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Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747)

How are the mighty fallen

Choral music by Giovanni Bononcini
Queen's College Choir Oxford, Academy of Ancient Music, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2021
Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Release date: May 2024
Total duration: 72 minutes 7 seconds

Cover artwork: Silver centrepiece of the Duke of Marlborough after his victory at Blenheim.
Bridgeman Images

Taking its title from the resplendent orchestral anthem Bononcini composed for the state funeral of the Duke of Marlborough in 1722, this album reveals a composer every bit the equal of his now-rather-more-famous rival Handel and in performances to match.

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny.
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle.
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!

(John Byrom, 1692-1763)

John Byrom’s epigram wittily evokes the rivalry for public approbation between Handel and Giovanni Bononcini in London society. Born in Modena, Bononcini forged his career in Bologna, Rome, Vienna, and Berlin, and had risen to be one of the most famous musical figures in Europe long before he arrived in London in October 1720, eight years after Handel, as composer for the Royal Academy of Music, an association of noblemen founded the year before in order to promote Italian opera. Besides his work for the opera stage, he was also active in London’s burgeoning musical club life, in particular the original Academy of Ancient Music. The Academy, at first called the Academy of Vocal Music, was a society of both amateur and professional musicians, including members of the nobility, clergymen, and English and foreign musicians, among the latter being the violinist and composer Francesco Geminiani and the celebrated operatic castrato Senesino, for example. It reflected and cultivated its members’ knowledge of musical repertories from the late sixteenth century onwards, but also—and increasingly—collected and performed contemporary works. The Academy’s weekly ‘public nights’, at which each member could bring two guests, were held in the large upper hall of the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. In a letter to the Venetian composer Antonio Lotti in 1732, asking him to send works that the Academy could perform, the Secretary of the Academy informed Lotti that ‘we have between thirty and forty voices, and as many instruments’. The upper lines in vocal works were sung by the boys of St Paul’s Cathedral, a coach being provided to transport them to the Crown and Anchor. These weekly meetings were an opportunity not only for vocal and instrumental performance but also for discussion of a broad palette of music old and new among London’s professional musicians and cultivated amateurs. Bononcini was active within the Academy from the year of its foundation (1726), and was the most famous composer attending meetings of the club during its early years. It is thus particularly fitting that the current recording project involves the reincarnation of the Academy of Ancient Music. It may indeed have been for the Academy that Bononcini wrote the grand setting of the Te Deum recorded here: among the surviving copies of the work is one in Westminster Abbey which probably formed part of the Academy’s library, and the same copyist wrote out Bononcini’s Laudate pueri. Furthermore, both the Te Deum and Bononcini’s funeral anthem When Saul was king feature in a word-book giving the texts of the Academy’s favourite repertory, published later in the century: The words of such Pieces as are most usually performed by the Academy of Ancient Music. The other work on our recording, Ave maris stella survives in a copy made by the composer William Boyce, who copied music for the Academy, and it seems that Boyce obtained this and other works by Bononcini directly from the composer.

Ave maris stella is the most archaic of the four works on the recording, a setting of the hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A touch of the antique is apparent in the upper voices’ recitation of the plainchant melody in long notes during the opening verse. The first five verses of the hymn are here treated as a single movement, bound together by a walking bass, albeit distinguished by shifts in vocal scoring: the full ensemble for verse 1, an alto solo (verse 2), a mezzo/alto duet (verse 3), chorus (verse 4), and a tenor duet (verse 5). Bononcini’s skill in weaving counterpoint of a traditional kind—and of a type warmly appreciated by the members of such societies as the Academy of Ancient Music—is represented not only in the suspension-filled interplay between voices and in the brief string ritornelli, but especially in the fugal writing in the concluding choral doxology.

