Author Archive

The 17th Century Meets the 21st: Magnificat Now on Facebook and Twitter

June 1st, 2009 No comments

Magnificat has launched a Facebook Page and you are all encouraged to become “fans” (including all who already are!) The page currently has a discography, notice of upcoming events, and lots of other information about Magnificat. Soon we will have the capability to post mp3s and videos. Our page can be visited by clicking here.

We are also on Twitter, so those of you who dwell in Twitterspace please follow us @MagnificatMusic. We are working to develop a discussion of Baroque music and culture in this new medium as a way of increasing interest in Magnificat and early music in general.

Georg Muffat’s Birthday and David Wilson’s Translation and Commentary

June 1st, 2009 No comments

Georg Muffat was born on June 1 in 1653. A special day for Jubilate personnel manager, Magnificat violinist, Muffat expert and all around great guy David Wilson, who, in 2001, published a translation of texts from Florilegium Primum, Florilegium Secundum, and Auserlesene Instrumentalmusik together with very enlightening commentary on performance practice issues.

Born in Savoy, Muffat studied with Lully in Paris in the 1660s and then studied law at Ingolstadt. According to the biographical blurb at Goldberg Magazine, he later traveled to Vienna but could not obtain an official appointment and subsequently appeared in Prague (1677), ultimately finding a position in Salzburg in the service of Archbishop Max Gandolf, a post he held for over ten years. Read more…

Suzanne Cusick’s “Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court” to be Published Next Month

May 30th, 2009 No comments

Magnificat will open our 2009-2010 season with Francesca Caccini’s opera “The Liberation of Ruggiero”. I am looking forward to reading New York University Professor Suzanne Cusick’s new book about this remarkable composer. The book is available for order on the University of Chicago Press website. The synopsis provided by the publisher follows: Read more…

Magnificat Looking Forward to the Return of the Puppets

May 28th, 2009 No comments

On the weekend of October 16-18, 2009, Magnificat will join forces with The Carter Family Marionettes in a production first mounted in Seattle in 2007. Below is a review of that production from the Seattle Post Intelligencer. We look forward to working with the Stephen and Chris Carter and their troupe of wooden friends!

Marionettes Make Fine Work of Italian Opera

by Phillipa Kiraly (originally posted on April 22, 2007 at the Seattle Post Intelligencer)

Kudos to the Northwest Puppet Center for doing it yet again: opera in miniature with all the trimmings. On Friday night, “The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina,” by Francesca Caccini, opened at the center with five singers, four musicians, more than 30 puppets and a wave machine.

“Ruggiero” was one of the earliest operas, written in 1625; the first written by a woman — Caccini was a younger contemporary of composer Claudio Monteverdi; and the first to be presented outside Italy — in Poland in 1628.

Like many Baroque operas, it was originally presented full size on a lavish scale with complicated stage machinery and effects, and the story is a legend complete with sorcery, battles, gods, animals and talking trees.

Northwest Puppet Center’s production includes a dragon that blasts smoke, dancing fish and seahorses, a sea creature spewing forth the character Pulcinella, a goddess flying in on a griffin and a sheep that, well, I’m not giving away what it does.

Sung in Italian with supertitles, with the spoken words in English, the opera is largely recitative, but with duets and trios as well.

Read the Entire Article at The Seattle Post Intelligencer

Puppets, Nuns, Melodies, and Masterpieces: Magnificat’s 18th Season Takes a Tour of Italy

May 22nd, 2009 No comments

For our 18th Season, Magnificat’s will take our audience on a grand tour through four Italian cities: Florence, Milan, Venice, and Mantua. Along the way, we will hear a delightful puppet opera, a glorious mass for Christmas, a program of madrigals and motets, and perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the early Baroque. The season feature music by two remarkable women and two pioneers of the new music of the seventeenth century.

The notion of constructing a season as a tour of Italy began in a trip I took in the summer of 2008. While in Milan I made a pilgrimage to Cozzolani’s convent, Santa Radegonda, now a multiplex cinema (“Sex in the City” was premiering that day) and wandered around the marvelous Duomo. I also visited Florence, where so many of the radical ideas that shaped the music of the seventeenth century were first articulated. Throughout the journey, I was struck by how strongly the aesthetic of the seicento survives in spite of the noise of the intervening centuries.

