Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rhetoric, Bach, & cultural miscellany

rhetoric: the art or science of using words effectively
in speaking or writing (Webster’s New World Dictionary).

“Rhetoric formed the basis of all his work…Bach exhausted all possibilities in music as it existed up until his time in terms of formal aspects, harmony, expression and melody” proclaimed the period performance pioneer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

“Just as form links the elements of a work into a greater whole, with no damage to their particularity, so Culture signifies a link between a specific civilization and universal humanity” writes the literary critic-cum-philosopher, Terry Eagleton.

“The equilibrium of any particular aspect of nature rests on the equivalence of its opposites” saith Piet Mondrian, the painter.

“What do I think? I think that when you’ve made up your mind about what it really means to you, it won’t matter what I or anyone else thinks. You’ll just know” (Leonard Bernstein, when asked by Michael Tilson Thomas what he “thought” of Mahler’s Adagietto).

“This is a stoic concept: to stay in the middle, which permits you to be free from the ambitions of the high, and permits you, through your liberty, to deliver something to those who don’t have anything” said the artist-architect Santiago Calatrava, self-referentially.

Culture…as a form of universal subjecthood, signified those values we shared by virtue of our common humanity. If culture-as-the-arts was important, it was because it distilled these values in conveniently portable form…

Culture is itself the spirit of humanity individuating itself in specific works…

What else is the artistic canon, a collection of irreducibly individual works which testify in their very uniqueness to the common spirit of humanity? Or think of the ethics of liberal humanism, for which I am most peculiarly myself when I rise above my prosaic particularity, perhaps through the transfigurative power of art, to become the bearer of universal humanity. Art recreates individual things in the form of their universal essences, and in doing so makes them inimitably themselves. (Terry Eagleton, from the excellent book, The Idea of Culture).

For what grievous estrangement is such transcendence a poor compensation? (Eagleton quoting one of Marx’s aphorisms on religion)

That most revered of composers, Bach, has always transcended expectations,
rhetorically speaking…

Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Glorious Baroque Program Notes

Below are the unabridged program notes for the Virginia Chorale's 25th Anniversary Season Opener, October 18 & 19.

Glorious Baroque: Notes on the program

This feast consisted principally of Music, which was both vocal and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did ravish and stupefy all those strangers that never heard the like. But how others were affected with it I know not; for mine own part I can say this, that I was for the time even rapt up with Saint Paul into the third heaven.
(from Coryats Crudities, 1611, by Thomas Coryat)

Thomas Coryat’s colorful description of music for a feast at Venice’s San Rocco in 1608 could well describe much of the music on our Glorious Baroque program. Venice was the center of the (European) musical universe in the 17th century. We should not let our love of the “high” Baroque masters, Bach & Handel, in any way diminish our appreciation of the Venetian school that shaped every composer from Monteverdi to Vivaldi. Indeed, Bach and Handel are indebted to the influence of Venice, with its penchant for opulent sonorities, dramatic effects & emotional affects, innovative harmonies, and an ever-attentive ear to beautiful melodies.

Loosely modeled on a Venetian Vespers feast-day program like the one Coryat attended in 1608, this concert uses that format as a point of departure to include a range of Italian and German masterpieces, along with works from England’s greatest baroque composers. We begin, however, with the oldest extant choral work from South America, from a 1631 collection of liturgical works in Lima, whose cathedral was one of the largest and most vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere. With a poem in the Quechuan dialect attributed to the priest, Juan Perez Bocanegra, Hanacpachap Cussicuinin was one of the most widely recognized pieces of its day. The text “blends” Christian imagery with Aztec symbols and contains an astonishing variety of metaphor. We offer but two of the near two-dozen poetic verses, which would have been alternated according to occasion, and used for processionals and recessionals alike.

Though we rightly revere Bach as THE German baroque master—of counterpoint (harmony) and form (musical architecture)—Heinrich Schütz was a giant of the early baroque, and as much a product of Venice as Dresden. Schütz took the poly-choral style (that is, multiple choirs—ranging from 2 choirs to as many as 13!) of Venice and applied particular attention to setting the Lutheran Psalms in his native German. The Psalmen Davids (Psalms of David) are the product of this composer’s fertile imagination. One of the most common devices employed in the polychoral style is that of antiphony— one choir literally echoing another. Psalm 100 (Jauchzet dem Herrn) is a classic example of antiphonal choral writing. Also prevalent is the Baroque penchant for musical rhetoric. The ends of many phrases contain poetic cadential gestures that underscore the harmonic and textual rhythm—not unlike the rhyming couplet that closes a Shakespeare sonnet. These gestures thus serve a dual function of summarizing the preceding and punctuating the close of the sentence’s idea with a period.

