Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Clandestine Classics Notes
Clandestine Classics, our New Year's Eve program, includes four little-known gems of Bach and Handel, one of which is addressed to St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. I adore this painting of her (by Guido Reni, 1606) for what it seems to suggest about the nature of artistic inspiration: the music seems to pass directly from heaven into her violin!
For those of you curious to know a little about this music in advance, here are my program notes. Enjoy, and see you New Year's Eve at Zilkha Hall!
Though concerti for multiple soloists were invented by the Italians, German Baroque composers developed a special fondness for this kind of piece, partly because such works welcomed the kind of busy counterpoint they regularly wrote. The Germans also had a predilection for colorful sound combinations, such as one finds in the Brandenburg Concerti, each of which calls for a different group of soloists. Bach’s Triple Concerto pits two melody instruments (violin and flute) against the harpsichord, whose typical role in such works is to supply necessary harmonies and not much else. But as in the Fifth Brandenburg, the harpsichord is a stealth soloist here: its part eventually rises above the others to dominate the texture, culminating in non-stop figuration and elaborate cadenzas for the continuo player. Like many of Bach’s keyboard concerti, the Triple Concerto is a transcription. The outer movements derive from an earlier prelude and fugue for solo harpsichord, while the central Adagio elaborates on a movement from one of Bach’s organ trio sonatas.
Bach composed Ich habe genug in 1728 for the Feast of the Purification, the annual liturgical celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Originally scored for solo bass, oboe, strings and continuo, the work seems to have been a personal favorite of the composer. Around 1735, Bach returned to it, transposing it up a third and rescoring the solo parts for high voice and flute. Tonight’s performance features this later version of the cantata.
Echoing the aged Simeon’s poignant words (“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace”), the anonymous libretto of Ich habe genug longs for death as both the final exit from worldly suffering and the beginning of a glorious afterlife. Bach’s treatment of the three aria texts especially marks this as one of his finest creations. The plaintive opening number, with its yearning melody, seems to encompass all the world’s sadness while affirming (paradoxically) that beyond the beauty of temporal notes lies a yet more beautiful eternity. A “slumber” aria of heartbreaking loveliness follows. Taking his cue from operatic “sleep scenes,” Bach here turns worldly sleep into an eloquent depiction of eternity, through the use of conventional lullaby figures and an unusual formal design. The final aria celebrates the end of life with joyous, dance-like figuration in the voice and instrumental parts, in utter defiance of death.
The setting of the Gloria now attributed to Handel came to the world’s attention in 2001. Newspapers heralded its discovery as a major event, despite lingering doubts about its authenticity. If Handel wrote it, he surely did so between 1706 and 1708 in Rome, where such a blatantly theatrical solo setting of the Gloria would have been well received by patrons who loved opera but were frequently denied it. The seven discrete movements follow the typical divisions of the Gloria text. Handel’s virtuosic treatment of the solo voice in the joyous outer movements is noteworthy, as is the highly expressive “Qui tollis,” which makes vivid with tortuous chromatic melodies the “sins of the world.”
St Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, did rather well following the restoration of the English monarchy in the late 17th century. Annual celebrations of her feast day (Nov 22) began in London in 1683, necessitating yearly Cecilian odes by Purcell and his contemporaries. As inheritor of this tradition, Handel was obliged to contribute a piece or two, including Cecilia vogli un sguardo (“Cecilia, turn your gaze”), scored for soprano, tenor, strings and continuo.
One of his last Italian cantatas, Cecilia was first given in 1736 as a curtain-raiser to the second part of Alexander’s Feast, an English-language oratorio likewise devoted to the theme of music’s power. At its première, Cecilia seems to have had a more practical purpose as well: it gave the evening’s two star Italian singers, Anna Strada del Pò and Carlo Arrigoni, choice arias to sing in their native tongue. (One wonders how they negotiated the English of John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast.) Although Cecilia’s libretto is hardly great poetry — it’s a middlebrow muddle of familiar platitudes and dutiful patriotism — its inspired music should encourage even skeptics that a Cecilian kind of virtue is a worthy goal, perhaps even a good New Year’s resolution!