SFCV: Magnificat Awes With Christmas Mass

December 27th, 2013 No comments

This review by Niels Swinkels was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice.

In its new concert season, Magnificat examines musical encounters and exchanges that influenced the music of the 17th century, a period marked by the invention of opera, oratorio, and virtuoso instrumental music, in which this Bay Area baroque ensemble specializes.

Last weekend’s season opener was a co-production with the San Francisco Early Music Society and performed together with Bay Area early wind ensemble The Whole Noyse. In three concerts in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco, Magnificat juxtaposed music from the two preeminent representatives of the early 17th Century Venetian music scene: Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.

Both composers worked at the Basilica San Marco in Venice, as organist and maestro di capella (music director) respectively, but since Gabrieli died in 1612 and Monteverdi (1567-1643) did not even move to Venice until he was hired in 1613, it is highly unlikely that the two composers actually ever met in person, although they must have met in spirit — despite their different styles and aesthetics.

Last weekend, it was the Christmas spirit that brought them and their music together in A Venetian Christmas Mass, a re-enactment of the sonic events of a 17th-century Christmas day Mass, following the liturgical sequence and complete with chant and the recitation of prayers and Gospel readings.

Magnificat’s Artistic Director Warren Stewart drew the music for the re-creation of this Christmas mass from several different collections such as Gabrieli’s second book of Symphoniae Sacrae (Sacred Symphonies) and Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest, 1641), and the Vespro Della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin) from 1610.

They were both very effective in writing music that makes a huge impact … best summed up in a resounding ‘Wow!’ from an audience member behind me, when the resplendent reverberation of the majestic closing chord had only barely dissipated.

In a recent radio interview on KALW’s Open Air, Stewart mentioned that both Gabrieli and Monteverdi wrote “music for grand and festive occasions such as Christmas, Easter, or major civic celebrations. And they were both very effective in writing music that makes a huge impact.”

That huge impact was best summed up in a resounding ‘Wow!’ from an audience member behind me, at the end of the Sunday concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, when the resplendent reverberation of the majestic closing chord of Gabrieli’s Omnes Gentes, plaudite minibus (All nations, clap your hands) had only barely dissipated.

The Venetian Christmas Mass unexpectedly stirred deep memories in my no-longer-Roman-Catholic soul, especially in the way in which bass and “celebrant” Hugh Davies sang/recited the second Gospel reading and the “Prefatio,” gently accompanied by the background noise of sniffs and coughs and creaking pews; with people moving their bodies and shuffling their feet.

It was a complete soundscape of the neighborhood church of my youth, in which my father conducted the choir for more than forty years. The only difference was that no priest in my memory ever sang as beautifully as Hugh Davies. And I am sure that my father would have loved to have the assistance of vocalists like Magnificat’s fine octet.

In addition to a powerful intellectual time machine, A Venetian Christmas Mass was also an overwhelming concert experience, due to the vocal and instrumental splendor of Magnificat as an ensemble.

Of the many magnificent vocal moments, I especially liked the way in which the timbres of sopranos Clara Rottsolk and Jennifer Paulino beautifully blended and complemented each other in the rising melodic gestures of “Et ascendit in caelum” (And He ascended into heaven), right after the male singers dramatically explored the despondency of the forever descending melody of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (He was also crucified for us), in the Credo setting by Monteverdi.

Together with the continuo players John Dornenburg, John Lenti, and Katherine Heater (violone, theorbo, organ), The Whole Noyse, expanded for the occasion with two additional sackbuts (early trombones) played virtuosic instrumental interludes during the Offertory and Communion and provided an impressive sonorous foundation for the monumental architecture of the music of Gabrieli and Monteverdi.

2004-2005 – Magnificat’s 13th Season

December 16th, 2013 No comments

Magnificat was especially active in the 2004-2005 season, performing four programs on our own series while also appearing on the San Francisco Early Music Society concert series and returning for an engagement with the Music Before 1800 series in New York City. Each program focused on the work of a single composer: Carissimi, Monteverdi, Rovetta, Charpentier, Cozzolani, and Schütz.

The season opened with a program devoted to the music of Iacomo Carissimi, featuring two oratorios – Vantitas Vantitaum and Baltazar – a madrigal Fuggi, fuggi, and the allegorical dialogue Alma che fai, che pensi? The program also included two canzoni for two violins and continuo by Frescobaldi and a harpsichord toccata by Michelangelo Rossi. In her San Francisco Classical Voice review, posted on September 28, 2004, Anna Carol Dudley noted “Sopranos Catherine Webster and Jennifer Ellis, tenors Paul Elliott and Scott Whitaker (Elliott mostly singing alto parts) and bass Peter Becker were all at the top of their form, consistently sensitive to the words, spot-on in tuning, varied in their use of dynamics and vocal color, masters of coloratura, peerless in stylistic delineation of recitative and aria — above all, bringing wonderfully expressive music fully to life.”  Several works from the San Francisco performance on September 24, 2004 can be streamed and downloaded at Magnificat’s music page.

In November, Magnificat presented works of Monteverdi in a program that featured sopranos Caherine Webster and Jennifer Ellis Kampani and violinists Rob Diggins and Cynthia Freivogel. Vocal works included Zefiro torna and Si dolce e’l tormento as well as Chiome d’oro, Exulta filia Sion, Confitebor tibi Domine, Salve Regina, O come sei gentile, Ed è dunque pur vero and the Lament d’Arianna. The instrumental ensemble contributed two trio sonatas by Marini and a solo sonata of Dario Castello. Michelle Dulak, writing for San Francisco Classical Voice observed “Ellis and Webster have the agility, the accuracy, and the focused sound for this music, in which any of those three qualities being lacking spells major trouble. Agility, for example: Ellis’ coloratura in the solo motet “Exulta filia Sion” (Rejoice, daughter of Zion) and Webster’s in the third “Salve Regina” from the Selva morale were marvelous.

The following month, Magnificat was presented by the San Francisco Early Music Society in a Christmas  Vespers featuring music by Giovanni Rovetta, Monteverdi’s successor as maestro di capella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice. While working in has shadow of Monteverdi has affected Rovetta’s historical position it did not hinder his reputation during his own lifetime as he was one of the outstanding figures in Venetian musical life and he was active as a performer and as a composer of five large vespers collections, four volumes of concertato madrigals, at least two operas and numerous works in anthologies and manuscripts in a career than spanned thirty six years. Though we had previously performed individual works by Rovetta, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share five psalms and a Magnificat from Rovetta, along with five sonatas by Venetian musician Massimiliano Neri and a motet by Cavalli with the San Francisco Early Music Society audience.

In January, we turned to the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier in a program featuring two of the composer’s Latin oratorios, or histoires sacrées:  Filius Prodigus and the Sacrificium Abrahæ. Representing the most direct link with Charpentier’s teacher Carissimi both in genre and style, Charpentier’s oratorios form a significant if isolated repertoire nearly unique in France, a country that seemed to have little interest in dramatic settings of religious subjects.