So much of what we consider to be “modern” has its roots in the new ideas of the seventeenth century. The Earth went from being the center of the universe to a speck in the midst of an infinite eternity. Artists and poets sought to depict the subtleties of human emotion through jarring contrast and exaggeration. Composers gave us opera, the virtuoso, and art music for the masses. And almost every bold new idea began in the collection of duchies, independent cities, republics, and colonies that we now know collectively as Italy.

Given the 400th anniversary of the great and complex masterpiece of the seicento, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, it seemed like an excellent idea to explore the various strands of the new music of the seventeenth century in the context of four cities: Florence, Milan, Venice, and Mantua. While certainly not a comprehensive list, these cities offer a broad perspective on the many artistic trends that so powerfully shaped the music of the entire continent. Read more…

San Francisco Chronicle Review: ‘Venere, Amore, e Ragione’

April 7th, 2009 No comments

This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 7, 2009.

The thing about love, as most people learn sooner or later, is that it stubbornly refuses to be guided by the precepts of logic and rationality. A pretty smile, an enticing gaze, some shapely body part or other, and boom – there goes common sense.

Not so in “Venere, Amore e Ragione” (“Venus, Cupid and Reason”), the comely little musical entertainment presented over the weekend by the early-music ensemble Magnificat. In Alessandro Scarlatti’s serenata, probably first performed in Rome in 1706, Cupid throws off his blindfold, and amid great rejoicing by the pastoral crowds, embraces Reason as his mentor.

Uh-huh. And you thought 19th century operas were unrealistic. Read more…

SFCV Review of Scarlatti Concert: In Light of Reason

April 7th, 2009 No comments

This review by Joseph Sargent was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice on April 6, 2009.

An unmistakable allure surrounds concerts that bring long-neglected music into the new light of day. Aside from the sheer novelty of presenting repertory otherwise seldom available in concert or on recordings, these efforts can prove highly memorable for the listener, who comes away with a distinct feeling of having experienced something special. Such encounters happen frequently with Warren Stewart’s Baroque ensemble Magnificat, whose penchant for seeking out hidden treasures often yields delightful performances of music by underappreciated composers.

For Magnificat’s latest concert set, the presumptive diamond in the rough was a genre rather than a composer. Alessandro Scarlatti’s Venere, Amore, e Ragione (Venus, Cupid, and Reason) is a “serenata” — a term with slippery historical connotations but that in Scarlatti’s day denoted a festive, cantatalike work associated with important occasions, from grand state affairs to more intimate celebrations. Its text, by the Roman poet Silvio Stampiglia, details a dispute between Venus and Reason involving the latter’s newfound influence over Cupid, with Venus conceding in the end that love guided by reason yields better lovers.
Read more…

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Serenata Venere, Amore e Ragione

March 23rd, 2009 No comments

By the 17th century the term serenata had lost its original association with the custom of offering a musical tribute to a beloved woman. Already in the 16th century, compositions entitled serenata were composed to amuse a sophisticated, aristocratic audience to satirize the custom, especially as practiced by the lower classes. In mid 17th century Rome, the serenade became associated with magnificent events produced for civic or diplomatic occasions. At the same time, serenades were also written for more intimate environments.

Manuscript scores and libretti survive for 22 cantatas for two or more voices by Scarlatti bear the term serenata. Like most of Scarlatti’s vocal chamber works, these serenatas were heard in highly exclusive, aristocratic circles. The precise circumstances of the first performance of Venere, Amore, e Ragione are unknown. Musicologist Thomas E. Griffin has suggested that the serenata is associated with Scarlatti’s induction in the Accademia dell’Arcadia in 1706.

