with Jonathan Cohen and Iestyn Davies
March 1-5, 2017
HANDEL Arias from Saul and Theodora
HASSE Works from Didone Abbandonata
ZELENKA Simphonie à 8 Concertanti in A minor
ARNE “Vengeance, O come inspire me!” from Alfred
CPE BACH Symphony in E major
GLUCK Arias and dances from Telemaco and Orfeo ed EuridiceBy Bruce Lamott
The stylistic transition from the High Baroque to the Classical period in the mid-eighteenth century was marked by a change of aesthetic values from the affinity for extravagance, complexity, and artifice to an appreciation of clarity, expression, and naturalism reflecting the philosophy of the Enlightenment. It was bridged by the long career of the castrato Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792), whose “full and well-toned countertenor” [i.e., mezzo-soprano range] ” could enthrall audiences both with vocal pyrotechnics and noble simplicity. He was a champion of heroic roles at the height of Italian opera seria (serious opera) exemplified by the operas and oratorios of Handel and Hasse. Handel, in fact, rewrote Messiah for him, adding the virtuosic “For he is like a refiner’s fire” with its dazzling fioratura and expansive range. With changes in public taste at mid-century, Guadagni became a favorite of the operatic reform movement championed by Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi.
Handel: “O Lord, whose mercies numberless” from Saul
Handel is regarded as the creator of the English oratorio, a hybrid of the forms of Italian opera seria (serious opera) and the ceremonial anthems of the Anglican Church. Saul premiered at the King’s Theatre in London on January 16, 1739, with an original text by Charles Jennens, who three years later wrote the libretto for Messiah. It was first performed by a Mr. Russell, a contralto countertenor (not a castrato). In this prayerful aria, the musical shepherd boy David attempts to assuage the jealous fury of Saul, the mentally unstable King of Israel, with a brief air resembling “Mr. Handel’s Celebrated Largo” from Serse, written in the same year.
Zelenka: Simphonie à 8 Concertante in A minor
The autograph containing Zelenka’s Simphoniae à 8 bears the candid description “Six concertos written in a hurry in Prague in 1723,” where he was participating in the coronation of Emperor Charles VI. Zelenka had been active at the Electoral Court in Dresden since 1710, first as a double-bass player and later as a composer of sacred and instrumental music. There he was both a colleague of Hasse, who was later Kapellmeister of the court opera, and a friend of Sebastian Bach, who just two years earlier had dedicated a set of six similar concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg. The sinfonia concertante features a solo group of instruments—in this case solo violin, oboe, bassoon, and cello—alternating with the full complement of instruments. The first movement is an allegro a là Vivaldi, bustling with oscillating and scalar passages and a solo face-off between violin and oboe. It is textbook example of Baroque spinning-out (Fortspinnung), in which a short musical idea is repeated through a modulating cycle of keys (sequence), maintaining the same vigorous affect throughout. The second and fourth Andante movements are both marked cantabile (lyrical); one is a trio for oboe, violin, and bassoon, and the other an especially appealing duet for cello and bassoon to the accompaniment of plucked strings (pizzicato).
Hasse: “Ah che dissi, infelice!…Se resto sul lido”
The operas of Johann Adolph Hasse provided both the gold standard of Italian opera seria (serious opera) and the impetus for the operatic reform movement championed by Gluck. Didone Abbandonata (Dido Abandoned) was the thirty-seventh of his seventy-eight operas, written to a popular libretto by his good friend Pietro Metastasio, a text that gave rise to fifty other settings in the century. It is based on the episode in the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid in which Aeneas first loves, then leaves Dido, Queen of Carthage, heartbroken and suicidal. This scena ending the first act begins with an accompanied recitative in which the orchestra reflects Aeneas’s emotions as he second-guesses his declaration of love to Dido and wrestles with his conflicting obligations. The orchestra begins the aria with a jaunty introductory ritornello but is stopped in its tracks by Aeneas, hesitantly weighing his options. He then resigns himself to be damned if he does or he doesn’t, almost defiant in the braggadocio of flashy coloratura.
Arne, “Vengeance, O come inspire me” from Alfred
Excluded from English court commissions due to his Catholicism, Thomas Arne graced London’s theaters and pleasure gardens with his tuneful stage works, including masques, incidental music for plays, and other entertainments. Alfred began as an eight-number masque with spoken dialogue performed in 1740 at the country house of Frederick, Prince of Wales, commemorating King George I’s accession to the throne. It is best known for its finale, “Rule Brittania!” The masque was expanded into a sung oratorio in 1753, and ultimately became an English opera in 1753. “Vengeance, O Come Inspire Me” is one of the twenty-seven musical numbers in the final version, sung by Prince Edward, son of the ninth century King Alfred the Great, rallying the Britons to fight against the Viking invaders. The choice of such a patriotic topic was to assure English skeptics of the loyalty of the German-speaking Hanoverians now sitting on their throne.
