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Thomaskirche_1735Magnificat is excited perform again on the San Francisco Early Music Society series this December in a Mass for the First Sunday of Advent with music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Led by artistic director Warren Stewart, soprano Christine Brandes, countertenor Andrew Rader, tenor Brian Thorsett and bass Robert Stafford will join an instrumental ensemble featuring Sarah Davol and Michael Dupree, oboe, David Wilson and Anthony Martin, violin, Wolfgang von Kessinger, viola, Elisabeth Reed, violoncello, John Dornenburg, violone, and organist Davitt Moroney. The concerts will be Friday December 11 8:00 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto; Saturday December 12 7:30 pm at First Congregational Church in Berkeley; and Sunday December 13 4:00 pm at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Tickets are available through the SFEMS website or by calling 510-528-1725.

Since the nineteenth-century revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, we have become accustomed to hearing the composer’s sacred music performed as autonomous works in concert halls. However, Bach never envisioned such a performance of his cantatas, Passions, and oratorios. As musicologist Robert Marshall has noted, “such compositions were not intended for the ‘delectation’ of a concert public, but rather for the ‘edification’ of a church congregation…Bach’s cantatas, in fact, were conceived and should be regarded not as concert pieces at all but as musical sermons; and they were incorporated as such in the regular Sunday church services.” Magnificat’s program is an attempt to re-create the experience of a Leipzig church-goer who had the unimaginable good fortune each week to be able to hear music written and directed by Johann Sebastian Bach. In undertaking such musical make-believe, we have the chance to experience the theological and textual unity, the heterogeneity of musical styles, and perhaps even some of the spiritual intensity that Bach and his contemporaries may have felt during Hauptgottesdienst on the First Sunday of Advent.

Von großer Seltenheit.

In reconstructing the liturgical context for Bach’s sacred music, the first source is Martin Luther himself, who, during the early years of the Reformation, established the pattern of worship for the Lutheran Church in two documents: the Formula missae et communionis pro Ecclesias Vuittemburgensi (1523) and the Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottesdienstes (1526). While Luther retained the basic structure of the Medieval Latin Mass, he drastically reinterpreted the Canon of the Mass, taking what had been a largely inaudible series of prayers and reducing them to the Words of Institution which were sung aloud to the congregation by the celebrant.

A most significant change in the celebration of the Mass was the incorporation of congregational singing, with Luther himself adapting many popular melodies and plainchant hymns into chorales for corporate singing. The principal points in the liturgy for congregational singing were between the Epistle and Gospel readings, replacing the Gradual (hence Gradual-Lied), and during the taking of communion. Typically, the congregation would sing the melody in octaves, with or without organ accompaniment in alternation with the choir, who sang homophonic harmonized settings.

While Luther’s Mass served as the starting point for liturgy in the reformed church, there was considerable diversity in detail from city to city with each community adapting local tradition to the new confession. In the thirty years following the publication of Luther’s Formula Missae, as many as 150 different Lutheran church orders were issued. The liturgy in Bach’s Leipzig had its origins in a document entitled Agenda das ist Kirchenordnung für die diener der Kirchen in Herzog Heinrich zu Sachsen fürstenthum gestellet (Leipzig, 1540). This church order was reprinted several times over the years including an edition published in 1712 that included the chant for the clergy. The other principal source for the servce music on the program is the Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch, published by Vopelius in 1682, which contains hymns and liturgical chant for the choir. This hymnal was based on the Cantional, composed by Johann Hermann Schein in 1630 and, as a result, all of the harmonizations that we will be singing are by Schein.

BWV62-noteBach himself provides some interesting insight into the liturgy in the scores to two Advent cantatas setting the chorale text Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61 and BWV 62. Perhaps because the cantatas were written for the first Sunday of the church year, or because he was new to the peculiarities of the Leipzig litugy, Bach sketched out the items of the liturgy (see at right), including point at which to organ would provide introductory preludes, information normally not included in formal sources.

