The Bach Project presents Dashon Burton - Bach Cantatas for Solo Bass

These program notes were written by Elise Groves for a program of Bach Cantatas for Solo Bass (BWV 82 and BWV 158) along with works for solo violin and solo organ. This concert was presented by The Bach Project in conjunction with Ashmont Hill Chamber Music on September 22, 2019.

In 1708, 23-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach took up a court position in Weimar. He had previously worked there for a few months shortly after graduating from St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, so it was known territory, the pay was good, and everything seemed to be going well. He had married Maria Barbara the year before and their first child would be born only a few months after the move to Weimar, soon to be followed by six more. This was also a fruitful time for Bach’s career. Though he had been hired as a court organist, he was eventually promoted to Konzertmeister, which gave him access to a large, well-funded group of professional musicians. He had the freedom to travel to nearby towns to assist with organ improvement projects and build relationships with local organists and builders. During this period, Bach’s reputation as an organist somewhat overshadowed his talents as a composer.

The majority of Bach’s organ music was probably composed while he was in Weimar, including the Fantasia in G major, BWV 572. Known alternatively as “Pièce d’Orgue”, the Fantasia showcases Bach’s talent in developing repertoire uniquely suited to the organ. Essentially a study in “what goes up must come down”, Bach takes the element of the ascending scale and transforms it into a mini-masterpiece, paired with descending scales, florid arpeggios, and dramatic pedal-point. Bach spent a significant amount of time studying and transcribing the works of his contemporaries, particularly those from other countries. In doing so, he adapted elements that he liked into his own style. While scholars debate exactly how “French” BWV 572 is, Bach did transcribe de Grigny’s Premier livre d’orgue (First book of organ music) in 1713 while living in Weimar and was well acquainted with the French organ tradition.

Bach’s interest in French organ music wasn’t his only foray into international styles. He was especially drawn to Italian music, particularly the concerti of Corelli and Vivaldi. Bach’s father had been his first violin teacher, and while he was known primarily as an organist, his talents as a violinist were not far behind. Though Bach wouldn’t publish the Violin Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 until 1720 (with the complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin), he likely began working on it while he was in Weimar. From our soloist:

“Bach’s groundbreaking sonatas for unaccompanied violin combine ideas drawn from violin works by his German and Italian predecessors with his unmatched skill for polyphonic keyboard writing—including the fugue. The fugues he conceived for violin “senza Basso” were of unprecedented complexity for the instrument of the Baroque period, pushing its polyphonic capabilities to extremes. As an accomplished violinist, Bach was ambitious with the technical challenges he presented to the player to execute intricate imitative counterpoint and interpret the dramatic development of a musical form typically written for the multi-voiced pipe organ. Transcriptions of the G minor fugue include Bach’s own arrangement for lute, as well as a reworking for organ, known as the Prelude and “Fiddle Fugue” in D minor.

For this performance, a replica of a violin from Stradivari’s Golden period made in 1990 by John Widelski, and an early Baroque model bow made by David Hawthorne in 2003 will be played. The thicker, more resistant gut strings and lower tension neck-set of the period model violin, together with the short model bow with a convex stick that was prevalent before 1720 serve to help recreate the sound of the violin as Bach knew it.” – Julia McKenzie

After Bach’s promotion to Konzertmeister in 1714, he turned his compositional energies more toward cantatas. His new position required that he “perform a piece of his own composition under his own direction, in the chapel of the royal castle, on every fourth Sunday at all seasons.” The exact origins of Der Friede sei mit dir, BWV 158 are somewhat unclear, but portions of it likely originated from this period in Weimar. The source materials indicate that the first and last movements may have been added later when it was revised to be used on the Tuesday after Easter (hence all the Holy Week imagery in the text). But the middle two movements are quite different and may have originally been part of a larger work for the Feast of the Purification of Mary.

The Feast of the Purification (also known as The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, or Candlemas) centers around the story of Simeon and the moment in which he met the infant Jesus. From Luke 2:

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,

According to Your word;

For my eyes have seen Your salvation

Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,

A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,

And the glory of Your people Israel.”

And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against  (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

From that passage, verses 29-32 are referred to as the Nunc Dimittis (the first two words of Simeon in Latin) and became an integral part of the Catholic liturgy, appearing every night in the service of Compline as well as other services throughout the church year.

Ich habe genug, BWV 82 was also written for the Feast of the Purification, but its origins are much more clear. It was premiered on February 2, 1727 at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Arguably one of the best known of all of Bach’s cantatas, BWV 82 was highly regarded by Bach himself. He revised it several times after the premier, creating versions for soprano and mezzo-soprano, as well as a revised version for bass.

Death was an ever-present companion in 18th-century life; Bach had been orphaned at age ten, and of his twenty children, only ten of them survived to adulthood. The German church viewed death as the fulfillment of the human experience whereby the soul was finally reconciled to God and free from the torments of earthly life. Just as Simeon could now die peacefully, knowing that God had been faithful after he saw the fulfillment of the promises God had made to him, these cantatas encourage the believer to not fear death but to find peace in its release.

The Bach Project II - Music for Bach's Favorite Instruments

These program notes were written by Elise Groves for a program of solo Bach works for cello, harpsichord, and organ presented by The Bach Project on May 12, 2019.

Of all the music of J.S. Bach, perhaps none of it has fascinated researchers, performers, and audiences as much as the six suites for unaccompanied cello. Much of their popularity in the 20th and 21st centuries is due to the influence and work of Pablo Casals, who performed and recorded all six suites in the 1930s, bringing them back into the public eye (and ear). But even before that they captured the attention of performers and composers alike. The suites have been transcribed for solo instruments from violin to tuba to saxophone to ukulele. Robert Schumann wrote piano accompaniments for them. Bach himself transcribed the fifth suite for lute.

Yet some of the most magical qualities of the cello suites are the things that Bach implied but never stated – the harmonies suggested by the shapes of the melody, the polyphonic motion and counterpoint that seem to be there to listeners but are nowhere to be found on the page – and these are the things that are frequently lost in transcriptions, accompaniments, and orchestrations. Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009 in particular shows a unique side of Bach with its energy and athleticism. Always pushing the boundaries of what was possible for a particular instrument, Bach brings his talents as a keyboard player to the cello, especially in the Prelude with its scattered pauses and dense chords.

The cello suites were probably composed between 1717-1723 while Bach was living and working in Köthen for Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. Prince Leopold was a musician and had great respect for Bach’s abilities despite the fact that, as a Calvinist, the prince did not have a need for his talents as a composer of sacred (Lutheran) music. Without the pressure to provide new music for weekly church services, Bach was free to focus on secular composition, especially instrumental genres.

The dance suite was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially among the French for whom dance was an important part of court entertainment. It usually consisted of a prelude or overture followed by a number of different movements, each based on a different baroque dance with specific requirements for mood, tempo, and metric pattern. The prelude was originally intended to be improvisatory; some preludes were simply an indication of a sequence of chords and it was up to the performer to improvise a melodic part and appropriately set the mood for the dances that were to follow. The order of the dances varied widely from composer to composer and suite to suite, but by the end of the 17th century this had been standardized by publishers, who would rearrange movements to fit their own idea of appropriate order regardless of what composers had intended. By Bach’s time, composers had mostly conformed to the order set by publishers.

Though Bach devoted significant attention to the dance suite while he was living in Köthen, it wasn’t his first foray into the genre. The Suite in E minor, BWV 996 most likely dates from 1708-1717 while Bach was living in Weimar and working as organist and chamber musician for Wilhelm Ernst and his nephew Ernst August, the dukes of Saxe-Weimar. This was a fruitful time for Bach – he was working with a large, well-funded group of professional musicians in the court and he and his first wife Maria Barbara welcomed several children, including Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann. It was also during this time in Weimar that Bach began to write the preludes and fugues that were later compiled into The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The instrument Bach had in mind for this suite is a subject of much debate. Some believe that the writing is best suited to lute, while others argue that, being a keyboardist, Bach would have played all his lute pieces on the harpsichord. Arguments over the details of lute construction, baroque tuning systems, harpsichord textures, and Bach’s tendency to write his lute music in score rather than in tablature make for fascinating reading for those who care about such things but yield few answers. The name “Lautenwerck” comes from an unidentified annotation in a collection of one of Bach’s students. The lautenwerck was a keyboard instrument similar in construction to a harpsichord, but with gut strings rather than metal. Bach owned two lautenwercks at the time of his death, so it is possible that this instrument – played as a keyboard but with the mellower sound of the lute – would have been the ideal compromise.

The trio sonata was another common Baroque instrumental genre, usually performed by two solo instruments and continuo. In the case of the Trio Sonata in E-flat major, BWV 525, Bach assigned all three parts to the organist. The collection of trio sonatas for organ was compiled in the late 1720s after Bach’s final move to Leipzig. They were likely intended as pedagogical exercises for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Though these pieces were intended to strengthen technique, they are also beautiful works of art in their own right and are considered by some to be among Bach’s most difficult organ compositions. Always one with an eye for symbolism, Bach imbued this particular sonata with a dose of “three”: three parts for the organist to play (two manuals and pedal), three movements, and three flats in the key signature.

Unlike the trio sonatas, which represent some of Bach’s later instrumental music, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 was written early in Bach’s career, sometime between 1706-1713. At its heart, a passacaglia is just a theme and variations – a common musical form throughout history. Early in the Baroque era, the passacaglia was a general harmonic progression, and performances were a combination of improvisation and composed variations. By the time the passacaglia made it to Bach’s hands, it had become a basso ostinato – a repeated bass line over which variations are played. In an early instance of “go big or go home”, Bach wrote 21 variations and then, deciding that a final variation was not a strong enough ending, followed the variations with a massive double fugue using the first half of the passacaglia ostinato as the first subject of the fugue.

When looking at Bach through the lens of his secular music, it is easier to see his ego, temper, and complicated personality. Bach had his share of struggles – he was fired, rejected for jobs, ghosted by potential employers, saddled with difficult working conditions, frequently not paid for his work, and suffered significant personal loss – not that different from the challenges faced by many musicians today.

Purcell and Byrd - fantasias and consort songs

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Shirley Hunt for a program of viol fantasias by Henry Purcell and consort songs of William Byrd. The concert was presented by The Henry Purcell Society of Boston in collaboration with Sonnambula on October 5, 2018.

William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) probably received his early musical training in the Chapel Royal, studying with Thomas Tallis who would become his very close friend. Returning to London after working in Lincoln, Byrd became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1572 and was named Joint Organist of the Chapel, a title he shared with Tallis. In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I granted Byrd and Tallis a patent and monopoly on the printing and marketing of part-music and lined music paper. Their first publication was naturally dedicated to the queen. Having the support and favor of the ruling monarch was essential for Byrd’s success because his personal beliefs put him in direct opposition to the crown.

