Author Archive

Performing Sacred Music in Liturgical Context

March 2nd, 2009 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…

Du chocolat! Dieu nous en garde!

September 29th, 2008 No comments

In Charpentier’s delightful divertissement Les plaisirs de Versailles, Comus, the “God of Feasting” seeks to calm a dispute between the haughty diva Music and the loquacious Conversation by offering the delights of marzipan, fine wine, and above all, Chocolate. Music is aghast, but Conversation is quite eager to sample the delicacy.

Comus: Let your disputes not cause commotion here! Let us play. To both of you beauties I shall give chocolates.

La Musique: Chocolate! God forbid that he give any to this chatterbox. As for me, I tell you, I do not wish to taste any. She would never cease her hot-air chatter.

La Conversation: Chocolate is good, dear Comus. By your influence I long to taste a little.

La Musique: No, Comus!

La Conversation: Comus, to listen to her is to waste good time. Chocolate!

Music’s concern about the effect of chocolate on the “babbling divitnity” Conversation, is understandable to anyone who has spent Halloweeen in the company of a 5-year-old.

Columbus brought cacao to Europe when he returned in 1502, but it was not until the 1615 wedding of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria (the daughter of Phillip II of Spain) that the French court discovered the strange brew known for its revitalizing and aphrodisiacal properties and declared chocolate as the drink of the French court. In France, as elsewhere in Europe, chocolate was met with skepticism and was considered a “barbarous product and noxious drug”. As with coffee, not everyone was eager to accept the mysterious new drink.

Initially, Chocolate was seen as having largely medicinal properties. In the first official statement about chocolate is made by Bonavontura Di Aragon, brother of Cardinal Richelieu, described the use of chocolate as stimulating the healthy functioning of the spleen and other digestive functions. 1659
Louis XIV gives the chocolate monopolies of the Paris chocolate drink trade and the French Royal Court to David Chaillou, a baker who made costly biscuits and cakes with chocolate—France’s first “chocolatier.”

“Un’ opera ridicola, ma bellissima”

April 4th, 2008 No comments

“Monday or Tuesday, I will put on stage the third opera, also mine, which is for amusement, because it is a comic opera, but most beautiful, and it is called Il Trespolo; and because here they delight in comic things, I believe it will be an infallible hit.”

So Alessandro Stradella described his opera Il Tespolo Tutore in a letter to one of his patrons in 1679 before performances at the Teatro Falcone in Genoa. Featuring the bumbling character Trespolo from the popular stories of Ricciardi, Stradella’s opera is indeed “ridicola” bordering on slapstick and replete with vulgar language, cross dressing, and sexual innuendo – as popular in the early days of comic opera as today.

Il Dottore

Il Dottore

The main character, and the butt of endless jokes, is the foolish tutor Trespolo, a character modelled on the commedia figure of Il Dottore. “Trespolo” is not a real name – it’s rough meaning is “tripod” – and it was used at the time to mean something rickety that can barely stand up – an apt description of the main protagonist. The remainder of the cast includes Trespolo’s ward Artemisia (Catherine Webster) who is in love with him but too shy to tell him, Nino (José Lemos) who is in love with her and later goes mad, Ciro (Jennifer Ellis-Kampani) his initially crazy brother who also loves Artemisia, Simona (Paul Elliott) their old, foolish nurse, and Despina (Laura Heimes), her shrewd daughter. The instrumental ensemble, typically small as in all of Stradella’s operas, consists of two violins (Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem), violoncello (me), theorbo (David Tayler), and harpsichord (Katherine Heater).

Comic opera was still relatively new to Italy at the end of the 1670s. Stradella had composed a comic prologue for O di Cocito oscure deità in 1668, which then traveled with Jacopo Melani’s Il Girello, which Magnificat performed in 1998. He had also composed other comic prologues and intermezzi for the Teatro Tordinona in Rome in the early 70s, so he was quite familiar with the emerging genre of comic opera by the time he wrote Il Trespolo.

Amid the silliness, there are several moments of more serious music, when characters express emotions of despair and rejection over love unrequited. Indeed Villifranchi’s alternate tile for Il Trespolo “Amore è veleno e medicina degl’intelletti” – roughly “Love as medicine and poison for the intellect” – suggests a far more profound subtext within the general inanity of mistaken identity and mis-delivered love letters. Nino’s despair at Artemisia’s rejection provides an opportunity for two mad scenes, which had become a staple of Italian drama by the last quarter of the 17th century. Stradella had already composed such scenes for his earlier opera La forza dell’ amor paterno. The mad scenes were not derived from Ricciardi’s original, but were inserted by the librettist Villifranchi, no doubt to the delight of the Genoese audiences.

