The Noëls in Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit

December 6th, 2010 1 comment

Woodcut Illustration from a 16th century Bible des Noels

The most distinctive feature of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit is of course its use of the melodies of traditional French Christmas carols, or noëls. Since the fifteenth century, noëls have been sung by Frenchmen of all classes to celebrate the Christmas season. Most of the tunes that Charpentier employed in his setting of the mass ordinary were already centuries old and would have been as familiar to his listeners as Silent Night or O Come All Ye Faithful would be to audiences today. Indeed, many of the noëls used by Charpentier are still sung in Francophone countries around the world today.

The use of the word noël in reference to the birth of Christ can be traced back even further to the 13th century. The word is related to newness, as in “good news” or “New Year,” and was used in non-Christmas contexts as well. By Charpentier’s time, noël could refer to Christmas Day itself, songs related to Christmas (like those upon which his mass is based), or simply an exuberant cry of rejoicing.

Noel Nouveau, Lyon 1574

The tunes themselves most often had an existence independent of their Christmas lyrics and with very few exceptions collections of noëls (typically called Bibles des Noëls) contained only the texts with an indication to sing the words to a tune (or timbre) often identified by their commonly known secular titles. Not until Christophe Ballard’s Chant des Noëls, published in Paris in 1704, do we find a complete collection of noëls with words and music – in this case as continuo songs or airs.

The noel tunes are noted for their simplicity, their often dance-like rhythm and above all the bucolic nature of their texts. Most concern themselves with the response of the shepherd’s and townspeople after receiving the news of Christ’s birth from the angel and their subsequent celebration and rejoicing as they hurry off to the manger. The characters in the noëls are distinctly French and the lyrics include frequent references to food and wine – some things never change! By the end of the 17th century, many French composers had embraced these rustic tunes and settings for organ and various instrumental ensembles were published from the 1680s onward. Charpentier’s use of the tunes in a “parody” technique in his mass was most likely the first, though several others followed.

The timbres of many of these noëls have appeared in other Magnificat productions, notably in the two opera parodies we produced in 1996 and 1998. Here of course any association with Christmas was absent – they were just universally familiar tunes to which, in those cases, very silly texts were sung. We have also programmed noëls as part of Christmas programs in 1993, 1996, 2002 and 2005. Here is a live recording of the noël Où s’en vont ces gais bergers that includes Charpentier’s instrumental arrangement from a Magnificat performance in December 2005. This noel tune appears in the Gloria of the Messe de Minuit.


Charpentier uses each of the ten melodies as the basis for a defined section of the Mass, for example, Joseph est bien Marie serves as the subject matter of the first Kyrie, Or, nous dites Marie for the Christe and Une jeune pucelle (familiar to modern audience from its use in the 1991 film Tous les Matins de Monde) for the second Kyrie. In addition to the ten noëls that Charpentier uses in the mass ordinary, he also suggests that after the Credo, an instrumental setting of “Laissez paistre vos bestes” be performed at the Offertory – and he provides just such a setting elsewhere in his notebooks.

Charpentier’s use of the noel tunes fits well with the Jesuit approach of ‘enculturation,’ the blending of indigenous cultural traditions in the service of God and the celebration of the sacraments. It is especially fitting that these popular noëls were incorporated into a mass explicitly intended for Christmas Eve – precisely on this unique night when God takes on human form, when the sacred can combine with the secular.

Simon Vouet and Marc-Antoine Charpentier

November 19th, 2010 No comments

During his decade as master of music for the Jesuit church of St. Louis, Charpentier would have become very familiar with the magnificent altar of the church, which echoed the three level structure of the church’s façade. Five exquisite paintings adorned the altar, three by Simon Vouet (1590-1649,) an artist whose career in many ways followed a similar course to that which Charpentier’s would take a generation later. (An interactive reproduction of the altar can be viewed here.)

Simon Vouet, Self Portrait (ca. 1626-1627)

Vouet’s paintings–The Presentation in the Temple, the Apotheosis of St. Louis and a depiction of the Virgin mourning Christ’s suffering on the Cross–were all gifts to the new Jesuit church from Cardinal Richelieu upon it’s completion in 1641.

Like Charpentier, Vouet spent his formative years in Italy, mostly in Rome, where his patrons included the Barberini family, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Paolo Giordano Orsini and Vincenzo Giustiniani, He also received a pension from Louis XIII summoned to return to Paris in 1627. Upon returning to France, Vouet was made peintre de Roi and adapted his very Italian style, influenced by Caravaggio Carracci, and Reni, to the grand decorative designs of Cardinal Richelieu. This melding of Italian style and French taste parceled the role that Charpentier would later play in fusing French and Italian musical styles.

Vouet enjoyed more prestige and success during his lifetime but like Charpentier his posthumous reputation was initially overshadowed and it was only in the 20th century that his contribution to French Baroque art has been fully appreciated. William R. Crelly published a monograph and catalogue in the 1960s and there have been several important exhibitions devoted to his work in the years since the quadracentenary of his birth in 1990.

The gallery below includes the five paintings that graced the altar of L’Eglise Saint Louis during Charpentier’s tenure (those that survive are no longer in the church): the three Vouet paintings along with a depiction of Christ delivering the souls in Purgatory by Philippe de Champaigne and Resurrection of Christ by Claude Vignon.

[nggallery id=6]

Magnificat’s Love Affair with Charpentier

November 18th, 2010 No comments

I have often said that Marc-Antoine Charpentier never wrote a bad note and with every new work we perform I am amazed anew by the sheer perfection of his technique, his facility in an astonishing range of genres, the subtlety with which he depicts emotion, and his extraordinarily varied harmonic palette. As we prepare for our performances of his delightful Messe de Minuit and the Dialogus inter Angelos et Pastores next month, it seems a good time to look back on Magnificat’s love affair with this most magnificent genius of the French Baroque.

