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Stabat mater Scarlatti
Domenico Scarlatti certainly had pedigree. Having trained and then worked alongside his father, the distinguished composer Alessandro, he was appointed organist and composer to the royal chapel in Naples before he had turned sixteen; at eighteen he had just returned to his post in Naples after four months in Florence and was busy composing his first two operas. But according to Alessandro, neither Naples nor Rome was good enough for his son. Soon he was dispatched to Venice, still the epicentre of opera production as it had been for a hundred years: ‘This son of mine’, he wrote, ‘is an eagle whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight’. But interfere he did with the over-solicitous traits of a Sicilian patriarch, to the point at which Domenico finally resorted to the law to secure his independence. To escape this paternal suffocation he resigned his positions in Rome, forsook opera, fleeing first to Lisbon in 1717 and then to Madrid in 1728.
The break, while brutal, was cathartic: free now to experiment in what he modestly called ‘an ingenious jesting with art’, he set about creating that corpus of more than five hundred dazzling one-movement keyboard sonatas that has held its place in the repertory ever since. Standing well outside the contemporary Baroque concepts of sequential and consecutive expansion, the sonatas were also beyond the reach of parental criticism.
So, too, was his church music—or rather the little of it that has come down to us. Was it in his Neapoli tan childhood that Scarlatti first experienced the scenic pageantry of Holy Week dramas that threatened to burgeon out of strict ecclesiastical control? The Planctus Mariae (Mary’s mourning) formed a popular quasi-theatrical set-piece in Naples’ churches. Might this have lodged in his memory when he sat down to compose his Stabat mater for ten-part choir, soloists and continuo? No amount of musicological sleuthing has so far come up with a firm date, a venue or an occasion for its coming into existence, yet it is by far the most imposing and extended of his works in this genre and one of the most deeply affecting musical settings there has ever been of the Latin hymn by Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). Finding it hard to imagine the Domenico of the harpsichord sonatas could have produced this astonishing work during his time in Lisbon or at the Spanish court, several scholars plump instead for his Roman years when he worked first for the exiled Polish queen and then as maestro di cappella of the Basilica Giulia. To me, however, although it sits perfectly well with the Counter-Reformation fervour of Baroque Roman art, there is a detectable Iberian flavour to this work—partly to be heard in harmonies that delve back into the siglo de oro and the superb musical artists of that golden age—Morales, Vittoria, Guerrero and Alfonso Lobo—and partly in the dark brooding engagement Scarlatti shows for the grieving of the Madonna, the moment of death (quando corpus morietur …) and the beseeching, inflammatory music he is inspired to write. Just as Handel, crossing the Alps, was invigorated by the new sounds, sights and customs of Italy, so Domenico Scarlatti, responded to the novel cultural milieu of the Iberian courts where he served, allowing exotic new elements to percolate into his musical language. In the course of his Stabat mater Domenico latches on to every opportunity for graphic word-painting, scene-setting (the vertical alignment of ‘Christ above in torment hangs/ she beneath beholds the pangs/ of her dying glorious Son’ in the fourth stanza) and rhetorical outrage (stanzas 5 and 6). His music carries within it the intensity of a Bernini sculpture or the extreme naturalism of a Caravaggio altar tableau, all works of art designed to exhort the listener or viewer to share in Mary’s grief:
Fac me vere tecum flere
donec ego vixero.
(Let me truly weep
to lament the Crucifixion
as long as I shall live.)
At a time when we risk becoming inured to the terrible suffering and loss of innocent lives by the frequency with which graphic images are blazoned across our television screens, the challenge for the singer is not just to empathise with this harrowing emotional outpouring but to address full-on the horror of the most gut-wrenching sort and to project the searing passion of Scarlatti’s ten-part counterpoint with total conviction.
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut Bach
If truth be told the texts of Bach’s two hundred or so surviving cantatas seldom rise above poetic doggerel, while the underlying theology is at times unappetising—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement. What is one to make of a cantata such as this that opens with the words ‘My heart swims in blood, for sin’s brood turns me into a monster in God’s eyes … my sins are my executioners, as Adam’s seed robs me of sleep and I must hide from Him, He from whom even the angels conceal their faces’?
