A Look at Choral Glory From the Notes
Next Friday will feature Cappella Romana with the Portland Baroque Orchestra in “Choral Glory.” Take a look through Terry Ross’ concert notes as a preview of what’s coming in this concert!
This concert features the three Baroque composers most popular with audiences today — Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi — and further offers choral works by each. But there the resemblance ends. With Vivaldi’s Gloria, we encounter a rarity; for the overwhelming bulk of Vivaldi’s surviving music is neither vocal nor sacred. In Handel’s Dixit Dominus, we find a youthful and uncharacteristically brash example of choral writing from a composer who wrote chiefly for voice throughout his career. And in two works by J.S. Bach we recognize the fully developed mature genius of the eighteenth century’s most profound composer.
We begin with Bach, with the opening chorus of his St. John Passion, one of the two surviving passions of the five he is said to have written. The St. John was the first large-scale work Bach composed, in 1724, during his long(1723-1750), career-culminating period at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche . Unlike the larger St. Matthew Passion, the St. John was reworked by Bach a number of times before its final version in the 1740s. It is the 1724 version that we know best today. Interestingly, the opening chorus, “Herr, under Herrscher,” was omitted from several intermediate versions before being reinstated. It forms, with a final chorus, before the closing chorale, one of the framing pillars of the Passion. They dramatize musically the central theological message of suffering as the path to salvation or enlightenment. The rolling, relentless momentum of “Herr, unser Herrscher,” charged by dissonances, immerses us at once into a world of struggle. Set in da capo form, the return to the beginning has a tragic circularity as Bach juxtaposes the words Niedrigkeit (“lowliness”) and verherrlicht (“glorified”).
In Bach’s time motets were sung as introits for services and on certain special occasions. Bach’s seven surviving motets are assumed to have been written for funerals. The words for this concert’s motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm” are taken from an eleven-verse sacred song by Johann Shelle, former Thomascantor, on a text by Paul Thymich. A biblical reference ends the first stanza, from John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” By far, the largest portion of the motet is devoted to these two lines of text. The music unfolds as a seemingly endless string of gorgeous suspensions underpinned by lilting eighth notes in six-eight time, creating an almost hypnotic effect. The motet opens with a pleading “Come, come, come,” gaining in confidence as the two choirs trade phrases. Der saure Weg (“the sour path”) is evocatively depicted by a half-step followed by a falling diminished seventh. The second stanza is set simply as a chorale, but with some beautiful text painting, the sustained chord on bleibt (“remains”), for example. This text painting is a characteristic shared by all of Bach’s works for voice. Each of Bach’s motets has its introspective moments, but taken as a whole, Komm, Jesu, Komm is surely the most personal of the seven.
Antonio Vivaldi wrote several settings of the Gloria, all of them lost for more than two hundred years, but the one labeled RV 589 is the most famous and enduring. It was composed, probably in 1715, for the choir of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls (or more probably a home for the illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen, generously endowed by their “anonymous” fathers, . Vivaldi was designated maestro di violino at the Ospedale and substituted for the indisposed maestro di coro from 1713-1719. The Vivaldi Gloria, as it is now known, consists of twelve contrasting cantata-like movements, beginning with a joyous chorus and then working its way through the text of the Latin mass’ second section. It concludes with a final triumphant and ebullient fugue, “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” a true showpiece with two musical subjects that share the same text. That Vivaldi borrowed this final movement, almost note for note, from a Gloria by a contemporary, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, in no way detracts from its brilliance or appropriateness as a closer. And how else would we have heard of Ruggieri?
Before moving to England, where he lived from 1709 until his death 50 years later, Handel, like other German composers before him (Schütz, for example), spent several years in Italy. His first extended visit began in 1706, when he was just 21 years old. During it he composed a number of pieces for chorus and orchestra, apparently for use in liturgical services, of which Dixit Dominus was finished in Rome in April 1707and is the best known of the period. Having already demonstrated to his Italian hosts that he was an organist par excellence, he strove to showcase his compositional ability, and especially his contrapuntal skills, in six magnificent choruses, each of which uses two, and sometimes three, main subjects, first stated separately, then ingeniously woven together. The five-part choral writing for first and second soprano, alto, tenor, and bass is athletic and range-stretching. A typical movement might involve a sort of cantus firmus melody, a sign of Handel’s indebtedness to a long German tradition that he later abandoned. Over the slow, prolonged notes, two completely separate themes move, each of the motives demanding different phrasings and dynamic ranges, and each of them tossed more or less equally among the five voices. In later life, Handel smoothed out his choral writing to achieve an unsurpassed elegance, but here we have a unique example of the composer at his most energetic and operatic.
The orchestral writing is also virtuosic, with the melodic strands divided among five string parts: first and second violins, first and second violas, and bass. Unlike the usage in many other Baroque pieces, the instruments in Dixit seldom merely double the voices but instead imitate the choral texture at the remove of a measure or a fraction of a measure. Despite this complexity, each of the choruses makes a series of strong, unified impressions, ranging from fierce power to the gentlest sweetness, with several moods customarily occurring with a single movement, or even simultaneously.
The first two solo pieces are the straightforward and dignified “Virgam virtutis” for alto and the first soprano’s “Tecum principium,” a lovely movement that features, towards the end, a duet between the singer and the first violinists. The solo duet “De torrente in via bibet” offers a serene oasis of beauty among the vigorous choruses, a showpiece of simple counterpoint that relies on delicious suspensions, the voices only a note apart, and finally ends, after the two sopranos gradually separate, on an evocative octave.
But it’s the choral writing that makes Dixit unforgettable, for performers and listeners. The closing “Gloria” is one of the great tours de force of the choral repertoire, in which over a span of nearly seven minutes the music cascades towards the most final of final cadences. The Italians must have been mightily impressed.