When Magnificat began presenting an annual concert series in 1992, the Charpentier revival was still at a relatively early stage. Though he had been “re-discovered” by the French musicologist Claude Crussard over a half century before and championed heroically in the intervening decades by H. Wiley Hitchcock, there were still relatively few recordings and even fewer modern editions of his works at the time. Since then, a tremendous amount of research has been published by Catherine Cessac, Patricia Ranum, John Powell, and many others, and the composer’s complete manuscripts have been re-printed in facsimile, all of which has allowed a much deeper understanding of Charpentier’s life and art.

Magnificat has dedicated entire programs to Charpentier’s music in twelve of our nineteen seasons, more than any other composer (Schütz and Monteverdi are tied for second place.) Along the way, we have explored many aspects of this prolific and multi-faceted master’s work: the charming divertissements and pastorales composed for the Hotel de Guise, the farsical intermedes written for the stage works of Moliere, Corneille and others, the intimate petits motets for the “Dauphin’s Music” and the sublime histoires sacreés from his time at the Jesuit Church of St. Louis and later at the Sainte-Chapelle. It has truly been a privilege to offer our audiences the opportunity to hear so much of Charpentier’s music.

Magnificat’s first season (1992-93) concluded with a program that showcased both sacred and secular music by Charpentier. The first half of the program included three sacred works representing three different genres: the psalm Super flumina babilonis, the oratorio Le Reniement de St. Pierre and the five part motet Oculi omnium. After intermission it was time for something completely different – a series of comic intermedes written for Moliere’s plays. The highlight of these quite silly vignettes was surely the hilarious “doctors scene” from Le Malade Imaginaire, which included some extemporaneous diagnosis by real-life doctor Gerald Gaul and a fair amount of champagne splattered across the stage.

Program from Magnificat's December 1993 concerts - literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape)

Somewhat less raucous was the program for the Christmas concerts in our second season. Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de notre Seigneur, was performed at the Hotel de Guise, with some variations, on three successive Christmases during the 1680s. Magnificat’s program drew from each of the three versions and integrated some of the infectiously charming noëls (some of which will appear again in this season’s Christmas concerts) in the mix. One of Magnificat’s most beloved programs, we have revived it twice: in 1997 on the San Francisco Early Music Society concert series and on our own series in 2005.

Noëls would not only be included in many of Magnificat’s subsequent Charpentier programs but they also contributed to an interest in voix de villes (or vau de villes), the source for the tunes of many noëls, that featured prominently in two opera parodies presented by Magnificat in 1996 and 1998.

Charpentier was featured again in Magnificat’s 5th season (1996-97) with performances of La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, composed in 1686 for one of the musical evenings at the Guise establishment. Derived from an earlier cantata on the same subject, this dramatic work, like so many pieces from the 17th century, defies classification, being neither pastoral, nor cantata, nor opera, yet having some characteristics of each. Above all, Charpentier’s setting of the Orpheus myth displays the influence of his formative years in Rome, where he encountered the music of Carrisimi, Luigi Rossi and others.

Beginning with Magnificat’s 9th season (2000-01), Charpentier’s music has been featured almost every year. That season we presented a program that included two dramatic works, also written for the Hotel de Guise: Actéon and Les Arts florissants. Both works fit into the loosely-defined genre of the divertissement, a term used in seventeenth century France to refer to a wide range of musical works, from interludes in comedie-ballets and tragedie-lyriques, as well as entertainments that resembled the English masque. Some divertissements, like Actéon, were short independent operas on mythological subjects. Others, like Les Arts florissants relate more specifically to the pastorale, originally a literary genre that, over the course of the 17th century began to incorporate music and ballet in the manner of opera.

In the 2002-03 season, working together with musicologist John Powell, Magnificat assembled a program of music that Charpentier composed for stage works of Thomas Corneille (Circé, 1675 and La Pierre Philosophale, 1681) and Raymond Poisson (Les Fous Divertissants, 1680.) With these theatrical works – ranging from pastoral airs to lunatic raving, we returned to the entertaining world of the Le Malade Imaginaire. John’s informative program notes for these concerts can be read here.

In the 2003-04 season, Magnificat performed Charpentier’s cycle of seven motets setting the texts of the Magnificat antiphons for the seven days preceding Christmas. In the Roman breviary these seven antiphons each begin with the acclamation “O” and are therefore known as the “O Antiphons” , “The Great Antiphons”  or, as Charpentier refers to them in his title “The Seven Os following the Roman.”  In accordance with the composer’s instructions, each of the antiphons was paired with one of his instrumental arrangements of noëls. The program also included the Dialogus inter Angles et Pastores, which we will perform again this season.

Two of Charpentier’s oratorios, or histoires sacreésFilius Prodigus and Sacrificium Abrahæ–were performed in the final concerts of Magnificat’s 2004-05 season and the Nativity Pastorale was revived for the Christmas program in the 05-06 season. The 35 or so works by Charpentier that can be classified as 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. Like those of Carissimi, Charpentier’s oratorios are non-liturgical, and freely mix scriptural excerpts with dramatic and poetic interpolations.

The first page of Judicium Salomonis from Charpentier's manuscriptsA program of music from Charpentier’s tenure at Sainte-Chappelle at the end of his life–Oculi Omnium, the Motet pour une longue offrande, and Judicium Salomonis–opened Magnificat’s 15th season (2006-07.) The Sainte-Chapelle was situated in the heart of a walled enclosure of what was formerly the palace of the king and, during Charpentier’s tenure, the Parlement. The reconvening of the Parlement, which took place annually on November 12, the day after the Feats of St. Martin, was commemorated by the celebration of a grand ceremonial mass, called the Messe Rouge (Red Mass) because of the magistrates scarlet vestments.

