Tuesday, October 19, 2010

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

[Tonight the Chorale kicks off the Washington & Lee University Concert Guild season with a reprise of the Pizzetti and Daley a cappella Requiem settings we shared this past spring (we're also performing works by Giselle Wyers and James MacMillan). This past weekend the Chorale joined the Roanoke Symphony Chorus to open Opera Roanoke's season with a gala concert of music inspired by the Faust legend. This coming weekend we open our own season with the program annotated below!]

If it ain't Baroque...Notes on the Program

In astrology, “on the cusp” refers to being born under two signs—one receding and one emerging (I was born a day before the cusp of Leo & Virgo, a friend born two days later is on a similar cusp, the signs' directions reversed). We could describe as “on the cusp” many a composer, straddling the worlds of two eras: one transitioning into history while a new, “modern” period is emerging. Beethoven, Verdi, Mahler, Debussy & Stravinsky represent but a few of these “cusp” relationships between 1800 and 1900. Three of the composers who played major roles on the cusp between the end of the Renaissance period and the beginning of the Baroque era in the early 17th century were Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz.

In this program, the two great composers of the Baroque period, Bach and Handel, are exceptional for reasons other than their much-lauded musical genius. Bach and Handel represent the paradigm of the Baroque era. They are the epitome of the 18th century Baroque; they are not on the cusp, looking at the period from the perspective of another. In this program, Bach and Handel are exceptional for not being Janus-faced composers. Janus was the Roman god of gates & doors, the month January (at the turning of the year) is named for him, and Janus-faced describes a two-faced being looking in opposite directions (seeing the past and glimpsing the future). Composers like Gabrieli, Monteverdi & Schütz, Mendelssohn & Brahms (who looked back to 18th century models), and MacMillan & Distler (who looked past the Baroque & Renaissance) are all nephews of Janus.

The two versions of the famous chorale, Wachet Auf (Sleepers Awake) that close each half of the program collapse some of the distance between the Baroque and Romantic periods. Mendelssohn harmonizes the chorale in Baroque style (one of many tributes to Bach throughout the Jewish-Lutheran convert’s brief career) and adds distinctive brass fanfares, an emergent feature of Romantic symphonies and operas from Schuman to Wagner.

Heinrich Schütz helped bridge the span between the Italian Renaissance and the German Baroque. In settings like the “Echo Psalm” (the 100th, Jubilate Deo in Latin), Schütz signals back to the jaunty madrigal-isms of the Renaissance while helping shift the focus to one of the defining features of 18th century music, the Affekt (affect—an expressive musical gesture that stands for an emotional response like a cry or sigh).

Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 100 dates from 1844. Depending upon the scholar one consults, it was written for the 25th anniversary of the New Israelite Temple or the Berlin Cathedral. Regardless, the directness of its appeal is characteristic of a composer “dear to every German Israelite” who continued the rich tradition of Lutheran church music epitomized by Bach.

The oldest composer represented on this program is Giovanni Gabrieli, on the cusp between the height of the Italian Renaissance and the dawn of the Venetian Baroque. Beloved of choirs and brass ensembles for four centuries and counting, Gabrieli’s balance of craft and inspiration made him an ideal candidate to usher in a new era of musical opulence with the Venetian polychoral tradition culminating in Monteverdi and Schütz. The “classic” sound of the Italian Baroque, embodied by Vivaldi (and an early influence upon the style of Bach and Handel), begins with Gabrieli. As one of the world’s trading centers, Venice was also on the cusp between the west and east. And the influences on Venetian music were as varied as the spice trade, from Jewish chant to the ornamental calls of Islamic muezzin. One of the best—and most colorful—descriptions of 17th music we have comes from the English writer, Thomas Coryat, after a 1608 visit to Venice and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where Gabrieli was master of one of the greatest programs in the history of church music.

This feast consisted principally of Musicke, which was both vocall and instrumentall, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like…Sometimes there sang sixeteene or twenty men together, having their master or moderator to keep them in order…Sometimes sixteene played together upon their instruments…
(Coryats Crudities, London, 1611).

A modern musical Renaissance has been underway since the middle of the 20th century in the Scandinavian, Nordic and Baltic states. Jan Sändström is among the younger, post-WWII generation of primarily choral composers returning to the purity of the Renaissance. His Sanctus is colored by the atmosphere of a timeless impressionist style that evokes a meditative calm.

