Interlude: A Thanksgiving

As we gather with our families and friends to give thanks this November 25th, my mind drifted, relatedly, to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day coincides this year with our Thanksgiving Day.  St. Catherine’s story is literally one of legend.  Converted to Christianity at 14, she protested against the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Maxentius.  The Emperor sought to dissuade the girl of her heresy.  In brief, the emperor summoned a host of pagan orators to debate her; Catherine won, converting the orators.  The emperor threw Catherine in prison, where she was visited by the Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximillia, and many others; they too all converted to Christianity.  Maxentius had Catherine tortured, starved and beaten; she would not yield and her body remained undamaged.  The Emperor proposed to marry Catherine, but she refused, pledging her chastity to Christ.  Faced with such stubborn resistance, the condemned Catherine to death in the most horrific way possible.  Strapped between two spiked wheels, Catherine’s body was literally to be torn to shreds.  But the wheels shattered when they touched her body, leaving her unharmed.  So, as is so often the case with saints, he chopped off her head.  End of story.

St. Catherine became one of the most important saints during the medieval age, retaining her popularity right through to the Renaissance, during which time the English composer John Dunstable, who was featured early on in this blog, wrote several motets in her honor.  This one, likely composed to celebrate the marriage of Edward V of England to Catherine of Valois in 1420, is a thanksgiving in its own right, celebrating the political unity of England and France after many years of bloody war.

John Dunstable, Salve scema sanctitatis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehq0xRfWlGQ

Salve scema sanctitatis
Christi Katherina,
sponsa speciosa satis
castitate cristalina;
cuius caro columbina
reges refusa,
casti celi cacumina
rotis revinxit reclusa,
ruptis rotulis recusa,
plangens plebs precipitatur
rixa rectorum retusa
pira pestilens paratur.

Poli princeps postulator;
Christo cremantur credentes,
piis palio prestatur,
celum constantium cluentes
claudunt carcere cluentes
votis virginem urentem;
clatris confluunt clementes,
vitam vitant vix volentem.
Virgo virtute vegentem
proscit plebem prosperari,
vitam vincens et virentem
polo poscit premiari.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Treat: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Much like my wife’s bacon stuffing at Thanksgiving, this list would not be complete without Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, easily the most famous work of the Baroque Era, despite first entering the modern repertoire in the 1950s. It is an endlessly fun piece to play. First, let’s start with a very historically accurate performance. By all means, listen to the whole thing, but here’s a good example of the Winter concerto on period instruments

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4, Winterhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPdk5GaIDjo

Again, demonstrating how Vivaldi is timeless, here is the violinist Janine Janson throwing out the Baroque sensibility in one of the more dramatic readings of the piece.  The entire thing is great fun, but I’ll note that the Winter concerto starts at 32:05. Janson recorded this with some of her friends in what is one of the most fun classical albums of the last 20 years.  Worth seeking out.

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasonshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzE-kVadtNw&list=PLRpIGxVONOlCHMg9kAcpxmSZ7j33klKCT

Transcriptions are the most formal sort of Conversation—the transcription of an earlier work for a new instrument or set of instruments by a later composer.  Bach did tons of these and so we can trace which composers influenced him at certain periods of his life.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (we will come to him later) was also fond of transcriptions.  Few composers opt to fully recompose the original while retaining so much of it.  Here is one unique offering:  The Four Seasons transcribed by Max Richter and recomposed over 200 years later.  The first movement of Winter is particularly inspiring:

Max Richter, Four Seasons Recomposed (After Vivaldi): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYs2xShj1ZI

Interlude: Mysterious Barricades

Another way to have approached this blog would have been by works, rather than by composers. Had I done so, Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses would have featured prominently. This two-page composition, not even three minutes in duration, was a sonic boom that has reverberated throughout the centuries since its was composed in 1717. It is, in essence, a distillation of what this blog is all about–the Conversation between composers that links us, at least artistically, across the vastness of time.

Much ink has been spilled trying to unravel the meaning of Couperin’s title. I could care less. Whether a wry comment on harmonics or something decidedly more salacious, it is the music itself that we are here for. Technically speaking, the work is composed in style brise, which was common enough in the Baroque Period and which features irregular arpeggiation, that is where one note is held and left unresolved until a new harmony is started in the bass line. This technique creates thick textures in the music and the coloration emblematic of the Baroque Period. Alternatively described as “shimmering” or as a “kaleidoscope of sound,” Couperin’s magical composition continues to weave its spell well into the 21st century.

