Category Archives: Mendelssohn


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:

The second painting:
Adoration of the Magi

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”).

Listen to a tenor sing it in a simple arrangement with piano:

The third painting returns to the world of Roman mythology:
Birth of Venus

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 1954
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.

Martin Luther wrote the chorale (hymn) “Vom Himmel hoch,” most likely in 1534, as a “children’s song on the Nativity of Christ.” Here is an early published version:

The text is a paraphrase of Luke 2:8-18, the story of an angel appearing to shepherds to tell them of the birth of Christ in nearby Bethlehem. Engraving of the scene by Jan Sadeler:
An angel appears to some shepherds...

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.

Mendelssohn Duet

DECEMBER 6, 2014 CONCERT — A Mendelssohn Duet / Loann Scarpato

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (Op. 11)
Composed between 1824 and 1829, Felix Mendelssohn’s first “official” symphony was actually his thirteenth. As a student he had already written twelve string symphonies, but this one also included winds, brass, and percussion instruments. Mendelssohn‘s confident handling of full orchestral forces marked his mastery (at age fifteen!) of the symphonic genre. Influences of both past and contemporaneous composers are present: Weber’s overture to Die Freischütz in the stormy opening, Haydn’s late symphonic slow movements in the Andante, Beethoven’s scherzos in the Menuetto, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in the opening theme of the finale, Bach in its double fugue section, and Beethoven again (e.g., the 5th Symphony) in the propulsive major-key ending. Even in his teens, Mendelssohn possessed a distinctive voice combining the elegance and balance of Classicism with the harmonic richness and rhythmic turbulence of early Romanticism.

Felix Mendelssohn: The First Walpurgis Night (Op. 60), “Druid’s” Last Stand
Historical Background
Spring comes late to the Harz Mountains of central Germany, particularly to their highest peak, the Brocken, one of the snowiest places in northern Europe. From time immemorial, its treeless summit has been the scene of ceremonial bonfires kindled on the night of April 30th/May 1st to welcome the coming of spring. Similar May Day celebrations took place throughout pre-Christian Europe, and a popular spring carnival continues annually in the Harz Mountains to this day. The earliest revelers on the Brocken were nature worshippers enacting spring fertility rites and honoring an “All-Father” identified with the god Odin or Wotan. When in the late 8th century the Frankish ruler Charlemagne set out to Christianize his Holy Roman Empire, the pagan Saxons were forbidden, on pain of death, to worship their old gods. Christian guards stationed in the mountains denied access to the sacred sites.

At the same time, a less militant form of conversion accompanied the establishment of monasteries and convents. An English Benedictine nun (Walpurga or Walburga in the Catholic calendar of saints) arrived in the region as a missionary in 748 and became an important abbess. She was canonized on May 1, 870, and, as often happened when the Christian calendar overlaid pagan seasonal rites, one of her feast days became associated with the ancient May Day observances. The similarity of her name to “Walburg” (or “Waldborg”), an old local fertility goddess, no doubt helped secure her veneration. One of Walburga’s saintly attributes is as a protectress against witchcraft. Yet the eve of her feast day, Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night), came to be a kind of springtime Halloween, when graves opened and the dead walked and witches cavorted with the Devil. How did this transformation occur? In spite of the best efforts of Charlemagne’s soldiers and the benevolent missionaries, pagan practices continued in secret. Legend has it that the nature worshippers had learned enough about Christian superstitions to disguise themselves as witches and devils, frightening the Christians out of the mountain heights and enabling the old rituals to take place unhindered.

The Text
This, at least, is the “fable-like history” that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) depicted in the ballad-poem Die erste Walpurgisnacht in 1799. Goethe had first visited the Brocken in 1777; there is still a hiking trail approximating his route to the summit. Goethe wrote the poem expressly to be set to music as an extended vocal composition, with a cast of characters personifying the conflict between Christians and pagans. Goethe called the latter “Druids,” although there is no chronological or geographic coincidence of that priestly Celtic caste with the pagan Saxons of the Harz region. Druidism was a popular theme in early Romanticism, however, identified with the forces of nature and resistance to the constraints of “civilization,” and the poem clearly shows that Goethe’s sympathies were with the heathens.

Composition, Performance, and Publication History
Goethe asked his musical adviser, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, to set the text. At length, when Zelter could do nothing with it, he turned it over, with Goethe’s approval, to his precocious pupil Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Zelter had taken Mendelssohn to meet Goethe in 1821, and an affectionate friendship had developed between the twelve-year-old prodigy and the venerable poet, sixty years his senior. They last saw each other in 1830, the year when Mendelssohn began work on his setting of Goethe’s poem. He completed an early version of the piece in February of 1832, and it was performed privately (probably in piano-vocal format) that October at one of the Sunday musicales held in his family home. Mendelssohn conducted the first full-scale public performance with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in Berlin in January of 1833, where it was well received.

Mendelssohn later became dissatisfied with the work and revised it extensively between 1842 and 1844, changing the orchestration to add piccolo, bass drum, cymbals, and trombones, and making many alterations to the vocal parts. He conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in the premiere of the revised version on Feb. 2, 1843. It was published as his Opus 60 in 1844. Because of the complexity and number of revisions between the first and final versions of the score, no critical edition was published until 2010, when Bahrenreiter issued an authoritative edition of the revised version in both piano-vocal and full score. It includes the English-language text created under Mendelssohn’s supervision by his favored translator William Bartholomew for the 1844 London edition of the score. In addition, Mendelssohn’s copyist Eduard Henschke made an arrangement of the entire piano-vocal score for piano duet, which was approved by the composer and published in 1845. The work was very popular with the public and critics alike. A staged version was presented in 1860 (well after Mendelssohn’s death) and was so successful that it became a staple of the theater repertoire not only in Germany but in Vienna and Paris as well.

