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Aaron Sheehan in the role of Orfeo at the Boston Early Music Festival (photo by Kathy Wittman)

Magnificat will perform Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda along with other madrigals by Monteverdi and instrumental music by Dario Castello and Biagio Marini on the weekend of September 25-27 2015. The Testo role will be sung by Aaron Sheehan, Clorinda by Christine Brandes and Tancredi by Andrew Rader. Tickets are available at, by phone at  (800) 595-4849. To order by mail download this order form (pdf).

Claudio Monteverdi’s celebrated Il Combattimento di Tancredi and Clorinda, was first performed in Venice during Carnival of 1624 at the palace of one of the composer’s patrons, though it was only published some fourteen years later in the Eighth Book of Madrigals. In the introductory notes, Monteverdi describes how the piece was first performed “as an evening entertainment, in the presence of all the nobility, who were so moved by the emotion of compassion that they almost shed tears, and who applauded, since it was a genre of vocal music never seen nor heard.” Monteverdi subtitled the Eighth Book Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi con alcuni opuscoli in genere rappresentativo (“Madrigals of war and love with some pieces in the theatrical style”), and the texts repeatedly expound the interlocking themes of love and war– the warrior as lover, the lover as warrior and the war between the sexes.

The relationship between love and war had been a common Italian poetic conceit ever since the time of Petrarch in the 14th century, and had been given additional impetus by its prominence in Torquato Tasso’s late 16th century epic poem, Gerusalemme Liberata (“Jerusalem Liberated”). This enormously influential work dealt with the first crusade and treated in a dramatic and scenographic manner not only battles between Christian and Muslim knights, but also their love affairs, including the love between the Christian knight Tancrid and the Muslim woman Clorinda, who, disguised as a knight in full armor, fiercely fought for her side.

Monteverdi affixed an explanatory preface to the Eighth Book, a theoretically important, though sometimes confusing description of what he had tried to achieve in this music. Monteverdi explains how he “took the divine Tasso, as a poet who expresses with the greatest propriety and naturalness the qualities which he wishes to describe, and selected his description of the combat of Tancredi and Clorinda as an opportunity of describing in music contrary passions, namely, warfare and entreaty and death.” The composer describes three emotional levels, which he also calls styles. Two of these, the “soft” style (stile molle) for languishing and sorrowful emotions, and the “tempered” style (stile temperato) for emotionally neutral recitations, he says had long been in use.  But the third style, the “agitated” style, (stile concitato), Monteverdi claims to have invented himself. 

The musical depiction of this style consists of very rapid reiterations of the same pitch on string instruments, like a modern measured tremolo, and equally rapid reiterations of the supporting chord in the harpsichord or other continuo instrument. Such repeated notes and repeated chords had, in fact, been frequently used in compositions depicting battles for nearly a century, but for Monteverdi the stile concitato meant more than merely a musical metaphor for the rapid physical activity of fighting.  It was also a specific emotional style–a musical means for interpreting the emotional agitation of the protagonists and conveying that agitation to the audience. The stile concitato, therefore, serves both a pictorial and a psychological function in Monteverdi’s music.

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Monteverdi’s music is written for a narrator who sets the scene for us in recitative, (principally the stile temperato), comments on the progress of the battle as it takes place, and reflects on the inner thoughts of the two characters.  The swordfight between the active participants, Tancrid and Clorinda, is the arena for the new stile concitato. The battle takes place during the obscuring night, and both protagonists are fully dressed in armor so that they do not recognize one another. They fight fiercely, with increasing anger on Tancrid’s part as Clorinda gradually loses ground but remains defiant.  When she finally lies mortally wounded, she asks Tancrid for baptism, and as he bends over her and lifts her visor to pour the cleansing water over her face, he recognizes with horror that he has killed his beloved. Triumph has turned to tragedy. As dawn breaks, Clorinda dies in Tancrid’s arms, but in peace because of her religious conversion. It is a scene of grand theatrical pathos in which Monteverdi employs the stile molle to great effect.

In the past Il Combattimento was sometimes cited as including the first explicit instructions for pizzicato, a distinction actually held by Thomas Hume, who called for the technique in his collection of viola da gamba music Captain Humes Poeticall Musicke, published in 1607. In the image to the right from the first violin part of Il Combattimento, Monteverdi calls on the player to “pluck the string with two fingers” and later to once again “take up the bow.” Of course the fact that the technique of plucking the strings preceded its explicit designation is obvious and it is likely that Monteverdi, who began his professional career as a string player, and other violinists employed the technique long before it appeared in print.

Magnificat has programmed Il Combattimento twice before. In 1991, we performed the work with Kenn Chester (Testo), Susan Rode Morris (Clorinda) and Boyd Jarrell (Tandredi) on the San Francisco Early Music Society and San Jose Chamber Music Society concert series. In 2000 the work was featured on our own series with Kenn Chester again in the Testo role, Jennifer Ellis Kampani as Clorinda and Peter Becker as Tancredi. Portions of this article are drawn from program notes by Jeffrey Kurtzman from our 2000 production.

11 days ago | |
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On the weekend of September 25-27, Warren Stewart will lead Magnificat in a program of music by Claudio Monteverdi. Grammy Award-winning tenor Aaron Sheehan returns to interpret the Testo role in Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and renowned soprano Christine Brandes makes her Magnificat debut in the role of Clorinda. Brandes will also sing Monteverdi’s ‘love letter’ Se i languidi miei sguardi. Soprano Jennifer Paulino, countertenor Andrew Rader and bass Robert Stafford complete an ensemble that includes instrumentalists Rob Diggins, Jolianne Einem, David Wilson, John Dornenburg and Jillon Stoppels Dupree. The concerts will take place on Friday September 25 8:00 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto; Saturday September 26 8:00 pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley and Sunday September 27 4:00 pm at First Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are available at or by phone at (800) 595-4849.

