Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2011

For this concert program: Details | Translations | Notes

Program Notes

This year our traditional celebration of music and light in the darkness of midwinter spans many centuries with a selection of works from many countries: Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Norway, England, Wales, and America. A common thread of simple yet rich beauty runs through this diverse program for the holiday season. Our artistic director has programmed sacred motets, traditional folksongs and carols, lullabies, art songs, canons, and rich choral anthems to stimulate the senses and open our hearts to the universal spirit that can be found in all of this music.

At the core of the program, we explore several choral pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), whose particular genius and wide-ranging appeal best represent our intent with this concert. Since the San Francisco Bach Choir does not often perform works by this great Viennese master, we devote our program notes to these works. Most of the pieces were composed during his early years, when Mozart’s unique genius was already apparent and his style impressionable. In fact, during the travels of his formative years (between 1763 and 1773), his sister commented on how the pieces young Wolfgang composed in Paris or Mannheim sounded remarkably inspired by the local style. Mozart’s genius consisted of composing perfect works without drafts or correction, memorizing anything upon first listening (the story of his memorizing the Vatican’s secret piece—the Allegri Miserere for nine parts—and writing it down perfectly is legendary), and also in absorbing elements of all styles he encountered and incorporating them into his own voice.

Early on, Mozart’s main influences, especially in his church music, were the style of his native city, Salzburg, as well as the Italianate style, prevalent at the time. In Salzburg, Mozart had many opportunities to compose for the church, especially for his and his father’s employer, Archbishop Hyeronimus von Colloredo. The latter is sadly famous for having Mozart literally kicked out of his employ on 8 June 1781 (Mozart explains in a letter dated the day after his dismissal: “[I was released from Salzburg service] with a kick on my arse … by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop”). In the 1770s, Colloredo imposed reforms in his diocese calling for shorter, simpler, and more restrained liturgical music, requiring economy of means. Mozart described the reform in a letter he wrote to Padre Martini in 1776, lamenting that an entire mass with the five movements of the ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) plus a sonata for the epistle and a motet or offertory should last less than 45 minutes. Although the directive was not always followed by all composers, it explains the style of most of Mozart’s music from this time: not only its brevity, but also its simple chordal choral declamation, limited use of melismas and repetition of text, little to no counterpoint, and Mozart’s Latin Church Works sparse forays into musical illustration of text. The Sancta Maria mater Dei, a gradual for the feast of the Holy Virgin, composed for the church of St. Peter in Salzburg in September of 1777, belongs to this period.

The little Kyrie in F on today’s program, composed in Paris in 1766 during the family’s “Grand Tour,” pre-dates the reforms and Mozart’s puberty. It is a delightful work of a youthful genius, just 10 years old. The studiously simple “Colloredo” style marks one of the most famous of Mozart’s motets (an anthem in Latin usually for the Catholic church), the Ave verum corpus. One of Mozart’s last pieces, the motet was composed in Baden and dated 17 June 1791, just months before the composer’s death. Comparing these two works, both for SAT B chorus, strings, and continuo, and both in essentially homophonic style, one can see how much Mozart had matured as an artist. The intensity of emotion was not a part of the graceful, gallant ten-year-old’s musical vocabulary. The “Ave verum corpus” showcases the harmonic variety and lyricism that one finds in Mozart’s later music.

Throughout his life, the witty composer delighted in composing canons (rounds, where each part sings the same music with staggered entrances). Some of these have scatological or macaronic texts, not unlike many of his numerous letters to his wife. Ave Maria has a religious text. Canons offer simple pleasures for both the listener and the performer. Not only do all parts sing the same music and yet make harmony, but also the music—and enjoyment—can be extended indefinitely with the option of embellishments upon repetition.

As is well known, Mozart also composed grandiose, unforgettable church pieces—from his many masses (both in the restrained “Colloredo” style of Salzburg and the much grander style preferred elsewhere) to the marvelous Requiem he was working on when he died. Though in his last decade in Vienna Mozart paid much more attention to the theater, with his memorable operas, and to symphonic and keyboard works that he could perform for a paying public, he continued to compose church music, thanks to both commissions and to inspiration.

—© 2011 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D.

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.