Any discussion of Byrd must take into account the religious and political upheaval of the time, for Byrd was a Catholic in a vehemently Protestant nation. Fortunately, Elizabeth I tolerated his “seditious” beliefs even though others were executed for sharing them. As with many things in history, making something illegal does little to discourage it from flourishing. Byrd eventually moved from London to Stondon Massey. Here his creative energies, protected by the benevolence of his patrons and an order from the Queen herself, turned to the music of the Catholic liturgy, writing Latin motets, three mass settings, and the Gradualia - polyphonic settings of all the propers for an entire church year - all designed for secret celebrations of the mass in private homes and performance by soloists or small ensembles, rather than large choirs. The texts of his motets were intended to be messages to the Catholic faithful, with themes of the Babylonian captivity, or last words of martyrs, or other scriptural texts that could be read with a double meaning.

Though Byrd is known now primarily for his sacred music, his output is incredibly vast, covering almost all of the genres of his time. Unlike sacred songs, which are limited by the requirements and texts of the liturgy, secular songs provided composers with a very broad world of themes and ideas to explore. “Consort song” generally refers to a uniquely English genre of a piece for solo voice accompanied by instruments, frequently a viol consort. Unlike the madrigal, which used various compositional techniques to vividly illustrate the meaning of the words, in a consort song the music and the text have a much different relationship. The sung line exists as an equal partner in the polyphonic texture. The words are set plainly, with limited word painting. Though in description that makes the consort song sound rather austere, this texture allows for even more expressivity on the part of the performers and a clearer delivery of the meaning of the text to the audience.

This austerity in particular is what made the consort song such an effective genre for setting devotional poetry, as well as laments and elegies. O Lord, how vain is a beautiful setting of a somber text, not intended for a church service, but still sacred in nature – more likely intended for private performance and devotional use.

In angel’s weed was an elegy written for Mary, Queen of Scots after her beheading in 1587. Mary was a first cousin (once removed) of Elizabeth I, and had been married to Francis II of France until his death in 1560. She returned to Scotland, remarried, but was eventually forced to abdicate the Scottish throne and sought refuge in England. Mary was Catholic, and many English Catholics supported her as the legitimate heir to the English throne instead of Elizabeth I. Mary spent 18 years under house arrest in England before being found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I. The word “weed” in this context (and later in Ye sacred muses) simply means “clothing”.

Perhaps the best known of these elegies is Ye sacred muses, composed after the death of Thomas Tallis in 1585. After a few lines of poetic imagery, Byrd sets aside text device and artistic formality to express plainly his own deep grief over the loss of his mentor and close friend with the simple yet devastating line “Tallis is dead and music dies.”

The consort song was not only used for somber texts – Ambitious love, Though Amaryllis dance in green, and The nightingale all have the familiar themes of success and failure in romantic pursuits common to most secular genres of the Renaissance. While Byrd generally avoided madrigals, he recognized a marketing opportunity and reworked many of his consort songs into a more madrigal-like form, adding text to the instrumental parts for the publication of Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs in 1588. This allowed these pieces to be performed both by consorts with soloist (as he had intended originally) but also by madrigal enthusiasts.

Byrd’s tendency to use texts with multiple meanings extended to his secular consort songs as well. On the surface, My mistress had a little dog appears to simply be a tale about a favorite pet who met an untimely end, followed by the idea of what would happen if the animals put the offending human on trial. It is possible, however, that Byrd was actually referring to the beheading of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. Devereux was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, but also a Catholic who was eventually executed for treason after a very public trial. In the context of this song, “coneys” are rabbits, Appleton Hall was the home of one of Byrd’s patrons, and the gallows at Tyburn were the main place of execution for London until the late 1700s.

Any list of “most celebrated English composers” would certainly include both William Byrd and Henry Purcell. Though essentially a century apart, Purcell knew Byrd’s works very well – in fact he had copies of many of Byrd’s pieces including the magnificent Ne irascaris in his personal library.

Relatively little is known about the life of Henry Purcell, despite the widespread recognition he enjoys today. Born about 1659 on the eve of the Restoration of the English monarchy, the young Purcell also received his early musical training as a chorister at the Chapel Royal. When his voice changed in 1673, Purcell was appointed assistant to John Hingeston, an organ-builder, viol player, and composer who was responsible for the maintenance of the royal keyboard and wind instruments. From 1674-1678, Purcell dutifully tuned the organ at Westminster Abbey, and in 1677 he succeeded Matthew Locke as court composer for Charles II’s string orchestra. In 1679 Purcell succeeded John Blow as organist of Westminster Abbey, and in 1682 he received a further appointment as one of three organists of the Chapel Royal.

Over the course of about two weeks in the summer of 1680, Purcell produced an astonishing set of Fantasias for viol consort, composed in three, four, and five parts. These remarkably intricate pieces dazzle listener and player alike with virtuosic counterpoint, surprising harmonic shifts, pangs of pleading dissonance, and cascading fugal material. Moments of poetic homophony are also interspersed amidst these endlessly inventive episodes. Purcell manages to invert, reflect, augment, and superimpose thematic material in a way that expands all previously known limits. (Somehow, I feel the 21st century listener should be invited to make a connection here to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, and perhaps even to the Op. 20 and Op. 33 Quartets of Joseph Haydn – all works that exhibit unparalleled mastery via four independent voices.)

Some speculate that these Fantasias were a set of compositional exercises, an extension of Purcell’s enthusiastic study of English and Italian counterpoint. It is highly unlikely that these works were related to Purcell’s activities at court; by this time, consort music was falling out of fashion, and many would have thought Purcell’s fixation on the idiom to be rather backward-looking. If the Fantasias of Purcell were performed at all during his lifetime, it would have been in private, under highly personal circumstances, not anything like tonight’s highly visible ticketed performance at St. Paul’s!

And yet, there is something so special and remarkable about this facet of Purcell’s output that we feel it must be shared; we find ourselves inspired by the challenge of presenting this very private music in a concert setting, where we have the chance to bring out the many contrasting qualities these pieces display. As a reminder, Purcell produced these profoundly sophisticated pieces when he was just 21 years old. We can only wonder, what would he have gone on to create had he lived past 36 years of age? What other musical forms would he have exhausted with the mastery exhibited in these Fantasias?

Based on a five-bar ground bass, the serene Evening Hymn is one of Purcell’s most beautiful devotional songs. This anthem was published in Henry Playford’s 1688 collection Harmonia Sacra as a setting of a devotional text by Bishop William Fuller (1608-1675). This text, while intended to be sacred, lends itself well to both sacred and secular interpretations. Tonight, we close our program with a version for soprano and viol consort arranged by Fretwork, a superb consort of viols based in England. In doing this, we follow in the tradition of Byrd – rewriting madrigals as consort songs and vice versa to suit the situation and the performers at hand. We have every confidence that both Byrd and Purcell would have approved.

Dowland's "A pilgrimes solace"

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Karen Burciaga for a program of selections from Dowland’s “A Pilgrimes Solace” for voices, viols, and lutes presented by Long & Away, a consort of viols on March 24, 2018.

English lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626) spent nearly half of his life working and traveling in Europe and chasing an elusive position with the musicians of the English royal court.  He first moved to France at age 17 in the service of the English Ambassador to the French King. After returning to England, Dowland was involved with musical entertainment for Queen Elizabeth, though he did not have an official position.  On one of these occasions - the Queen’s visit to Sudeley Castle in 1592, a scene was prepared in which My heart and tongue were twinnes was performed by ‘one who sung and one who plaide.’  Encouraged by this success, Dowland applied for a position as one of the royal lutenists in 1594.  He was unsuccessful (though no one was actually hired) and decided to return to the Continent, intending to travel to Italy and study with Luca Marenzio.

He went first to Wolfenbüttel to the court of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.  Then he, along with a group of musicians from that court, traveled to Kassel to the Landgrave of Hesse.  Eventually Dowland continued onward to Italy while the others returned to Wolfenbüttel, along with a letter from the Landgrave to the Duke:

“[Dowland] is a good composer.  If, as Your Grace writes, he has belittled your lutenists, and has scorned them in any way, he apologizes most humbly and sincerely for it.”  

Once Dowland reached Florence, he became acquainted with a group of English Catholics living in exile who were conspiring to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and put a Catholic back on the English throne.  While Dowland had been raised as a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism while in France. At this point, he must have realized the magnitude of the risk he was taking. His trip abroad was intended to improve his reputation so he could obtain an English royal appointment.  Being linked to treasonous expats was unlikely to help, so he quickly abandoned his plan to study with Marenzio and returned to Kassel. He also sent a letter to one of his English patrons in which he confessed his bitterness over the rejection by the royal court, and then explained everything that had happened in Italy, even naming names, in hope of getting back in the good graces of the Queen.

In 1596 Henry Noel encouraged Dowland to return to England, saying that the Queen herself had been asking about him and wishing for his return.  Thinking that Noel would assist him in obtaining a court position, he returned to England to discover that Noel had died. Dowland commemorated his patron with the Lamentatio Henrici Noel and also published The First Booke of Songs, to great success.  In 1598, after failing again to join Queen Elizabeth’s musical establishment, he was hired by King Christian IV of Denmark.  Dowland completed The Second Booke of Songs and The Third and Last Booke of Songs while in Denmark.  He returned to England briefly in 1603-1604 to see about obtaining a court position with the newly crowned James I (whose wife, Queen Anne, was the sister of Christian IV).  He dedicated Lachrimae or Seaven Teares to Queen Anne, but was unsuccessful once again and went back to Denmark.

Dowland’s last published book, A Pilgrimes Solace, was published in 1612 shortly after he returned to England from his fourteen-year stint in Denmark.  His music was well-known at this time; the books of songs were constantly being reprinted, his solo lute music was in the repertoire of most advanced players, and many of his pieces had been arranged either by him or by his contemporaries (Byrd, Morley, etc.) for other instruments and groupings.  Dowland’s name appeared in theatrical works, proving that he was well-known and well-respected as a composer and a musician, even after so many years abroad.

In contrast to his success and reputation, Dowland wrote cruelly of his fellow musicians, attacking in particular ‘simple Cantors, or vocall singers’ who excel in ornamentation but are ignorant of theory, as well as young ‘professors of the Lute’ who do not respect their elders, and ‘divers strangers from beyond the seas’ who claim the English ‘have no true methode of application or fingering of the Lute’.  In particular, he singled out Tobias Hume, who claimed that the lyra viol was equal to the lute for both solo repertoire and accompaniment.

