What goes into a concert poster? Handel Alexander’s Feast

by Tim Crouch, Marketing Department

With Handel Alexander’s Feast just around the corner (Feb 22-25 at Koerner Hall), we’re looking back at poster designs created at the top of the season. As always, our multi-talented Choir director Ivars Taurins provided some inspirational art to help guide the design process, and we’re happy to share them with you!

The Family of Darius before Alexander – Paolo Veronese

The Family of Darius before Alexander is a 1565–1570 oil on canvas painting. It depicts Alexander the Great with the family of Darius III, the Persian king he had defeated in battle. Although Veronese had previously painted a version of the subject, since destroyed, the theme had rarely been depicted by other artists before him. The painting has been in the collection of the National Gallery in London since 1857. Interestingly, the splendid wardrobe is that of the Venice in which Veronese lived, rather than ancient Greece or the Far East.

Alexander entering Babylon, or The Triumph of Alexander – Charles Le Brun

Alexander, standing in a chariot drawn by two elephants, makes his triumphant entry into Babylon; in the background, one can make out the terraces of hanging gardens.

Charles Le Brun needed to find a style with the appropriate blend of gravity and solemnity. It was also necessary to maintain the legibility crucial to a work with so many figures, while conveying the diversity of the temples, vases, weapons, musical instruments, and costumes that make the scene immediately recognizable. An allusion to the grandeur of the reign of Louis XIV – who was also a great conqueror and powerful monarch – is evident, the political position clearly stated. Later reproduced as a tapestry, the painting was part of the collections of Louis XIV. From the Royal Collections, the work entered the Muséum Central des Arts, which would later become the Louvre.

Les reines de Perse aux pieds d’Alexandre dit aussi la tente de Darius – Charles Le Brun

This painting was probably completed at the end of the year 1660. It shows the mother of Darius throwing herself at the feet of the king of Macedonia, to implore clemency for his imprisoned family.

And hey – why not grab the throw pillow version of the painting?

And so – the final product from Sovereign State (note the baroque frame around the imagery)! This final image used the figure of Alexander from the final Le Brun painting, as well as opulent fruits, silhouettes of baroque instruments, and a baroque platter silhouette!

We look forward to seeing you at Handel Alexander’s Feast, February 22-25 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre.

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Behind the Musik: Handel Alexander’s Feast

Download the Program Notes and Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
By Charlotte Nediger

Performances of odes on November 22, the feast day of the patron saint of music, St. Cecilia, were a regular feature of the concert season in London at the end of the seventeenth century. John Dryden’s ode, Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Musick, was written for the occasion in 1697, set to music (now lost) by Jeremiah Clarke. From 1700 the tradition died out, but composers continued to write settings of St. Cecilia odes as concert works. Handel composed two such odes, the first being Alexander’s Feast in 1736. (The second, From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony, followed three years later). The premiere of Alexander’s Feast took place at Covent Garden on February 19, a few short weeks after Handel completed the score. Dryden’s text was adapted by Handel’s friend, the Irish playwright Newburgh Hamilton, who “took care not to take any unwarrantable liberties” with Dryden’s original.

The audience at the premiere numbered 1,300, and it was so well received than an additional eight performances were given. Handel remounted it again the following season:

Last Night Mr. Dryden’s Ode, call’d Alexander’s Feast, was performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, to a splendid Audience, where his Royal Highness the Prince and Princess of Wales were present, and seem’d to be highly entertain’d, insomuch that his Royal Highness commanded Mr. Handel’s Concerto on the Organ to be repeated.
[A London newspaper account, March 17, 1737]

Engraved portrait of Handel by Jacobus Hoebraken, with frame and cartouche engraved by Gravelot, 1738, for the first edition of the score of Alexander’s Feast.
Engraved portrait of Handel by Jacobus Hoebraken, with frame and cartouche engraved by Gravelot, 1738, for the first edition of the score of Alexander’s Feast.

The libretto describes a banquet held by Alexander the Great and his mistress Thaïs in the captured city of Persepolis. The musician Timotheus sings and plays his lyre, inciting various emotions in Alexander until he is roused to burn the city in revenge for his fallen soldiers. Cecilia arrives to turn the barbarity to a more uplifting end through her “loftier” music.

The aim of St. Cecilia odes is to celebrate music, and it is evident here in the range of orchestrations in the airs and choruses, and by the inclusion of two concertos — one for harp, representing Timotheus’ lyre, and one for organ, representing “the divine Cecilia.”