What Bach gives us here is not so much a sermon as a portrayal of the complex psychological and emotional transformation of the conscience-struck individual. His overarching concern is to provide a lucid presentation of the text, or rather of the ideas that lie behind it. This he offers to the listener from several vantage points and in a highly individual style of his own devising. Not for him the mechanical patter of contemporary operatic recitative; instead, Bach develops a musical declamation flexible enough to burgeon into arioso at moments of heightened significance and always adjusted to the rise and fall of the verbal imagery. Each recitative acts as the springboard to the following aria and thus to each change and expression of mood. He weaves such an amazingly vivid atmospheric web for each aria that the words—even such over-the-top ones as those penned by the Darmstadt court librarian Georg Christian Lehms—are not really needed to convey the specific Affekt intended. You could almost remove them and remain confident that the inflections and emotional contours would still be understood as a result of Bach’s persuasive music.
Lehms based his underlying theological message on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18: 9-14). A Christian consumed by self-horror and knowing that her sins have turned her ‘into a monster in God’s eyes’ is racked by grief (Bach’s opening accompanied recitative). Agony turns her dumb (‘A’ section of Bach’s first aria); tears testify to her remorse (‘B’ section); a momentary flash of self-observation (extremely unusual ‘C’ section interpolation in secco recitative) leads to a rhetorical outburst and a return to ‘silent sighing’ (‘A’ repeated). More self-immolation follows (accompagnato), culminating with the repentant cry of the publican in the parable: ‘God have mercy upon me!’. Next, with out a break, comes an aria of deep humility and contrition (‘A’), the confession of guilt (‘B’) culminating in a plea for patience (tempo slowed to adagio) prior to a renewed expression of repentance (‘A’ repeated). This is the turning-point (a two-bar recitative). Now the singer makes a further act of contrition, casting her sins into Christ’s wounds (chorale played by a solo viola). Henceforth this will be her resting place (accompagnato) whence she can sing an ode to joyful reconciliation (‘A’), blessing (‘B’) and renewed joy (‘A’ repeated).
Faced with a text for his first aria that postulates the limitations of verbal expression (‘my mouth is closed’), Bach shifts the expressive burden onto the instruments, so that the oboe expresses the turmoil of the sighing soul through its poignant cantilena as eloquently as the voice, arguably still more so. The emotional charge is then redoubled when the voice returns later to incorporate fresh material into the oboe ritornello, a technique known as Vokaleinbau. Again, Bach may have been subverting conventional operatic practice where the singer is the primary focus; the very fact that she is musically contextualised might have provoked religious criticism of such a secular convention. But if that was the case we hear nothing about it, and it turns out that Bach was sufficiently proud of the work that after its Weimar premiere (12 August 1714) he revived it in Cöthen and later in Leipzig. Similarly you do not need to know that the second aria begins ‘Bent low and full of remorse I lie’ when the melodic arch of the strings of this spacious sarabande suggests prostration so graphically and the stretching of its phrases across the barline conveys the gestures of supplication. The success of this strategy depends a great deal, of course, on the oratorical skill and empathy of the individual singer—the ability to touch and literally ‘affect’ the listener, and not by vocal pyrotechnics alone. This particular cantata, one of several outstanding works for solo singer that Bach composed during his years at the Weimar Court (1708-17), exhibits enough operatic know-how and sensibility to suggest that he may have had a particular opera singer in mind, one of a kind unknown in Weimar (where only falsettists were employed)—perhaps a diva such as Christine Pauline Kellner, who regularly trod the operatic stage in nearby Weissenfels as well as in Hamburg and Wolfenbüttel.
Dixit Dominus Handel
For Handel, an adventurous traveller and a true European, the three and a half years that he spent in Italy in his early twenties had a decisive influence on his creative development. Indeed, so it was also for many of his northern compatriots—one thinks of Heinrich Schültz, the painter Albrecht Dürer, and later Goethe. Each of these German-born artists responded quite differently to this experience of Italy, but in every case it was her vitality and vivid colours, her landscape, art, music and architecture which made their mark. Colour is immediately striking in this Latin psalm setting, which was completed by Handel in Rome in April 1707. The score is laid out for five solo voices, a five-part chorus and a string orchestra also in five parts. In essence it is a grand concerto for all these forces, vocal and instrumental, and Handel is pitiless in the demands he makes of his musicians in the course of the eight movements: he requires energy and breadth, phenomenal agility and precision, declamatory vigour and lyrical expressiveness. This gives the psalm setting its feelings of ebullience and breathless exhilaration, almost as though this young composer, newly arrived in the land of virtuoso singers and players, was daring his hosts to greater and greater feats of virtuosity. The work is masterful for all its bold, naive assumptions that voices function like violins, and violins like the manuals of the organ, and it must have made a material contribution to the astonishing success Handel gained in Italy.