Magnificat’s season concluded with a program featuring two dramatic works of Heinrich Schütz: the Seven Last Words of Christ and the Reusrrection Story. For these concerts Magnificat welcomed back German baritone Martin Hummel and the Sex Chordæ Consort of Viols. Certainly the most striking of Schütz’s innovations in the setting of the Resurrection narrative is his use of a quartet of viols to accompany the evangelist’s words. Adapting a popular vocal style of the period called falso bordone, the viols sustain chords under the stationary reciting tone and bursting into expressive and florid part writing at each cadence. Kip Cranna praised Magnificat’s interpretation Schütz in his San Francisco Classical Voice review noting “This can be difficult repertoire to bring to life, with its narrow-ranged melodies, rhetoric based phrasing, frequent, formulaic cadences, and somber modal hues. Magnificat has mastered this refined art through exacting attention to detail and an obvious love for the music itself… .”

After completing our home season, Magnificat travelled to New York, where we were presented in a return engagement on the Music Before 1800 series. As in 2003, the program featured Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, this time the mass ordinary set in the context of the liturgy for Easter Sunday.

Over the course of the season artistic director Warren Stewart led ensembles that included Peter Becker, Meg Bragle, Hugh Davies, Rob Diggins, John Dornenburg, Jolianne von Einem, Paul Elliott, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Ruth Escher, Cynthia Freivogel, Amy Green, Martin Hummel, Daniel Hutchings, Boyd Jarrelll, Julie Jeffrey, Tim Krol, Christopher LeCluyse, David Morris, Farley Pearce, Hanneke van Proosdij, Deborah Rentz-Moore, Wolodymyr Smishkevich, David Tayler, Catherine Webster, Scott Whitaker, and David Wilson.

Notes for Cozzolani Concerti Sacri (1642)

In dedicating her new book of motets – Latin-texted compositions to be sung in and out of liturgy – to the Tuscan prince Mathias de’ Medici (1613-67) on Mathias’ name-day (the feast of his patron saint), 25 February 1642, the Benedictine nun composer Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-c. 1677) expressed her homage thus:

The favor that your Serene Highness did for me by raising these my musical compositions from their native low state to the height of your praise [“basso” and “alto” are musical puns] … leaves me no other power to which to dedicate them other than to your protection … I offer you notes bright [“chiare”, i.e. “open” note-values like whole-notes, but with a play on the composer’s name] and dark [i.e. the “blackened” eighth- and sixteenth-notes] … and the blacker they are, the faster they run to make themselves tributes … to your name.

Mathias would have heard some of the twenty motets and perhaps the Mass Ordinary included in Cozzolani’s book during his stay in Milan in February 1641, which would have included visits to hear the famed singing nuns of Cozzolani’s convent, Santa Radegonda. The prince was well known as a patron of singers across Italy with a special inter- est in the touring companies that would bring early Venetian opera to a wide range of cities and courts as the pioneering work of Lorenzo Bianconi and Thomas Walker has shown.

From Cozzolani’s point of view, her book also represented a step forward. Her now-lost op. 1 had been published by a local printer in Milan in 1640, but the new book was entrusted to the high-quality music printer Alessandro Vincenti in Venice which ensured a wide circulation for the motets. Indeed, one of them, the duet O dulcis Iesu, was reprinted in a motet anthology of 1649 from Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland) compiled by a Lutheran organist and another, the solo Concinant linguae, is found in a later French manuscript with an attribution to Giacomo Carissimi. Read more…

Cozzolani Concerti Sacri to be released in June

May 28th, 2013 No comments

Magnificat and Musica Omnia are pleased to announce the release of Concerti Sacri, the second volume of the complete works of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. The digital tracks are already available for download at music.cozzolani.com and the physical CDs will be released at the Boston Early Music Festival in June. This double CD set marks the completion of Magnificat’s project to record all of Cozzolani’s works that survive complete. Volume I, Salmi a Otto Voci, was released in June 2010. The cover artwork is an oil painting on gold leaf by Magnificat creative director Nika Korniyenko.

The recording is dedicated to the memory of Judith Nelson. While Judy’s voice is not heard on these recordings, her spirit – the honesty of her artisrty and the warmth and sincerity of her musicianship  – is present throughout. It was Judy who introduced me to Donna Chiara and the performance of O quam bonus es with her in 1997 was the catalyst for all the love and energy we’ve shared with Cozzolani in the years that followed, for which we are all deeply grateful.

Sixteen of the tracks on Concerti Sacri have been available digitally for over a year, while nine tracks are available now for the first time. For those who have purchased the digital recording without the new tracks, or for those who would like to hear only the new tracks they are available independently here. As always those pre-ordering the CD will receive the digital tracks as well as the CD. Read more…

Exquisite Exchanges – Magnificat’s 2013-2014 Season

May 17th, 2013 No comments

In two decades of exploring 17th Century music I have been continually fascinated by the way compositional techniques, modes of expression and ideas of taste and style migrated across Europe. These stylistic journeys most often began in Italy and travelling northward and refracted into spectrum of national styles of the High Baroque. Perhaps because I have spent time as a foreigner recently, encountering different traditions and cultures and learning new ways of communicating, my awareness of the role that the exchange of ideas plays in the development of art and society has been especially keen. The programs Magnificat will present in 2013-2014 all focus on the exchange of techniques and ideas, the generational transfer and elaboration of tradition and the translation of style from one culture to another.

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Few events had a more profound influence on the music of the 17th century than the changing of the guard that took place at the Basilica of San Marco with the death of Giovanni Gabrieli in 1612 and the arrival of Claudio Monteverdi from Mantua the following year. Though they never held the post of maestro di cappella at San Marco, Giovanni and his uncle Andrea nevertheless dominated the musical life of the Serene Republic for three decades. Their brilliant polychoral style was appealing and effective and they pioneered the use of obbligato instruments in the service of what we would now call orchestration to give their concertos color and affect in a way that was imitated across Europe. One of Giovanni’s many students from north of the Alps in his final years was Heinrich Schütz, who studied in Venice for four years and returned to Dresden shortly after his teacher’s death, missing Monteverdi’s arrival by a matter of months. But more on that in the next program.

In his old age Giovanni began to incorporate some of the techniques associated with the ‘secunda prattica’, specifically an independent basso continuo and florid writing for solo voice. This is especially evident in some of the compositions included in his second volume of Symphoniae Sacrae, published posthumously in 1615. Similarly, while Monteverdi is most closely associated with the new music of the new century, he nevertheless took pains to demonstrate his mastery of the old polyphonic techniques, for example in the Missa in illo tempore, published along with his famous Vespers music in 1610 and the stile antico masses in his 1641 collection Selva morale et spirituale.

The blurring of compositional style represented by these two titans of Venetian music is central to Magnificat’s program on the weekend of December 20-22, for which we will join forces with The Whole Noyse in a co-production with the San Francisco Early Music Society. The program is built on a frame provided by the liturgy for the Christmas Mass but the music we will perform was unlikely to have been assembled for any specific event from the time. Rather we will combine the grandeur of Gabrieli with the passion and virtuosity of Monteverdi in a way that displays both the continuity and innovation reflected in the music of Venice at the beginning of the century.

