Vivaldi’s Kyrie in G minor is written for double choir and orchestra, a favourite layout for Venetian composers since the 16th century. The geography of St. Mark’s Cathedral allowed the placing of groups of musicians around the building to create the excitement of a new ‘music in the round’ – Venice became famous for this. The Ospedale chapel is quite small which means the Kyrie could not have been performed there – the space has insufficient breadth to accommodate two orchestras and two choirs. There is a canal next to the Ospedale which leads to the nearby church of San Lorenzo, a Benedictine monastery church with a spacious rectangular nave. It is believed Vivaldi wrote this and his other polychoral works for the Benedictines. Sadly their church was severely damaged during the Napoleonic Wars, and was only recently reopened – as an exhibition space.
For most of his adult life, Vivaldi was employed by the Ospedale della Pietà (Hospital, or Hospice of Mercy), one of the orphanages for ‘orphans and abandoned children’ in Venice. The boys were educated for a trade and the girls were trained to provide music for the church services and concerts to raise money. The sheer virtuosity of Vivaldi’s playing, and that of some of his pupils, attracted numerous visitors from all over Europe, bringing generous donations. He trained some of his best pupils to teach, which meant in later life he could absent himself for long periods as long as he kept supplying the Ospedale with new concertos fortnightly (they paid him 2 gold sequins a concerto).
Considering the Gloria is the most famous of Vivaldi’s sacred choral pieces, it is perhaps surprising there is so little known about its origins. It was most likely composed for the Ospedale della Pietà. Since the musical establishment had an almost entirely female staff (Vivaldi taught there in the presence of a chaperone), it will have been performed entirely by the ladies of the Ospedale, tenor and bass parts included. They performed behind a metal grille to shield them from the public view.
Mozart composed his Spatzenmesse (Sparrow Mass) K220 when he was in his early 20s – some time between 1775 and 1777. The mass gained its nickname from certain twitterings in the orchestra during the two Hosannahs. It is a charming work, beginning to show some of the intensity of his mature style, but certainly giving no signs of the frustrations of his professional life.
Telemann composed his Magnificat in C around 1705, probably while he was still in Leipzig.
He had enrolled at Leipzig University to read Law, but was very active musically, becoming thoroughly embedded in the musical life of the city. Indeed, he became so dominant a figure that he seriously trod on the toes of Johann Kuhnau, J.S. Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche.
It was customary in Leipzig when performing the Magnificat as part of a service that congregational hymns would be inserted between movements. In line with this tradition, in this performance there will be appropriate Christmas carols included for the audience to join in.
In 1791, during Haydn’s first triumphant visit to London, he attended the annual Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey. The tradition at the time was to perform Handel’s oratorios with as many as 1,000 performers, and that year Israel in Egypt and Messiah made a huge impact on Haydn. He resolved to compose something similar himself, particularly inspired by the vivid musical pictures in Israel in Egypt.
Initially a suitable libretto did not materialise, but four years later, just as he was leaving London for home for the second time, he was given a libretto, The Creation of the World, based on Genesis as it appears in the King James Bible, and on Milton’s Paradise Lost.
When Haydn arrived back in Austria he had the libretto translated into German by that great musical connoisseur and pillar of Viennese society, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Then he got to work on what would be one of his final masterpieces. It took him more than a year to complete and left him ill with exhaustion. But at the first performance, before a private audience of the great and good, the listeners were so completely bowled over by the musical picture of the creation of Light that the performance had to stop while they recovered. The Creation proved to be an instant huge success, too, with the wider public.
In fact, Haydn had decided to publish The Creation in both German and English, making it probably the first bilingual musical composition. He also published and distributed it himself, with the aid of subscriptions, which proved to be very lucrative. Also, he conducted many lavish charity performances raising huge sums for the Tonkünstlersocietät, a charity supporting widows and orphans of musicians, very much in the vein of his inspiration, Handel, in his support for the Foundling Hospital in London.
The UK premiere of John Rutter’s Magnificat was given in Coventry Cathedral, but this was a year after the world premiere, which was in the Carnegie Hall, New York. Indeed, most of Rutter’s larger choral works were written for American choirs.
It is an immediate, tuneful, sunny work, which has the added bonus of being performable by amateurs. Its directness is explained by Rutter himself: he says, ‘In countries such as Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico, feast days of the Virgin are joyous opportunities for people to take to the streets and celebrate with singing, dancing and processions. These images of outdoor celebration were, I think, somewhere in my mind as I wrote, though I was not fully conscious of the fact till afterwards.’* It should be added, that it is highly singable because Rutter happens to write very well for the voice.
His conscious model, however, was J.S.Bach’s Magnificat, specifically the earlier E flat version which has a set of so-called Lauds, or Songs of Praise, which were traditionally inserted amongst the Latin text (these included the popular German hymn, Martin Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch, and the plainsong Virga Jesse floruit). So similarly Rutter has interpolated a setting of the anonymous 15th century English text Of a rose, and he uses the plainsong tune for the Sanctus, which, again, would not normally be part of the Magnificat. (There are other bits of plainsong lurking amongst the orchestra.) Rutter has also dipped into other ‘traditional’ formal ideas, such as in the Doxology, as it was in the beginning. Here he has employed the common practice of making this a repeat of the opening music (as did Bach (Magnificat), Handel (Dixit Dominus), Vivaldi (Gloria) – and many more).
