In two decades of exploring 17th Century music I have been continually fascinated by the way compositional techniques, modes of expression and ideas of taste and style migrated across Europe. These stylistic journeys most often began in Italy and travelling northward and refracted into spectrum of national styles of the High Baroque. Perhaps because I have spent time as a foreigner recently, encountering different traditions and cultures and learning new ways of communicating, my awareness of the role that the exchange of ideas plays in the development of art and society has been especially keen. The programs Magnificat will present in 2013-2014 all focus on the exchange of techniques and ideas, the generational transfer and elaboration of tradition and the translation of style from one culture to another.
Few events had a more profound influence on the music of the 17th century than the changing of the guard that took place at the Basilica of San Marco with the death of Giovanni Gabrieli in 1612 and the arrival of Claudio Monteverdi from Mantua the following year. Though they never held the post of maestro di cappella at San Marco, Giovanni and his uncle Andrea nevertheless dominated the musical life of the Serene Republic for three decades. Their brilliant polychoral style was appealing and effective and they pioneered the use of obbligato instruments in the service of what we would now call orchestration to give their concertos color and affect in a way that was imitated across Europe. One of Giovanni’s many students from north of the Alps in his final years was Heinrich Schütz, who studied in Venice for four years and returned to Dresden shortly after his teacher’s death, missing Monteverdi’s arrival by a matter of months. But more on that in the next program.
In his old age Giovanni began to incorporate some of the techniques associated with the ‘secunda prattica’, specifically an independent basso continuo and florid writing for solo voice. This is especially evident in some of the compositions included in his second volume of Symphoniae Sacrae, published posthumously in 1615. Similarly, while Monteverdi is most closely associated with the new music of the new century, he nevertheless took pains to demonstrate his mastery of the old polyphonic techniques, for example in the Missa in illo tempore, published along with his famous Vespers music in 1610 and the stile antico masses in his 1641 collection Selva morale et spirituale.
The blurring of compositional style represented by these two titans of Venetian music is central to Magnificat’s program on the weekend of December 20-22, for which we will join forces with The Whole Noyse in a co-production with the San Francisco Early Music Society. The program is built on a frame provided by the liturgy for the Christmas Mass but the music we will perform was unlikely to have been assembled for any specific event from the time. Rather we will combine the grandeur of Gabrieli with the passion and virtuosity of Monteverdi in a way that displays both the continuity and innovation reflected in the music of Venice at the beginning of the century.
In August 1628, Heinrich Schütz escaped war-ravaged Dresden and travelled to Venice, where he had studied with Gabrieli almost twenty years before. In a letter written after his return in late the next year, Schütz recalled “staying in Venice as the guest of old friends, I learned that the long unchanged art of composition had changed somewhat: the ancient rhythms were partly set aside to tickle the ears of today with fresh devices.” During his visit, he certainly heard such fresh devices in the madrigals and motets of Monteverdi and Grandi and in instrumental sonatas by Biagio Marini and Dario Castello. Marini’s eighth set of sonatas, subtitled “Curiose e Moderne Inventioni,” was published in Venice during Schütz’s stay in Venice, as was the Dresden Kappelmeister’s own collection of motets, his first set of Symphoniæ Sacræ.
The spirit of the “new music” Schütz heard in Venice continued to resonate in his music throughout his life and Magnificat’s program will reflect that resonance in a program that also features music of other composers who shared in the stylistic exchange. Schütz ‘borrowed’ (with full acknowledgement) some of Monteverdi’s music in his owncompositions, notably in the motet Es steh Gott auf, which appeared in the composer’s second set of Symphoniae Sacrae published in Dresden in 164_. But beyond direct quotations, much of the music Schütz wrote after his return to Dresden sparkles with the sunny brilliance Italy, though always with a marked German accent.
The program for our concerts on February 14-16 2014 centers on another generational exchange and the extraordinary tradition of the Bach family inherited by Johann Sebastian. Throughout the seventeenth century, so many of the organists and instrumentalists in the small towns of central Germany were Bachs that in the province of Thuringia the name ‘Bach’ was synonymous with the trade of musician. Bach’s obituary notice in 1750 observed that “Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to a family that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of Nature to all its members in common.”