In August 1628, Heinrich Schütz escaped war-ravaged Dresden and travelled to Venice, where he had studied with Gabrieli almost twenty years before. In a letter written after his return in late the next year, Schütz recalled “staying in Venice as the guest of old friends, I learned that the long unchanged art of composition had changed somewhat: the ancient rhythms were partly set aside to tickle the ears of today with fresh devices.” During his visit, he certainly heard such fresh devices in the madrigals and motets of Monteverdi and Grandi and in instrumental sonatas by Biagio Marini and Dario Castello. Marini’s eighth set of sonatas, subtitled “Curiose e Moderne Inventioni,” was published in Venice during Schütz’s stay in Venice, as was the Dresden Kappelmeister’s own collection of motets, his first set of Symphoniæ Sacræ.

The spirit of the “new music” Schütz heard in Venice continued to resonate in his music throughout his life and Magnificat’s program will reflect that resonance in a program that also features music of other composers who shared in the stylistic exchange. Schütz ‘borrowed’ (with full acknowledgement) some of Monteverdi’s music in his owncompositions, notably in the motet Es steh Gott auf, which appeared in the composer’s second set of Symphoniae Sacrae published in Dresden in 164_. But beyond direct quotations, much of the music Schütz wrote after his return to Dresden sparkles with the sunny brilliance Italy, though always with a marked German accent.

The program for our concerts on February 14-16 2014 centers on another generational exchange and the extraordinary tradition of the Bach family inherited by Johann Sebastian. Throughout the seventeenth century, so many of the organists and instrumentalists in the small towns of central Germany were Bachs that in the province of Thuringia the name ‘Bach’ was synonymous with the trade of musician. Bach’s obituary notice in 1750 observed that “Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to a family that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of Nature to all its members in common.”

In October 1694, the nine-year-old Johann Sebastian travelled to Arnstadt for the wedding of his cousin, the highly respected Eisenach organist Johann Christoph Bach. The Bach family gathered frequently, but this occasion was exceptional in that Christoph’s teacher, the renowned organist and composer Johann Pachelbel was present and likely performed together with members of the Bach family. 1694 also saw the publication of a set of sonatas by the Dresden violinist Johann Paul Westhoff, in whose orchestra Bach would later perform as a teenager before accepting his first position as an organist in Arnstadt.

In this program Magnificat will explore the music of Bach’s ancestors that the young Bach may have heard during the wedding festivities and will feature cantatas and instrumental music by Sebastian’s cousins Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach as well as Pachelbel and Westhoff. The program is framed by cantata based on the chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, opening with Pachelbel’s setting, which may have served as the model for the young Johann Sebastian Bach’s first masterpiece, which will conclude the concert.

Two cantatas on the program are preserved in a collection of manuscripts known to musicologists as Das Altbachisches Arkiv, or the “Archive of the Elder Bachs.” Sebastian treasured these manuscripts throughout his life, making annotations in the scores and performing some of the works as late as 1749, the year before his death. The archives passed on to his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel and later became part of the library of the Berliner Singakademie, which was so instrumental to the revival of Bach’s music in the 19th century. Thought to have been destroyed in the Second World War, the archives were recently re-discovered and Magnificat will be performing from editions based on these manuscripts.

I look forward to working with an extraordinary cast of musicians and friends including Peter Becker, Hugh Davies, Rob Diggins, John Dornenburg, Jillon Dupree, Jolianne von Einem, Paul Elliott, Katherine Heater, Laura Heimes, Dan Hutchings, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Chris LeCluyse, John Lenti, Anthony Martin, Clifton Massey, Jennifer Paulino, Andrew Rader, Clara Rottsolk, David Wilson and The Whole Noyse,

2003-2004 – Magnificat’s 12th Season

March 23rd, 2013 No comments

Magnificat’s Twelfth Season focused on lesser known works by three of the giants of the 17th Century, Henry Purcell, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Heinrich Schütz and a program devoted to one of the century’s most extraordinary female musicians, Barbara Strozzi.

The season opened in September with “The Muse’s Feast” a program of songs and sonatas by Purcell that featured soprano Catherine Webster. Highlights included the songs Cupid, the slyest rogue around, from Playford’s 1685 Theatre of Music, the Evening Hymn from Harmonia Sacra and the beautiful ground bass aria O Solitude, though it would be difficult to pick a favorite from this program. Rebekkah Ahrendt, writing in the San Francisco Classical Voice praised Webster’s rendition of the Marian motet Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel noting her “command of emotion was superb, expressing the whole gamut of feelings a distressed mother might experience.” The program also included two trio sonatas and works for theorbo and harpsichord.

In December, Magnifcat turned to the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier in a two-part program. The first half included Charpentier’s settings of the seven so-called “O” antiphons. The name comes from the fact that in the Roman breviary the  Magnificat antiphons in vespers for the seven days preceding Christmas each begin with the acclamation “O”. We took up the composer’s suggestion of prefacing each of the antiphons with one of his noël seeitngs, by quite familiar to Magnificat’s audience from our productions of the Nativity Pastorale. The second half was devoted to the Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæ, one of at least six settings of the Christmas narrative by Charpentier. Packed with rich harmonies and a variety of textures and emotions the Dialogus is a particularly fine example of Charpentier’s mastery of dramatic narrative. Magnificat would present the work again in December 2010.

In January 2004, Magnificat presented selections from Heinrich Schütz’s first volume of Symphoniæ Sacræ, a collection that we will re-visit in our upcoming season next January. For these concerts we were joined by two friends from the early wind ensemble The Whole Noyse (who will also join us again next season): Steve Escher and Richard Van Hessel.  In April of 1628, Schütz applied to his employer, Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony, for permission to travel to Venice “not out of any frivolous desire to disport myself there for my own employment, but, it is to be hoped, to receive a better spirit.”  He was granted permission and spent almost a year in the most Serene Republic where he encountered a musical culture vastly changed from when he had studied with Gabrieli some twenty years before. The “fresh devices” that he heard in Venice figure prominently in the Symphoniæ Sacræ, published while he was in Venice, particularly in varied instrumentation and vocal groupings.

The concerts were extremely successful and prompted a program two years later that featured selections from Schütz second volume of Symphoniæ Sacræ. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman observed that “to hear the music performed as brilliantly as it was on Saturday, under the leadership of artistic director Warren Stewart, was to marvel all over again at Schütz’s melodic fecundity, his mastery of counterpoint and formal proportions, and especially his distinctive blend of sensuality and sincere religious fervor, unmatched by anyone but Messiaen.” Writing for SFCV.org, Bruce Lamott praised the program as ” a model of artistic programming; rather than slavishly adhering to the order of publication, Stewart artfully assembled over half of the twenty symphoniae into a variegated program that showed both performers and composers in the best possible light.”

For the final program of the season, Magnificat continued its exploration of music by women from the 17th Century, devoting a program to the music of Barbara Strozzi.  The adopted daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi, Strozzi had the good fortune to be born into a world of creativity, intellectual ferment, and artistic freedom. She made a mark as composer and singer, eventually publishing eight collections of songs – more music in print during her lifetime than even the most famous composers of her day – without the support of the Church or the patronage of a noble house.

Strozzi is perhaps best known for her solo cantatas, which no doubt reflect her own repertoire as a virtuoso singer of the highest caliber and several of these cantatas were included in Magnificat’s program. Less well-known are the ensemble madrigals, eleven of which Magnificat were included on the program.