Gluck, “Ah! Non turbi il mio riposo” from Telemaco
Homer’s Odyssey was a rich source of subjects for the classically-inclined audiences of the Baroque and Classical periods, and Gluck turned to the epic for the festivities surrounding the wedding of the future Austrian Emperor Joseph II and Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria in 1765. Adapted by Marlo Coltellini from a 1718 opera of the same name written for Alessandro Scarlatti in 1718, it followed an opera on the same subject by Hasse that opened in Vienna only a year previously. The title character is the son of Ulysses, Telemachus, who, shipwrecked on a magic island, reunites with his father, who has been turned into a tree by the evil sorceress Circe. Once relieved of his vegetal state, Ullyses prepares to leave the island, but Circe first conjures a dream for the sleeping Telemachus in which he sees his mother Penelope dead and their city of Ithaca in ruins. Awaking from this nightmare, Telemachus offers himself as the expiation of the angry sea and sky to assure his father’s safe return home to Ithaca. This aria reflects several of Gluck’s operatic reforms: the plaintive oboe solo in the short introduction does not become an intricate countermelody, the strings pulsing in homophonic chords allow the text—which has no word repetitions—to be heard clearly, and the austere vocal line aims at a natural expression of the emotion, not an overt display of vocal gymnastics.
Handel, “Sweet Rose and Lily” from Theodora
Handel’s Theodora was his penultimate oratorio and said to be his favorite. With text by Thomas Morell (also the librettist for this season’s Joshua), it premiered at Covent Garden on March 16, 1750.Not to be confused with the better-known sixth century Byzantine empress of the same name, this Theodora was an Alexandrian noblewoman, martyred in the fourth century during the reign of Diocletian. “Sweet Rose and Lily” is sung by Didymus, a secret Christian dressed as a soldier outside the brothel where Theodora has been confined for not worshiping the Roman gods. While she awaits certain ravishment, Didymus extols her virginity and his intent to rescue her, to be rewarded only with a smile. It is a chaste and genteel minuet in the popular galant style.
CPE Bach, Symphony in E major, Wq. 182/6
After moving from Berlin to Hamburg in 1768, Emanuel Bach, second son of Johann Sebastian, wrote six symphonies on commission for Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the cross-pollinator between the Baroque and Classical styles who was to introduce Haydn and Mozart to the music of Bach and Handel. The notation “cresc – en – do” sprawling across the first four measures of the score already betrays the influence of the Mannheim style exemplified by Johann Stamitz. Sudden dynamic contrasts were characteristic of his famed Mannheim court orchestra, and coupled with this juxtaposition of soft and loud are sudden changes of mood and texture. The vigorous animation of the opera sinfonia is followed unexpectedly by poignant sighing interludes, and the sequential key changes of the Baroque are replaced with broader harmonic planes. This is especially jarring between the first and second movements, when our expectation of a solid landing on E major is abruptly cut off and three beats later, the Poco Andante begins on a shocking E-sharp introducing the remote key of F-sharp minor. The symphony is full of dashed expectations, even in the galloping finale.
Gluck, Music from Orfeo ed Euridice
Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, first performed for Empress Maria Theresa at Vienna’s Burgtheater on October 5, 62, ushers in the new dramatic values that were to change operas from the artifice of Baroque opera seria to the naturalism of the Classic era. It was the first of his “reform” operas, and Guadagni sang the role of Orfeo. These two arias show the god Orpheus at his most ecstatic and most despondent. He sings “Che puro ciel” after the Blessed Spirits dance in a scene “with verdant groves and flower-filled meadows, extensive shady spots, and rivers and streams flowing through.” Gluck’s orchestration is a masterpiece of musical atmosphere: undulating first violins punctuated with birdcalls from a solo cello and flute, twittering in the second violins, murmuring harmonies in the divided violas, sustained harmonies from solo bassoon and horn, all punctuated by gentle plucking (pizzicato) basses.
Seeing Guadagni’s performance as Orfeo, the British music historian Dr. Charles Burney commented that his “attitudes, action and impassioned and exquisite manner of singing the simple and ballad-like air Che farò acquired his very great and just applause.” A simple rondo form (ABACA) in C major, the recurring melody shows little of the pathos Orpheus is feeling at the loss of his beloved, while the intervening episodes express his anguish and hopelessness. This aria is the epitome of the elegant simplicity and noble decorum characteristic of the Classical era.