DECEMBER 6, 2015 CONCERT — Arrivals: Music of Anticipation and Celebration / Loann Scarpato
The eagerly awaited return of spring … a regal procession of visitors from faraway lands … a goddess arising from the sea … the late year turning to a season of festivity and hope … the blinding glory of a heavenly messenger … the advent of a Messiah … all of these make their entrances in the music on this program.
Trittico Botticelliano (Three Botticelli Pictures) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Among the treasures displayed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are paintings by the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli (1446-1510). Respighi turned three of them into sound-worlds in the Botticelli Triptych. Each movement is only a few minutes long, but each tells a story framing the single moment captured in each painting. Here is the first painting:
Primavera (Spring) allegorizes the arrival of the season using figures from Roman mythology. (Their faces, however, are portraits of various members of the powerful Medici family who ruled Florence in Botticelli’s day, one of whom commissioned this painting, possibly as a wedding gift.) The painting “reads” from right to left: Zephyrus, the god of winds, possesses Chloris, a nymph associated with verdure, who is transformed into Flora, the goddess of spring. Venus, the deity of love and fertility, with her blindfolded son Cupid above, presides over the dance of the three Graces. Meanwhile, Mercury, god of the month of May, holds the clouds at bay.
Respighi was a formidably erudite man who spoke twelve languages and liked to relax from the rigors of composition by reading treatises on theoretical physics. In his own field, he had a specialist’s knowledge and an antiquarian’s love of early music. He often used archaic modes, melodies, and rhythms in his own compositions, such as the three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances. Primavera uses several medieval tunes as thematic material. One is a 12th-century Provençal troubadour song honoring the May Queen called “A l’entrada del tens clar” (“At the arrival of the bright season”). Watch a performance by a group re-enacting the original use of the song as an accompaniment to dancing:
L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi) shows the moment in the Nativity story when the Three Kings kneel before the Holy Family in the stable and present their gifts. The canvas is crowded with dozens of figures and horses (but no camels!). Their garb and trappings are not typical of ancient Judea but of Quattrocento Florence. Again, many of the faces are portraits of illustrious Florentines, including the donor of the painting and the artist himself at the extreme right.
Respighi’s music seems to narrate the entire round-trip journey of the Wise Men. The movement begins with a bassoon solo in a swaying rhythm over a steadily plodding four-beat pulse. It is soon joined by the oboe and then by the flute in rapid arabesques. The prominence of woodwinds in the orchestration, the exotic-sounding intervals in the theme, and the melismatic passages seem intended to create an “Oriental” ambiance. (Rimsky-Korsakov used similar elements for the same purpose in Scheherazade. Respighi would have known it; he studied with Rimsky for a time, and the brilliance of Respighi’s orchestration is often cited as one result.) The meter shifts to a five-beat measure, and the flute and bassoon play the plainchant Advent antiphon “Veni Emmanuel,” which is still sung today as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Toward the end of the movement, another bassoon solo sounds like a lullaby. It is a popular 18th-century Italian Christmas carol, “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (“You Came Down from the Stars”).
La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus) might better be called “The Arrival of Venus,” for it shows the sea-born goddess on the point of stepping out of her scallop shell and coming ashore after having been blown across the waves. Zephyrus is back, propelling Venus toward the land, where she will assume the mantle (literally – one of the Three Graces is waiting with it) of an idealized queen of earthly love and beauty. Art historians debate whether the face of Venus is or is not a portrait of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, “la bella Simonetta,” a celebrated Florentine beauty of Botticelli’s day who died while still quite young. The painter must have had very strong feelings for her, for he had himself buried at the foot of her tomb.
This movement is essentially one long, slow crescendo. A dotted, oscillating rhythm, suggesting little dancing waves, underlies every measure up to the last. The themes of the movement use the typical irregular meters of the dance music known to have been played at the Florentine court during Botticelli’s time. The themes pass back and forth among instruments until, at the peak of the crescendo, all play in unison (except the piano, celeste, and harp, which push the dotted figure into higher and higher registers). There is a breathless pause before the movement ends quietly.
Folk Songs of the Four Seasons: Winter by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Vaughan Williams in 1954:
In 1950, more than 22,000 women throughout the British countryside, all amateurs, were learning this music in their local village choirs. They were preparing for a series of competitive auditions to determine which choirs would sing in the London premiere of Vaughan Williams’ new cantata for female voices. After three rounds of adjudication at county, regional, and national levels, 3,000 women sang the work in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, with conductor Sir Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Vaughan Williams was a strong supporter of amateur music-making. As much as half of his compositional output is intended for non-professional musicians, young and old, singers and instrumentalists alike. He was also a champion of English folksongs and folk-carols and used them extensively in his compositions. (The Fantasia on Greensleeves is one very well known example.) He made over three hundred arrangements of English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Continental folksongs and carols, most of them collected in the field by himself or by his colleagues in the English Folk Revival movement. With Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, Vaughan Williams was returning musical gifts to the descendants of the very same rural population from which they had originally sprung.