Over the course of the season, artistic director Warren Stewart led ensembles that included Meg Bragle, Louise Carslake, Daria D’Andrea, Hugh Davies,  Jolianne von Einem, Jennifer Ellis, Steve Escher, Cynthia Freivogel, Richard Van Hessel, Dan Hutchings, Byron Rakitzis, Rob Diggins, Katherine Heater, Hanneke van Proosdij, David Tayler, Catherine Webster, Scott Whitaker, and David Wilson.

San Francisco Chronicle: “sumptuous and elegantly delivered music”

December 12th, 2012 No comments

This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 11, 2012.

Christmas was a good time in the 1680s’ Paris establishment of the Princess Marie de Lorraine – an occasion for celebration, contemplation and exquisite music, to judge from Sunday afternoon’s brief and wonderful concert by the early-music ensemble Magnificat.

Marie, known as Mlle. de Guise, had the great French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier as part of her household staff. And that meant that the yuletide observances – even though sung by a corps of amateurs – were being guided by one of the period’s subtlest and most inventive musical minds.

Sunday’s concert in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco – the lone offering during this hiatus year of one of the Bay Area’s most indispensable arts groups – conveyed some of the spirit of those long-ago holiday events. Charpentier’s “Christmas Pastorale” is a winning blend of spiritual reflection, narrative drama and flat-out bawdy fun, and the small ensemble – six each of singers and instrumentalists performing under the guidance of Artistic Director Warren Stewart – caught that range of tone perfectly. Read more…

“Il est temps, Seigneur, que tu paraisses”: Notes on the text of Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale

November 28th, 2012 No comments

The presence of the shepherds in the evangelist Luke’s Nativity narrative makes the form of the pastorale an eminently logical choice for Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ, focusing as it does on the shepherds’ and shepherdesses’ reaction to the news of the Savior’s coming. Evocative of traditional shepherds’ tales, the Pastorale stages the encounter between, on the one hand, humble bergers and bergères, and, on the other, the angels sent to bring the good tidings to earth. Marrying the classical aesthetic to Biblical themes and imagery, Charpentier’s Pastorale proves to be a moving representation of the major themes of the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, themes that have long illuminated Christian understanding of the spiritual significance of the birth of Jesus.

The text of the Pastorale was most probably written by Phillipe Goibault DuBois, also a member of the Guise household who was actually the director of the musical ensemble and a scholar recognized by the Académie Française for his translations of Cicero and St. Augustine. Written primarily in verses of twelve, ten, eight, and sometimes six or four syllables, the poetry follows the theatrical tradition of seventeenth-century France, which had at its heart a strong emphasis on elegant symmetry and balance. The studied equilibrium of the verse forms is reproduced at the thematic level as well, as DuBois weaves a textual tapestry of contrasting images of good and evil that have informed Christian thought since its inception. (Download the Program Texts) Read more…

Coming Home to Charpentier

November 14th, 2012 No comments

This year, for the first time in two decades, October passed without a set of Magnificat concerts. It has been very gratifying to hear from so many loyal Magnificat fans asking about the season and I am looking forward to coming home next month to see everyone on the weekend of December 7-9. The program I chose for my homecoming has a special place for me personally and Magnificat as an ensemble and preparing the score and planning the concerts have been a wonderful and meaningful experience. Every elegant gesture and touching poetic conceit and each sweetly painful 9-8 suspension and magnificent cadence is imbued with memories of the friends with whom I have performed the music and the audiences with whom we’ve shared it.

In many ways the program that Susan and I developed in 1993 to frame Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de Nostre Seigneur with arrangements of traditional French noëls served as the model for many other Magnificat programs. The juxtaposition of sophisticated art music with contemporaneous folk music, the ideal of balance between vocal and instrumental music and each individual musician, all became hallmarks of Magnificat programs. Read more…

Celéste flamme, ardent amour

November 14th, 2012 No comments

In 1670, upon returning to France from his studies with Carissimi in Rome, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became a member of the household of Marie de Lorraine, called Mademoiselle de Guise.  One of the wealthiest women in Europe, and a princess in rank, Mlle. de Guise chose to live in Paris independent of the intrigues and obligations of court life under Louis XIV. She was a passionate lover of music, and maintained an ensemble of musicians, less opulent than that to be found at court, but highly admired by the Parisian connoisseurs of the time. The ensemble was made up for the most part of young people from families long under the protection of the Guise who, having come to live with Marie de Lorraine first as maids or companions, demonstrated some talent or interest for music. They were given lessons and eventually granted the status of musicians-in-ordinary, taking part in the devotional services at the private chapel and in the frequent private concerts at the Hôtel de Guise. The ensemble, although it included some salaried male singers and one member of a musical family (Ann Nanon Jacquet sister of the famous Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre), was fundamentally amateur and it is extraordinary that it should have developed to the extent that the journalMercure Galant in 1688 wrote that the music of Mlle de Guise was “so excellent that the music of many of the greatest sovereigns could not approach it.”

It was in this intimate and secure setting that Charpentier composed the Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ. He was composing for people with whom he lived, daily took his meals, and worked as a peer, himself singing alto in the choir; these were people with whom, to judge by the designation of parts in the manuscripts -Isabelle, Brion, Carlié, etc. – Charpentier was on a comfortable first name basis. Phillipe Goibault DuBois, another member of the Guise household who was actually the director of the ensemble and a scholar recognized by the Académie Française for his translations of Cicero and St. Augustine, most probably wrote the text of the Pastorale. The possibility that the Pastorale was intended to accompany a traditional Christmas pageant is raised by the list of acteurs on the title page of the manuscript: along with the shepherds and angels are the names of Mary and Joseph, who have no singing parts anywhere in the piece. Charpentier’s biographer Catherine Cessac has suggested that the Pastorale may have been intended for performance at a school for the education of poor girls supported by Mlle de Guise. It is easy to imagine costumed young girls arranged in traditional tableaux vivants during this musical expression of the Christmas story. Read more…

Remembering Judy

September 7th, 2012 No comments

Along with all who were touched by her, I was deeply saddened to learn that soprano Judith Nelson had passed away earlier this year. Few musicians have had a bigger impact on me personally and Magnificat as an ensemble than Judy. She sang in over 40 Magnificat concerts in the 90s and appeared  in one of the title roles (along with Paul Hillier) on Magnificat’s first recording, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. I also had the privilege of working with Judy in California Bach Society projects and in many other situations. But it was as a friend that I remember Judy the best and it is these memories that I treasure most.

The first thing that comes to mind when I remember Judy is how influential she was and how much everyone tried to sing like her but the second thing I think of is how, in fact, no one ever sounded like Judy except Judy. Of course, she sang exquisitely in every style and genre and yet it was always undeniably Judy. Her great gift to me (and to all of us) was in embodying the ideal of using your talent and ability to express who you are with integrity and conviction, which she did as well as anyone I have ever known.

In rehearsals Judy was always a model of professionalism but she also had a sharp wit and everyone who worked with her has plenty of memories of her playful sense of humor and well-timed rejoinders that always contributed to an atmosphere of camaraderie and common purpose. Judy had a uncanny ability to surprise through her vocal artistry and the depth of her understanding of the historical and musical context of the music she was performing, but also through her disarming candor.