These attacks contain a contain a certain amount of “get off my lawn” along with the appearance that Dowland was lashing out at anyone and anything, likely because of his deep unfulfilled desire to obtain an English court position.  He wrote frequently of the unfairness with which he had been treated, and one can see how his frustration over this issue was expressed in his music. Frustrations about the inconstancy of women or deep mourning over the wrongs one had experienced (both real and imagined) have always been common poetic topics, but these, along with the popularity of the cult of melancholia, gave Dowland ample space to vent his feelings as he saw fit.  Certainly rivalries, criticism, rejection, and general frustration were as known to musicians then as they are now, but it would seem that what we describe as “professionalism” may not have been one of Dowland’s virtues.

In any case, sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  In 1612 an extra position was created increasing the number of court lutenists from four to five.  This position was given to Dowland, finally granting him his long-sought English royal appointment at the age of 49.   

A Pilgrimes Solace follows the pattern set by his earlier Bookes of Songs or Ayres and Lachrimae, all containing 21 or 22 songs, and all of which were “table-books” meant to be placed flat on a table with the musicians gathered around all sides. Like his previous books, this music can be played by any number and combination of voices and instruments (Dowland recommends viols and lutes). In contrast, though, this remarkable collection breaks his previous pattern and offers four very distinct styles of music: strophic, dance-inspired songs on the subject of love; mournful Italianate solos; somber contrapuntal works on religious themes; and allegorical masque-like songs.

In pieces such as Disdaine me still and Stay time a while, we hear of cold-hearted ladies and spurned lovers, heartfelt pleas and frustrated hopes. These works are clearly based on Renaissance dance forms, many of them triple-time galliards such as Shall I strive, which we perform along with its instrumental counterpart from Lachrimae (Henry Noels Galliard). The boisterous coranto Were every thought an eye presents singers with the challenging task of fitting all the text into a very intricate, upbeat rhythm! Next in the collection are several solo songs in a more modern Italianate character, all quite woeful in mood. Set for solo voice, treble viol, and continuo, Goe nightly cares is one example of the “new” declamatory way of setting text that English composers were only just beginning to warm to in the first decades of the 17th century.

Perhaps the emotional core of A Pilgrimes Solace, and of this evening’s performance, are several religious texts set for four voices.  We have chosen to vary the instrumentation within the trilogy (Thou mightie God) to highlight different textures and moods within each part. These heartfelt pieces employ daring harmonies, long phrases with unexpected suspensions, and imitation between voices, as is clearly heard in the opening of When Davids life. Also in this group are In this trembling shadow with its wrenching opening and closing harmonies, and If that a sinners sighes, which we present as a solo song.

The final pieces of the collection are dramatic tunes, some jovial and some melancholy, possibly for use at masques or court entertainments rather than home music-making. All feature gods and allegorical figures, with a story set in 1-3 verses followed by a “Conclusion” that drives home a moral point. My heart and tongue were twinnes, published in A Pilgrimes Solace even though it had been written much earlier, is in this group, even though it explores the familiar subjects of music and love.

We chose to supplement these wonderful works with a few selections from Dowland’s other publications. Our opening piece, Cleare or Cloudie, comes from The Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600, which followed shortly after his highly popular and influential First Booke.  This volume was also the first appearance of his hit song “Flow My Tears” which has inspired generations of composers; indeed Dowland himself composed seven complex instrumental settings of the tune and published them in Lachrimae or Seaven Teares. From this seminal work we offer Lachrimae Amantis (“Lover’s Tears”), John Langtons Pavan, Mrs Nichols Almand and the aforementioned Henry Noels Galliard.  

No concert of Dowland’s works could be complete without hearing some of his lute music. Tonight we present The Lady Laitons Almane paired with My Lord Chamberlaine his Galliard, which was composed “for two to plaie upon one Lute”; we have left it to our lutenists to decide the best course of action.

The closing piece of this evening’s program, I shame at mine unworthines, comes from the second edition of a celebrated and enormous collection of verses penned by Sir William Leighton called Teares or Lamentations of a Sorrowfull Soule, which he compiled for Prince Charles in 1614 apparently while in debtor’s prison! The fifty-five works include settings for voices and lutes by famed composers of the period including Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons and others. Dowland contributed this and one other devotional song to the collection, making these his last two published pieces.  Though Dowland only set the first of nine stanzas, we’ve chosen to include Leighton’s more uplifting final verse to end on a more hopeful note.

Songs of the Oracle - Lassus' "Prophetiae Sibyllarum" and Byrd's "Gradualia"

These program notes were written by Elise Groves for a program of Lassus’ “Prophetiae Sibyllarum” paired with selections from Byrd’s “Gradualia” presented by Tramontana in November 2015.

Orlando di Lasso was born in 1530 in what is now Belgium.  Around 1542 he entered the service of Ferrante Gonzaga and spent time in Mantua, Sicily, and Milan.  He then worked for Constantino Castrioto in Naples and for Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rome before taking a post as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1553.  By 1555 he was in Antwerp, where his first collection of Madrigali, Vilanesche, Canzoni francesi, e motetti for four voices was published.  In 1556 he joined the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich.  When Albrecht V reverted to Catholicism in 1563, Lasso (a Catholic, though not a counter-reformationist) took over leadership of the chapel and remained in that position for the rest of his life.  

One of the most prolific and versatile composers of his time, Lasso wrote over 2,000 works in all of the vocal genres of the Renaissance.  Flemish, Italian, German, and French publishers made his music widely available throughout Europe and also gave us several variants of his name.  Lasso’s reputation and popularity far surpassed any of his contemporaries, owing to his incredible skill in composition as well as his enormous output and the success of his publishers.  In 1570, Emperor Maximilian II conferred nobility upon him.  He was knighted by Pope Gregory XIII, and was invited to visit Charles IX, the King of France, in 1571 and again in 1573.

The Prophetiae Sibyllarum were composed sometime between 1549 and 1556, and were included in a set of partbooks prepared for Albrecht V shortly after Lasso’s move to Munich.  While the subject of the texts is sacred in nature, these pieces were not intended for use in a religious liturgy, and fall more into the category of “madrigali spirituale” (spiritual madrigals) than sacred motets.  These pieces are best described as “musica reservata” – music with intensely expressive setting of text and use of chromaticism, usually written for performance by professionals to be enjoyed by connoisseurs.  Although today these pieces are more frequently analyzed than performed, Lasso clearly intended them for performance by presenting them in illuminated partbooks.   

Among Lasso’s works, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum stand out for their intense chromaticism.  Expressive chromaticism in madrigals was fairly common in the mid-1500s, but the Prophetiae Sibyllarum took it to new heights.  The voice leading, though unusual, generally remains within the standard rules and practices of the time.  Lasso’s use of chromaticism in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum is more reminiscent of Gesualdo than other Renaissance composers.  Like Gesualdo, he used chromaticism to highlight certain aspects of the text, in this case the mystical, unusual, strange, and sometimes ambiguous texts.

In 1545, humanist scholar Sixt Birk of Augsburg published eight books of Sibylline Oracles, newly rediscovered, containing 12 Christian-leaning prophecies dating from the 2nd-4th centuries.  A new edition in Latin from 1555 is most likely what Lasso would have used for his compositions.  The poetry itself is complicated, with incomplete thoughts, parenthetical insertions, and interrupted sentences, and Lasso’s masterful use of chromaticism and rhythm enhances the disjointed yet mystical character of these texts.

The sibyls were women, believed by the ancient Greeks to be prophetesses, who uttered divine revelations, usually concerning future events, while in a frenzied state.  Early Christians regarded the sibyls as pagan priestesses predicting the coming of Jesus, and adapted the Sibylline texts into the larger body of early Christian writings.  The authenticity of these Sibylline prophecies was so commonly accepted that in Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel the prophets of Israel and the pagan sibyls stand side by side.

The movements of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum mention twelve different sibyls:

  1. The Persian Sibyl, also known as the Babylonian, Hebrew, or Egyptian Sibyl.  In some sources, this sibyl is credited with the authorship of the Sibylline Oracles.

  2. The Libyan Sibyl was named Phemonoe and was associated with Zeus Ammon at the Siwa Oasis in the Libyan Desert.

  3. The Delphic Sibyl may or may not have been related to the well-known Oracle at Delphi.  The sibyl was the sister (or daughter) of Apollo.

  4. The Cimmerian Sibyl may have been a double name for the Cumaean Sibyl.

  5. The Cumaean Sibyl was the most important Sibyl for the Romans.  In literature, this was the Sibyl consulted by Virgil’s Aeneas before he went on his journey to the underworld.  She wrote her prophecies on oak leaves and left them near the entrance to her cave to be scattered by the wind.

  6. The Samian Sibyl was named Phyto and lived on the island of Samos.

  7. The Hellespontine Sibyl was also known as the Trojan Sibyl.  The collection of prophecies at Gergis was attributed to her and preserved in the temple of Apollo, later passing to Erythrae, before possibly passing to Cumae and eventually being sold to the king of Rome.

  8. The Erythraean Sibyl was named Herophile and wrote her prophecies in acrostics.  This may have been another name for the Cumaean Sibyl.

  9. The Phrygian Sibyl may have been a double name for the Hellespontine and Erythraean Sibyls.

  10. The Tiburtine Sibyl was named Albunea and was located in the ancient Etruscan town of Tibur.  She was added to the group of Greek sibyls by the Romans.

  11. The European and Agrippan Sibyls were added to the original 10 sibyls by Filippo Barieri in 1481, which prompted a new level of interest in the Sibylline Prophecies.

William Byrd was born in London and was a student of Thomas Tallis in the Chapel Royal.  His first known professional employment was his appointment as Organist and Master of Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563.  In 1573 he became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.  Byrd and Tallis were shortly thereafter granted a joint patent for the printing of music and staff paper.  For this, they used the services of French Huguenot printer Thomas Vautrollier, who had settled in England and previously produced an edition of a collection of Lasso’s chansons.  They subsequently published Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur in 1575.  The collection was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and included 17 motets from each composer – one for each year of her reign – for a total of 34 pieces.

Although the religious status of Byrd’s early years is unclear, by 1570 he was associating with known Catholics.  Both Byrd and his wife were cited for recusancy (refusing to attend Anglican services), and having fallen under heavy scrutiny for his Catholic activities, his membership in the Chapel Royal was suspended for a time. Some scholars believe that the motets composed during this time show a persistent emphasis on themes of persecution, captivity, and deliverance, and that Byrd reinterpreted liturgical texts to serve as laments and petitions on behalf of the oppressed Catholic community.

Throughout his life, Byrd was frequently reported to the court and subjected to heavy fines for his failure to attend his local Anglican church.  It is likely that his circle of friends and patrons among the nobility were instrumental in saving him from more severe penalties.  In 1592, his prosecution for Catholic activities was halted by direct order of Queen Elizabeth herself.  While the queen was a Protestant, she was a moderate one, and also a keyboard player and lover of music, especially that of Byrd.