This is the first recording not only of Ave maris stella and Laudate pueri but also of the original D major version of Bononcini’s Te Deum: he later revised the piece in Vienna, as a commission from the Empress Maria Theresa. The work has been newly edited here from its English eighteenth-century sources, one of which is in Boyce’s hand. In its use of the Latin text, Bononcini’s setting—while perfectly acceptable to the Academy’s members—contrasted with the English-texted Te Deum settings by Handel and by English composers used ceremonially and liturgically in the Chapel Royal and elsewhere. The use of Latin in Bononcini’s work signals that it could only have been used as a concert piece in England. Handel’s and Bononcini’s settings are likewise clearly contrasted in their approach to how the text should be set. Handel gave the bulk of it to the choir, with solo passages alternating with writing for the full ensemble in many sections, but with few independent or substantial movements for solo voice. Bononcini, however, throws the spotlight on solo singing, and divides the work into many more self-contained movements than was Handel’s practice, but as was common in Te Deum settings for the French court. Handel’s settings for the Peace of Utrecht (1713), for Princess (later Queen) Caroline (1714), and for James Brydges (later Duke of Chandos), subsequently adapted for the Chapel Royal, have between six and nine main movements, whereas Bononcini divides the text into no fewer than thirteen, of which just five are predominantly choral. This approach allows Bononcini to exploit every opportunity for contrast within the text, producing a succession of clearly characterised items distinct in tonality, texture, and spirit. One correspondence of approach with Handel’s might be more than coincidence: Bononcini gave the verse ‘Dignare Domine’ to the alto soloist, writing a prayerful largo cantabile movement in G minor; Handel had likewise assigned the equivalent English text (‘Vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin’) to the alto soloist in his ‘Caroline’ Te Deum, setting this originally as an accompanied recitative, but later replacing the recitative with a largo alto aria in B minor which inhabits a similar affective vein to Bononcini’s. This movement was then adapted (transposed to G minor, as in Bononcini’s piece) for Handel’s Chandos Te Deum, while the A major revision of that work has another plaintive alto aria for this part of the text.

Bononcini frames his Te Deum with a pair of grand movements for chorus (with solo interjections) using the same opening orchestral theme, made memorable by its use of sweeping short-notes scales (tirades) drawn from the French overture style. He constructed the extended ‘Sanctus’ acclamations in the opening movement from the rising and falling figure sung at this point in the Te Deum plainchant. The composer’s desire to highlight variety of affect—reflecting not least his long operatic experience—is seen in particularly dramatic fashion where the text first turns from praise to penitence: the exuberant choral setting of ‘Tu ad dexteram Dei sedes’ (‘Thou sittest at the right hand of God’) suddenly dissolves at ‘Te ergo quaesumus … miserere nobis’ (‘We therefore pray thee … have mercy on us’) into lugubrious counterpoint sung at first by the soloists and then transforming—as the choir joins the soloists on each line—into collective supplication. The brief chorus ‘Miserere nostri’ (‘have mercy on us’) is an extraordinarily unsettling passage, for voices and continuo only, in which the expected harmonies are repeatedly side-stepped.

The inclusion of an extended canonic trio—‘Aeterne fac cum sanctis tuis’—may again reflect Bononcini’s desire to please the connoisseurs of the Academy of Ancient Music. The cello has its own prominent role in the counterpoint here, and this and other instances of memorable obbligato writing for the cello in the Te Deum (‘Tu ad liberandum’) and Laudate pueri (‘A solis ortu’) recall the fact that this was Bononcini’s own instrument: in 1716 Johann Ernst Galliard praised Bononcini’s finely crafted bass lines. The Academy’s members would likewise doubtless have relished the grand alla breve fugue (setting ‘pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’: ‘heaven and earth are full of thy glory’) which forms the second section of the opening movement of the Te Deum, during which Bononcini displayed his contrapuntal skill through such devices as inverting the fugue subject. The composer might here have hoped also to arouse—in the ears and minds of his Academy colleagues—echoes of Handel’s choral fugues in his Te Deum settings and other sacred works.

The repertory of the Academy of Ancient Music included several settings of Psalm 113, Laudate pueri, and various settings by Bononcini survive in English manuscripts. This psalm was frequently set by Catholic composers, since it was one of only two psalms (the other being Dixit Dominus, as famously set by Handel for example) which are required for Vespers both on Sundays and on feast days of both male and female saints. In the opening movement of the setting recorded here, Bononcini uses a striking scoring of two high and two low vocal lines—not uncommon in seventeenth-century Italian sacred music—and no fewer than four violin parts in the instrumental ensemble. These resources are deployed in a rich array of dialogues and combinations which again exhibit Bononcini’s predilection for counterpoint. A dramatic rising sequential passage in the final section of the chorus ‘Ut collocet eum’, where long-held notes in the upper voices contrast with quick chordal declamation in the lower parts, suggests that Bononcini might have known—and here be deliberately echoing—Handel’s setting of the words ‘et non penitebit’ in his now famous youthful Roman setting of the psalm Dixit Dominus. Among the verses of the psalm assigned to soloists, virtuosity worthy of the operatic stage is heard in the soprano’s ‘Suscitans a terra’, and the ‘Gloria Patri’ is unusually but imaginatively conceived as a stately largo in which soprano, alto, and tenor—representing the three persons of the Trinity—echo each other’s phrases in imitation.

