Programme notes L – R

Constant Lambert (1905-1951)

The Rio Grande (version for two pianos and percussion)

Lambert was born in England in August 1905, of Australian and Russian parents. A precocious musician, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital and the Royal College of Music, and, at the age of 19, was the first English composer from whom Diaghilev commissioned a ballet (Romeo and Juliet). Lambert maintained a lifelong interest in the ballet, and helped to found The Vic-Wells company (now The Royal Ballet), frequently appearing as a conductor. Lambert also became well known as part of the avant-garde artistic set of the inter-war years – he was friendly with the Sitwells, Antony Powell, Cecil Beaton, Lord Berners, Frederick Ashton and William Walton – and was familiar to a wider public through his regular conducting engagements for BBC radio, and through his writing (his witty, piercing, book Music Ho! remains a seminal, if idiosyncratic, record of the musical zeitgeist of the 1930s). Lambert composed very few works after the failure of his large choral/orchestral work of 1932–35, Summer’s Last Will and Testament; before this, however, he had written a number of successful pieces, the most famous of which is a setting of Sacheverell Sitwell’s poem, The Rio Grande. Sacheverell was the younger brother of Osbert and Edith and, although in later life he disassociated himself from the works of his siblings, his early poetry nonetheless demonstrates the same brittle eclecticism as, for example, Edith Sitwell’s verses for William Walton’s Façade. In The Rio Grande, Sitwell conjours up a Brazilian carnival (the river in question is in Brazil, not its more famous American/Mexican cousin). Although the poem is descriptive, it relies more on the association and ‘taste’ of the words rather than on their meanings – Sitwell incorporates exotic Spanish terms such as ‘Alguacil’, as well as lesser-known English ones such as ‘pavers’ – and it is full of percussive alliteration (‘…shine like steady starlight…’). Although Lambert’s musical setting has a Latin-American air about it (trumpet solos, dance-hall-style string writing), its primary influence was the new American jazz idiom that Lambert had become fascinated by. Indeed, the piece, written in 1927, is clearly a child of the Jazz Age, and has often been compared to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, incorporating as it does, a virtuoso solo ragtime piano part. The piece was originally scored for brass, strings, percussion, choir, piano and alto soloist; in tonight’s chamber version, the ‘orchestra’ is provided by a second piano.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)

Te Deum in D

In 1826 the Mendelssohn family moved to a house in Leipzigerplatz, Berlin. In September that year, Mendelssohn finally renounced the last vestiges of his Jewish inheritance and was received into the Protestant church. In December, on learning of the opening of Berlin’s new Singakademie proposed for the following year, Mendelssohn set to work on his first liturgical work as a newly-baptised Christian, a Te Deum in D major. Although the work was begun in the same year as his whimsical yet brilliantly contemporary Overture and Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Mendelssohn had other styles and periods in mind when he wrote it. The piece is in twelve movements, and draws heavily on the structure, musical language and scoring (double four-part choir, solo vocal quartets and continuo) of the 17th and 18th centuries. The opening movement self-consciously paraphrases the final movement of Handel’s 1743 Dettingen Te Deum (as though to establish the musical continuum), and two other movements (Tu rex gloriae and Per singulos dies) are distinctly Handelian in character. Te aeternum patrem recalls the chromaticism of the Italian 18th-century masters, Te ergo quaesumus draws its inspiration from Mozart, whilst Sanctus and Tibi cherubim owe more to Venetian polychoral techniques of the early 17th century. Mendelssohn did not set the entire canticle – some sections are missing, notably the Tu ad liberandum section, which deals with Christ’s birth and death, and the last judgement. The Te Deum was first performed, as envisaged by the composer, at the opening of the Singakademie in 1827.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643)

1610 Vespers

Monteverdi was born in Cremona, Italy in 1567 at a time when the spiritual values and traditions of Renaissance music were giving way to the more human-centred values of the Baroque age. Indeed, his life and music reflect this profound change in mentality; by his own admission he wrote in two different styles – prima prattica (a Renaissance style of composition using polyphony over a cantus firmus) and seconda prattica (the use of opera-influenced stile recitativo).

Monteverdi was a musical prodigy – his first works, Sacrae Cantiunculae, were published when he was 15. He studied with Ingegneri at Cremona cathedral and published several books of madrigals and motets, before being engaged as a string player and later as Maestro di cappella to the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga at Mantua, during which time he studied with Giaches de Wert. During his life, which culminated in his appointment in 1613 as Maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice, he published many examples of secular and religious works including six operas (a newly developing musical form), ballets, nine books of madrigals, numerous motets and masses as well as the famous Marian Vespers. In 1610, dissatisfied with his work at the Gonzaga court and beset by financial difficulties, Monteverdi travelled to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul V, possibly seeking a bursary for his son. He took with him his own publication of a Mass (Missa ‘In Illo Tempore’) dedicated to Paul V; published in the same volume was a setting of the main movements of the Vespers (five psalms, a Magnificat, and the hymn, Ave maris stella) together with an additional setting of the Magnificat, an opening Toccata (adapted from his earlier opera Orfeo), and five ‘sacred concertos’ for various voices (Nigra sum, Pulchra es, Duo Seraphim, Audi cœlum and the Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’). It is the inclusion of these latter items that has caused considerable debate as to whether the Vespers were ever intended to be performed liturgically with all of these items included. Redlich, for example, regarded the volume to be a loose compilation of pieces for publication rather than an entity.