In October 1694, the nine-year-old Johann Sebastian travelled to Arnstadt for the wedding of his cousin, the highly respected Eisenach organist Johann Christoph Bach. The Bach family gathered frequently, but this occasion was exceptional in that Christoph’s teacher, the renowned organist and composer Johann Pachelbel was present and likely performed together with members of the Bach family. 1694 also saw the publication of a set of sonatas by the Dresden violinist Johann Paul Westhoff, in whose orchestra Bach would later perform as a teenager before accepting his first position as an organist in Arnstadt.
In this program Magnificat will explore the music of Bach’s ancestors that the young Bach may have heard during the wedding festivities and will feature cantatas and instrumental music by Sebastian’s cousins Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach as well as Pachelbel and Westhoff. The program is framed by cantata based on the chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden, opening with Pachelbel’s setting, which may have served as the model for the young Johann Sebastian Bach’s first masterpiece, which will conclude the concert.
Two cantatas on the program are preserved in a collection of manuscripts known to musicologists as Das Altbachisches Arkiv, or the “Archive of the Elder Bachs.” Sebastian treasured these manuscripts throughout his life, making annotations in the scores and performing some of the works as late as 1749, the year before his death. The archives passed on to his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel and later became part of the library of the Berliner Singakademie, which was so instrumental to the revival of Bach’s music in the 19th century. Thought to have been destroyed in the Second World War, the archives were recently re-discovered and Magnificat will be performing from editions based on these manuscripts.
This review by Joshua Kosman was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 11, 2012.
Christmas was a good time in the 1680s’ Paris establishment of the Princess Marie de Lorraine – an occasion for celebration, contemplation and exquisite music, to judge from Sunday afternoon’s brief and wonderful concert by the early-music ensemble Magnificat.
Marie, known as Mlle. de Guise, had the great French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier as part of her household staff. And that meant that the yuletide observances – even though sung by a corps of amateurs – were being guided by one of the period’s subtlest and most inventive musical minds.
Sunday’s concert in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco – the lone offering during this hiatus year of one of the Bay Area’s most indispensable arts groups – conveyed some of the spirit of those long-ago holiday events. Charpentier’s “Christmas Pastorale” is a winning blend of spiritual reflection, narrative drama and flat-out bawdy fun, and the small ensemble – six each of singers and instrumentalists performing under the guidance of Artistic Director Warren Stewart - caught that range of tone perfectly.
Like many of Magnificat’s offerings, the Charpentier program was in part a matter of painstaking historical reconstruction. The “Christmas Pastorale” comprises a series of stand-alone scenes, which Charpentier seems to have shuffled and recombined over several years’ worth of performances.
In addition, the performances would have been studded with “noëls,” folklike Christmas carols known to the nobility and low-born alike. These ditties recast themes of the Nativity – a baby, a manger, farm animals – in comically up-to-date guise, with simple tunes that anyone could sing.
The combination of high and low, all in the service of a communal religious occasion, must have been irresistible. Certainly Sunday’s event, which ran just over an hour, boasted a wealth of sumptuous and elegantly delivered music.
Charpentier’s contributions moved fluidly from narrative recitative into arioso and back again, leavening the bare bones of the Nativity story with explorations of its sacred themes. At times the originality of his writing was startling, as in the dark, mysterious instrumental evocation of Christmas Eve, the chirpy dance of the angels or the richly ornate choral writing in the finale.
The noëls, meanwhile, offered exuberant counterpoint, with enough earthy humor to make it clear why some members of the clergy might have tried to have them suppressed.
Virtuoso singing is always a feature of Magnificat performances, and this was no exception. Soprano Clara Rottsolk, a new addition to the company, made an especially lovely and tonally vibrant contribution, but she was well matched by fellow sopranos Catherine Webster and Jennifer Paulino, and by countertenor Clifton Massey, tenor Paul Elliot and bass Peter Becker.
The instrumental forces were no less splendid. Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake played a variety of recorders, Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem were the tireless violinists, and John Dornenburg (viola da gamba) and Jillon Stoppels Dupree (harpsichord and organ) provided a solid tonal foundation.
The presence of the shepherds in the evangelist Luke’s Nativity narrative makes the form of the pastorale an eminently logical choice for Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ, focusing as it does on the shepherds’ and shepherdesses’ reaction to the news of the Savior’s coming. Evocative of traditional shepherds’ tales, the Pastorale stages the encounter between, on the one hand, humble bergers and bergères, and, on the other, the angels sent to bring the good tidings to earth. Marrying the classical aesthetic to Biblical themes and imagery, Charpentier’s Pastorale proves to be a moving representation of the major themes of the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, themes that have long illuminated Christian understanding of the spiritual significance of the birth of Jesus.