Each half of the program will begin with one of the five vanitas settings that stand at the beginning of Monteverdi’s magisterial collection of sacred music, Selva morale et spirituale, published in 1640. The two madrigals are representative of a distinct genre of vernacular polyphonic vocal works that describe the transitory nature of love, status, and material wealth. The first, O ciechi, ciechi is drawn from Petrarch’s Trionfo della morte and describes the futility of power, riches and military conquest. Similar themes are addressed in the anonymous canzonetta Chi vol che m’innamori, which alternates between light and dark characters. Here the strophes are articulated by cheerful violin ritornelli with an unexpectedly pessimistic refrain following the final verse.

Much of the music on the program is drawn from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619), entitled Concerto – his first publication of madrigals composed in Venice. It includes two extraordinary monodies labeled lettere amorose (love letters) that belong to a small but significant genre explored by composers in the first decades of the 17th century. Soprano Christine Brandes will perform the first of the letters, Se i languidi miei sguardi, a setting of a poem by Bolognese polymath Claudio Achillini. The poet notes that his letter is from “a cavalier, impatient over his delayed wedding, writing to his most beautiful bride.” Monteverdi writes that these love letters are composed in the “representative style” and that they should be sung “without a beat,” i.e. freely and expressively without a regular meter.

The four strophe soprano duet Ohimé dov’è il mio ben, sung on our program by Jennifer Paulino and Christine Brandes, is a ‘romanesca’, i.e.  an ottava rima by Bernardo Tasso, with each couplet set over an harmonic sequence known as the “aria della romanesca.”  The romanesca had been used as a basis for improvisation in the seventeenth century and was popular in the first quarter of the 17th century as a framework  for monodic song, polyphonic madrigals and instrumental music.

Though it was first performed during Carnival in 1624, the operatic scena Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda wasn’t published 14 years later as part of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, subtitled Madrigals of War and Love (it finds its place among the Madrigals of War of course.) The libretto is drawn from Torquato Tasso’s romance Gerusalemme liberata, which describes the battle between the Christian prince Tancrid and the Saracen warrior Clorinda during the time of the first  crusade.  In Il Combattimento Monteverdi claimed to have recreated the ‘agitated’ (concitato) style ‘described by Plato in the third book of his Rhetoric [Republic] in these words: “Take that harmony that would fittingly imitate the utterances of a brave man who is engaged in warfare”.’

The setting of Giulio Strozzi’s canzonetta Gira il nemico insidioso amore is also grouped with the madrigals of war in the Eighth Book, but here the stile concitato is put to use in a jocular context reminiscent of the sixteenth-century Neapolitan canzone villanesca, a musical expression of the commedia dell’arte. Massimo Ossi has pointed out the under-appreciated role of humor in Monteverdi’s madrigals and observes the use of much the same arsenal of pseudo-military effects found in Il Combattimento utilized for comedic effect. Gira il nemico insidioso amore is a perfect case in point. Each of the six stanzas first describes the movement of the assailant and then the inept preparations being made by the defenders to repel love’s attack. As Ossi observes “the struggle is of course perfunctory, and the outcome never in doubt; the futile rushing back and forth within the embattled citadel is therefore comic to the point of slapstick.”

The two instrumental works on the program were written by colleagues of Monteverdi’s at San Marco. What little is known of the instrumentalist and composer Dario Castello is gleaned primarily from the title pages of his publications, which identify him as a musician at San Marco and the leader of an ensemble of winds. His two surviving collections of sonatas feature extraordinarily virtuosic writing, and suggest that he was most likely a highly skilled performer. The large number of reprints of both books is an indication of the popularity and wide diffusion of Castello’s works throughout Europe.

By contrast, we know considerably more about Castello’s sometimes colleague at San Marco, Biagio Marini. Already at the time of Monteverdi Seventh Book of Madrigals Marini was well established as one of the first virtuoso violinists in Europe, having published an innovative collection of instrumental music Affetti musicali in 1617. Born in Brescia in 1594, Marini had been appointed as a violinist at San Marco in 1615 where he worked directly with Monteverdi. By 1620 he had begun what would be a peripatetic career that would see him serve as instrumentalist and music director in several Italian cities and in courts as far north as Düsseldorf and Neuberg. A prolific composer, by the time of his death in 1663 he had published over 20 collections of music, including sacred and secular vocal music as well as music for violin and instrumental ensembles.

Our program will conclude with the ballo Tirsi e Clori, which also concludes the Seventh Book of madrigals. In January of 1615, Monteverdi was approached by his former employer, Ferdinando, Duke of Gonzaga of Mantua, to set to music a ‘favola’ by Ferdinando himself, as an entertainment for Carnival. There wasn’t sufficient time to compose a work for Carnival but later that same year Ferdinando again asked for ‘a ballet to music’, to which Monteverdi proposed a pastoral ballo in six sections preceded by a dialogue between a shepherd, Tirsi, and his nymph, Clori. The ballo was completed and delivered in November 1615 to Mantua, where it was performed to great acclaim. A letter survives from Monteverdi to the Duke in which he provides many useful suggestions regarding performance practice. The composer also notes that ‘if you could let the singers and players see [the music] for an hour before His Most Serene Highness hears it, it would be a good thing indeed…” Magnificat will be following the composer’s recommendation and look forward to delight our Most Serene Audience. We hope to see you there.