The Renaissance tradition of Marian Vespers called for the use of appropriate plainsong antiphons to be used in between the psalm settings and before the Magnificat, and no reference to these is found in the first printed edition. Alternative research suggests that Monteverdi fully intended these concertos to be used in place of the plainsong antiphons. The evidence for this is in the strong key relationships between the concertos and the rest of the pieces in the Vespers (whereas the modes of the appropriate antiphons do not relate). Although the words of the concertos do not at first seem to be fitting for the celebration of a feast of the Virgin Mary (two of them are taken from the Song of Solomon, a highly erotic biblical poem), it is known that one of the prevailing allegories at the time was that of the church being seen as the spiritual bridegroom to the soul of Mary; indeed, several other quasi-sacred works of the time (among them Finetti’s O Maria, quae rapis corda hominum – O Mary, who steals the hearts of men) show a surprisingly sensual view of the mother of God. The inclusion of the concertos is also in keeping with Monteverdi’s somewhat dichotomous composing style – the psalms, hymn and Magnificat are all written in his prima prattica, the concertos in the much more modern and operatic seconda prattica.

Modern performances often include both the concertos and the plainsong antiphons, but tonight we will be omitting the latter. Tonight’s orchestration and choral partitioning are also intended to follow Monteverdi’s original specifications.

Wolfgang A Mozart (1756–1791)

Mass in C minor

It is to posterity’s lasting disappointment that Mozart did not complete his two greatest liturgical works, the Requiem and the C minor Mass. The former, of course, was left incomplete because of the composer’s death, but the C minor Mass seems to have been the victim of the upheaval in Mozart’s life caused by his resignation from the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg and his marriage (against his father’s wishes) to Constanze Weber in 1782. When the newly-weds returned to Salzburg in 1783, Mozart had with him the incomplete score of the Mass and intended to fulfil a vow made to finish it. In the event, the Mass (which, if completed, would have had a duration comparable to Bach’s B minor Mass) remained unfinished, lacking the Agnus Dei and most of the movements of the Creed as well as some of the orchestration of the extant ‘Credo’ and ‘Sanctus’. What is known is that it was first performed on August 25 1783 in St Peter’s Church, Salzburg with Constanze herself taking one of the soprano solo parts. It is not known how the missing sections were filled in in this performance – it is possible that they were omitted altogether, spoken, or sung to different music.. Subsequent editorial treatment by Schmidt (1901) and H. Robbins Landon has made the extant but incomplete movements performable. In terms of style, the Mass draws considerably on Mozart’s study of the Baroque masters – the influence of Bach and Händel are evident in the great choral movements and the ‘Domine Deus’ and ‘Quoniam’ recall Alessandro Scarlatti and Pergolesi respectively. The piece opens quietly with a sombre statement of the ‘Kyrie’ by the chorus, this is followed by a ‘Christe’ section for soaring solo soprano, and the two join for the last ‘Kyrie’ portion of the movement. The ‘Gloria’ is in seven contrasting movements: a rejoicing ‘Gloria’ is followed by a disturbingly quiet ‘Et in terra pax’; an Italianate coloratura soprano aria (‘Laudamus te’) then leads into a sliding five-part chorus ‘Gratias’. The ‘Domine Deus’ is a pyrotechnic duet for two sopranos and strings and it is followed by a double-dotted ‘French overture-style’ ‘Qui tollis’ for double chorus. The italianate trio ‘Quoniam’ is followed by a fugal ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’. The two existing movements of the Creed are deeply contrasting: the lively ‘Credo in unum Deum’ recalls Mozart’s earlier masses, but the ‘Et incarnatus’ is a lilting siciliana and displays some of Mozart’s finest writing for woodwind in the final cadenza for soprano, flute, oboe and bassoon. The eight-part ‘Sanctus’ (parts reconstructed by Schmidt) is expansive and contrasts with the light, fugal ‘Osanna’. Unusually for the period, the ‘Benedictus’ is not an amiable melodic aria but a serious exercise in worked counterpoint for four soloists. The piece ends with a return to the ‘Osanna’ fugue.

Carl Orff (1895-1982)

Carmina Burana (version for two pianos and percussion)

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is arguably the most well-known piece of twentieth-century choral music. Extracts from it have been used in numerous television advertisements and films, as well as adapted and sampled by various rock groups. The fascination with it may stem from the fact that it is not a religious choral work (and thus popular in a more secular age), or simply from the approachability of its tunes and the insistency of its rhythms. The history of the piece is, however, fascinating and slightly murky.