© Charlotte Nediger


PROGRAM LISTING
Directed by Ivars Taurins
February 22–25, 2018, Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning

George Frideric Handel

Alexander’s Feast,
or The Power of Musick

Amanda Forsythe soprano
Thomas Hobbs tenor
Alexander Dobson baritone

Julia Seager-Scott harp soloist
Neil Cockburn organ soloist

There will be a 20-minute intermission between Parts One and Two

Baroque 101: The Triple Harp

By Julia Seager-Scott, harp

Julia Seager-Scott, harp
Julia Seager-Scott, harp

The baroque triple harp was one answer to accommodate the expanding musical language that was emerging at the turn of the seventeenth century. Finding a way to make the harp a continuo instrument, capable of playing a figured bass line with accompanying chords in any key, was the main driver behind the drastic changes seen in the harps of this time.

The triple harp, first seen in Italy, flourished from approximately 1590 to 1750 and was so popular that it spread all over Europe.

It has an ingenious way of having all notes in all keys available at all times:  It has three parallel rows of strings. The outer two rows are tuned to the same diatonic scale (think of the white keys on the piano), with the inner row tuned to the chromatic notes (the equivalent of the black keys on the piano). To make chords, you play a combination of some fingers on the outer rows and some fingers on the inner row, making 3-D shapes with your fingers.

This ability to play in all possible keys was a huge improvement over previous harps which, having one row of strings and no way to quickly and reliably alter the pitch of the strings, could only play in one or two keys at a time and had to be re-tuned either during or in between pieces to accommodate key changes.

Of course, having three parallel rows of strings makes the triple harp very difficult to play. Not many harpists enjoy tuning all 93 strings every day either! Perhaps that is why I am one of only two professional triple harpists in all of Canada. The glorious sound of the triple harp, zingy like the harpsichord and simultaneously bell-like, more than makes up for any hardships.

Considered old-fashioned by Handel’s time, he nevertheless loved the sound of the triple harp too. He used it in Esther, Saul, Giulio Cesare, and he wrote a harp concerto for Alexander’s Feast. Today, the Italian triple harp has settled firmly in to the Welsh culture, where its descendant flourishes as their national instrument.


Hear the beautiful sounds of the triple harp performed by Julia Seager-Scott at Handel Alexander’s Feast from Feb 22–25, 2018 at Koerner Hall, Toronto. Tickets are available here.

Further Listening: Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronations

by Charlotte Nediger, harpsichord

Music is an integral part of the celebration of important life moments in most cultures, and this is particularly true of rites of passage. In our concert, Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation, we offered a selection of music written by baroque composers for the celebrations of royal weddings, a coronation, and for the funeral of a renowned French marshal. Continue your concert experience with this selection of music for your further listening pleasure.

Jean-Baptiste Lully

Our Lully suite ended with a chaconne from Roland  – chaconnes are among our favourite things to play. Many have repeating bass lines over which the composer spins various melodies, and include trios for solo instruments. Last year we performed one of Lully’s wonderful choral chaconnes, from Amadis. The orchestra plays a full 7-1/2-minute chaconne, and then the choir and soloists join with the text “Chantons tous la gloire de l’amour.” The entire movement is 15 minutes of glorious Lully.

(This is an entire suite of excerpts from Amadis: the chaconne begins at 10:30)

Henry Purcell

The centrepiece of our set of excerpts from Purcell’s Ode “From hardy climes” was an exquisite ritornello set over a ground bass (i.e. a bass line that repeats throughout). In the original ode, it is preceded by the song “The sparrow and the gentle dove” – I played the song tune on harpsichord, with Lucas providing lute accompaniment. It’s very much worth listening to the original song as performed by the wonderful British tenor Charles Daniels, whose singing of Purcell is beyond compare. You will find it on a recording by The King’s Consort, directed by Robert King, on the Hyperion label.

It’s in Volume 4 of a set of recordings of the complete Purcell Odes by The King’s Consort, which is full of treasures. If you track down the set, I urge you to listen to another magical ground-bass song (in Volume 7), again sung by Charles: “So when the glitt’ring Queen of Night,” a remarkable depiction of a lunar eclipse, from “The Yorkshire Feast Song.”