The following season (2007-08,) Magnificat explored another genre of Charpentier’s music – the petits motets – in a program of small chamber works written for the major feasts from Christmas to Purification. 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 – two sopranos, bass, violins and continuo – imply that they were performed by the same ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. Their placement in Charpentier’s Mélanges autographes suggests that these works were composed during the Christmas season of 1676-1677. Read more here.

Program from October 2008 - graphic design standards have certainly improved!

Most recently, Magnificat a program of Music for the Dauphin  – La Couronne de fleurs and Les plaisirs de Versailles – opened Magnificat’s 2008-09 season. From late 1679 until mid-1683, Charpentier composed music for the establishment of the eldest son of Louis XIV and Queen Marie-Thérèse. Both works on the program are examples of the operatic divertissement: a short entertainment that is sung throughout in the manner of an opera, though much shorter than the operas of the time. Read more here. An excerpt from those performances, featuring soprano Laura Heimes can be heard here.

I am very grateful to all those who have supported Magnificat over the years and given us the chance to perform so much of Charpentier’s music. In particular, Magnificat Artistic Advisory Board member John Powell has been very generous in preparing scores, writing program notes and articles, and offering great ideas over the years. Most of all, I am grateful to the splendid musicians who have given their love and talents to Magnificat’s performances of Charpentier’s music. I only wish we could perform each of the programs again!

Charpentier’s Music for Plays by Corneille and Poisson

November 18th, 2010 No comments

In 2002, Magnificat presented a program featuring music Marc-Antoine Charpentier had written for stage works by Thomas Corneille and Raymond Poisson. John Powell wrote these very informative program notes for those performances, which reveal another side of Charpentier’s character and the circumstances in which he lived and worked. Powell has written extensively on Charpentier’s works for the stage and recently presented the paper Music, Gesture, and Tragic Declamation in the Scene of the Dancing Demons from Thomas Corneille’s Machine Play Circé (1675) at the symposium Gesture on the French Stage, 1675-1800 at the Festival Oudemuziek Utrecht on 27 July 2010, from which the image below of Henry Gissey’s drawings of the some of the fabulous costumes used at court is drawn. The plays, librettos, and music for the works discussed in this article (and much more) can be found on John’s website.

When, in 1673, Marc-Antoine 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.

Charpentier continued on as the leading composer the Troupe du Roy after Lully evicted the actors from their theater. On 17 March 1675, the company premiered Circé, the first in a series of new machine-plays given at their new playhouse, the Théâtre de Guénégaud. Struggling to survive after Molière’s death and to justify its existence in the shadow of Lully’s Académie Royale de Musique, the actors deployed all of their scenic, musical, and choreographic resources in this spectacular and expensive production. Read more…

Charpentier at L’Eglise St. Louis

November 16th, 2010 No comments

The music on Magnificat’s December concerts was composed during Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s tenure as maître de musique at the principal Jesuit Church of St Louis in Paris. As a result of his early education, both in France and Rome, and his inclinations as a composer, Charpentier had ideal credentials as a Jesuit composer, and benefited from the Jesuits’ liberal, even worldly, approach to the arts and religious education; the decade he spent working for the Jesuits was remarkably productive.

The sumptuously decorated Eglise St. Louis, now called St. Paul-St. Louis, was built on Rue Saint-Antoine in the affluent Marais district. Its congregation was wealthy and sophisticated and they no doubt greatly appreciated (and generously supported!) the Church’s lavish architecture, marble, gold and silver ornament and exquisite paintings. They would have also appreciated Charpentier’s sensuous and expressive music performed by the finest musicians in Paris, including singers from the Opera.

Commissioned by Louis XIII, who ceremoniously laid the first stone in 1627, the church was completed by 1641 and is one of the oldest examples of Jesuit architecture in Paris. The design of L’Eglise St. Louis, directed by Etienne Martellange and Francois Derand, was inspired by the baroque-style Gesu Church in Rome, and incorporates elements of both Italian and French architectural styles.

In addition to Charpentier, other great musicians of the Baroque period employed as masters of music at the church include Jean-Philippe Rameau, Andre Campra, and Louis Marchand.

The gallery below of contemporary photos of L’Eglise St. Paul-St. Louis were found on this webpage. Click here to view a panoramic slideshow of the interior of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church supplied by Panoramic Earth

[nggallery id=5]

A Newly-Identified Theoretical Work by Marc-Antoine Charpentier

November 8th, 2010 No comments

Patricia Ranum has announced the identification of a theoretical work by Marc-Antoine Charpentier bound in an 18th century collection of manuscripts owned by the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Her convincing argument for the attribution of “Manuscript XLI” to Charpentier, as well as reproductions of the twelve page treatise, can be found at her informative and thoroughly engaging website.

Ranum’s analysis suggests that the treatise was related to Charpentier’s engagement in the education of Louis XIV’s nephew, Philippe II d’Orléans, Duke of Chartres in the early 1690s and was copied out by the composer himself in Autumn, 1698. Perhaps most the most significant aspect of Ranum’s identification is that details of the manuscript suggest that the composer may have written as many as forty other theoretical works besides the few known that have survived in copies. Sadly it would appear that after his death in 1704, Charpentier’s heirs did not preserve his theoretical works together with his compositions.

Ranum describes how she was introduced to the volume containing Charpentier’s treatise:

Some years ago, I agreed to read and comment upon the transcription and translation of a French manuscript being done by Carla E. Williams, a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. In early November 2009, Ms Williams sent me two computer files: her transcription and translation, plus scans of the manuscript itself, which bears the title Traité d’accompagnement. As I scrolled through her transcription, I came upon the names of Étienne Loulié (on whom I had worked back in the 1980s and Charles Masson (a friend of Sébastien de Brossard, someone I have likewise studied.) Most intriguing of all were some references to “feu Mr Charpentier,” the “late Monsieur Charpentier.”

Since one of the pillars on which the anonymous Traité is constructed is a discussion of major and minor scales and the fundamental chords of each key/mode, I was not overly surprised to find references to Loulié’s and Masson’s published works. Those books included brief presentations of the major and minor scales whose existence their mutual friend, Brossard, claimed to have deduced back in 1684 or 1685.