Carl Orff was born in Munich in 1895 to a Bavarian military family. His early compositions were played by the military band of his father’s regiment, and, realising that their son showed promise as a composer, his parents sent him to study at the Munich Academy of Music. After service in the First World War, Orff returned to his studies, and later held positions in the opera houses at Darmstadt and Mannheim. In 1925, Orff was appointed the head of a department and co-founder of the Güntherschule for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich, where he worked with musical beginners. He occupied this post for the rest of his life, and here he developed the Orff-Schulwerk, his theory of musical education.

Carmina Burana was Orff’s first major free-composed work, and was premièred in 1937. For his text he selected items from the eponymous collection of over 200 13th-century songs and poems from the Benedictine Abbey at Seckau, edited into one volume in 1847 by Johann Andreas Schmelle. These songs (the title means ‘songs of Beuern/Bavaria’) had been written by many different authors – mostly by Goliards (students and clergy who satirized the church) – in a mixture of Middle High German, Latin and Old French. The resulting ‘dramatic cantata’ (which Orff called ‘the celebration of the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance’) had a mixed reception. One critic called it ‘degenerate’, but it was received well by others, and became popular with the higher echelons of the German government. It is these plaudits that cast a shadow over the piece and its composer, as the party in power at the time was the National Socialist Party, under Adolf Hitler. After the end of the Second World War, Orff said little about his acceptance and adulation by the Nazis; certainly he remained in Germany during the war, and his subsequent works (including the two further cantatas Catulli Carmina and Trionfo di Afrodite, which, together with Carmina Burana form his trilogy: Trionfi) received support from the party. It is also obvious that the ethos of Carmina Burana is very much of its age and place – many of the classical references in the work echo the spirit of the Nazi-choreographed set-pieces at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which portrayed Aryan youth as the new Greek ideal. However, whether Orff was active in the party, whether he was secretly a member of The White Rose resistance movement (as he claimed), or whether he simply saw his work as being above politics, is unknown.

Although the original version was scored for large and small choruses, boys’ chorus, soloists, orchestra and enhanced percussion section, the work was subsequently re-scored by Wilhelm Killmayer, Orff’s pupil, as a chamber piece; the percussion was retained, but the orchestra was replaced by two pianos. It is this version we will be performing tonight. The translation included in this programme is compiled from several existing translations, and is a more free interpretation of the words, made in an attempt to re-create the earthy spirit of the original texts, whilst maintaining some of their poetic force.

C Hubert H Parry (1848–1918)

Songs of Farewell

Many of Parry’s choral settings used biblical texts, indeed, Delius (who disliked Parry’s music), once remarked to Elgar: “…he would have set the whole Bible to music had he lived long enough”. In, arguably, his most well-known works, however, Parry turned to the works of English visionary poets – Blake (Jerusalem) and Milton (Blest pair of sirens). The six Songs of Farewell follow in the same tradition, being, for the most part, settings of texts by the late 16th century/early 17th century metaphysical poets: Henry Vaughan (My soul, there is a country), John Davies (I know my soul hath power to know all things), Thomas Campion (Never, weather-beaten sail), John Lockhart (There is an old belief) and John Donne (At the round earth’s imagined corners); the final song is a setting of Psalm 39 (Lord, let me know mine end). Towards the end of his life, Parry was still a busy public figure; he remained director of the Royal College of Music until well into his late sixties and, in 1914, helped found the ‘Music in Wartime’ committee to provide concerts for musicians to contribute to the war effort. The six Songs of Farewell, however, give us a glimpse of the private man nearing the end of his life (they were written between 1916 and 1918). On his seventieth birthday in 1918 he wrote: ‘I have reached the last milestone’.

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968)

Messa di Requiem

Ildebrando Pizzetti was born in Parma, Italy. Although he was from a musical household, his early interests were in the theatre, rather than in composition, and, as a youth, he wrote several plays. In 1895, however, he attended the Parma Conservatory where, under Giovanni Tebadini, he developed an interest in 15th and 16th century Italian choral and instrumental music. His first published composition was incidental music to d’Annunzio’s play La Nave, and the two collaborated further in writing operas, including Fedra. Pizzetti was invited to teach harmony and counterpoint at the Parma Conservatory in 1907. A year later, he moved to Florence to teach at the Conservatory there, and thence, in 1924, to be director of the Milan Conservatory, and, in 1936, to l’Accademia di S. Cecilia in Rome. Pizzetti, along with his contemporary, Respighi, was vociferously opposed to the ‘forward-looking trends’ in 20th century music, and the two of them were among a group who signed a manifesto in 1932 stating this. From 1930 onwards, however, Pizzetti concentrated mostly on conducting and music criticism, travelling in Europe and the Americas.