John Blow

Performing the Blow Coronation Anthem for James II this week has convinced us we must sing more of his music! The one other Blow work we have performed in the past, most often with students at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute, is his remarkable Salvator Mundi. A heartfelt setting of the text, it was probably written by Blow for the Catholic court chapel attended by James and his wife Maria of Modena.

Click here to listen: Salvator Mundi: Les Arts Florissants William Christie

Johann Pachelbel

Pachelbel wrote more than his infamous Canon – but we rarely hear it! He was a keyboard player, and you can find recordings of his organ and harpsichord music. There are also a few recordings of his other string music. I encourage you to track down a recording called Buxtehude & Purcell Chamber Music, made by Musica Antiqua Köln way back in 1980 on the Archiv label and reissued a few times. Have a listen to Partia no. 4 in E Minor from the Musicalische Ergötzung.

 It’s no secret that I’m married to choir director Ivars Taurins – and the piece that was played as I walked down the aisle at our wedding 36 (!) years ago was a piece not dissimilar to the Pachelbel canon. It is likewise scored for 3 violins and continuo, and is written over a ground bass – and has the same combination of freshness, vivacity, and beauty. Here is a video from Tafelmusik’s House of Dreams  CD/DVD.

Purcell Fantasia in 3 parts on a ground: Tafelmusik

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

I love Charpentier’s choral music – and my favourite of all the works of Charpentier that we’ve performed is his setting of Salve regina for three choirs and continuo. We perform it every few years with the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute participants in the glorious acoustics of Grace Church on-the-Hill, with the sounds of the three choirs intertwining magically. I dream of it being sung at my funeral …

I hope you have a chance to hear us perform it at Grace Church, but in the meantime, there are a few recordings available. I would suggest the following: Charpentier Salve regina, H.24: Ex Cathedra, dir. Jeffrey Skidmore (Hyperion)

George Frideric Handel

Handel wrote a great deal of music for the royal family – famously Water Music and the Coronation Anthems. Less well known but no less glorious is an ode Handel wrote for the birthday of Queen Anne in 1713 (the Anne for whose marriage Purcell wrote the ode “From hardy climes”). The opening of this ode, “Eternal source of light divine” for solo trumpet and countertenor, is one of my very favourite pieces of music. I have an old recording of the wonderful James Bowman singing it, and play it whenever I need a moment of calm inspiration:

Handel “Eternal source of light divine” from Queen Anne’s Birthday Ode: James Bowman

The ode continues with arias and choruses, including the very delightful duet chorus “Let rolling streams their gladness show,” which was transcribed by Handel for orchestra alone in the Concerto a due cori, HWV 333, that we performed at the opening of this season –– the vocal and choral parts are given to oboes and horns.

If you want to experience the entire ode, you can hear a youthful performance by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (a training program for period players) with countertenor Alex Potter and young singers from Clare College, Cambridge.

(The ode starts at 12:30, and the chorus “Let rolling streams” starts at 23:55) Handel Queen Anne Birthday Ode: EUBO, dir. Lars Ulrik Mortensen

You can also hear the orchestral version of the chorus: Handel Allegro ma non troppo, from Concerto a due cori in F Major, HWV 333: Tafelmusik, dir. Jeanne Lamon

Happy listening!

Behind the Musik: Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation

Download the Program Notes | Download the Program Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
by Charlotte Nediger

Music is an integral part of the celebration of important life moments in most cultures, and this is particularly true of rites of passage. This week we offer a selection of music written by baroque composers for the celebrations of royal weddings, a coronation, and for the funeral of a renowned French marshal.

Painting of Wedding of Louis XIV of France, June 9th 1660 by Jacques Laumosnier
Jacques Laumosnier, Wedding of Louis XIV of France, June 9th 1660.