Let’s begin our journey with how the work was originally intended to be performed, on harpsichord:

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOX3WtkrbpY&t=704s (begins at 11:44, accessible via the links in the description)

The immediacy of this work, in no small part aided by the playing of the remarkable Blandine Verlet, seems to anticipate Chopin, if not Ravel and Debussy. The contemporary composer Thomas Ades opined that this brief work was a better lesson in composition than he had received from any of his teachers on how to produce melody from harmony. To explain, Ades transcribed the work for double bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola and cello. Is that a hint of Joplin I hear?

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses (arr. Thomas Ades): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNWz7Uq5WIE

Couperin builds his harmony from multiple voices, which gives the work greater depth of texture. In Ades’ transcription, we can clearly hear how one note of a chord is sustained and resolves into the succeeding harmony following the bass line. While so-called “supension” generally resolves down, Couperin also presents dissonances that resolve up. Not knowing which way the music will move leads, perhaps, to the mystery alluded to in the title. The layering of voices to create a contrapuntal harmony becomes apparent when the work is performed on a modern piano.

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmERxLY9lls

At once sounding old and yet fresh as something composed yesterday, it is no surprise that Les Barricades Mysterieuses has been featured in many films, including, memorably, Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP4-d2tpDkA).

Les Barricades Mysterieuses has inspired dozens of compositions by direct attribution and many more indirectly–at least 10 works by direct attribution since 2000 alone, across multiple genres. For example, Andy Summers, best known for his work with The Police, released the album Mysterious Barricades in 1988. And if there was any doubt as to his inspiration, the titular track lays that all to rest:

Andy Summers, Mysterious Barricades: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSm8-cmQtUM

Summers knows a good riff when he hears one. He’s not alone: The band Vampire Weekend borrowed heavily from Couperin for this infectious track, off of their 2019 album Father of the Bride. Pardon the pun, but it is a great track to roll into the weekend with.

Vampire Weekend, Bambina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXaw5w2cuTA

Baroque pop indeed.

Vivaldi and Bach

The Bach-Vivaldi Conversations are particularly interesting as they span a wide swathe of Bach’s career.  First up, Bach’s transcription of Concerto No. 11 in D Minor for Organ.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 11 in D Minorhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8UmlKEWIyY

J.S. Bach, Organ Concerto in D Minor (After Vivaldi): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2upDLfG2Os

This is more or less a straight transcription.  It is thought among some musicologists that Bach was commissioned to transcribe these for a patron; hence, the lack of invention.  Or they were simply how Bach studied music—no one knows for sure either way.  But here is a more mature Bach, in his Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor, which is based on Vivaldi’s No. 10 for 4 violins in B minor. This is a true Conversation (seemingly composed for Gert with four harpsichords)—Bach takes a brilliant Vivaldi original to new heights, adding additional textures and harmonies.  When Gert first asked for a list of great harpsichord works, this was the first piece I thought of.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 10 in B Minorhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Jf4tp4-m4k

J.S. Bach, Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minorhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUqXpbSR7yM

Brunelleschi’s Dome, an at the side of the road interlude

For The Professor:

The grand Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, was dedicated by Pope Eugenius IV on March 25, 1436. An architectural marvel, the Duomo is crowned by a great dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, which remains (despite later inteventions by Michelangelo) the enduring symbol of the city, at once instantly recognizable. Brunelleschi’s achievement has not dimmed with time: More than 500 years later, Brunelleschi’s Dome remains the largest masonry dome in the world and the mystery of how it was constructed has not been fully solved (although a PBS special sought to answer that question: https://www.archdaily.com/477161/video-solving-the-mysteries-of-brunelleschi-s-dome).

To celebrate the 1436 dedication, the Papal choir, the Schola Cantorum, performed a motet by composer Guillaume Dufay. Nuper Rosarum Flores holds a special place in music history, as appears to be, in part, based not on current musical theory but rather informed by the architecture of the great dome itself. That observation has been deduced by modern musicologists from some anomalous compositional choices by Dufay. First, unlike typical motets of the period, the duration of the four sections of the work are divided into unequal ratios. Seecond, the vocal aned instrumental lines are related, although not mere duplicates. These features replicate in music the many sides of Brunelleschi’s Dome. Finally, and perhaps more tellingly, the unusual doubling of the cantus firmus replicates Brunelleschi’s design of a dome within a dome.