Pizzetti’s approach to religious music is best summed up by Guido Gatti, a critic and admirer of the composer, when he wrote in a 1922 article for The Musical Quarterly: ‘…Pizzetti was drawn to choral composition by innate religious feeling and by a tradition of vocal polyphony which he had found surviving among the common people of his district…’ The Messa di Requiem, written in memory of Pizzetti’s late wife, was published in 1922, just a year after Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor, a piece with which it is often compared. In fact, although both these works are ‘backward-looking’ (in that they draw on 16th century polyphonic techniques and use modal tonality), the Messa di Requiem has also much in common with Duruflé’s later Requiem of 1947, in that both pieces employ plainchant melodies more overtly than the G minor Mass. Pizzetti and Duruflé, both raised in the Catholic tradition, were doubtless mindful of the Catholic church’s return to plainsong following Pius X’s 1903 Motu proprio encyclical. Where the two differ is that Duruflé’s Requiem uses ‘real’ Gregorian plainchant (albeit a ‘resurrected’ 19th century version); Pizzetti, whilst using the existing Dies Irae tone, seems to have free-composed his own plainsong melodies using the modal system and the quirky triplet melismas that characterise the style.

In all of the movements of the Messa di Requiem the ‘plainsong’ tune is often to the fore, and the other parts provide a harmonic accompaniment –sometimes homophonic, sometimes polyphonic. The Kyrie opens with the basses singing an apparent plainsong melody, which is developed, in polyphonic style, through the other voices. In the Dies Irae the well-known modal plainchant tune is repeatedly hammered through different voice parts as an idée fixe, the pattern being broken by the dramatic announcements of ‘Rex tremendae’ and ‘Juste judex’; the final ‘Pie Jesu’ section is marked by a transmutation of the minor-modal tonality into a radiant G major. In the three-choir, 12-part Sanctus, Pizzetti seems intent on exploring Venetian polychorality – the dazzling cornett-like soprano and alto parts echoed and underpinned by thick-textured writing for two choirs of men’s voices. The simple, polyphonic Agnus Dei, is followed by the Libera me in which Pizzetti interprets the different moods of the text by alternating rhythmic minor/modal insistence with polyphonic major-key luminosity.

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)

Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël

It is always difficult, when approaching Poulenc’s sacred music, to gauge the depth of his religious devotion. Poulenc was born to a bourgeois family, and spent much of his life in the wealthy demi-monde of Parisian artistic society. On the surface, his association with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes his membership of Les Six (a group of avant-garde composers influenced by Satie), and his long friendship with Jean Cocteau, would suggest a lifestyle of sophisticated eclectic atheism, and certainly, some of his religious works may have been written to please his bourgeois clerical friends. However, in 1936, his devastation at the death of his friend the composer Pierre-Octave Ferroud, resulted in his making a devotional pilgrimage to Nôtre Dame de Rocamadour, and some subsequent liturgical pieces seem to show a genuine faith at work.

Little is known about the inspiration for the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël; they were written in 1951/2, and feel almost like competition pieces. Each motet requires different techniques from the singers, and paints a perfect musical picture of the text. The suitably mysterious opening of O Magnum Mysterium gives way to a ravishing tune in the soprano line; the wandering harmonies of Quem vidistisseem to represent the shepherds on their way to the manger; the cold, clear star-like quality of the opening of Videntes stellam is warmed by the basses as the wise men approach; and the boisterous writing of Hodie represents a true rejoicing for Christ’s birth.
Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

King Arthur


Although Purcell’s only ‘full’ opera (in the sense that we understand opera today – with music throughout) was Dido and Aeneas, composed in 1689, he provided incidental music for at least nine stage works and collaborated in the writing of five ‘semi-operas’ (dramatic works with incidental music and staged musical scenes or masques), the third of which was King Arthur, composed in 1691, four years before his death at the age of 36. It was first performed at ‘The Queen’s Theatre’, Dorset Garden in May 1691.

Like the quasi-mythical Arthur himself, the opera we hear today is a historical original fractured by time, a mosaic of re-worked plot and music reconstructed from several sources. Although the 1691 printed edition of the play survives, no complete manuscript of the music exists. This is not unusual in works of this nature, as incidental music for theatrical productions at the time was often revised or re-written for subsequent performances (at least three revivals of King Arthur were staged during Purcell’s lifetime), and there was no widespread public demand for complete scores of theatre works – and so no need for a composer to provide a complete fair copy. Indeed, the edition made by Margaret Laurie for the Purcell Society (used in tonight’s performance) drew on over 60 sources for its construction.