The success of Il Trespolo is evidenced by the interest shown by several noblemen in a repeat performance, though it is unclear if any of these proposals came to fruition. In any case Stradella completed only one more opera before his untimely death in 1682.

Un Pasticcio di Madrigaletti

September 25th, 2005 No comments

“A pastiche of little madrigals” is how Gaspare Murtola described Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in 1626, and while his comment was intended as derogatory, he succeeding in pointing both to the strength and weakness of the play. The overblown and self-consciously poetic language of Guarini’s tragicomedy succeeded in making the play a relative failure on the stage, tremendous success as a work of literature, and a goldmine for composers seeking affective, emotional texts through which to display the new compositional techniques of the early baroque.

Guarini’s play, whether by design or not, turned out to be just as Murtola had described it: a series of little madrigals, from which composers drew texts for decades. Many of the “little madrigals” took on a life of their own, with composers seemingly competing with each other with their different settings. Often when the names of specific characters from the play occurred in the text, composers would alter the text or substitute generic pastoral names (Tirsi, Clori, etc.) to make their madrigal more general.

Though the play in many ways springs from the same humanist orientation that was leading the avant-garde composers of the late sixteenth century to develop the new monodic style of recitative, the majority of settings that were published at the time were in the form of polyphonic madrigals. Our program emphasizes the settings from the seventeenth century and features both monodic and polyphonic settings. While the program is ordered according to the narrative of the play, it is of course not a complete nor balanced rendering of the play, since certain sections received considerable attention from composers and other relatively little. Read more…

Singing Guarini's Il Pastor Fido

August 7th, 2005 No comments

In 1605 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine wrote that Guarini’s play Il Pastor fido (The Faithful Shepherd) was more harmful to Catholic morals than the Protestant Reformation itself. While such hyperbole is typical of polemical tracts of the period and is characteristic of conservative reaction to any challenge to the established order, the Cardinal’s comments nevertheless highlight the impact of Guarini’s pastoral drama on the artistic and cultural climate of the time. The arguments echo those leveled against Monteverdi by Giovanni Maria Artusi beginning in 1600: the unacceptable violation of established classical principles. In fact the madrigals that Artusi quoted in his attacks were settings of texts drawn by Monteverdi from Guarini’s play, though Artusi left out the texts and commented only on Monteverdi’s harmonic improprieties.

Of course ecclesiastical criticism of Guarini’s heretic mingling of the Aritotelian dramatic genres in creating his pastoral tragicomedy and the licentious behavior of its bucolic characters had little effect on the play’s continuing popularity. This popularity can hardly be overstated. In the five years that it circulated in manuscript copies before its first publication 1590, the Pastor fido had already attracted a large and enthusiastic following and by the time of Bellarmine’s complaints it had already seen more than twenty editions. The play’s fame was not limited to Italy, as it spread in numerous translations across Europe. In all, well over one hundred editions of the play were published including six different French translations, five in English in over thirteen editions, with translations also into Spanish, German, Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Polish, several Italian dialects and even Latin. It was arguably the most widely read work of secular literature in Europe throughout the seventeenth century and its vogue was only slightly less for much of the eighteenth. Read more…

The Estensi

August 6th, 2005 No comments

Magnificat’s first program this season features settings of texts drawn from Guarini’s pastoral drama Il Pastor Fido. Like so many poets, artists, and musicians of the Italian Renaissance, Guarini benefited from the patronage of the Este family of Ferrara. Both Guarini and his friend and rival Tasso had stormy relationships with the court that employed them and the intrigues within and battles outside the court doubtless caused misery for many, but from our vantage point several centuries hence we are indebted to them for the great works they supported.

The Estensi, a branch of the 10th-century dynasty of the Obertenghi, took their name from the township and castle of Este, near Padua. The founder of the family was the Margrave Alberto Azzo II (died 1097), through whose son Folco I (died 1136?) descended the House of Este. The family first gained prominence as leaders of the Guelphs in the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Estensi influence in Ferrara dates from the 13th century and by the middle of the 14th century their court there had become one of the most magnificent in all of Europe.

Alberto d’Este (1347-1393) began the transformation of the city, establishing the university there in the last year of his life. His son Niccolò (1383-1441), a great patron of music and the arts in general, built the castle that still dominates the city. During Niccolò’s reign, Guillaume Dufay began his long association with the d’Este family.
Leonello (1407-1450), who succeeded Niccolò, was cultivated classical writings, philosophy, and history while Borso (1413-1471) was more interested in law and medicine and provided great support for the university. Isabella, the daughter of Ercole I (1431-1505) born in 1471, inherited her father’s passion for the arts and, after her marriage to the Marquis of Mantua, became one of his chief competitors in collecting art. Read more…