By the early 1590s, Byrd had moved to Stondon Place, near his patron Sir John Petre.  A fellow secret Catholic, Sir John Petre held private celebrations of the mass in his home at Ingatestone Hall.  As with all forbidden practices, these celebrations and those who attended them were constantly under threat of discovery.  About this time, Byrd began an incredible journey to write a complete cycle of music for the Catholic liturgical calendar.  The first step in this project was the publication of the masses for three, four, and five voices between 1592 and 1595.  The second step, the Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, followed in two installments, one in 1605 and the other in 1607.  Between the two volumes, there are 109 motets in three, four, and five voices.  When Byrd encountered the same text in two different contexts, he generally made use of one setting for both occasions.  To make this possible, pieces are usually closely related in key and vocal scoring and can be adapted as needed.  In general, the motets of the Gradualia are shorter than Byrd’s other motets and feature more madrigalian word-painting.

The first book of the Gradualia covered the major feasts of the Virgin Mary, including the votive masses for the Virgin for the four seasons of the church year, All Saints Day, and the Feast of Corpus Christi.  It is from this first volume that the selections on our program are taken.  Rorate caeli, Tollite portas, Ave Maria, and Ecce Virgo concipiet were all composed for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent (as the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion, respectively).  Gaude Maria Virgo is the Tract from the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary from Septuagesima to Easter, Ave Maria – Virga Jesse is the Alleluia during Paschal Time for the Mass for the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, and the Nunc Dimittis is the Tract for the Feast of the Purification.


I love a lass... Alas, I love! - English madrigals and partsongs

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Hilary Anne Walker for a program of English madrigals and partsongs presented by Tramontana in May 2015.

The term “madrigal” refers to two different forms, both Italian in origin.  The 14th-century “madrigal” describes the poetic form favored by composers Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini, among others.  The first collection of 16thcentury “madrigals” was published in Rome in 1530, and following that publication, the madrigal quickly became the most popular secular genre of the 16thcentury.  By the 17thcentury, the madrigal remained popular, but it had also taken on pedagogical importance.  Those who studied composition with the great Italian masters would inevitably leave with a collection of madrigals in the Italian style.  Because of this practice and the advances in printing that occurred somewhat simultaneously, collections of madrigals were quickly put into circulation not only in Italy but also throughout Europe. 

In England, the influence of several Italian composers working in the court of Elizabeth I resulted in some early attempts to copy the Italian madrigal style, sometimes in Italian or in English translation of Italian madrigal texts. The text of “Lady, when I behold the roses” of John Wilbye is almost identical to that of Gesualdo’s “Son sì belle le rose” though the musical style is quite different.  Musica Transalpina, published in 1588, was a collection of Italian madrigals translated into English, featuring pieces by Marenzio and Ferrabosco, among others. 

English composers, armed with the developing English poetic forms, quickly took up the challenge to create a uniquely English madrigal.  William Byrd, though better known for his instrumental and sacred music, experimented with secular genres, including the madrigal.  Though he faced persecution as a recusant Catholic, Elizabeth I held him in high esteem and he wrote the first known madrigal in her praise – “This sweet and merry month of May” – in 1590.  “Though Amaryllis dance in green” was originally composed as a consort song, but with the growing enthusiasm for madrigals, Byrd added text to all five parts and republished it in Psalms, Sonnets, and Songsof 1588.  Byrd’s greatest contributions to the madrigal are not compositional in nature, but instead in his teaching of Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Morley, and possibly Thomas Weelkes.  Tomkins would later dedicate “Too much I once lamented” to his “ancient and much reverenced Master Byrd.”

Some English madrigalists followed the Italian preference for more serious subject matter – courtly love, death, and pastoral imagery – and also followed the Italian tendency toward a more chromatic style with vivid word painting.  Weelkes, Wilbye, and Tomkins were among these, exhibiting varying degrees of chromaticism and a definite preference for using not only counterpoint but also unusual harmonic shifts for expressive purposes.

Other English madrigal composers preferred lighter, more frivolous subject material, usually incorporating double entendre.  Farmer’s “Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone”, in addition to being one of the best known madrigals of the English school, is an excellent example of this lighter style with clever word painting and the punning style which the English enjoyed so much.  Orlando Gibbons, a colleague of Tomkins at the Chapel Royal, was more known for his sacred music than his secular compositions, but he turned to the madrigal for satire and social commentary.  “The silver swan” published in Madrigals and Motets(1612) is a well-known and lovely example of the later English style, but the last line (“more geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”) is sometimes viewed as his personal opinion of the state of musical composition in England.

Thomas Morley, another student of William Byrd, was more interested in the lighter aspects of the Italian style and tended to avoid overly dramatic effects and word painting. In his compositions, he can be accused of being more of a creative borrower than a composer, since almost all of his madrigals have roots in Italian model pieces.  That aside, Morley’s setting of “It was a lover and his lass” is one of the very few known contemporary settings of Shakespeare, and Morley’s contributions to printing and publishing were integral to the popularity of the madrigal in England.    

The Triumphs of Oriana was a collection of English madrigals edited by Thomas Morley and published in 1601 in honor of Elizabeth I.  It was modeled on Il trionfo di Dori, an Italian collection from 1592, and included works by 23 different English composers, including Michael Cavendish, Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Morley, John Farmer, John Wilbye, and Thomas Weelkes.  Every madrigal in the collection ends with the phrase “… then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana, ‘Long live fair Oriana’” taken from Croce’s Ove tra l’herbe e i fioriwhich originally appeared in Musica Transalpina, and was reworked by Morley as “Hard by a crystal fountain” for this publication. Following this model, Choral Songs in honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria(1899) would later bring together 13 English composers, including Charles Villiers Stanford, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 80thbirthday.

The madrigal enjoyed a relatively brief period of popularity in England compared to the rest of Europe, but madrigals were nonetheless a significant part of the larger tradition of part song writing for English composers.  Part songs – songs for two or more voices without instrumental accompaniment – were an important secular genre long before the court of Elizabeth I.  The court of her father, Henry VIII, included composer, poet, dramatist, and actor William Cornysh, and his quasi-round “Ah Robin, gentle Robin” is a lovely example of the pre-madrigal part song.  

Eventually the madrigal was overtaken by the lute song, and no discussion of lute songs would be complete without mentioning John Dowland.  Following several painful snubs by the English court, Dowland moved across the channel and spent the majority of his life in courts in Germany and Denmark. When Dowland published his books of lute songs, he improved upon the earlier system of part books by printing each song in the round.  One page would show the melody line and the corresponding lute notation, and the facing page would show the other parts to be sung or played in the round, so that all performers could read from one book.

Later English composers continued the practice of writing part songs for both contemporary English poetry and poetry in translation.  Robert Lucas Pearsall became a composer relatively later in life, after moving his family to Germany.  There he was immersed in the German Cecilian movement, yet another in a long line of reforms which sought to make the music subservient to the text and contextual meaning in sacred compositions.  Pearsall developed an affinity for Thomas Morley, and followed in his footsteps to borrow material, texts, and ideas for his own compositions, rather than focusing on his own compositional style.   The tune of “Adieu! My Native Shore” was written by Renaissance composer Heinrich Isaac and harmonized by Senfl and Schein, but Pearsall adapted it with a few measures of his own composition to fit the lovely poetry of Lord Byron.  Pearsall even borrowed from Morley himself for his setting of “Why weeps, alas, my lady-love”.  While the composition seems to be Pearsall’s own original work, Morley’s own five-voice setting of the same text could not have been far from his mind.  Pearsall’s use of suspensions in overlapping voices is also very reminiscent of older Italian madrigals, most notably those of Monteverdi, of which Morley was also fond. 

In the early 20thcentury, Gerald Finzi, Gustav Holst, and others found great inspiration in the poetry of Robert Bridges, the poet laureate of England from 1913-1930.  Finzi was an avid consumer of contemporary poetry; it is estimated his personal library contained more than 3,000 volumes of poetry, prose, and philosophy at the time of his death.  Finzi’s use of rhythm and word painting is unique among later part song composers. While his pieces are certainly the most rhythmically difficult, he captures the intricate and complex rhythms of the English language better than perhaps any other composer, while still maintaining a beautiful flowing line. A wonderful example can be heard in his setting of Robert Bridges’ Clear and Gentle Streamwhere the traditional pealing tune of a clock tower is traded among voices when they sing about the “Minster tower”, thus the voices themselves become the tolling bell. Though Finzi had no formal musical training, he chose to study privately as a boy with Ernest Farrar, a student of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Stanford, like Byrd before him, was a prolific composer, though his contributions to madrigals and part songs are perhaps less significant than his position as teacher to an entire generation of British composers, including Howells, Vaughan Williams, and Holst.  As a faculty member at Cambridge University Musical Society, Stanford was responsible for not only raising the level of excellence, but also opening the Society’s doors to female voices.

Gustav Holst’s Four Songs, Opus 4, were composed while he was a student of Stanford at the Royal College of Music.  The texts are a mix of English poetry, including a poem of Robert Bridges, and other languages in English translation; “Soft and Gently” is an English translation of the poem Leise zieht durch mein Gemütby Heinrich Heine.  While Holst enjoyed a successful career as a composer and performer, he believed his role as a teacher was just as important.  He dedicated 30 years of his life to teaching young women and firmly believed in making music more accessible for the amateur community to use for practical purposes like celebrations, ceremonies, and simple church services.

Holst’s emphasis on the amateur community reflects an important trend in the history of the English madrigal and part song. While Italian madrigals had been created specifically for professional singers to entertain their upper class patrons, English madrigals were written more with the entertainments of the growing merchant class in mind.  Singing madrigals around a table became a popular pastime, and by the 20thcentury, madrigal societies and amateur choruses kept these pieces in the public performance sphere.

In addition to the fact that the English madrigal was intended for both amateur and professional performers, many of the composers were themselves trained in other fields.  Pearsall was a lawyer who didn’t devote himself to studying composition until he was in his thirties and living abroad.  Cavendish was a nobleman who occasionally composed as it suited him. Finzi had no formal musical degree, but proved himself to be a first rate composer.  Because of this duality of professionals and amateurs, the English madrigal was frequently passed over by more “serious professionals” as being too trivial, simple, or frivolous.  It has only been in the last several decades that English madrigals and part songs are once again being performed and appreciated for the incredibly expressive genre that they are – one which encompasses the full range of the human experience, from the most achingly painful to the silly to the most gloriously sublime.  