Lully Ballet de Xerxes

Louis XIV was born in 1638, ascending to the throne just five years later upon the death of his father. His mother, Queen Anne, ruled as his regent, alongside Cardinal Mazarin as chief minister. Even before Louis reached the age of majority in 1651 (at age thirteen!), and long before he took control of the reins of government upon the death of Mazarin in 1661, Anne had determined that Louis would marry her niece. Maria Theresa was the daughter of Anne’s brother, Philip IV of Spain, and her marriage to Louis would not only bring an end to the war between the two countries, but would prove to be essential to future foreign policy. Negotiations of the marriage were lengthy and complex, but eventually successful. Maria Theresa was married by proxy to Louis in Fuenterrabia, before being escorted to the border in 1660, where she was met by Louis and his court. They were married at Saint-Jean-de-Luz on June 9. Several weeks later, on August 26, they made the traditional Joyous Entry into Paris. The wedding itself would have been an understated affair, the grander celebrations reserved for Paris. Mazarin declared that he would not hesitate to “jetter l’argent par les fenêtres” (throw money out the window) in order to impress all of Europe. He commissioned the building of a new theatre in the Tuileries, and asked the renowned Italian composer Cavalli to write a new opera (Ercole amante) for the festivities. In fact, neither the theatre nor the opera was ready in time. In its stead, Cavalli’s opera Xerxes was performed in a temporary theatre, altered in order to incorporate ballets set to music written by Louis’ court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. The ballets proved more popular with the French public than the Italian opera, and it is a short selection of these dances that we are performing this week. We have taken the liberty of including the Chaconne from Roland, written by Lully and performed at Versailles 25 years later, in 1685. In the opera, the chaconne represents the celebration by the people of the marriage of their princess, so seems a fitting addition.

Louis and Maria Theresa seem to have had an amicable marriage for the first year or so, and a son and heir (Louis, Grand Dauphin) was born in 1661. Five subsequent children died in infancy. Maria Theresa seems to have quietly tolerated Louis’ various mistresses. Apart from occasionally having to act briefly as regent during Louis’ absences on military campaigns, she had little to do with the politics of the court. When she died in 1683, Louis famously said, “This is the first time she’s given me any trouble.”

Purcell Symphony and Airs from Ode “From hardy climes”

Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark, 1665 – 1714 by Willem Wissing and Jan van der Vaardt. 1685.
Queen Anne, when Princess of Denmark, 1665 – 1714 by Willem Wissing and Jan van der Vaardt. 1685.

Lady Anne was born in 1665, during the reign of her uncle Charles II. Her father James, Duke of York, was heir presumptive, as Charles had no legitimate children, but James’s Roman Catholicism was cause for concern. Charles ensured that Anne and her older sister, Mary, were raised as Anglicans. Mary married William of Orange in 1677: Charles had favoured a union with the Dauphin Louis to cement a French coalition, but Parliament opposed a Catholic union. In choosing a husband for Anne, Charles turned to Prince George of Denmark, younger brother of King Christian V. The Danes were Protestant allies of the French, and Louis XIV was keen on an Anglo-Danish alliance in order to contain the power of the Dutch. Anne’s father was likewise keen to diminish the influence of his son-in-law, William of Orange, who vehemently opposed the match.

Thankfully, the political match led to a strong and supportive marriage. Anne and George were wed at the Chapel Royal on July 28, 1683. George had arrived at Whitehall on July 19, “to make his address to the Lady Anne.” Whether Purcell’s “From hardy climes” was performed on the occasion of his arrival, or on the wedding day itself, is not known, but that it was commissioned of Purcell by the royal family is clear. It opens with the text “From hardy Climes and dangerous Toils of War, where you for Valour unexampled are […] hail, welcome Prince, to our benigner isle. […] Wake then, my Muse, wake Instruments and Voice / To celebrate the Joys of such a choice.” To offer a taste of Purcell’s ode, we will be performing the opening symphony, as well as the instrumental airs that precede the songs and choruses.

George, Prince of Denmark by John Riley, c. 1687
George, Prince of Denmark by John Riley, c. 1687

Anne of course went on to become Queen Anne, with George as her Consort — though not until the reigns of her father James, sister Mary, and brother-in-law William came to an end in 1702. Purcell had written several birthday and welcome odes for Charles, James, and Mary, but this is the only ode he had the opportunity to write for Anne. His last royal ode, however, was written for the sixth birthday of her son, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, in 1695. Seventeen pregnancies in as many years had led to only five liveborn children for Anne and George, and of those William was the only one to survive infancy, but he was sickly and tragically died at age eleven. Upon George’s death in 1708 Anne was left to grieve — and reign — alone, the last of the Stuart monarchs.

