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.

San Francisco Classical Voice Review: Funny, Even in Translation

April 20th, 2008 No comments

This review by Thomas Busse was published in San Francisco Classical Voice on April 15, 2008.

The crack early-music ensemble Magnificat attempted the difficult challenge of performing a Baroque comic opera in concert over the weekend. The form is unlike serious opera or slighter genres such as intermezzos or serenatas, which readily lend themselves to unstaged presentation. Comic opera, with its typically recitative-heavy, slighter music, depends on stage action, comic timing, and the conveyance of complicated and farcical plots, much of which gets lost by singers in dress clothes standing in place.

I am happy to report that Magnificat, under Warren Stewart’s direction, pulled off the challenge magnificently on Saturday in Berkeley’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The evening’s dusted-off museum piece was Alessandro Stradella’s penultimate stage work, Il Trespolo Tutore, a charming work from 1679, for which modern performing material was prepared by Michael Burden for performance at New College, Oxford, in 2004, with translations of the recitatives by Simon Dees and of the arias by Dorothy Manly.

The entire era of 17th-century opera is perhaps the largest unexplored territory in both modern performance and modern musicology. Unlike in later time periods, the delineation between aria and recitative was much less strict — “aria” was truer to its original meaning of “song” than were the extravagant da capo productions of, say, Handel. The recitatives tended to be more tuneful, yet they were built on functional harmony much more than the borderline-repertory works we hear now and then from Monteverdi and Cavalli. Read more…

“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.

Magnificat to Perform at Berkeley Early Music Festival

March 30th, 2008 No comments

Magnificat will join with the Philharmonia Chorale, American Bach Soloists, Schola Cantorum
San Francisco, The Perfect Fifth, and His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts in the American premiere of Alessandro Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco Sì Beato Giorno under the direction of Davitt Moroney.

Striggio’s Mass in 40 and 60 parts is the largest known contrapuntal choral work in Western music. Written under the auspices of the 16th-century Medici court and recently discovered in the Bibliotèque Nationale de France by UC Berkeley musicologist Moroney, this example of Florentine art at its most spectacular is “a masterpiece…not just the choral event of the year but possibly of the decade,” said London’s The Guardian of the work’s modern day premiere at the BBC Proms in 2007.

The performances will be on June 7th and 8th. For tickets and information call (510) 642-9988 or visit

Countertenor José Lemos to Sing with Magnificat

March 30th, 2008 No comments

Brazilian counter tenor José Lemos will make his Magnificat debut in our upcoming performances of Stradella’s comic opera Il Trespolo tutore.

Lemos is the First Prize winner and the Audience Prize winner of the 2003 International Baroque Singing Competition of Chimay, Belgium. Having recently completed his Masters Degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston, he has appeared in opera roles and in concert with companies such as Boston Baroque, Boston Cecilia, Harvard Early Music Society, Les Parlement de Musique, Piccolo Spoleto Festival Early Music Series, and the Aldeburgh Snape Proms in England.

In the summer of 2003 he made his USA opera debut at The Tanglewood Music Festival in Robert Zuidam’s Rage D’Amours, and returned for their 2004 production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Oberon. He has also joined the Tanglewood Music Center in the Los Angeles premiere of the opera Ainadamar by composer Osvaldo Golijov at the new Disney Center with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

José Lemos is the main guest artist with the renowned Baltimore Consort with whom he tours the United States in concert and educational outreach. A versatile performer, he has charmed audiences in recitals with his exuberant renditions of native Brazilian songs. He has also delved deeply into the medieval and renaissance repertory in his performances with the Charleston Pro Musica and Quartetto Brio.

In April 2005 he made his European opera debut in a production of the Zürich Opera House of Handel’s Giulio Cesare under the batton of Marc Minkowski. In June of the same year he performed at the famous Aldeburgh Festival in a production of Purcell’s Faery Queen under the batton of Harry Bicket, receiving raving reviews by the London Times. He has made frequent appearances in places such as Jordan Hall, Chimay Theater, Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood Theater, The Cloisters Museum in New York, and the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Some of the highlights for the 2007 and 2008 seasons include the release of his first recording with the Quartetto Brio, entitled “Romance”, featuring the incredibly beautiful songs of the Sephardic Jews. He has made his debut as Ottone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with the Seattle Early Music Guild directed by Stephen Stubbs, sang the role of Tolomeo in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Göttingen Handel Festival directed by Nicholas McGegan, and the role of Silène in a new production of Lully’s Psyche with the Boston Early Music Festival. And for the second part of the season, he will be touring with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants in their new production of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio which will also be released on DVD by Virgin/EMI this coming spring.

