Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2010

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Program Notes

In the San Francisco Bach Choir tradition, our Christmas concert includes a medley of Renaissance and early Baroque works by the Choir’s favorite composers (and some new) along with carols and traditional pieces, in part sung by candlelight. As in the past, a number of the pieces are for multiple choirs, exploring the varieties of sound made possible by the creative use of space, with choral ensembles placed in varying locations around the hall. To celebrate our anniversary this year, we bring back a number of our favorite pieces from both the recent and the distant past.

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’ 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 composer. During his lifetime, Gallus was faulted by some of his contemporaries who did not understand his use of many parts and choirs. As is true of many other famous composers, however, his reputation grew after his death, as it became clear that he was a pioneer in the polychoral idiom. It is interesting to note that Michael Praetorius singled out one of Gallus’ motets as a notable example of the subtleties that arise in handling rhythmic notation. Furthermore, after attending a performance of Gallus’ music, Praetorius noted that he was extremely surprised (pleasantly, it seems) that the composer slowed down at the end of his pieces, a practice hitherto unheard of!

Today’s program features two pieces by Gallus: the first is a magnificent 16-part Laudate Dominum, scored for two eight-part SSAATTBB choirs. Each of the rapid-fire exchanges (especially on “Laudate”) acquires thus great drama and impact. The piece starts in duple meter and then switches to the lilting and more “perfect” triple meter for the concluding verse. The second piece, Regem natum, is a more conservative Christmas piece for a four-part a cappella choir. Note how the beginning is renaissance-like, alternating imitation and homophonic textures. The piece concludes with a joyous section on “noel.”

Our program also includes what might be Michael Praetorius’ most famous Christmas piece. The “Quem pastores laudavere” is known widely (and was known at the time) by its first two syllables: Quempas. Michael Praetorius (c. 1571–1621), following Lutheran tradition, became interested early in Protestant hymns (“chorales,” many written by Luther himself, both text and music) and their melodies. He was an academically cultivated Lutheran Kantor 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 chorale, and he aspired to universality, in both his ideas and his practice, in all aspects of his music. 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. Praetorius’ creative power was extraordinary and his output astonishing. He took 28 pages of his treatise Syntagma musicum (1614–15) just to list the works he had already written together with those he planned to write. Most of his sacred music is based on chorales. 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 is the third piece in Praetorius’ late collection Puericinium of 1621, all of whose pieces contain four treble parts, called the chorus puerorum, or choir of children, besides other voices and instruments, in concertato style (meaning with both instruments and voices). It is thus scored for a four-part “capella fidicinia” (fidicen: string player), a “chorus puerorum” (SSAA), a “chorus adultorum” (TTB), and continuo. It comes as no surprise, then, that the sopranos and altos do most of the singing, while the “adults” join in only for the refrain that follows each of the four verses. Each verse is divided into four lines, with each line assigned to a different voice in turn. The sections singing the four “children’s” voices were placed each at one of the four corners of the church. They then rotated, during the singing of each “adult” refrain, giving the entire performance an elevated vitality. 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.

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. Schütz studied music as a young boy, and his early musical accomplishments impressed his patron, the Landgrave Moritz, who 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.

After serving at the court in Dresden, in 1628, when the economic pressures of the Thirty Years War began to affect the 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. 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.

Three pieces by Schütz are on today’s program. The first, Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten, is actually a contrafactum, that is, a re-texting with minor modifications of someone else’s piece, in this case Andrea Gabrieli’s “Angelus ad pastores ait.” It is scored for seven parts in one choir. The motet by the older Gabrieli was published in the 1587 collection titled Concerti di Andrea, e di Gio[vanni] Gabrieli…, which contained concerti (i.e., pieces for voices and instruments together) composed by both uncle Andrea and nephew Giovanni. The performance of one or more parts by an instrument was often the conductor’s choice. The style of this motet is similar to many in the collection, with successive points of imitation on each new phrase of text. Like many a Venetian motet, this one too ends with a lively alleluia, which always constitutes a rousing finale. Ein Kind ist uns geboren is a piece for six parts (SSATTB). It often pits the upper parts against the lower three, effectively creating a double choir piece. It is a fairly lively work, switching a few times between duple and triple meter, a common way to create variety in Baroque music. The third (and longest) piece is a Deutsches Magnificat of 1671, for double choir, accompanied in today’s concert by doubling instruments. The Magnificat is the biblical canticle with text from Luke 1:46–55 (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” or “My soul doth magnify the Lord”), which is sung with an antiphon near the end of the Vespers service. This piece is part of Schütz’ collection called Schwanengesang (Swan’s Song), which he wrote at the age of 86, containing 13 double-choir motets and a couple of other pieces, such as this one. The pleasure of this piece is mostly to be found in the countless ways in which the two choirs dialogue and alternate. The final Doxology (glory be to the Father….) is set apart from the rest by a change in meter.

Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654) was a contemporary of Schütz who also combined in his music the new Venetian concertato style with the older Germanic style. The son of an employee of the city of Halle, he studied music and became organist at one of the city’s churches. After studying with the great organist Sweelinck in Amsterdam, he became court organist for the Margrave of Brandenburg, who also employed Praetorius. In fact these two men, along with Schütz, were to collaborate quite a few times in their lives. In 1619, Scheidt became Kapellmeister, besides being the organist. He was so important and well known as an organist and organ builder that he often was called to inspect or give his expert opinions on new organs. When the Thirty Years War broke out, he found himself without a salary and without musicians. Despite this, he married and found freelance work where and when he could. In 1628, the city created the position of music director for him, although he had to relinquish position two days later. In 1636, when the plague struck in Halle, Scheidt lost all his children within a month. Later in his life, after the war, he resumed his position as Kapellmeister at court.

Scheidt published keyboard and other instrumental music, in addition to many vocal works. Some of his pieces are based on Lutheran chorale tunes. For example, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, a piece for two SATB choruses from the collection Cantiones sacrae (sacred songs) for eight parts, published in Hamburg in 1620, combines the Venetian polychoral idiom with the German chorale. Scheidt sets the first stanza of the chorale with its tune in a double choir antiphonal way. The famous tune, used by many composers, is set in long notes, usually in the soprano, and then elaborated in the other voices. Puer natus in Bethlehem is also for two four-part choruses and comes from the same collection. It also includes a chorale melody and the first soprano is set off from the rest of the voices, introducing the melodies. It is a delightful miniature of a piece, in all of its 19 measures. The five-part motet Hosianna filio David is from part III of Scheidt’s 1635 collection Geistliche Konzerte (church concerti). Perhaps the most interesting features of this lively piece are its many changes of meters and textures, alternating homophonic, hymn-like sections with animated sections for fewer voices.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767) was a German composer and the most prolific of the of the generation that included J.S. Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. Unlike the others, he was mostly self-taught in music and became a musician against his family’s wishes. (His mother even took away all his instruments, telling him making music was forbidden, though the young Telemann kept composing in secret.) Like many other composers, he enrolled at the university in the faculty of Law in Leipzig, only to become a professional musician. He was very international in his style, writing music that blended Italian, German, and French characteristics. He held various jobs in Leipzig, both in churches and outside, such as the opera house. After Leipzig and short stays in Frankfurt and Eisenach, he settled in Hamburg, where at first he was so unhappy that he applied for (and was offered) the job that eventually was to be J.S. Bach’s in Leipzig. In Hamburg, he was responsible for music in many different organizations, secular and sacred—too many to list. His works were quite innovative. Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr is a Christmas cantata (a sacred piece in multiple movements for choir, solos, and instruments). Today, the choir performs the first choral movement, one concertato in the middle, and a four-part harmonization of a chorale melody at the end. In between these movements there are various arias and recitatives for solos, trumpet, strings and basso continuo. The other piece, the Missa brevis super “Ein Kindelein so löbelich” is a combination of the Latin mass and German chorale. A Missa brevis in the Lutheran tradition is one that includes only the first two movements of the Latin mass (Kyrie and Gloria). The piece is for four a capella voices. It features mostly imitative textures, with a new line of music for each new phrase of melody upon which the missa is based.

Jean Mouton (1459–1522) was a French composer, whose output comprises mostly motets—there are about a hundred extant—plus masses, magnificats, and some secular songs. Not much is known of his life, but at the turn of the century he entered the service of Queen Anne of Brittany, wife of Louis XII, until her death in 1514, at which time he joined the king’s chapel, serving Louis XII and his successor François I. His music is remarkable in its smoothness and short but very sharp and clear melodies. As is the case much later with G.F. Handel, Mouton set much of his text with the accent on the wrong syllable, since his chief concern was not with text expression but rather with musical design. He liked full sonorities, though this is not much evident in the piece on today’s program. This motet, Quaeramus cum pastoribus for SATB was much liked, so much so that the Spanish composer Cristobal de Morales took it as a polyphonic model for one of his masses. It survives in many manuscript sources and was published at least five times in the early 16th century.

Johannes Galliculus (c. 1490–post 1520) was a German composer. Like Jacob Handl, he Latinized his name to Galliculus from the German “Hennel.” He was probably the Johannes Hennes de Dresden who entered Leipzig University in 1505. He was also a theorist who published in 1520 a treatise on counterpoint, Isagoge de compositione cantus. All of his compositions are sacred Latin pieces, though three of them have German texts, carols, and chorale tunes. His Magnificat quinti toni for four parts, to be sung alternatim with a chant in the same mode (the odd verses sung by the cantor) includes multiple Christmas carol tunes, and has a macaronic text (alternating Latin and German). The main carol constitutes a cantus firmus, declaimed in very long notes by the tenor in the doxology. This piece is in the fifth church mode (“quinti toni”), the Lydian mode, which has F as its final note.

Our concert also features a number of 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, beginning with a refrain (a burden) which was repeated after each stanza, or verse. These carols could be on any subject, though most were about the Virgin or the saints of Christmas. Some were even secular. Nowadays the word mostly refers to strophic songs, with or without refrain, that are associated with Christmas.

This is an extremely rich and varied program, including music from four to 16 parts, from static to choreographed, from homophonic to contrapuntal, and from all corners of the space. We hope it helps usher in the holiday season, harmonically.

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, 2010

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