The impetus for the opera came from John Dryden (1631–1700), perhaps the most famous poet and dramatist of his time, poet laureate and friend of Charles II (1630–1685). In 1683, encouraged by Charles II’s desire for French opera, Dryden wrote the text for an unnamed opera ‘…written in blank verse, adorn’d with scenes, machines, songs and dances…’ Dryden split his creation into two parts, a prologue (designed as an allegory of the Restoration and Charles’ accession) and a full opera (which it is speculated was the original text of King Arthur; there is, however, no surviving copy). The opera was written mostly without reference to other works or source material, using only the mystical figures of Arthur and Merlin to hang the allegory on (there is no reference, for example, to Guinevere, Gawain, Lancelot or any other characters from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur). Dryden’s first work on his opus was to expand the prologue into a full opera, Albion and Albanius, for which Louis Grabu (fl. 1665–1694) wrote the music. It is possible that the second part, the proto-King Arthur, was intended as a political allegory of more recent events in Charles’ life, such as the Exclusion Crisis. This political hiccough concerned the public anxiety about James, Charles’ Roman Catholic brother and successor (later James II); some of Charles’ ministers, notably Lord Shaftesbury, wished to see Charles’ illegitimate but Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth legitimised and made heir to the throne, and some acrimony existed between the two parties. If this was the situation on which the allegory was based, it is possible to see Charles as Arthur (with Lord Halifax, his adviser, as Merlin/Philladel) and Monmouth as Oswald (with Shaftesbury as Osmond/Grimbald); the public conscience is represented by the blind Emmeline. The underlined point of the allegory, however, was that differences between rulers and nobles are capable of reconciliation. Albion and Albanus, alas, was doomed to failure – no sooner was it finished than Charles inconveniently died (to be succeeded by James), the first performances of it took place during the Monmouth Rebellion, and Grabu’s music was additionally found wanting by the public. It seems likely that, rather than embarrass himself and his public further, Dryden opted not to develop the second half of his pæan to Charles. In any event, King Arthur did not see the light of day again until 1691. By this time James had abdicated and his Protestant daughter, Mary, was sharing the throne with her Dutch husband and cousin, William of Orange (William III).

During James II’s short reign, Dryden had converted to Roman Catholicism, and on the accession of William III, he was exiled from court; there was clearly, therefore, no love lost between the new Dutch monarch and the playwright. Nonetheless, in 1691 Dryden re-worked King Arthur, and did his best to confuse the earlier allegorical references – now, clearly inappropriate. As Curtis Price writes in his book Henry Purcell and the London stage, Dryden ‘…transformed what was originally a heartfelt parable of Royal reconciliation into a backhanded compliment for a king he didn’t much care for.’ The result was somewhat of a hotchpotch; Robert Hume describes the result as a piece in which ‘…blunt and mildly rakehell dialogue…is combined with lush fantasy’, and Dryden himself admits in the Epistle Dedicatory to the text: ‘I have been oblig’d so much to alter the first Design, and take away so many Beauties from the Writing, that it is no more what it was formerly than the present Ship of the Royal Sovreign’ (the ship, originally Charles I’s flagship, had been patched and re-built several times)..

Henry Purcell was commissioned to write the music for the opera. Purcell’s connection with the court had begun in 1677 when he was appointed court composer to Charles II following the death of Matthew Locke. In 1682 he became one of the organists of the Chapel Royal and gained favour with William and Mary through his many ‘welcome songs’ and music for other royal occasions (particularly Mary’s birthdays).

As outlined above, there is no definitive score for the music; Acts I and II survive in nearly complete form, as does the ‘Frost Scene’, but much of the music for Acts IV and V has been reconstructed from song sheets, manuscripts and other reference material. The music which was written for the scene in which Emmeline’s sight is restored has been lost entirely, and it is possible that the last number (‘St George’) was added after Purcell’s death by another composer. Although the musical scenes are, in a sense, tableaux which sometimes have scant relevance to the plot, King Arthur is the most integrated of Purcell’s semi-operas. Two of the characters (Philladel and Grimbald) have singing and speaking parts, and the rhythm of the drama is not altered overmuch by the musical interludes. The music itself is among Purcell’s best; the opera contains musical numbers in many different moods – from warlike consorts of trumpets to lilting pastoral melodies (‘How blest are shepherds’) and dramatic episodes of word-painting (as demonstrated in the ‘Frost Scene’). What distinguishes King Arthur from Purcell’s other major stage works is that, as Price says, ‘…the music achieves a pre-eminence not by overwhelming the listener with constantly blaring sound, but by insinuating quiet charm through sophistication and rustic simplicity’. Perhaps the best critic of Purcell’s music is Dryden himself, who, in his Epistle Dedicatory, states:

‘There is nothing better than what I intended, but the Musick, which has since arrived to a greater Perfection in England than ever formerly; especially passing through the Artful Hands of Mr Purcel, who has compos’d it with so great a Genius that he has nothing to fear but an ignorant, ill-judging Audience. But the numbers of Poetry and Vocal Musick are sometimes so contrary, that in many places I have been oblig’d to cramp my Verses, and make them rugged to the Reader, that they may be harmonious to the Hearer: Of which I have no Reason to repent me, because these sorts of Entertainment are principally design’d for the Ear and Eye; and therefore in Reason my Art on this occasion, ought to be subservient to his.’