The libretto for Venere, Amore, e Ragione is attributed to the Roman poet Silvio Stampiglia, a fellow member of the Accademia dell’Arcadia who collaborated with Scarlatti on many occasions. The libretto recounts a dispute between Venus and Reason over the conduct of Venus’ son Cupid. Distressed at finding her son among the nymphs and shepherds of Rome and a changed under the influence of Reason, Venus fears that he will lose his power. After much discussion Cupid, with the support of Reason, persuades his mother that the quality and quantity of his followers has only improved since he adopted Reason as his guide.

The elegant and highly mannered style, both Scarlatti’s music and Stampiglia’s language are well suited to the aesthetic espoused by the Arcadians, who explicitly rejected what they perceived as the artificiality of the seventeenth century literary style associated with the poet Giambattista Marini. The “Marinists” sought novel and striking contrasts and the poetic inventiveness that created bold and unexpected conceits. The Arcadians sought simplicity and “naturalness” and Scarlatti’s music expresses this sensibility in its sparing use of coloratura and preference for lyrical melodies in conjunct motion. Read more…

"The Three Jennifers" – Magnificat Performs Scarlatti’s Venere, Amore e Ragione

March 23rd, 2009 No comments

On the weekend of April 3-5, Magnificat will concludes our 2009-2010 season with performances of Venere, Amore e Ragione, a delightful serenade by Alessandro Scarlatti that will feature three Jennifers: Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Jennifer Paulino and Jennifer Lane. Together with instrumentalists Rob Diggins, Jolianne von Einem, Vicki Gunn Pich, David Tayler, and Hanneke van Proosdij, they will perform a work that Scarlatti wrote during the years he spent in Rome at the turn of the 18th century.

All three Jennifers are well known to Bay Area audiences. Jennifer Ellis Kampani, who with sing the role of Amore, first appeared with Magnificat in the role of “Jealousy” in our production of Il Capriccio in 1997. She enjoys an international career that has included appearances with the period instrument groups American Bach Soloists, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Santa Fe Pro Musica, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Opera Lafayette, Apollo’s Fire, Musica Angelica, Magnificat, Washington Catherdral Choral Society, Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, Ensemble Solamente (Budapest, Hungary), Ensemble Tourbillon (Prague, Czech Republic), and Musica Aeterna (Bratislava, Slovakia). In addition, Ms. Kampani has sung with the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Charlotte Symphony. Opera highlights include leading roles in Handel’s Acis and Galata, Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, Duron’s zarzuela “Salir el Amor del Mundo”, Handel’s “Semele”, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Read more…

SFCV Review: When the Audience is the Congregation

February 13th, 2009 No comments

This review by Anna Carol Dudley appeared in the February 10, 2009 edition of San Francisco Classical Voice.

Heinrich Schütz suggested that his Musikalische Exequien could be a substitute for a German mass. Warren Stewart has taken him at his word, incorporating the work into a full-length church service. Stewart’s Magnificat, complete with two organs, a continuo group, and eight singers (including a preacher and a deacon), performed the mass Saturday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. The so-called audience served as congregation, joining in on some verses of the chorales.

Nowadays, chorales are called hymns, and in American churches are usually sung in English. The congregation was invited to applaud at the end, but that increasingly happens routinely in American church services. And lo, nobody was turned away for not singing or not knowing German or not caring much for sermons. In fact, the congregation seemed to enjoy singing chorale verses and listening to the more elaborate verse settings. Preacher Hummel chanted the Epistle and spoke the sermon in German, risking encouragement of the traditional practice of sleeping through the sermon.

Schütz, born a hundred years before J.S. Bach, was a prolific composer. Greatly esteemed in his own time, he retained a sort of connoisseurs’ fame long after musical tastes had changed, and now his music — all available in good modern editions — is as highly regarded as it ever has been. Read more…

Davitt Moroney to Perform with Magnificat

February 2nd, 2009 No comments

For our performances in February, Magnificat will be joined by organist Davitt Moroney who will perform works by Froberger, Scheidt, and others. Magnificat worked with Davitt last summer in two memorable performances at the Berkeley Early Music Festival.

