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Alessandro Stradella's Oratorio per Musica La Susanna

astradellaSome years after Stradella’s murder, Pierre Bourdelot and Pierre Bonnet-Bourdelot included an account of the event in their Histoire de la Musique. Published in Paris in 1715, theirs was the first history of music in French and therefore it attracted quite a bit of attention, with the result that news of the composer –‘the most excellent musician in all of Italy around the year 1670’– was circulated throughout Europe.

However, their fascinating tale of romance, wherein Stradella ran off with the mistress of a Venetian nobleman, who then had the lovers pursued from one city to another by a band of assassins, was not all true. Certainly false was the scene where the thugs were restrained from carrying out the murder because of the beauty of Stradella’s music, obliging the Venetian to hire other assassins to carry out the deed. Since the real facts were not generally known, and the fabricated story too exciting to resist, it was repeated and embellished in the succeeding centuries in novels, operas, poems and scholarly texts of music history: thus was born the ‘Stradella legend’. Only recently has enough research been accomplished to be able finally to say who the ‘real’ Stradella was and what music he actually composed.Bourdel

Alessandro Stradella was born on 3 April 1639 in the town of Nepi, not far from Viterbo. While he may have studied in Bologna, by 1653 he was in Rome. His earliest known composition dates from1667, which also marks the beginning of his career as a freelance musician. Although an aristocrat, Stradella was impecunious. Financial gain, in fact, was the reason why, in 1677, he and the papal singer, G. B. Vulpio, arranged a wedding between two Romans. The groom was a nephew of Cardinal Cibo, papal Secretary of State, and the cardinal’s displeasure at the marriage was such that Stradella was forced to leave Rome. He travelled to Venice where Polo Michiel, already a patron, befriended him. Before too long Stradella moved on again, this time to Turin and in the
company of Agnese Van Uffele, Alvise Contarini’s mistress. Although the Regent Maria Giovanna tried to protect the musician, Contarini’s henchmen succeeded in attacking him on 10 October 1677. Upon recovery, Stradella’s next move, this time alone, was to Genoa. He was warmly welcomed there and a group of nobles, besides putting him in charge of the Teatro Falcone, signed a contract in which they agreed to provide him with a house, servant, food and 100 Spanish doubloons a year if he would simply stay in the city. Stradella’s financially secure and musically active life ended at the age of 42, on 25 February 1682, when an unknown assassin stabbed him to death for reasons which are still unclear.

Stradella’s more than 300 extant compositions –operas, oratorios, cantatas, madrigals, motets, trio sonatas, concerti grossi, etc.– are characterized by fluid melodic lines, excellent counterpoint, interesting rhythms, and careful attention to text underlay, all in a language which is tonal albeit typified by unusual chord progressions. He participated in establishing several innovations such as the use of strings to accompany recitative, mad scenes in opera, and the formation of a concertino-concerto grosso ensemble (in fact, his is the earliest datable work with this instrumentation).

Francesco ii, the Este duke of Modena, may have been introduced to the music of Alessandro Stradella by the castrato Marcantonio Orrigoni, in his employ from 1677 and loaned out to the Teatro Falcone in Genoa for the November 1678 – February 1679 season, where he performed in two of Stradella’s operas. The duke’s further awareness of the composer’s ability was encouraged by the Genoese nobleman Goffredo Marino, who sent a score of Stradella’s comic opera, Il Trespolo tutore, to Modena in March 1681. The opera itself was not of immediate interest to the duke, but its music encouraged him to commission an oratorio from the composer, who responded without delay with a work which was presented at the Oratorio di San Carlo in Modena barely one month later, on 16 April 1681.

Oratorios were actually Francesco’s passion: during his reign, 86 oratorios were presented in Modena. These sacred dramas, performed in concert form and not staged in a theatre, were a means of relating biblical stories and the lives of saints in an interesting, lively and accessible manner. Especially popular were those which concerned the sensual aspects of women or of scenes of love, such as the tales of Susanna, Judith, Ester, Mary Magdalen and of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Adam and Eve. The resulting mixture of sensuality and religion was not limited, however, to the baroque oratorio: it existed in the poetry, in the paintings and in the sculpture of the period, which often treated the very same themes.

La Susanna commissioned by the duke of Modena was, therefore, of the erotic genre. Its text, in two Parts as was usual, was written by the Modenese poet Giovanni Battista Giardini, who was also secretary to Francesco, and he based his libretto on the biblical account of Susanna given in chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel. Here one reads the story of the beautiful and virtuous young Hebrew woman Susanna, wife of Joachim. Two old Jews, called Judges in the oratorio, secretly lust after her. One day, as she is in her private garden and slips nude into a cooling stream, they emerge from their hiding place and attempt to rape her. When Susanna calls her servants, the two Judges lie and say they caught her with a young lover who, unfortunately, ran away. According to Hebrew law, she should be stoned to death for adultery.

Part Two of the oratorio finds Susanna in prison, desperately begging heaven for help. The young prophet Daniel arrives, declaring he is an emissary from God. He decides to interrogate the Judges separately; when their accounts of Susanna’s behaviour differ, he declares Susanna innocent and condemns the Judges to death. At the end of the oratorio, a chorus calls upon the daughters of Israel to rejoice at Susanna’s victory, and warns those who persecute innocents to beware of the divine justice which surely awaits them.