Synopsis of Il Trespolo Tutore

March 30th, 2008 No comments

The following Synopsis was prepared by Dr. Michael Burden of New College Oxford and is reposted here with permission of the author.

The story centres on Signor Trespolo’s attempts to find a husband for his ward, Artemisia; if she is satisfied, then they will both inherit money under her father’s will.

At the beginning of Act I, Simona is trying to get Despina to agree to a marriage with Trespolo, saying that a husband is like medicine, but Despina says that Trespolo is like a hairy bear, and has no brain. Simona welcomes Nino, who has been away, business unspecified. He inquires the reason for the argument, and, when told that Despina does not want to get married, says that that is only natural, since she is young. Nino then mentions his brother Ciro, who has been driven crazy by love. He sends Simona away with the comment that he will find a way to marry off Despina without shouting. With Simona out of the way, Nino wants to know if Artemisia has ‘relaxed’? Nino is deeply in love with Artemisia who refuses to marry him. Despina says, well, if Artemisia won’t marry him, she won’t, and why is Nino wasting his time on it? Nino asks Despina to be Artemisia’s ‘tutor in love’; she agrees. But as he leaves, Despina tells us that it is Nino she really wants to marry. Artemisia arrives, repressed by her love for Trespolo; she lies down and sleeps. Ciro, quite mad from love, now enters and in his madness, lies down to sleep along side her. Trespolo finds them both asleep. He wakes them, and when the raving Ciro tells them that his name means dog in Persian, Artemisia orders him to leave. Trespolo then broaches the subject of Artemisia’s marriage;the subject is important to him, because under her father’s will, he has to give his permission for the nuptials, but Artemisia has to be satisfied; if she is, then he benefits financially. However, Artemisia will only agree to marry someone she loves, but finds it impossible to utter the name of the one she wishes for her husband, so she passes him a cryptic note before going into the house. Trespolo cannot understand the note at all; it says ‘the one who is here’, and he, Trespolo, is the only one there! However, at that moment, Ciro, the ‘crazy one’, arrives on the scene, and Trespolo leaps to the conclusion that it is Ciro who Artemisia loves. Trespolo is shocked that Artemisia’s beautiful face should be wasted on someone like him. Trespolo asks Ciro if he has thought marrying Artemisia; he is delighted at the idea. Artemisia does not come out to them, so they knock on the door. Trespolo tells Artemisia that he is there with her ‘husband’. When Artemisia realises that it is Ciro who Trespolo means, she is appalled; she rejects him, and departs, followed by Trespolo, leaving Ciro disappointed. In desperation to get her message across, Artemisia now dictates Trespolo a note which repeatedly says ‘It’s you’; he still does not get the message, and when Nino arrives declaring his love, Artemisia makes her escape. Her flight misleads Trespolo; he decides that it is Nino with whom Artemisia is in love, and hands him Artemisia’s note.