I checked the images of the original manuscript that Ms Willams had sent me: that was indeed what the anonymous author of the Traité de l’accompagnement had written. Still, I was puzzled by the allusion to the “Principes de Charpentier” (p. 18 of the Traité, my emphasis). To what book or manuscript might the author be referring? Loulié wrote a book called Élements ou Principes, but no such book by Charpentier is known.

“While I’m at it, I might as well scroll through the entire file,” I said to myself, “to get a visual impression of the source. It might help Ms Williams to date her treatise more accurately than simply ‘post-1710′ — the date of the latest publication mentioned.” Toward the end of the Traité, the handwriting changed abruptly: I was looking at the hand of Marc-Antoine Charpentier! The mature hand he used at the Sainte-Chapelle!

Ranum’s full analysis of “Manuscript XLI,” can be read here.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier – The Rose

October 26th, 2010 No comments

I was pleased to learn that a variety of rose is named “Marc-Antoine Charpentier.” The shrub rose has a dark yellow center flower with pale yellow to cream  outer petals and a fine Tea fragrance. Its flowering is enhanced by pale green foliage.

The website Plantes et Jardins notes that the “La Rosa Generosa ‘Marc-Antoine Charpentier’ Masmacha stands out for its opulence as a shrub with branches that create a soft dome. Many buttons bloom in flower petals of slightly frizzy yellow fading to white vanilla cream. Their fragrance exudes a subtle fragrance of rose tea. Juvenile shoots are tinged with purple.”

No doubt the rose was named after the French composer in honor of his delightful divertissement La Couronne de fleurs, performed by Magnificat in 2008.

Charpentier’s Christmas Dialogue

October 21st, 2010 No comments

Magnificat’s December program features what is perhaps the composer’s best-known work: the Messe de Minuit. The Mass will provide the basic structure of the program, which will also include the oratorio (or histoire sacreé) Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæ, which sets the Christmas Eve narrative of angels and shepherds.

Charpentier wrote at least six Christmas oratorios, which to some extent share both music and text.  It has thus far proven impossible to determine the year or the circumstances for which the Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæ was composed. It closely resembles In nativitatem Domini Canticum, H. 416, sharing structure, text, and a considerable amount of music, though the keys and instrumentation differ.

The Dialogus opens with a grand prelude that lead’s to a sombre tenor recitative and a “Chorus of the Righteous” that describe state of anticipation, awaiting the birth of Christ. A bass air in the form of a rondeau follows.  Between the elegant descending contours of two chorus another bass solo occurs in dialogue with the instruments, joyful and full of hope.

The second part opens with an instrumental depiction of night, enriched with “soft flutes” built on interwoven fugal textures. The composer effects a striking contrast by following the Night music with a “Shepherd’s Awakening,” followed by the appearance of the angel, addressing the shepherds in a blinding light. The Heavenly Host joins, singing to the glory of god and after a march of the shepherds, all fall adoringly before the newborn infant. The oratorio concludes with a chorus, in which the shepherd’s marvel at their experience.

Magnificat performed the Dialogus once before in December 2003 in a program that included the compser’s settings of the seven “O Antiphons.” These performances will feature sopranos Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Ruth Escher, haute-contre Christopher LeCluyse, tenor Daniel Hutchings and bass Robert Stafford.

Photos from Magnificat’s ‘Venus and Adonis’

October 18th, 2010 No comments

Ya-Hsuan Huang took some photographs of Magnificat’s Sunday performance of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. In addition to this gallery, there are more on our Flickr Photostream, along with a few rehearsal photos.

[nggallery id=4]

Reviews of Magnificat’s “Venus and Adonis”

October 12th, 2010 No comments

We’ve had two reviews of our performances of Venus and Adonis last weekend. Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle concluded his review with the following comments:

“Sunday’s performance, ably led by Artistic Director Warren Stewart, made a strong case for this little-known work. The eight-member instrumental ensemble offered solid, rhythmically alert accompaniment, and the cast sang splendidly throughout. Soprano Catherine Webster and bass Peter Becker, in the title roles, combined clarity and eloquence in equal measure, while countertenor José Lemos’ vocal flights as Cupid lent the character an air of extravagant fancy. The chorus of shepherds and huntsmen was ably sung by Jennifer Paulino, Clifton Massey, Paul Elliott and Hugh Davies, and eight members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus brought vivacious charm to the scene of Cupid’s lesson.” Read the Full Review

Pessissimo at the always engaging blog Exotic and irrational entertainment also posted a very thoughtful review:

“Blow’s flowing melodies were performed beautifully by Magnificat (with members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus). Special mention should be made of soprano Catherine Webster’s Venus, countertenor Jose Lemos’ Cupid (his Lesson was especially amusing) and bass Peter Becker’s Adonis, all of whom were excellently sung and characterized. Magnificat made a compelling case for the work; given its obviously high quality and modest scale, I’m amazed that it isn’t programmed more frequently. I’ve been interested in Baroque opera, and this work in particular, for more than a decade and a half, but this was my first opportunity to see it performed. Thanks are due to Stewart and Magnificat for bringing this unjustly neglected work to life.” Read the Full Review

The Revised Version of Venus and Adonis

October 3rd, 2010 No comments

In this excerpt adapted from the Introduction of the Purcell Society’s edition of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, Bruce Wood describes the revision process undertaken by the composer at some point after the orginal performance at Court and production at Josias Priest’s boarding school in Chelsea, the one documented performance of the opera. It is the revised version described here that Magnificat will be presenting in our concert on the weekend of October 8-10.