The text of the Pastorale was most probably written by Phillipe Goibault DuBois, also a member of the Guise household who was actually the director of the musical ensemble and a scholar recognized by the Académie Française for his translations of Cicero and St. Augustine. Written primarily in verses of twelve, ten, eight, and sometimes six or four syllables, the poetry follows the theatrical tradition of seventeenth-century France, which had at its heart a strong emphasis on elegant symmetry and balance. The studied equilibrium of the verse forms is reproduced at the thematic level as well, as DuBois weaves a textual tapestry of contrasting images of good and evil that have informed Christian thought since its inception. (Download the Program Texts)
Scene 1 opens with a shepherdess’ prayer that juxtaposes the woes and afflictions of earthly life (maux) to the kindness (bontés) that she is imploring the Lord to bestow upon His people. Human sin is countered by humane sighs, the prayerful breath of a people recognizing their need for God’s action in their lives, and their desire for God’s life-giving justice. Recognizing the shadowy darkness – l’ombre de la mort – into which human existence has fallen, the shepherds together pray that God will release them from sin’s bonds into the light that is His love; their reference to ton peuple (your people) reminds God of His relationship with them, and of their desire for connection.
The appearance of an old shepherd, whose powerful intervention stands out through its nearly uniform octosyllabic verse, likewise contrasts the current misfortune with the good fortune to come (malheur/heureux), thanks to the newly established state of peace and tranquility that has succeeded an era of noise and confusion. Referencing Daniel 7 – “I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man” – the old shepherd reads the scriptural signs, evoking with his final question all mankind’s hope in the Messiah to come, and preparing the arrival of the Angel in scenes 2 to 4.
After an instrumental symphonie depicting the still of the night of Christ’s birth, the Angel appears. A voice connecting heaven to earth, the Angel’s discourse focuses first on images of sovereignty and power, calling for calm to reign over the earth and the sea as he announces that God’s Word will descend from His heavenly throne to become incarnate on earth. Although silence is called for at a proclamation of such solemnity, the shepherds and shepherdesses, in their fear, cannot help but notice the charmingly audible voice of the Angel himself, and yet, when addressed directly, their first impulse is to flee. It is in this moment of tumult that DuBois text most closely approaches traditional theatrical dialogue, as he divides his decasyllabic verse between the Angel and the people in segments of eight and two, then four and six.
Responding to the shepherds’ fear, the Angel then presents one of the fundamental paradoxes of the Christian faith: that the Lord in His majesty, as Master and God, will descend to earth in the form of a helpless and vulnerable child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger; yet he is, simultaneously, the king of kings, worthy of honor, glory embodied. Jesus, in human form, is of the earth; Christ, the anointed Messiah, is of the heavens, the incarnation of divine love sent to bring salvation. The Angel’s primary function is the proclamation of this Good News; once he has done so, he calls upon his fellow angels to join him in praise of all the Redeemer has to offer: rest, sweetness, confidence, and, most importantly, eternal, endless peace on earth. The verticality of the imminent descent of Christ to earth is thus joined to Jesus’ horizontal reaching out to mankind: thanks to this homme-dieu, God’s people will have the relief for which they have long prayed.
Scenes 5 and 6 reprise the dual focus of divinity/humanity of the previous scenes, contrasting the child clothed in poverty with the majesty and brilliance he exudes. The shepherds, newly arrived before the crèche, marvel at the thought that their Savior lies in a mere manger, afflicted by monstrous cold (inhumaine froidure). Here, a new set of images allows DuBois further depth in his exploration of Christian themes, particularly in the way elements of the natural world may be seen to parallel and offer insights into the realm of faith. In scene 1, the shepherds had asked that God rain down his justice from the highest heavens; that justice takes on additional water imagery in the form of dew spilling over and clouds breaking forth. DuBois builds upon this aqueous lexicon with the introduction of the frigid elements of snow, ice, and frost. This time, the image is magnified and extended through DuBois’s parallel reference to the ice found in the souls of man (les glaces de notre âme, the consequence of human trespasses and sin) which might be melted by the ardent and celestial flame of God’s love come to earth. DuBois thus masterfully articulates connections between the physical, tangible world of the shepherds, and myriad intangible, but nonetheless primordial, elements of the spiritual domain.