Act II starts with Simona trying to teach Ciro proper behaviour and how to court a lady; she persuades him that Artemisia will love him if he makes himself attractive. Trespolo is still in love with Despina; she, however, sarcastically rejects him. They revert to discussing Nino and Artemisia. Despina has brought an open note from Nino to Artemisia (this is a reply to the love letter Artemisia wrote to Trespolo, but which he mistakenly gave to Nino at the end of Act 1). They both criticise the grammar (Nino is clearly a vulgarian) but Trespolo has no glasses and cannot see the text clearly; he reads that Despina has embraced Nino, and bursts into a jealous rage. When Despina gets hold of the letter, it says something quite different, of course. Trespolo apologises, and asks Despina to tell Nino that he now awaits him. As she leaves, Trespolo inquires after Simona; Despina tells him that he is teaching ‘seriousness’ to the crazy one. When Nino appears, Trespolo says he has Nino’s reply to Artemisia’s note, but can’t understand it. Trespolo states that, as he understands it, Nino wants to marry Artemisia. However, as she is Trespolo’s ward, his consent is required for the wedding, and Trespolo will only give it if Nino ‘gives’ him his true love, Despina. Artemisia overhears Trespolo speaking of another love, and hears the discussion on the exchange of ‘wives to be’. She withdraws in shock and distress. Trespolo, knocking on the window, gives Artemisia Nino’s reply. Nino makes love to her, but Artemisia rejects him and tears up the note; she is a lady, and will not be bought as though she were merchandise; she retreats into the house. Nino muses: what has he done to have the fates work against him so? Ciro enters; neither appear to see each other. Both sing of Artemisia, Nino dwelling resentfully on her rejection of his love for her, swearing to hate her, while Ciro sings of her beauty, but how he must say goodbye for a while. [Interval] Artemisia is still unable to utter the name of her beloved; she tells him that the one she loves is the same height as Trespolo, and that he has three syllables to his name. Trespolo agrees to look at a picture of him; she comes back with a mirror, and then leaves to spare her blushes! Trespolo, looking into it, cannot work out of whom the ‘picture’ is, but at that moment, Simona arrives on the scene, and as her image is reflected briefly in the mirror, Trespolo decides that it must be Simona that Artemisia loves. But, he muses, although the number syllables is right – Si-mo-na – why would one woman want to marry another? But it will have to happen, otherwise he will not get Despina; Artemisia must be satisfied.

As Act III opens, Trespolo cannot understand why Simona does not want to marry Artemisia. Simona eventually agrees, scheming to put Ciro in her place. Artemisia arrives, to be greeted by Simona; she tells Artemisia that Trespolo has told her to spare Artemisia’s blushes; he KNOWS – but about Artemisia’s supposed desire for Simona. Believing that Trespolo has AT LAST realised that her love is for him, Artemisia gives Simona a ring for him as a token of affection, and asks her to return with him; she disappears into the house. Simona muses that she never thought she would have to take a wife in her old age, but sees Artemisia’s sterling qualities. Ciro arrives, mad with love; he concludes that love is our medicine, and not our poison. Nino enters, also mad with love. Despina has been talking to Simona; and has discovered the plot to marry her to Trespolo. Trespolo is attempting to persuade Despina to marry him clandestinely; Despina agrees, reluctantly, to meet him there at two o’clock. Simona tells Trespolo that she finds Artemisia so beautiful that she wants to marry her herself, and produces the ring that Artemisia gave her. Ciro arrives in time to overhear the end of the conversation, which arrouses his curiosity. Now sane, he does not know whether to feel sorriest for himself, or his brother, Nino. Despina tells Ciro of the secret plan for her to go to Trespolo at 2am. Ciro is mystified; why all the secrecy? Despina replies that Artemisia does not want them to marry. Artemisia enters to find Trespolo alone; where is Simona, she asks? Artemisia speaks of her love for Trespolo, but is very tired; Trespolo is fed up with waiting, and they go to dinner. Nino and Ciro sing of love; Nino is now completely mad, Ciro now completely sane. Ciro realises that Nino is beyond help, and concentrates on his quest to protect Despina from Trespolo’s advances. Nino sings to himself of the hell of love; he is still obsessed with Artemisia. Artemisia and Trespolo are disturbed by Ciro, banging about; however, they cannot see who it is. Ciro tells Artemisia the truth about Trespolo and his pursuit of Despina; she sees that Trespolo has misled her. In her fury at these revelations, Artemisia accidentally puts out Trespolo’s candle, and he sneaks out to re-light it. In the darkness, Artemisia does not notice that he has left, and continues talking of love as if to Trespolo, but it is Ciro who hears her, and when, much to Artemisia’s surprise, the voice in the dark says that he wants to marry her, she agrees at once. Simona is very confused; Nino is crazy, Ciro is sane, and Despina is not married! She will just have to stay at home and spin. To be loved, you need to be young; but the appetite grows when your teeth fall out. Ciro tells the noisy Trespolo to keep quiet; Artemisia is now his wife. Trespolo is shocked; surely people should not choose their own husbands? Ciro says Artemisia offered to marry him, and he knew a good thing when he saw it! Simona comments that if Artemisia is Ciro’s wife, then she will have a bisexual wife. Artemisia says that her school-girl love for her tutor will now be silent, and she will let her heart change its destiny; thus honour and virtue will be satisfied. Simona reports that Nino is now completely mad; Ciro, recognising that it is only man’s ordered thoughts that separate him from animals, moralises that it is love that is able to make men crazy or wise.