Scholarly research has so far failed to establish beyond doubt what prompted this composition, nor where or when it was first performed. The use of a plainsong intonation—said to be for Easter—as a cantus firmus in both the opening and final choruses suggests that the first performances may have been given in Rome on Easter Day in 1707, possibly at St John Lateran or in Cardinal Ottoboni’s palace. Others maintain that it was commissioned by Cardinal Colonna for performance at Vespers (together with other concerted psalm settings, antiphons and solo motets) on the feast of the Madonna del Carmine, which fell on 16 July. If there is any truth in this the service must have been quite a marathon, lasting ‘three whole howers at the least’, as Thomas Coryate discovered exactly a hundred years earlier when he attended Vespers at San Rocco in Venice. Handel’s psalm setting opens with a spacious orchestra introduction in G minor, with downward arpeggios in the first violins more characteristic of organ figuration than of string writing. The chorus enters weightily to underline the gravity of the Lord’s utterance. The soloists break out of the tutti with the injunction ‘Sede a dextris meis’ (sit thou at my right hand). Here we can see at work the concerto grosso principle which Handel was quick to learn from Corelli, then the leading exponent of instrumental music in Italy. Out of this simple but effective exchange of solo and tutti, and still more from the insistent rhetorical repetitions of chorus and orchestra, Handel constructs a movement of imposing grandeur. By reserving the big cantus firmus tune for the solemn pronouncement of the fate of the enemy, he compels us to sense the full weight and wrath of the Old Testament God.
Two solo arias follow, one with continuo, the other with orchestral accompaniment. The first, for mezzo-soprano, evokes the way the God of the Old Testament works furtively behind enemy lines through his secret agents. The second, for soprano, is a more florid and genial piece that reveals the influence of Alessandro Scarlatti, master of the solo cantata, in its elaboration and use of decorative coloratura. Blood and thunder return in the choral recitative ‘Juravit Dominus’, which breaks into an allegro movement with the choral shouts of ‘Non! Non!’ before sinking to a soft close. Then the double pattern of harsh, chromatic harmonies and swift-moving fugato is repeated with ever-increasing power, before the music finally dies away in a succession of bars marked piano, piano piano, più piano, pianiss., pianississ …
For the almost unsettable sentence ‘Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech’ (Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedech) Handel displays his easy mastery of counterpoint, a technique fully acquired before he set foot in Italy. It must surely have made a deep impression upon his Roman friends. Here was the ‘learned’ style of a northern composer, the ‘Saxon’ acknowledged for his superiority as an organist, allied to a wonderfully opulent and natural musicality. The sixth movement (‘Dominus a dextris tuis’) is the most boldly experimental, revealing Handel’s excited response to the rich possibilities offered by virtuoso singing (and playing) in several parts for building a choral drama. At the movement’s culmination—it is in three distinct segments—he gives drastic, pictorial expression to the destruction alluded to in the text by staccato reiterations of the word ‘con-quas-sa-a-a-a-bit’. Whether conscious or not, this is a throwback to stile concitato invented a century before by Monteverdi for conveying excitement, anguish and martial vigour. Managing to sound both naive and extravagant, it vividly conjures up the Lord’s legions moving into battle with the enemy. Handel was quick to absorb the current (and past) styles and to identify with local idioms without ever ceasing to sound exactly like himself. It is passages such as this, and similar ones in the contemporary works—psalms, cantatas and above all in Agrippina, the opera he wrote for Venice in 1709—that reveal the colossal impact of Italian music upon him in his early twenties: not just the music of the composers he encountered at first hand (Corelli, Pasquini, the Scarlattis), but that of more distant figures like Stradella, Legrenzi, Carissimi and even Monteverdi. The penultimate movement (‘De torrente’) is gentle and soothing, Vivaldi-like in its use of grinding harmony clashes, while the two soprano soloists appear to hover effortlessly above the quietly chanting men’s choir. The final Gloria is a tour de force, as large as anything in Bach’s B minor mass. It begins as a loosely constructed fugue on three subjects, one of which is the Easter plainsong theme heard in the first movement. The final section, ‘Et in saecula’, is built on a single theme with repeated notes and a conventional sequence, which eventually stretches the compass of the outer voices to almost two octaves: unrelenting, and not exactly vocal, but utterly brilliant. Despite the glorious music he would go on to compose in England it is baffling—and much to be regretted—that Handel never pursued this particular vein: nothing subsequently measures up in terms of choral daring and sheer chutzpah.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner © 2014
John Mainwaring © 1760