14 days ago | |
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This review by Joshua Kosman was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on March 11, 2015.

Just in time for International Women’s Day — and only a few days late for the relevant holiday of Purim — the early-music ensemble Magnificat devoted the weekend to a celebration of strong biblical women. Sunday’s final concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, dexterously led by Artistic Director Warren Stewart, made a pretty powerful case for two of them.

The music was by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose sacred works — including the dramatic oratorios that formed the meat of this program — stand at the heart of the 17th century French repertoire. The heroism, though, was all down to the women themselves.

One was Judith, the valiant widow who saves the city of Bethulia by beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes — thus inspiring a whole generation of bloody-minded Baroque painters — and the other was Esther, the Jewish ingenue who finds that marrying the Persian king is the key to averting mass slaughter. Both of them were embodied in music of nobility and grandeur.

Charpentier’s biblical narratives, sung in assiduously French-tinged Latin, are a fascinating blend of recitative, arioso and choral writing. Of the two works, “Esther” proved a bit more austere, with much of the tale conveyed by the narrator (a role that is sometimes done chorally and sometimes in various solo combinations).

Still, there’s ample room here for a florid song of praise at the end — sung with gorgeous abandon by soprano Laura Heimes — as well as shorter melodic set pieces for King Ahasuerus (tenor Daniel Hutchings) and the villainous Haman (bass Peter Becker). And though the instrumental textures are spare, for just two violins, two recorders and continuo, Charpentier adorns the vocal writing with plenty of alluring counterpoint.

“Judith,” as befits its martial story, is more given to spectacle. The besieged Israelites get a poignantly dissonant prayer of lamentation, both Holofernes and the Israelite camp have trios of military advisers (including countertenor Andrew Rader) to hash out the strategic issues in elaborate argument, and the heroine — alluringly sung by soprano Catherine Webster — lays out and springs her trap with a combination of seductive charm and steely guile.

As a splendid leavening to the dramatic and narrative thrust of the main pieces, Stewart filled out the program with a pair of Charpentier’s three-voice devotional works: the psalm setting “Super flumina Babylonis,” which has its own vein of tone-painting, and “Canticum in honorem Beata Virginis Mariae.” Both pieces were delivered with a blend of vocal majesty and reflective grace.

5 months ago | |
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On the weekend of March 6-8 2015, Magnificat will perform two oratorios by Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Historia Esther and Judith, ou Béthulie libérée. The program will also include Charpentier’s setting of Psalm 137, Super flumina Babylonis and the Canticum in honorem beata Virginis Mariae. Sopranos Laura Heimes and Catherine Webster, copuntertenor Andrew Rader, tenor Daniel Hutchings and bass Peter Becker will be joined by an instrumental ensemble including Vicki Boeckman and Louise Carslake, recorder, Rob Diggins and Jolianne Einem, violin, John Dornenburg, viola da gamba and Jillon Stoppels Dupree, organ. 

Friday March 8 2015 8:00 pm St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto
Saturday March 7 2015 8:00 pm First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley
Sunday March 8 2015 4:00 pm St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell, San Francisco

There will be a lecture 45 minutes before each performance given by noted Charpentier scholar and Magnificat Artistic Advisory Board member John S. Powell. Dr. Powell has also provided notes for the concerts which are posted on this blog. Tickets are available at or by calling 800-595-4849.

Among 17th-century French composers, Marc-Antoine Charpentier made the largest contribution to the development of the French oratorio. This emphasis in Charpentier’s early sacred output is largely due to circumstance. Upon his return from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi in the late 1660s, Charpentier took residence in the Hôtel de Guise (now the Hôtel de Soubise) in the Marais District of Paris under the patronage of Marie de Lorraine (Mademoiselle de Guise). Charpentier remained in her service for some eighteen years, from around 1670 until her death in 1688. Three years before Charpentier’s arrival in Paris, Elizabeth d’Orléans, the youngest daughter of Gaston d’Orléans (uncle to Louis XIV), married Louis-Joseph, the nephew of Mademoiselle de Guise. Charpentier thus found himself in the service of Elizabeth d’Orléans (Madame de Guise) as well as of Mademoiselle de Guise. Both ladies were very devout and actively supported religious teaching institutions in Paris. Under the patronage of Mlle and Mme de Guise, Charpentier created a large number of devotional and oratorio-like works.

Like his teacher Carissimi, Charpentier composed numerous works that reveal the different stages in the development of the Latin oratorio from the motet. Indeed, Charpentier described as motets many of the compositions that are viewed by us as oratorios. These thirty-four works fall into three main groups: historiae, cantica, and dialogi. The fourteen historiae are the most elaborate and are clearly influenced by the style and structure of Carissimi’s largest historiae. Moreover, the musical demands of the historiae are in proportion to their length. In addition to soloists and basso-continuo, a chorus is always required, and is frequently split into two equal half-choruses. Concertante instruments—as few as two violins, as many as two four-part string orchestras—are often added to the continuo.

