Arias and Biblical Sinfonias: Program Notes


As a tip-of-the-hat to the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this program is devoted to late Baroque articulations of Biblical faith, as found in works written in a Christianized context. The program roughly follows events as they occur in scripture, though not all of the sung texts are Biblical. Since most of the program is based on Old Testament narratives, it might help to keep in mind that, from a Christian perspective, the entire Bible is a revelation of one thing: the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the people and events of the Old Testament, quite substantial in and of themselves, are also “types” or “figures” that point to further revelation. The central Biblical theme of liberation from the imprisonment of slavery remains a constant, though the character of both the slavery and the liberation shifts. Nonetheless, the beauty of these settings strives to honor the depth and truth of the content.

We begin with a depiction of an event that occurs early in Genesis that signals the dysfunctional depths into which humanity has fallen: the fratricidal murder of Abel. La morte d’Abel figura di quella del nostro Redentore by Venetian composer Antonio Caldara is an azione sacra (sacred action) with a text by the distinguished Italian poet, librettist, and moralist Pietro Metastasio. Following a brief contrapuntal introduction, we will hear Abel’s aria “Quel buon pastor,” wherein the youth identifies himself as the good shepherd. Interludes between sung phrases are long. The second aria is sung by Eve, after the murder, and directed at Cain.

Caldara was a highly prolific composer who contributed to a rapid evolution in Italian vocal music, eventually impacting the opera scene in Vienna. This work, and others like it, was written to be performed on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday or Good Friday. It was premiered in the Hofkapelle on 8 April 1732.

Nicolas Clérambault’s Abraham depicts the most famous near-death event ever related. Abraham, who was to be the father of many nations, is asked by the Lord to take his only son Isaac up Mount Moriah, and kill him. The words sung, in alternating recitatives and airs, are those of the angel, who stays Abraham’s hand.  Clérambault dedicated the work to Louis XIV’s wife, Madame de Maintenon, a woman highly influential in church affairs in France.

The first half of the concert concludes with a puzzle, which is what happens when a composer fascinated by numerology encounters the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther’s catechetical Diess sind die zehn Gebot, the basis of this chorale prelude, was a poetic rendering of the Decalogue, with two extra verses emphasizing the benefits of knowing them. Each of the five musical phrases of the chorale is stated in a two-part canon at the octave, heard in the mid-range. “Canon” is another word for “rule,” or “law.” Thus, there are five canons for two parts, yielding ten laws. The work, dating from 1739, was originally written for organ, but Mr. Stepner has arranged it for small ensemble.

Johann Kuhnau was Bach’s immediate predecessor as Kantor at the Thomasschule in Leipzig. As a musician, he was accomplished in theory, performing, and composition. In 1700, he published a set of six programmatic sonatas for keyboard, Musicalische Vorstellung einiger biblischer Historien (Musical representations of some Biblical stories) — programmatic works with titles identifying a specific event in the Old Testament. The second sonata, “Saul’s melancholy cured by the music played by David on his harp,” relates the story of Saul, King of Israel, as depicted in 1 Samuel 16, in which he is being tormented by an evil spirit. At the advice of his physicians, he orders that a harpist be brought in to play for him. Thus is David (newly and secretly anointed by Samuel) brought into the service of Saul, and plays for Saul whenever he is afflicted. Each of the three movements relate to a piece of the story.

French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier never worked in the court of Louis XIV. Still, his reputation was considerable given that he held other prestigious positions in the French capital. Following a four-year stint in Rome, he returned to Paris in 1670 and remained well connected for the remainder of his life, even working with the playwright Molière.

Charpentier’s dramatic motet Judicium Salomonis is based on the life of Solomon, King of Israel and Judah, as depicted, mostly, in 1 Kings 3. Appropriately enough, this oratorio was written in conjunction with the celebration of a Messe Rouge (Red Mass; an annual Mass for those in the legal profession, named for the color of their robes) at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris in 1702. The instrumental excerpt opens the second part of the work, representing Solomon’s dream, in which God gives the king the wisdom for which he prays. The vocal excerpt comes from a famous episode in the life of Solomon: a woman (Vera mater) comes to the king, claiming that her baby was stolen by another woman, who also replaced hers with a dead child; she demands her child back. We will hear only this plea; I will not spoil the ending for you, but only to say that the lawyers at the Red Mass should have been very inspired.

A tour of Baroque music with scriptural texts would not at all be complete without a snippet or two from the great Messiah of Georg Friederich Handel. With this work, we cross into the New Testament, but with a reminder of its firm basis in the Old. And this was the intention of Charles Jennens, the librettist. In fact, he intended the piece for Holy Week in London, but Handel had other ideas: he took it with him to Dublin and held a public rehearsal and three performances for charities in the spring of 1742. It was a needed success, as the composer was transitioning from his operatic career into writing oratorios.

In the Pifa, Handel evokes the shepherds, keeping watch at night. The origin of the term is elusive, but might refer to shepherd bagpipers the young Handel may have encountered in Rome; or to piffaro, a general term for wind instruments, with which shepherds were often associated. The gentle, slow triple meter is another pastoral flag for this composition for strings.

An accompanied recitative follows, based on Luke 2:9 with the depiction of angels. The aria, “Rejoice greatly,” a familiar selection from this familiar oratorio, builds on a handful of musical ideas and is based on an Old Testament text from the prophet Zechariah (9:9-10). The initial upward leaps give a kick to this spirited aria, and its ebullient runs in the voice always occur on the word “rejoice,” addressed to the daughter of Zion and of Jerusalem. The central section of this da capo aria moves more slowly while giving depth to the reason for rejoicing and shouting: “he is the righteous savior” and “he shall speak peace…”

A pair of works by English composer Henry Purcell follow. This Chacony in G minor was composed by the 19-year-old composer not long after his attaining the position of a court composer. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s expostulation, with a text by Nahum Tate, dates from 1693 and explores the thoughts of Mary of Nazareth upon realizing the 12-year-old Jesus is lost. Purcell is toying with the Italian cantata form while further exercising his masterful ability to set an English text and deepen its meaning. In terms of the text, it is not easy to render the anxiety of a woman who has been visited by an angel, and witnessed other wonders since then. Ultimately, the poem conveys both the depth of Mary’s faith in the God of Israel, and the fears of a mother, who is also the mother of all Christians.

Handel’s The triumph of time and truth is an allegory that went through various forms during the composer’s lengthy and diverse career. It was his first oratorio, performed in Rome and based on a libretto by the poet Benedetto Cardinal Pamphili. The oratorio is a moral tale, juxtaposing the vanities of beauty and pleasure with the harder realities of time and truth. This aria is sung by Piacere (Pleasure). Though not a Biblical text, the aria could be an observation on the history of God and His people—a love deeply imbued with sorrow and beauty. It is also the take-away for the evening: go and do likewise.

~ @ 2017 Joseph Orchard