There is a tendency to overanalyze art, seeking a deeper meaning where none was intended. Certainly, those who attended the dedication of the cathedral made no such observations. Their reactions were decidedly more religious in nature, suggesting that Dufay’s music might bring about the salvation of mankind. But, on balance, I think musicologists have it right. The clue comes from Dufay’s choice of the text for the cantus firmus itself: Terribilis est locus iste (Magnificent is this place).

Guillaume Dufay, Nuper Rosarum Flores: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dV5b8AuLHg

Baroque Music VII: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Antonio Vivaldi is the first composer on this list whose name and music are likely familiar to everyone. 

That was not always the case.  Despite his profound influence on Bach and many others, Vivaldi’s compositions fell out of a favor (his virtuosity as a violinist was his primary calling card, not his compositions) and were pretty much lost to history—so much so that their rediscovery in the 1920s was a major event in music history.  And what a treasure trove they discovered:  More than 500 concertos, nearly 100 sonatas, 46 operas, tons of assorted choral and other chamber music, and much more.  New works continue to be discovered seemingly every year.  Prolific does not even begin to describe the man.

Vivaldi was born into poverty and given over to the clergy where he was to be ordained as a priest.  My recollection is that he squirmed out of actually being ordained, but whether or not he formally took his vows is irrelevant—he is known to history as the Red Priest.  He is also most closely associated with the city of Venice, then in decline from its heights as a maritime power.  Today, you cannot go 100 yards anywhere in Venice without seeing some flyer for a Vivaldi concert.  If Canaletto is our vision of Venice, Vivaldi is its soundtrack.

Bonus movie pick: If you have not watched the film The Red Violin, you should do so.  If only to see Samuel L. Jackson play a violin appraiser.  There is a bit of science fiction about the film, which I will not get into here, but will say that it takes the concept of the Conversation to new heights.  One of  the characters in the story is a child prodigy violinist, whose story is, quite clearly, based primarily on Vivaldi. That was not lost on John Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score.  Highly recommended:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUCjCn9HDyc.  One of my Top 10 films ever.

After Lully and Corelli, Vivaldi is the third major violinist-composer and, more than the others, his works are firmly associated with that instrument.  Vivaldi’s singular contribution to music is the solo concerto, which he invented and perfected, and which has remained more or less standard in construction until the 20th century.  Solo instrument set against an orchestra over three movements: fast; slow; fast.  This is the way.  

As with most virtuosi, Vivaldi wowed his audiences with shredding—you cannot play Vivaldi too fast.  Vivaldi’s innovations also included heightening of harmonic contrasts, as well as an undeniable gift for composing melodic tunes. For me, and this is perhaps because I played so many of his works growing up, his music exists almost out of time and place.  While I generally prefer historically informed performances, Vivaldi’s works benefit from speed, ferocity, and modern interpretation like none other of the period. 

Vivaldi’s most important composition, the 12 violin concertos collectively entitled L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), was deemed so vulgar and profane that he was fired from his job.  Needless to say, these concerti proved to be his ticket to fame—Bach translated no fewer than half of them.  

We’ve seen pop stars before in this history.  Vivaldi was music’s first rock star.  Just hook up an electric guitar and play his stuff:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVa37f67Hnc. Fitting, then, that he died tragically, poor and in ill-health, his music all but forgotten.

L’Estro Armonico upends Purcell by disposing of the melody altogether, relying solely on harmonic progressions to push the music along.  Push being the key word.  The harmonic progressions in L’Estro Armonico were the musical equivalent of Newton’s Principia Mathematica—our understanding of the physics of music would never be the same.  The entire series is worth a listen.  Several have been grouped together by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, which is available on most streaming services.  Here is one of my favorites:

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 2 in G Minorhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpakdPEcyZ8

Interlude: At the side of the road

This morning, I was listening to Jakub Jozef Orlinski’s remarkable new album, Anima Aeterna, which not surprisingly for this gifted young countertenor, features a wealth of Baroque masterpieces. On this album, however, Jakub has drawn from the music of Baroque composers who, for lack of a better phrase, have been left by the side of the road. Of course, he leads with his compatriot, Jan Dismas Zelenka, considered in his day to rival Bach’s mastery of counterpoint. Works by Johann Joseph Fux, Francisco Antonio de Almedia, Bartolomeo Nucci and Gennaro Manna also appear on the album. We first got our glimpse of Jakub when he was still a student at Julliard, during the Eastern Regionals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions and then later that spring in the title role of Jonathan Dove’s Flight (more about that much later in this blog). This month he returns to the Met to debut Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice in what is for me the most eagerly awaited opera of the season.