The finale further extends such parallels in its joyful celebration of the Savior as the source of light and grace. Like the sun that gilds the mountains in spite of the rigors of winter, man’s faith, renewed by the birth of Jesus, reveals God’s infinite and eternally illuminated beauty. Echoing the Hebrew Shema prayer, the shepherds ask repeatedly that God trace His image upon their hearts, marking their relationship to Him for all eternity. In their simplicity, they conceive of this image as containing elements of their humble, pastoral existence – flowers and fruit – but indelible, immortal. The shepherds’ flutes and voices thus join in this final musical celebration of the divine child, whose presence marks a new and eternal spring for humankind.
The text concludes, fittingly, upon the word Redeemer, linking Christ’s birth, indirectly, to his death: Jesus’ ultimate redemption of humankind, his eventual sacrifice that will result in the forgiveness of all sins, allows for a new and blessed rebirth. The Pastorale embodies both the fulfillment of Advent expectation and the joyful hope of Christmas: Gloire dans les hauts lieux, gloire sans fin, gloire éternelle, louange à jamais dans les cieux, louange à l’essence immortelle!
Suzanne Toscyski received a Ph.D. in French from Yale University and a B.A., summa cum laude, with majors in French and Mathematics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a Professor of French at Sonoma State University.
This year, for the first time in two decades, October passed without a set of Magnificat concerts. It has been very gratifying to hear from so many loyal Magnificat fans asking about the season and I am looking forward to coming home next month to see everyone on the weekend of December 7-9. The program I chose for my homecoming has a special place for me personally and Magnificat as an ensemble and preparing the score and planning the concerts have been a wonderful and meaningful experience. Every elegant gesture and touching poetic conceit and each sweetly painful 9-8 suspension and magnificent cadence is imbued with memories of the friends with whom I have performed the music and the audiences with whom we’ve shared it.
In many ways the program that Susan and I developed in 1993 to frame Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de Nostre Seigneur with arrangements of traditional French noëls served as the model for many other Magnificat programs. The juxtaposition of sophisticated art music with contemporaneous folk music, the ideal of balance between vocal and instrumental music and each individual musician, all became hallmarks of Magnificat programs.
The Nativity Pastorale program was also our first encounter with the “vaux de villes” the popular melodies that served equally well for Christmas texts and less solemn lyrics. Many of these melodies re-appeared in the opera parodies that we staged in the 90s. The noels, in Charpentier’s instrumental arrangements and in settings by other French composers of the period, have featured in many Magnificat programs over the years, and in some ways have become even more strongly associated with Christmas than O come All Ye Faithful or Silent Night to me.
The program for those first performances in 1993 captures some of the scrappy enthusiasm of the early Magnificat years. The woodblock images in one of the 16th century Bibles de Noelz perfectly captured the folk roots of the noël melodies and I was keen to use them in our program. But these were the days before PhotoShop and so the program cover was literally cut and pasted (with scissors and tape) at a Kinko’s. It is gratifying to be able to include these same images (much more beautifully rendered by Nika Korniyenko) in our program again this December.
In addition to the many wonderful friends who have taken on the roles of angels and shepherds in earlier revivals of this program, the Nativity Pastorale is strongly associated with two very dear colleagues who are no longer with us and there are several passages in the music that will always bring their memories to mind.
Magnificat’s first performances of this program in 1993 were also the first of many collaborations with Judy Nelson. Her haunting rendition of the noël Une jeune pucelle with Marion Verbruggen was unforgettable. Also joining us for those concerts in 1993 was French Canadian tenor René Boutet, who also passed away earlier this year. His shining voice and sincere spirit shone throughout the performances and touched musicians and audience alike. Both Judy and René will be in my heart during our performances in December.
In 1670, upon returning to France from his studies with Carissimi in Rome, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became a member of the household of Marie de Lorraine, called Mademoiselle de Guise. One of the wealthiest women in Europe, and a princess in rank, Mlle. de Guise chose to live in Paris independent of the intrigues and obligations of court life under Louis XIV. She was a passionate lover of music, and maintained an ensemble of musicians, less opulent than that to be found at court, but highly admired by the Parisian connoisseurs of the time. The ensemble was made up for the most part of young people from families long under the protection of the Guise who, having come to live with Marie de Lorraine first as maids or companions, demonstrated some talent or interest for music. They were given lessons and eventually granted the status of musicians-in-ordinary, taking part in the devotional services at the private chapel and in the frequent private concerts at the Hôtel de Guise. The ensemble, although it included some salaried male singers and one member of a musical family (Ann Nanon Jacquet sister of the famous Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre), was fundamentally amateur and it is extraordinary that it should have developed to the extent that the journalMercure Galant in 1688 wrote that the music of Mlle de Guise was “so excellent that the music of many of the greatest sovereigns could not approach it.”