“Winter” is the concluding section of this four-part folksong anthology. The first tune is the “Children’s Christmas Song” from Yorkshire. It was originally performed by itinerant singers as part of the custom of “wassailing,” the boisterous old practice, at the turn of the year, of drinking to the health of next summer’s crops. The second song, “Gloucestershire Wassail,” toasts the farm animals and the farmer’s family as well. “In Bethlehem City,” from Northamptonshire, is a ballad version of the Nativity story, with a refrain (“Then let us be merry…”) that marks it as a true carol in the original sense of a song meant to accompany a dance. The “Sussex Mummer’s Carol” is the ending of the entire seasonal cantata: mummers and wassailers traditionally ended their performances with some version of “God bless the master of this house” in hopes of receiving a reward for their singing and miming.
Christmas Songs and Carols for Men’s Voices
A “world premiere” occurs when a composition makes its debut on the concert stage for the very first time anywhere. This is the case with no fewer than four of the songs in this group of arrangements for male voices. The set opens with “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” a spiritual collected and published by John Wesley Work III in 1907. It is known to have been sung by enslaved African-Americans as early as 1865.
Next, the premiere compositions: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” is a 16th-century German hymn harmonized by Michael Praetorius, here newly arranged for male voices by our conductor Michael Kemp. “Morning Star,” based on the Moravian hymn tune “Hagen,” was originally written by Michael’s late father John S. C. Kemp for mixed choir; Michael Kemp created the arrangement for men’s chorus.
“Candlelight, Burning Bright” was composed by Michael’s late mother Helen Kemp and was originally for children’s voices; the new arrangement for men is Michael’s. The Academy Chorale also has a composer in the alto section: Nancy Gifford’s “Keep Our Christmas Merry” was variously inspired by a poem on an old Christmas card; a cold, snowy Christmas season that “kept” well into January; and the 14th-century German carol “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.” It is a most artful blending of old text and old music with an original theme and lyrics by Ms. Gifford.
This section concludes with arrangements by Howard Helvey of two traditional carols for male chorus and four-handed piano. “Fum, Fum, Fum” is a Catalan carol of the 16th or 17th century. The onomatopoetic syllable “fum” may be intended to imitate the sound of a drum or the strumming of a guitar. “Ding Dong Merrily on High” sets a modern text to the tune of a 16th century French carol.
Vom Himmel hoch (From Heaven on High) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
For a century and a half, this splendid music was unperformed, unheard, unpublished, unrecorded, and unknown except to Mendelssohn scholars. It was only thirty years ago that it was published and began to have a performance history, even though it was composed 185 years ago and its musical antecedents go back nearly half a millennium.
The chorale may have been intended to be staged as a masque or a play, with certain verses sung by the “angel” and others by “shepherds.” It became one of the most popular Lutheran chorales and remains familiar in English as the Christmas hymn “From heav’n above to earth I come.” Here is the melody:
Mendelssohn’s treatment is directly modeled on a form used by J.S. Bach, the “chorale cantata,” in which each short movement (six in this case) sets one or more verses of the chorale text, and movements alternate between chorus and soloists. Mendelssohn composed nine chorale cantatas between 1824 and 1832, none of which was published during his lifetime. The earlier ones may have been student pieces, but From Heaven on High was composed in 1830/31, at the same time as the First Symphony, the Hebrides Overture, and The First Walpurgis Night, which places it among the works of Mendelssohn’s early maturity (even though he was still only 21!) The chorale melody is very prominently used in all three choral movements.
The question of Mendelssohn’s personal beliefs always arises in connection with his religious music. The religious affiliations of the Mendelssohn family were varied and complex. Originally Jewish, most members of the generation before Felix converted to Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic. Felix was baptized as a child and lived as a confirmed Lutheran. Conductor and music historian Leon Botstein believes that Mendelssohn attempted in his music to bridge the two faiths and reconcile his Judaic ancestry with his identity as a Christian musician. Botstein suggests that Mendelssohn saw Christianity as “a universalization of Judaism,” and certainly there is evidence in the music, especially the oratorios (Paulus, Isaiah, and the fragmentary Christus), to support that view.