Prière - 17th-century French music for voices and viols

These program notes were written by Elise Groves, Anne Legêne, and James Williamson for a program of French sacred music for voices and viols presented by Tramontana and Long & Away, a consort of viols in November 2014 and June 2015

The inspiration for Prière came in the summer of 2011, when Elise and Hilary first performed a portion of Charpentier’s magnificent Litanies de la Vierge as part of the International Baroque Institute at Longy.  We could not be more thrilled to present this program of the music of Charpentier, Lully, Dumont, and Marais – all composers associated with the court of Louis XIV.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier received his early training from the Jesuits in Paris before venturing south to study with Carissimi in Rome.  Upon his return to Paris in 1670, he entered the employ of Marie de Lorraine, known as “Mademoiselle de Guise”, a cousin of Louis XIV, as a composer and haute-contre.  Her household included one of the largest private musical establishments in France, and he remained in her service until her death.  In 1683 he entered the competition for four quarterly appointments as sous-maîtres of the royal chapel, a position that Dumont would go on to win.  Unfortunately Charpentier became ill and dropped out of competition after the first round.  After the relationship between Lully and Molière soured, Molière began collaborating with Charpentier on revivals of earlier plays as well as new works, all the while carefully constructing their work to abide by the restrictions put in place by Lully in his monopoly on theatrical composition in France.  After Molière’s death, Charpentier continued writing for his company for almost two decades.  He also held appointments at several Jesuit institutions, and in 1698 was made maître de musique at the Sainte Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Litanies de la Vierge and Annunciate Superi were likely composed in the summer of 1684 for the musical establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise. The scores for those two pieces even contain the names of the singers employed in the Hôtel de Guise at the time of the first performances.  Mlle de Guise was an ardent admirer of Italian sacred music and a devout Catholic, and this no doubt influenced Charpentier’s compositional output and style. 

During his lifetime, Charpentier was drastically overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of Lully.  Even after Lully’s death opened the doors for other French opera composers, the cult-like followers of Lully vehemently condemned anyone that may have been perceived as a threat to Lully or his ideals.  With the exception of a handful of airs from Circéand the full score of Médée, none of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime, and he remained virtually unknown until the late 20thcentury.

Henry Dumont was a Belgian composer, organist, and harpsichordist.  He, along with his brother, studied at the choir school in Maastricht and later the Jesuit college.  He became organist at the church of St. Paul in Paris in 1643 and held that post until his death.  In 1652 he was named harpsichordist to the Duke of Anjou, thus providing him with access to the French court.  In 1660 he entered the service of the queen, Marie-Thérèse, first wife of Louis XIV, as her organist.  Eight years later he became compositeur de la musique de la chapelle royale and finally in 1673, maître de la musique de la reine.  

The majority of Dumont’s surviving works are sacred vocal pieces, as one would expect of a composer who spent so much of his career in positions related to the church.  Dumont’s instrumental dances, including the sublime Allemanda Gravis, are found in his Meslanges à II, III, IV et V parties published in 1652.  French composers were slow to take up the Italians’ innovations in continuo accompaniment, preferring old-fashioned polyphony that worked so well in matched consorts of instruments.  By the 1650s, however, when Dumont was harpsichordist for the Duke of Anjou, tastes were beginning to change; his works are among the earliest French pieces published with figures in the bass. 

Jean-Baptiste Lully was born in Florence.  He was taken to France in 1646 as garçon de chambre and Italian teacher to Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, another of Louis XIV’s cousins.  He became known in her court for his talent on the violin.  In 1652 he entered into court employment as compositeur de la musique instrumentale to Louis XIV, a position that involved writing music for the court ballets and dancing in them.  He was invited to join the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi, but was unimpressed with their lack of discipline.  He set up his own Petits Violons and trained them from 1656 to 1664.  Meanwhile, Lully was gaining fame as a composer of ballet. He was appointed surintendant et compositeur de la musique de la chambre du roi in 1661 and by 1662 was maître de la musique de la chambre.  Through the 1660s, Lully collaborated with Molière on a series of comedies-balletscombining spoken comedy with singing and dancing.  The chaconne from L’amour Médecin, one such comedie-ballet, dates from 1665, roughly a decade before his wildly successful operas were performed. 

Lully was initially resistant to the idea of French opera, but when his rival Pierre Perrin fell from the favor of the king, Lully was quick to take up his post and soon was granted the exclusive right to compose and produce opera at the Académie Royale de Musique.  From 1673-1687 he produced a new opera nearly every year and fiercely protected his monopoly on that genre.  Lully ruled with an iron fist.  He imposed harsh limits on his rivals, preventing them from doing anything that might have threatened his own success.  He insisted on “military precision” in his orchestra, and was adamantly intolerant of added ornamentation by either instrumentalists or singers.  His greed, ambition, and ruthless plotting against other composers and musicians he perceived to be threats resulted in numerous enemies.  His violent temper caused problems with the musicians in his employ.  However, he paid his performers extremely well, and even guaranteed them earnings outside the opera as long as they were not working for any of his rivals.

In the 1680s, mirroring the preferences of the court, and in a desperate attempt to regain his former status with the king, whose tastes had turned away from lavish entertainment, Lully focused his attention on sacred music.  Lully wrote relatively few sacred works, but the petits motets, three of which will be performed on this program, are a unique hybrid of Italian and French tastes. They were most likely composed for the nuns at the convent of the Assumption in rue Saint-Honoré.  In 1687, while conducting a performance of his Te Deum before the king, he struck his foot with his conducting cane and subsequently died of gangrene.

Marin Marais received his initial musical training as a chorister at the parish of St. Germain-l’Auxerrois from 1667 until 1672, where his teachers included members of the Couperin family.  In his late teen years he also studied for a time with the eminent gambist St. Colombe, an episode in his life that inspired the largely fictional book and film Tous les Matins du Monde.  His fame spread far beyond the borders of France, where he was chamber musician to Louis XIV, and played in and later conducted the Opéra orchestra.  Marais studied composition with Lully and remained loyal to Lully for his whole career. The finest viola da gamba player of his time, he published 5 books of viol compositions, a total of 596 pieces grouped into 39 suites, some of them for three viols.  Some are easy to play, some fiendishly difficult.  Beautifully engraved, they are still being re-published in facsimile, as one could not wish for a more pleasing, elegant, and nicely laid out edition.  Marais gives fingering, bowing, and ornament indications, which still make these books extremely valuable as teaching material, besides being the absolute summit of typically French baroque viol music. 

The music for three viols on tonight’s program comes from his fourth volume of viol music, published in 1717.  This volume is organized in three sections: easier solos, quite virtuosic solos which include a number of his most famous works, and finally two suites for three viols, one in D and the other in G.  The Caprice in G opens the second suite.  It is in two sections, the first is lush and chromatic while the second is a brilliantly virtuosic fugue.  The three pieces in D major come from the middle of the first suite.  The Allemande, which was no longer dance music in France by the eighteenth century, moves between grandeur and tenderness.  The Sarabande features luscious soaring lines and the Petit Paysane is a short, rousing vignette depicting a country festival.  The combination of three bass viols is uniquely sonorous and Marais demonstrates his mastery of writing for the instrument throughout these pieces. 

Ahi, morte! - Epitaphs and Laments of Monteverdi and d'India

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and James Dargan for a program of madrigals by Monteverdi and d’India presented by Tramontana in May 2014.

What is a madrigal, anyway?

The term “madrigal” actually refers to two different things, both Italian in origin.  The 14th-century madrigal, favored by composers like Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini, referred to the poetic form that many of their pieces followed.  The madrigals of the 16th century were settings of secular poetry for three to six voices.  These pieces employed polyphony, imitation, and later, chromaticism to emphasize the meaning of the text.  As composers explored more daring ways of emphasizing text meanings, the madrigal shifted from a popular form of entertainment among amateur musicians to a complex repertoire reserved for professionals.  To showcase their skilled musical institutions, the dukes of Ferrara and Mantua maintained a group of highly trained singers, both men and women, to perform polyphonic madrigals, one singer to a part, in the rulers’ private chambers. 

The first madrigals appeared in Florence in the early 16th century.  While none of the pieces in the first publication were actually called “madrigals”, they displayed the characteristics that would later be used to distinguish the madrigal from other genres.  By the late 16th century, composers were beginning to experiment with more extensive word-painting and unusual chromatic relationships.  Composers had become ingenious in their use of what would come to be known as “madrigalisms” – passages in which the music assigned to a particular word were set in a way to vividly express the meaning of the word.  Such an example in this program can be found in “Sospir, che del bel petto” where the broken rhythms of “sospirata” resemble a sigh or a gasping for breath.

In the early 17th century, the madrigal continued to be popular, but it had diverged into several forms.  Madrigals in the familiar polyphonic style continued to be an important genre and compositional exercise for Italian composers and all who came to study composition in Italy.  Composers also wrote madrigals for a solo voice with instrumental accompaniment (monody), and also concerted madrigals, which d’India and Monteverdi both composed alongside their more traditional five-voice madrigals.  Our program features madrigals from the early 17th century that are in the older polyphonic style but show clear influences from other forms that were beginning to take hold.  

What was Monteverdi’s involvement?

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) entered the service of Vincenzo I, Duke of Mantua as a viol player and singer in 1590.  He would remain at the Gonzaga court in Mantua for the next 22 years, eventually becoming the maestro di cappella.  After the death of the duke in 1612, Monteverdi moved to San Marco in Venice, where he restored the musical institution that had been failing since the death of Giovanni Croce in 1609.

Monteverdi’s prolific compositional output shows both the familiar styles of the late 16th century as well as the sometimes contentious style innovations of the early 17th century.  Although he is often viewed as the transition between the renaissance and baroque, it is important to remember that he was one of many composers who wrote fluently in both older renaissance and newer baroque styles, as any successful composer in this time would have done.  He was not bound by the rules and guidelines of compositional practice, but believed that music should “move the whole man” and therefore must match the words being set.  This emphasis on using music to intensify textual meanings drew criticism from Giovanni Maria Artusi, a conservative music theorist.  His criticism of the use of irregular dissonances and “modal improprieties” was directed specifically at Monteverdi but also at all Italian composers who were daring to explore these new techniques and place the words and their meanings first.

Monteverdi’s response, published in his fifth book of madrigals (1605), was to divide musical practice into two streams.  One was prima pratica, or the older polyphonic style of the 16th century, which was characterized by strict counterpoint, prepared dissonance, the equality of voices, and the predominance of music over the text.  The other was seconda pratica, or the use of free counterpoint and the use of dissonance in unusual ways so the text ruled the music.  While effective for silencing the critics, for giving composers a defense for their daring new practices, and also for giving music theory students something to memorize for exams, this explanation implied a strict division where none really existed.  The move from older polyphony into the new more expressive styles was a gradual transition during which composers wrote in a wide range of styles concurrently, depending on their needs and desires at the time.