Davitt was born in England in 1950. He studied organ, clavichord, and harpsichord with Susi Jeans, Kenneth Gilbert and Gustav Leonhardt. For over twenty years he was based in Paris, working primarily as a freelance recitalist in many countries. In 2001 he moved to California as a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is Professor of Music, University Organist, and Director of the University Baroque Ensemble.
Read more…

Martin Hummel Returns for Magnificat Concerts

February 1st, 2009 No comments

It is always a pleasure to welcome German baritone Martin Hummel back for another Magnificat set. I first met Martin in 1980, when he was still a teenager. I had met his brother Cornelius (a very fine cellist) at the Aspen Music Festival, and ended up staying with his family in Würzburg over the Christmas vacation. I had gone to Germany to work with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen on a cello transcription of his work In Freundschaft (this was before my conversion to baroque cello!) I remember being charmed by Martin’s voice as he sang christmas carols and folk song, accompanying himself on guitar.  Read more…

Heinrich Schütz’s “Slight Work”

February 1st, 2009 2 comments

“This slight work consists of only three pieces… anyone liking this work of mine may find that it can be used to good effect as a substitute for a German Missa, and possibly for the Feast of the Purification…”

Thus did Heinrich Schütz hope to give the three pieces he composed for the funeral of Prince Heinrich Reuss Posthumus a life beyond their specific commission. Magnificat’s intention in our program is to realize Schütz’s suggestion, and incorporate the three pieces known collectively as the Musikalische Exequien, along with music by Schütz’s musical colleagues, into a Lutheran Mass for the Feast of the Purification, following the liturgical practice of the Dresden Court Chapel of the mid-1630s.

Shortly after the death of the prince in December 1635, Schütz received a commission from the widow to set the nearly two dozen scriptural verses and chorale strophes that the prince had ordered engraved on the copper coffin in which he was interred. Not only the choice of texts but also their order was prescribed, presenting Schütz with the formidable task of devising a coherent musical structure from an disparate array of texts. His ingenious solution to the architectural and musical problems was to manipulate the texts into “the form of a German Burial Mass”, parsing them so as to paraphrase the Kyrie and Gloria. Thus resulted one of his finest masterpieces, the vocal concerto for six voices and continuo Nakket bin ich von Mutterleibe kommen (SWV 279). Schütz also provided two motets for the funeral service, one a setting of the verses from Psalm 73 which served as the sermon text, Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe (SWV 280), the other a setting of the Canticle of Simeon, Herr, nun leßestu deinen Deiner in Friede fahren (SWV 281), which the prince wished to have sung during the interment of his coffin. The three works were later published together in an elegant edition as the Musikalische Exequien.
Read more…

San Francisco Classical Voice: Royal Delights

October 12th, 2008 No comments

by Joseph Sargent in the October 7, 2008 issue of San Francisco Classical Voice.

For several years now, the Baroque ensemble Magnificat has made seventeenth-century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier into something of a cottage industry. A regular fixture on the ensemble’s season calendars, this composer embodies Magnificat’s stated mission of uncovering the “‘new music’ of the early Baroque” — masters of the era who have yet to receive their due. Few composers indeed may fit the description of “hidden treasure” more aptly than Charpentier, who is often upstaged in performances today by Jean-Baptiste Lully but was highly regarded in his lifetime by such giants as King Louis XIV and Molière.

With Saturday’s brief concert of two divertissements (short operatic entertainments) at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley, Magnificat Music Director Warren Stewart and company took another decisive step toward reclaiming Charpentier’s reputation. Delivering a crystalline performance marked by luscious vocal purity and elegant instrumental support, Magnificat captured the vitality and freshness of these charming works, turning the evening into an impeccably refined affair.

Les Plaisirs de Versailles (The pleasures of Versailles; 1682) is house music in the literal sense, originally performed for Louis’ thrice-weekly “fêtes of the apartments” in the main rooms of the Great Apartment of Versailles. Its dramatis personae comprise various pleasures that the Sun King evidently enjoyed in these digs: music, conversation, gambling, and that perennial favorite chocolate. Striking contrasts in instrumentation and style — lyrical airs for La Musique, prattling recitative for La Conversation, solemn tones for the temptations of Comus, the god of festivities — accentuate the central debate over which of these elements best satisfies the king’s pleasures.