At some point after the Chelsea performances, Blow subjected the score of Venus and Adonis to further and more extensive reworking; the fact that there were at least two phases of revision indicates that instead of going to the trouble of recopying the score, he simply altered the existing autograph, and it seems likely that at one or two points he entered a revised reading without deleting the original one, leaving his intentions unclear. The most substantial change is that the entire sequence of courtly dances at the end of Act II is cut, severing the work from the masquing tradition that had given birth to it. Also cut is a short linking passage for continuo just before the final lament, though elsewhere a similar link is inserted; a short echo phrase for continuo only and an extra bar are inserted into the dialogue between Venus and Adonis in Act I, and a couple of bars into the Tune for Flutes at the end of the Prologue.

Revisions affecting detail rather than structure are very much more numerous, and include the recasting of the inner parts at several points in the Overture, and of the second violin part of one passage in Act I; the addition of an instrumental obbligato part; the transfer of lines between voices, or between a vocal and an instrumental part; a straightforward interchange of vocal parts; the removal, in a couple of places, of a notated upper part apparently intended for harpsichord and echoing a vocal phrase; and a small but telling intensification in the final statement of a rondo theme. There are innumerable changes, nearly all of them tiny, to rhythmic detail, melodic outline (including the inclusion or omission of ornaments) and underlay, and shifts of octave in the basso continuo. In addition to these adjustments, doubling of voices by instruments in most of the chorus passages – something which is left implicit in the original version – is specified by means of verbal directions or, in places, written out in full.

The extent of the revisions diminishes markedly towards the end, and throughout the work the motivation for individual changes, like those in other scores which Blow subjected to revision, is sometimes less than obvious. The structural alterations, nevertheless, are readily explicable as reflecting the requirements of production in a different context and on a different stage from those originally envisaged, whilst many of the lesser changes amount to simplification of detail, presumably intended to suit the work to a larger venue. Unfortunately, no evidence survives of any production after the one in Chelsea.

Once Blow’s score had reached its final state it was recopied by William Isaack, a clerk of Eton College from 1673 until his death in 1703. He did this, presumably, so that it could be used once again for directing from the harpsichord: the alterations make the manuscript very difficult to read in places, but few of them affect the continuo bass line.  The implication is that the revised version of the work did indeed go into production, even though we know nothing of when or where. It would be tempting to surmise that the revision was somehow linked with Blow’s plans for an “Academy or Opera of Musick”, but for the fact that Isaack’s score appears to date from the 1690s, not the 1680s.

Hounds and Maids: Classical and Courtly Asides in the Libretto of Venus and Adonis

September 30th, 2010 No comments

The following article is adapted from the introduction to The Purcell Society’s edition of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and is used with permission.

The librettist of Venus and Adonis has very recently been identified by James Winn as Anne Kingsmill, subsequently married as Anne Finch, who in the early 1680s was one of the Maids of Honour to Maria Beatrice of Modena, Duchess of York. It was evidently at the behest of the Duchess – a music-lover, and one whose sophisticated taste ran to opera in particular – that the production of Calisto, the only other full-scale court masque in the reign of Charles II, had taken place in 1675.

Like that work, as Professor Winn observes, Venus and Adonis adopts a classical myth, features pastoral lovers, and focuses on female characters (Calisto, indeed, had an all-female cast – including Mary Davies, in her only return to the boards after her retirement save for her subsequent appearance in Venus and Adonis). He further notes that much of the second act of Venus and Adonis, which is unconnected with the myth, instead directly portrays the duties and interests of the Maids of Honour (represented in the masque by the Graces).

Throughout much of the libretto the mythical central plot-line is intertwined with other references to aspects of court life. The classical sources, with which Kingsmill was evidently very well acquainted, are treated with considerable freedom – the most obvious liberty taken with the traditional narrative being the reversal, in Act I, of Adonis’s eagerness to go hunting and Venus’s reluctance to accede to it. (An attempt has been made to read political allegory into this reversal, but it is far more likely that the intention was simply to intensify the tragic climax, by laying the responsibility for Venus’s bereavement at her own door.) Venus’s instruction of Cupid in the arts of perverse marksmanship, in Act II, has no specific basis in myth, though the notion that he should “make some love they know not why” is firmly established in Western tradition, as is Cupid’s advice to Venus that the best guarantee of a lover’s fidelity is to “use him very ill”. And Adonis’s hounds in Act I are, curiously, among the roll-call of those of a different huntsman, Actæon, given in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, III:

dum dubitat, uidere canes primique Melampus
Ichnobatesque sagax latratu signa dedere,
Cnosius Ichnobates, Spartana gente Melampus.
(While he [Actæon, now transformed into a stag] was hesitating, he was seen by his dogs;
Melampus and keen Ichnobates were the first to give the signal with their bark,
Ichnobates was a Cnossian and Melampus of Spartan breed.)

et substricta gerens Sicyonius ilia Ladon …
(and Sicyonian Ladon with the hollow flanks …)

… hirsutaque corpore Lachne …
(… and shaggy Lachne …)

Ovid records the names of 36 of the 50 hounds, and it appears that Kingsmill, perhaps over-relying on memory when drawing on a classical source she knew well, confused Ladon – who is described in the libretto as “strong and bold” – with another of his fellows:

praeualidusque Lacon …
(and Lacon, who was outstandingly strong …)

A literal translation of the two names tends to confirm this, for Ladon means Catcher, while Lacon means Spartan. (As for the names of the other dogs, Melampus translates as Black-foot and Lachne as Shag.)

With the exception of the Graces’ scene all the contemporary references in the libretto are gently satirical in tone. Two of them, Cupid’s little homily on fidelity in the Prologue and parts of the dialogue between Cupid and Venus in Act II, deal with the mores and especially the sexual morals of the court. One satirical sally in the libretto has a different and unexpected target – the composer, who joined in the joke with obvious relish. It was Blow who, as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, was responsible for teaching his young charges to read and write: the Cupids’ Lesson in Act II gives us an amusing glimpse of his methods, and through his own eyes at that!

