A Baroque Christmas

Saturday December 15, 2018
A Baroque Christmas

Celebrate the season!

Experience the celebration of the holiday by Baroque composers from around Europe with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s charming Messe de Minuit, Francesco Durante’s exuberant Magnificat, and motets by Heinrich Schütz.

A sing-along of traditional Christmas carols will follow the program.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

At this, the darkest time of the year, we welcome music that warms us and brightens our days. Perhaps that is why the early Catholic Church chose to observe the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice, with the idea that people might be more willing to convert if they could keep their secular traditions as part of the celebration of Christ’s birth. We welcome you to our virtual warmth in the form of European music that has brightened listeners’ lives for three centuries. The four compositions on tonight’s program represent expressions of the Baroque style from Germany, France and Italy; I think you will find that each country manifested this style in its own distinctive way.

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Heinrich Schütz composed the two works beginning each half of our program at about the same time of his life. Both are scored for six-part chorus; however, their style and manner bear little resemblance. Perhaps because Ein Kind ist uns geboren is in Schütz’s native tongue and comes from the Hebrew Bible, the work feels more natural and less stilted than his setting of the Latin Hodie Christus natus est, text which comes from the Catholic collection of chants for all the services of the year, the Liber Usualis8. Schütz, as a Protestant, might well have felt more affinity for the vernacular text than for that of both a text and a language that he did not use in his own worship. The Latin piece opens our concert. Schütz unifies it by interpolating a recurring refrain of Alleluia within the sentences of the text. His scoring for six voices allows him to achieve a variety of textures, from rich homophony7 to dense polyphony12 to a duet between two three-part groupings to a duet for solo voices. One instance of the juxtaposition of the two three- part choruses occurs in the setting laetantur archangeli. Schütz repeats laetantur three times in each phrase to create the sound of much rejoicing; however, to this listener the result is somewhat ungainly. He repeats exultant in the phrase exultant justi for the same reason, but it has the same less than perfect result. His setting of the Doxology redeems these awkward earlier phrases in its descriptive beauty. He contrasts the upper three voices with the lower three; each grouping alternates imitatively singing the exuberant line setting gloria in excelsis with a slow homophony setting et in terra pax as a consummate depiction of peace on earth.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, like Heinrich Schütz, began his adult life in the study of law; both men also left that study for travel to Italy to study music composition, in Schütz’s case at San Marco with Giovanni Gabrieli, and in Charpentier’s case with Carissimi. Schütz returned later in life to study with Monteverdi and acquaint himself with the particulars of the Baroque style as developed first by Peri and Caccini and then by Carrissimi and Monteverdi.

Charpentier’s Messe de minuit pour Noël was composed for the Jesuits, for whom he worked between 1687-1698 as maître de chapelle at their college and their church in Paris. While the text of the mass has no particular association with Christmas, the music certainly does. Imagine hearing a mass with music based on familiar holiday carols; we, not being French, are probably not familiar with them, but for 17th century French listeners they were equivalent to our Silent Night or Deck the halls. Charpentier uses nine of these carols, three in the Kyrie alone. After the instrumental ensemble plays them in their entirety, Charpentier then elaborates on their melodies for his setting of the mass. He achieves musical variety by using both major and minor tonality, interspersing choral sections with sections for solo duets or trios in bass or treble register, and by frequently alternating meters5 from duple to a fast or slow triple.

Throughout the work Charpentier creates charming musical descriptions of what the text communicates. To convey Et in terra pax hominibus he has the line, which all four parts sing in imitation, drop a sixth to sing terra, thereby underscoring the distance between the heavens and the earth. Even though the phrase from the end of the Gloria, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus, is eventually a duet, Charpentier has one soprano sing the entire line to emphasize the idea of you alone. In the Credo, the melody setting descendit de coelis ultimately descends through a seventh to convey God’s coming down to earth as Jesus. Immediately after, there is a lovely scalar descent in the treble instruments accompanying the homophonic choral iteration of Et incarnatus est to represent the Holy Spirit coming down from Heaven to impregnate Mary. In the cujus regni non erit finis setting, Charpentier repeats the word non in each part to emphasize that negative; you will hear the word coming out of the choral texture to create the strongest assertion possible of Christ’s never-ending reign. Towards the end of the Credo the alto of the male trio singing et expecto holds his note while the others sing through to illustrate the heightened anticipation of waiting for the resurrection. To my mind the only incongruous setting in the work occurs in the Agnus Dei. Charpentier’s use of a carol in a major key and brisk triple meter contradicts the text, which expresses the believer’s sense of unworthiness and need for redemption. Throughout history composers have usually emphasized that mood with music in a minor tonality and somber tempo.