A Historical Note on Il Trespolo Tutore

March 30th, 2008 No comments

by Samuel Dwinell

January of 1679 saw the premiere of Alessandro Stradella’s Il Trespolo tutore in the Teatro Falcone in Genoa, a city well suited to the plot of this opera; as Stradella himself noted, the Genoese had a penchant for ‘comic things’. By the time he wrote Trespolo, the recent genre of Italian comic opera was becoming well established, and Stradella had already written comic prologues and intermezzos for the Teatro Tordinona. However, with this opera, Stradella invented the operatic buffo bass (something which would become a defining characteristic of later comic opera), and placed him in the title role as Trespolo, the foolish guardian.

The libretto is Giovanni Cosimo Villifranchi’s reworking of a popular comic play by Giovanni Battista Ricciardi. With just the same emphasis on intrigue, misunderstandings, and farce as Villifranchi’s adaptation, Ricciardi’s play contains a light comedy, often bordering on slap-stick in a language which resembles the everyday, colloquial Italian suitable to the narrative. Yet more serious moments punctuate the opera’s comedy in a way so indicative of Stradella’s expert handling of text, music, and plot.

If the colourful nature of the plot tends in places towards the absurd, it is positively mundane in comparison with Stradella’s extraordinary life, particularly as he lived it in the 1670s. He indulged himself in the carefree life of the leisured classes, spending his time as he pleased and frequently moving around Italy. But while on a sojourn in Rome in 1677, he incurred the wrath of Cardinal Alderan Cibo, and was forced to flee to Venice. Here, in his new position of musical pedagogue to the mistress of Alvise Contarini, a powerful nobleman, he became more amorous towards his pupil than his aristocratic employer found appropriate. Much to the anger of the Contarini family, the couple fled to Turin as fugitives pursued by a 40-strong band of men headed by Alvise Contarini himself hoping to capture the girl and to kill Stradella. Thankfully for us, their efforts were unsuccessful, but Contraini did not give up. He sent two more would-be assassins to the composer’s hiding place, but again the attempts on his life led only to more cunning on Stradella’s part. Unlike any self-respecting action-movie hero, he fled Turin without the girl and ended up in Genoa, just in time to oversee the production of his new opera, Il Trespolo tutore.

See Synopsis here

Charpentier’s Petits Motets for the Feasts of Christmas, Epiphany, Circumcision, Purification, and Saint Geneviève

December 25th, 2007 No comments

Four sacred works follow successively in Charpentier’s manuscripts: Pour la Feste de l’Épiphanie (for the Feast of Epiphany), In Circumcisione Domini (for the Circumcision of our Lord), In Festo Purificationis (for the Feast of Purification), and Pour le Jour de Ste Geneviève (for the Day of Saint Geneviève). Earlier in the notebooks is the Canticum in nativitatem Domini. The similar musical forces required imply that they were performed by the same ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. Their placement in the Mélanges autographes suggests that these works were composed during the Christmas season of 1676-1677.

Such are the facts, the forensic evidence, offered up by Charpentier’s autograph manuscripts these works. From this we can broaden our understanding of them by considering the various Christmastide feasts and saint’s days for which they were intended.

Epiphany is from a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”, and it is the Christian feast to celebrate the “shining forth” or revelation of God to mankind in human form. The feast is also called Twelfth Night, as it falls 12 days after Christmas. This observance has its origins in the Eastern Orthodox church, and included the commemoration of Jesus’s birth, the visit of the “Wise Men” who arrived in Bethlehem, and all of Jesus’s childhood events up to and including his baptism by John and Baptist. By 534, the Western Christian church had established December 25th as the date of Jesus’s birth, and January 6th the arrival of the wise men. These are the events dramatized in Charpentier’s Pour la Feste de l’Épiphanie, the words of which are taken the second chapter of the book of Matthew:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. Read more…

H. Wiley Hitchcock (1923-2007)

December 7th, 2007 No comments

H. Wiley Hitchcock was instrumental in the “re-discovery” of Marc-Antoine Charpentier in the 20th Century. We are indebted to the seminal research he undertook to resurrect this almost forgotten master, whose music has delighted and moved audiences and who has now assumed a rightful place as one of the greatest composers in the history of music. His obituary was released today by Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College (CUNY).