Both vocally and in their gestures, sopranos Laura Heimes (as Musique) and Jennifer Paulino (as Conversation) nicely captured the comedic aspects of their characters’ arguments. Finely matched tone colors, keen attention to melodic shape, and vivid stage presence accentuated the elegance of even their most stinging put-downs. Both singers deserve credit for creating vivid personifications of Musique’s campy haughtiness and Conversation’s irksome blabbering. As the purveyor of chocolates, wines, and other delectables, bass Hugh Davies added an appealingly robust and seductive quality to the mix.

Considerably less resounding was the evening’s vocal projection, the one flaw marring an otherwise finely polished gem. Many singers (Heimes and Davies excepted) had difficulty carrying over the orchestra, a crackerjack group of eight players whose superlative accompaniment should not have posed particular problems. St. Mark’s acoustic didn’t help matters, but placement of the vocalists in front of rather than behind the orchestra might have alleviated the problem.
Pastoral Pleasures

Also with a connection to royalty was the evening’s other divertissement, La Couronne des fleurs (The crown of flowers; 1685), a work likely composed for the singers of Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise and cousin to Louis. Freely adapted from the prologue of Charpentier’s comedy-ballet Le Malade imaginaire (The imaginary invalid; 1673, with text by Molière), this work emphasizes the pastoral over the allegorical. A cast of gods and shepherds celebrates the arrival of springtime with a contest to see who can extol the king’s virtues most beautifully, the winner receiving a crown of flowers.

A graceful orchestral introduction, establishing the pastoral mood, segued into the spring goddess Flora’s declamation of that season’s arrival and the rules of the contest, delightfully captured in Haimes’ pitch-perfect performance. Four characters then made their cases to win the crown, with fine contributions from sopranos Paulino and Ruth Escher and tenors Paul Elliott and Daniel Hutchings. Especially appealing were the alternating trios between women and men, the airtight ensemble singing flawless in intonation and blend. The divertissement concludes with Flora declaring all participants to be equally worthy of the crown and dividing its flowers among them, a judgment also well suited to the evening’s performances as a whole.

Two New Magnificat Board Members

September 4th, 2008 No comments

As we enter our 17th Season, Magnificat is pleased to welcome two new Board members. Nicholas Elsishans will be taking over for John Golenski as president and Shane Gasbarra has been installed as our new treasurer. Both joined the Board of Directors of Magnificat on July 19, 2008.

Nicholas, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Executive Board member of Grace Cathedral of San Francisco . Nicholas assumes the position of President of the Board and brings to this position a long history of Board and Executive level leadership experience in major organizations throughout the Bay Area. Nicholas’ passion for the music of Magnificat stems from his own extensive training as a keyboard performer and scholar at the Juilliard School in New York and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

For the past three seasons, Shane was Director of Artistic and Music Administration for the San Francisco Opera. He held a similar position with the Houston Opera before moving to San Francisco. Shane studied Classics at Yale, where he also studied oboe and piano. He received his Ph.D. in Renaissance studies from Yale and subsequently held teaching posts there as well as at Princeton and the University of Michigan, where his academic areas included Renaissance comparative literature, intellectual history, and visual arts; poetic theory; and the classical tradition.

“We are extremely pleased to have Nicholas and Shane on board for the upcoming season,” said Magnifict Artistic Director Warren Stewart. “Each brings a blend of artistic, academic, and business perspective to Magnificat at a very exciting time in our development.”

Magnificat Announces 2008-2009 Season

September 4th, 2008 No comments

Magnificat is proud to announce our 17th Season of concerts in the Bay Area, and invites you to explore the “new music” of the Early Baroque. Continuing its tradition of innovative programs and expressive interpretations that have made Magnificat a Bay Area treasure, this season’s programs feature music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Giovanni Antonio Rigatti, Heinrich Schütz, and Alessandro Scarlatti.