In some of his oratorio titles Charpentier uses the term canticum. Besides the strict liturgical meaning of this term (“song”), Charpentier’s use of the term canticum seems to have been almost synonymous with “oratorio” in 17th-century France. Many works labeled canticum include a narrator (historicus), which is a hallmark of the oratorio. The semi-dramatic cantica of Charpentier are of two types: (1) works on subjects similar to those of the historiae, but lacking the expansiveness either of text or of musical treatment—in short, miniature historiae; (2) works of more reflective, lyrical, and less dramatic character, resembling in text and musical treatment the dramatic-narrative mottetto concertato of Carissimi and earlier Italians. The last type of oratorio-like composition written by Charpentier is the dialogus. The dialogi are characterized by dramatic situations that involve two persons or two groups of persons. They lack objectively descriptive texts or narrative elements, hence a historicus is unnecessary and does not typically appear. They are characteristically brief works, on the same scale as the cantica, and like the cantica they demand a minimum number of performers. As in the Italian biblical dialogues that undoubtedly served Charpentier as models, the two dialoguing elements join in simultaneous expression at the end of a work.

6 months ago | |
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Judith, ou Béthulie libérée, (Judith, or Bethulia Liberated) was the first histoire sacrée composed by Charpentier, and is his longest. The text is adapted from the Book of Judith, 7-14 of the Old Testament. Judith devotes a very large role to the narrator or narrators, and thus to declamatory ensembles. In order to diversify the narration, Charpentier assigns the part of the historicus in alternation to soloists, vocal trios, and choruses, with the latter two shifting between homophonic texture and imitative counterpoint. Within a single section of recitative, a wholly declaimed vocal line can give way to more lyrical arioso, as in the long dialogue between Holofernes and Judith. The airs are all in rondo form (ABA or ABACA). Since they essentially fulfill the role of narrator, choruses are not very elaborate and remain homophonic in style.

Part 1 is set at the foot of the mountains near the city of Bethulia. The Chorus of Assyrians tell how Holofernes and his army are preparing to attack the city. In a sung trio, three of his commanders tell how the Israelites are counting on the steep cliffs to protect them, and they recommend cutting off their water supply by placing a guard at their well. An Assyrian recounts how this plan pleased Holofernes, and for the next twenty days the Israelites went without water. The scene changes to the camp of the thirsty Israelites and an Israeli relates how three of them went to ask their leader Ozias to surrender to Holofernes. The trio of Israelistes say that it is clear that God had delivered them into his hands and that it would be better to die swiftly by the sword than slowly by thirst, and, in a chorus of startling harmonic richness, the Israelites bewail how they have sinned and acted unjustly and that this is their well-deserved punishment. They grow weary and then Ozias arose and in a dancelike solo air he tells his people to take heart and wait five more days for mercy from God; if no aid arrives by then, they will surrender to Holofernes.

A trio of Israelistes then relate how Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, arose and addressed the people. In solo arioso, Judith tells them that they should not set a time limit for God to deliver them from their foreign conquerers and in an aria advises them to adopt an attitude of humility that may become for the Israelites a thing of glory. Judith then reveals to Ozias that she has a plan to save her people. Part 1 concludes with a series of set-pieces. First, a glorious concertante Chorus of Israelites sends Esther on her mission with their best wishes. Then a solo historicus explains that the following night, Judith put on haircloth, spread ashes in her hair, and prayed to the Lord. Judith’s sung prayer, interspersed with ritornelli for flutes and continuo, is the musical high point of Part 1. Here she reveals her plan to use her beauty to entrap Holofernes with his eyes and then cut off his head with his own sword.

After her prayer, Judith bathed, anointed herself with myrrh, plaited her hair, put on garments of gladness, and left the city with her handmaiden. An evocative instrumental number entitled “The Night” concludes Part 1, and requires further explanation from Pierre Le Moyne’s article on Judith in his Galerie des femmes fortes (Paris: Sommaville, 1647, pp. 39-44):

The Angel of Israel, has come in person to defend the frontier of his nation. He has created shadows where there is something of the shadows that he once created in Egypt. And by his command, Night has come early, contributing its silence and its darkness to the great action he is preparing. But this darkness is only for the enemies of God’s people; and this intelligent Night is discrete, as was the night in Egypt, and is very capable of singling out the faithful and distinguishing between individuals. What is fog and shadows for others will be light for us. And even if there is only the brightness of these luminous spirits, added to the glow of Judith’s zeal and eyes, which seem to set fire to all the gems of this superb tent, that would be enough to see, from here, the Tragedy that is beginning in the tent of Holofernes.

In Part 2, we learn from the handmaiden’s narration that she and Judith descended the mountain at sunrise and were met by two Assyrian watchmen. The watchmen question her and Judith responds by promising information on the Israelites and they escort her to their prince The Assyrian Chorus relates that she was taken to Holofernes’s tent and that he was immediately attracted by the her beauty and caught “in the net of his own eyes” depicted by interweaving melodic lines. Esther falls down to worship him but Holofernes commands her to rise. In a solo air, Holofernes tells Judith not to be afraid, and asks her why she deserted her people. Judith tells him that the sins of the Israelites have angered their God, who has abandoned them, and she offers to take Holofernes with her to Bethulia. Holofernes tells her that as her God has done well, her God shall become his God; and so Holofernes promises Judith riches and invites her into his tent to partake of wine. Judith responds coyly “Who am I, that I should oppose the will of my Lord?”

Judith’s coy behavior here might seem inconsistent with her virtuous and devout character. However, Pierre LeMoyne sheds light on her seduction of Holofernes by explaining that, essentially, Judith temporarily adopts what might in our day be described as a split personality:

But this is not the Judith that Virtue, Zeal, and the angles have brought here. This is a Judith fashioned by a deluding dream (un Songe imposteur), which has made a coquette of the heroine: and this coquettish and false Judith will soon be struck down by the true and modest one. The sword you see in her hand will deliver justice to this imposter-dream: and all of these vain images will be drowned in the blood of the dreamer [i.e., Holofernes], and will fall with his head.