It was in this intimate and secure setting that Charpentier composed the Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ. He was composing for people with whom he lived, daily took his meals, and worked as a peer, himself singing alto in the choir; these were people with whom, to judge by the designation of parts in the manuscripts -Isabelle, Brion, Carlié, etc. – Charpentier was on a comfortable first name basis. Phillipe Goibault DuBois, another member of the Guise household who was actually the director of the ensemble and a scholar recognized by the Académie Française for his translations of Cicero and St. Augustine, most probably wrote the text of the Pastorale. The possibility that the Pastorale was intended to accompany a traditional Christmas pageant is raised by the list of acteurs on the title page of the manuscript: along with the shepherds and angels are the names of Mary and Joseph, who have no singing parts anywhere in the piece. Charpentier’s biographer Catherine Cessac has suggested that the Pastorale may have been intended for performance at a school for the education of poor girls supported by Mlle de Guise. It is easy to imagine costumed young girls arranged in traditional tableaux vivants during this musical expression of the Christmas story.
In any case, there is no doubt that the Pastorale was composed as a succession of scenes and performed each Christmas from 1684 to 1686, though not with the same scenes each year: Charpentier’s directions in the manuscript give three different arrangements. This presents an interesting dilemma – are there three distinct “pieces”, representing successive improvements, or did Charpentier view the scenes as modular elements which could be variously combined or omitted for each different Christmas celebration? Magnificat has chosen this last approach – our program will use the opening scenes common to all three arrangements which tell the story up to the appearance of the angels to the shepherds; the scene at the crèche comes from the1685 manuscripts, and the closing scene showing the shepherds on their way home at dawn comes from the 1686 version.
Stylistically, the Pastorale is one of Charpentier’s most brilliant and varied works, containing dialogues, ensembles, instrumental dances, and exquisite choral writing, but the unifying force throughout is the composer’s extreme sensitivity to the text and his technical mastery and imagination in setting it. The influence of Carissimi can be heard in the strong characterization given to the old shepherd, and in the dramatic dialogue between the angel and the shepherds. At other moments in the piece, such as the rondeau Niege, glaçons, frimats, Charpentier’s inclination toward classical French symmetry is clearly felt. The overture is a splendid example of Charpentier’s mastery of instrumental writing; chromaticism and dissonance alternate with the gaiety of dance forms to express the Advent themes of darkness and light, despair and hope.
For an appreciation of the scenes and images of this Pastorale, we need to look to the tradition, long established by Charpentier’s time, of noëls. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, the words for these simple songs were published in inexpensive, sloppily produced editions called bibles de noelz, and were circulated throughout the provinces by colporteurs or itinerant peddlers and booksellers. Contemporary writers describe these bibles as being found on the hearth in every peasant cottage: greasy, yellowed, and dog-eared. The melodies were pre-existing, anonymous, orally transmittedvaudevilles. Sebastian de Brossard in his music dictionary of 1703 defined noëls as “certain songs in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ set to vaux de villes, or common tunes, that everybody knows.” The melodies were never notated in these popular bibles; it was enough to mention the first few words of the original song, called the timbre, at the beginning of the poem. The best known noël to English audiences Un flambeau set to a timbre that was originally a drinking song Qu’il sont doux, bouteille jolie, attributed variously to Charpentier and Lully. Although some significant poets contributed to the genre, the poems were usually anonymous, written by schoolteachers, priests, or organists in every town, often in dialect and most probably spontaneously improvised to include the names of friends and neighbors. The texts are often wonderfully exuberant, describing the earthly festivities that accompany the divine birth, including recipes for food to be brought to the party, and a certain amount of practical joking. These noëls increased in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and made their way into liturgical services, to the displeasure of church authorities. In 1725 the Council de la Province d’Avignon prohibited the singing of noëls in church on the grounds that they “debased the holy mysteries by mixing them with comic things and profane chattering and games.” This disapproval did not stem the popularity of the noëls and bibles de noelz continued to be produced even after the Revolution.
