoretically important, though sometimes confusing description of what he had tried to achieve in this music. Monteverdi explains how he “took the divine Tasso, as a poet who expresses with the greatest propriety and naturalness the qualities which he wishes to describe, and selected his description of the combat of Tancredi and Clorinda as an opportunity of describing in music contrary passions, namely, warfare and entreaty and death.” The composer describes three emotional levels, which he also calls styles. Two of these, the “soft” style (stile molle) for languishing and sorrowful emotions, and the “tempered” style (stile temperato) for emotionally neutral recitations, he says had long been in use.  But the third style, the “agitated” style, (stile concitato), Monteverdi claims to have invented himself.  Read more…

Magnificat Presents Music of Monteverdi – September 25-27

August 14th, 2015 No comments

On the weekend of September 25-27, Warren Stewart will lead Magnificat in a program of music by Claudio Monteverdi. Grammy Award-winning tenor Aaron Sheehan returns to interpret the Testo role in Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and renowned soprano Christine Brandes makes her Magnificat debut in the role of Clorinda. Brandes will also sing Monteverdi’s ‘love letter’ Se i languidi miei sguardi. Soprano Jennifer Paulino, countertenor Andrew Rader and bass Robert Stafford complete an ensemble that includes instrumentalists Rob Diggins, Jolianne Einem, David Wilson, John Dornenburg and Jillon Stoppels Dupree. The concerts will take place on Friday September 25 8:00 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto; Saturday September 26 8:00 pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley and Sunday September 27 4:00 pm at First Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are available at magnificatbaroque.tix.com or by phone at (800) 595-4849.

Each half of the program will begin with one of the five vanitas settings that stand at the beginning of Monteverdi’s magisterial collection of sacred music, Selva morale et spirituale, published in 1640. The two madrigals are representative of a distinct genre of vernacular polyphonic vocal works that describe the transitory nature of love, status, and material wealth. The first, O ciechi, ciechi is drawn from Petrarch’s Trionfo della morte and describes the futility of power, riches and military conquest. Similar themes are addressed in the anonymous canzonetta Chi vol che m’innamori, which alternates between light and dark characters. Here the strophes are articulated by cheerful violin ritornelli with an unexpectedly pessimistic refrain following the final verse.

Much of the music on the program is drawn from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619), entitled Concerto – his first publication of madrigals composed in Venice. It includes two extraordinary monodies labeled lettere amorose (love letters) that belong to a small but significant genre explored by composers in the first decades of the 17th century. Soprano Christine Brandes will perform the first of the letters, Se i languidi miei sguardi, a setting of a poem by Bolognese polymath Claudio Achillini. The poet notes that his letter is from “a cavalier, impatient over his delayed wedding, writing to his most beautiful bride.” Monteverdi writes that these love letters are composed in the “representative style” and that they should be sung “without a beat,” i.e. freely and expressively without a regular meter. Read more…

San Francisco Chronicle Review: Magnificat showcases two biblical heroines

March 12th, 2015 No comments

This review by Joshua Kosman was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on March 11, 2015.

Just in time for International Women’s Day — and only a few days late for the relevant holiday of Purim — the early-music ensemble Magnificat devoted the weekend to a celebration of strong biblical women. Sunday’s final concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, dexterously led by Artistic Director Warren Stewart, made a pretty powerful case for two of them.

The music was by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose sacred works — including the dramatic oratorios that formed the meat of this program — stand at the heart of the 17th century French repertoire. The heroism, though, was all down to the women themselves.

One was Judith, the valiant widow who saves the city of Bethulia by beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes — thus inspiring a whole generation of bloody-minded Baroque painters — and the other was Esther, the Jewish ingenue who finds that marrying the Persian king is the key to averting mass slaughter. Both of them were embodied in music of nobility and grandeur. Read more…

Magnificat To Perform Oratorios by Marc-Antoine Charpentier March 6-8

February 17th, 2015 No comments

On the weekend of March 6-8 2015, Magnificat will perform two oratorios by Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Historia Esther and Judith, ou Béthulie libérée. The program will also include Charpentier’s setting of Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis and the Canticum in honorem beata Virginis Mariae. Sopranos Laura Heimes and Catherine Webster, copuntertenor Andrew Rader, tenor Daniel Hutchings and bass Peter Becker will be joined by an instrumental ensemble including Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake, recorder, Rob Diggins and Jolianne Einem, violin, John Dornenburg, viola da gamba and Jillon Stoppels Dupree, organ. 