A non-liturgical, but essential element of the experience of a Leipzig church-goer was, of course, the organ. It is somewhat disappointing to learn that Bach rarely played the organ during services, occupied as he was with the directing of the music from the harpsichord. There were numerous points in the liturgy in which the organ would have been played, most often by one of Bach’s assistants, as a prelude and postlude, and to introduce the chorales and cantatas.

Thus, in reconstructing Bach’s liturgy we have a fascinating collage of musical styles: Medieval plainchant, Reformation folk-song based chorales, seventeenth-century motets and chorale harmonizations, and, of course, Bach’s marvelous cantatas, themselves extraordinarily polyglot stylistically. Such was the musical experience of a church-goer in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure as Cantor.

The Sunday service began in Leipzig at 7:00 a.m. with a hymn sung by the choir followed by an organ prelude and the Introit motet. These motets were often drawn from collections of motets like Florilegium portense, published in 1621 or from similar volumes contained in the library at St. Thomas. We will perform the Advent motet Machet die Tore weit composed by Andreas Hammerschmidt, organist at Zittau and one of the most popular composers of sacred music in the mid-17th century. Still a staple of Advent and Christmas celebrations in Germany, the closing verse of Hammerschmidt’s motet sets text from Matthew’s Gospel proper for the First Sunday of Advent “Hosianna dem Sohne Davids.”

The organ then played a brief prelude before the Kyrie and Gloria. Bach’s Mass in G minor (BWV 235), like his other Missae Brevi, has suffered from misguided notions of originality since it is a “parody” work, in that Bach set the text of the Kyrie and Gloria to previously composed music. Although Bach assembled at least five such settings between 1735 and 1748, we have no specific reference to their performance nor the motivation for their composition. Most likely the individual movements were chosen for their intrinsic musical value. Perhaps Bach’s concentration on music for the ordinary during the last years of his life reflected the concerns of the Leipzig clergy. In a way these pieces more like “Greatest Hits” collections, for indeed, Bach seems to have rescued some of his finest arias and choruses from cantatas that could only be used on specific Sundays and recast them in a setting of the ordinary that could be used on any major feast day.

The Mass in G minor, written most likely in the late 1730s, is perhaps the most musically unified of his ‘parody masses’ with the final four of its six movement drawn from a cantata, Es wartet alles auf dich (BWV 187), first performed in August 1726. The opening chorus of the Mass appear originally in the cantata Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben (BWV 102) also first performed in August 1726, while the Gloria chorus uses music from the opening chorus of the cantata Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (BWV 72), also coincidentally first performed in 1726.

After the collect and the reading of the Epistle, the congregation sang the Gradual-Lied, in this the case Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, in alternation with the choir, after which the gospel of the day was read. It was after the reading of the Gospel that the Hauptmusik, in the form of a cantata based on the gospel text was performed. The Hauptmusik for our Advent Mass is Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36). The non-chorale-based movements of the cantatas have their origins in a secular cantata written for a Leipzig University professor in 1725 and adapted the following year as a congratulatory cantata for Countess Charlotte Frederike Wilhelmine of Anhalt-Cöthen. In 1731, Bach re-worked the music as a cantata for the first Sunday of Advent by adding three stanzas of the Advent chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, and the final stanza of the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The unusual structure is unique among Bach’s cantatas and firmly roots the work in the Advent liturgy. Like many of Bach’s cantatas, BWV 36 is divided in two parts, the first to be performed as the Hauptmusik after the Gospel and the second to be heard toward the end of the Mass during communion.

Following the performance of the Hauptmusik, the congregation joined in the singing of the creedal hymn Wir glaüben all in einen Gott, though in some services the Credo was sung in Latin by the choir. In our program, the first verse will be sung in unison, the second verse will be a fantasia on the chorale tune by Bach (BWV 1098) and the third verse will be in Schein’s harmonization found in the Leipzig hymnal. After the singing of the creed, about an hour into the service, the focal point was reached with the preaching of the sermon. Often more than an hour in length, the sermon (omitted from our program) was typically an elaborate analysis and explication of the Gospel of the day and often served to proclaim or reinforce the political and ideological agenda of the clergy.