It was Judy who introduced me to the music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Judy had invited me to join her at a music festival outside of Manilla in the Philippines in 1996 and she brought with her an extraordinary motet – O quam bonus es – that we performed there. I was overwhelmed, not only by Cozzolani’s extraordinary tonal palette but by the strikingly emotional-laden text. Judy sang in Magnificat’s first performances of Cozzolani’s music in December 1999 and while her voice is not heard on the recordings that we made subsequently, her spirit – the honesty of her artistry and the warmth and sincerity of her musicianship  – is present throughout.

A memorial concert to celebrate Judy’s life will take place on Monday September 10 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. The program will feature many of the musicians and ensembles that shared music with Judy over the years including Magnificat co-founder Susan Harvey. The free concert will begin at 7:00 pm and I encourage everyone to join in remembering a truly remarkable musician and friend.

 

Charpentier’s Noëls

August 17th, 2012 No comments

While I will miss the joy of sharing a full season of terrific music from the early Baroque with my colleagues and with Magnificat’s loyal audience next season, I am very pleased that I will be in California in December to lead Magnificat in a program that it very dear to me. In addition to my personal emotional connection with Charpentier’s music, his character and the circumstances in which he wrote, this particular program represents a fascinating period of discovery for me personally.

The first music by Charpentier that I had the chance to perform was the Messe de Minuit(Midnight Mass) – a charming work that seamlessly weaves the folk melodies of noëls, already centuries old during the composer’s life with a rigorous contrapuntal ideal. While the Nativity Pastorale does not incorporate noël melodies like the Midnight Mass, there are striking similarities in the poetic imagery of the noëls and their musical character. In Magnificat’s first production of the Nativity Pastorale in 1993, we included several of Charpentier’s instrumental settings of noëls in addition to the Pastorale and I had the chance to learn about these remarkable melodies. I found the noëls especially intriguing because they provided a rare glimpse of the 17th century from a non-aristocratic perspective. Noëls were everyone’s music – nobility and peasants alike shared the joy of these infectious melodies and the often strikingly poignant poetry that these melodies set. Read more…

Magnificat and Charpentier’s Noëls

August 16th, 2012 No comments

While I will miss the joy of sharing a full season of terrific music from the early Baroque with my colleagues and with Magnificat’s loyal audience next season, I am very pleased that I will be in California in December to lead Magnificat in a program that it very dear to me. In addition to my personal emotional connection with Charpentier’s music, his character and the circumstances in which he wrote, this particular program represents a fascinating period of discovery for me personally.

The first music by Charpentier that I had the chance to perform was the Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) – a charming work that seamlessly weaves the folk melodies of noëls, already centuries old during the composer’s life with a rigorous contrapuntal ideal. While the Nativity Pastorale does not incorporate noël melodies like the Midnight Mass, there are striking similarities in the poetic imagery of the noëls and their musical character. In Magnificat’s first production of the Nativity Pastorale in 1993, we included several of Charpentier’s instrumental settings of noëls in addition to the Pastorale and I had the chance to learn about these remarkable melodies. I found the noëls especially intriguing because they provided a rare glimpse of the 17th century from a non-aristocratic perspective. Noëls were everyone’s music – nobility and peasants alike shared the joy of these infectious melodies and the often strikingly poignant poetry that these melodies set. Read more…

Magnificat to Perform Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale

August 16th, 2012 No comments

Magnificat is pleased to announce performances of the Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale on the weekend of Dec. 7-9. The program will feature the Pastorale sur la naissance de Nostre Seigneur, one of Charpentier’s most brilliant and moving works. In this exhilarating blend of dramatic dialogues and ensembles, instrumental dances, and exquisite choral writing, Charpentier’s displays his imagination and technical mastery and his extreme sensitivity to poetic imagery. Magnificat’s program will include Charpentier’s settings of several of traditional French carols, or noëls, that are, by turns, charming, poignant, and amusing. Tickets are available online at magnificatbaroque.tix.com.

On a sabbatical after celebrating Magnificat’s 20th anniversary season, Artistic Director Warren Stewart will return to lead an ensemble featuring singers Catherine Webster, Jennifer Paulino, Clara Rottsolk, Clifton Massey, Paul Elliott, and Peter Becker, together with Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake, recorder; Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem, violin; John Dornenburg, viola da gamba and Jillon Stoppels Dupree, harpsichord.
Read more…

Magnificat: Two Decades of Exploration

February 13th, 2012 No comments

This article by Trista Bernstein was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice.

Every musician searches for masterpieces to bring to the stage. For two decades, Magnificat has been in pursuit of such creations to please Bay Area audiences. Luckily, it has narrowed its focus to the 17th century, a time bursting with dynamic composers and emotional works. “It’s a tribute to the audience in the Bay Area that a group could focus on repertoire from the 17th century and be successful and have a following,” explains Artistic Director Warren Stewart. “That’s a joint effort between Magnificat and the audience.” Stewart, an accomplished cellist, has dedicated the last 20 years of his career to early music. His love of Baroque music is evident in the dynamic programming presented by the group each season. “It’s a fascinating time and period of music. Lots of things were changing, new rules were being written, and new kinds of music were being invented. I think it’s really fascinating to have the opportunity to explore that remarkable music and share it with the audience.“

Stewart had the great responsibility of crafting Magnificat’s 20th season. “I tried to choose composers and specific pieces that were somehow representative of what we’ve done. They are very influential composers, and they’ve shaped our style and approach to interpretation. The four composers who were featured this season were the four towering figures of the century, and represent four of the major centers where music was being created.” Although many new pieces were presented during the current season, it has been very reminiscent of the group’s first season. Read more…

2002-2003: Magnificat’s 11th Season

February 13th, 2012 No comments

Coming off a triumphant performance at the 2002 Berkeley Festival and the release of a second recording of music by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani, Magnificat’s eleventh season featured music by Charpentier, Stradella, Isabella Leonarda and Buxtehude, as well as a conference on Women and Music in Italy and our first appearance in New York.

Working with Charpentier scholar John Powell, Magnificat opened the season with a program of music the composer had written for the Parisian theatre. In our first season we had presented incidental music that Charpentier had written mostly from plays by Moliére also based on Powell’s work. For this program music we selected music from three plays written in the 1670s: Circé, Les fous divertissements and La Pierre philosophale.

When, in 1673, Charpentier became the principal composer to the King’s Troupe (Troupe du Roy), he became involved in the ongoing struggle between the company’s director and chief playwright, Jean-Baptiste Molière, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.  Throughout the 1660s, Molière and Lully had worked closely in providing for the king’s entertainment a series of multi-generic experiments that combined theater, ballet, vocal numbers, choruses, and machine effects.  But by the spring of 1672 Lully had decided that his own future lay in opera.  Having witnessed the successes of Perrin and Cambert with pastoral opera, Lully set about obtaining the royal opera privilege and, thereafter, a series of draconian decrees designed to protect his monopoly and reduce his musical competition. Molière soon found another musical colleague in Charpentier, recently returned from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi.  The revivals of earlier collaborations with Lully (La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, Le Mariage forcé) with new music by Charpentier led to a full-scale comedy-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire.  This devastating musical satire would be the playwright’s last work—for during its fourth performance Molière, playing the leading role of the hypochondriac Argan, fell ill during the finale and died at his home shortly thereafter.  Thereafter, musical life in Parisian theater was a struggle to survive in the face of Lully’s active opposition.