Blow Anthem “God spake sometime in visions”

James II by Peter Lely
James II by Peter Lely

Anne’s father, the Catholic Duke of York, assumed the throne upon the death of his brother, Charles II, in 1685, as James II of England and Ireland, and James VII of Scotland. The coronation was a truly splendid affair. James commanded that all be done “that Art, Ornament, and Expense could do to the making of the Spectacle Dazzling and Stupendious.” We are fortunate that a remarkably detailed and elaborately illustrated document of the ceremony was written by Francis Sanford. It includes details of the music performed, with no fewer than nine anthems by Henry Purcell, John Blow, William Child, Henry Lawes, and William Turner. There were significant alterations to the order of service: a Catholic king and his queen were being crowned by the Church of England, and James requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, eliminate the communion service altogether, and abridge the rest. One of the resulting innovations was a musical one: the addition of an anthem to be sung during the homage at the end of the king’s portion of the coronation. The anthem in question was to be a setting of part of Psalm 89, “God spake sometime in visions,” and was newly composed by John Blow. Written for eight-part choir with string orchestra, it was performed again at the coronation of George II in 1727.

James II’s reign was to be a short one. When he produced a Catholic heir, parliamentarians and nobles called on his Protestant son-in-law William of Orange to invade, resulting in the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688. James fled England, and his eldest daughter Mary and William III claimed the throne. James spent the rest of his life in exile at the court in France.

Pachelbel Canon & Gigue

In planning this program, we couldn’t help but think of the music we had included at our own weddings, and of the many weddings at which we had played as young musicians. The Pachelbel Canon is one of the most requested classical pieces at weddings, and so we briefly leave the European courts for a taste of music played at modern Canadian celebrations. Pachelbel himself was known to have played at a Bach family wedding (he was a friend of J.S. Bach’s father) — who knows, perhaps they played the Canon!

The Canon was composed during Pachelbel’s student years in Vienna. His teacher, Johann Schmelzer, and fellow student, Heinrich Biber, were violinists and key figures in the development of the south German school of violin playing. Inspired by their work, the keyboard player Pachelbel wrote two collections of chamber music for violins, including the now infamous Canon. Despite its apparent simplicity and natural beauty, it is in fact a masterful example of a strict contrapuntal canon, all presented over a ground bass. Each violinist plays exactly the same part, the second violinist starting one bar after the first, and the third starting one bar after the second. The continuo players repeat the same eight notes throughout. In its original scoring for three solo violins and continuo the Canon is also a delightful display of virtuosity. It was originally paired with a lively Gigue, which is easy to imagine as a joyful recessional.

Charpentier Messe des morts, H.10

François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville (1628–1695), French general, marshal of France
François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville (1628–1695), French general, marshal of France

From 1688–1698, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was Maître de musique at the principal Jesuit Church of Saint-Louis in Paris. The church was built by the Jesuit architects Étienne Martellange and François Derand on the orders of Louis XIII in the first half of the seventeenth century. It is a magnificent church, modelled after the Gesù in Rome but incorporating French elements, and was considered the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation. It was renowned for the splendour of its liturgy and of its music.

The Duke of Luxembourg, François-Henri de Montmorency [pictured left], was a French general, named Marshal of France in 1675. He was a successful if at times brutal general, victorious at key battles with William of Orange in the War of the Grand Alliance, charged with command of the French army in the Spanish Netherlands. The king was not always enthuastic about his behaviour — he had questionable morals at best — but made good use of his military prowess. Luxembourg died at Versailles in January 1695, attended at his death by a Jesuit priest. His funeral service was held in Paris at Saint-Louis three months later, on April 21, and the church was elaborately decorated. A detailed description was printed in the Mercure galant: the entire church was draped in black, but in such a way as to not hide ornaments and gilding Luxembourg’s coat of arms was mounted, as were large escutcheons interwoven with batons of the Marshal of France. A magnificent catafalque, more than 20 feet high, was erected in the middle of the church, with panels depicting his greatest victories, and topped with four large marble statues, representing Fame, Power, Glory, and Victory. Four lions were placed at the foot of steps rising to these statues, and on the steps 120 candlesticks, and four girandoles, each with two dozen candles.

The music written for the occasion was Charpentier’s Messe des morts, and it was performed “by a great number of the best musicians in Paris.” One can only imagine the effect of hearing this beautiful mass in such a remarkable setting.

Handel Il parnasso in festa

Il Parnasso in festa, per il sponsali di Teti e Peleo (Parnassus in celebration of the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus) was a festa teatrale, a musical entertainment written by Handel as part of the celebrations of the marriage of Anne, Princess Royal, and Prince William of Orange in 1734. Handel enjoyed the patronage of the royal family throughout his career in England, and had a particularly close relationship with the Princess Royal, who supported his opera seasons, and was a capable musician herself. Handel taught lessons to her and her sisters, and she was clearly his favourite pupil.

