Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in the same year as Handel and J. S. Bach. As the son of a musical and domineering father (Alessandro Scarlatti), he was destined for a career in music from his birth. In 1701 he was appointed organist and composer of the vice-regal court in Naples and, after a failed attempt to gain employment with the Medici family in Florence the following year, he returned to Naples to write opera. In 1705 his father sent him to Venice (where he befriended Handel), but in 1707 he rejoined his father in Rome, where he remained for 12 years, occupying various positions, including maestro to the dowager Queen of Poland and the Marquis de Fontes, and maestro of the Cappella Giulia, St Peter’s, from 1714. In 1709 he took part in a ‘musical duel’ with Handel and was voted the better harpsichord player (although Handel received the prize for the best organist). Although Scarlatti had provided music for both sacred and secular employers, he was unable to free himself from his father until he obtained legal independence in 1717. In 1719 Scarlatti resigned his positions in Rome and spent some years in Palermo before taking up his next post as mestre of the Portuguese court in Lisbon, where his duties included giving keyboard lessons to John V’s daughter, Maria Barbara. When Maria Barbara married the Spanish crown prince in 1729, Scarlatti followed her to Seville and thence to Madrid, where he spent the rest of his life. Much of Scarlatti’s fame rests on the 555 sonatas for clavichord, composed during his years in Spain and later taken to Italy in by Scarlatti’s colleague, the castrato Farinelli. As well as these masterpieces, Scarlatti also produced a considerable quantity of operas, secular cantatas and church music. The ‘Stabat Mater’ is perhaps Scarlatti’s best-known choral work and was written in 1715 before he left Rome. It is written for 10 voices and continuo and shuns the use of any concertante instrument as well as any double-choir writing, using solo voices emerging from the polyphonic texture to emphasise expressive passages. The austerity and reflective quality of the work stand out against the bel canto mode prevalent at the time and convey the composer’s spiritual intentions to the full.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
In his 1929 monograph on Igor Stravinsky, Boris de Schloezer wrote: ‘What ought we still to expect from Stravinsky, who is today in the prime of life and the full flowering of his genius? What will his next work be? … Logically, after Apollo Mustagetes he ought to give us a Mass: but our logic is not necessarily his.’ In fact, de Schloezer’s prediction was not to come true for some 19 years, and Stravinsky’s next religious work was Symphony of Psalms. In 1926, Stravinsky re-joined the Russian Orthodox church after being lapsed since his departure from Russia. The Catholic Mass, however, is not consistent with Russian Orthodox tradition, where music has a very particular style and place and does not always fit into the Catholic liturgical strictures of the Mass form; moreover, Russian Orthodox tradition forbids the use of any instruments as part of worship, except the voice and bells. So, why did Stravinsky, in 1944, begin work on a liturgical musical form which was alien to his own religious tradition? The answer may be found in his Expositions, where he recounts finding some Masses by Mozart in a second-hand shop in Los Angeles in 1942. He wrote: ‘As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin, I knew I had to write a Mass of my own, but a real one’. By ‘real one’ he may have meant a Roman Catholic one that would allow the use of instruments – Stravinsky wrote that he could ‘…endure unaccompanied singing in only the most harmoniously primitive music’. Like Howells, he eschewed the decorative style and set out to write a work which would be ‘…very cold music, absolutely cold, that will appeal directly to the spirit’. In a conversation with Evelyn Waugh, Stravinsky noted: ‘My Mass was not composed for concert performances but for use in the church. It is liturgical and almost without ornament. In making a musical setting of the Credo, I wished only to preserve the text in a special way. One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe’. The Mass is written for an unusual combination of mixed choir, two oboes, cor anglais, two bassoons, two trumpets and three trombones. The Kyrie and Gloria were finished in 1944, the remaining movements followed in 1947 and the whole was published in 1948, receiving its first performance in a concert (doubtless to Stravinsky’s disappointment, following his earlier comments about the sacred nature of the work) on 27 October 1948 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. The Kyrie contains about ten short contrasted episodes for full chorus, accompanied by orchestra. Noteworthy is the change of key and instrumentation with every episode. Modulations to at least seven keys, and shifting instrumentation between brass and woodwind add colour to this movement. The final two choral phrases are identical to the initial two. The Gloria begins with a dialogue between oboe and trumpet.; a solo alto joins and is answered by solo treble with an inversion of the alto’s theme. The choir responds with a chanted chord alternating with snatches from the duet. The movement ends with a choral Amen. Given the length of the text of the Credo, in order not to make the Mass too long or complex, Stravinsky resorts to the use of choral chant, the instruments providing background colour. The volume is at a constant piano, except at three marcato passages in order to emphasize the words