Another composer of the German baroque often lost in the long shadow of Bach is Dietrich Buxtehude. While his reputation among musicians rests mainly on his body of organ music (which did influence Bach), his vocal music has not garnered the place it deserves. Membra Jesu Nostri is a stunning work of pathos and affective beauty. Revered among the cognoscenti of 17th century music, it deserves a wider berth in the repertoire. We will share excerpts from two of the seven cantatas which comprise this concert-length work. A Passiontide piece (that is, one which meditates on the events from Jesus’ arrest through the crucifixion, stopping before the resurrection) each of the 7 sections focuses on a different part of Jesus’ body. The first cantata, Ad pedes (At the feet), begins with the declamatory statement, “Ecce” (Behold) but instead of the expected “Ecce uomo” (Behold the man) we are given an expressive, affective canon on “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.” The counterpoint, or polyphony—several voices moving independently, as in a round—heightens the expressive atmosphere by creating a fluid texture where the different voices each have moments of rhetorical import. The second movement, “Salve,” begins with a sighing melodic motive in the tenor. This gesture, a typical Baroque affekt, has never gone out of fashion, and can be heard in music as disparate as pop ballads and middle-eastern chant. Where the flowing opening chorus was merely punctuated by a homophonic chord, this second movement is dominated by the block-chord texture, as the voices declaim the text in a recitative (speech-like) style. Omitting Buxtehude’s intermittent solo movements, we move directly to a reprise of the opening chorus.

While the description of the Vespers feast at the start of these notes most likely referred to music of Gabrieli, it is Claudio Monteverdi’s monumental Vespers of 1610 that represent the zenith of Venetian Baroque music. As Bach would do more than one hundred years later with his Mass in B minor, Monteverdi does here, and has thus left us with the first great, large-scale choral-orchestral masterwork. Monteverdi draws upon the vast field of musical resources available at the time—the “old school” styles of Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the polychoral style of Gabrieli, and the “new school” dramatic innovations of early Baroque opera, with its florid, virtuosic vocal writing, paralleled in the colorful and vivid use of the expanding Baroque orchestra.
Both Bach and Monteverdi intended their masterworks to be the feather in the cap towards a coveted job promotion. Bach hoped his Mass would land him the enviable job of Kapellmeister in Dresden, as Monteverdi hoped for upward mobility from Mantua to Venice. The hymn, Ave Maris Stella, is the most tranquil and sublime movement in the 90 minute sequence of Psalms, motets, and other forms intended to show off their composer’s mastery of all styles. The lush double chorus scoring frames this Marian hymn, with the intermediate 5 verses shared by both choirs and 3 solo voices. In between
these verses an orchestral ritornello would repeat, varied from verse to verse, further highlighting the range of Monteverdi’s creativity. The poem uses the rhetorical device of wordplay on AVE=EVA. The annunciation of praise addressed to Mary, (Ave Maris stella), “gives Eve (Eva) a new name.” According to Christian theology, Christ redeems humankind from the “original sin” of Adam— here Mary plays a parallel role in relationship to Eve.

The next section of our program juxtaposes different Psalms in counterpoint with one another. Schütz’s Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes”) has been a favorite poem of composers for centuries. Scored for a solo quartet, two choirs, and a continuo group, this polychoral setting shows its composer deftly displaying the Baroque style traits mentioned above. Each verse is introduced by a solo voice, declaiming the poetry in virtuosic, operatic style (yet adhering to stylized Baroque notions of rhetoric and affect). The opening soprano solo is a classic example of this technique: each subsequent repetition of the eponymous line, “I hebe meine Augen auf” ascends via a coloratura melodic sequence, climbs an octave, and heralds the two choirs’ entrance. This pattern of “call and response” continues and culminates in a final verse where the solo quartet sings together, and both choirs respond in kind to bring this Psalm to a marvelous tutti finish.

Juxtaposed between the two Schütz Psalm settings is one of the great shorter works of the early Baroque master from England, Henry Purcell. Influenced by the highly expressive style of the Tudor school (best represented by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd), Purcell’s chromatic harmonic language sounds modern over 300 years later! Purcell simply exploits the possibilities of the chromatic inflection of ascending and descending melodies (e.g.: the first sopranos sing b-flat, and two notes later, sing b-natural—a jarring juxtaposition, which is a defining difference between the major and minor modes & scales). In addition to this melodic expressivity, Purcell divides the chorus into 8 independent parts, heightening the density of the texture. The three-minute motet never ventures beyond the opening verse of the Psalm, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.”

In addition to the Psalms of David, Schütz compiled a series of motets late in his prolific career called simply, Geistliche Chormusik (Sacred Choir Music). The unassuming title belies the richness of its contents, and Die mit Tränen säen werden mit Freuden ernten is a sublime example. Another Biblical poem whose appeal would continue (Brahms wrote the most beloved setting of this text in his German Requiem), Schütz seizes on the expressive potential of the imagery: “He who sows tears” is set with a sighing affekt while “will reap joy” follows immediately as a jubilant dance. These two contrasting rhythmic sections jostle for position until a compromise is reached between the plaintive, duple-meter opening and the triple-time dance, and the organic process imaged in the text (tears turning to joy=seeds harvested as sheaves) is manifest in the music.