Remembering Ken Fitch

September 30th, 2010 No comments

We were deeply saddened to learn that countertenor Ken Fitch  recently passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. Ken first sang with Magnificat in our performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in 1999 and appeared many times since, most recently in a program of music from Hamburg in 2008.

In addition to the gift of his bell like voice and keen artistry, Ken was also extremely generous with web expertise and assisted with the creation of Magnificat’s first website and online ticketing.

Most of all Ken touched all of us with his bouyant spirit and boundless energy. He will be missed and his memory will be treasured. Our thoughts are with his wife Kathleen, their son, John and the rest of Ken’s family.

To read more about Ken’s life please visit <a href=””></a>.

SFCV Preview: Venus and Adonis, Premiering for a Second Time

September 28th, 2010 No comments

by Marianne Lipanovich for

Three-hundred-plus years is a long time to wait for a second performance, especially if the work in question is, according to Warren Stewart, director of Magnificat Baroque, “an exceptional piece” from a time when English opera was flourishing. The good news is that the upcoming performances of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (2nd version) vest-pocket opera should prove it was well worth the wait.

First, though, we need some historical context as to why what’s called the earliest surviving English “opera” hasn’t been heard more often. The piece itself hasn’t been lost; most people have heard the 1902 version of this work, which is a mix of the earlier two versions. But some digging has brought these first two versions that were written in the 17th century back into the consciousness of early-music aficionados. The first version, believed to have first been performed in 1683 at the court of England’s King Charles II, had its modern premiere last year. The upcoming Bay Area performances serve as the modern premiere of the second, slightly tweaked version, which debuted in April 1684, in another private performance for the court.

In addition to interest in the music, the libretto has also been getting some attention lately. Although it has generally been attributed to the prolific “Anonymous,” and some sources have suggested that one Aphra Behn was responsible for it, an English literature scholar, Dr. James A. Winn of Boston University, makes a convincing case that the until-now-unknown author was most likely Anne Kingsmill (Finch), considered the finest female English poet before the 19th century.

Amphion Anglicus: Dr. John Blow ‘The Most Incomparable Master of Musick’

September 23rd, 2010 No comments

Apollo’s Harp at once our souls did strike,
We learnt together, but not learnt alike:
Though equal care our master might bestow,
Yet only Purcell e’re shall equal Blow.

This panegyric, written on Purcell’s death by Hereford Cathedral organist Henry Hall, who together with Purcell had studied under Dr. Blow, reflects how closely the reputations of the two great composers of Restoration England were entwined. To the extent that he is known today, John Blow is primarily remembered for his association, first as teacher and then colleague, of the marvelous Henry Purcell. However, during his lifetime he was the most celebrated and influential musician in England.

Born in Newark in 1644 and conscripted into the Chapel Royal as a chorister when he was just six, Blow’s entire life was centered around the court in London where he served in many positions as organist, composer, keeper of the royal instrument collection (a position held subsequently by Purcell) and perhaps most significantly as master Master of the Children of the Chapel. In his capacity as educator he had a formative influence on several generations of English composers. He pokes fun at his own teaching methods in the sarcastic Cupid’s Lesson in Venus and Adonis – satirizing the denizens of the court at the same time.

He was described by a contemporary as ‘a very handsome man in his person, and remarkable for a gravity and decency in his deportment…a man of blameless morals and of a benevolent temper but not totally free from the imputation of pride.’ But then he had much to be proud of, having produced an astonishing wealth of music, primarily odes, services and anthems for use at court. Already in 1677 he was awarded the first Lambeth degree of Doctor of Music in recognition of his preeminence among church musicians.

In 1679 he resigned from his position as organist of Westminster Abbey specifically to create a vacancy for the gifted young Purcell and the two shared a close relationship and friendly rivalry throughout the 1680s. They clearly influenced each other’s compositions and, given the difficulties of dating many of the ttheir works, it is often impossible to determine who was borrowing from whom.

In the case of the two composers’ operas it is clear that Blow’s one work in the genre, Venus and Adonis, was written first served as the model for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The links between the two works are apparent. The libretti, though by different authors, share many traits: the inclusion of cupids, the use of the chorus in a variety of roles (shepherds and shepherdesses, huntsmen, etc.), and the central role of the wild boar. (The bearing onstage of the dead beast’s head in Dido and Aeneas has been seen as a direct reference to the beast that brought down Adonis in the earlier opera.)
The musical connections of the two operas are even more significant. Each is constructed with a prologue and three acts (though the music for Purcell’s prologue is lost) that display similar key relationships and each culminate with a tragically intense lament and chorus. Further details (e.g. the walking bass lines in the second acts and the declamatory style in general) link the two works.

Blow outlived his pupil and colleague by more than a decade and in 1700 a new post at court was created for him as Composer for the Royal Chapel. He continued to compose til the end of his life in 1708. The numerous dedications and odes to Blow’s consummate musicianship found in Amphion Anglicus, a compendium of his songs published in 1700 attest to the high esteem in which he was held by his fellow musicians.

Thus Bird, a British Worthy, spread his Name
And for his Country gain’s this early Fame;
And down from him, in Time’s successive Flow,
Many a Noble Genius cou’d we show,
But not One Greater, None more Excellent than Blow.

Magnificat will perform Dr. Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis on the weekend of October 8-10. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

Berkeley Festival Finale: Vivaldi Magnificat (AUDIO)

September 15th, 2010 1 comment

The 2010 Berkeley Festival & Exhibition concluded with a concert on June 13 that celebrated the extraordinary repertoire of music composed by Venetian composers for the elaboration of the office of Vespers during the century following Monteverdi’s monumental Vespro della Beata Vergine in 1610. Each of the ensembles that had been featured in main stage events at the Festival contributed to the final concert with all joining forces for the performance of Vivaldi’s Magnificat captured the recording available for streaming at the link below.