Judith entered the tent with Holofernes, his servants withdrew and the prince so enjoyed her company that he drank too much wine. Judith’s handmaiden continues the narration, telling that while Holofernes lay on his bed in a drunken stupor, Judith said a prayer for the Lord’s strength and decapitated him with his own sword. Stuffing the severed head into her maid’s sack, Judith and her servant quietly passed through the Assyrian camp, wound through the valley, and finally arrived at the city gates. In a solo air, Judith asks the watchmen to open the gates for “God is with us who hath shown his power in Israel.” The Chorus of Israelites relate how all the population “from the least to the greatest” rushed out to meet her and gathered round her with lighted torches; and she ascended to a higher place, she commanded silence from the people. In a solo air, Judith praises the Lord, uncovers the head of Holofernes “which the Lord struck off through the hand of a woman,” and that she has returned to them without any stain of sin. Judith then exhorts her countrymen to sing a canticle of praise to the Lord. This final blessing is a magnificent concertante set piece inspired by a reading of the feast of the Assumption—where Judith is presented as a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary.

6 months ago | |
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Perhaps because of its complications of plot, the role of narration (and consequently that of the historicus) is quite prominent in Esther. The narration is divided up between 4-part chorus, vocal trios, duos, and solos of every voice type and combination. To enliven the narration, the ensembles constantly shift musical texture between homophony and imitative polyphony. In between the narration of the historicus, soloists give voice to the main characters of the drama.

Esther relates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia. In the opening chorus, the Jewish people relate how Ahasuerus, ruler of a massive Persian empire, held a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all the inhabitants of the capital city Shushan. Queen Vashti held a separate feast for the women of the palace. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus, merrier than usual with wine, commands Queen Vashti to display her considerable beauty before the guests but Vashti refuses to obey Ahasuerus’s order. Ahasuerus becomes very angry and consults his wise men as to a fitting punishment for his queen. One of them warns the king that other women in the provinces will learn from this and come to disobey their own husbands, and he advises Ahasuerus to remove Vashti as queen and give her estate to a more worthy consort.

Ahasuerus has a royal decree sent across the empire that men should be the ruler of their households and should speak their own native tongue. Ahasuerus then orders all the beautiful young girls in the empire to be presented to him, so he might choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is the orphan Esther, who finds favor in the king’s eyes and is made his new queen.  Esther at first does not reveal her Jewish background, as her uncle Mordecai had advised her.

Ahasuerus had appointed Haman as his prime minister; but Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, fell into Haman’s disfavor when he refused to bow down to him. Three officers question Mordecai: “Why do you not obey the King’s commandments like the others and revere Haman?” Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but all the Jews in the empire. Haman obtains Ahasuerus’s permission to execute this plan, against payment of ten thousand talents of silver; the King declines to accept payment and rather allows him to execute his plan on principle and he casts lots to choose the date on which to do this—the thirteenth of the month of Adar. On that day, everyone in the empire is free to massacre the Jews and loot their property.

The Chorus Judeorum now recounts that when Mordecai found out about the plans he rent his clothes and Jews in every province began to mourn and wail. Esther was afraid to plead for her people, for going to the King unsummoned was forbidden and would incur the death penalty. In a solo air a messenger tells Esther that she must go and trust in God; in any case she would not escape just because she is in the King’s house…and besides, saving her people is perhaps her destiny.

Meanwhile, Mordecai was waiting at the palace gates when he happened to overhear a plot by two guards to assassinate King Ahasuerus. He told Esther, who told the king, and the two conspirators are apprehended and hanged—and Mordecai’s service to the king is recorded.

On the third day, after Esther has wept and prayed, she appeared before the King unbidden, and the angered king had fury blazing in his eyes. A sudden change to ‘white notation’ occurs at this point in the score, as the choral historicus relates how Esther turned pale. At this point, God turned Ahasuerus’s arrogance to kindness and, fearing for Esther, he leaps from his seat and, holding Esther in his arms, speaks to her lovingly. In a beautiful solo air, Ahasuerus tells her that the decree was not made for her, but for others, and she shall not die; and Ahasuerus asks her what she wishes and tells her that he would grant her half his kingdom. Esther asks that Haman be brought to a second banquet that she has arranged. Ahasuerus orders that Haman come according to the queen’s request. At this news, Haman leaves the palace joyfully, but grows indignant when Mordecai refuses to rise to honor him. In a solo air, Haman express his displeasure with Mordecai and the Three officers relate how Haman ordered a gallows built for Mordecai.

Ahasuerus suffers from insomnia that night and requests the court recorders read to him to help him sleep. There he learns of the services rendered by Mordecai in the plot against his life. When he asks the three officers what reward Mordecai has received, he learns that Mordecai has not received any recognition for saving the king’s life. Just then, Haman appears to request that Mordecai be hanged. But Ahasuerus asks Haman what should be done for the man that the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the man that the king is referring to is himself, Haman says in a pretentiously noble aria that the man should be dressed in the king’s royal robes and led around on the king’s royal horse, while a herald calls: “See how the king honors a man he wishes to reward!” To Haman’s horror and surprise, the king commands Haman to do precisely this for Mordecai. After leading Mordecai’s parade, Haman returns in mourning to his wife and friends, and is then was summoned to Esther’s banquet.

Immediately after, Ahasuerus and Haman attend Esther’s second banquet. In a solo air Ahasuerus offers Esther whatever she would like and she responds that she would have her life spared (“ani-mam meam” is broken by a rest – a realistic touch suggesting a catch in her voice) and that of her people. In recitative Esther reveals to the king that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her and her people. Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. Esther sings a joyous air of jubilation accompanied by two violins and is joined in celebration by the Chorus Judaeorum, for this day of grief and sadness has changed into one of joy and gladness.

