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Philharmonic Fire
December 5–9, 2018

By Bruce Lamott

The horizons of what is known as “Baroque music” stretch over a vast territory only suggested by the content of this program. Listening to the stylistic variety represented here may cause us to search for common traits which connect this diverse repertoire, perhaps leading to the conclusion that, like the “Terra Incognita” of early map-makers, the art history designation “Baroque” was freely applied to music with a vague conception of the extent of the terrain.

The common thread is the triumph of the text over the intricacy of the music, especially the rule-bound imitative polyphony of the Renaissance. Opera contributed a new kind of singing: monody in which a singer sang only to the attentive accompaniment of basso continuo, a bassline (viol or cello) with harmonies played on a keyboard (harpsichord, organ) and/or lute. A new development, recitative, even freed singers from being subject to a beat or pulse, rather singing in the free rhythm of the spoken language.

Claudio Monteverdi

MONTEVERDI: “Confitebor tibi Domine,SV266 from Selva Morale e Spirituale

The cradle of the Baroque period was the Basilica of San Marco and the first public opera house in Venice, where as chapelmaster (maestro di capella) and composer of the operas The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea, Monteverdi brought the two worlds together. Like Bach’s B Minor Mass, the Selva Morale e Spirituale (Moral and Spiritual Forest, 1641) was Monteverdi’s end-of-life retrospective in which he compiled motets, spiritual madrigals, psalms, songs, and a Mass from his 40-year career in church music.

This is a setting of Psalm 111, one of four psalms sung at Vespers on Sundays and important Feast Days. The opening phrase is introduced by a solo singer in monody, then echoed by the other voices, singing together in chords (homophony). While much of the psalm is sung with churchly restraint, operatic elements make their appearance later in the work. A jarring Sanctum et terribile nomen eius (Holy and fearsome is his name), juxtaposes a prolonged “sanctum (holy)” with suddenly quaking repetitions of “terribile (fearsome).” Similar to tenor solos in his opera Orfeo and the Vespers of 1610, Monteverdi breaks from the relative austerity of this work to give the soprano a moment of unrestrained vocalism in a virtuosic free-fall at the Gloria Patri. This kind of prolonged cadenza has excited the anticipation of listeners to this day in the work of the late Aretha Franklin.

Antonio Vivaldi

VIVALDI: Nisi Dominus, RV 608

The sacred vocal music that Vivaldi composed  for student performers during his long association with the Venetian orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, has been long eclipsed by  the hundreds of instrumental concertos he wrote at the same time. Unlike the instrumental music which circulated throughout Europe in publications and manuscript copies (such as those of J.J. Pisendel, discussed in notes for our previous concert), sacred vocal works, if they were kept at all, remained with the institution for which they were written.

Vivaldi wrote even more settings of music for the Divine Office of Vespers than he did for the Mass. Why? Because not only was it the only one of the seven daily monastic services performed in public, but, by virtue of not being a sacrament, it was a performance for which admission could be charged. Afternoon Vesper concerts became a counterpart of opera performances in the evening, and so lucrative that the four Venetian ospedali alternated weekly throughout the month, like athletic teams in rotation.

Nisi Dominus is the Vesper Psalm 127 in the form of a solo motet for mezzo soprano and strings, which, like all public performances at the Pietà was performed from behind an ornamental grillework in an organ loft above the altar. Unfortunately, there is no record of the mezzo soprano figlia del coro who sang it, and though it is now popular with countertenors, there is no record of men–even castrati–singing with the girls of the Pietà.

However, we do have a good idea of who played the viola d’amore obbligato in the Gloria Patri, a movement which H.C. Robbins Landon calls “a highpoint in the whole of Vivaldi’s music.” Anna Maria della Pietà (performers were known, if at all, only by their first names) was Vivaldi’s best-known principal violinist, elevated in 1737 to the post of conductor, a maestra di coro, and one of the most sought-after violin teachers in Venice. Vivaldi wrote two viola d’amore concertos for Anna Maria, who was known also to play cello, theorbo, lute, mandolin, and harpsichord.

Vivaldi’s integration of the text and characteristic musical devices is impressive. A concerto-like ritornello opens the work with industrious rhythms and precipitous leaps appropriate to “Unless the Lord build the house.”  The second and third movements contrast the hesistant futility of rising before dawn [words to live by, in my opinion] with the frenetic scales of “Rise after you have rested.” “The bread of sorrow” (doloris) is word-painted with a bass descending by half-steps, a typical figure for operatic laments. And Cum dederit is a gently rocking siciliana, a common operatic conceit for sleep arias. 

In what Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot calls a coup de théâtre, Vivaldi saves the greatest surprises for the Gloria Patri. Customarily a burst of energy and splendor (as in the preceding Monteverdi) with the effect of a finale,  here Vivaldi introduces the soft, silvery quality of the viola d’amore, and, according to Landon “…the praise for the Holy Trinity appears like some marvelous dream, a trance of beauty.”