We close the first half of our program with one of the most popular vocal works from the period, Viadana’s ebullient evocation of Psalm 33, Exultate justi in Domino. As Schütz did in the previous piece, Viadana alternates verses between duplum and triplum meters with an adroit sense of proportion—a quintessential hallmark of the Italian Baroque.

The most popular Italian composer of the 18th century, Antonio Vivaldi’s vast output is more wide-ranging than either his critics or his fans avow. The fact that two works—
Gloria and The Four Seasons—crowd out the competition, shades the variety & vitality of Vivaldi’s music. In exitu Israel is a small-scale Psalm setting notable for the rhythmic drive that propels the piece. While there is an occasional antiphonal response between the sopranos and lower voices, the two-dozen plus verses of the poem are declaimed in a syllabic, homophonic style. The closing Amen is memorable for the striking unison arpeggios that literally cascade down like the Red Sea referenced in the Psalm, and its harmonic fluidity a hallmark both of this work and its composer.

Johann Pachelbel is another composer underappreciated because of the over-popularity of a particular work. At least Vivaldi is famous for two works, whereas Johann is remembered for the simple, elegant Canon in D. While not as prolific a composer as Vivaldi or Bach, Pachelbel produced an admirable corpus of vocal and choral music for the church. Nun danket alle Gott is typical in being a direct, chorale-based motet(the hymn-tune many may recognize as “Now thank we all our God”). A double-chorus antiphonal verse—reminiscent of Schütz—is followed by a chorus whose texture varies between counterpoint, chorale and antiphonal exchange. The third and final section of the work is a classic chorale-based chorus, where the lower voices accompany in playful secondary themes while the soprano intones the chorale melody that gives this motet its name.

At the heart of our program we return to another Buxtehude cantata from Membra Jesu Nostri, to be followed by one Bach’s great motets. From the cantata, Ad manus (To the hands) comes the opening movement Quid sunt plagae istae. The rhetorical interrogation (“What are these wounds in Thy hands?) is aptly coupled with expressive and affective music. Indeed this particular affekt, the piquant 1/2 step dissonance, has remained a similar expressive gesture today. It certainly influenced later Baroque composers like Antonio Lotti. Lotti composed several versions of these verses from the Credo of the Mass liturgy. In this 8-voice Crucifixus, the pain of Christ’s wounds is expressed in a series of plangent dissonances as each successive voice part enters the texture. Quid sunt plagae istae is thus reprised to conclude this sequence of passion music where sensual expressivity serves the rhetorical depth of theology and spirituality.

The six Motets of Johann Sebastian Bach are among the most revered works by this greatest of Western composers. Given the number of large-scale works—the cantatas, Passions, the Concerti, the Suites—the Motets display a remarkable concision and therefore contain a concentrated dose of Bachian content and energy. Fürchte dich nicht is among the shortest and, curiously, least performed of the six. Unfolding in one movement, the opening antiphonal double-chorus exchanges verses from Isaiah. The double chorus melds into one for the closing chorale-fantasia where the Sopranos intone the hymn “Lord, my shepherd, fount of all joys” over the rhythmic and harmonic motion of the lower voices.

As noted above, Monteverdi’s Vesper settings are the 17th century epitome of the form.
In addition to those in the 1610 collection, Monteverdi composed multiple versions of many of these Psalms, so popular as artistic subjects for the color and poetic variety of their imagery. We offer a version of Lauda Jerusalem composed near the end of Monteverdi’s storied life, and appearing only posthumously, in 1650. Similar to textures we have seen in the German chorale-motets, the lower four voices form a foundation of interacting, antiphonal exchanges over which the soprano intones the chant signifying Psalm 147.

George Frederic Handel may be sui generis among Western composers for never having gone out of fashion. Ever since its premiere, the Messiah has been a mainstay of the repertoire, and it is speculated that somewhere in the world, at any given moment, a performance of Messiah is occurring! Its popularity and staying power is with good reason, as its author was one of the most accomplished vocal composers in history. What would the present-day equivalent of Handel’s four splendid Coronation Anthems resemble? Can you imagine a modern-day Handel writing a set of magnificent “Inauguration Anthems?” Imagine still the premiere of new “classical” music more important than the political ceremony for which it was written. Zadok, the Priest, the most direct and concise of the quartet written for the occasion, is rightly one of Handel’s most popular choruses. Accounts generations after the 1727 Coronation of George II and Caroline attest to the majesty of the musical component. According to the composer William Boyce, it was the “first Grand Musical Performance,” and thus a fitting close to the first concert of our celebratory 25th Anniversary season.