Charpentier shared his contemporaries’ love for these humble songs; without doubt he, like Frenchmen of all classes, had sung them all his life. It isn’t surprising then that the Pastorale is imbued with the same peculiar sense of realism combined with piety that one finds in the noëls, nor that certain images from the noëls find their way into the more refined work – for example, the warming breath of the innocent animals, concern for cold weather, and the sense of rustic festivity. Charpentier’s instrumental settings of noëls were probably intended for general use at the Hôtel de Guise, but were incorporated into the liturgy as well.
Adapted from program notes written by Susan Harvey in 1996 for Magnificat’s performances of Charpentier’s La Pastorale sur la Naissance de Nostre Seigneur.
Along with all who were touched by her, I was deeply saddened to learn that soprano Judith Nelson had passed away earlier this year. Few musicians have had a bigger impact on me personally and Magnificat as an ensemble than Judy. She sang in over 40 Magnificat concerts in the 90s and appeared in one of the title roles (along with Paul Hillier) on Magnificat’s first recording, Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. I also had the privilege of working with Judy in California Bach Society projects and in many other situations. But it was as a friend that I remember Judy the best and it is these memories that I treasure most.
The first thing that comes to mind when I remember Judy is how influential she was and how much everyone tried to sing like her but the second thing I think of is how, in fact, no one ever sounded like Judy except Judy. Of course, she sang exquisitely in every style and genre and yet it was always undeniably Judy. Her great gift to me (and to all of us) was in embodying the ideal of using your talent and ability to express who you are with integrity and conviction, which she did as well as anyone I have ever known.
In rehearsals Judy was always a model of professionalism but she also had a sharp wit and everyone who worked with her has plenty of memories of her playful sense of humor and well-timed rejoinders that always contributed to an atmosphere of camaraderie and common purpose. Judy had a uncanny ability to surprise through her vocal artistry and the depth of her understanding of the historical and musical context of the music she was performing, but also through her disarming candor.
It was Judy who introduced me to the music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Judy had invited me to join her at a music festival outside of Manilla in the Philippines in 1996 and she brought with her an extraordinary motet – O quam bonus es – that we performed there. I was overwhelmed, not only by Cozzolani’s extraordinary tonal palette but by the strikingly emotional-laden text. Judy sang in Magnificat’s first performances of Cozzolani’s music in December 1999 and while her voice is not heard on the recordings that we made subsequently, her spirit – the honesty of her artistry and the warmth and sincerity of her musicianship - is present throughout.
A memorial concert to celebrate Judy’s life will take place on Monday September 10 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. The program will feature many of the musicians and ensembles that shared music with Judy over the years including Magnificat co-founder Susan Harvey. The free concert will begin at 7:00 pm and I encourage everyone to join in remembering a truly remarkable musician and friend.
While I will miss the joy of sharing a full season of terrific music from the early Baroque with my colleagues and with Magnificat’s loyal audience next season, I am very pleased that I will be in California in December to lead Magnificat in a program that it very dear to me. In addition to my personal emotional connection with Charpentier’s music, his character and the circumstances in which he wrote, this particular program represents a fascinating period of discovery for me personally.
The first music by Charpentier that I had the chance to perform was the Messe de Minuit(Midnight Mass) – a charming work that seamlessly weaves the folk melodies of noëls, already centuries old during the composer’s life with a rigorous contrapuntal ideal. While the Nativity Pastorale does not incorporate noël melodies like the Midnight Mass, there are striking similarities in the poetic imagery of the noëls and their musical character. In Magnificat’s first production of the Nativity Pastorale in 1993, we included several of Charpentier’s instrumental settings of noëls in addition to the Pastorale and I had the chance to learn about these remarkable melodies. I found the noëls especially intriguing because they provided a rare glimpse of the 17th century from a non-aristocratic perspective. Noëls were everyone’s music – nobility and peasants alike shared the joy of these infectious melodies and the often strikingly poignant poetry that these melodies set.