The Conservatory of Music of Brooklyn College (CUNY) deeply regrets to announce that Distinguished Professor emeritus H. Wiley Hitchcock, 84, passed away in the early morning of December 5, 2007, after a lengthy illness. He was born September 28, 1923, in Detroit, MI. After attending Dartmouth (A.B., 1944) and University of Michigan (M.M. 1948, Ph.D. 1954) – studying in 1949 at the Conservatoire Américain (under Nadia Boulanger) – and after teaching at the University of Michigan, N.Y.U., and Hunter College, Professor Hitchcock came to Brooklyn College in 1971 where he was the founding director of the college’s Institute for Studies in American Music (ISAM). Wiley was brilliant, a true man of letters, a model musicologist with multifaceted interests, impeccable standards, and path-breaking publications. His highly esteemed work in American music studies (New Grove Dictionary of American Music; his Prentice-Hall textbook series that included his Music in the United States; studies on Charles Ives, etc. etc.) was built upon his excellent contributions to the fields of French and Italian Baroque music (M.-A. Charpentier, G. Caccini, et al.).

He was a staunch advocate for American music of all kinds. In 1990-92 he served as elected president of the American Musicological Society, and the number of distinguished projects and boards on which he served seems endless. Wiley was a respected colleague at the Conservatory as well as at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Doctoral Program in Music, where he became a helpful and encouraging mentor and friend to many newly minted Ph.D.’s in music. Those of us who knew Wiley personally always relished the notes or letters he sent us or the newsy gossip he might share.

For an interview that Wiley gave Frank J. Oteri in November 2002 and recalls for us his special style and wit, see:

The Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College hopes to rename ISAM as the Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music, in Professor Hitchcock’s memory.

Wiley is survived by his wife Janet and a daughter and son, Susan and Hugh, from his first marriage, as well as two grandchildren. There will be a memorial service at a later date to be announced by the family.

Music From The Turn of the (18th) Century

December 3rd, 2007 No comments

This weekend, Magnificat will perform three concerts that will feature music by two of the most respected and influential composers at the turn of the 18th century: Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli. The program will feature soprano Catherine Webster and focus on the intersection of the rich tradition of “pastoral” music and settings of the Christmas story.

Scarlatti and Corelli knew each other well, each having benefited from the patronage of the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden in the 1680s. They were inducted together into the Arcadian Academy in 1706. Corelli had lead orchestras for productions of Scarlatti’s operas and Scarlatti was influenced by the violinist’s virtuoso performances and the crisp, clear tonal language of his sonatas and concerti.

Webster will sing three cantatas by Scarlatti, two specifically associated with Christmas and one from the pastoral tradition that touches on themes on longing and darkness that resonate with the Advent season. Though Scarlatti wrote operas and oratorios, it is in his more intimate works of vocal chamber music that his most perfectly realized and imaginative music is to be found, as he excelled in the art of the soliloquy, in detailed imagery, and in dialogue between voice and instruments.

In addition to the vocal music, Magnificat will perform three instrumental works, including two concerti grossi performed as sonatas “a quattro” – that is, as chamber music rather than with a full orchestra. Violinist Rob Diggins will be featured in the first of Corelli’s magnificent collection of violin sonatas.

The program can be heard on Friday December 7 at 8:00 p.m. at First Lutheran Church, Homer and Webster in Palo Alto; Saturday December 8 at 8:00 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bancroft and Ellsworth in Berkeley; and Sunday December 9 at 4:00 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 111 O’Farrell in San Francisco. Pre-concert lectures begin 45 minutes before each performance and are open to all ticket-holders. For tickets or more information please call 800-853-8155 or visit

The Association of "Pastoral" Music with Christmas

December 2nd, 2007 No comments

The pastoral tradition in music has had a long and distinguished history dating back to ancient times. The transfer of music styles associated with pastoral themes to settings of Christmas texts was quite natural. Not only the bucolic setting of the Angel’s announcement of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but more generally the image of Christ as the good shepherd.