Ein Kind ist uns geboren is one of the twenty-nine motets for five to seven voices in Schütz’s 1648 collection Geistliche Chorumisk (Sacred Choral Music). As the court musician for the Elector of Saxony for most of his long life, Schütz wrote a vast amount of choral music, and to me the motets in this publication represent his mature compositional style in all its glory. This motet starts out in a celebratory triple meter to announce the birth of the child. A homophonic trio of treble voices announces it and a trio of male voices repeats it an octave lower in response, almost as though the exciting news of the birth is being spread from community to community. Then all six voices converge in imitative polyphony, as though the entire world now knows and celebrates. To set the next phrase, Schütz makes use of one of his favorite devices: the anticipation of the melodic line in one or more parts, which then is taken up by the other parts in imitative homophony. He uses this device to great effect later on in the phrase setting Auf dass seine Herrschaft gross werde, und des Friedes kein Ende. Throughout these two phrases the tenor anticipates in solo the homophony sung in the other five voices. Schütz breaks up the second half of the phrase with depictions allowing him to musically describe first the concept of peace and then the fact that it will have no end. Thus, und des Friedes has long slow values conveying rest, while kein Ende is expressed quickly and followed by silence to illustrate end. Between these two phrases, he sets und er heisst Wunderbar, Rat, Kraft, Held, ewig Vater, Friedefürst in a way that I have not heard him use elsewhere in his oeuvre. Two voices sing in long note values the same notes, while two other voices express the text in fast imitative duet. The long notes express to this listener the broad shoulders upon which the government sits, while the fast line listing the names whereby the child shall be called convey the believer’s excited reaction to the Messiah’s arrival on earth. Here, Schütz, unlike Handel in his setting of this text for the Messiah, iterates each name on a quarter note. Instead of separating each attribute as Handel does, however, Schütz sets it as one line interrupted by commas, therby underscoring God’s power and might.

Francesco Durante’s life almost completely overlapped with that of J.S. Bach, but their musical styles would never indicate that. Durante, born in Naples, spent his life there, first as a student of Alessandro Scarlatti and then as a teacher himself. He, Scarlatti, and other composers, such as Pergolesi, to whom this work was wrongfully attributed, have since become known as the Neapolitan School and are credited with starting the tradition of modern opera. Although Durante himself wrote only sacred music, he certainly influenced many composers of opera through his instruction.

Where Bach’s music is dense with complex polyphony, Durante’s Magnificat has a light and airy texture achieved through largely undeveloped themes and little harmonic exploration. As with many Magnificats of the Baroque and Renaissance era, the opening movement presents the plainchant11 setting from the Liber Usualis in elongated note values. As this chant passes from voice to voice, the other voices and strings accompany it with simple uniform eighth scales and arpeggios1 of sixteenth notes. The tonality moves from B flat major to D minor, the dominant in B flat’s relative minor of G, to call attention to the line quia respexit humilitatem ancillem suam before returning to the major tonality and chant.

Durante then follows a brief treble duet in D minor with a dramatically brisk homophony to express Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, juxtaposed with a long solo scalar descent by the basses through an octave and fifth to musically represent the falling of the powerful as they are scattered. In the next movement Durante musically pairs the parts of this poem of social justice that express how God will rectify the inequities in society. He accomplishes this with a motif that again descends by step through a fifth to set the two lines describing both the powerful being deposed from their seat and the rich being sent empty away. He contrasts it first with a rising motif to describe the raising up of the humble and meek and then with the line esurientes implevit bonis sung only once by the trebles in parallel sixths. I find it notable that Durante supplies each of the two pairs of lines with a harmonic sequence6. They provide another means of unifying the movement, but whereas the first represents the grace that raises up the humble and meek, the second conveys the scattering of the rich as they are sent empty away. Three brief movements with minimally developed music follow, the first of which is another duet, this time for male voices. The piece then concludes with Durante using the same musical pun that Bach used in his Magnificat: each composer reprises the musical material from the opening movement to set the text as it was in the beginning. Durante supplements this with a new line of a rising and falling melodic wave tossed among the parts to express the succession of generations throughout time.

Glossary of terms

A melody made up of the notes in a chord played in succession rather than simultaneously. The adjectival form is arpeggiated.
Two or more voices repeating an identical melodic line in close succession, so that the lines overlap. A round like Frère Jacques is an example of a canon.
The interplay of polyphonic lines. Contrapuntal is the adjectival form.
The quality of loudness or softness to music.
A loud dynamic, from the Italian ‘strong’.
Harmonic sequence
The restatement of a short series of harmonic progressions in successively higher or lower tonality.
A musical texture in which all voices move as one to provide the harmonic movement. Hymns and chorales are illustrations of homophonic texture.
Liber Usualis
See plainchant.
The meter determines the emphasis of certain beats within the music. A waltz has a triple meter, while the U.S. national anthem has a duple meter.
A soft dynamic.
A unison melody that was the earliest form of music in the Christian church and modeled after chants in the Judaic worship tradition. While each European region developed its own melodies for the various parts of Christian worship, these chants were eventually codified into a book known as the Liber Usualis at the end of the 19th century. Every text in everyday worship- from liturgy to psalms to hymns- has music specific to it, although some services, like that of Holy Communion, have more than one. Some of the chants started out as part of an oral tradition that preceded musical notation, such that their exact age is impossible to determine, while others originated later in history.
A musical texture of independent voices that may have similar melodic material and whose interaction creates the vertical harmony.

© 2018 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.