It is possible that Dryden and Purcell were trying between them to create that elusive piece a ‘British National Opera’ – a piece that would stick in the popular memory and become a national favourite; as Robert Moore says: ‘Its components of magic, military heroics, sacrificial scenes, and pastoral interludes are suitable for musical treatment, whilst the final masque is designed to bind them all together and launch the mighty galleon upon the waters of immortality.’ Alas, it was not to be. Although King Arthur was revived several times in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it gradually fell out of the operatic repertoire (replaced by the more fashionable Italian style brought in by Handel and others in the 18th century). Indeed, it is likely that the opera would have been completely lost to us today if it were not for Purcell’s great music; as Moore states: ‘The flatness of an outmoded poetic idiom is thus absolved in a timeless musical one’.

© Barry Creasy 2002

John Dryden (1691) King Arthur or The British Worthy, Jacob Tonson at the Judges Head, London
Robert E. Moore (1961) Henry Purcell and the Restoration Theatre, Heinemann
Robert D. Hume (1976) The development of English drama in the late seventeenth century, Clarendon Press
Curtis Price (1984) Henry Purcell and the London stage, Cambridge University Press
Peter Holman (1994) Henry Purcell, Oxford University Press
Robert Thompson (1995) The glory of the temple and the stage, Henry Purcell 1659–1695, British Library

Henry Purcell (1659–1695)

The Fairy Queen

The OPERA of which I have spoke to you in my former, is call’d The Fairy Queen. The Drama is originally Shakespears, the Music and Decorations are extraordinary. I have heard the Dances commended, and without doubt the whole is very entertaining.

Thus wrote a reviewer in the May 1692 edition of The Gentleman’s Quarterly, shortly after the first performance of The Fairy Queen by the Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre on 2 May that year. The opera (or, more correctly, semi-opera) capitalised on Purcell’s success at the same theatre with Dioclesian in 1690 and King Arthur in 1691, as well as Purcell’s earlier flair for writing full opera, as demonstrated in Dido and Aeneas (1689).

The three most well-known of these works aptly demonstrate Purcell’s different styles of writing vocal music for the stage. Dido is a full opera – the entire plot unfolds through sung words; King Arthur uses Dryden’s text throughout (some parts sung, some spoken), and there is some overlap of singing and acting parts. The music for The Fairy Queen, however, contains not a single line of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the music (which was probably sung by a different set of performers to those giving the play) exists merely to complement Shakespeare’s words in a series of bucolic episodes and pastoral dances, to give an audience a rest from the unfolding drama, and to make cynical comment on the nature of love. The entire fifth act, for example (which takes place after the The Dream has finished) is set in China – in the 17th century, a mysterious land whence tea was just beginning to arrive – and is clearly written as a final tableau vivant to enchant the audience with a contemporary fantasy. From the 1692 playbook we know the order and text of Purcell’s music, and how it fitted around the cut-down (and slightly re-worked) version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was probably prepared by a team of three authors under the direction of Thomas Betterton (c. 1635-1710), the theatre’s actor-manager (hence the additional scene where three drunken poets are tormented by fairies). There was probably also other music in the production, as Shakespeare calls for songs within the play, but this was almost certainly by other composers, and would have been sung by the main actors on the stage.

By promoting the semi-opera format, Purcell and Betterton were responding to a London audience that was easily bored either by too much music or by too many spoken words. The notion of a national cultural heritage (with Shakespeare as one of the gods in its pantheon) did not begin to be articulated until the early nineteenth century, and Shakespeare’s works were, at the end of the 17th century, regarded as a bit ‘old hat’. Samuel Pepys said of The Dream: “It is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”, and only ten performances of the play are recorded between 1660 and 1800Likewise, the English had not (as they would 20 years later) acquired a taste for ‘foreign’ opera. As the Gentleman’s Quarterly critic put it in 1691: “… but our experience hath taught us that our English genius will not relish that perpetual Singing… but our English Gentlemen, when their Ear is satisfy’d are desirous to have their mind pleased, and Music and Dancing industriously intermixed with Comedy or Tragedy”.


Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936)

Lauda per la Natività del Signore

Respighi was the son of a piano teacher, and began his early studies at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. He quickly gravitated to a musical life, and at the age of 21, he joined a touring orchestra as a viola player. When the orchestra made several visits to Russia between 1900 and 1903, Respighi took the opportunity to study briefly with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov; during this period, he also took several lessons with Max Bruch. In 1906, Respighi became interested in the works of 18th– and 17th-century composers, and transcribed many works by Monteverdi and others for modern performance; it was during this period, he achieved his first public recognition – for a transcription of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna. After a brief flirtation with modernism in 1910 (when he joined the Lega dei Cinque, a group of Italian composers opposed to the establishment), Respighi settled down in Rome to a life of composing largely ‘traditional’ music, essentially using the harmonic language of the 19th and earlier centuries. He became Professor of composition at the Liceo Musicale di S. Ceilia in 1913, and there met his future wife, Elsa, who was to become his biographer and the great champion of his works, and who survived him by 60 years. 1916 saw the première of Respighi’s first success, The Fountains of Rome, and, although he wrote eleven operas and as many ballets, it is for this and other orchestral ‘pictures in sound’ (such as The Pines of Rome, The Birds, Church Windows) that Respighi is best remembered.