Friday March 8 2015 8:00 pm St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto
Saturday March 7 2015 8:00 pm First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley
Sunday March 8 2015 4:00 pm St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell, San Francisco

There will be a lecture 45 minutes before each performance given by noted Charpentier scholar and Magnificat Artistic Advisory Board member John S. Powell. Dr. Powell has also provided notes for the concerts which are posted on this blog. Tickets are available at http://magnificatbaroque.tix.com or by calling 800-595-4849.

Among 17th-century French composers, Marc-Antoine Charpentier made the largest contribution to the development of the French oratorio. This emphasis in Charpentier’s early sacred output is largely due to circumstance. Upon his return from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi in the late 1660s, Charpentier took residence in the Hôtel de Guise (now the Hôtel de Soubise) in the Marais District of Paris under the patronage of Marie de Lorraine (Mademoiselle de Guise). Charpentier remained in her service for some eighteen years, from around 1670 until her death in 1688. Three years before Charpentier’s arrival in Paris, Elizabeth d’Orléans, the youngest daughter of Gaston d’Orléans (uncle to Louis XIV), married Louis-Joseph, the nephew of Mademoiselle de Guise. Charpentier thus found himself in the service of Elizabeth d’Orléans (Madame de Guise) as well as of Mademoiselle de Guise. Both ladies were very devout and actively supported religious teaching institutions in Paris. Under the patronage of Mlle and Mme de Guise, Charpentier created a large number of devotional and oratorio-like works. Read more…

Charpentier’s Oratorio Judith, ou Béthulie libérée

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Judith, ou Béthulie libérée, (Judith, or Bethulia Liberated) was the first histoire sacrée composed by Charpentier, and is his longest. The text is adapted from the Book of Judith, 7-14 of the Old Testament. Judith devotes a very large role to the narrator or narrators, and thus to declamatory ensembles. In order to diversify the narration, Charpentier assigns the part of the historicus in alternation to soloists, vocal trios, and choruses, with the latter two shifting between homophonic texture and imitative counterpoint. Within a single section of recitative, a wholly declaimed vocal line can give way to more lyrical arioso, as in the long dialogue between Holofernes and Judith. The airs are all in rondo form (ABA or ABACA). Since they essentially fulfill the role of narrator, choruses are not very elaborate and remain homophonic in style.

Part 1 is set at the foot of the mountains near the city of Bethulia. The Chorus of Assyrians tell how Holofernes and his army are preparing to attack the city. In a sung trio, three of his commanders tell how the Israelites are counting on the steep cliffs to protect them, and they recommend cutting off their water supply by placing a guard at their well. An Assyrian recounts how this plan pleased Holofernes, and for the next twenty days the Israelites went without water. The scene changes to the camp of the thirsty Israelites and an Israeli relates how three of them went to ask their leader Ozias to surrender to Holofernes. The trio of Israelistes say that it is clear that God had delivered them into his hands and that it would be better to die swiftly by the sword than slowly by thirst, and, in a chorus of startling harmonic richness, the Israelites bewail how they have sinned and acted unjustly and that this is their well-deserved punishment. They grow weary and then Ozias arose and in a dancelike solo air he tells his people to take heart and wait five more days for mercy from God; if no aid arrives by then, they will surrender to Holofernes.

A trio of Israelistes then relate how Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, arose and addressed the people. In solo arioso, Judith tells them that they should not set a time limit for God to deliver them from their foreign conquerers and in an aria advises them to adopt an attitude of humility that may become for the Israelites a thing of glory. Judith then reveals to Ozias that she has a plan to save her people. Part 1 concludes with a series of set-pieces. First, a glorious concertante Chorus of Israelites sends Esther on her mission with their best wishes. Then a solo historicus explains that the following night, Judith put on haircloth, spread ashes in her hair, and prayed to the Lord. Judith’s sung prayer, interspersed with ritornelli for flutes and continuo, is the musical high point of Part 1. Here she reveals her plan to use her beauty to entrap Holofernes with his eyes and then cut off his head with his own sword. Read more…

Charpentier’s Historia Esther

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Perhaps because of its complications of plot, the role of narration (and consequently that of the historicus) is quite prominent in Esther. The narration is divided up between 4-part chorus, vocal trios, duos, and solos of every voice type and combination. To enliven the narration, the ensembles constantly shift musical texture between homophony and imitative polyphony. In between the narration of the historicus, soloists give voice to the main characters of the drama.