The program notes from Magnificat’s earlier performances of this program note that beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, the words for these simple songs were published in inexpensive, sloppily produced editions called bibles de noelz, and were circulated throughout the provinces by colporteurs or itinerant peddlers and booksellers. Contemporary writers describe these bibles as being found on the hearth in every peasant cottage: greasy, yellowed, and dog-eared. The melodies were pre-existing, anonymous, orally transmitted vaudevilles. Sebastian de Brossard in his music dictionary of 1703 defined noëls as “certain songs in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ set to vaux de villes, or common tunes, that everybody knows.” The melodies were never notated in these popular bibles; it was enough to mention the first few words of the original song, called the timbre, at the beginning of the poem. The best known noël to English audiences Un flambeau set to a timbre that was originally a drinking song Qu’il sont doux, bouteille jolie, attributed variously to Charpentier and Lully.
Although some significant poets contributed to the genre, the poems were usually anonymous, written by schoolteachers, priests, or organists in every town, often in dialect and most probably spontaneously improvised to include the names of friends and neighbors. The texts are often wonderfully exuberant, describing the earthly festivities that accompany the divine birth, including recipes for food to be brought to the party, and a certain amount of practical joking. These noëls increased in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and made their way into liturgical services, to the displeasure of church authorities. In 1725 the Council de la Province d’Avignon prohibited the singing of noëls in church on the grounds that they “debased the holy mysteries by mixing them with comic things and profane chattering and games.” This disapproval did not stem the popularity of the noëls and bibles de noelz continued to be produced even after the Revolution.
Many of the noël melodies also served for different sentiments at different times of the year – with different words of course. For it was the melody that was ancient – the words were adapted to fit the occasion and indeed, some of the tunes I had first encountered as the equivalent of Christmas carols appear in the slapstick operas parodies that Magnificat performed later in the 90s. No reason to limit a good tune to one season of the year after all!
We have used some of the images found in these mass-produced noël collections for earlier productions of the Nativity Pastorale and while for our first production in 1993 the program was assembled (by me) using a photo-copier, scissors, and tape, we now have the benefit of digital editing programs and the talents of our creative director Nika Korniyenko. The images reminded me of the first mass produced playing cards, also a 17th-Century French phenomenon. In both cases, while the wood-cut images are somewhat crude they are nonetheless extremely expressive and even mannerist in their exaggerated gestures and symbolism. The Tarot images have also featured in programs and brochures over the years, for example the “Star” from the Tarot de Paris, published in the early 17th Century, which served as the image for our 2000-2001 brochure. In fact, the gesture on that particular card is similar to the shepherd from the noël woodcut.
The first music by Charpentier that I had the chance to perform was the Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) – a charming work that seamlessly weaves the folk melodies of noëls, already centuries old during the composer’s life with a rigorous contrapuntal ideal. While the Nativity Pastorale does not incorporate noël melodies like the Midnight Mass, there are striking similarities in the poetic imagery of the noëls and their musical character. In Magnificat’s first production of the Nativity Pastorale in 1993, we included several of Charpentier’s instrumental settings of noëls in addition to the Pastorale and I had the chance to learn about these remarkable melodies. I found the noëls especially intriguing because they provided a rare glimpse of the 17th century from a non-aristocratic perspective. Noëls were everyone’s music – nobility and peasants alike shared the joy of these infectious melodies and the often strikingly poignant poetry that these melodies set.
Noëls began to be compiled for mass publication almost as soon as the printing press technology reached France. For the first time books could be printed at a ost that made it possible for at least a large portion of the emerging middle class to purchase. Of course these ‘Bibles des noëlz” as they were often called contained only the words of the carols. Very few people who might buy such a book could read music notation and in any case everyone already knew the tunes, which were as familiar as the tunes of Old MacDonald or the National Anthem are to us. While Luther’s Bible may have been a common book in middle and working class households in Lutheran Germany, no such translation of the Roman Bible was widespread at the time in France.
We have used some of the images found in these mass-produced noël collections for earlier productions of the Nativity Pastorale and while for our first production in 1993 the program was assembled (by me) using a photo-copier, scissors, and tape, we now have the benefit of PhotoShop and our creative director Nika Korniyenko. The images reminded me of the first mass produced playing cards, also a 17th-Century French phenomenon. In both cases, while the wood-cut images are somewhat crude they are nonetheless extremely expressive and even mannerist in their exaggerated gestures and symbolism. The Tarot images have also featured in programs and brochures over the years.