Stradella scored Giardini’s text for two sopranos (Susanna and Daniel), a contralto (the Narrator), a tenor (Second Judge) and a bass (First Judge), who also join together in the sections assigned to a commenting and moralizing chorus. The two parts of the oratorio proceed in a series of recitatives, arias, duets, a terzet, and sections for three-part and five-part chorus, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of first and second violins and basso continuo. The instruments are employed either as direct accompaniment to the voices (6 arias) or in ritornellos, brief introductions or postludes to arias which take up the themes of the vocal piece in imitative exchange (7 arias). The ensemble also offers an introductory Sinfonia of four movements, which alternates through-composed forms with binary forms, the whole a clear example of Stradella’s exemplary skill in counterpoint and even fugue, the third movement being the most masterful of the four.

On the present recording, a second instrumental piece has been inserted at the opening of Part Two of the oratorio (Stradella’s Trio Sonata 4, in D major, ed. Gianturco-McCrickard). At this point in the drama Susanna is in prison. She alternates between hope of rescue and desperation that the Judges will be believed and that she, as a consequence of their lies, will be found guilty and put to death. The sonata’s hesitant phrases, interrupted by rests or fermatas (especially in the first and fourth movements), and overall rhythmic irregularity, serve to convey her unstable emotional state. The piece has been chosen, therefore, as a means of both shifting the scene from the sunlit garden to the gloomy interior of the prison and of conveying Susanna’s uncertainty.

Each part of Giardini’s version of the biblical tale has seven sections for the Narrator (Testo), each followed by lines for one or more of the several characters. One might say, in fact, that the Narrator is the plot’s pivot: it is he who sets each scene of the drama, and it is his affirmations, reinforced by the chorus, which condition our moral judgement. For example, after the Sinfonia, the Narrator describes the setting of the biblical story, going on, in Ma folle è ben chi crede, to affirm the futility of thinking it possible to hide evil desires.

Here Stradella writes the first of a series of arias wherein the music develops from a motif presented insistently, creating through its repetition the particular character of the aria. In some closed forms of the oratorio, the repetitions of a specific motif creates a real ostinato presented by the instruments of the basso continuo (the arias Da chi spero aita; Così va, turbe insane; Vecchio nefando, io so). At other times, the motif is not the only material in the bass, even if it is presented many times – and this is the case with Ma folle è ben chi crede (and also of the arias Voglio amare e che sarà?; Quanto invidio il vostro stato; and the section beginning Belle fonti a me sareste). In Zeffiretti che spiegate, another although related technique predominates: here short ‘zephyr-like’ motifs are
tossed from violin to violin to voice. This sort of imitation among the parts typifies other numbers as well, such as the duet Dell’opra nefanda and the terzets Se dall ’Erebo si scatenò and La bellezza è un puro saggio.

After the Judges dwell on their intent to possess Susanna, she comes into her garden, and both Giardini’s lines and Stradella’s music delineate her innate sweetness, and her response to the beauty and innocence of nature. In contrast to her mood here is the aria, Da chi spero aita, which she sings in prison. It is in the style for which Stradella was justly famous, the expressive stile patetico. The instrumental accompaniment to the voice serves to reinforce Susanna’s sense of depression, as a slow descending bass phrase is repeated over and over again. This particular type of ostinato had been applied since Monteverdi to laments – for the death or the absence of the beloved or, as Stradella’s has done here, for a desperate situation.

Yet another quality is delineated when Daniel comes on the scene. He affronts the crowd asking them, in Così va, turbe insane, why they are so passionate in their willingness to punish the young woman. To demonstrate his passion and conviction, Stradella composed a fiery aria for him, reinforced by a vigorous ostinato bass line of rhythmic drive which calls for a virtuoso string instrumentalist.

For the two concluding texts, Belle figlie d’Israelle and the final moral dictum Chi contro all’innocenza, Stradella composed first three-part and then five-part music, both pieces still further examples of his skill at counterpoint, in this case to create a joyous and rich sound for the ensembles.

A fine summary of some of the oratorio’s other noteworthy qualities was put forth in a letter by a gentleman who had been present at rehearsals of its first performance. He wrote that he was ‘ecstatic about the sinfonias, about the variety of the arias, about the exquisiteness of the recitative and about the diversity and unexpectedness of the subjects [musical themes] and about the rarity of the basso continuo’.

When Stradella wrote La Susanna, he had already composed not only other oratorios but almost all of his operas, and many of the features of the oratorio are, in fact, those of his operas (apart from the role of Narrator, absent from operas). For example, there is regular alternation of recitative with aria, there are da capo and two-strophe arias, and the work is scored for the same instrumental ensemble as his operas. What is more, while there are occasional fioriture (for the Narrator in No, non va, senza i suoi disastri, and for Susanna in Quanto invidio il vostro stato), most of the singers’ music is syllabic. Rather than through vocal display, Stradella’s characters captivate one’s attention by a style which is as psychologically discerning as it is musically dynamic: the composer has enabled the singers to be true participants in the dramatic story. Duke Francesco d’Este had invited Stradella to compose music for a hall of prayer, but since he brought to the task his experience as an opera composer, La Susanna is a true dramma in musica.

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