Singet jubilieret! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2006

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Program Notes

SINGET JUBILIERET! A Candlelight Christmas

As has become our tradition, this Christmas program includes a medley of Renaissance and Early Baroque works by our favorite composers. Part of the concert will be sung in candlelight. Some of the pieces on the program are, as is our signature, for multiple choirs. You will also hear some works sung by smaller ensembles (or Concentus, as Praetorius called his ensemble of "favorite" singers) and some Christmas all-time favorites, perhaps in new harmonic clothing. The composer most represented is our beloved Praetorius.

Michael Praetorius (?1571–1621) followed in Luther's tradition, becoming interested early on in Protestant hymns and their melodies. His musical character, however, is only understood if one first sees in him 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. His creative power was impressive and his output is astonishing (he took 28 pages of his treatise Syntagma musicum of 1614–5 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 (alternating the performance of sections of works for different forces).

The "Magnificat super Chorale melos Germanicum" for eight voices and continuo is one of over 17 settings of this text by Praetorius. The Magnificat is the biblical canticle with text from Luke 1:46–55 ("Magnificat anima mea Dominum" or "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord"), which is sung with an antiphon near the end of the Vespers service. The piece is based on the 'Chorale melos Germanicum', i.e. the German version of the Magnificat plainchant melody. The musical setting is a relatively conservative one, especially when compared with his grandiose settings scored for up to 20 parts. This piece is mostly syllabic, with the choirs repeating each segment of text antiphonally. The second part (at "dispersit superbos") includes word-painting (such as descending lines for "deposuit potentes" answered by rising lines for "et exaltavit humiles").

Praetorius' "Jubilate Domino" is a motet for two choirs in SATB and SATTB formation with basso continuo. The text contains references to several instruments and Praetorius imitates their particular sounds in his setting. "Ein Kindelein so löbelich" is another motet for double choir, this time each for four parts. This piece explores both the imitative technique (having multiple parts start with the same melody at staggered times) as well as the antiphonal technique, where blocks of sound respond to each other from opposite choirs. The juxtaposition of these two techniques produces a rousing effect and presents an ever-changing palette of choral sounds. The first piece is contained in the collection Musarum Sioniarum motectae et psalmi latini for 4–16 voices of 1607—the second of a ten-volume monumental opus and the only one containing Latin works. The second is contained in the third volume of the same collection.

"Quem Pastores laudavere" (Quempas) is from Praetorius' 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, and it is the third composition from the collection. Thus it comes as no surprise that the sopranos and altos do 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 many Lutheran churches. The original tune is heard in each line. The four "children's" sections were instructed to stand at the four corners of the church and to rotate during each of the "adults'" refrains, thus creating variety.

Hans Leo Hassler (bapt. 1562–1612) was a German composer belonging to a family of musicians. After studying music with his father, Hans Leo went to Venice in 1582 to study with Andrea Gabrieli (the first organist of St. Mark's, whose nephew, the famous Giovanni Gabrieli, was Hassler's fellow student). In 1586 he was appointed chamber organist to Octavian II Fugger in Augsburg, inaugurating the most productive period of his life. In 1596 he took part in the inauguration and judging of the new organ in the castle church at Groningen, where he met Michael Praetorius. At the end of his life, he seems to have taken over the duties of Kapellmeister to the Elector Christian II of Saxony. When he died, his duties in the chapel were taken over by Praetorius and Schütz.

Hassler's importance was not as an innovator but a coordinator and developer of current idioms. His Latin works for both single choir and polychoral groupings (such as "Hodie Christus natus est" for SSATB, SACtTB and basso continuo) are among the finest German compositions of their time. The most important influences on his style were di Lasso and the leading members of the Venetian school. "Hodie Christus natus est" shows what he had learned in Venice. He uses the two five-part choirs in antiphonal fashion, and, as was typical with the Venetian composers, he switches to triple meter for the "alleluia" at the end of each verse. The most exciting moment comes right before the last "alleluia," at the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo," when all ten parts unite for an exultant final verse.

Andreas Hammerschmidt (1611/12–1675) was a German composer and organist of Bohemian birth. He is the most representative composer of mid-17th-century German church music, of which he was a prolific and extremely popular exponent. His output consists mostly of sacred vocal works: he published more than 400 of them in 14 collections, all more or less adhering to the concertato principle (combining voices and instruments). "O ihr lieben Hirten" is a concertato piece for two cornettini (or flutes, violins, or any other treble instrument) and basso continuo, a solo soprano and a four-part choir. The first two verses are sung by the soprano (solo or the choir ensemble), answered by the chorus; then the third verse is sung by the three lower parts, and the fourth by the soprano again. After this the three lower parts and the soprano engage in a kind of question and answer. The refrain ("Freude, Freude") concludes each section of the piece.

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 alteration 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 for several courts and churches in Austria and Bohemia until his untimely death at age 41. Most of Gallus' output comprises settings of sacred Latin texts. His polychoral works display the influence of Dutch composer Orlando di Lasso and fully exploit the possibilities of a cappella polychoral idioms. 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. Over the centuries it has gradually become clear 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' handling of 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 (something hitherto unheard of)!

Gallus' motet "Tribus miraculis" is scored for three unequal four-part choirs: a treble choir (SSAA), a lower choir (TTBB), and a standard four-part choir (SATB) in the middle. This piece is in the Venetian style the Germans had come to appreciate, and treats the text in a similar way, ensuring the comprehensibility of each word. As was customary at the time, the voices are joined by instruments doubling the part (the composers said that so long as at least one part was sung and thus the text enunciated, all combinations were okay). The piece moves mostly homophonically (i.e. with the voices in a choir moving more or less in chords, like a hymn), and most of the interest comes from the multiple different combinations of parts, as well as the spatial variety.

"Alleluia! Cantate Domino" (SATB SATB SATB) is a motet in which each verse receives a different treatment and is sandwiched between two "alleluia" statements. In this piece, you will hear alternating choirs responding to each other; sections of varying rhythms, moods, texture, and meter; and the rich 12-part sound. We can also see a favorite device of Gallus': displacing the downbeat (the strongest first note of each bar) to another place in the bar, so that even within one section with the same meter variety can be created. For example, at "et exsultate et psallite" the strong note is on beat four, or in the last "alleluia" the three choirs all sing in what we hear as triplets though the alternation of the choirs creates a duple meter.

The piece by Heinrich Schütz (alias Henricus Sagittarius, 1585–1672) on the program is actually a contrafactum, a piece originally written by someone else whose text is changed, often to another language. The original piece was written by Andrea Gabrieli (c. 1532–1585) who, together with his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli, fathered the typical polychoral style heard in the late 16th century in St. Mark's in Venice, and which can be seen in many of the pieces on today's program. The Italian master published this seven-part motet in the seminal 1587 collection Concerti di Andrea, e di Gio[vanni] Gabrieli... , which contained concerti (pieces in concertato style) composed by both uncle and nephew. In both the Latin version ("Angelus ad pastores ait") and the German translation ("Der Engel sprach"), this motet presents a series of successive points of imitation and ends with a lively alleluia, which always constitutes a rousing finale.

This festive program centers around the music that the Bach Choir specializes in: the mesmerizing and multicolored polychoral music from the early and middle German Baroque. We hope it brightens your season.

—© Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2006

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