In his review for the San Francisco Classical Voice, Joseph Sargent wrote that “Magnificat’s artistic director Warren Stewart elicited a finely crafted performance, the precision and musical expression outstanding… a quartet of vocalists gave Charpentier’s music a nuanced, sensitive reading … from the opening overture to the final chorus, the instrumental consort was impressive in its precision. The seven-member band of winds, strings and continuo displayed tight ensemble work throughout the program, with impeccable attacks, perfect intonation and precise phrasing.”

In November of 2002, Magnificat hosted a conference on women and music in 17th Century. The conference was held at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and included papers read by four scholars whose work has illuminated our understanding of the emerging role of women as musicians and composers.The conference opened with Reflections and New Findings on Cozzolani’s Music., by Robert Kendrick of the University of Chicago and was followed by Poems for Nuns: Models of Sanctity and Religious Practice in Serafino Razzi’s Legends by Gabrielle Zarri of the University of Florence, Italy. After a discussion the conference continued with Washington University professor Craig Monson’s paper  Putting the Convent Musicians of Italy in Their Place, which included some of the material found in his 2010 book Nuns Behaving Badly. In the afternoon two more papers were given: Ann Matter of the University of Pennsylvania spoke about the rich tradition of Christian allegorical and spiritual language in the dialogues of Cozzolani and other nun composers in her paper Sacred Dialogues in 17th Century Italian Women Composers’ Spirituality and Colleen Reardon of Binghamton University read Persuasions: or You Can Catch More Nuns With Music, about the custom of constraining a young woman to enter the convent against  her will was both roundly denounced and widely practiced throughout  early modern Italy.  The conference included two programs performed by Magnificat, a vespers with music by Cozzolani in the choir of Grace Cathedral and a mixed program of motets by several women composers at Trinity Episcopal Church.

In December, Magnificat once again benefitted from the musicological research of another scholar, working from editions of Stradella’s two Christmas Cantatas prepared by  Eleanor F. McCrickard of the University of North Carolina.  Details about the two Christmas cantatas are scanty.  It is not known for whom they were composed, where they were first performed, or who the poets were.  One would like to think they were a part of the sixty-five-year tradition of music in the papal chamber in Rome from 1676-1740 for which a composer was invited to provide a cantata on the Christmas subject for a performance on Christmas Eve.  No proof exists, however, that either of them was used.  Other evidence—handwriting, paper, style—indicates that Si apra al riso ogni labro was for Modena and Ah! troppo è ver, for Rome with composition in the1670s, Si apra being the earlier of the two.  The subject in each work is treated in a different manner, from the somewhat pensive Si apra al riso ogni labro to the dramatic Ah! troppo è ver. Magnificat also performed one of Stradella’s instrumental sonatas on the program.

Magnificat next turned to the music of another remarkable woman from the 17th Century, Isabella Leonarda, an Urseline  nun and prolific composer who lived in a convent in Novarra during the second half of the century. The program was built on liturgy for the Feast of Purification and featured settings of four psalms and the Magnificat by Isabella as well as several of her instrumental sonatas. Kerry McCarthy, writing for the San Francisco Classical Voice noted that “the rapport and energy among the musicians was evident throughout the evening.” Two recordings from this concert are available on Magnificat’s music page, with Catherine Webster featured in Isabella’s setting of Lætatus sum and Rob Diggins in her extraordinary solo violin sonata.

In March Magnificat was presented by the Music Before 1800 series in New York. The concert took place at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia University and the program, like the recording Vespro della Beata Vergine, was built around Second Vespers for the Feast of the Annunciation. The excellent acoustics of Corpus Christi and the very warm audience contributed to a very successful East Coast debut for Magnificat.

Magnificat’s season concluded with a revival of Buxtehude’s cantata cycle Membra Jesu nostri. As in our 1996 performances, Buxtehude’s setting of the Medieval poem Salve mundi salutare were interwoven with Johann Georg Ebeling’s setting of Paul Gerhadt’s German translation of the text. In the program notes artistic director Warren Stewart wrote “In Buxtehude’s cantatas and the chorales of Ebeling we are presented with something quite outrageous — the image of a lover embracing a broken and disfigured body, compassionately desiring to examine its wounds. To our modern sensibility it is shocking and revolting, or at the very least in questionable taste. Today we hide our wounded in institutions, and we are required, in the interest of productivity, to conceal our own wounds.” Commenting on the performance, the San Francisco Calssical Voice observed that “each of the five voices was lovely in its own right, but when they sang together, the resulting alchemy made the group a real pleasure to listen to.”

Over the course of the season Warren Stewart directed ensembles that included Elizabeth Anker, Peter Becker, Meg Bragle,Louise Carslake, Maria Caswell, Hugh Davies, Rob Diggins, John Dornenburg, Jolianne von Einem, Suzanne Elder Wallace, Jennifer Ellis, Ruth Escher, Andrea Fullington, Julie Jeffrey, Rita Lilly, Anthony Martin, Stephen Ng, Hanneke van Proosdij, Elisabeth Reed, Deborah Rentz-Moore, David Tayler, Catherine Webster, Scott Whitaker, David Wilson and Ondine Young.

Madrigals of War and Love

January 26th, 2012 No comments

Magnificat’s 2011-2012 season concludes on the weekend of Feb. 17-19 with a program of selections from Monteverdi’s Madrigals of War & Love. Jeffrey Kurtzman and Warren Stewart contributed these program notes.

In 1638, Claudio Monteverdi, the seventy-one year-old music director of the ducal church of St. Mark’s in Venice, published his Eighth Book of Madrigals, the final collection of his secular music to be issued in his lifetime. He had last published a set of secular compositions in 1619, so the Eighth Book has a retrospective character, bringing together music written as early as 1608, and including one large work from 1624 and a variety of other compositions whose origins are unknown but which probably span the entire period 1619-1638. This unusually large collection was dedicated to Ferdinand III, the newly crowned Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna, whose mother was a member of the ducal family of the Gonazagas, former rulers of Mantua in northern Italy, where the early part of Monteverdi’s career had unfolded and to which he was still connected by various threads.

Monteverdi subtitled the Eighth Book Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo(“Madrigals of war and love with some pieces in the theatrical style”), and the texts repeatedly expound the interlocking themes of love and war– the warrior as lover, the lover as warrior and the war between the sexes. The relationship between love and war had been a common Italian poetic conceit ever since the time of Petrarch in the 14th century, and had been given additional impetus by its prominence in Torquato Tasso’s late 16th century epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata. The notion of lover as warrior was also central to the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino, who exerted a significant influence on Italian literature and aesthetics of the 17th century and whose poetry was set many times by Monteverdi.