How does the sestina fit in?

A sestina is a set poetic form consisting of six stanzas, each with six lines, followed by a stanza of three lines.  There is no set rhyme scheme, but instead the final words from each line of the first stanza are used as the final words for each subsequent stanza, rotated in a set pattern.  Traditionally attributed to the 12th-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, the form was popular in Italy by the 13th century and continues to be used by contemporary poets.  Historically, sestinas were written as a lament or a complaint, since the repetition of words can serve to emphasize and intensify feelings, usually those of anguish or grief.

Monteverdi’s motivation for composing this sestina setting is somewhat unclear.  Some believe that it was written for his wife, while others suggest it was written for a favored singer, or merely written out of duty and not with any particular attachment.  In 1607, Monteverdi’s wife died, leaving him with three children all under the age of six.  After her death, Monteverdi returned to his father’s home in Cremona in a deep depression.  He was quickly summoned back to Mantua to compose a new opera, L’Arianna, for the marriage celebrations of the Gonzaga heir, Francesco, to Margherita of Savoy.  Tragedy continued to plague him when Catarina Martinelli, the young singer for whom the title role of Arianna was written, died of smallpox just weeks before the premiere.  Monteverdi again retreated to Cremona and refused to return to Mantua for quite some time.  The music composed during this period, including the sestina, reflects his emotional state with the use of intense dissonance and vivid depiction of anguish and loss.

The demanding poetic form of Monteverdi’s sestina, or “Tears of a lover at the tomb of his beloved”, elicits some of his most inspired music, with each stanza representing a single tear.  The first stanza sets the stage for an exploration of grief in the moment when a lover bends over the grave of their beloved.  In the second stanza, a haunting duet between two inner voices is repeated three times, increasing in grief with each iteration, before the remaining voices finally join in and bring it to a solemn conclusion. The third and fourth stanzas feature duets and trios as the lover expounds upon his grief and appeals to nature, to the heavens, and to anyone who will listen.  In the fifth stanza, the lover invokes the muses with a series of musical sighs that pass from voice to voice and almost seem to interrupt the lamenting for a moment, transmuting the mood to one of wonder before returning to a haunting gesture of sobbing.  The text painting in the sixth stanza is exquisitely beautiful and very effective, each voice building up and over the other until all activity is stopped by death and the tomb ("Ahi morte, Ahi tomba!") when the voices converge into a unison, and then silence. Then the final stanza arrives in the shape of monody-influenced homophony, almost as if the speaker is too exhausted for any more grief, and the sestina ends in dry-eyed calm.

Who was Sigismondo d’India?

Sigismondo d’India (1582-1629) can be grouped with Don Carlo Gesualdo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi as the composers who explored and perhaps even exploited chromaticism in the early 17th century.  Very little is known about d’India’s early life.  He was of noble Sicilian birth, and probably was a relative of Don Carlo d’India, a Palermo nobleman who was living in Naples in 1592.  By 1606, when he published his first book of madrigals, he was in Mantua, where he may have met Monteverdi.  In 1608, he was in Florence, where he sang alongside, and earned the admiration of two of the most celebrated singers at this time – Giulio Caccini and Vittoria Archilei.   In 1611, he was appointed director of chamber music at the court of Emanuele I, Duke of Savoy, in Turin.  He remained there until 1623, when he was forced to leave by vicious gossip or to avoid a scandal, depending on which account one reads.  In any case, he settled temporarily at the court of Alfonso II d’Este, Prince of Modena before moving on to Rome under the patronage of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy, his former patron’s son.  His later years are as shrouded in mystery as his early life.  In 1627 he competed for the commission to write music for the wedding of Duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma to the daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, but that honor was eventually given to Monteverdi.  He was given an appointment to the court of Maximilian I of Bavaria, but died before assuming the post.

His extensive travels throughout Italy gave him a thorough understanding of most of the major styles present in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century, and his masterful synthesis of these styles is apparent in his compositional output. He wrote in most of the major vocal forms of the time, including monody, polyphonic madrigals, concerted madrigals, and sacred motets.  While he never ventured into the world of opera, his extended monodic laments can easily be considered dramatic scenes.  He followed in the traditions of the monody composers in Florence, writing five books of monody for one or two voices and continuo, and introducing into monody the chromaticism that was well established in the polyphonic madrigal.  In his five-voice madrigals, d’India followed the wild chromatic style of Luzzaschi and Gesualdo instead of the more restrained and monody-influenced style of Monteverdi.  Like the other composers of his day, d’India alternated between genres.  He wrote monody and polyphonic madrigals side by side, believing monody to be incapable of everything the polyphonic madrigal excelled at.  

In his final publication in 1627, d’India lamented that composers increasingly tended to delight in facile melodies rather than attempt the ingenious elaborations of genuine counterpoint.  For much of the 17th century, monody and the forms that followed (aria and cantata) focused on the importance of a single line and a clearly expressed text.  It wasn’t until the 18th century and the high Baroque that composers once again turned themselves to the creation of exquisite counterpoint and polyphony.


How 900 year old Medieval chant teaches you to kick butt

This past weekend I wrapped up an amazing project - a production of Hildegard von Bingen's Ordo Virtutum with Ensemble Musica Humana.

Who? 
Hildegard von Bingen was a nun who lived 1098-1179.  She was a scientist, philosopher, political figure, and all sorts of things that women weren't really allowed to be, and she had crazy visions and composed music based on her visions.  She also is responsible for writing the Ordo Virtutum - a musical morality play (a play that tells a story with a moral, like Aesop's fables).

What?
The Ordo Virtutum is the story of the journey of the soul ("Anima") and the battle between the Virtues and the Devil over the final destination of the soul.  In the original version, there are 17 virtues (all sung by women), a chorus of men representing the Patriarchs and Prophets, a chorus of women representing other souls, and the Devil (a spoken male role).  In the version I just did, we had a women's chorus of "Souls", a "Patriarch", a "Prophet", a "Devil", 4 Virtues ("Humility, Chastity, Knowledge/Wisdom of God, Victory") and of course, "Anima" - the soul.  What makes the Ordo unique is that it is the earliest morality play (by at least a century), and it's the only Medieval music drama for which we know who wrote the music AND the words.  Basically, it's really cool (in a nerdy sort of way).

The Story?
Here's the easy version...  The Virtues show up and announce that they've arrived.  The Patriarch and Prophet give them all high fives.  The Souls wander in, lost as usual.  Anima starts to realize that life kinda sucks.  The Devil tempts Anima, somewhat successfully.  The Virtues get frustrated when Anima gives in to the Devil.  Then Anima comes back to the Virtues, admitting that she blew it and asking for help.  The Virtues give Anima a serious pep talk.  Anima finally stands up for herself and tells the Devil she's not into him anymore.  Then (finally) Humility (she's in charge) tells Victory (the hit (wo)man) that she can go kick the Devil's butt.  The Devil is bound and everyone (led by Victory and Knowledge of God) rejoices.  Then Chastity and the Devil get into a spat, which Chastity wins.  Because Jesus was born of a virgin.  Make sense?

Enough background - on to the action... of memorizing!
Even with the shortened cast of characters (which also meant a shortened play), it was an hour long production.  Of chant.  Memorized.  So... how do you memorize chant?  Slowly.  Usually when you set out to memorize something (as a singer), the accompanying music helps cue you on what comes next.  Such is not the case with chant.  There isn't necessarily accompanying music (more on that in a minute).  So... relying on the music is not an option.  Next = words!  When you don't have music to memorize, you have to memorize the words.  Like a monologue.  Except in Latin.  So, I made flash cards.  I transcribed the 19 different chants I had to learn, cut them up, and started working through them.  In order to make sure I learned them in the right order, I practiced singing them in order.  Even if I would work on them out of order, I always ended my practice sessions by singing the whole thing, in order.  Then I realized that I had to know which character and which line immediately preceded my responses.  So I wrote the character's name and final 3 words on the back of each piece of chant.  It was a good system!  If I ever have to memorize an hour of chant again, there's the system!

Uh...on to the REAL action!
Rehearsals started on March 17th.  We had 6 rehearsals (4 hours each), plus two dress rehearsals (4 hours each), and 3 performances.  It was an amazing amount of work to get done in a small amount of time, but it really came together!  Everyone came prepared with their chant all learned and partly memorized (full memorization was the goal, but it was just too much for all of us).  We had a fantastic leadership team who gave us just the right amount of direction and free license with our characters.  We even got to dance!  And amazingly, after all those hours of rehearsal and repeating little bits of chant over and over and over and over again, it all came together!

That's nice.  Why is "Victory" a "virtue"?
Some of Hildegard's "virtues" make total sense.  Humility, Discretion, Chastity, Hope, Patience, Obedience, Faith, Heavenly Love... yeah, all of those "Virtues" can easily be viewed as "virtues".  Those are reasonable character qualities for someone to want to develop.  Some of the other ones make a little less sense.  Contempt of the World, Fear of God, Knowledge/Wisdom of God... yeah.  I can kinda get it, but it's not so obvious.  And then there is Victory.  As far as I can tell, Victory exists in the Ordo for one purpose - to step in as a "military" leader and conquer the Devil.  She doesn't say much, though when she does it's awesome, high, and pretty much can bring the whole thing to a halt.  She also doesn't get to act on her own.  She doesn't get to decide when it's time to conquer the Devil.  Humility has to tell her when it's time.  So basically, she functions as Humility's hit (wo)man.  And in that context, it all makes sense.  Victory is the "virtue" of conquering.  Of not being afraid and of taking charge of what needs to happen.  Victory is the "virtue" of kicking butt in the proper time and context.  Victory isn't warm and fuzzy.  She won't hug you and tell you it's ok.  She won't even tell you to stop being dumb with your stupid boyfriend (that's Knowledge/Wisdom of God's job).  Victory just waits until everyone has had enough and then goes and beats him up.  Victory doesn't rationalize or explain.  She just does what needs to be done.  She throws it down.  She gets the last word.  She's dangerous.  And as one of the directors mentioned to me, she may still be covered in gore and hasn't wiped her sword off yet.  Yeah... she kicks butt.  As awesome as Victory is, that's something that can be hard to display on stage.  She doesn't say much.  It's all in her attitude.  The most hilarious part, and yet probably also the most helpful part of Victory's journey came when someone (Matt) was watching me get ready for a dress rehearsal and started quoting Cool Runnings to me.  (If you haven't watched Cool Runnings, do it.  It's worth it.)  "I see pride!  I see power!  I see a bada-- mother who don't take no crap off nobody!"  I don't know if any description can sum Victory up quite as well.  "No crap off nobody."  Yup.  Pretty much.