At principal celebrations like Easter the Latin preface was intoned after the sermon, with choral responses provided in the hymnal, which lead directly into the Latin Sanctus (without the Benedictus or Osanna), sung in simple monody, in one of the hymnal’s polyphonic settings, or in a concerted setting. Bach wrote at least six different concerted settings of the Sanctus during his tenure in Leipzig, three by other composers and three of his own composition. We will perform the Sanctus in G major (BWV 240), which is most likely not written by Bach, though scholars have been unable to identify the composer and it remains among Bach’s cataloged works. Following the Verba institutionis, or Words of Institution, and during the taking of communion another cantata, or as in our program, the second half of a two part cantata was heard, followed by prayers and a benediction.

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Dance_to_the_Music_of_TimeMagnificat will perform Monteverdi’s Ballo Tirsi e Clori along with other madrigals by Monteverdi and instrumental music by Dario Castello and Biagio Marini on the weekend of September 25-27 2015. Clori will be sung by Jennifer Paulino and Tirsi by Aaron Sheehan. Tickets are available at, by phone at  (800) 595-4849. To order by mail download this order form (pdf).

Claudio Monteverdi was dismissed from service at the Gonzaga court in Mantua in the summer of 1612, taking up his new position as maestro di capella at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice the following year. While the precise reasons for his dismissal are unclear, the composer had been unhappy with his working conditions for years and had been actively seeking employment elsewhere.

The Gonzagas continued to hold Monteverdi’s music in high regard however and already at the beginning of 1615, the regent Ferdinando Gonzaga sent a letter with an urgent request for a setting of a ‘favola’ by Ferdinando himself to be performed at Carnival. Monteverdi responded that he would “toil away at it harder than you can imagine, sending you by the courier from week to week what I would keep doing from day to day. In spite of Monteverdi’s enthusiasm, the time was simply too short and plans for the new work were postponed indefinitely.

By the fall of 1615, as a result on the ongoing conflict between Savoy and Mantua over the Principality of Monferrato, Ferdinando was forced to assume the full title of duke. Perhaps for festivities surrounding the event of his coronation, he once again requested music from Monteverdi, but this time for a ‘ballet’ on an unspecified topic. In a letter written in November 1615, Monteverdi proposed a pastoral subject in six sections preceded by a dialogue between a shepherd, Tirsi and his beloved nymph Clori. 

The letter goes into considerable detail about the intended performance details, though based the description of the work differs somewhat from the version that was eventually published in 1619 as a “ballo concertato” to conclude the Seventh Book of Madrigals. Towards the end of the letter Monteverdi suggests, ”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.” Apparently the preparations were more than adequate and Ferdinando’s response extremely favorable.

The poetry is most often attributed to Alessandro Striggio, a close colleague of Monteverdi’s from Mantua and librettist of L’Orfeo, though there is no direct confirmation of his authorship. In the opening dialogue the two lovers describe the dancing of their fellow shepherds and shepherdesses: Clori encouraging in an eager triple meter, and Clori languidly lamenting that they are the only ones not dancing. They unite in extolling the pleasures of the dance after which they are joined by the other singers and instrumentalists for the ballo. The six sections of the ballo coincide with the six stanzas of heptameter lines that make up the text with meter changes for each stanza matched by changes in the choreography.

Magnificat has programmed Tirsi e Clori twice before. It concluded the program in a set of concerts for the San Jose Chamber Music Society and the San Francisco Early Music Society in 1991, with Susan Rode Morris singing Clori and Kenn Chester as Tirsi. Then in 2002, Magnificat presented the ballo on our own series, with Catherine Webster as Clori and Scott Whitaker as Tirsi.

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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.

(click to enlarge)

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.

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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.

3 months 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.

8 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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