The season begins on the weekend of October 3-5, 2008 with performances of two delightful divertissements by Charpentier (1643-1704) –“Les plaisirs de Versailles” and “La couronne de fleurs.” Unjustly over-shadowed by Lully during his lifetime, Charpentier is now recognized as one of the finest musicians of his time and Magnificat has become the premiere interpreter of Charpentier’s music in the Bay Area, exploring new gems from the composer’s notebooks almost every season. Both works on the program were composed for the ensemble of Mademoiselle de Guise, in whose household Charpentier lived and worked after returning from his studies in Rome with Carissimi.

“Les plaisirs de Versailles” was inspired by the soirées that Louis XIV held at Versailles in 1682 and its four scenes celebrate the pleasures of the royal residence with charm and humor. The singers, taking on the roles of “Music”, “Conversation”, “Games” and “Festivities”, contribute to the amusement of the Sun King.

The pastorale “La couronne de fleurs” is an adaptation of the original Prologue to “Le Malade imaginaire” (1673), which Charpentier arranged for the singers of Mlle de Guise in the mid-1680s. In fact, of the 19 movements only 2 are borrowed (and are extensively recomposed); the rest of the opera is entirely original (though the text is wholly by Molière). Magnificat will perform from editions prepared by Charpentier scholar and Magnificat Artistic Advisory Board member John Powell.

For tickets or more information please call 800-853-5188 or visit our website order form at

Friday, October 3, 2008 – 8:00 pm – First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto
Saturday, October 4, 2008 – 8:00 pm – St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley
Sunday, October 5 – 4:00 pm – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco

Pre-concert Lecture 45 minutes before each performance

Magnificat Names New Managing Director

August 20th, 2008 No comments

Magnificat is pleased to announce that Dominique Pelletey has joined Magnificat’s staff as managing director. Mr. Pelletey will coordinate all administrative aspects of the organization. Mr. Pelletey was born in France, and completed his studies cum laude in Holland. On graduating from the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, Mr. Pelletey embarked on a career that included international exhibitions, a nomination to the Dutch Prix de Rome and many publications. Parallel to his artistic work, he pursued work as museum curator/director. After two years as independent curator with one of Holland’s leading artist run spaces W139, he was named both executive and artistic director of the organization. Under his leadership, a structure for the organization was created, bringing it to the attention of the main federal funding arm of the government, allowing the overall budget to double.

In 1992 Mr. Pelletey co-founded and directed an arts space, protonICA Amsterdam, which specializes in producing multi-media works and collaborative projects. This unique organization achieved international acclaim within its first year of operation. Concurrently, Mr. Pelletey was a founding member and chairman of the Association of Dutch Art Centers, publishing a successful arts newspaper, HTV de Ijsberg (Apex of the Iceberg) which was distributed nationally, bringing a partnership amongst art spaces and the arts community.

Mr. Pelletey was a respected authority on the arts in Holland, his knowledge recognized with his appointment by the Queen of the Netherlands to the Raad voor de Kunst (Dutch national arts foundation), serving a three-year term as one of four national advisors on art and art policy. He also was a member of the jury for the Fonds voor de beeldende kunsten, design en architectuur (Foundation for Art, Design and Architecture), one of Holland’s major granting organizations for several years.

On relocation to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999, Mr. Pelletey became PR and Marketing Director at the San Francisco Community Music Center, where he remained until 2004. For the next two years, he worked with the Del Sol String Quartet, as Managing Director, until taking up the post of Executive Director of the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music in mid-2005.

Berkeley Festival Triumph

June 8th, 2008 No comments

Congratulations to the Berkeley Festival and to Maestro Davitt Moroney for two magnficent performances of Alessandro Striggio’s monumental Missa sopra ‘Ecco sì beato giorno’, in cinque corri divisa, in 40 and 60 parts.

All those participating – The Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, American Bach Soloists Choir, Schola Cantorum San Francisco, The Perfect Fifth, and His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts and the other instrumentalists – performed beautifully, though I was, of course, most aware of Magnificat. It was an unusual experience for me to sit idly in the audience while my colleagues participated in this glorious production. But at the same time it gave me the opportunity to appreciate what a tremendous honor and privilege it is to have worked with these friends – in some cases for over a decade – and to look forward to many more concerts together.