So why care about a medieval music drama?
Well, on a purely nerdy level, it's a really cool thing that it still exists and it's very seldom performed. And Hildegard is awesome and so is her music.  Also, the production was really well done.  The singers were amazing and the instrumentalists... oh the instrumentalists!  There is no written accompaniment for the Ordo Virtutum.  Just the lines of chant for the singers and dialogue for the Devil.  So, the amazing instrumentalists improvised the whole thing.  It's modal, so they just played things in the same mode as the chant lines and it all worked out.  I make it sound way simpler than it actually was.  They deserve a ton of credit for bringing the whole thing together and creating a sound world that made the singers' job SO much easier.  The directing/staging/costuming/alltheotherstuff was so good and made for a really awesome production.

It's still an hour of chant that's 900 years old.
Well yes.  You can't really pretend it's anything else.  But 900 years isn't really that long when you consider how relevant the material is.  Yes, it's a morality play steeped in Catholic imagery.  Hildegard was a nun, so duh. 

But think about the action... 
Anima makes dumb choices.  We all make dumb choices.
The Souls are generally confused. We've all been generally confused.
Anima finally decides to start making good choices but discovers that it's hard.  We've all been there too.
Anima stands up to the Devil but realizes she can't do it on her own and asks for help.  This is such a good lesson to all of us.  We all need help from time to time.

And as far as the Virtues go...
The virtues can talk to the soul, but she makes her own choices. 
They can't act until she asks for help.  That's kind of like life too.  You can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped.  You can't change someone who doesn't want to change.
But as Victory taught us, when it's time to move, MOVE.  Don't hesitate.  Just throw it down. 

Don't take no crap off nobody.

And that's a lesson that still applies to all of us, 900 years later.

Early Music and Movies

Because I am studying something a little more "off the beaten path", I often have to explain what early music is (as opposed to not-early music) and justify why one would even want to do it.  Explaining this to other musicians is certainly an interesting task, but explaining it to non-musicians baffled me for quite a while.  Finally I think I have found an explanation that works for everyone. 

So let's start with a comparison:  music is like movies.

Music has performers.
Movies have actors.
In both, the performer/actor is presenting something to an audience, hoping to move the audience in some way.

So far, so good?  Awesome.

Movies come in different genres (action, horror, romance, comedy, sci-fi, etc.)
Music can come in different genres based on instrumentation and form (orchestral, solo, vocal, instrumental, etc.) or from different time periods or composers (romantics, classicists, impressionists, jazz, baroque, renaissance, medieval, and many of the more modern 20th and 21st century techniques).

Movies can involve many different actors (or groups of actors).
Music can involve many different performers (or groups of performers).

In movies, you do not always assume that an actor who is good in one genre of film would be good in another.  For example, many people are fans of Adam Sandler's comedy work, but somehow I don't think he would thrive as well in a serious drama.  There are always exceptions to the rule, of course.  Robin Williams' comedy brilliance is well known, and his dramatic roles are also always excellent.  The reason this works, though, is that he doesn't use the same delivery in a comedy that he does in a drama.  The techniques of acting that he employs in Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, are very different from Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society.

In music, it should be the same, but it isn't always.  For some reason, some musicians expect to play every piece in the same style, regardless of genre.  Obviously, techniques appropriate to jazz do not always transfer to Beethoven piano sonatas, or vice versa.  Fortunately, many musicians are wiser than this and recognize that each piece should be played in its own style with its own unique characteristics.  Ladies and gentlemen - this is the premise of early music. 

As I have often explained to my vocalist friends in other departments, one would never dream of singing Mozart and Wagner in the same style.  Obviously, solid technique is a must for both, but the stylistic characteristics (and costumes!) are very different.  Early vocal music often gets a reputation for being an excuse for bad technique, but this is such a misconception.  Bad singing is bad singing, no matter what is being sung.  There have been performances and recordings made of any and every piece of music with bad technique.  That is not a phenomenon unique to "early" music.  Good singing is good singing, no matter what the repertoire is.  Honestly, some "early" repertoire is so outstandingly difficult that it is impossible to sing without solid technique.  Early music isn't about good technique or bad technique any more than any other musical genre.  I sing with just as much power and support as my opera colleagues.  I sing with vibrato.  I use different articulations and ornaments for colors and effects.  Obviously, when I'm performing with a lute, my volume level is lower to accommodate the softer sound of the lute.  When I'm singing a recitative (as I did this summer) accompanied by six harpsichords, an organ, a clavicytherium, and cello, more volume and power is required.  Early music is about performing music before 1750 (or so, depending on who you talk to) and performing it in the proper style and, in many cases, on the proper instruments.

But back to the point about actors sometimes only being successful in one genre and sometimes being able to succeed in many...

In this area, musicians are the same.  Some musicians can make a career of only performing one thing (Beethoven piano sonatas or Puccini operas), while others can be successful with multiple things.  Many performers of medieval and renaissance music are also successful performers of 20th and 21st century music, including some very avant-garde styles.

One more comparison before I leave the movie analogy...

Sometimes, movies are bad.
Sometimes, musical performances are bad.

Yes, it happens.  And it happens to everyone.  No matter the genre of music or movie, bad happens.  I have often heard "modern" musicians criticize "early" musicians for a bad performance, saying that "gut strings are just an excuse to play out of tune."  Well, out of tune happens.  It happens to everyone, regardless of gut strings or metal wound strings.  Bad movies are made.  Bad concerts are recorded.

Now, legitimately, if you look for it, there is quite a bit of distasteful early music that has been recorded.  My music history listening CDs from college are full of terrible recordings of early music.  I think it is a huge shame that whoever made the CDs chose to use such awful recordings, because all music deserves to be shown in its best light.  There are absolutely mind-blowing performances of the madrigals of Gesualdo, early Italian Trecento repertoire, and chant.  But the recordings on those CDs are full of bad technique, bad diction, horrible intonation, and all the things that would make anyone hang their head in shame.  On the same CD are some fantastic performances of Schubert and Schuman Lieder.  Possibly the person who put the CD collection together hated early music.  Possibly they didn't have many recordings to choose from.  Or they were cheap or lazy.  I don't know.  I know I can find amazing recordings of Hildegard von Bingen's responsories on youtube, along with clips from the latest Hollywood Blockbuster.  I can also find terrible recordings, along with segments from laughably bad B-rate horror films.

Unfortunately, it is also true that many of us come to the earlier styles of music after having spent many years learning later repertoire.  This is less of a challenge for vocalists, and more of a challenge for instrumentalists.  Violinists may begin their training at a very young age, but a baroque violin is a different instrument than its modern cousin.  Gut strings make a different sound, and the bow is held in a different way.  Playing a piano is a very different experience from playing a harpsichord, even though both are keyboard instruments.  Sadly, most people don't start on harpsichord or baroque cello or theorbo.  Maybe one of the few instruments which has remained more or less unchanged is the recorder... and that is now being taught to hundreds of elementary school students as a "beginning instrument".  Personally, I love the recorder.  Everyone should learn to play the recorder.  That said, treating the recorder as a children's instrument only, perhaps as a step-up to a clarinet (a "real instrument"), ignores the fact that there is an amazing repertoire for recorder that requires as much skill and virtuosity on recorder as one would expect from any other "professional" instrument.

With that said, it is incumbent upon those of us who are performing on early instruments or performing early repertoire to dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to our performances.  We should not be content with bad performances.  If the pieces we are working on are badly written, we should find new ones.  There is no excuse for poor performance, no matter what the repertoire.  A bad movie is a bad movie, no matter the genre.  A good performance is a good performance, no matter what pieces are performed.

Obviously, every person has their own personal preferences.  I happen to love action and sci-fi movies.  My husband loves comedies.  I also happen to love the music of Hildegard von Bingen.  I love early Italian baroque works.  My husband loves playing orchestral music of Russian composers.  I'm not a huge fan of horror movies.  I also don't care much for Schoenberg.  Everyone is entitled to their own preferences.  Whether one happens to like early music is a separate issue from what early music is and whether a performance is good or not.

Hopefully you made it through the analogy!
The next installment:  Everyone is an early musician (they just don't know it yet).

The Good, the Bad, and the Crazy - Madrigals of Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo

These program notes were written by Elise Groves and Hilary Anne Walker for a program of madrigals by Gesualdo, Marenzio, and Monteverdi presented by Tramontana in April 2013.

The term “madrigal” actually refers to two different things, both Italian in origin. The 14th-century madrigal was favored by composers Jacopo da Bologna and Francesco Landini and referred to the poetic form that many of their pieces followed.  The first collection of pieces known as “madrigals” in the 16thcentury was published in Rome in 1530.  For the most part, madrigals in the 16thcentury were settings of secular poetry for three to six voices that used polyphonic, imitative, and chordal techniques to emphasize the meaning of the text. Advances in printing, specifically in printed musical notation, allowed composers a greater range of rhythmic options, and the exploration of chromaticism opened realms of expressiveness that had not been previously possible.  With the advent of what became known as the “seconda practica”, emphasis was placed heavily on the text.  The text became the most important element in the composition, and it is from this emphasis that the techniques of word painting developed.  As composers explored more daring ways of emphasizing text meanings, the madrigal shifted from a popular form of entertainment among amateur musicians to a complex repertoire reserved for professionals.  The dukes of Ferrara and Mantua maintained a group of highly trained singers, including both men and women, specifically to perform polyphonic madrigals, one singer to a part, in the rulers’ private chambers.  Beginning in the 17thcentury, the forms of monody, opera, and cantata gradually replaced the madrigal. Publishing a book of madrigals had been and would continue to be a compositional exercise for young composers, but for Marenzio, Gesualdo, and Monteverdi, madrigals were a deliberately chosen form of musical expression.

Luca Marenzio (ca.1553–1599) is the oldest of the three composers featured in this program.  He worked for Cardinal Madruzzo in Rome before joining Cardinal Luigi d’Este in 1578. He had a reputation as a fine singer and an accomplished lutenist, but it was during his time with the d’Este family that he became known internationally as a composer.  His first books of madrigals, published in the 1580s, were incredibly popular in Italy and were reprinted frequently both in Italy and throughout Europe.  Marenzio’s relationship with his employer was somewhat tumultuous – he occasionally had difficulty obtaining his salary, and in 1583 he was almost sent as a “gift” to King Henry III of France.  Fortunately, this plan fell through and he was able to continue working for the d’Este family until the death of Cardinal Luigi d’Este in 1586.  He then declined a position with the Duke of Mantua, a post that Monteverdi would take four years later.  Records from that time show that while Marenzio was popular as a composer, he maintained a flourishing performing career and comfortably lived on that income alone.  He spent 1587-1589 working for Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici in Florence, but eventually returned to Rome where he moved freely in the musical circles of the nobility and high-ranking clergy without being attached to any particular patron.  In 1595 he received a commission from Pope Clement VIII to take over the work begun by Palestrina to revise the chant books.  During this time Dowland traveled to Italy with the desire to study with Marenzio, but it is unknown if they ever actually met. 