In January 1928, during a brief sojourn in Rome between conducting tours of South America, the Respighis attended a recital by the harpist Wanda Landowska. Respighi was so transfixed by the performance, that he announced his intention to write a short cantata for the small S. Cecilia choir in Siena. He spent the next nine months searching for a suitable text and, in October, discovered the poem Lauda per la Natività del Signore by the thirteenth-century Jacopone da Todi. Jacopone, originally a wealthy lawyer, joined the newly-formed Franciscan order on the death of his wife. He became a ‘holy fool’ and was frequently imprisoned, but is venerated in the Franciscan canon for his mystic poetry, including, possibly, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa. He died on Christmas Day 1306, whilst celebrating Mass.

Respighi’s choice of a poem by a Franciscan monk for his Christmas cantata was probably no accident. In keeping with his love of painting musical pictures, Respighi clearly wished to use this technique to represent the shepherds’ visit to the manger as a traditional carved and painted crib scene; indeed, Elsa’s subsequent choreography of the piece calls for dancers acting out the roles of the protagonists, the singers and instruments actually remaining off-scene. The first Christmas crib (with wooden figures representing Mary, Joseph, the Christ-child, kings and shepherds) was carved by St Francis himself, and was given Papal approval for devotional use in 1223. The tradition spread throughout Italy (where Christmas cribs are often magnificently and lavishly carved and decorated), and thence to the rest of the world.

Respighi spent two years working on the piece, and it was first performed in the Chigi Palace, Siena on 22 November 1930 by the S. Cecilia choir, with Elsa herself singing the role of Mary. The work has an unusual orchestration – two flutes, piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, two bassoons, piano duet and triangle – and Respighi clearly intended for its musical language to reflect the pastorality of a bygone age, as the piece is pervaded throughout by suggestions of 16th-century madrigals and Monteverdian arioso techniques. In the section of Respighi’s biography that covers the composition of Lauda, Elsa writes about her husband: “[He has] … a profound sense of religion and humanity, and love for past artistic forms, which he restores to life in his supremely skilful music.”
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom

Although in the western Christian tradition the word ‘liturgy’ is used to describe the wording and form of any religious office, in the Orthodox Church, it refers specifically to the eucharistic rite – what a Catholic would call ‘The Mass’. In common with the western rite, ‘The Liturgy’ contains an Introit, sentences for the Epistle and Gospel, the Creed, Sanctus and Benedictus; it also includes a number of Litanies and a Eucharistic Prayer.

John of Antioch was chosen as Bishop of Constantinople in 398 A.D., largely on the reputation of his devotional and inspiring sermons (the Greek soubriquet ‘Chrysostom’ means ‘golden-mouth’). Despite opposition to his attempts to reform the lives and morals of the citizens by the Empress Eudora (and his eventual exile by her in 404 A.D.), John became regarded as a father of the early church, and was canonized shortly after his death. Among his surviving works are his radiant sermon for Easter day, a prayer (‘…when two or three are gathered together in Thy name…’) and his version of the Orthodox liturgy. In fact, it is probable that the ‘Liturgy of St John Chrysostom’ is actually a later adaptation of two earlier liturgies – those by St. Basil and St. James – and merely dedicated to the reforming patriarch who began the process of change. For many centuries, however, the ‘Chrysostom Liturgy’ has been the most used version of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church, and when Russia adopted the Orthodox faith in the 10th century, the Liturgy, (translated into Church Slavonic) was adopted too.

This setting of ‘The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom’, written in 1910, was the first of Sergei Rachmaninov’s three major choral works, the others being ‘The Bells’ (1913) and the ‘All-night Vigil’ or ‘Vespers’ (1915). The composer had just returned from a harrowing tour of the United States, and he settled down, at his recently-inherited estate at Ivanovka, to a period of steady Russian-inspired composing. Although history marks Rachmaninov down as not being particularly religious, it is clear from his letters to friends and colleagues, and from the nature of the work (it is a complete setting of the Liturgy, including responses to prayers for priests/deacons) that he intended the work to be used in church rather than just as a concert piece (Tchaikovsky’s 1878 setting of The Liturgy had been condemned by the church authorities as being too frivolous). Rachmaninov’s written codicil on the manuscript (‘Finished, thanks be to God, 30 July 1910, Ivanovka’) would seem to confirm his spiritual motivation. In a letter to his friend Morozov, Rachmaninov wrote: ‘I have long thought about the Liturgy, and I have long aimed at it. I took it up rather by chance and immediately got carried away. After that, I finished it very quickly. Not for a long time…have I written anything with such pleasure’. In fact the piece was composed in an astonishingly short time – less than three weeks. Unlike ‘The All-night Vigil’ (which contains several movements based on traditional Orthodox Znamenny chant), ‘The Liturgy’ is entirely free-composed and contains no extraneous material. For guidance on the content of the work, Rachmaninov turned to Alexander Kastalsky, director of the Moscow Synodal School (a religious foundation); it was the choir of the school that gave the piece its first (secular) performance on 25 November 1910. Alas, once again, the church authorities were unimpressed, and felt that Rachmaninov’s setting was not suitable for church use, and so it was probably never performed in a religious context – as a teacher of religion at the Synodal School remarked: ‘…absolutely wonderful, even too beautiful, but with such music it would be difficult to pray; it is not church music’.