So, to Ruth Escher, Kristen Dubenion-Smith, Christopher LeCluyse, Hugh Davies, Jennifer Paulino, Elizabeth Anker, Daniel Hutchings, and Peter Becker: Bravo Tutti!

Magnificat Ad for Berkeley Festival Program

May 27th, 2008 No comments

Here’s a peek at the “new look” for next season.

Magnificat Performs Striggio Mass at Berkeley Early Music Festival

May 25th, 2008 No comments

Magnificat will appear at the Berkeley Early Music Festival this June in performances of Striggios’s Missa sopra ‘Ecco sì beato giorno’, in cinque corri divisa, in 40 and 60 parts. The concerts will be directed by Davitt Moroney of the Univeristy of California at Berkeley Music Department. The concerts will be on June 7 at 8:00 pm and June 8 at 7:00 at First Congregational Church. Tickets are available here.

Professor Moroney (pictured at right) prepared the following notes for performances of Striggio’s Mass at the BBC Proms in September, 2007. They have been slightly adapted for posting here. More information about this performance can be found here.

It has been known for over 25 years that in December 1566 Alessandro Striggio (pictured at left) travelled from Florence, where he was the chief musician at the Medici court, to Vienna, the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II. He crossed the Alps in mid-winter, on horseback with a servant and a baggage mule. (The mule died.) This harrowing journey seems to have been timed to enable him to make an exceptional musical gift to the emperor, a gigantic setting of the ‘Ordinary’ of the Catholic Mass (the parts that do not change from service to service: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei), composed in 40 parts divided into five eight-part choirs.

Striggio’s work was based on a now lost piece of secular music entitled Ecco sì beato giorno. The Mass was thought to be lost, but a manuscript survives in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris, having been donated to Louis XV in 1726. The work escaped identification because in the library’s catalogue, printed in 1914, it occurs without a title, is listed as being for ‘4 voices’ instead of 40, and is described as being by a non-existent composer, ‘A. Strusco’. With these three strikes against it, Striggio’s magnum opus became invisible.

This is one of the major artworks of the Italian Renaissance, a symbol of all that is magnificent in Florentine art of the 16th century. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Florentine music at that time was as spectacular as Florentine painting, sculpture, literature and architecture. The full title of the work is ‘Mass on Ecco sì beato giorno divided into five choirs’.

The Mass’s importance derives not only from its overwhelming musical power, but also from the innovative ways it uses space, with the different choirs answering each other back and forth. This polychoral technique is used with consummate skill and with greater complexity and assurance than any Venetian music of the period.

The Mass is also unique for the unprecedented political role it played at a time when the Medici family had just (in December 1565) concluded a matrimonial alliance with the imperial Habsburg family in Vienna. Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and Siena, was hoping that the emperor would now grant him a more important title. The musical work was a clever gift. By its choice of the Latin Mass text, it explicitly underscored that the Medici could be relied on to uphold unwavering Catholicism during the turmoils of the Reformation. In addition, by its musical sonorities of unrivalled complexity and richness, it implicitly demonstrated the regal splendour of the Medici, as well as their worthiness of a higher royal title. However, the work failed to convince Maximilian of the political matters involved and he declined to grant the new royal title. Cosimo’s ambitions were only answered two years later by the Pope, who in 1569 unilaterally named him Grand Duke of Tuscany. This title was ratified by the emperor seven years later, but only after a very large donation of Medici money helped him at last make up his mind.

In January 1567, Striggio’s journey took him to Vienna, where he presented the Mass in person to the emperor, and then to Munich, where in early February it was performed liturgically at High Mass in front of the Duke of Bavaria. The Duke’s musicians were normally directed by Lassus, who one year later conducted three performances of another 40-part work by Striggio, an unidentified motet that might have been Ecce beatam lucem. This link explains the presence in tonight’s programme not only of Striggio’s motet but also of polychoral works by Lassus. The two composers were certainly colleagues and probably friends.