Ecclesiam… peccatorum… mortuorum. The movement then moves abruptly into the canonic a cappella Amen. The oboes and trumpet declare the short-long figure at the beginning of the Sanctus; this is followed by an answer of florid chant from two solo tenors; the full chorus then takes up the short-long rhythm, which is further echoed by the trombones. This pattern is repeated twice. A four-part fugue follows for solo voices, trumpet and trombone, leading to the Hosanna. The quiet and devotional Benedictus begins and is developed and intensified to conclude with a repeat of the Hosanna. The Agnus Dei consists of three a cappella passages for the choir alternated with the orchestra. In each repeat, the orchestral passages remain the same, but the choral passage is developed firstly for the high voices, then the low voices then all together. The work concludes on a breathless, unresolved chord.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Flos Campi (meaning ‘The flower of the field’) is a difficult piece to classify; subtitled ‘suite for solo viola, small chorus and small orchestra’, it is neither a choral work nor a viola concerto. The choir throughout is used as another instrument (all of the writing is wordless) and the viola, although it has a virtuoso part, is one voice among other instruments. The piece was written in 1925 and first performed in London, conducted by the composer’s friend, Sir Henry Wood. The orchestration of the piece shows Vaughan Williams at his most subtle and brilliant – as Michael Kennedy remarks: “the juxtaposition of viola and oboe, the delicate use of percussion and the poetic and imaginative use of the chorus give to Flos Campi the quality of a mosaic”. The piece is in six movements, each of which is headed by a quotation in Latin from the Song of Solomon, which, although a biblical text, is actually a sensuous love song. This sensuousness is reflected in the music, which carries throughout, an oriental flavour that conjours up the court of Solomon.
Mass in G minor
The early 1920’s marked a pastoral interlude for Vaughan Williams. As well as the aforementioned opera, Sir John in Love, the period also saw the composition of The Lark Ascending, The Pastoral Symphony and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. In 1921, the same year as the latter two pieces, Vaughan Williams also wrote his Mass in G minor. Its musical link with the pastoral works is unmissable, as the piece is full of the rich harmonies associated with the composer in his most ‘English summertime’ moments, but the origins of the piece are also, as with Howell’s Requiem, in the revival of English polyphony and with Vaughan Williams’ identification of his music with ‘the imperishable glories of English prose’. The piece is dedicated to Gustav Holst and the Whitsuntide Singers (Holst and Vaughan Williams were very close at this time), and it received its first performance on 6 December 1922 in Birmingham Town Hall. The first liturgical performance was at Westminster Cathedral under R R Terry, who took an instant liking to the work and, along with Holst, championed its liturgical use. The work is set for unaccompanied double choir and soloists. The success of the Mass in G minor as a liturgical work in post-war Britain, is best summed up in Terry’s own words to Vaughan Williams: ‘I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.’
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Gloria in D (RV 589)
The inclusion of music by Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741) in a concert demonstrating Italian influence on northern-European music is singularly appropriate, as, for at least a century, Vivaldi was known to the Germans and British principally through his connections with their ‘own’ composers – Handel met Vivaldi; Handel and Bach both arranged music by him and absorbed his influence – particularly in the field of writing for strings. The works of Vivaldi himself, however, remained largely unheard until his ‘re-discovery’ in the early part of the twentieth century. Vivaldi was born in Venice – his father, originally from Brescia, had a post as a violinist at St Mark’s basilica. From an early age, Vivaldi showed a prodigious talent as a violinist, and an inclination to the church. These two areas of his life came together in 1703 when he was ordained as a priest and appointed as maestro di violino at the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian institution which cared for the unwanted female children of prostitutes. Vivaldi’s output of choral music is largely overshadowed by his massive oeuvre of instrumental concerti (mostly for violin) written at first for the children of the orphanage to play, but later for rich patrons and an adoring public. Indeed, Vivaldi never held a formal choral post at the Pietà – any choral compositions seem to come from periods when Vivaldi took over as a stopgap measure between choral directors (or were privately commissioned). The Gloria in D (RV 589) comes from such an interregnum period – probably from sometime between 1711 and 1715, following the departure from the Ospedale of Francesco Gasparini (1668–1727). It appears to be an update of a Gloria written slightly earlier (also in D), and is possibly part of a set of cycle of music to be sung at Mass and at Vespers. In the earlier Gloria (RV 588) Vivaldi borrowed considerably from another Venetian contemporary, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri (fl. 1690–1720); the later Gloria contains more original music, but the last movement (identical with that in RV 588) is an almost-precise reduction, into one choir, of a two-choir ‘Cum sancto Spiritu’ by Ruggieri