Esther relates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia. In the opening chorus, the Jewish people relate how Ahasuerus, ruler of a massive Persian empire, held a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all the inhabitants of the capital city Shushan. Queen Vashti held a separate feast for the women of the palace. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus, merrier than usual with wine, commands Queen Vashti to display her considerable beauty before the guests but Vashti refuses to obey Ahasuerus’s order. Ahasuerus becomes very angry and consults his wise men as to a fitting punishment for his queen. One of them warns the king that other women in the provinces will learn from this and come to disobey their own husbands, and he advises Ahasuerus to remove Vashti as queen and give her estate to a more worthy consort.

Ahasuerus has a royal decree sent across the empire that men should be the ruler of their households and should speak their own native tongue. Ahasuerus then orders all the beautiful young girls in the empire to be presented to him, so he might choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is the orphan Esther, who finds favor in the king’s eyes and is made his new queen.  Esther at first does not reveal her Jewish background, as her uncle Mordecai had advised her. Read more…

Examiner Review: Magnificat’s Performance of Cavalli’s Messa Concertata

December 22nd, 2014 No comments

Photo by Teresa TamThis review by Stephen Smoliar was posted at Examiner.com on December 21, 2014.

As was the case last year, the San Francisco Early Music Society hosted the first concert in the 2014–2015 season of Magnificat yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Also following last year’s plan, Director Warren Stewart prepared a recreation of the entire service for the third Mass on Christmas Day as it might have been celebrated at St. Mark’s Basilica in the middle of the seventeenth century. Last year the five sections of the Ordo Missae (the “Ordinary” of the Mass) were pieced together from compositions by Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrielli composed between 1610 and 1641. This year the core of the performance was an entire mass setting, Missa concertata, composed by Francesco Cavalli in 1656.

Cavalli is no stranger to opera lovers in San Francisco. He wrote 41 operas, 27 of which have been preserved to the present day. He seems to have been a favorite choice when it came to composing operas to be performed during the celebration of the pre-Lenten carnival. He could turn even the most serious scenario (such as the relationship between Jason and Medea) into raucously ribald comedy.

However, Cavalli’s first appointment in Venice was as a singer for Monteverdi at St. Mark’s. As a result Cavalli also built up a portfolio, somewhat more modest, of sacred music. This was particularly distinguished by his own intricate approach to counterpoint, which contrasted sharply with his operas that consisted almost entirely of arias, often with provocative texts. Read more…

Sonatas by Marini and Neri

December 16th, 2014 No comments

Magnificat’s program for the concerts on the weekend of December 19-21 will include instrumental sonatas by two of Francesco Cavalli’s colleagues at the San Marco: the organist Massimiliano Neri and the violin virtuoso Biagio Marini.

Born in the early 1620s, Neri was the son Giovanni Giacomo Neri, a Italian singer and theorbist who worked in several German courts. Massimiliano was appointed first organist at San Marco just before Christmas in 1644 and remained in the employ of the Basilica for two decades. Throughout his time in Venice, Neri maintained contacts with courts north of the Alps and visited Venice in 1651, where he was raised to nobility by Emperor Ferdinand III, to whom his second collection of ensemble sonatas was dedicated.  Neri was appointed Kappellmeister to the Elector in Cologne in 1664.

The sonatas in Neri’s 1651 collection range from trio sonatas up to a sonata for 12 parts. With their varied instrumentation and rich contrapuntal writing the sonatas are remarkable as much for their debt to the polychoral tradition of an earlier Venetian generation as for their anticipation of harmonic organization crystalized by Corelli a generation later. Read more…

Francesco Cavalli’s Messa Concertata

December 9th, 2014 No comments

“Francesco Cavalli truly has no peers in Italy, in the perfection of his singing, in the worth of his organ playing, and in his exceptional musical compositions, of which those in print bear witness to his merit.”

The Venetian chronicler Ziotti’s effusive praise of Cavalli, published 1655, reflects the universal acclaim the composer enjoyed at the height of his long and robust musical career. The son of the organist and composer Giovanni Battista Caletti, Cavalli was born in the small but prosperous town of Crema near Milan but still within the borders of the Venetian Republic in 1602. At the age of 13 Francesco’s exceptional voice and prodigious musical talents drew the attention of Frederico Cavalli, the Venetian governor in Crema. Cavalli offered to take the boy to Venice where he could benefit from exposure to the rich musical life there – a proposal only reluctantly accepted by the boy’s father.

