Marguerite L. Brooks, conductor
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concerto in C Major for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Continuo, RV 537
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)
Lauda per la natività del Signore
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Dona nobis pacem, from Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
John Goss (1800–1880)
See, amid the winter’s snow (arr. Willcocks)
Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in C Major for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Continuo, RV 537
Once dismissed as a lightweight creator of formulaic concertos, Vivaldi is now recognized as one of most imaginative and forward-looking composers of the early eighteenth century. Nicknamed the “Red Priest” (he was ordained in 1703), he had strawberry-colored hair and a fiery temperament to match. Conservatives such as Sir John Hawkins lambasted Vivaldi’s idiosyncratic style as “wild and irregular,” but his virtuosity on the violin was universally admired. Much of his early music was written for talented female pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, a charitable institution with which he had a long and stormy relationship. Together with his predecessor Arcangelo Corelli, Vivaldi epitomized the brilliantly extroverted Italian style of instrumental music. In their hands, the concerto became at once a vehicle for scintillating instrumental pyrotechnics and a medium of unprecedented expressive and coloristic range.
In addition to his hundreds of solo concertos, Vivaldi composed a substantial number for two, three, and even more solo instruments. Not surprisingly, the majority of his double concertos feature the violin, but his lone Concerto in C Major for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Continuo has long been a popular favorite. Cast in the three-movement mold (fast-short-fast) that Vivaldi helped to promulgate, the work is notable for its zesty, fanfare-like flourishes and generally festive atmosphere. The opening Allegro sets the tone, with its crisp, bouncy, drumbeat rhythms, playfully imitative textures, and echo effects reminiscent of the music for cori spezzati, or divided choirs of voices and instruments, associated with Venice’s Cathedral of St. Mark. The trumpets take a break in the brief Largo, six bars of searching, slow-moving harmonies that provide a trellis for the orchestra’s improvised embellishments. The final Allegro, like the first movement, is built around an orchestral ritornello, or refrain, that returns periodically and helps set off the contrasting passages for the trumpet soloists.
Arvo Pärt, Berliner Messe (Berlin Mass)
Of the sundry varieties of “new simplicity” that classical music spawned in the late twentieth century, none was broader in its appeal, or more idiosyncratic in its conception, than that associated with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. With his monkish tonsure and craggy, bearded visage, Pärt seems well cast as an apostle of minimalism. Now in his early eighties, he continues to explore the ramifications of the radically stripped-down musical language that grew out of his study of chant and early vocal polyphony. Despite his early interest in serialism, Pärt renounced the complexity embraced by the post–World War II avant garde. As a young man, he dabbled in neoclassicism and other styles, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that he found his voice in a short, hypnotically spare piano piece called For Alina.
Pärt’s bell-like “tintinnabuli” style, as exemplified by the Berliner Messe, For Alina, and dozens of other works written over the past four decades, is characterized by back-to-basics harmonies, textures, and tempos, with independent lines hovering around triads or sustained pedal tones. Pärt prefers to think of this technique as a process of distillation rather than simplification. “If there were no continual effort to start from the beginning there would be no art,” he once told an interviewer. “I cannot help it but start from scratch. I am tempted only when I experience something unknown, something new and meaningful for me. It seems, however, that this unknown territory is sooner reached by way of reduction than by growing complexity. Reduction certainly doesn’t mean simplification, but it is the way—at least in an ideal scenario—to the most intense concentration on the essence of things.”
Commissioned for a major Catholic congress held in West Berlin in June 1990, four months before Germany’s historic reunification, the Berliner Messe is at once an intensely concentrated expression of the composer’s Orthodox faith and a secular appeal to comity. (A devout believer, Pärt settled in the West German capital after emigrating from communist Estonia in 1980.) In addition to the five movements of the Mass Ordinary, the work consists of a pair of Alleluias, with optional solo verses appropriate for the Christmas season, and, as its centerpiece, the richly poetic Pentecostal sequence “Veni Sancte Spiritus.” The latter movement is quintessential tintinnabuli music, with its willowy vocal lines placidly bobbing and weaving atop a smoothly flowing E-major current. Only twice in this movement does Pärt employ the full four-voice choir, at the invocation of the “sevenfold gifts” and the Amen. Here and elsewhere in the Mass, his clear, mostly syllabic setting of the Latin words induces a contemplative, almost mystical mood. Although the intersecting vocal lines frequently clash, like the “false relations” in Renaissance madrigals, Pärt’s command of voice leading is such that the ear perceives the incidental collisions as pleasing intensifications rather than grating dissonances.