The texts of several of the madrigals has been adapted to make specific reference to Ferdinand and to the Empire (River Nymphs of the Istrus, i.e. Danube; the ladies of the Germano Impero, etc.) but the overall theme of the collection was influenced by the role of the Hapsburg’s in the ongoing conflict now known as The Thirty Years War. The younger Ferdinand’s interest in the arts and music (he was a reasonably good composer himself and a patron of Froberger, Valentini, and of course Monteverdi.) Shortly before his accession to the throne, Ferdinand, together with his Spanish cousin, also a Ferdinand, were credited with capture of Donauwörth and Regensburg, and the defeat the Swedes and their Protestant allies at the Battle of Nördlingen. As head of the peace party at court, he helped negotiate the Peace of Prague in 1635 that was thought, sadly incorrectly, to be the end of the dreadful conflict. These events may have contributed to the triumphalism that permeates the Eighth Book and the sense that glorious military victories would lead to leisure and more amorous pursuits.

Monteverdi affixed an explanatory preface to the Eighth Book, a theoretically important, though sometimes confusing account of what he had tried to achieve in this music. The composer describes three emotional levels, which he also calls styles. Two of these, the “soft” style (stile molle) for languishing and sorrowful emotions, and the “tempered” style (stile temperato) for emotionally neutral recitations, he says had long been in use. But the third style, the “agitated” style, (stile concitato), Monteverdi claims to have invented himself. The musical depiction of this style consists of very rapid reiterations of the same pitch on string instruments, like a modern measured tremolo, and equally rapid reiterations of the supporting chord in the harpsichord or other continuo instrument. Such repeated notes and repeated chords had, in fact, been frequently used in compositions depicting battles for nearly a century, but for Monteverdi the stile concitato meant more than merely a musical metaphor for the rapid physical activity of fighting. It was also a specific emotional style–a musical means for interpreting the emotional agitation of the protagonists and conveying that agitation to the audience.  The stile concitato, therefore, serves both a pictorial and a psychological function in Monteverdi’s music.

Magnificat’s program will follow the structure and order of Monteverdi’s publication, the selections in the first half are drawn from the Canti Guerrieri, or Songs of War and the second from the Canti Amorosi, or Songs of Love. The two halves open, like the two parts of the collection, with sonnets announcing, respectively, the themes of war and love. While the sonnet Altri canti di Marte was a pre-existing poem from Marino’s Rime (1602), it’s parallel in the first half, Altri canti d’Amor, seems to have been newly written for this collection and is clearly an imitation of Marino’s sonnet. After the two quatrains of Altri canti d’Amor that contrast themes of love and of Mars, the text of the sestet praises the dedicatee Ferdinand III. In addition to the usual pair of violins, Monteverdi introduces a quartet of viols when the text addresses the new Emperor and extols his lofty valor. This may have been a specific allusion to the large string ensembles favored by Viennese court composers of the time as the viola da gamba had gone out of fashion in Italy by the time Monteverdi was assembling his Eighth Book.

Altri canti d’Amor is followed, as in Monteverdi’s publication, by the most complex and sophisticated of Monteverdi’s large-scale madrigals from the Eighth Book,Hor che’l ciel e la terra. This madrigal sets, in two parts, the entirety of Petrarch’s 164th poem from the Canzoniere, a sonnet replete with Petrarchan contrasts and oxymorons. But Petrarch’s contrasts, as described by Pietro Bembo in the Prose della volgar lingua, are brought into harmony and smoothed over by mellifluous sounds and varied, rolling rhythms of his highly refined poetic style. This is easily seen in Petrarch’s fifth and sixth lines, where the most abrupt semantic juxtapositions are couched in an elegantly structured and alliterative sentence that draws attention away from the contrasts toward their union in a highly stylized and carefully crafted poetic conception. Resemblances of rhyme, of rhythm, of line lengths and stanzaic structure, and especially resemblances of sonority all serve to overcome the semantic contrasts. While earlier settings of this sonnet, notably Arcadelt’s famous account, emphasize this harmony and integration of oppositions, Monteverdi’s seizes upon the contrasts as the means for creating rhetorical statements and musical icons that can serve as the constructive basis for his composition. Indeed, contrasts as a means of expressing rhetoric and emotion permeate the entire collection and call to mind Monteverdi’s observation in the publication’s preface “that it is contraries that deeply affect our mind, the goal of the effect that good music ought to have.”

Two warrior-themed madrigals follow. The first, Se vittorie si belle, has been identified by John Whenham as the work of Fulvio Testi, a diplomat and poet in the Estense court in Modena and a literary follower of Marino. It was most likely written in the 1620s. The second warlike madrigal, Ogni amante e guerrier, was likely written specifically for inclusion in the Eighth Book with its topical references to Ferdinand. Notably for the extended bass solo in it’s second part featuring the repeated notes associated by the composer with the “agitated” style, Ogni amante e guerrier sets a slightly modified text by Ottavio Rinuccini. A similar musical depiction of warfare is found in the sonata La Gran Battaglia by the Modenese composer Marco Uccellini will separate the two madrigals in Magnificat’s program.

Altri canti di Marte, he sonnet that opens the second part of the Eighth Book and introduces the Canti Amorosi, clearly served as the model for it’s counterpart in the first half and is in some ways a mirror image, establishing first the themes of war that will be left to others before turning to more amorous matters. Here instead of Ferdinand, the poem addresses Love’s “warrior maiden” (guerriera) who has wounded the poet not with the weapons of war, but with her glances and soft tresses. Two lighter madrigals will follow, the five voice Dolcissimo usignuolo and the pastoral trio Perché te’n fuggi, o Fillide.

For the Lamento della Ninfa, one of the most passionate and moving works in the collection, Monteverdi again turned to Rinuccini. The poem, Non havea Febo ancora, published a year after the poet’s death in 1621, echoes the famous Lament of Arianna from the lost 1608 opera for which Rinuccini was the librettist, and Monteverdi chooses the same descending fourth ostinato figure for his setting of this lament. Massimo Ossi has shown the poem to be in the ‘strophic canzonetta’ form associated with Gabrielo Chiabrera, with stanzas composed of four alternating seven and six syllables lines followed by a rhymed couplet refrain. However, in contrast to Chiabrera’s convivial and amatory verse, Rinuccini’s canzonetta is a dramatic narrative, set as a dialogue between a forsaken nymph and a trio of observers. Monteverdi modifies Rinuccini’s poem considerably: the words of the nymph are set apart, framed by trios for male voices, and the refrain, rather than occurring after each stanza, is used to punctuate and comment on the nymph’s plaint. Monteverdi also provides performance directions with respect to tempo: the opening and closing trios are to be sung according to the beat of the hand, i.e., in a steady tempo, while the lament itself is to be sung ‘according to the affections of the soul and not to the beat of the hand,’ suggesting that the tempo and pacing of the lament are to follow the rhetorical and emotional nuances of the nymph’s complaint.

Rinuccini originally wrote Volgendo il ciel, a pair of sonnets, one tailed, one regular, in honor of Henri IV of France. In the first sonnet­–it’s text modified for its new dedicatee and sung by a tenor with instrumental ritornelli–the poet sings of the new era of peace that will accompany the new Emperor and calling on the nymphs of the Danube to join their nimble feet in dance. The second sonnet, set a galliard-like ballo for five voices with violins, repeats the final four lines of the first as its first quatrain and continues in the same spirit, extolling the beauty of nature and their reflection in the exalted honor of the Emperor. Between the quatrains and sestet, Monteverdi suggests that “a canario, passo o mezzo or some other balletto” be performed and we will oblige with the Balletto Primo of Biagio Marini, a virtuoso violinist and composer who worked in Venice as well as many other courts in Europe over the course of his long career.

