Explorations and Indulgences (ii)

Since I wrote my last blog posting further rehearsal and study of Croce’s mass has revealed yet more issues with its text – tempo relationships, accidentals etc etc – though we like it more and more. Do come and hear it. We may never do it like this again!

If that piece is an exploration, I must admit that there is an element of personal indulgence in the rest of the programme. Heinrich Schütz was the first non-English ‘early’ composer with whose music I got to grips, inspired by the pioneering work of Roger Norrington who remains one of my heroes. However, it was while exploring East Germany (as it then was) that I came across, quite by chance, the charming Schütz museum that now occupies the house where he was born. The ladies in charge were amazed/thrilled to have visitors, stunned that their visitors were English and had actually heard of HS, and quickly offered to look after the toddler we had in tow while we looked round. The powerful Deutsches Magnificat was one of the scores I bought on that occasion and every time I’ve conducted it I’ve found it more exciting: the dramatic opening; the lively exchanges between the choirs; Schütz’s vivid responses to the text; and, in several places, an approach to metre and rhythm that completely suspends any sense of ‘bar’. On another trip to the same area I played an organ that J S Bach had played which had those same keyboards still in place. Intimidating or what?

Thrilling, actually, as was my close encounter with the spirits of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi when, in 2010, I climbed the stairs to the choir galleries high above the altar in St Mark’s, Venice. These geniuses are represented in our Venetian Echoes programme both by music of the kind that made them famous and by less flamboyant though exquisitely crafted pieces.

Andrea Gabrieli’s twelve-part Magnificat is the Venetian Grand Manner in full swing. The twelve parts are in fact three groups of four (imagine one in each choir gallery and one at floor level) – one a coro superiore (high choir – SSAT for us), one a standard cappella (SATB) and the third a coro grave (ATBB). Andrea is not specific about the division of the parts between voices and instruments, but since their combination was the Venetian trademark it is inconceivable that this was not intended. As he would have done, we’ve adopted a plan that reflects the forces we have available on the day. You will get ‘surround sound’ though!

The years around 1600 saw the development of instrumental music that was neither dance-derived nor a wordless motet. Giovanni Gabrieli was a major figure here, writing lively lines that are clearly instrumental rather than vocal in character. He also experimented with what we now call musical form – repeating sections to produce a sense of overall coherence as opposed to just a medley of ideas. Our programme includes canzonas by him as well a more conservative ricercare by his Uncle Andrea.

Then there is Claudio Monteverdi, composer of the first great opera (Orfeo – 1607) and quite possibly the only collection of sacred music* the name of which strikes a chord (probably D major – the key of its opening flourish) with most choral music fans. He was so good that, in the words of a contemporary, ‘his employers not only paid, but thanked him’! Even though it isn’t Venetian music it was impossible to resist Lauda Jerusalem with its two SAB choirs dancing attendance upon the tenors plainsong chanting and the four motets published in 1620 may represent the kind of motet sung at mass in St Mark’s. But the scarcely-known Magnificat is the real revelation. This is the least-known of Monteverdi’s four settings of this text and manages to be tuneful, complicated, serious and skittish in rapid succession. The Gloria Patri section positively dances before we are brought gently back down to earth by the grave beauty of the concluding plainsong verse. I’m prepared to bet that you’ve never heard this piece – but you can now!

*the so-called 1610 Vespers, of course. Test yourself: Who composed a set of Gradualia ‘framed to the life of the words’? Whose sacred music was published under the title Selva Morale e Spirituale? And Musae Sioniae?

Answers in the Venetian Echoes programme booklet on November 14th!