Psallite! A Candlelight Yuletide — Dec 2009

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Program Notes

PSALLITE! A Candlelight Yuletide

Michael Prætorius (?1571–1621), following Lutheran tradition, was deeply influenced by Protestant hymns (“chorales”) and their melodies, many written by Luther himself. He was an academically cultivated Lutheran Kantor (chapel master) with pronounced theological leanings, and his music should be understood within this context. His life’s work was centrally connected with divine service, especially through the hymn, and he aspired to universality, in both his ideas and his practice, in all aspects of his music. Praetorius’ creative power was extraordinary and his output astonishing. He took 28 pages of his treatise Syntagma musicum (1614–15) to list the works he had already written together with those he planned to write. His works on today’s program are among his most famous Christmas pieces.

Praetorius’ musical style was strongly influenced by his German contemporaries Heinrich Schütz and Samuel Scheidt, and by the latest Italian music, which he came into contact with in Dresden in the 1610s. Both German and Italian influences can be seen, for example, in his “Puer natus” on today’s program. This is a macaronic piece, with text in both Latin and a vernacular, here 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 usually sung by a small three-part SAB ensemble, while the refrains are subdivided into a first section for the same group and a passage in short notes in quick tempo by the larger SATB ensemble. The piece is in two parts; the last verse of each part is sung by both groups together. In between the two parts is a separate verse (“De matre natus virgine”) sung in unison and without adornment to the chorale tune. Praetorius brought to a climax the history of alternatim practice in Protestant church music—assigning sections of works to alternating groups of performers.

Quem Pastores laudavere” (Quempas) is from Praetorius’ late collection Puericinium of 1621, in which all pieces contain four treble parts, written for the chorus puerorum, or choir of children, besides other voices and instruments, in concertato style (meaning with both instruments and voices). “Quempas” is scored for a four-part “capella fidicinia” (fidicen: string player), a “chorus puerorum” a “chorus adultorum,” and continuo. In our presentation, the four verses written for children’s choir are assigned instead to solo soprano, the full choir following with the refrain. The text is one of the most traditional at Christmas, from a 14th-century German carol, still sung in many Lutheran churches. The original tune is heard in each verse.

Two pieces on today’s program “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” are arrangements of chorales (Lutheran hymn tunes). “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” is scored for two unequal choirs (SSAA TTBB) and instruments, and is based on a chorale by Phillip Nicolai (1556–1608), a preacher and composer of hymns. The piece, which Praetorius describes in Syntagma musicum, is part of his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix but is in the style of the Puericinium, (the source of Quempas). These pieces favor the treble voices and were often intended to be performed with the four treble parts in the four corners of the church, rotating for each verse.

Johann Walther (1496–1570), a poet and composer who was a friend of Luther’s, was known as the master of the German hymn. His piece “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein” survives because it was included by Praetorius in the fifth volume of his Musae Sioniae of 1607.

Jacob Handl, also known as Jacobus Gallus (1550–1591), was a Catholic Slovenian composer who lived most of his life in Austria and Bohemia. Gallus worked as Kantor for several courts and churches in Austria and Bohemia until his untimely death at age 41. Most of his output comprises settings of sacred Latin texts. An example is ”O Magnum Mysterium” on this program. 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 composer. It is interesting to note that Michael Praetorius singled out one of Gallus’ motets as a notable example of the subtleties that could be derived from rhythmic notation. Furthermore, Praetorius also noted that he had attended a concert of Gallus’ music and that he was extremely surprised (pleasantly, it seems) that the composer slowed down at the end of his pieces, a practice hitherto unheard of!

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 venerable Frauenkirche of Dresden as “saeculi sui Musicus excellentissimus,” the most excellent musician of his time. As a young man in his twenties, Schütz had the opportunity to study in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli from 1609 to 1613.

After serving in the court at Dresden, in 1628, when the economic pressures of the Thirty Years War began to affect musicians’ wages, Schütz returned to Italy. The chapel master in Venice at the time was the celebrated Claudio Monteverdi, under whose guidance Schütz studied recent developments in dramatic music. During these visits to Italy, Schütz mastered the polychoral concertato style, the typical Venetian style of composing for two or more “choirs” of voices and/or instruments.

