In search of Steffani’s music

By Charlotte Nediger

Portrait of Steffani by
Gerhard Kappers, c.1714

As librarian for Tafelmusik, I spend quite a bit of time searching out sources for the music we are performing. I sometimes hit roadblocks, but more often than not, make unexpected discoveries along the way. In digging up the music for this week’s Steffani: Drama & Devotion concerts I worked together with Ivars Taurins (Director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir — and my husband). Ivars had assembled a rich and varied program. The variety added to the challenge, as in creating his wonderful pastiche of arias, choruses, and instrumental movements he had turned to numerous Steffani operas, only one of which is published in a modern score. So it was off the libraries to search out manuscripts — these days we usually visit the libraries virtually, as most have good online catalogues, and many already have digital scans of some of their unique holdings. I always admire Ivars for his persistence in searching: if the usual searches lead to a dead end, he keeps going, and is often rewarded with results that I wouldn’t have found. This was the case for several of our arias!

In looking for a sacred piece to pair with the Stabat Mater, we found help in a few places. Daniel Webb in the Tafelmusik choir introduced us to a friend was a former librarian at Cambridge University, where we knew they had a Steffani manuscript collection. He put us in touch with Emma Darbyshire of the Fitzwilliam Museum, who was both very generous and painstaking in her assistance, and was able to provide very clear scans of the manuscript. In the end we didn’t select a piece from the manuscript, but have set them aside for future programs (perhaps even at this year’s Summer Institute?).

That led us to trying to find music for the Beatus vir which opens our concert. It’s an early work of Steffani, so a good foil to the Stabat Mater, which was possibly his last composition. We discerned from Colin Timms’ wonderful book on Steffani (more on Colin later) that the manuscript of this piece was in the Biblioteca dal Sacro Convento di San Francesco in Assisi. This seemed like a long shot, short of getting on a plane to Italy (a nice prospect, but not very practical). But I managed to find an email address for the librarian there, and gave it a whirl, with help from Tafelmusik oboist Marco Cera, who translated my emails into very elegant Italian. I was so surprised a few hours later to find a response from Fra Carlo Bottero, writing (in his equally elegant Italian) that he would be happy to photograph the manuscript, and could get JPEGs to me in a couple of days! In the ongoing correspondence, I got quite attached to my very helpful Italian monk, and am certainly enormously grateful. Now I think I should take that trip to Assisi to meet him and visit his remarkable library, chock full of treasures.

But back to our quest. By this point we were stuck on two opera choruses. Manuscripts of the full operas from which they were drawn were on the shelf of the British Library – but the opera scores were several hundred pages long. We had no idea what pages the short choruses in questions were to be found, and it would have cost an enormous amount of money to order scans of the entire operas (the British Library charges per page). We were about to give up when Ivars thought to write to musicologist Colin Timms, who has written the authoritative book in English on Steffani (Polymath of the Baroque: Agostino Steffani and His Music), which is an amazing resource. We found a university email for him, and send off a note. Again, within a few short hours he had responded and said he could help get the required pages to us: he had copies of one, and a German colleague had the other. He was so pleased that we were presenting a complete program of Steffani, and only wished that he could attend.

So now all sources were at hand, thanks to the generous and able assistance of these newfound colleagues. For the Stabat Mater we had a modern score and parts — done. For everything else I set about typesetting scores and parts, making our own performing editions. Thankfully Steffani had quite neat handwriting, as did the other scribes of most of the manuscripts. One particular challenge in the Beatus vir is that the Latin text was included in only one voice part in each of the two choirs, so you have to figure out how to make it fit in the other parts. This would be easy if it were one syllable per note, but that is not at all the case in this piece. Steffani left a few hints here and there, but the rest is up to the editor (me), conductor (Ivars), and the performers (the choir members made several suggestions). Another little editing adventure was in setting the various instrumental movements in the opera pastiche. Most of these movements were published by Roger in Amsterdam in the early 18th-century, to form instrumental suites — but we had also found manuscript sources closer to Steffani. The notes were the same, but the Roger edition had a great many ornaments in the parts, even in the less frequently ornamented viola and bass parts; the manuscripts had almost none. It was another fun puzzle for us as performers to sort out, and a window to different tastes in ornamentation both then and now.

