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Harmonies of Devotion

Monteverdi, Legrenzi, Lotti, Steffani, Bernabei & Colonna
Contrapunctus, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
Download only Available Friday 5 July 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2021
Queen's College Chapel, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Release date: 5 July 2024
Total duration: 71 minutes 8 seconds
The vast repertory of Italian Baroque motets provides particularly rich seams for rediscovery, in comparison to the relatively greater modern familiarity with contemporary instrumental music and the vigorous revival of interest in opera of the period. These motet repertories were widely prized north of the Alps in the eighteenth century, and a major theme of this recording is the gathering and collecting of such works by musicians and connoisseurs in eighteenth-century England. Intret in conspectu tuo, an extraordinary motet by the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Giovanni Legrenzi, would not be known to us save for a copy made by Handel in about 1750. Some years earlier, Handel had reworked the opening theme of this motet within the chorus ‘O first created beam’ in his oratorio Samson, a theme made striking by its descent through the unorthodox interval of a diminished third, which in Legrenzi’s original expresses the anguish of the word ‘gemitus’, ‘groaning’. It is the only six-voice motet we possess by Legrenzi, unique within his output in both its style and its structure, and an isolated remnant of a lost repertory of such six-voice motets from St Mark’s, Venice, where Legrenzi was maestro di cappella, third in succession to Monteverdi, who was the most distinguished holder of that post in the seventeenth century. Legrenzi wrote Intret in conspectu tuo for celebrations in January 1687 marking Venetian victories over the Ottomans. The composite text made up of passages from the Psalms expresses in turn the laments of a people suffering foreign invasion, their prayers to God to intervene and to take up arms on their behalf, and the resulting victory celebration. In response, Legrenzi created an intensely dramatic musical narrative, moving from the sombre grandeur of the opening movement—in imposing six-voice counterpoint of a time-hallowed kind—via the ardent echoing exhortations of a trio of sopranos (‘surge, surge’) and the plaintive harmonies of a lower-voice trio, to the incandescent declamation of the scenes of battle by the full ensemble.

A great dispersion of music from St Mark’s Venice occurred in about 1740, resulting partly from a desire to renew that choir’s repertory upon the death of the then maestro di cappella—and Legrenzi’s pupil—Antonio Lotti, and Handel’s acquisition of Intret in conspectu tuo may have been one result of this purge. Indeed, Handel’s copy of the piece is preserved alongside works by Lotti. But Lotti had himself also sent some of his own music to London in the early 1730s. This occurred as a consequence of a notorious incident involving the original Academy of Ancient Music, an association of amateur and professional musicians officially instituted in 1726, and dedicated to the collecting, performance, and study of older works of the sixteenth century onwards and of contemporary music in the more learned and skilful contrapuntal styles, representing examples of ‘true and solid Musick’ which surpassed what they perceived as the shallower and less enduring styles of their times. At one of the Academy’s meetings a madrigal by Lotti had been passed off as the work of another composer (Giovanni Bononcini, a member of the Academy), and in 1731 the secretary of the Academy wrote to Lotti, to ask if he could conclusively prove his authorship, but also inviting him to send examples of his music to the Academy. In reply, Lotti sent signed testimonies that the madrigal was indeed his, and also observed that he had learned from ‘my Master M. Legrenzi, that those who are learned in Musick, like the illustrious Academy, know, as in Painting, the Hand of the Artist, by the Design, the Drawing, the Colouring, &c. and judge of Authors by their Works, and not of Works by their Authors’. One of the works which Lotti may have sent to the Academy is a five-voice setting of the Crucifixus, which is recorded here for the first time. It survives in a copy in Lotti’s own hand, on a loose sheet in the library of Westminster Abbey, where much of the Academy’s musical collection is located, and the watermark of the paper shows that it is of Venetian origin. While Lotti’s other ‘Crucifixus’ settings, such as the famous 8-voice work which we also include on this recording, were extracted from settings of the entire Credo, this five-voice piece may have been conceived as an independent motet, a demonstration—doubtless pleasing to his Academy recipients—of skilfully woven polyphony, with up to three motifs (setting ‘etiam pro nobis’, ‘sub Pontio Pilato’, and ‘passus’ respectively) presented simultaneously in counterpoint.