The Nativity Pastorale was also my first encounter with the musicians of the household of Mlle de Guise, Charpentier’s patron upon his return from his studies in Rome with Carissimi. In Charpentier’s manuscript from these years he meticulously notes which of his colleagues at the Hôtel de Guise sang each of the parts – of course noting himself (“Charp”) for the haute-contre line. Knowing that this music was written to be performed by and for the composers’ friends was particularly satisfying for me and seemed to have a parallel with Magnificat as we grew over the years. Each of our three productions have included some new faces along with old friends, both in the ensemble and in the audience and it is with a sense of returning home to visit the family (in the best sense) that I look forward to coming to California for our performances in December.
Magnificat is pleased to announce performances of the Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale on the weekend of Dec. 7-9. The program will feature the Pastorale sur la naissance de Nostre Seigneur, one of Charpentier’s most brilliant and moving works. In this exhilarating blend of dramatic dialogues and ensembles, instrumental dances, and exquisite choral writing, Charpentier’s displays his imagination and technical mastery and his extreme sensitivity to poetic imagery. Magnificat’s program will include Charpentier’s settings of several of traditional French carols, or noëls, that are, by turns, charming, poignant, and amusing. Tickets are available online at magnificatbaroque.tix.com.
On a sabbatical after celebrating Magnificat’s 20th anniversary season, Artistic Director Warren Stewart will return to lead an ensemble featuring singers Catherine Webster, Jennifer Paulino, Clara Rottsolk, Clifton Massey, Paul Elliott, and Peter Becker, together with Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake, recorder; Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem, violin; John Dornenburg, viola da gamba and Jillon Stoppels Dupree, harpsichord.
Note that due to renovations at our usual Berkeley venue, the Saturday evening performance will be at St. Mark’s Episcopal, the Saturday concert will be at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic Church, 2005 Berryman Street in Berkeley. The church offers excellent acoustics (and lots of parking) and an intimate atmosphere for Charpentier’s extraordinary music. For the Friday concert we will return to First Lutheran, 600 Homer Avenue, Palo Alto and Sunday will be at our usual San Francisco venue, St. Mark’s Lutheran, 1111 O’Farrell. We will also return to our 8:00 pm starting time for the Friday and Saturday concerts. There will be a lecture beginning 45 minutes before each performance.
This article by Trista Bernstein was posted at San Francisco Classical Voice.
Every musician searches for masterpieces to bring to the stage. For two decades, Magnificat has been in pursuit of such creations to please Bay Area audiences. Luckily, it has narrowed its focus to the 17th century, a time bursting with dynamic composers and emotional works. “It’s a tribute to the audience in the Bay Area that a group could focus on repertoire from the 17th century and be successful and have a following,” explains Artistic Director Warren Stewart. “That’s a joint effort between Magnificat and the audience.” Stewart, an accomplished cellist, has dedicated the last 20 years of his career to early music. His love of Baroque music is evident in the dynamic programming presented by the group each season. “It’s a fascinating time and period of music. Lots of things were changing, new rules were being written, and new kinds of music were being invented. I think it’s really fascinating to have the opportunity to explore that remarkable music and share it with the audience.“
Stewart had the great responsibility of crafting Magnificat’s 20th season. “I tried to choose composers and specific pieces that were somehow representative of what we’ve done. They are very influential composers, and they’ve shaped our style and approach to interpretation. The four composers who were featured this season were the four towering figures of the century, and represent four of the major centers where music was being created.” Although many new pieces were presented during the current season, it has been very reminiscent of the group’s first season.
“I didn’t do this on purpose, but I went through and thought about what would be emblematic or representative pieces from the century and I ended up with the same four composers that we featured in our first season, back in ’92–’93.”
This month will conclude the anniversary season with Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals. “It is a remarkable collection of music. In a way, it is a retrospective that Monteverdi did very late in his life, that covers about 30 years worth of music. It’s transitional in the sense that they are still called madrigals, but a madrigal is very different from what the madrigal was when he first started writing them in the 1590s.” The collection is subtitled “Madrigals of War and Love.” The book is split with the first half covering poems of war, while the second explores the theme of love. “The conceit throughout is that the warrior is lover and lover is warrior, so in a way they are all about love,” Stewart remarks. “The themes that are addressed in the poetry and the way he represents them in the music are somewhat different from half to half. There are many different styles of composition represented in the book, and I tried to represent all of them, to some degree or another. The guiding principle was that kind of variety, together with the unity the composer already provides.”
Although the season is coming to a close, Stewart looks forward to many seasons of exploration. “There’s no shortage of wonderful music from the century before Bach and Handel that we want to explore. There are another 20 seasons worth of music to do.”
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