6 months ago | |
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Photo by Teresa TamThis review by Stephen Smoliar was posted at on December 21, 2014.

As was the case last year, the San Francisco Early Music Society hosted the first concert in the 2014–2015 season of Magnificat yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Also following last year’s plan, Director Warren Stewart prepared a recreation of the entire service for the third Mass on Christmas Day as it might have been celebrated at St. Mark’s Basilica in the middle of the seventeenth century. Last year the five sections of the Ordo Missae (the “Ordinary” of the Mass) were pieced together from compositions by Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrielli composed between 1610 and 1641. This year the core of the performance was an entire mass setting, Missa concertata, composed by Francesco Cavalli in 1656.

Cavalli is no stranger to opera lovers in San Francisco. He wrote 41 operas, 27 of which have been preserved to the present day. He seems to have been a favorite choice when it came to composing operas to be performed during the celebration of the pre-Lenten carnival. He could turn even the most serious scenario (such as the relationship between Jason and Medea) into raucously ribald comedy.

However, Cavalli’s first appointment in Venice was as a singer for Monteverdi at St. Mark’s. As a result Cavalli also built up a portfolio, somewhat more modest, of sacred music. This was particularly distinguished by his own intricate approach to counterpoint, which contrasted sharply with his operas that consisted almost entirely of arias, often with provocative texts.

Yesterday’s Mass setting was in eight parts for double choir. All parts were sung by solo voices, and the two choirs faced each other in “mirror image” on opposite sides of the altar. Thus soprano Clara Rottsolk on the left directly faced soprano Jennifer Paulino on the right. The other left-right pairings were altos Andrew Rader and Tim Galloway, tenors Christopher LeCluyse and Daniel Hutchings, and basses Robert Safford and Peter Becker. Seated in front of the left choir were two violins (Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem) and a violone (John Dornenburg), while three sackbuts, Richard Van Hessel (alto), Erik Schmalz (tenor), and Mack Ramsey (bass), occupied the front space on the right. Between these two groups sat organist Yuko Tanaka.

Over the course of the Mass sections, Cavalli deployed his resources in a variety of different combinations, rather than adhering simply to antiphonal effects. Of greatest interest were the passages allocated to the two voices in the same range, usually singing homophony in parallel thirds. As a result there was considerable diversity in the textures that Cavalli wove with this voices, with each texture given its own complementary instrumental setting. All this made for an interpretation of the Mass text with decidedly unique qualities having virtually no connection to Cavalli’s more popular reputation as an opera composer.

The service also included two motets. The first, Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ecce sacrum paratum convivium” (behold the holy feast is prepared for you) was sung by Rottsolk for the Elevation. The Communion was replaced by a duet for soprano (Paulino) and alto (Rader), also composed by Cavalli in 1656, “O bone Iesu, o Iesu amabilis” (Good Jesus, loving Jesus). Both motets were accompanied only by organ. The “Deo gratias” at the conclusion was replaced by Gabrieli’s 1585 setting of “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery). For this final selection the choirs were reconfigured with SSAB on the left facing TTAB on the right. The rest of the service was delivered as plainchant with LeCluyse intoning the texts of the celebrant and Rader the Scripture texts for the deacon.

There were also two instrumental selections, one composed by Biagio Marini in 1655 and the other by Massimiliano Neri in 1651. Marini’s selection was particularly memorable for using the first five steps of the major scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol) as its theme. While there was nothing unusual about this choice of thematic material, it happened to reflect Cavalli’s choice for setting “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” (Marini’s music was performed between the Gloria and Credo sections.) Those whose preferences run to Ludwig van Beethoven will also recognize this as the opening theme for the Gloria text in his Opus 123 “solemn” Mass setting, although it is unlikely that Beethoven knew very much about either Cavalli or any of the other activities in seventeenth-century Venice. (Neither of these topics shows up in Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s comprehensive biography.)

As usual, the execution of both vocal and instrumental music was up to the high standards that Stewart sets for Magnificat performances. It also seemed as if Stewart was going for more phrase-by-phrase expressiveness yesterday afternoon, almost as if he wished to recognize the spirit of Cavalli’s operatic style, if not the worldliness of his technique. The entire service was, in all likelihood, a journey of discovery for almost everyone in the audience. Bringing yet another dimension to seventeenth-century musical practices at St. Mark’s, that journey was definitely worth taking.

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Magnificat’s program for the concerts on the weekend of December 19-21 will include instrumental sonatas by two of Francesco Cavalli’s colleagues at the San Marco: the organist Massimiliano Neri and the violin virtuoso Biagio Marini.

Born in the early 1620s, Neri was the son Giovanni Giacomo Neri, a Italian singer and theorbist who worked in several German courts. Massimiliano was appointed first organist at San Marco just before Christmas in 1644 and remained in the employ of the Basilica for two decades. Throughout his time in Venice, Neri maintained contacts with courts north of the Alps and visited Venice in 1651, where he was raised to nobility by Emperor Ferdinand III, to whom his second collection of ensemble sonatas was dedicated.  Neri was appointed Kappellmeister to the Elector in Cologne in 1664.

The sonatas in Neri’s 1651 collection range from trio sonatas up to a sonata for 12 parts. With their varied instrumentation and rich contrapuntal writing the sonatas are remarkable as much for their debt to the polychoral tradition of an earlier Venetian generation as for their anticipation of harmonic organization crystalized by Corelli a generation later.