The first of the Academy’s letters to Lotti proudly recalls the election as the Academy’s first President of Agostino Steffani a few years earlier. Steffani, who was by then in his 70s and had not been active as a musician for years, was likewise invited to send music to the Academy. In a letter of March 1727, Giuseppe Riva (a member of the Academy and a long-term correspondent with Steffani) assured Steffani that the music he sent ‘will be placed like a rare jewel in the treasury of the Academy’, while in another letter of the previous December he had promised that his musical gifts would ‘be preserved like a relic with the other rare things in the musical archive’. Steffani gladly obliged, and among the items he sent were newly composed works, including the motet Qui diligit Mariam, which was first performed by the Academy in June or July 1727: the Secretary of the Academy, Nicola Haym, reported in a letter to Steffani that the motet had been ‘sung very carefully a number of times’ at the meeting, and ‘was greatly admired and … received with great pleasure’. Indeed, Qui diligit Mariam was to enjoy extraordinarily high and enduring status among English musical antiquarians for the rest of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, as is shown not least by the survival of no fewer than twenty-five separate manuscript copies of the piece, made by and belonging to many different musicians and collectors. The motet honours the Blessed Virgin Mary as the focal point of human devotion, encapsulated in its refrain ‘Qui diligit Mariam diligit vitam’, ‘Whoever loves Mary loves life’, transformed upon its final recurrence to ‘Whoever loves Mary possesses heaven’. The simple descending motif to which ‘Qui diligit Mariam’ is sung at the very opening becomes the piece’s motto, returning to produce a kind of ritornello structure. In a detailed description of the motet written by Academy member John Ernest Galliard after its performances at the 1727 meeting, Galliard admires how Steffani ‘crowns’ the piece within its penultimate section by bringing back this motto as a stately counterpoint—in the bass and then the topmost voice—to the martial and furious declamation and virtuosic passagework of the other voices, who ‘obstinately persist’ (as Galliard puts it) here in their animated depiction of Mary’s breaking the arrows and shattering the spears of war. Although Galliard makes clear that the Academicians at that meeting admired the ‘devout’ nature of Steffani’s motet, its text deeply offended the religious sensibilities of another later Academy member, the prominent musical collector Thomas Bever, to the extent that he replaced ‘Mariam’ in the text’s motto line with ‘Filium’ (‘Son’, i.e. Christ) in order to make it a ‘decent Hymn’, believing that ‘a serious and intelligent Protestant could not well join in the performance’ of the original version, and that his improvement would preserve the music—which he considered ‘of the highest style of Ingenuity and Excellence’—from neglect.

Bever’s extensive collection of musical antiquities also included works by Steffani’s teacher, Ercole Bernabei, whose music likewise featured in the repertoire of the London musical clubs and is preserved in a good number of manuscripts copied and owned by connoisseurs. Copies of two motets by Bernabei from his Sacrae modulationes (Munich, 1691) were made in 1731 from a source ‘out of Dr Pepusch’s library’. Johann Christoph Pepusch, a founding member and President of the Academy from at least 1750, later bequeathed his music collection to that society. One of these motets is the splendid Tribulationes cordis mei, receiving its first recording here. Bernabei taught Steffani in Rome in the early 1670s, during Bernabei’s brief period as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia in St Peter’s. When in 1674 Bernabei was appointed Kapellmeister to the Bavarian court in Munich (a post he retained until his death in 1687), he took Steffani with him as translator and assistant, and a year later Steffani became court organist. Bernabei’s Tribulationes cordis mei is, like Legrenzi’s Intret in conspectu tuo and Steffani’s Qui diligit Mariam, an imposing and dramatic multi-section work in which the text’s narrative (drawn from the Psalms) is highlighted through contrasts of style and texture, including two solos for high voice and continuo. As in Intret in conspectu tuo, the sombre opening paragraph (‘The troubles of my heart are enlarged’) employs majestic imitative counterpoint, while ‘Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus’ (‘Let us trust in the Lord, for he is good’) and the concluding ‘Visita nos in salutari tuo’ (‘O visit me with your salvation’) elicit ebullient triple-time declamation by trios of voices and the full ensemble.

The vast published output of sacred music by Giovanni Paolo Colonna—organist and then maestro di cappella at the renowned basilica of San Petronio in Bologna—included many liturgical works reflecting the seventeenth-century passion for multi-choir writing. Colonna had studied composition in Rome, and it was there that he presumably acquired his skills in polychoral writing. Once again, his music was avidly collected and copied by London’s musical antiquaries, and is abundantly represented in the collection of printed and manuscript music in Westminster Abbey, incorporating much of the library of the Academy of Ancient Music. One manuscript now in the British Library in the hand of another member of the Academy, Edmund Thomas Warren (d.1796), includes Steffani’s Qui diligit Mariam, Bernabei’s Tribulationes cordis mei, and Colonna’s double-choir setting of the Easter Day Sequence Victimae Paschali laudes, which receives its first recording here. The double-choir scoring is exploited by Colonna both to evoke communal rejoicing and specifically to reflect the dialogue between Mary, who has discovered Christ’s empty tomb, and those to whom she reports her news. After recounting the Easter story in powerful antiphonal recitation, the music dissolves into exquisite eight-part counterpoint for the ‘amen’.