Anne was the second child and oldest daughter of George II. In 1725, when she was sixteen, a proposal of marriage from Louis XV was rejected when the French insisted that Anne would have to convert to Catholicism. She had to wait another eight years before the next proposal, this time from a suitable Protestant Royal, William IV, Prince of Orange-Nassau. They were married on March 14, 1734 in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace. Handel composed the anthem for the wedding, at Anne’s request, and set to a text of her choosing. The night before the ceremony, the royal family and their courtiers attended the premiere of Il Parnasso in festa at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. A full three-act work, it was performed in costume in front of a single backdrop, probably with little or no staging. An additional five performances were given for an enthusiastic public.

The set of the serenata represents Mount Parnassus, where Apollo and the muses have gathered to celebrate the wedding of Prince Peleus, a mortal, to Thetis, a sea nymph. Orpheus is among the guests, inspiring an array of arias celebrating love and music. We close our concerts this week with the Overture to Il Parnasso as well as the final chorus, “May this celebration ignite the heart.”

Anne and William’s marriage was by all accounts a relatively happy one, despite her rather imperious temperament. William’s popularity with the Dutch public did not extend to Anne, who served as regent for her young son William V, but she worked tirelessly, successfully consolidating reforms introduced by her husband. She invited Handel to The Hague in 1750, an invitation he was happy to accept.

© Charlotte Nediger


PROGRAM LISTING
Directed by Elisa Citterio & Ivars Taurins
November 29–December 3, 2017, Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY 1632–1687
Ballet from Xerxes
For the wedding of Louis Xiv & Maria Theresa, 1660
Ouverture – Les François et Espagnols – Les Scaramouches –
Les Trinelains – Les Mattasins – Gigue – Gavottes – Chaconne
(from Roland)

HENRY PURCELL 1659–1695
Symphony and Airs from Ode “From hardy climes”
For the wedding of Princess Anne and Prince George of Denmark, 1683

JOHN BLOW 1649–1708
Anthem “God spake sometime in visions”
For the coronation of James II, 1685

JOHANN PACHELBEL 1653–1706
Canon & Gigue for 3 violins & continuo

INTERMISSION

MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER 1643–1704
Messe des morts, H. 10
Requiem mass for the funeral of the Duke of Luxembourg, 1695

GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL 1685–1759
Overture & Chorus “S’accenda pur” from Il parnasso in festa
For the wedding of Anne, Princess Royal, and Prince William of Orange, 1743

There will be a 20-minute intermission.


We look forward to seeing you at Four Weddings, a Funeral, and a Coronation, Nov 29-Dec 3, 2017 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre.

Handel’s Messiah still resonates today

By Ivars Taurins, Director, Chamber Choir

Ivars Taurins, Director, Chamber Choir. Photo by Sian Richards
Ivars Taurins, Director

Why does an oratorio written in 18th-century England by a German composer still resonate so strongly to so many in this day and age? “Behold – I tell you a mystery…”

Why has “Hallelujah” struck a chord with people of all walks of life, whether it is Handel’s or Leonard Cohen’s? From an Inuit community in Alaska and a congregation in Kuwait singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the hundreds of cover versions and arrangements of Cohen’s song.

And why does Handel’s Messiah touch people of different backgrounds, faiths, and cultures? The universality of this work, beyond its remarkable, moving, and uplifting music, lies, I think, in its message of “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” and its themes of enlightenment and understanding, hope and faith, humanity and good will, sacrifice and charity – these are important values that we esteem and strive for, even in our secular world. And the triumph of these over suffering, injustice, selfishness, or man’s inhumanity to man – these are to be found in Handel’s masterpiece.  I believe that Messiah, like other great musical compositions, opens in us a spirituality, whether one belongs to a faith or not. It also offers solace – an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. And as such it has become an annual ritual for many.

Portrait of Handel

Messiah joins the ranks of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, or school and church nativity plays, or a holiday dinner with family and friends – all are rituals that are part of the private and public recognition of this special time of year – a time for giving and of thanksgiving. And a little ritual and mystery in our lives isn’t such a bad thing.

But something else – and perhaps therein lies the mystery – something about this work and its music and its message has touched more than the English-speaking world with its power and essence, allowing it to remain meaningful and vital to this day. And to that I say Hallelujah!


