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Magnificat to Perform Modern Premieres of the First Cantatas

Newly Discovered Cantatas by Alessandro Grandi to be Sung by Soprano Laura Heimes

Soprano Laura Heimes

At Magnificat’s concerts on February 12-14 Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to hear the first performances since the 17th century of five vocal works by Alessandro Grandi, including the first three pieces identified by a composer as “cantatas”. Soprano Laura Heimes will join with David Tayler and Hanneke van Proosdij for what will most likely be the first performances of these works in modern times.1

In his 1620 collection Cantade et Arie, Grandi used to the term “cantada” to distinguish three settings of strophic poetry for soprano and continuo. Each of the works – Amor altri si duol, Vanne vattene Amor and Udito han pur i Dei – employs a compositional strategy identified by musicologists as “strophic bass” cantatas, an example of strophic variation with which many composers were experimenting at the time.

Sadly, the only copy of Grandi’s historic 1620 collection thought to survive into the 20th century was destroyed in the Second World War. Prior to the war several scholars had written about the works, though it is unlikely that any were ever performed. However, Roman musicologist Giulia Giovani has recently transcribed another copy of the print found in a large collection of 16th and 17th century music from the music scholar Godfrey Arkwright that was purchased by a Spanish collector at an auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1939.

With the help of Magnificat Advisory Board member Jeffrey Kurtzman, we were able to contact Giovani, who has graciously offered to make her transcriptions of the three cantatas available for Magnificat’s performances, along with two arias from the same collection.

The distinguishing characteristic of these “cantatas” is the variation of the vocal line for each strophe of the poem over repeating bass lines. The norm in the early 17th century, and in song forms throughout the centuries, was to repeat the same music for each strophe, or verse, of a regularly repeating poetic form. In all ages performers have taken the opportunity presented by such a form to embellish and improvise the each verse. The strophic variation is merely a formalalization of that inherent implulse. Already in the strophic songs set by Caccini and in Monteverdi’s first opera Orfeo (c.f. Possente spirto), we see the principle of strophic variation at work.

Grandi’s association of the word cantata with this straight forward compositional strategy, likely in imitation of improvisatory performance practice, generated immediate imitation and proved to be very successful financially. His four collections of secular songs, as well as those of his solo motets, sold briskly and were reprinted numerous times in the 1620s and publications in the style by other Venetian composers began appearing within months of the release of Grandi’s Cantade et Arie.

We tend to see Monteverdi as the extraordinary genius he was, in whose shadow Grandi labored in obscurity. In reality, at least in the first years of the 1620s, it was the younger Grandi that was scoring on the bestseller lists. Following his arrival at San Marco from Ferrara in 1617, Grandi had risen swiftly through the ranks, quickly becoming capo of the Company of St. Mark’s and soon after gaining promotion to the role of vice maestro to Monteverdi. As Steven Saunders notes in his biographical essay on Grandi, “evidence suggests that Grandi’s rise in stature under these conditions may have occasioned resistance and even resentment” on the part of the elder Monteverdi, who was rumored to be considering a move back to Mantua around this time. The remarkable commercial success of Grandi’s publications and his association with the new and extremely popular genre of solo song must have intensified this resentment.

Within a few years of the first prints of Grandi’s first book of Cantade et Arie, strophic bass cantatas had been published by Giovanni Pietro Berti, Carlo Milanuzzi and Monteverdi himself. The term cantata soon expanded to include a wide range of compositional techniques and by the 1630s the focus of cantata composition had moved to Rome and began to take on the sectional, often narrative form featuring the alternation of recitative and aria associated with the cantata of the later Baroque.

  1. News of our upcoming performances has created a buzz among musicologists studying the music of the 17th century and we have been informed that one of the cantatas, Amor, altri si duol, was in fact performed at the Bibliothèque musicale François-Lang in Royaumont, France on October 12, 2008. It is, of course, impossible to determine with complete certainty that the other works have not received a public performance and if we hear of any others, we will update this post.
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