Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2007

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Program Notes

PSALLITE! A Candlelight Christmas

As has become our tradition, our Christmas concert includes a medley of Renaissance and early baroque works by our favorite composers, as well as carols and traditional pieces. This year we are joined by four members of the Pacific Boychoir.

Michael Praetorius (?1571–1621), followed in Luther’s tradition, becoming interested very early on in Protestant hymns and their melodies. His musical character, however, is only understood if one first sees in it the academically cultivated Lutheran Kantor (chapel master) with pronounced theological leanings. The central connection of his life’s work with divine service, especially with the hymn, is fundamental, as is also his aspiration to a universality incorporating all aspects of music into his ideas and practice. His musical style was strongly influenced by the Germans Schütz and Scheidt, and by the latest Italian music, which he came into contact with in Dresden in the 1610s. This can be seen in his Puer natus on today’s program. His creative power was impressive and his output is astonishing (he took twenty-eight pages of his treatise Syntagma musicum of 1614–15 to list the works he had already written as well as those he had still only planned). Most of his sacred music is based on Protestant hymns (“chorales,” many of which were written by Luther himself, both the text and the music). Praetorius’ work clearly forms the climax in the history of Protestant church music of alternatim practice (the practice of alternating the performance of sections of works by different forces). The two works on today’s program are two of his most famous Christmas pieces.

“Quem Pastores laudavere” (Quempas) is from his late collection Puericinium of 1621, which contains all pieces with four treble parts (“chorus puerorum”— children’s choir) besides other voices and instruments in concertato style. It is thus scored for a four-part string “capella fidicinia,” a “chorus puerorum” (SSAA ), a “chorus adultorum” (TTB), and continuo. The boys choir does most of the singing with the adults joining in only for the refrain that follows each of the four lines. The four lines themselves are each divided into four sections, assigned to each voice in turn. This is one of the most traditional Christmas texts, a 14th-century German carol, still used yearly in lots of Lutheran churches. The original tune is heard in each line.

“Puer natus: Ein Kind geboren” is a macaronic piece: the text uses a mixture of languages, in this case, Latin and German. Puer natus in Bethlehem is the text of the introit for the Christmas day mass. This piece is in the shape favored by the Venetian Gabrielis—verses in triple meter alternating with a refrain in duple meter. The verses are sung by a small ensemble (Praetorius’s “Concentus” or “favoriti”) of SAB, while the refrains are subdivided into a first section for the same group and then a choral exclamation in short quick notes by the big SATB group. The last verse of the two parts of the piece is sung by both groups together. In the middle of the piece, separating it in two halves, is the singing of the unadorned and unharmonized chorale tune.

Born exactly one century before the late baroque masters Bach and Handel, Heinrich Schütz (alias Henricus Sagittarius, 1585–1672) epitomizes the early German baroque. After a long and legendary life he was memorialized on the epitaph in the old Frauenkirche of Dresden as “saeculi sui Musicus excellentissimus,” the most excellent musician of his time. Schütz’s early musical accomplishments impressed the Landgrave Moritz, who took the 13-year-old boy with him to Kassel as choirboy and to study music, and later convinced Schütz to drop studies in law for music. The Landgrave paid for the composer’s studies in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli from 1609 to 1613. Upon his return to Kassel, Schütz was summoned by the elector Johann Georg I (15851656) to Dresden for two months. In 1615, the elector requested Schütz’s services for an additional two years and finally as a permanent member of the court, to which the Landgrave had to oblige, if reluctantly, for political reasons.

In 1628, when the economic pressures of the Thirty Years War began to affect the musicians’ wages, Schütz decided to visit Italy again. The chapel master in Venice at the time was the celebrated Claudio Monteverdi, under whose guidance Schütz studied the development in dramatic music for two years. During both visits in Italy, Schütz thoroughly internalized the Venetian polychoral concertato style (the typically Venetian style of composing for two or more “choirs” of voices and/or instruments), which is the predominant style of his works. However, his music includes all styles, ancient and modern—subtleties of Venetian concertato for few voices, dramatic Florentine monody, the imagery and emotions of concertato madrigals, the seriousness of the German motet, and the simplicity of German secular song.