Legrenzi’s ‘Dialogue of the two Mary’s’ (‘Dialogo delle due Marie’), Quam amarum est Maria, is set earlier in the Easter story: here Mary Magdalene and the ‘other Mary’ of the Gospel accounts lament the loss of their beloved Jesus, at first separately, and then combining for the refrain ‘O Iesu, o dulcissime, clementissime, dilectissime Iesu’. In the first of these refrains their intense threnody expands into elaborate vocalisations over a four-note descending ostinato bass which was associated with laments. The piece belongs to a well established tradition of sacred dialogues, while the use of the tetrachord descending bass figure in triple time for laments had featured in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa published in 1638, and became commonplace in Venetian operas, notably those of Cavalli (a predecessor of Legrenzi as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s), during the middle decades of the century. The third act of Legrenzi’s most successful opera, La divisione del mondo (premiered in Venice in 1675), begins with such a lament, using the chromatic form of the descending bass which is familiar through the example of Dido’s lament ‘When I am laid in earth’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Legrenzi’s Quam amarum est Maria appeared in his Harmonia d’affetti devoti (‘Harmony of devotional affections’), Op 3, in Venice in 1655, the first of several collections of devotional songs he was to issue during the next fifteen years. While the pieces it contains might have been performed in either private or liturgical contexts, his Compiete con le lettanie & antifone della B[eata] V[ergine], Op 7, is strictly liturgical in purpose, exemplifying the vast outpouring of music for the liturgical Office Hours published in seventeenth-century Italy. Here Legrenzi furnishes music for five voices and continuo for the evening Office of Compline, together with the four antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary sung after Compline. The musical provision here is strikingly extensive, covering parts of the service that would normally be recited or chanted. For example, Legrenzi sets the versicles and responses Converte nos Deus, the original call-and-response structure being reflected in the harmonically dramatic shift to a bass solo at ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende’. The triple-time setting of the ‘Gloria Patri’, in which vocal duets are interrupted by repeated exclamations of the opening word sung by the full ensemble, is strikingly Monteverdian.

The Marian antiphon settings within Legrenzi’s Compiete collection include Salve regina and Ave regina caelorum. At the opening of Ave regina caelorum Mary is hailed as Queen of Heaven in a strikingly simple musical genuflection. The invitation for Mary to rejoice (‘gaude virgo gloriosa’) summons lively duets and solos, while in the closing section Legrenzi exhibits his contrapuntal skills, weaving three motives together including a chant-like slowly rising and descending line for ‘vale’ (‘farewell’). The setting of Salve regina in the Op 7 collection begins with what must be one of the most affecting of all treatments of these words and their associated chant motto, while the lower-voice trio portraying our ‘sighing, mourning and weeping, in this vale of tears’ is an essay in employing chromatic and harmonic shading in the evocation of wretchedness.

The most famous champion of the aesthetic represented in such passages, according to which music is placed firmly in the service of the text, was Claudio Monteverdi, who had coined the term seconda pratica to denote this type of compositional approach. Monteverdi was Legrenzi’s most renowned seventeenth-century predecessor as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s, Venice, holding the position from 1613 until his death in 1643. He contributed four motets to a collection published in Venice by his ex-pupil and friend Giulio Cesare Bianchi. Two of them, Adoramus te Christe and Christe, adoramus te, have extremely similar texts focussed on the Passion and ending with a petition for mercy; both were suitable for the Elevation of the Host at Mass (Christe adoramus te is, indeed, marked ‘nella Elevatione di N(ostro) Sig(nore)’ in the 1620 edition), and represent perfectly the traditions of solemn and intensely expressive music associated with that key moment in the liturgy. The two texts diverge after their initial acclamations in that Adoramus te Christe focuses on the ‘precious blood’ and Christe, adoramus te on the ‘holy Cross’ as the means of redemption: St Mark’s basilica possessed amongst its relics both an ampule of Christ’s Blood and a fragment of the True Cross, and Monteverdi mentions in a letter of 1618 his composition of motets for the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, when the Precious Blood was displayed within the basilica. Domine, ne in furore tuo, a setting of the opening verses of Psalm 3, is marked by almost violent contrasts of mood and pace, reflecting the disturbed and turbulent emotions of the speaker, in a manner reminiscent of Monteverdi’s work as a madrigalist. The plea for forgiveness and declaration of infirmity at the centre of the motet (‘miserere mei, Domine, quoniam infirmus sum’) are set to an extended series of plangent musical descents, while the disturbances of body and soul (‘conturbata’ and ‘turbata’) are evoked through a whirlwind of close and syncopated imitative entries. The remaining motet by Monteverdi in the 1620 collection, Cantate Domino, brings alive its jubilant text (from Psalms 95 and 97) through dance-rhythms, hemiolas, lively sequences, and fanfare-like dialogues.

The repertoire choices and themes of this recording originated with and were developed by Roya Stuart-Rees, and incorporate the fruits of her research on musical antiquarianism in eighteenth-century England.

Owen Rees © 2024

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