Other Issues
It is easy to see the attraction of the text for Mendelssohn. He was an adept musical scene-painter whose imagination was ignited by nature’s grandeur (as in the Hebrides Overture), secret midnight gatherings in mist-shrouded forests (the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and sacrificial fires (“The Fire Descends from Heav’n” from Elijah). He wrote to his sister Fanny that Die erste Walpurgisnacht “can really be fun; for the beginning there are plenty of spring songs and such; then, when the watchmen raise a ruckus…the witches spook is added and you know I have a particular weakness for that.” When he began the composition at age 21, it seems to have been the wild setting and the drama of the conflict that he found most compelling. Later, when he began to sense deeper themes in the poem, he wrote to Goethe for an explanation. The reply, couched in abstractions, suggests that Goethe saw the story as an instance of dialectical struggle between opposed historical forces; the doomed but valiant attempt of an indigenous worldview to preserve itself seems to have been what interested him.

The Brocken was the locus of another sort of struggle during the 20th century, when again it became forbidden territory. The Harz Mountains straddle the former boundary between the two Germanies, with the Brocken just inside the border of the GDR. During the Cold War, it was used as a listening post for surveillance and espionage by both the East Germans and the Soviets. For more than a generation, until reunification in 1990, the mountain was off-limits to all but military personnel. On the day the fences came down, 100,000 people trekked to the summit in a symbolic freedom walk. Once again, the old order was restored. The area is now a national park and tourist attraction.

Oceans of critical ink have been spilled in debating the extent to which Mendelssohn, a devout Lutheran, may have been influenced in his musical choices, especially in the large choral works, by his Jewish heritage. With respect to Die erste Walpurgisnacht, scholarly opinions have come down confidently on any and all sides of this interesting question. On the one hand, it has been stated that The First Walpurgis Night is a thinly disguised critique of anti-Semitism, with Druids standing in for European Jews. At the other extreme are those who argue that the piece is just what it appears to be on its face, a quasi-historical fable based on German folk legend that capitalized on the Romantic fascination with the supernatural. Post-modern analysis of the work has plunged into theoretical thickets dense with discussion of “identity and alterity,” “cultural topoi,” and “pan-diegetic effects.” Whether the composition can usefully be regarded as an example of “socially engaged artistic discourse” may be open to question; what is not is that The First Walpurgis Night is a cracking good story set to very exciting music.

Musical Structure
The piece is often called a secular cantata, but Mendelssohn began calling it a “symphony-cantata” because of its extended orchestral introduction and the fact that the nine vocal movements proceed without pause. The Overture is unusual in that it is not a potpourri of themes or, like a movie trailer, a preview of the scenes to come; the story really begins here with a depiction of wild winter weather on the Brocken, followed by a transition to the spring thaw. Two melodic “cells” are introduced that develop into some of the themes of the succeeding movements. One pattern consists of the notes sol-do-re-mi ascending, often beginning on an upbeat, often including a repeated note, and often stated at the beginnings of themes or important lines of text. The other is a descending chromatic passage, usually beginning on the second or sixth degree of the scale, often when the text expresses fear, conflict, or aggression.

The Plot
Overture: Allegro con fuoco – Quasi l’istesso tempo (in A minor)
Winter storms give way to the spring thaw.

No. 1: “Now May again breaks Winter’s chain” – L’istesso tempo – Allegro assai vivace (A major) – Tenor soloist, women’s chorus, full chorus
The pagan Saxons greet the spring and prepare to go up the mountain to make their annual sacrifices to the “All-Father.”

No. 2: “Know ye not a deed so daring dooms us” – Allegretto non troppo (in D minor) – Alto soloist, women’s chorus
An old pagan woman warns that their Christian oppressors will kill them if they’re caught. The other women echo the warning.

No. 3: “The man who flies our sacrifice deserves the tyrant’s tether” – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, men’s chorus
A Druid (i.e., a pagan priest) urges defiance of the Christians, and the other men agree.

No. 4: “Disperse, ye gallant men” – Allegro leggiero (in E major) – Full chorus
The pagans send guards stealthily into the forest to protect the approaches to their sacred site.

No. 5: “Should our Christian foes assail us” – Recitative – Andante – Allegro moderato (in G minor) – Bass soloist, men’s chorus
One of the pagan guards suggests impersonating demons to scare away the Christians. The others run with the idea.

No. 6: “Come with torches brightly flashing” – Allegro molto (in E minor) – Men’s chorus, women’s chorus, full chorus
All join in a raucous, mocking masquerade of a “Witches’ Sabbath.”

No. 7: “Restrain’d by might” – L’istesso tempo – Andante maestoso (in A minor) – Baritone soloist, full chorus
The Druid priest and other pagan worshippers light the sacred fire and offer their prayers to the All-Father.

No. 8: “Help, my comrades” – Allegro non troppo (in C minor)
Meanwhile, a Christian soldier spies the ersatz “witches” in the mountain mists, and he and his terrified men flee.

No. 9: “Unclouded now, the flame is bright” – Andante maestoso (in C major) – Full chorus, baritone soloist
The Druid priest and all the pagan worshippers hail the divine light of the sacrificial fire and proclaim that it will shine forever.