Schütz’s “Hodie Christus natus est” SWV 456 is a quite modern piece, scored for six vocal parts (SSATTB) and basso continuo. The text is that of the Antiphon to the Magnificat, sung at Vespers. Like other pieces on this program, it alternates verses for different choral 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. . . ”). As in Praetorius’s “Puer natus” the verses are in duple meter and the alleluias in triple.

Two pieces on today’s program (“Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” and “Jauchzet dem Herren”) come from Schütz’s Songs of David (Psalmen Davids), a monumental collection of psalm settings composed both in Venice and after his return to Dresden in 1613. In them, the opulent, majestic, and at times extravagant Venetian style of Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea shines through. These works are designed to fill the resonant expanses of Dresden’s electoral chapel with maximum sonority. Several works in the collection seem to have been conceived as matching pairs, according to mode, affect, text character, performing forces, and composing technique. One such pair involves two of the more exultant settings: Psalm 98 (SWV 35 “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied”—Sing a new song to the Lord) and Psalm 100 (SWV 36 “Jauchzet dem Herren”—Make a joyful noise to the Lord), both scored for two SATB choirs. In “Singet dem Herrn”, befitting the colorful text, Schütz employs sweeping melismatic patterns for “trumpets and cornet,” “let the sea roar,” “floods, “ and “let the hills be joyful.” “Jauchzet dem Herren” is distinguished by the use of immediate echoes by the second choir—one, two, or four bars later and mainly at the same pitch—of each phrase sung by the first choir.

Our concert also features many carols. What is a carol? Everyone will tell you that it is a Christmas piece, but few people are familiar with its long and 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) which 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 English carol takes its name from the medieval French carole, a courtly or popular dance-song with various choreographic forms extremely popular from the mid-12th to mid-14th century. Today, the word most commonly refers to strophic songs, with or without refrain, that are associated with Christmas. Many have texts derived from medieval carols.

The earliest carols were not necessarily Christian. In fact, many were written by people belonging to pre-Celtic and Celtic matrilineal societies. These early carols are mostly monophonic (consisting simply of a melody), and the majority treat wholly religious or morally didactic subjects in accord with Christian precepts, many honoring the Blessed Virgin with special reference to the mystery of virgin birth. Later, whether courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious or processional song, or ecclesiastical polyphonic composition (music with multiple independent parts), the medieval carol 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, the Feast of Circumcision, and Epiphany. Carols may also have been used as banquet music.

The form of the earliest polyphonic carols is straightforward—an alternation of burden and verse reflecting the division of the medieval carole (the dance-song) into chorus and leader. In the next developmental stage, we find two distinct burdens (one for the soloists and one for the chorus). The traditional division of labor between chorus and leader was also obscured in the verse, since a feature of the polyphonic carol was the interpolation by the chorus of short phrases into the solo writing of the verse.

After the Reformation, the carol was transformed and then declined. The monks and friars who had contributed so much to the religious carol were gone, and though leading composers still occasionally produced them, they became more like motets (such as those composed by Byrd). The art carol of aristocratic or courtly circles did not revive after the Restoration, but the popular tradition continued, with carols circulating like ballads orally or in broadsheets with carol texts and decorative woodcuts. They were published annually for the Christmas trade, with their heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, but continuing until the 20th century. Many new ‘carols’ were in fact Christmas hymns. One such newer piece is In the Bleak Midwinter by Harold Darke (1888–1976) on a poem by Christina Rossetti from her 1875 Time Flies: A reading diary, a kind of late-Victorian Christian Year, with short meditations and poems for the course of a single year.

Today’s program includes a few pieces that are later polyphonic settings of original melodies that have come down to us orally through the ages, and have only been documented in written form far after they became popular. In some cases, only the text survives. A popular melody is that which accompanies O Little Town of Bethlehem (arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams). This melody was much older than the traditional Christmas words, as its first known source is from 1625. Another very old tune is the one of Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel (“Veni, veni Emanuel”), the melody of which is part of the series of so called “O” antiphons sung at vespers on the days leading up to Christmas, dating back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771–814).

We hope this varied and colorful program will usher in the Holiday Season for you in an enjoyable and memorable way.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2009

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