Two years after his arrival in London, Bononcini was commissioned to write an anthem for an event of extraordinary magnificence: the funeral of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, who had acquired the status of national hero as the victor of the Battle of Blenheim and other battles of the War of the Spanish Succession. The funeral was conducted on the grandest scale, and thousands took part in the procession to Westminster Abbey. The service itself was held in King Henry VII’s chapel at the Abbey, and the musical centrepiece—as contemporary newspaper accounts make clear—was Bononcini’s new orchestral anthem, When Saul was king. This piece was on an unprecedented scale for such an event in England including royal funerals, both in its conception and in the performing forces involved—more than 70 singers and players, according to the newspapers. It was apparently the earliest orchestral funeral anthem composed in England, and between its framing choruses are arias and recitative. The singers, performing from a ‘scaffold’ draped in mourning cloth, were those of the Chapel Royal, the Abbey, and St Paul’s. The text of Bononcini’s work is a striking mélange of verses from various books of the Old Testament. The opening chorus and duet emphasise the Duke’s status as England’s military hero, the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the ‘captain over Israel’ whose enemies ‘fell by the sword’, the chorus drawing upon the model of the operatic French overture both in the majestic dotted figures of its opening and in the energetic triple-time section which succeeds it.

The words of the following movement, ‘How are the mighty fallen …’, had previously been treated as a lament for the dead, as in the case of Robert Ramsey’s haunting setting associated with the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1612. In Bononcini’s anthem, however, the text is put to a very different purpose, cast as a joyous duet celebrating the fall of the country’s (and the Duke’s) enemies. The sudden turn to mourning for the string-accompanied recitative ‘How doth the city solitary sit’ and the plangent aria ‘All the night she weepeth sore’ is therefore all the more striking, the alto soloist and violin obbligato giving plaintive voice to the capital’s grief. This aria, the expressive core of the anthem, fits well with the remark by the eighteenth-century music historian John Hawkins that ‘Bononcini’s genius was adapted to the expression of tender and pathetic sentiments. His melodies, the richest and sweetest that we know of, are in a style peculiarly his own; his harmonies are original, and at the same time natural.’ The soloist’s expression of grief is then rendered communal in the closing chorus, with its arresting declamation of ‘howl, howl, howl’ and its poignantly hushed ending. The fame and influence of Bononcini’s funeral anthem was increased by the publication of an edition of the music in the same year (1722), and it featured regularly in the performances of the Academy of Ancient Music.

It was in part through his membership of the Academy of Ancient Music that Bononcini’s reputation in England suffered a marked decline by the early 1730s. The composer Maurice Greene, a founding member of the Academy, had presented an unattributed madrigal (La vita caduta) at one of its meetings, apparently claiming that it was the work of his friend Bononcini, but it subsequently emerged that it was by Antonio Lotti. The matter—much distorted—was blown up into a scandal by senior figures in the Academy, and this together with loss of patronage and an unsuccessful public musical venture may have prompted Bononcini’s decision to leave England in 1732, moving first to Paris, then Madrid and Lisbon, and finally back to Vienna where the aged composer ended his long career.

In the end it was of course Handel rather than Bononcini that the English took to their hearts in an enduring way, affording him the status of national musical hero, culminating in the monumental Handel commemorations in Westminster Abbey in the 1780s. But both Handel and Bononcini had their staunch musical supporters in the London of the 1720s, and given their close rivalry it is surprising that Bononcini’s choral music—widely admired at the time for its vividly expressive response to text and its melodic grace—has lain in such obscurity for so long.

A few months after Bononcini’s arrival in London in 1720 the country was ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, an epidemic which also saw the first introduction—albeit on a very modest scale—of inoculation against the disease in this country. This recording was made in the early summer of 2021, sixth months after the Covid-19 vaccination programme began in the UK, and on the tail of the terrible second wave of the virus. Two-metre distancing was still in force when we recorded in June, and the singers and players were accordingly placed well apart from one another throughout the nave and chancel of the large North-Oxford church where the recording was made. A few miles away, at the Jenner Institute, the Oxford vaccine was conceived, and it was heart-lifting to be able—thanks to such breakthroughs—to bring this project to fruition after many months during which singing was silenced.

Owen Rees © 2024

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