Schütz’s “Hodie Christus natus est” SWV 456 is quite a modern piece, scored for six vocal parts (SSATTB) and basso continuo. The text is that of the Antiphon to the Magnificat, which is sung at Vespers. Like other pieces on this program, it alternates verses for different forces with extended alleluias for the entire ensemble. The entire choir sings also some verses and the concluding Lesser Doxology (“Glory be to the Father…”). Like in Praetorius’s “Puer natus” the verses are in duple meter and the alleluias in triple.

Jacob Handl, also known as Jacobus Gallus (1550–1591), was a Catholic Slovenian composer who lived most of his life in Austria and Bohemia. The ambiguity in his surname may be due to his translating the original name Petelin (‘rooster’) into the German diminutive “Handl” and the Latin equivalent “Gallus” at different times in his life. Gallus worked as Kantor (chapel master) for several courts and churches in Austria and Bohemia until his untimely death at age 41. Most of Gallus’s output comprises settings of sacred Latin texts. His polychoral works display the influence of Dutch composer Orlando di Lasso and exploit the possibilities of a cappella polychoral idioms as fully as any Venetian. During his lifetime Gallus was faulted by some of his contemporaries who didn’t understand his use of many parts and choirs; however, like many other famous composers, his reputation has grown since his death. It is now clear, and has been for centuries, that he was a pioneer in the polychoral idiom. It is interesting to note that Michael Praetorius singled out one of his motets as a notable example of the subtleties that arise from Gallus’s handling of rhythmic notation. Furthermore, Praetorius also noted that he had attended a concert of Gallus’s music and that he was extremely surprised (pleasantly, it seems) that the composer slowed down at the end of his pieces (something hitherto unheard of)!

Handl’s “Jerusalem, gaude gaudio magno” is set for six parts (SSATTB). This motet uses the women’s and men’s voices in combination, and antiphonally, as if they were two choirs. This piece also alternates verses and alleluia refrains. However here there is no alternation between duple and triple meters.

Another German master on the program is Johann Walther (1496–1570), a poet and composer who was a friend of Luther, and whose piece “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein” survives because it was included by Praetorius in the fifth volume of his collection Musae Sioniae of 1607. He is known as the master of the German hymn; his collection of chorales of 1524, Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn, was the first collection of hymns for the Lutheran church (Luther himself wrote the preface to it).

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) was the greatest Spanish composer of the Renaissance. He lived and worked in Italy for a couple of decades as a composer and organist. He first studied at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome and later became its maestro di cappella. He was eventually ordained priest and joined the famed Congregazione dell’Oratorio, newly formed by Filippo Neri (where the genre of the oratorio is supposed to have been born). In 1583 he returned to Spain and served the King’s sister for perhaps sixteen years. When the Empress died Victoria stayed at the convent where she had lived for the rest of his life.

Victoria only composed music on Latin tests and his music, known for its poignancy and pervasive sadness, can actually be very sunny and joyful. His music is rich and moving. The fervent motet “Ave Maria” is set for two SATB choirs, which at times respond to each other and at times function as one 8-part choir. It was first published in his first volume of motets, issued in Venice in 1572.

Our concert also features many carols. Though we often think of a carol as a Christmas piece, it has a complex history. During the Middle Ages, a carol was an English or Latin song with several stanzas of the same form, and beginning with a refrain (a burden) that was repeated after each stanza. These carols could be on any subject, though most were about the Virgin or the Saints of Christmas. Some were even secular. The medieval carol—whether the courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious or processional song, or ecclesiastical polyphony (music with multiple independent parts)—was associated with several social functions.

There is evidence that carols were used as processional hymns, and some may also have been used to replace the second Benedicamus at the Offices on the three days after Christmas, on the Circumcision and on Epiphany. Carols may also have been used as banquet music. The English carol takes its name and nature from the medieval French carole, a courtly or popular dancesong with various choreographic forms that was extremely popular from the mid-12th to mid-14th century. The earliest carols were not necessarily Christian. In fact, people belonging to pre-Celtic and Celtic matrilineal societies wrote many of them. Today’s program includes a variety of carols, from the traditional English carol “On Christmas Night,” known as the “Sussex carol,” arranged by David Willcocks, to anonymous works. Enjoy, and let the season lift your spirits!

—© 2007 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

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