Soloists for the Vivaldi were sopranos Laura Heimes, Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Rita Lilly; mezzo-sopranos Barbara Hollinshead and Meg Bragle; and tenor Christopher LeCluyse. The ensembles Archetti, ARTEK, AVE, Magnificat, the Marion Verbruggen Trio, Music’s Recreation and ¡Sacabuche! performed under the direction of Magnificat Artistic Director Warren Stewart. (See full list of performers below.)

The towering figure of the Italian High Baroque, Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678. He studied violin with his father and may have had his first composition lessons with Legrenzi, whose style is reflected in his early vocal works. He would become the most famous and imitated Italian musician of the 18th Century and remains one of the most beloved and often-performed composers of the Baroque Era. Astonishingly prolific, Vivaldi composed in every genre current in the first half of the new century and, while his hundreds sonatas and concerti were the influential on the development of the compositional style of the high Baroque and contributed most heavily to his enduring reputation, he also wrote over 50 operas and a significant body of sacred works.

Vivaldi traveled widely and held a variety of positions in courts, churches and other establishments, notably the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian institutions devoted to the care of orphaned girls, where he was employed for over 30 years. The musical training at the Ospedale was such that Vespers and Mass became a focal point of Venetian culture and regularly attracted local nobility and foreign dignitaries. While his primary responsibility at the Ospedale was the provision of instrumental music like the L’Estro Armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration”) of 1711, during periods when the position of choirmaster was vacant he was frequently called upon to provide music for Mass and Vespers and it is most likely that this was the genesis of the of the Magnificat from 1715.

Vivaldi’s Magnificat exists in four distinct versions and its wide circulation throughout Europe suggests that it was Vivaldi’s best-known sacred composition during his lifetime. He returned to the Magnificat in the late 1720s, making relatively small changes possibly for the patronal feast of the Venetian convent of San Lorenzo. More extensive revisions were made for a performance in 1739, again for the Ospedale, with Vivaldi providing alternate settings for some movements. Our performance will be based on the original 1715 version, but will include one of the 1739 additions, the alto setting of Sicut locutus est.

Rita Lilly, soprano (Et exultavit)
Barbara Hollinshead, mezzo-soprano (Quia respexit)
Christopher LeCluyse, tenor (Quia fecit mihi magna)
Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano (Esurientes)
Laura Heimes, soprano (Esurientes)
Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano (Sicut locutus est)

Tonia D’Amelio, soprano
Shauna Fallihee, soprano
Laura Heimes, soprano
Carol Ann Kessler, soprano
Lindsey Lang, soprano
Rita Lilly, soprano
Naomi Lopin, soprano
Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano
Marion Verbruggen, soprano (!)
Meg Bragle, alto
Barbara Hollinshead, alto
Pam Igelsrud, alto
Dominic Lim, alto
Clifton Massey, alto
Andrew Rader, alto
Heidi Waterman, alto
Celeste Winant, alto
Philip Anderson, tenor
Michael Brown, tenor
Daniel Hutchings, tenor
David Kurtenbach, tenor
Christopher LeCluyse, tenor
Neal Rogers, tenor
Wolodymyr Smishkewych , tenor
Jedediah Allen, bass
Peter Becker, bass
Ed Betts, bass
Joshua Henderson, bass
David Varnum, bass

Carla Moore, concertmaster
James Andrewes, violin
Janelle Davis, violin
Cynthia Freivogel, violin
Robert Mealy, violin
Alicia Yang, violin
Anthony Martin, viola
Margriet Tindemans, viola
David Wilson, viola
Tanya Tomkins, violoncello
John Dornenburg, violone
Sarah Barbash-Riley, trombone
Michael DeWitt, trombone
Ray Horton, trombone
Linda Pearse, trombone
Daniel Swenberg, theorbo
Charles Weaver, guitar
Grant Herreid, lute
Christa Patton, harp
Jillon Stoppels Dupree, harpsichord
Lorna Peters, harpsichord
Gwendolyn Toth, harpsichord
Jonathan Dimmock, organ
Katherine Heater, organ
Yonit Kosovske. organ

Warren Stewart, conductor

The San Francisco Girls Chorus Joins Magnificat for Cupid’s Lessons

September 10th, 2010 No comments

Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus

One of the most charming moments in John Blow’s Venus and Adonis is the satirical spelling lesson given to a band of little cupids in the second act. On behalf of Venus Cupid teaches the younger cupids vocabulary to describe the court: “The insolent, the arrogant, the mercenary, the vain and silly,” which they dutifully repeat. It is noteworthy that Blow himself, as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, was responsible for teaching his young charges to read and write and Bruce Wood has suggested that, in addition to providing the librettist another opportunity to poke fun at courtiers, the ‘Cupids’ Lesson’ gives us an amusing glimpse of his methods.

For this delightful scene, Magnificat will be joined by members of the award-winning San Francisco Girls Chorus, who have been prepared for these performances by Director Elizabeth Avakian. For more than 30 years, the San Francisco Girls Chorus has been recognized as one of the world’s most respected vocal ensembles. Its level of training, performance, quality, range, and leadership in commissioning music for treble voices are lauded by musicians, critics, and audiences. San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas says, “The San Francisco Girls Chorus is a treasure. Their training, musicality, and vibrant spirit are evident whenever they perform…”
Read more…

Venus’s Amorous Recorder

September 3rd, 2010 No comments

The following article is adapted from Bruce Wood’s introduction to The Purcell Society’s edition of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and used with permission of the author and publisher.

The actress Moll Davis

The orchestra for the first performance of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis were most likely the Twenty-Four Violins of the King several of whom also played the recorder. But there is one other candidate as a recorder player in the little band, and an intriguing one at that.

Given the connection of Venus and Adonis, via Anne Kingsmill, with the household of the Duke and Duchess of York, it is highly likely that the first recorder part was entrusted to the distinguished French player Jacques (James) Paisible, who also appears to have been in the Duke’s service at the time.