While his greatest impact on music of his time was no doubt as a virtuoso violinist, Biagio Marini also served as maestro di cappella in many courts on both side of the Alps. Born in Venice in 1594, he entered the employ of the Capella Marciana as a violinist just a few months before Cavalli’s arrival and was engaged there at least twice again, including the years just before the publication of his last collection of sonatas, op. 22, in 1655. After leaving Venice for the first time in 1620, Marini worked either as a violinist or maestro di cappella in Parma, Neuberg, Brussels, Milano, Bergamo and Düsseldorf.

Marini is credited with the many innovations in violin technique displayed in his many volumes of violin music, including double and triple stops and various scordatura tunings. He made many notable compositional experiements as well, for example a sonata “senza cadenze” or without cadences. In addition to his instrumental works Marini’s long and fruitful career also saw the publication of a significant body of sacred vocal music.

8 months ago | |
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“Francesco Cavalli truly has no peers in Italy, in the perfection of his singing, in the worth of his organ playing, and in his exceptional musical compositions, of which those in print bear witness to his merit.”

The Venetian chronicler Ziotti’s effusive praise of Cavalli, published 1655, reflects the universal acclaim the composer enjoyed at the height of his long and robust musical career. The son of the organist and composer Giovanni Battista Caletti, Cavalli was born in the small but prosperous town of Crema near Milan but still within the borders of the Venetian Republic in 1602. At the age of 13 Francesco’s exceptional voice and prodigious musical talents drew the attention of Frederico Cavalli, the Venetian governor in Crema. Cavalli offered to take the boy to Venice where he could benefit from exposure to the rich musical life there – a proposal only reluctantly accepted by the boy’s father.

Within months of his arrival, Cavalli was engaged as a singer at the Basilica of San Marco under its newly appointed maestro Claudio Monteverdi, who was in the midst of restoring the musical institution of the Basilica to its former heights under Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli. For the remaining six decades of his life, Cavalli would remain in the employ of the Basilica, where he would work with the most esteemed musicians of his age. Additionally, his status as musician in the Cappella Marciana, together with his undisputed gifts as a singer, organist and composer, insured a steady flow of outside work at the many well-endowed churches, scuole grandi and in the noble palaces of The Most Serene Republic.

While musically and professionally the situation at San Marco could hardly be matched, Cavalli’s early separation from his family and the pressure of professional responsibilities at a young age had an impact on his first years at San Marco. He lived first with Federico Cavalli, whose surname he later adopted, but appears to have moved frequently, most often living by various other wealthy patrons among the Venetian elite, some of whom bailed him out of gambling debts and otherwise supported the brilliant, but occasionally reckless young prodigy.

Like all Venetians, Cavalli’s life was profoundly impacted by the “The Great Plague of Milan”, which arrived in the winter of 1630. Historians have suggested that a strain of bubonic plague was brought to Lombardy the previous year by foreign soldiers engaged in the catastrophic siege of Mantua and gradually moved from city to city. Over 80,000 Venetians perished in 1630 and over the next two years the plague would claim over a quarter million lives as it spread across northern Italy.

At the height of the plague, Cavalli was married to Maria Sosomeno, the recent widow of wealthy patrician Alvise Schiavina. The marriage proved to be as successful and affectionate as it was financially beneficial and Cavalli readily adapted to his new role of landowning businessman. In addition to relieving him of the financial anxieties characteristic of the life of a professional musician, his new prosperity, coupled with his outstanding musical talent, positioned him perfectly to get in on the ground floor of one of the most momentous developments in music history: the advent of public opera.

In 1637 a small troupe of singers and instrumentalists had staged Andromeda, an opera by Francesco Mannelli, at the Teatro San Cassiano. The newly conceived notion of entirely sung drama, until then the exclusive privilege of the nobility in the courts of Mantua, Florence and Rome, proved sensationally popular among the relatively broad spectrum of Venetian society that could afford the price of admission. Mass media music was born.

Cavalli was quick to recognize opera’s commercial potential and joined with a group of investors and artistic collaborators to emulate the success of Andromeda and within a year began presenting regular operatic production at San Cassaino, beginning with his own Le Nozze di Teti e di Peleo. Over the next three decades, in the roles not only of performer, director and composer, but also venture capitalist and impresario, Cavalli would be the dominant figure in – and most powerful influence on – the first generation of opera as the musical theater establishment we know today. Between 1639 and 1669, Cavalli wrote 32 works for the stage. At the peak of his career he received the exceptional honor of a commission to write and stage an opera for the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, Louis (later to be Sun King) to the Spanish Hapsburg Maria Theresa in 1659.

Throughout this time, Cavalli continued in the service of the Cappella Marciana first as a singer and later as organist. As early as 1625, a Song of Songs setting by Cavalli was included in a sacred anthology along with works by Monteverdi, Grandi and other musical luminaries. In 1650 he edited a posthumous collection of Monteverdi’s sacred music in which he included his own six-voice Magnificat. But it was not until 1656, at the height of his operatic fame, that he published his first collection of sacred music, Musiche Sacre, from which the eight voice concertato setting of the Mass ordinary on our program was drawn.

Dedicated to Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici, to whom Cavalli’s opera Ipermestra had been dedicated two years earlier, Musiche sacre is monumental even in the context of previous magisterial publications by Monteverdi, Rovetta, Rigatti and other Venetian masters. With no fewer than 28 compositions, the volume included, in addition to the Mass, grand-scale settings of several Vespers psalms, intimate hymns and motets and a set of six ensemble sonatas. The Mass setting exudes a confident brilliance and solemn grandeur well suited to the celebration of the Holy Nativity, though it was most likely composed initially to mark the occasion of a 1644 peace treaty between Rome and Parma.