Favored by the Muses: the Florentine Poet Ottavio Rinuccini

January 10th, 2012 No comments

Four of the poems set by Monteverdi in his Madrigals of War and Love are by Ottavio Rinuccini, a poet at the Medici court in Florence and the author of the first opera libretti. Closely connected with staged entertainments throughout his career, Rinuccini’s earliest poetry was written for the wedding festivities of Francesco de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello in 1579.  He a member of the Accademia Fiorentina and of the Alterati, where he was known under the sobriquet of Il sonnacchioso.  Rinuccini provided texts for the famous intermedi at the performance of La pellegrina at the wedding of Ferdinand I de’ Medici and Christine de Lorraine in 1589 and later wrote the libretto for Jacopo Peri’s Dafne in 1597.

His most historically noteworthy work though was Euridice, his re-telling of the Orpheus legend that was set by both Peri and Giulio Caccini in 1600 that are considered the first operas. No less important was his libretto for Monteverdi’s second opera, Arianna. The score for Arianna has not survived save for Arianna’s lament, which was published independently and became one of the best known and most often imitated works of the century. Rinuccini may have also been involved with Striggio’s libretto for Monteverdi’s first opera L’Orfeo.

During his lifetime, Rinunccini was highly regarded, as his prominence in Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals alongside Petrarch, Tasso, Guarini and Marino attests.  But, as Iain Fenlon has observed, “were it not for his poetry set to music by Peri, Caccini and, particularly, Monteverdi, Rinuccini would have remained a minor Florentine poet of the late Cinquecento unlikely to be known outside a circle of specialists among historians of Italian literature. As it is the fact that he provided texts for the first Florentine attempts in the new genre of opera ensures him a worthy place in the history of music.”

In the early days of opera, the librettist enjoyed at least equal credit with the composer for the creation of the new art form, and the significance of Rinunccini’s is reflected in Filippo Vitali’s preface to his Aretusa of 1620:

“This manner of singing can rightly be called novel, for it was born not so long ago in Florence as the noble brainchild of Sig. Ottavio Rinuccini. He, being especially favored by the Muses, and endowed with a unique talent in the expression of the emotions, wished to use song to increase the power of his poems and yet not allow the song to diminish this power. And trying, with Sig. Jacopo Corsi, a great connoisseur of music, to see what could be done to ensure not only that the music does not prevent one from catching the words, but more, that it helps bring out more clearly their meaning and their representative intent, he asked Sig. Jacopo Peri and Sig. Giulio Caccini, excellent masters in the art of song and counterpoint, to come to his aid. They debated to such good effect that they became convinced they had found the way to bring it off -and they were not mistaken.”

While in his dedicatory preface to the published libretto of Euridice and elsewhere, Rinuccini claimed to be reviving ancient dramatic poetry for his drammi in musica.

It has been the opinion of many that the ancient Greeks and Romans, in representing their tragedies upon the stage, sang them throughout. But until now this noble manner of recitation has been neither revived nor (to my knowledge) even attempted by anyone, and I used to believe that this was due to the imperfection of the modern music, by far inferior to the ancient. But the opinion thus formed was wholly driven from my mind by Messer Jacopo Peri, who, hearing of the intention of Signor Jacopo Corsi and myself, set to music with so much grace the fable of Dafne (which I had written solely to make a simple trial of what the music of our age could do) that it gave pleasure beyond belief to the the few who heard it.

While his libretti reflect Classical structures and themes, as a poet, Rinuccini adopts traditional models derived from Petrarch, as well as contemporary authors such as the Mannerist Gabriele Fiamma and Torquato Tasso and the pastorale poetry popular at the turn of the 17th century. In her article surveying Rinuccini’s Mascherate and their relationship to the operatic libretto, Francesca Chiarelli remarks on the poet’s “harmonious flow of the syntax into the metric frame; the ordering of words that preserves their logical function; the sense of musicality that permeates his verse are all proof of Rinuccini’s craftsmanship, if not of true poetry.” After his death in 1621, fellow poet and librettist Gabielo Chiabrera praised  Rinuccini’s “sonorous versification” and noted his many followers and, indeed, many of Rinuccini’s solutions to the problems of writing dramatic narrative to be set to music, notably his use of unrhymed versi sciolti for recitative and more structured, strophic verse for arias, established important principles for later libretti.

Magnificat will perform three works with texts by Rinuccini at the Bloomington Early Music Festival on September 10 2011 and on our series on the weekend of February 17-19 2012Volgendo il ciel, the Lamento della Ninfa and Il Ballo delle Ingrate.

San Jose Mercury News Review: Magnificat celebrates holiday and its 20th anniversary with Schütz’s ‘Christmas Story’

December 19th, 2011 No comments

This review was posted at the San Jose Mercury News on December 17 2011.

Everything but the sermon.

Other than that, it’s the full package this weekend as the Magnificat Baroque Ensemble re-creates Christmas Vespers at the Dresden Court Chapel circa 1660. Friday’s rendering in Palo Alto was a gleeful holiday present for early-music lovers, unleashing sounds of sackbut and curtal (distant relatives of trombone and bassoon), while bringing forth German composer Heinrich Schütz’s “Christmas Story,” a setting of the Gospel narrative.

Schütz’s wondrous piece — quasi-operatic — was the centerpiece not only of the court’s service back in 1660; it also was the centerpiece of a 1992 program by Magnificat, during its inaugural season in the Bay Area. And just as Warren Stewart, the group’s artistic director, conducted the performance in 1992, he led it Friday. He was surrounded onstage at First United Methodist Church by 13 instrumentalists and eight singers, including bright-voiced German tenor Martin Hummel, passionately singing the role of the Evangelist, as he did in 1992. Read more…

San Francisco Examiner Review: The seventeenth-century Christmas service at St. Mark’s

December 19th, 2011 No comments

This review was posted at the San Francisco Examiner on December 19 2011.

The San Francisco Early Music Society and Warren Stewart’s Magnificat combined forces this season to reconstruct a Christmas Vespers service, as it would have been given in the Dresden Court Chapel of 1660.  This production was given its San Francisco performance last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.  The Lesson for such a service would have been an account of the Nativity from one of the Gospels.  Music for the service would have been the responsibility of the Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, at that time Johann Georg I.  That Kapellmeister in 1660 was Heinrich Schütz.

Thus, the major work at last night’s performance was a setting of Nativity texts in what was probably one of the earliest forms of oratorio.  This involved music for both a chorus and soloists, with the soloists corresponding to the characters of the narrative along with an “Evangelist” narrator, with instrumental accompaniment.  For the libretto for this narrative, Schütz drew upon two of the Gospels:  Luke (primarily the first 21 verses of the second chapter) and Matthew (the first 23 verses of the second chapter).  In addition to the Evangelist, the characters consisted of an angel, the shepherds in the field, the three wise men, Herod, and his high priests. Read more…