Composers of the 17th century developed a vocabulary of instrumental motifs associated with music depicted the Christmas story, with reference from Castaldo as early as 1616. Similar pastoral topoi in settings of Christmas texts can be seen around the same time or earlier in German sacred songs and the Spannish villancico. Castaldo was one of several writers who claimed that the custom a associating pastoral literary traditions with Christmas originated with St. Cajetan of Thiene after a vision he had on Christmas Eve in 1517. The earliest surviving collection of Christmas pastorals in Italy was written by Francesco Fiamengo for the Christmas Eve celebrations at Messina and published in 1637.

Already in the Fiamengo collection many of the basic stylistic elements that are found in the pastorale compositions of Scarlatti and Corelli were already present. Typically in a slow and lilting 6/8 or 12/8 “siciliana” meter, pastorale compositions frequently utilized drones and parallel intervals in imitation of rustic instruments like bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. Such features are prominent in the music of shepherds who have played shawns and bagpipes in Italian towns as part of Christmas festivities since the 19th century at least, but it is unclear whether this was in imitation of the conventions of art music or the other way around.

The popularity of Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” led to innumerable imitations and echoes of this work can be heard in the “Pifa” from Handel’s Messiah, in the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Arcangelo Corelli, 17th Century Superstar

November 29th, 2007 No comments

Few musicians of the seventeenth century enjoyed the exalted status bestowed on Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). He was called the ‘new Orpheus of Our Times’ and the ‘divine Arc Angelo’, a clever pun on his Christian name and the Italian word for a bow (arco). The Englishman musician and writer Roger North described Corelli’s music as ‘transcendant’, ‘immortal’ and ‘the bread of life’ to musicians. Renowned as a virtuoso performer, an influential composer, and sought-after teacher, Corelli commanded respect and praise throughout Europe at the turn of the 18th century.

The fifth child born to a prosperous family of landowners in Fusignano; Corelli’s first musical study was probably with the local clergy, then in nearby Lugo and Faenza, and finally in Bologna, where he went in 1666. In Bologna he studied with Giovanni Benvenuti and Leonardo Brugnoli, the former representing the disciplined style of the Accademia filarmonica (to which Corelli was admitted in 1670), the latter a virtuoso violinist. Read more…

Magnificat Shifts Gears for December Program

November 15th, 2007 No comments

Magnificat’s second program could hardly be a more striking contrast with our first. Geographically we move from Northern Germany to Rome, and musically from the end of the Renaissance to the beginning of the High Baroque. And of course the scale of the programs contrast dramatically. The music written for the 1607 re-dedication of St. Gertrude’s chapel in Hamburg was intended to overwhelm the congregation with grandeur and awe – and those in attendance can attest to the powerful effect of Hieronymus Prætorius’ setting of the Te Deum. The December program will focus on more intimate and nuanced musical gestures – with plenty of virtuosity.

The program will feature two composers – Alessandro Scarlatti and Arcangelo Corelli – who benefited from the patronage of Queen Christina of Sweden during her extended and much celebrated exile in Rome. In Rome Scarlatti met Corelli, who had already established himself as the most celebrated violin virtuoso of his age.

Alessandro Scarlatti's Roman Cantatas

November 4th, 2007 No comments

Alessandro Scarlatti was born into poverty in famine-stricken Sicily in 1660 and it has been suggested that his humble origins made his a compulsive worker and contributed to his prolific and varied output. While his reputation as the founder of the Neapolitan school of 18th century opera may be somewhat over-stated, his works in the genre are highly skilled and original, and marked by innovations in orchestration, strong dramatic characterization and, above all, an unfailing melodic sense.

It is in the genre of works for voice and instruments, like those featured in Magnificat’s December concerts, that Scarlatti’s most perfectly realized and imaginative music is to be found, as he excelled in the art of the soliloquy, in detailed imagery, and in dialogue between voice and instruments. These works represent the most refined and intellectual type of chamber music at the turn of the 18th century and it is unfortunate that most of Scarlatti hundreds of cantatas have remained in manuscript, though many have recently become available in modern editions through the work of The Scarlatti Project. Read more…

Soprano Catherine Webster to be Featured in Magnificat's Scarlatti Program

November 3rd, 2007 No comments

Magnificat’s next program features soprano Catherine Webster, who has delighted Magnificat audiences regularly since since her first apearances in the December 1999 performances of Cozzolani Vespers music on the San Francisco Early Music Society series. Catherine now lives in Montréal, but she still regularly returns to her native California to sing with Magnificat and other ensembles.