The Mass also displays the innovative theatrical styles that Cavalli had explored and in his music for the stage, and he effortless incorporates the dramatic gestures and sharply contrasting textures found in his operas into his concertato settings o the liturgical text. There are even passages of secco recitative, the most idiomatic feature of early opera. Perhaps the most striking echo of Cavalli’s operatic style is his use of sequences and transpositions to extend the melodic structure and the harmonic clarity found in his articulation of the musical architecture.

After his return from France in 1662, Cavalli again wrote for the Venetian theater, but the financial rewards of his Royal commission and changing operatic fashions resulted in a more relaxed compositional pace. In 1668 Cavalli was unanimously chosen by the Procurators to succeed Giovanni Rovetta as maestro di cappella, a position he held until his death in 1676. Cavalli would publish one more collection of sacred music in 1675: a somewhat austere set of psalms and Magnificats required for the “Cinque Laudate” feasts unique to the liturgy of San Marco. With Cavalli’s death, Venice lost one of the musical giants of the seventeenth century and one the last of the direct links with Monteverdi.

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Acknowledged by his contemporaries as the greatest German composer of the seventeenth century, Heinrich Schütz served for over fifty years as Kapellmeister of the Court Chapel of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. He was instrumental in introducing the modern Italian styles of composition into Germany during the first half of the century. Over the course of his life Schütz wrote in a wide variety of genres, including the first German opera, settings of the Passions and several collections of sacred chamber music for voices and instruments.

Studying with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice as a young man left an indelible mark on Schütz, and nowhere is his debt to the Venetian polychoral tradition more evident than in his Opus Ultimum, known as Der Schwanengesang (Swan Song.) There is a satisfying sense of completion in Schütz’s decision, for his final work, to return to the style so strongly associated with his beloved mentor. Like Bach in his Art of the Fugue, Schütz seems to have chosen an exhaustive exploration of a clearly circumscribed genre as his legacy.

Der Schwanengesang is actually a setting of three separate texts. The first eleven parts, or motets, set Psalm 119, by far the longest of the psalms, totaling 176 verses. Like several other Old Testament texts, including the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Psalm 119 is an “acrostic” poem. The entire psalm is divided into twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each, with all the verses in a stanza beginning with the same Hebrew letter. Schütz pairs the stanzas into eleven sixteen-verse motets. To these he appends a setting of Psalm 100 and the Magnificat Canticle. All the motets conclude with a doxology, making them suitable for liturgical use, although the work doesn’t seem to have been composed with any such use in mind.

There appears to be no specific occasion or commission that prompted Schütz to compose Der Schwanengesang. Rather Schütz seems to have devoted himself to a setting of Psalm 119 as part of a deep spiritual study in the last years of his life, following the example of numerous Lutheran theologians. In his Preface to the Psalter, Martin Luther himself refers to Psalm 119 as “a small Bible wherein everything is stated most beautifully and concisely, making them as it were an elegant enchiridion or handbook within the Bible as a whole.” Similarly Johannes Bugenhagen in writing about Psalm 119 asserts, “the contents of the entire Holy Writ are contained in this one psalm.” Musicologist Wolfgang Steude (whose reconstruction of the missing second soprano and tenor parts we will be performing) suggests that Schütz chose Psalm 119 for his “swan song” knowing that “in a sense it encompasses both Old and New Testaments – the whole Bible. In so doing, he created a landmark work and a personal, spiritual, religious, and artistic testament in what was avowedly to be his final opus.”

It is unlikely that the first eleven motets were ever performed before the twentieth century. At the time of its completion in the 1670s, Der Schwanengesang must have seemed very archaic indeed, completely out of step with the Neapolitan operatic style then in favor in Dresden.

Though Schütz had title pages printed, the work as a whole was never published and was assumed lost when the first complete works edition was published in the 19th century. In 1900 six of the eight manuscript partbooks were discovered in the town of Guben. The second soprano tenor partbooks, along with the continuo part, had been previously separated. The organ part was acquired from an antiquarian bookstore in Guben and was later purchased by the writer Stephan Zweig. The vocal partbooks were held in a library in Berlin and assumed lost in 1945 but were discovered in 1970 in a collection of uncatalogued manuscripts in the Sächsische Landesbibliothek in Dresden. With this discovery, together with the organ part, now housed in the British Museum, an edition was completed in time for the 400th anniversary of Schütz’s birth in 1985.

Der Schwanengesang is set for double choir with continuo, and such a performance is entirely adequate. In his dedicatory comments to the Elector of Saxony, Schütz even recommends such a performance “by eight good voices with two little organs in the two fine choir lofts that were constructed opposite each other on either side of the altar in your Highness’ Court Chapel” However, Schütz also asked his colleague at the Dresden Chapel, Constantin Christian Dedekind, to expand his work by adding instruments. It seems that Dedekind, rather than carrying out the master’s request, made his own setting of Psalm 119, which he published several years later.

For these performances, I have assumed the task of carrying out Schütz’s request. For guidance, I turned to the extensive writings of Schütz’s predecessor as Dresden Kapellmeister, Michael Praetorius and to the many polychoral compositions of Schütz himself, as well as those of his colleagues Samuel Scheidt and Johann Hermann Schein. For this project I am deeply grateful to the advice and encouragement of Jeffrey Kurtzman, Herb Myers, Wolfgang von Kessinger and Nika Korniyenko.

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