As I write this, it is the week of the concerts. The choir has rehearsed their material with Ivars over the past month, and Ivars and I went through the arias with Krisztina Szabó at our house a couple of weeks ago. Now we all meet — Krisztina, orchestra, choir — and sing and play all of this music together for the first time. Almost all of it is new to us, and the first rehearsals of new repertoire are always special. The music of Steffani is unique, with a special beauty and energy. I’ve spent a lot of time with the notes on the page in the last months, and I can’t wait to hear it all come to life — and I especially can’t wait to share it with you.

Join Charlotte and Ivars, and the Chamber Choir and Orchestra at Steffani: Drama & Devotion from November 8–11, 2018 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. 

Get to know Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano

The wonderful Toronto-based mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó first appeared on the Tafelmusik stage in Handel’s Messiah two years ago, and we’ve been eagerly looking forward to her return ever since. We are especially thrilled that she is able to join us this season not only for our exploration of the remarkable music of Agostino Steffani — new to Krisztina’s repertoire — but also at Koerner Hall for our Messiah performances next month. Krisztina took a few moments from her busy schedule to answer our Get-to-Know questions.

When did you first start singing?

August 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of when I started as a young artist in the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio. Although I had a few “gigs” prior to this date, this date is what I consider as the launching point for my career.

What was your first music gig?

When I was accepted into the Ensemble Studio, the COC was kind enough to hire me for a couple of contracts prior to the official start date of the program. The first contract was a Valentine’s Day initiative. People signed up their loved ones to be serenaded by a real live opera singer.

So, on February 14, 1998, I was that girl serenading strangers in Starbucks locations across the city!

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

The singer I have constantly turned to over the years for inspiration has been Anne Sophie von Otter. She is an exquisite musician and I greatly admire not only her voice, her talent, and her poise, but also her longevity in this business.

What is your favourite music to listen to?

I think my brain might be a little too saturated by music in my day-to-day life — between my own singing engagements and teaching singing at the University of Toronto, I am constantly listening to music (or so it seems!). So, in my down time, I love listening to podcasts and CBC Radio 1.

What are the last three pieces you’ve listened to?

• George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill
• Hosokawa’s The Raven
• Handel’s Dixit Dominus.
All pieces I’m working on this season!

What is your favourite thing to do in Toronto during your free time?

I love going for my daily walk through Prospect Cemetery near my home — it’s a little slice of peace, a relatively quiet and green space, and everyone you meet as you go through is always friendly. I also love doing pilates and yoga — both keep me sane in the midst of my crazy performing, teaching, and family schedules. And I also love just hanging out with my husband and twelve-year old daughter, Phoibe … at the moment, we are watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race on Netflix!

What is your favourite restaurant in Toronto?

There are SO many great places to eat in Toronto, it’s hard to choose! But I’m a little obsessed with smoked meat at the moment, and we have a wonderful local place called Earlscourt BBQ on St. Clair West which is simply mouth-wateringly good. And they happen to be downstairs from the yoga studio, so if you’re lucky, you can do yoga while smelling the meat being smoked downstairs. Not everyone appreciates that combination, but this Hungarian girl certainly does!

Where is your own, personal oasis in Toronto?

Sitting on my couch with my cat!

What is your great ambition?

To continue to make a living making music until I die!?

What words of wisdom would you pass to budding musicians?

Work hard, be prepared, be flexible, be on time (!), and never, ever lose sight of who you are and what you have to say as an artist and musician. Oh, and try not to take everything personally … you’ll get a lot of “feedback” — from teachers, coaches, friends, family, audiences, reviewers, random people on the street — EVERYONE has an opinion. Try not to let it get to you TOO much!


Hear Krisztina Szabó perform with Tafelmusik in STEFFANI: DRAMA & DEVOTION from Nov 8–11, 2018 and in HANDEL MESSIAH from Dec 18–21, 2018.