After Munich, Striggio travelled to Paris where on 11 May 1567 the Mass was performed non-liturgically, in a concert performance at the Château de Saint-Maur, in front of King Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. While in Paris Striggio wrote to his Medici employers asking for an extension to his leave of absence in order to visit England ‘and the virtuosos in the profession of music in that country’. It seems almost impossible that during his two-week trip to London in June 1567 he didn’t meet the composer who was unquestionably the leading virtuoso in England: Thomas Tallis. There is strong evidence that Tallis wrote his own Spem in alium as a direct result of the younger man’s visit. If Tallis’s masterpiece shows the strengths of his great maturity (he was in his sixties at the time), the quite different work by Striggio (who was about 30 in 1567) shows no less forcefully the strengths of his ambitious and energetic youth.

Performing the Mass

For the Berkeley Festival performance, I am including a wide variety of instruments. A full double choir of sackbuts and cornetts adds immeasurably to the sonorities, like gold leaf on a fine picture frame. But unlike a frame surrounding the picture, I have chosen to have these instruments double the third choir, in the very centre. I also chose to use a substantial group of different instruments to support the Bassus ad organum line, the general bass line that accompanies the whole work. Evidence from Striggio’s time implies that this line was performed by a double-bass trombone, and we are very fortunate to have been able to include such a rare instrument tonight. This also suggested the use of a stringed instrument at double-bass pitch.

I have included a wide range of instruments capable of providing chordal accompaniment to play the fundamental bass. It would be anachronistic to call this a continuo group since such terminology did not emerge until some 40 years after Striggio wrote his Mass; but that’s nevertheless what it is. Florence was well in advance of other cities in this respect and by the 1550s Florentine musicians were already regularly using such fundamental instruments to accompany chordally. The instruments I have chosen for Striggio’s bass line range from the ubiquitous organ (whose suave sustained sonorities can bind the sounds together), to the harpsichord (whose rhythmic precision, by contrast, can help hold the disparate choirs together); also included are the theorbo and the harp, which offer a different range of expressive nuance from the keyboards. On the manuscript of Ecce beatam lucem all these instruments are mentioned as forming the accompanying group. The result is only one of many instrumental possibilities that would be appropriate. Our use of instruments tonight is conservative, not extravagant. A performance paid for by the Medici or the Habsburg families would have had access to vastly richer resources.

I have added the Our Father (Pater noster) sung in plainsong to provide a moment of repose before the two settings of the Agnus Dei. The text of the various plainsongs heard tonight is derived from the Roman Missal printed in 1563. As a closing gesture, we have also included the short Ite missa est/Deo gratias, the closing words of the Roman Mass signifying that the Mass is ended. This text was usually considered part of the Ordinary of the Mass, but was almost never set to polyphony.

Forty singers is not in itself an exceptional number. The effect of Striggio’s 40-part writing, at least for modern audiences, is not so much one of astonishing volume, especially since for many sections of the Mass only one or two choirs are singing simultaneously.

(Striggio saves the first moment in full 40-part sonority for the seventh phrase of the Gloria: ‘we give you thanks for your great glory’.) Rather than sheer volume, the richly woven musical texture is a key characteristic. The 40 voices create luscious, luxuriant sonorities, comparable to the rich brocades, fine furniture and other opulent ornaments that were considered appropriate for a royal or imperial chapel.

In the second setting of the Agnus Dei, Striggio subdivides each of his five double choirs even further, requiring an extra set of four voices in each choir, a third sub-choir. The result is a piece for five 12-voice choirs, a tour de force in 60 real parts unique in the history of Western music. It alone should surely earn Striggio a place in all musical history books. This remarkable appeal for peace, dona nobis pacem, begins much like Tallis’s Spem in alium, with the voices coming in one by one (heard tonight as a wave of sound, from left to right). Whether Tallis borrowed this idea from Striggio or not is hardly important. What the two composers have in common is less significant than what makes each one of them unique. Striggio has usually been labelled by music historians as a rather unexceptional musical conservative, but historians don’t always get things right. The listeners to tonight’s concert have a chance to decide for themselves, discovering this music along with everyone else.