Rutter has made this piece available in a version for full orchestra and also for a smaller ensemble. Stour Singers will be using the latter version, for the simple reason, the smaller orchestra will fit in the church.
Fauré’s Requiem does not follow the traditional pattern of a mass for the dead. It was not triggered by the death of someone he knew, nor was it a commission. He said it was ‘composed for the pleasure of it’.
It was started when Fauré was 32, and it took him 16 years to finish. It is a wonderfully serene work, despite being composed during what might now be called a protracted ‘mid-life crisis’.
He had been appointed choirmaster at the famous Madeleine church in Paris and had become engaged to Marianne Viardot – he had been in love with her for 5 years. In October Marianne broke off the engagement because she felt, not love for him, ‘only affection mixed with fear’. It appears that behind his outwardly charming manner Fauré hid a darker side.
Fauré was devastated and immediately went away on long travels in Germany, England and Switzerland. He met Liszt twice, but it was Wagner and his operas which particularly fascinated him. Despite this obsession, strangely there is no trace of Wagner in his style of composition.
Eventually returning to Paris aged 38, he married and settled down to the tedium of organising services at the Madeleine, and teaching piano and harmony – what he called his ‘mercenary work’. But his ambition was to flourish as a composer. Sadly the daily grind ensured he only had time to compose during the summer holidays, and he despaired of ever reaching the public. Being so grossly thwarted in his real calling, perhaps it was not surprising that privately he suffered from what he called ‘spleen’, which took the form of depression and anger, perhaps violence. Things did not improve until he was 45, when he did start at last to gain some recognition. He finished work on the Requiem 3 years later, in 1893 (although he would go on to reorchestrate it in 1900).
Considering the turbulence of his spirit during its composition, the serenity of the Requiem is quite extraordinary.
Much of Bach’s prodigious output consists of re-workings of previous compositions.
This is true of Cantata 191. It is described by Bach as a Christmas Cantata, and it is entirely a reworking of parts of the Gloria from his Mass in B minor. For the first movement he has used the chorus Gloria in excelsis – et in terra pax from the Mass unchanged, and the following duet is the Domine Deus from the Mass sung to the words ‘Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui sancto’. The cantata concludes with the chorus Sicut erat in principio.The music for this is the chorus Cum sancto spiritu which concludes the Gloria in the Mass. The words Sicut erat don’t fit the original, so he has modified the beginning so that they do.
So we get a small insight into the way Bach worked. There are many more examples of reworkings to hand, since all the Mass in B minor apart from the Kyrie and the Gloria consists of reworkings of previous cantatas.
is surely one of the most moving works in Handel’s whole output. He took great care over it, spending a full 65 days in its composition (compared with the amazing 24 days for Messiah and 27 days for Israel in Egypt.
Charles Jennens, had presented Handel with a libretto, perhaps for Saul in 1735. But it was on 26th July 1738 that the 53-year-old Handel actually started work on Saul, the day after hearing there were not enough subscribers for a proposed opera. Oratorios were so much cheaper to stage than operas.
In Saul, as in his next oratorio Israel in Egypt, the chorus plays a major role as the People of Israel. Apparently the public of the time did not particularly like massive choruses, preferring simpler airs; but in the longer term the choruses have proved to provide some of the most powerful and poignant moments in the piece, as in the Envy chorus and the funeral lament.
The public didn’t appreciate the more imaginative orchestra either. They were used to an orchestra of just strings, oboes and continuo; in Saul there were also trumpets, trombones, kettle-drums (borrowed from the Tower of London), flutes at one point and a carillon. This carillon was played with a keyboard, and was in effect forerunner of the celeste. It was, according to Jennens, one of Handel’s maggots.
Saul was first performed in January, 1739 at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. It proved to be one of his most popular works, being performed six times on the trot during its first season.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) lived and worked under the rule of Louis XIV.
For a composer of his stature it is perhaps surprising that he was never a member of the Chapel Royal. But there were excellent opportunities elsewhere in Paris, such as the court of Mademoiselle de Guise, for whom he composed Filius Prodigus in 1680.
Ten years previously he had returned home to Paris from a 3-year stay in Rome, imbibing all that was Italian in musical practice. Mademoiselle de Guise, being very much an italophile, immediately appointed him her court composer and resident counter-tenor.
During the next 17 years he composed a huge amount of music for her and her friends and relations, including the ‘motet dramatique’, Filius prodigus. In 1680 Mademoiselle de Guise enlarged her group of musicians, making it one of the largest and best private musical establishments in France. His scope thus widened, Charpentier produced, in Filius prodigus, a work on the scale of a small oratorio. He cast the rôle of the prodigal son as a counter-tenor, so Charpentier himself will have been the first to perform the rôle.