Clear and Bright: Festive Sounds of Chorus and Brass

Saturday December 05, 2009
Clear and Bright: Festive Sounds of Chorus and Brass

On a cold winter’s night, you will be embraced and enveloped by the warm tones of chorus and brass in music by Baroque composers of the Venetian tradition of polychoral music.

This conversation between singers and brass, by turns exuberant and contemplative, was exploited to wonderful effect by the Gabriellis, Prætorius, Scheidt, and Hammerschmidt. We will also present Daniel Pinkham’s modern take on the style with his Christmas Cantata.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

At the darkest time of the year people throughout history have sought to brighten the circumstances of their lives. The Christian calendar observes the birth of Jesus at this time to coincide with (and thereby appropriate) the much older pagan observance of the winter solstice. As a result, traditions purely secular in origin, such as the burning of the Yule log and the use of evergreens to decorate homes, have become associated with Christmas. In this same spirit, Musica Sacra celebrates the holiday season with that most festive of music: motets for brass instruments and chorus.

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Most of tonight’s music is taken from two traditions in which music for brass and chorus flourished: that of 17th century Venice and of 17th century Lutheran Germany. The large resonant sound and abundant financial resources of the Cathedral of St. Marks in Venice inspired its maestri da cappella to indulge in compositions replete with antiphonal dialogue between choirs of instruments, be they brass, reed, string, or voice. Giovanni Gabrieli held this position of chapel master, and Bassano was the head of the instrumentalists there. German composers such as Heinrich Schütz and Johann Hermann Schein studied in Venice and then brought this exciting music back to Germany with them. There the style was adopted and adapted by composers such as Samuel Scheidt and Michael Praetorius, who spent two and a half years in Dresden acquainting himself with the latest Italian music before returning to his post as Kappellmeister in Wolfenbüttel. In the works heard tonight Prætorius bases his compositions on common Christmas chorales that would have been known to all of his Lutheran contemporaries. People who celebrate Christmas may also recognize both: the first as the carol we know as Good Christian men rejoice and the second as a cradle song between Mary and Joseph (or as Resonet in laudibus).

Samuel Scheidt based his three motets heard in tonight’s concert on Lutheran chorales as well. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland evolved from Veni Creator Spiritus, a fourth century plainchant sung during Advent, the season in which Christians prepare themselves for the arrival of God as judge upon the earth. It is a somber melody and setting, reflecting the Advent mood of repentance and fear. Contrast this with his settings of Puer natus in Bethlehem and Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ. The triple meter of the former and the major tonality of the latter express the joy that Christians feel in recognition that Christ comes, not as the unyielding judge they had feared during Advent, but as the little baby who will save them all.

O ihr lieben Hirten of Andreas Hammerschmidt is the only work on tonight’s program in which the brass do not act as a separated chorus. Instead, the two trumpets in duet have a role in a dialogue with a soprano soloist, accompanied by an organ part that provides the harmonies implicit in their lines. This accompaniment, known as basso continuo, as well as the freely composed solo lines above it, created an innovative musical texture, known as monody, which ushered in the Baroque era. Hammerschmidt, in a fashion common among Baroque composers but unheard of prior to 1600, creates a dramatic sacred work by taking as his text that moment from Luke 2, in which the angel Gabriel tells the shepherds of Christ’s birth before being joined by a “heavenly host, praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” The soloist, in singing the words of Gabriel, becomes Gabriel, while the chorus acts as the choir of angels. In addition, a trio of singers brings the story into the present with their devotional commentary on the tale told in the Bible. By doing so, the final iteration of Freude, grosse Freude, becomes a celebratory statement of joy by contemporary believers.

A charming example of word painting comes at the end of the piece. Hammerschmidt sets the phrase Peace on earth by having the basses drop down a fifth in an unexpected solo for the word earth; the upper voices represent the angels hovering over the fields, while the low bass notes represent the earth below. Hammershmidt set this text from Luke twice; in his other composition he used the form of an antiphonal motet. I love the fact that in both settings he used the same rhythmic motif and repeated the word Freude three times. The repetitions imply a frenzy of joy among the angels; the totality conveys a religious ecstasy. In both works Hammerschmidt also interpolated his setting of Freude, grosse Freude several times, thereby creating a unifying refrain.

Giovanni Gabrieli freely composed his music, since only the Lutherans sang carols at that point in history. His 12-part Magnificat comes from his Symphoniae Sacrae; the term Symphoniae indicates that instruments make up part of the ensemble. Gabrieli’s compositional style reflects the influence of the secular madrigal, in which individual words would be depicted in the music. A striking example of this exists in the phrase deposuit potentes de sede. Having had the three choruses of four imitatively sing the first two words of the phrase, Gabrieli then abruptly stops the musical momentum he has established with a silence that he breaks to have all three choruses simultaneously declaim potentes at the height of their respective vocal ranges. This creates a strikingly effective musical description of the word “powerful,” even if the flow of music is interrupted to do so. Gabrieli also makes masterful use of the different registers of the three choirs to set his text dimisit inanes; the choirs closely imitate their respective predecessor in their own register, from the chorus of highest voices to that of the lowest, thereby creating an image of the proud being thrown down.

Daniel Pinkham, who spent the latter part of his life in Cambridge, gives us the only non-Baroque work in tonight’s concert. His Christmas Cantata is subtitled Symphonia Sacra in reference and homage to those Symphoniae Sacrae of Gabrieli. Like Gabrieli, Pinkham juxtaposes vocal choir with brass choir. Like the German Baroque composers Pinkham allows the inflections of the words in the text to dictate the rhythmic flow of the music. Thus, in the middle movement, Pinkham changes the predominantly duple meter to a triple meter for the text jacentem in praesepio thereby creating a musical rocking to describe the cradle’s gentle motion. This middle movement evokes mystical revelations such as those experienced by St. Theresa of Avila, rendered in sculpture by the Baroque artist and architect Giovanni Bernini. The repeated motif in the brass and organ, in alternation with the sublimely slow melody of the women, both suggests and induces a trancelike state.

The ebullience of the opening and closing movements encloses this mystical center. The first movement records the shepherds’ jubilation after seeing the Christ child. Pinkham’s fragmentation and repetition of the text allow us to hear the breathless excitement of the shepherds as they relate what they have seen and heard; you may be reminded of the refrain Hammershmidt created in his work. In Pinkham’s last movement, the excitement belongs to Christian worshippers; he uses the words spoken by the angels in Luke 2 as a modern day hymn to God. Again as Hammerschmidt does, he employs them as a refrain to free-composed sections, but he sets passages from the Psalms of David explaining why we should glorify God. In so doing, Pinkham transforms the shepherds’ marveling at Christ’s birth to the wonder of Christians everywhere contemplating its meaning for all time.

As participants in choral music, both audience and performers, we have the great privilege of transcending the boundaries of time by bearing witness to the voices of those gone before us. Jacob Handl’s and Pinkham’s setting of O magnum mysterium are separated by close to four centuries; tonight’s performance postdates Pinkham’s composition of it by fifty-two years. Yet, in giving utterance to the words o great mystery… that animals should see the Lord, born, lying in a manger, we share in Handl’s and Pinkham’s wonder, and experience our own.

© 2009 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.