Throughout Marenzio’s career, he treated his chosen poems as a series of short phrases, with each musical phrase designed to bring out the idea and affect of the text line to which it corresponded.  His early works were so popular that they were published in Musica Transalpina in England in 1588 and inspired the English composers who were just beginning to explore the madrigal style. Marenzio’s later madrigals differed greatly from the early madrigals featured in our program.  In his later years he explored chromaticism in a way that would be surpassed only by Gesualdo’s last two books of madrigals twelve years after Marenzio’s death.  

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was born in Cremona.  He received his only formal training from the cathedral maestro di cappella Marc Antonio Ingegneri.  Ingegneri proved to be a shrewd instructor not only in music, but also in poetic taste and political savoir-faire.  His guidance can be seen in the poetry chosen for Monteverdi’s earliest publications, as well as in the dedication of larger works to important potential benefactors. Having published his first collection of music at age 15, Monteverdi aspired early on to take a place in one of Italy’s numerous wealthy and musically rich courts.  His hard work paid off in 1590, when he earned a position at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, a place he would remain for the next 22 years. His reputation as a composer helped him to secure employment, but his primary role in Mantua was that of string player and singer.  Under Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga and his successor Francesco, musical life in Mantua continuously expanded.  For the Gonzaga family, like their cousins the d’Este family in Ferrara, an integral part of maintaining power and prestige meant raising the standard of excellence in arts and culture.  In 1601, Monteverdi assumed the role of maestro di cappella.  While in Mantua, Monteverdi published three more books of madrigals and began to experiment with music for the theater, including opera.  Following his move to Venice in 1613, Monteverdi’s compositional techniques became firmly cemented in the early Baroque style. This can be seen from his sixth book of madrigals onward with his increasing use of basso continuo and the polarization of voice writing.

Unlike Marenzio and Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613) was a nobleman.  He was born in Naples and inherited the principality of Venosa in 1586.  He married his cousin, Maria d’Avalos, the same year, and thus began a story almost too salacious to be believed. Four years later, he surprised his wife and her lover in bed and murdered them both.  In 1594, Gesualdo married Leonora d’Este, niece of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara.  This marriage, while unhappy, helped put the scandal of the murders behind him and lasted until his death.  His travels to Ferarra also brought him into the musical establishment of the d’Este family where he was introduced to Luzzaschi and other composers who were experimenting with chromaticism.  Between 1594-1596, Gesualdo published four books of madrigals in Ferarra, thus solidifying his reputation as a composer.  Gesualdo returned to his own estate in 1597 and immersed himself in music, focusing specifically on setting up a musical establishment similar to what he had seen in Ferarra.  In 1611, two years before his death, Gesualdo published his last two books of five voice madrigals.  The madrigals in those two books took chromaticism to an extreme that would not be seen again until the 20thcentury.  

While it is easy to look at Gesualdo’s chromaticism as an isolated phenomenon, it is important to recognize that it was a trend that many composers were exploring at the time. Luzzaschi and d’India both used striking dissonance in their compositions.  Marenzio had begun to explore chromaticism near the end of his life, and even Monteverdi used it before moving solidly into what would become the early Baroque style.  But it isn’t just the striking use of chromaticism that makes Gesualdo’s madrigals unique.  In another departure from the norm, Gesualdo’s madrigals were published in full score rather than partbooks.  Gesualdo used incredible variation of rhythmic ideas in his pieces, with fast and slow sections alternating very quickly.  Just as Marenzio made each line of text a separate musical idea, Gesualdo highlighted each line with differing harmonies, rhythms, and textures. Gesualdo made excellent use of emphatic pauses in the form of rests to further set off the text.  All of these elements together resulted in a weakening of the idea of the “tactus” or underlying pulse that was essential to Renaissance style.  

Equally as interesting as the composers on this program are the poets whose texts they set.  Like composers and musicians, poets also found employment and patronage in Italy’s rich courts, thus providing composers with easy access to their works.  The two poets most often used by Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo were Torquato Tasso and Giovanni Battista Guarini.  Marenzio also set a number of Petrarch’s sonnets, but Petrarch’s poetry did not find as much favor with Monteverdi. 

One style of poetry popular with Marenzio and Monteverdi, especially in their early writing styles, is pastoral poetry, which is imbued with classical imagery and is dedicated to glorifying the beauty of nature.  Those lucky enough to have seen Italy can understand why pastoral poetry was so popular.  The rivers, seas, and rolling hills are alone a wordless poetry.  Monteverdi’s setting of Tasso’s Ecco mormorar l’onde is a superlative example.  With gentle harmonies, sustained phrases, and limited text repetition within a single vocal line, his music serenely captures the understated beauty and awe of watching a sunrise over the sea that is expressed so earnestly in Tasso’s text.  

Unsurprisingly, Gesualdo avoided pastoral and narrative poetry, preferring to musically interpret the metaphors and introspection of tormented love.  In Già piansi nel dolore, each new phrase presents a new and opposing sentiment.  Thus the music reflects the extreme mood swings between ecstasy and anguish, as well as the utter confusion of experiencing both simultaneously. 

Tasso and Guarini owe a great deal to Francesco Petrarch and Dante Alighieri, the fathers of courtly poetry or il dolce stil novo.  This poetic style centered on la donna angelo, a woman of the utmost beauty, decorum and, of course, high social standing, who was the key to all redemption in the eyes of heaven. Heavily laced with double entendre, the poetry of this style is extremely introspective, restrained, and symbolic.  Marenzio’s setting of Tasso’s Disdegno e Gelosiais exemplary of this style, describing a courtly lady surrounded by towering, guarded walls, without whose love the subject is a savage beast. Tasso and Guarini went further than their stylistic predecessors by bringing more romance and sensuality into their poetry, which encouraged our composers to write more vivid and descriptive harmonies.  Interestingly enough, Zefiro torna, the first of only six settings of Petrarch’s poetry by Monteverdi, was written fairly late in comparison to his other madrigals.  Monteverdi’s use of chromaticism in Zefirorivals some of the most extreme settings by Gesualdo with unexpected harmonic changes and vivid depiction of the torment described in the poetry.     

These compositions by Monteverdi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo show the full development and flowering of the madrigal genre.  Marenzio, as the oldest of our three composers, began with the form at the height of its popularity.  His compositions spread the enthusiasm for madrigals throughout Europe.  In his later works he explored chromaticism and extremes of text painting and opened the door for Gesualdo, who took those ideas to their absolute extremes.  Monteverdi, as the youngest, experimented with the same chromaticism and text treatments, but in the end turned in another direction and ushered in the styles that would culminate in the high Baroque. 

Shouldn't everyone be an "early musician"?

I have come to understand that "being in early music" really has many disparate meanings and various levels of meaning.  The first and easiest level references the repertoire of music - generally speaking it is agreed that "early music" is the music before 1750.

The other meanings, though, become a little harder to pin down.  For some, "being in early music" means that they perform on instruments that aren't quite so well-known today - the shawm, theorbo, or serpent, for example.  For others, it means that there are slight adjustments to what we know as the modern version of their instrument - a violinist may use different strings or a different bow than a modern player, a flute may be wooden instead of metal, and an oboe may not have keys.  For a singer, neither of these differences really matter - the voice is, more or less, the same as it always has been.

If the instrument may or may not be the same, this definition clearly isn't enough.  So then, we dive into the most commonly imagined difference between "modern singers" and "early singers" - the discussion of technique.  For whatever reason, there seems to be a belief that early music singing has its own technique separate from modern singing.  The techniques required for singing early music may be different from what one would use to sing Puccini, but I would argue that the techniques used for singing Puccini, Ravel, Stephen Foster, or Charles Ives are vastly different from each other, even in the realm of "modern singing technique".  Each of those composers is from a different country, a different time, and a different compositional style.  Obviously, the performance of their works must be representative of the time and place it was composed and the performance practices of the time.  One wouldn't dream of singing Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" and Ives' "Ann Street" with the exact same interpretation and techniques!

This is the same with early music.  There is no one set of practices that can encompass the wide range of styles from the dawn of time to 1750, so even within early music there are many different stylistic choices that have to be made and many different techniques to use.  Inevitably, when I have a discussion with another singer and they discover I am into early music, the question of "so you only sing with straight tone?" eventually comes up.  For some reason, this seems to be the prevailing belief - that to sing early music, one can only use straight tone.  Certainly there are times when a sound with less vibrato is desirable, but this is not to say that vibrato shouldn't be or isn't used.  It is a stylistic choice - just like the use of dialect in Stephen Foster and George Gershwin or the portamenti in Puccini.  This being the case, early music singers aren't really different from anyone else - we all make stylistic and technical choices based on the repertoire.

This isn't to say, however, that I could or should go sing Puccini or that someone who regularly sings Puccini can just pick up Machaut at the drop of a hat.  They are drastically different styles, and out of respect, one should take the time to learn what is required of each before attacking it with no understanding of its idiosyncrasies of the expectations of style.  The key point here is that there are many different techniques and each of us has better facility with some than with others.  Within early music, some singers may excel at Renaissance French music, while others prefer Italian medieval and others German Baroque.  Each of these requires very different techniques.  The technique divide comes not between early music and everything else, but is much more subtle and divided across many genres, times, and countries.  Even more importantly, good vocal technique is good vocal technique no matter what the technical demands of the repertoire.

Another difference commonly cited between early music and modern performers is that in early music, we take more time to understand the context in which a work was written and performed, as well as how other influences (art, architecture, the use/study of rhetoric, politics, etc.) may have influenced the composer, the performers, or the perception/reception of the work.  Even if this is true, shouldn't modern performers be doing the same thing?  Certainly modern orchestras wouldn't pick up Shostakovich's 7th Symphony ("Leningrad") without a discussion of the German siege of Leningrad during World War II (and whether or not the symphony even had anything to do with that).  All musicians, early or not, should carefully consider the context of the pieces they are performing.  While music has the ability to "stand alone", how much more significant is it when considered in the proper context?  This should be an even easier task for musicians performing a more modern selection, since the historical record is bound to include more information on a more recent time.  If this, then, is truly what "historically informed performance" means, shouldn't all performance be "historically informed"?  If "early" musicians are those who research their music and the practices associated with it and seek to present it to an audience in an engaging way, shouldn't everyone be an "early" musician?