As the top of the ensemble, Catherine, together with soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani have defined the sound of Magnificat for nearly a decade, and we are thrilled to be able give Magnificat’s audiences the opportunity to hear her interpretations of three of Scarlatti’s magnificent cantatas. She will be joined by violinists Rob Diggins, Cynthia Freivogel, David Wilson (who will also double on viola), harpsichordist Katherine Heater, and cellist Warren Stewart. The concerts will take place on the weekend of December 7-9.

In addition to Magnificat, Catherine has appeared with The San Antonio Symphony, American Baroque Orchestra, American Bach Soloists, Camerata Pacifica, Four Nations Ensemble, Les Violons du Roy with La Chapelle de Quebec, Early Music Vancouver, Musica Angelica, Sex Chordae Viol Consort, and in the Berkeley and Indianapolis Early Music Festivals, among others. One of the finest rising young singers of early music, her fluid lyrical voice is praised as peerless and luminous with dazzling coloratura and beautiful tone. She has performed under directors such as Paul Hillier, Jos van Immerseel and Stephen Stubbs in projects ranging from French Baroque opera to oratorio to contemporary works. Recently she was engaged in the U.S. premiere of Nicola Porpora’s Il Gedeone under Martin Haselboeck, and in the role of Drusilla in Early Music Vancouver’s 2003 production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea for Festival Vancouver, under the direction of Stephen Stubbs and Paul ODette. Active also in contemporary music, Catherine appeared with The Kronos Quartet in Terry Rileys Sun Rings in the fall of 2003 and with Theatre of Voices and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in John Adams Grand Pianola Music in 2004.

Ms. Webster has toured the United States and Holland with Theatre of Voices and recorded with the group for Harmonia Mundi; other recording releases include projects as varied as the music of 17th-century composer Chiara Margarita Cozzolani with Magnificat for Musica Omnia, and songs of Anton von Webern with American Baroque Orchestra for radio broadcast. Ms. Webster is the grand-prize winner of the 2003 EMA Naxos Recording Competition as the featured artist with the Catacoustic Consort. She holds a Masters in Music from the Early Music Institute at Indiana University and has been a guest faculty member and artist for The San Francisco Early Music Society’s summer workshops and the Madison Early Music Festival.

San Francisco Classical Voice Review of Hamburg Gertrudenmusik

November 2nd, 2007 No comments

In “Revivifying Liturgical Gems“, reviewer Scott Edwards, writing for San Francisco Classical Voice, appears to have really enjoyed the experience in spite of his predisposition against liturgical reconstructions. We’re glad he enjoyed the concert!

By the way, Classical Voice does a terrific job of covering the Bay Area classical music scene. Many thanks for the service they provide!

St. Gertrude’s Chapel, Hamburg

October 19th, 2007 No comments

by Frederick K. Gable

St. Gertrude’s Chapel (shown in a 1830 engraving at right) was built in the late fourteenth century by the Bruderschaft of St. Gertrude, listed in 1356 as one of eighteen charitable fraternities associated with the Jakobikirche in Hamburg. Like similar orders throughout Europe, the fraternity promoted good works through financial support of the church and participation in its religious activities. Members could thereby improve their reputation in the city and increase their chances of gaining salvation. St. Gertrude’s Fraternity was chiefly devoted to caring for the poor and the sick, especially persons afflicted with leprosy. The chapel land was originally known as “der wüste Kirchof” (the desolate churchyard) and “platea leprosorum” (place of the lepers).

In 1391 the fraternity began construction of the chapel, probably assisted by a guild of masons known as the “Mauerleute.” Its first stage was an octagonal Gothic-domed structure, twenty-five feet on a side, completed in 1399. This octagonal shape resembled other burial buildings and pilgrimage chapels fashionable in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in Northern Europe often named for St. George or St. Gertrude of Nivelles, a seventh century abbess. Since the chapel stood within the parish of the Jacobikirche, regular masses in addition to funerals were conducted there by the priests of that church until the Reformation. Read more…

Forgotten Composers Brought to Life in Magnificat's Concerts

October 19th, 2007 No comments

Magnificat’s first concerts feature music by composers that are obscure even by Magnificat standards. The four composers whose polyphonic works are featured on the program are hardly household names, but each was a significant composer during his lifetime. The compositions on the Magnificat program demonstrate that the high regard of their contemporaries was well deserved.