Join Ivars Taurins and Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for Handel Messiah from December 13–16, 2017 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre.

Behind the Musik: A Joyous Welcome

Download the Program Notes | Download the Program Listing

PROGRAM NOTES
By Charlotte Nediger

HANDEL CONCERTO A DUE CORI

The instrumental portions of our performances this weekend feature Handel’s last compositions for orchestra, written when the composer was in his early sixties. Handel’s three Concerti a due cori were written as “interval music” for three new oratorios: Judas Maccabaeus (1747), Joshua (1748), and Alexander Balus (1748). An oratorio that advertised the inclusion of “a new concerto” always drew a crowd. In the case of the Concerti a due cori (“Concertos for two choirs”), the works were not only newly composed, but were also a new genre. Scored for two antiphonal “choirs” of wind instruments plus a full string orchestra with continuo, they are grandiose, extroverted works, undoubtedly inspired by the trio of so-called “Victory Oratorios” for which they were composed. All three include reworkings of earlier material: Handel’s audiences would have recognized most of them, drawn primarily from oratorio choruses, so the concertos must have had a certain “medley of great hits” quality. You may recognize the chorus “Lift up your heads” from Handel’s Messiah as the second movement of the concerto we are performing this week.

CORELLI CONCERTO GROSSO OP. 6, NO. 10

Corelli was among the first composers to write music for the orchestra independent of the opera, the dance, and the church. During a visit to Rome in 1681, the German musician Georg Muffat heard performances of Corelli concertos: “These concertos, suited neither to the church (because of the ballet airs and airs of other sorts which they include) nor for dancing (because of other interwoven conceits now slow and serious, now gay and nimble, and composed only for the express refreshment of the ear), may be performed most appropriately in connection with entertainments given by great princes and lords, for receptions of distinguished guests, and at state banquets, serenades, and assemblies of musical amateurs and virtuosi.” Ideal music, then, for welcoming a new Music Director! It was Corelli who popularized the concerto grosso, based on the popular form of the trio sonata for two violins and continuo, to which is added a four-part orchestra: when the two groups play in alternation a wonderful chiaroscuro is created. The solo or “concertino” trio supplies tenderness and virtuosity; the orchestra provides a rich sonority and solid foundation. Corelli started composing and performing concerti grossi as early as 1670, but only twelve were ever published, and those posthumously, as Opus 6, in 1714. Their publication had long been awaited throughout Europe, providing a model for many composers of the late baroque, but their simplicity, classical proportions, and utterly idiomatic string writing were never entirely surpassed. In a fitting tribute, the anniversary of Corelli’s death was marked for many years by the performance of the Opus 6 concertos in the Pantheon, where the composer was buried.

VIVALDI THE FOUR SEASONS

The Four Seasons appeared in Vivaldi’s 1725 publication of twelve violin concertos entitled Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, which translates roughly as “bold experiments with harmony and invention.” The Seasons, full of audacious experiments of every kind, were undoubtedly the inspiration for the title. The four concertos are accompanied by four sonnets, giving detailed descriptions of the programmatic elements of the music, which paint a vivid picture of life in the Italian countryside in the eighteenth century. The author of the sonnets is unknown, and it is possible that Vivaldi penned them himself. To ensure that the musicians were aware of the effects they were to create, Vivaldi labelled the various lines of the sonnets to correspond with letters in each of the instrumental parts. He also included very detailed instructions for performance, including dynamics, bowing, and articulations. The concertos are dazzling proof of Vivaldi’s skill as a violinist and his ingenuity and inventiveness as a composer.

The sonnet and a page of the solo violin part of Summer from the original 1725 publication.
You can see the letters in the part that correspond to lines in the sonnet.

We are delighted to be presenting all four concertos over the course of our concert season, with Elisa Citterio as soloist. We begin with Summer, which opens with languid, oppressive heat from the blazing sun, accompanied by bird calls, and finally interrupted by a summer storm. A shepherd, terrified by the storm, attempts to calm himself in the second movement, but is pestered by insects and troubled by approaching thunder. The storm lets loose its fury in the final movement. The full sonnet is printed below.

(Join us as Vivaldi’s Seasons unfold: Autumn at our October concerts, Winter in January, and Spring rather optimistically at concerts in February!)