Within months of his arrival, Cavalli was engaged as a singer at the Basilica of San Marco under its newly appointed maestro Claudio Monteverdi, who was in the midst of restoring the musical institution of the Basilica to its former heights under Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. For the remaining six decades of his life, Cavalli would remain in the employ of the Basilica, where he would work with the most esteemed musicians of his age. Additionally, his status as musician in the Cappella Marciana, together with his undisputed gifts as a singer, organist and composer, insured a steady flow of outside work at the many well-endowed churches, scuole grandi and in the noble palaces of The Most Serene Republic. Read more…

Schütz’s Opus Ultimum: Der Schwanengesang

September 29th, 2014 No comments

Acknowledged by his contemporaries as the greatest German composer of the seventeenth century, Heinrich Schütz served for over fifty years as Kapellmeister of the Court Chapel of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. He was instrumental in introducing the modern Italian styles of composition into Germany during the first half of the century. Over the course of his life Schütz wrote in a wide variety of genres, including the first German opera, settings of the Passions and several collections of sacred chamber music for voices and instruments.

Studying with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice as a young man left an indelible mark on Schütz, and nowhere is his debt to the Venetian polychoral tradition more evident than in his Opus Ultimum, known as Der Schwanengesang (Swan Song.) There is a satisfying sense of completion in Schütz’s decision, for his final work, to return to the style so strongly associated with his beloved mentor. Like Bach in his Art of the Fugue, Schütz seems to have chosen an exhaustive exploration of a clearly circumscribed genre as his legacy.

Der Schwanengesang is actually a setting of three separate texts. The first eleven parts, or motets, set Psalm 119, by far the longest of the psalms, totaling 176 verses. Like several other Old Testament texts, including the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalm 119 is an “acrostic” poem. The entire psalm is divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each, with all the verses in a stanza beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Schütz pairs the stanzas into eleven sixteen-verse motets. To these he appends a setting of Psalm 100 and the Magnificat Canticle. All the motets conclude with a doxology, making them suitable for liturgical use, although the work doesn’t seem to have been composed with any such use in mind.

There appears to be no specific occasion or commission that prompted Schütz to compose Der Schwanengesang. Rather Schütz seems to have devoted himself to a setting of Psalm 119 as part of a deep spiritual study in the last years of his life, following the example of numerous Lutheran theologians. In his Preface to the Psalter, Martin Luther himself refers to Psalm 119 as “a small Bible wherein everything is stated most beautifully and concisely, making them as it were an elegant enchiridion or handbook within the Bible as a whole.” Similarly Johannes Bugenhagen in writing about Psalm 119 asserts, “the contents of the entire Holy Writ are contained in this one psalm.” Musicologist Wolfgang Steude (whose reconstruction of the missing second soprano and tenor parts we will be performing) suggests that Schütz chose Psalm 119 for his “swan song” knowing that “in a sense it encompasses both Old and New Testaments – the whole Bible. In so doing, he created a landmark work and a personal, spiritual, religious, and artistic testament in what was avowedly to be his final opus.”

It is unlikely that the first eleven motets were ever performed before the twentieth century. At the time of its completion in the 1670s, Der Schwanengesang must have seemed very archaic indeed, completely out of step with the Neapolitan operatic style then in favor in Dresden.

Though Schütz had title pages printed, the work as a whole was never published and was assumed lost when the first complete works edition was published in the 19th century. In 1900 six of the eight manuscript partbooks were discovered in the town of Guben. The second soprano tenor partbooks, along with the continuo part, had been previously separated. The organ part was acquired from an antiquarian bookstore in Guben and was later purchased by the writer Stephan Zweig. The vocal partbooks were held in a library in Berlin and assumed lost in 1945 but were discovered in 1970 in a collection of uncatalogued manuscripts in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden. With this discovery, together with the organ part, now housed in the British Museum, an edition was completed in time for the 400th anniversary of Schütz’s birth in 1985.

Der Schwanengesang is set for double choir with continuo, and such a performance is entirely adequate. In his dedicatory comments to the Elector of Saxony, Schütz even recommends such a performance “by eight good voices with two little organs in the two fine choir lofts that were constructed opposite each other on either side of the altar in your Highness’ Court Chapel” However, Schütz also asked his colleague at the Dresden Chapel, Constantin Christian Dedekind, to expand his work by adding instruments. It seems that Dedekind, rather than carrying out the master’s request, made his own setting of Psalm 119, which he published several years later.

For these performances, I have assumed the task of carrying out Schütz’s request. For guidance, I turned to the extensive writings of Schütz’s predecessor as Dresden Kapellmeister, Michael Praetorius and to the many polychoral compositions of Schütz himself, as well as those of his colleagues Samuel Scheidt and Johann Hermann Schein. For this project I am deeply grateful to the advice and encouragement of Jeffrey Kurtzman, Herb Myers, Wolfgang von Kessinger and Nika Korniyenko.