Pierre Bonhomme (Latinized Bonomius) was a Flemish composer who lived most of his life in Liège. In addition to several published volumes, his works appear in many manuscripts and his elegant contrapuntal writing seems to have been much admired. The Motet In nomine Jesu appears in a collection published in Frankfurt in 1603 and was dedicated to Ferdinand of Bavaria. Bonhomme’s style most closely resembles the Roman compostions of Soriano and the Nanino brothers, whom he may have encountered during the time he spent in Rome in the early 1590s. Read more…

Magnificat Welcomes Back Old Friends for New Season

October 4th, 2007 No comments

First Season Veterans Martin Hummel, Neal Rogers, The Whole Noyse, and members of Sex Chordæ Return for 16th Season Opener

Magnificat’s first set of concerts will be a homecoming for many of the musicians who performed in our first season. In fact eight of the performers in this month’s concert of music from Hamburg participated in a set of concerts of music by Heinrich Schütz in 1992 that was on both the Magnificat and San Francisco Early Music Society Series.

We are pleased to welcome back Martin Hummel for he first concerts in Magnificat’s new season. Martin first sang with Magnificat in our first season – way back in December of 1992, when he sang the Evangelist role in the Schütz Christmas Story. He was back in 1994 for Schütz’ Resurrection Story and reprised both pieces in 2001 (Christmas) and 2004 (Resurrection).

I first met Martin when he was a teenager. I had shared a stand with his brother Cornelius at the Aspen Music Festival in 1980. I went to Germany at Christmastime that year to work with Karlheinz Stockhausen on a piece he was transcribing for cello (this was before my baroque cello days) and while there I stayed with the Hummel family in Würzburg. Martin charmed us all singing German folksongs and accompanying himself on a guitar.

Another returning veteran of that first Magnificat season is Neal Rogers, who sang the some of the first self-produced Magnificat concerts in 1991 and all three sets in our first season. Neal went on to sing many seasons with Magnificat and also sang many concerts with me when I conducted the California Bach Society. He moved to Southern California for several years but is back in the area and we’re glad he can join us for this set.

The Whole Noyse also performed in the Schütz concerts in the first season and have appeared with Magnificat many times since. Well known to Bay Area audiences, the Whole Noyse celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2006. Over the past two decades they have established themselves as one of the Bay Area’s leading early music ensembles. They have made repeated appearances on the San Francisco Early Music Society concert series and have been presented by early music societies of Vancouver, BC, and San Diego, California, as well as in numerous other venues. They have performed in a dozen different Magnificat programs over the years and it is a pleasure to have them back for another set.

The Sex Chordæ Consort of Viols had not yet formed at the time of those Schütz perfomances in 1992, but two members of the ensemble, John Dornenburg and Julie Jeffrey played in the concerts. Since John formed Sex Chordæ they have performed widely including appearance at the Berkeley Early Music Festival, and on the San Francisco Early Music Society, San Jose Chamber Music Society, Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, and Gualala Arts concert series and have recorded three excellent CDs. John has of course also appeared frequently playing viol and violone with Magnificat.

Magnificat regular David Tayler was also on board for that Schütz concert in our first season. It seems like only yesterday…

Magnificat Moves San Francisco Concerts to St. Mark's Lutheran

September 17th, 2007 No comments

After a decade of performances at St. Gregory Nyssen, Magnificat will be moving our San Francisco performances to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church this season. While we will miss St. Gregory’s, we are excited to be moving to the newly-renovated St. Mark’s (pictured below).

In particular, the new Taylor and Boody organ is a welcome addition. The instrument has a mechanical playing action and stop action, as did all organs until the latter part of the 19th century. Direct linkage between the keys and their valves is made by thin strips of wood called trackers, hence the term tracker organ, which distinguishes this type of construction from those employing more recent developments. Tracker organs are valued for their longevity and the artistic responsiveness of pipe speech to the player’s touch.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located in St. Mark’s Square at 1111 O’Farrell St. in San Francisco. St. Mark’s Square, at the corner of O’Farrell St. and Franklin St., is home to the church, the Urban Life Center, and Martin Luther Tower. All spaces in the lot off Gough Street are available on Sundays for St. Mark’s use. (See map below)