Ottorino Respighi, Lauda per la natività del Signore (Laud to the Nativity)
Born in Bologna in 1879, Respighi studied the violin as a child and for a time earned his living as an orchestral musician. In his mid-twenties he discovered early music and began transcribing it for modern instruments, a sideline that would prove both successful and lucrative in the course of his career. Meanwhile, he cultivated a talent for evoking the past in his own voice in works such as Ancient Dances and Airs and the Concerto gregoriano for violin and orchestra, based on an Easter chant. Respighi is best known for his vividly atmospheric symphonic poems inspired by the fountains, pines, and festivals of Rome, but he also wrote numerous operas and ballets, as well as chamber music and songs. Temperamentally conservative, he remained aloof from culture wars and politics alike, although his career undoubtedly benefited from Mussolini’s admiration for his music.
Completed in 1930, Lauda per la natività del Signore is Respighi’s only sacred choral work. It tells the familiar Christmas story from the vantage points of the Virgin Mary and the attendant shepherds, in unpretentious rhyming verses attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi. Respighi took his cue from the popular carols, or laude spirituali, for which Jacopone is known. (Although the composer’s wife, Elsa, suggested that the work be presented in the form of semi-staged tableaux, it is almost always performed concert style.) Respighi’s Lauda owes much of its rustic charm to its pastoral-style instrumentation (flutes, oboe, English horn, bassoons, triangle, and piano) and the predominance of lilting triple meters. The flexible musical prosody, by turns gracefully melismatic and straightforwardly syllabic, reflects the composer’s interest in liturgical chant and the early monody of Monteverdi and Caccini.
Respighi’s score is further enlivened by madrigal-like word-painting, such as the cascading roulades that describe the Christ child’s descent from heaven to earth, and the cheerfully chirruping mordents and grace notes that mimic the stirrings of the natural world. For all its sophisticated stylistic variety, however, Respighi’s miniature drama is at heart as humble as the manger in Bethlehem. In the Lauda’s final moments, the shepherds sing a polyphonic chorus of praise, Mary ponders the miracle of Christ’s birth in a musing monotone chant, and the orchestra reprises the soothing lullaby that heralded the Angel’s joyful tidings at the beginning of the story.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Dona nobis pacem, from Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
By the time he put the finishing touches on his “Great Catholic Mass” in the late 1740s, Bach was methodically setting his musical affairs in order. In its artful amalgam of styles, techniques, and traditions, the B-Minor Mass summed up his life’s work in the realm of sacred music, just as the Art of Fugue encapsulated his encyclopedic mastery of counterpoint. The last of the Mass’s twenty-seven movements, the “Dona nobis pacem” stands as both valediction and testament. Bach had used the same radiantly uplifting music before, in the “Gratias agimus tibi” from the Gloria of this Mass, first composed in 1733 and itself based on the opening chorus of his 1731 cantata Wir danken dir, Gott (We thank you, God). Thus, even as he looks ahead to the end of his career, Bach seems to reach back over the years and draw strength from his creative prime. The music exudes a palpable sense of grace, the sturdy D-major melody welling softly out of the lower voices. At first consolatory, the Latin prayer for peace gains urgency and confidence as Bach adds layer upon layer of contrapuntal complexity until both the “Dona nobis pacem” and the Mass culminate in a brassy, full-throated climax.
John Goss, See, amid the winter’s snow (arr. Willcocks)
One of Victorian England’s foremost church composers, John Goss is remembered as Arthur Sullivan’s harmony teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and the author of numerous well-made hymns, glees, and anthems. The tune “Humility,” to which this affecting carol is set, illustrates the “union of solidity and grace” that a nineteenth-century commentator discerned in his music. Composed in 1871, it quickly established itself as a seasonal standard. Percy Dearmer deemed See, amid the winter’s snow worthy of inclusion in the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols, but his caveat that “little perhaps, except the tune by Sir John Goss, deserves to survive” does an injustice to the eminently singable lyrics by the Anglican-turned-Catholic priest Edward Caswall, which have a sweet-tempered charm of their own. In the modern arrangement by David Willcocks to be heard tonight, each of the carol’s six stanzas has a distinctive timbre, texture, and weight.
Notes © by Harry Haskell
A former music editor for Yale University Press, Harry Haskell is a program annotator for Carnegie Hall in New York and the author of several books, including The Early Music Revival: A History and Maiden Flight.