It is noteworthy that in the original version of the work only the part of Venus in Act I, between bars 3 and 96, has an obbligato accompaniment for recorder; what is more, in the earliest source, British Library Add. MS 31453 as originally copied, this entire part save for its first two bars is clearly an afterthought, which was inserted in his score using a different pen and a different mix of ink.

In purely musical terms too the part appears to be an afterthought – as witness, for example, its clumsy repeated notes in bars 87–90 and the awkwardness of its line in bars 13–21. The reason why this distinctive obbligato is confined to twining itself around the sensuous phrases in which Venus describes her amatory techniques may be nothing more than the erotic associations of the instrument, but it is perhaps also relevant that in 1686 Paisible married Moll Davies (or Davis), who sang the role of Venus. If the two of them already had a blossoming relationship when the opera was first produced, this feature of its scoring would have had the court audience chuckling over yet another private joke – one not even requiring words.

Looking Back on Last Season: Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero

August 22nd, 2010 No comments

Magnificat’s 2009-2010 season opened with a somewhat irreverent production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on the weekend on October 16-18, 2009. The production marked the return of The Carter Family Marionettes, with their troupe of wooden trouble-makers, to Magnificat’s series.

Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle expressed what many of the audience felt when he commented that “the Carters have wooden stand-ins not only for the main human characters but also for dragons and demons, birds and gamboling lambs, transformed trees and dancing sea horses, and the level of theatrical magic on display was enchanting.” The full review can be read here.

Of course, Caccini’s magnificent work was not originally intended for interpretation by puppets, but the subject of the opera – the legends of Orlando as told by Ariosto and Tasso – was shared with the repertoire of the Sicilian puppet tradition, a specialization of the Carters and it seemed like a good fit. To this already polyglot stew was added the spice of commedia dell’arte characters, creating a unique and enjoyable experience for performers and audience alike.

Here’s an excerpt from the performance on October 18, 2009 – featuring countertenor José Lemos who will also appear in Magnificat’s upcoming production of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis in October. In the first, the good sorceress Melissa appears and announces her intention of saving Ruggiero from the enchantment of Alcina’s isle by appearing to him in the guise of his mentor Atlante. José is accompanied by Katherine Heater.

Photo Gallery
[nggallery id=3]

The Sources for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis

August 19th, 2010 No comments

The following article is excerpted from the Introduction to The Purcell Society edition of Venus and Adonis and is used here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

A page from British Library, Add. MS 22100

The principal manuscript source of Venus and Adonis in its original version is British Library, Add. MS 22100, a handsome presentation score-book copied by John Walter, organist of Eton College, who headed the work “A Masque for ye Entertainment of ye King”. Annotations in a different hand record the fact that Venus was sung by “Mrs Davys” and Cupid by Lady Mary Tudor. (Mary or Moll Davies was a former singing actress, who in 1667 had taken the part of Ariel in Dryden and Davenant’s radically revised version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and who had retired from the stage in the following year; she had also been one of the king’s mistresses, and Lady Mary Tudor was her natural daughter by the king – one of his numerous by-blows.)[1. Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim, Edward A. Langhans, Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800 (Carbondale, 1973–), s.v. Davis, Mary.] Beyond this we know nothing about the performance, not even its date. But by great good fortune a copy has survived of the word-book printed for a revival (now in Cambridge University Library, Sel.2.123[6]). This describes the work as having been “Perform’d before the King, afterwards at Mr. Josias Preist’s Boarding School at Chelsey” (where, famously, Dido and Aeneas was to be performed in 1689). Its first page bears a manuscript annotation informing us that “Mr Preist’s Daughter acted Adonis / Mris Baker a Dutch young Gentlewomn Acted Venus / Mris ffeltham acted Cupid”, and dating the school performance 17 April 1684.[2. The copy was preserved by John Verney (a member of the prominent Buckinghamshire family), whose niece Mary, a pupil at the Chelsea school, was in the cast. The annotations are in his handwriting, and he was in the audience; eight days later, in a letter to his brother Edmund, Mary’s father (London, British Library, Verney MS M636/38), he wrote approvingly of her performance, though unfortunately without mentioning which role she took. For a fuller account of the libretto see Richard Luckett, “A new source for ‘Venus and Adonis’”, Musical Times cxxx (1989), pp.76–79.] The use on the title-page of the word “afterwards” seems to imply that the production at court had taken place not long before.

Nevertheless, one detail in Add. MS 22100 has hitherto misled scholars into accepting a date of 1682 or even 1681 for Venus and Adonis: an annotation reading “Mr Dolbins Book / Anno domini 1682/1” (date sic) – preceded by a smudgy capital M, perhaps written in order to start the pen. But that date clearly does not mark the completion of copying. Such a date, if supplied at all, was customarily placed at the beginning of a book, often appended to a table of contents. There are in fact two tables of contents in Add. MS 22100, both undated. The first, in the copyist’s own hand, is on f.2, and gives only the first eight of the thirty-one works in the volume, the last four of them in the wrong order – hence, presumably, its abandonment; the second, this one complete and correct, is in the same hand that added the two singers’ names, and occupies f.2v. The crucial annotation, however, was written not at the beginning but at the end (f.151v): it is written on what would be the verso of the front flyleaf if the volume were reversed, and – since this is a single-ended book copied from the opposite end – it now appears upside down. On the adjacent flyleaf (f.150v), also inverted, are two further annotations in the same hand, reading “Mr James Hart” and, again, “Mr Dolbins Booke”, the former preceded by another smudged M. All three of these annotations are in a third hand, conceivably that of the bookbinder. The uniformity of the rastration shows that the paper was (as would be expected) already ruled for music before it was bound. But it is evident that binding preceded copying: on several openings Walter’s pen sputtered as he reached the steeply-angled gutter of the verso, spraying droplets of ink, and at a few points where he closed the book while these were still wet, their pattern is mirrored in the gutter of the recto. Read more…