Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Marian Feast Notes

Our program this coming Saturday is devoted to Baroque music on Marian themes. Tor those who like to read the program notes in advance, here they are. See you at Zilkha Hall on Saturday night!

Marian Feast Program Notes:

History has not always been kind to great composers. But with the advent of a historically conscious mode of performance, we’ve gotten to know most of the movers and shakers of the Baroque period, even if our judgment of their worth is sometimes a bit skewed. The Scarlatti family is a case in point. All keyboard players know a sonata or two by Domenico Scarlatti, but how many of us have ever heard an opera by his father Alessandro? In the eighteenth century this situation was neatly reversed: Domenico was known mostly by reputation, since he worked for a reclusive Spanish court and traveled little, while Alessandro was widely revered as the greatest master of Italian vocal music. As Michelangelo had done in the Renaissance for virtually all areas of the visual arts, Alessandro Scarlatti perfected the major musical genres of the Italian Baroque. His prodigious output, which includes 100 operas, 600 cantatas, and 30 oratorios, has only recently begun to make its way back into the repertoire.

Scarlatti wrote most of his sacred works for either wealthy churchmen or religious organizations known as confraternities. One such group, the Knights of the Virgin of Sorrows in Naples, commissioned his Stabat Mater in 1724 (they would later commission Pergolesi’s famous setting of the same text). This venerable text, of thirteenth-century Franciscan origins, conveys in twenty rhyming strophes a timeless message: the Virgin Mary’s grief at Jesus’s crucifixion is shared by mankind, which through this sacrifice is redeemed. It was sung regularly as a Gregorian sequence hymn until the Council of Trent (c1550), which suppressed it until the early eighteenth century, when it reappeared in the Good Friday liturgy and at other penitential times. The text was set by many Renaissance and Baroque composers, including Domenico Scarlatti, who used it to create a tour-de-force work with ten independent vocal parts. Alessandro’s setting has all the hallmarks of his individual style: noble yet quirky melodies, expressive yet unpredictable harmonies, and refined though never fussy embellishments. Its scoring, for two treble solos plus two violins and continuo, reflects the modest resources of the Neapolitan confraternity.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber was one of the greatest virtuoso violinists of his day. While in service to the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, he compiled a collection of violin sonatas unmatched for their time in both originality and in sheer technical demands. Like the Catholic Rosary, these “Rosary” or “Mystery” Sonatas include a series of “joyful,” “sorrowful” and “glorious” mysteries: five sonatas in each category, fifteen in all. These works were meant to accompany devotions, and each offers something for the eye as well: in the manuscript, elegant little copper engravings before each depict the mystery mentioned in the sonata’s title.

In the end, the descriptive titles are more allusive than descriptive of what actually happens during these sonatas. The “Annunciation” Sonata alludes to that moment, commemorated in countless artworks, when the Angel Gabriel brings Mary the news that she will give birth to the Messiah. The “Assumption,” another important Marian feast, celebrates the passage of both her body and soul into Heaven. The former uses the violin’s normal tuning, while the latter uses a mild scordatura, or deliberate mistuning of the violin’s strings. While conceptually challenging, the scordatura actually enables the violinist to play the notes that Biber wrote more efficiently, with fewer awkward fingerings and string crossings that would be required to play these notes with the normal setup of a violin’s strings.

The Oratorio on the Conception of the Virgin Mary is one of only two surviving Latin oratorios by Scarlatti. First performed in Rome in 1703, the work recycles music from one of the composer’s earlier Italian-language oratorios: I Dolori di Maria Sempre Vergine (Naples, 1693), which is no longer extant. Its modest scoring, for SATB soloists plus two violins and continuo, contrasts with the standard four-part string complement of most oratorios from this time. Its libretto, in contrast, was utterly pertinent in 1703: La Concettione promotes the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception, which at the dawn of the eighteenth century was not yet a settled issue.

This doctrine, whose theological roots go back to the Middle Ages, became a kind of theological lightening rod in Counter-Reformation Rome, which sought to distinguish itself in the strongest possible terms from the heresies of the Protestants. At its core was the idea that Mary, though conceived “in the way of all flesh,” was born without original sin. During the seventeenth century especially, this doctrine was challenged both from within and from without, leading to several papal pronouncements on the matter and a number of sympathetic artistic treatments of the issue, including musical compositions.

Lingering doubts about the state of Mary’s fetal soul were effectively silenced by Pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani), who in 1708 made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a holiday of obligation, thus insuring compliance (i.e., attendance at mass on this day) among the faithful. As luck would have it, Albani shared a common history with Scarlatti: they were both active at the artistic Accademia founded by the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Scarlatti served as maestro di capella from 1679 to 1684. Scarlatti’s theatrical ambitions kept him elsewhere for most of the next two decades, but in 1703 he returned to the Eternal City, where he found the theaters shuttered by papal decree. Like most of his contemporaries, Scarlatti turned to oratorios and cantatas on commission for wealthy ecclesiastical patrons like cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphili. La Concettione della Beata Vergine was probably first heard at one of their palaces, or perhaps at the Oratorio del Crocifisso in the Church of San Marcello, the epicenter of Roman oratorio performances since the early seventeenth century.

Oratorios from this time tend to comprise two more or less equal parts. This work is no exception to that general rule, though its two parts are quite brief, with barely five arias apiece and just a few short ensembles. In comparison to Scarlatti’s other works in this genre, La Concettione della Beata Vergine seems like only half an oratorio; and indeed, the sources suggest that its lost predecessor was longer. The final chorus of La Concettione (the only movement that involves all four singers) was clearly meant to conclude this work; its emphatic quatrain, with deliberately inverted syntax at the end, precludes any more text: “Quae est hodie concepta/a crimine immunis/laetitia communis/triumphat Maria.” But most of the surviving parts arrive at the final word of text and then fall silent on a dominant chord (necessitating the invention of a few bars of music for this performance), while the continuo part cadences, then continues in a new meter and key. Whoever adapted the old music to the new libretto seems to have realized, only after copying out several bars of the next section from the lost earlier work, that he had gone too far. Why he failed to correct the mistake and supply a final cadence in the other parts remains a mystery.

One other inevitable problem with a contrafactum (a work whose music originated with another text) is the sometimes awkward fit of old music and new words. Most problematic in this regard in La Concettione are arias like “Conceptam Virginem,” whose languid melody and dark key of B minor is at odds with the song of praise announced in its text.

The anonymous libretto is allegorical, not dramatic, and hews closely to the central points of a doctrine dear to the Catholic faith. At the outset Grace (alto) asserts that Mary, from the moment of her conception onwards, was untainted by original sin. The Serpent (bass), finding this notion preposterous, taunts Grace and throws down the gauntlet: Heresy (tenor) will do his bidding on earth, sowing doubt and discord among the faithful. The Archangel Michael (soprano) intervenes, reinforcing Grace’s doctrinal line, which is developed mostly by the latter in a series of arias. In the end, both Heresy and the Serpent reluctantly capitulate, much as those who doubted the doctrine (including sizeable numbers of clergy) were forced to acquiesce as the Church pressed its case for Mary’s immaculate conception.

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