L’Estate

I.   Sotto dura staggion dal sole accesa
Langue l’huom, langue ’l gregge, ed arde il pino;
Scioglie il cucco la voce, e tosto intesa
Canta la tortorella e’l gardelino.

 Zeffiro dolce spira, mà contesa
Muove Borea improviso al suo vicino;
E piange il pastorel, perche sospesa
Teme fiera borasca, e’l suo destino;

 II.  Toglie alle membra lasse il suo riposo
Il timore de ’lampi, e tuoni fieri
E de mosche, e mossoni il stuol furioso!

III. Ah che pur troppo i suoi timor son veri
Tuona e fulmina il ciel e grandinoso
Tronca il capo alle spiche e a ’grani alteri.

Summer

I.   In the torrid heat of the blazing sun,
man and beast alike languish,
and even the pine trees scorch;
The cuckoo raises his voice, and soon after
the turtledove and goldfinch join in song.

Zephyr blows gently, but suddenly
Boreas contests its neighbour:
the shepherd weeps, fearful
of the wild squall and anxious for his fate.

II.  He rouses his weary limbs from rest
in fear of the lightning, the fierce thunder,
and the angry swarms of gnats and flies.

III. Alas! his fears are justified,
for furious thunder splits the heavens,
flattening the cornstalks and the grainfields.

VIVALDI CONCERTO CON MOLTI STRUMENTI, RV 569

Vivaldi wrote a number of concertos with an expanded orchestra, i.e. “con molti strumenti.” The Concerto in F Major is essentially a concerto for violin, but rather than accompanying the soloist with the usual string orchestra, Vivaldi adds oboes, bassoons, and horns to create a work that is colourful and festive. The winds play solo passages in dialogue with the violinist, often stealing the limelight. This concerto survives in two versions: Vivaldi’s manuscript score in Italy, and a manuscript score and set of parts copied by the violinist Pisendel at the court in Dresden. Pisendel was one of a small entourage of Dresden musicians who accompanied the Crown Prince of Saxony on a visit to Venice in 1716. Vivaldi was impressed with the abilities of these musicians, and by their accounts of the impressive skills of the Dresden court orchestra, with its legendary wind players. He befriended Pisendel, and sent music to him in Dresden on a regular basis. It is quite possible that many of Vivaldi’s Concertos con molti strumenti were written expressly for the Dresden court, including the concerto we are performing this week.

RAMEAU SUITE FROM LES BORÉADES

Les Boréades was Rameau’s last opera, composed in his eightieth year. Although rehearsals had begun as early as April 1763, no performance took place prior to Rameau’s death in September of 1764, for no obvious reason. The work was not premiered on stage until over 200 years later, in 1982 (by John Eliot Gardiner at the Aix-en-Provence Festival). It is a remarkable opera — Rameau seems to have summoned all of his creative energy to create one final masterpiece, a work that is surprisingly modern, sensual, and spirited. Like other Rameau operas, it includes a wealth of instrumental music, written to accompany the dance, to cover scene changes, and to provide aural “images” of events and scenes on stage. The splendid overture to the opera introduces the selection of instrumental movements we have chosen to close our concerts this week.

© Charlotte Nediger


PROGRAM LISTING

Directed by Elisa Citterio

September 21–24, 2017, Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre
September 26, 2017, George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts

George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Concerto a due cori in F Major, HWV 333 (London, 1748)
Pomposo/Allegro
A tempo giusto
Largo
Allegro ma non troppo
A tempo ordinario

Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713)
Concerto grosso in C Major, op. 6, no. 10 (Rome, 1714)
Preludio
Allemanda
Adagio
Corrente
Allegro
Minuetto

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Concerto for violin in G Minor, op. 8, no. 2: Summer, from The Four Seasons (Venice, 1725)
Allegro non molto/Allegro
Adagio
Presto
Elisa Citterio, violin soloist

INTERMISSION

A. Vivaldi
Concerto con molti strumenti in F Major, RV 569 (Venice/Dresden, 1720s)
Allegro
Grave
Allegro

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764)
Suite from Les Boréades (Paris, 1763)
Ouverture
Menuet
Allegro
Danse légère
Gavottes vives
Contredanse en rondeau
Gavottes
Menuets
Entracte: Suite des vents [The winds
Gavotte légère
Entrée de Polymnie
Airs gay
Contredanses très vives


Join us for A Joyous Welcome from Sept 21-24, 26, 2017. Tickets are available here.