In the final two movements, Vivaldi returns to convention. Sicut erat (“As it was in the beginning”) is typically punned with a return to the music of the beginning movement. And, as in other sacred solo motets from the Baroque period to Mozart’s “Alleluia,” Vivaldi elaborates the final “Amen” into a separate movement for unabashed coloratura display.

Henry Purcell

PURCELL: King Arthur, “The Frost Scene,” Act III, Scene 2

The confluence of Italian and French Baroque opera joins with English popular song in the dramatic works of Henry Purcell. King Arthur, a “dramatick opera” or semi-opera with spoken dialogue, dancing,  and special effects, was a collaboration between England’s celebrated poet John Dryden and Henry Purcell, 28 years his junior and master of music for England’s royal court. It was first produced in 1691, and although it responds to troubled times for the Restoration government, we fortunately need know nothing about that to enjoy this self-standing scene.

It is a delightful confrontation between a hot Cupid awakening Cold Genius, who is melted by the power of love. Musically, the scene begins with an Italianate recitative, full of energetic bravura to contrast with the frozen C minor repeated chords that introduce the character Cold Genius. He picks up the icy motif with shivering trills added above his repeated notes. Once thawed by Cupid’s syncopated minuet, more in the style of an English ballad than an aria, Cold Genius responds with a stately song of recognition

Following another extravagant recitative by Cupid, the orchestra plays a Prelude  suffused with dotted rhythms, most likely a dance number imitating the entrance of a stiffly moving chorus of Cold People.  Their famous “shivering chorus” echoes the introduction of Cold Genius. Cupid proceeds to warm them to the power of love as well, and a flurry of violins frame their response.The scene climaxes with a duet for Cupid and Cold Genius, written in the imitative style of a fugue. It is also cast en rondeau,  a French rondo form in which the refrain “Sound a parley, ye fair, and surrender” recurs after episodes that move to new keys and topics. Having visited both the prevailing Italian and French operatic styles, Purcell ends the scene with a lively English hornpipe.

Johann Sebastian Bach

J.S. BACH: Cantata No. 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland

Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stime

In the seventeen years which separate these two cantatas (1714 and 1731), Bach went from being court organist at the small ducal court in Weimar to Cantor of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, responsible for the music of four churches. Hearing these works on the same program give us the opportunity to observe young Bach’s novel testing of forms and mature Bach’s masterful organization of a large tectonic structure. Both address the same topic, the anticipation of Christ’s coming, not as an infant but as the Redeemer returning to claim his own. Both are based in part on Lutheran chorales (hymns), though BWV 61 uses one-and-a-half while BWV 140 is permeated with a single tune.

BWV 61, for the First Sunday in Advent, begins with a classic French overture but interwoven with the 4-line chorale, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The the first line is sung in succession by all four voices, the second line simultaneously (homophonically). The third line becomes the subject of a lively fugue–a component of the standard-issue French overture–and when the slow, dotted rhythms of the overture return, the voices conclude together with the fourth line This the last we hear of this chorale.

A sermonizing tenor recitative is followed by a mellifluous aria accompanied by unison violins and violas. The bass sings the words of Jesus at the door, knocking to the accompaniment of pizzicato strings. The soprano opens the door and invites Him into her heart in a brief aria. The final chorus begins in medias res with the second half of another Advent hymn, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star), set in a complex texture of running violins and imitative voices.

There is a more developed narrative in the “sermon in song” of BWV 140. The overtones of the Last Judgment in the parable of the wise virgins who keep their lamps lighted in constant expectation of their Bridegroom are dispelled by emphasis on a personal and loving relationship with Jesus, a fundamental tenet of Pietist Lutheranism. Nonetheless, elements of BWV 61 can be seen in BWV 140. The dotted rhythms of the French overture become the approaching footsteps of the Bridegroom in the opening ritornello, and the bass voice of Jesus joins with the soprano soloist in two charming love duets. However, the overall structure is both more consistent and more complex.

The consistency lies in the placement of the same well-known chorale tune at the beginning (no. 1), middle (no. 4), and end (no. 7), in Bach’s characteristic chiastic (cross-shaped) form; the centerpiece (no. 4) is flanked by a recitative and duet on either side. The chorale itself appears in three forms, from most complex to the simple harmonization of congregational hymn-singing. The opening chorale fantasia weaves each line of the text separately with the orchestral ritornello setting the scene: the inexorable approaching Bridegroom, the rushing of the maidens to meet Him, and the watchman’s horn sounding on the watchtower. The first duet is one of seduction, with the voice of Jesus and the believer often alternating in dialogue and interwoven with a sinuous violin obbligato. The second duet, with the oboe, is one of galant rapture, as close as Bach gets to operatic lovemaking. The dance of the wedding feast–one of Bach’s greatest hits– accompanies the tenor line rejoicing that Zion has indeed heeded the watchmen’s warning.

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