Defining the word “motet” is a trick question when it comes to music history. From its origins in the medieval period (from the Latin movere—“to move” and the French mot—“word”) it has generally referred to a work for voices with words. In the Renaissance, the main distinction between a “madrigal” and a “motet” was the secular and sacred texts, respectively, of each. Space does not permit further elaboration, but since the Renaissance, the motet has almost exclusively been a sacred choral work, and since the Baroque, the paradigms of the genre have been the six motets of J. S. Bach. Bach’s motets were written as funeral works with a pedagogical purpose. He used the concentrated form of the motet as musical etudes (study pieces) for his young choristers. The longest of the six is 20 minutes, and Lobet den Herrn is the shortest (c. 7’). Musical phrases tend to group themselves into neat subdivisions of two, three or four bars. Bach’s opening soprano line doesn’t break until bar 12. The next time the sopranos get more than a “catch breath” is in measure 39. That Lobet den Herrn is the most “accessible” of the 6 Bach motets should deepen the audience’s appreciation for the talents of our singers!

Like Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms had a deep respect for the music of the recent past. His studio contained three portraits: Bach, Beethoven and Luigi Cherubini (who turns 250 in 2010). While his older contemporary, Anton Bruckner looked back to the Renaissance for the inspiration of his a cappella motets, Brahms looked to Bach. Of the seven Brahms motets, Schaffe in mir, Gott is the most popular. Its opening movement, with Mendelssohn-like clarity and simplicity, can stand on its own (like Bach, Brahms subdivides his motets into multiple sections).

Hugo Distler was one of the countless victims of Germany’s Third Reich. An anti-fascist Lutheran church musician, Distler took his own life to avoid conscription in the SS. The tragedy of his death is doubly bitter for the fact close friends had procured a draft waiver for the composer that failed to reach him in time. His output is concentrated in sacred motets, many based on popular hymn tunes like Lobet den Herren (Praise to the Lord). While clearly joining the procession of great Lutheran composers that includes Bach and Mendelssohn, Distler was also enthralled with the music of the medieval period. In motets like the one offered tonight, his fascination with the improvisatory-sounding rhythms of that era jumps, skips, and leaps to the foreground.

A composer who has leapt to the foreground of today’s musical landscape is James MacMillan. MacMillan’s music was featured in our 2010 Young Singer Project concert and in our season finale in May. He is a new favorite of our singers, and is one of the most acclaimed artists in Britain. The Scottish composer is writing an ongoing series of communion motets for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir in Glasgow. MacMillan’s music merges the past and the present with an engaging and original voice that is as indebted to the music of the Scottish Highlands as it is to the long tradition of European sacred music. In Splendoribus Sanctorum juxtaposes chant-inspired choral harmonies with an improvisatory trumpet solo redolent of a spacious Venetian basilica. Factus Est Repente features turns and trills closer to the Scottish countryside that infuse MacMillan’s music with a timeless and otherworldly atmosphere that can be as haunting as it is beautiful. In the context of this motet, it is both celebratory and ethereal. We hope you enjoy hearing this music as much as we love performing it.

Another composer (who will be with us in Virginia Beach, October 22) whose distinctive voice is just emerging is that of Kile Smith. The Philadelphia-based composer has written a concert-length Vespers, influenced by Monteverdi and equally indebted to the Lutheran tradition. The Hymn, Herr Christ begins with a four-part chorale that opens like a splendid blossom into 8, 12, and ultimately 16 parts, before folding in on itself, ending in the hymn-like simplicity with which it began.

The only thing simple about Monteverdi’s 10-part setting of Psalm 127 is the sheer joy it inspires. Exploiting the separateness of the choirs in the Basilica of St Mark’s in Venice (for which it was written 400 years ago), Nisi Dominus pits the two choirs against one another at a distance of as little as half a beat. That disjointedness is relieved by an antiphonal middle section featuring a more “traditional” double-choir texture (which does not yield one ounce of rhythmic vitality). Monteverdi rounds off the Psalm with the liturgically proper Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father…”). He turns this into a musical pun by setting the closing Sicut erat in principio (“As it was in the beginning…”) with the disjunct music of the opening. By so doing, he gives holy irreverence a proper place.

With apologies to the purists, the Handel arrangements that bookend the program are also meant to be irreverent. And like so much of the music we champion, serious fun.

Please join us October 22-24. For more information, visit www.vachorale.org or call 757-627-8375.

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