Jakub’s album has inspired me to include as a running interlude, those composers who for one reason or another have been left on the side of the road in this blog. Zelenka is the first of these. He wrote two oratorios based on Psalm 50, the famous Miserere mei that we first encountered with Josquin and Allegri back in the Rennaisance. While his lengthier D Minor version (ZWV 56) garners the headlines for its innovative counterpoint and daring harmonies, I prefer the propulsive and utterly devestating C Minor version (ZWV 57).

Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam misericordiam tuam et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam

Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my inequity.

Jan Dismas Zelenka, Misrerere in C Minor, ZWV 57: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA1RQAMv9tc

Baroque Music VI: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)

And now, another composer who died too young. Giovanni Pergolesi died at 26, but his music was truly mature and sublime. Deeply influential both in his time and in later centuries, Pergolesi was a major influence on composers from J.S. Bach (who was 25 when Pergolesi was born) to Stravinsky. Bach famously incorporated Pergolesi’s Sabat Mater into various works, but the recent (2018, if you can believe it) discovery of Pergolesi’s Mass in D Major was a revelation–it appears to have influenced one of Bach’s seminal works—Bach’s titanic and sublime B Minor Mass.

Here are both. First up, the atmospheric Kyrie from the D Major Mass. The first prayer in the mass ordinarium, the Kyrie can, but does not always, open the composed mass. It opens this one in spectacular fashion. This is a live performance, one of the first, of what (at least for me) is Pergolesi’s masterpiece.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Mass in D Major: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g2tJ9PWbrtA

Next up, Pergolesi’s Sabat Mater. The quando corpus duet that closes the oratorio is a true marvel of Baroque beauty. Here, it is performed by the French Baroque specialists Les Talens Lyrique, under the baton of the harpsichordist Christophe Rousset and sung by the American soprano Barbara Bonney and the German countertenor Andreas Scholl.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Stabat Mater, Quando corpus morietur: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5Xr0WDK2ao

Baroque Music V: Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

When we think of the great musical families in history, Strauss and Bach loom large. But one of the earliest family dynasties in music history arose in Naples during the middle Baroque Period: the Scarlattis. While Domenico Scarlatti’s fame would eventually exceed that of his pater familias, I would argue that Alessandro remains one of the most critically underrated composers in history.

Tracing the development of opera goes directly through Scarlatti, who founded the Neapolitan school and whose music built upon the foundations set by Monteverdi. There is a criminal lack of good recordings of Scarlatti’s music, but I enthusiastically recommend a recent recording by Elizabeth Watts and The English Concert under Laurence Cummings. Part of the challenge of performing Scarlatti’s works today is the lack of published scores. Working with librarians and curators, Watts and Cummings located Scarlatti’s manuscripts and set about arranging them for performance.

Peforming Scarlatti’s best arias proved challenging for Watts, as Scarlatti not only composed for castrati, but for the great Farinelli himself. Watts, in a memorable tweet, documented her struggles:

Good news: I can sing 88 notes without a breath! Bad news: Scarlatti wrote 89.

Elizabeth Watts

If you want to learn more about this remarkable artist, the 1994 biopic is a good place to start: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PlkuKlG6-CU. But if you want to learn more about Scarlatti, Watts’ recording is ground zero.

Here is a taste of Scarlatti’s music, starting with the aria that gave Watts so much trouble:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Serenata Erminia, “Torbido, irato, e nero“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61JTNB2TCaI

Scarlatti’s music, much like Monteverdi’s, at times seems to exist of out time and space, as modern and fresh as anything being composed today. The chromatic aria Cara tobma, from the great opera Mitridate Eupatore, is a great example of why Scarlatti is so critical to the development of opera:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Mitridate Eupatore, “Cara tomba del mio diletto“: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFyPgox1NkY

Interlude: Happy World Opera Day

Writing this blog, with one eye on the past while the other firmly fixed on the future, here is a sneak peak at the opera I am most excited about seeing this year. It is only fitting that the most exciting new opera of the season is based on the same myth that inspired Monteverdi, some 400 plus years ago. Will Matthew Aucoin measure up? I suspect that he will. It is THE opera to see at The Met this season.

Matthew Aucoin, Eurydice (excerpts): https://youtu.be/IUlaVTPxlso