© Barry Creasy 2002

Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868)

Petite Messe Solennelle

Phillip Gossett, the American musicologist and authority on Rossini wrote about the composer: ” no composer in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini. His contemporaries recognised him as the greatest Italian composer of his time.” His achievements in opera caused the work of his predecessors to be forgotten, his contemporaries, Bellini and Donizetti, worked under his shadow, and even Beethoven, piqued by his international recognition, resorted to snide remarks about him. Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy, on 29 February, 1792 (a leap year!) into a musical family (his father played the french horn and his mother was a singer). As a boy he learnt the horn and singing and sang in at least one opera in Bologna, where the family lived. He studied there and began his operatic career when, at 18, he wrote a one-act comedy for La Fenice in Venice. Further commissions followed, from Bologna, Ferrara, Venice again and Milan, where La pietra del paragone was a success at La Scala in 1812. His first operas to win international acclaim come from 1813, written for different Venetian theatres: the serious Tancredi and the farcically comic L’italiana in Algeri. Two operas for Milan were less successful. In 1815 Rossini went to Naples as musical and artistic director of the Teatro San Carlo, which led to his concentration on serious opera. During this tenure he also composed for other theatres, and from this time date two of his supreme comedies, written in 1816 for Rome, Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. Over the next thirteen years, Rossini wrote operas for Naples, Venice, Bologna, London and Paris (where, in 1823, he took on the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien). By the age of 37 he had written over 40 operas, but, in 1829, after completing Guillaume Tell, he retired to live in Italy, but suffered prolonged and painful illness there (mainly in Bologna, where he advised at the Liceo Musicale, and in Florence). His wife, Isabella, died in 1845 and the next year he married Olympe Pélissier, with whom he had lived for 15 years and who tended him through his ill-health. He composed hardly at all during this period, but he went back to Paris in 1855. Here his health and humour returned, together with his urge to compose, and he wrote over 150 piano pieces, songs, small ensembles, including the graceful and economical Petite Messe Solennelle (1863).. These works were only performed at his salon, for private audiences, which included most of the great artistic and public figures in Paris at the time. Rossini refused to have them published. He referred to them as Péchés de vieillesse (‘sins of old age’). Characterised by wit, parody, grace and sentiment, these pieces were to influence the younger generation of French composers, including Saint-Saens and Chabrier. He died, universally honoured, in 1868. On first hearing the Petite Messe Solennelle, the listener is tempted to adapt a remark attributed to Napoleon III and declare that the piece is neither little, solemn nor especially liturgical in spirit. Even Rossini’s Don Camilloesque inscription would suggest that he himself inclined to such a view: “Good God – behold completed this poor little Mass – is it indeed music for the blest [‘musique Sacrée’] that I have just written, or just some blessed music [‘Sacrée musique’]? Thou knowest well, I was born for comic opera. A little science, a little heart, that is all. So bless Thee and grant me Paradise! G Rossini – Passy 1863”. The first performance of the piece was given at the town house of the dedicatee, the Countess Louise Pillet Will, and those who attended agreed that, for all Rossini’s protestations, the Mass represented a magnificent feat of creative self-renewal for the seventy-one-year-old composer. Rossini specified twelve as the ideal number of singers (his instructions throughout are that the soloists should also sing the chorus parts when not otherwise involved), although subsequent performances have generally involved a larger chorus and separate soloists. Initially, the instrumental scoring of the Mass for two pianos and harmonium, seems strange, but given its context as a salon piece, such instrumentation is not unusual. Following a remark from the critic of Le Siècle (who stated that there was enough fire in the piece to melt a marble cathedral were it to be scored for full chorus and orchestra), Rossini proceeded to orchestrate the piece in the years 1866–7. This orchestration, however, makes very few concessions to orchestral colour and adds nothing to the stature of the work, which depends mainly on melody, line and rhythm. The orchestral version had its first public performance on 28 February 1869 (as near as possible to the 78th anniversary of the composer’s birth) at the Théâtre-Italien, Paris. Rhythm and modulation play an important part in the opening ternary-form Kyrie and the rhythmic excitement continues throughout the Gloria and Credo (especially of note is the contrapuntal writing in the Cum sancto spiritu and Et vitam venturi sæculi). The magnificent tenor solo Domine Deus recalls the Cujus animam from Rossini’s earlier Stabat Mater, while Rossini’s operatic roots are represented in the Quoniam. The insertion of the O salutaris (not part of the liturgy, but often used as a hymn during the Mass or Benediction) provided Rossini with an opportunity to explore the unusual harmonies he was using in his piano pieces at the time. The final, luminescent Agnus Dei for contralto (Rossini’s favourite voice) and choir brings the work to a dramatic close.