Non t’amo per il ciel from Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario
Johann Joseph Fux was an early-18th-century Austrian court composer of the first rank, best known by musicians today for his widely studied treatise on Renaissance counterpoint entitled Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). The Hapsburg court in Vienna was the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, secular protector-in-chief of the Roman Catholic Church, so Fux’s duties centred on writing music to be performed in the Imperial Chapel for important events in the church calendar.
Fux’s Good Friday oratorio Il fonte della salute, aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario (The font of salvation, opened by the grace of Calvary) was composed in 1716. In its first act the grateful musings of the repentant sinner are evoked in the aria Non t’amo per il ciel, with a mawkishly pious text that speaks (most curiously, to modern ears) of dutiful submission and fearful love – a state of mind and attitudinal posture no doubt heartily endorsed by the Austrian Emperor for adoption by his loyal subjects.
Proceeding at a dignified “Pachebel’s-Canon-ish” pace to depict calm unshakeable faith, it unfolds in the manner of a stately Handelian da capo aria in two verses, with lavish embellishments applied to the repeat of the first verse by the singer in the closing section.
Glorious long-held notes and melismatic extensions of vowels point to Fux’s skill in writing in the Italian style, a style that emphasizes beauty of tone colour, graceful flowing melodic lines, and loving cadential ornaments at phrase ends.
Henry Purcell worked in the early part of his career under the patronage of the last two Stuart kings of England, Charles I (r. 1660-1685) and James II (r. 1685-1688). But when James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Purcell turned increasingly to the theatre, writing incidental music for stage plays and major musical numbers for the semi-operas popular in the period.
The semi-opera was a distinctly English genre of theatrical entertainment that flourished in England between 1670 and 1710. It responded to the English public’s distaste for Italian opera, especially its far-fetched plots, told in a foreign language, with a thick layer of musical ‘lasagna’ coating every syllable of the text from start to finish. The English preferred lighter fare. Their musical stage entertainment came in the form of adaptations of well-known plays with a spoken text performed by professional actors and musical numbers performed by professional singers, much in the way that dance numbers were inserted into early French opera.
These musical insertions, often in the form of an allegorical masque or a play-within-a-play, might allude to, or simply provide a distraction from, the main action of the drama. And Purcell was a consummate creator of such scenes, many of them composed in collaboration with the renowned Restoration poet John Dryden (1631-1700). His command of counterpoint and ability to create dancelike melodies that preserve the rhythms and energy of English prose have given these pieces a life outside the theatre and made them effective concert pieces still popular today.
Music for a while comes from John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Rex, staged in 1692 with incidental music by Purcell. This luxuriantly leisurely tune would surely have provided its listeners in the audience with welcome emotional relief from the bloody doings being enacted on stage, including Oedipus’ own brooch-stabbing de-oculation in the final act. Like the famous aria When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689), this song is built on a ground bass consisting of a three-bar melodic pattern at the bottom of the texture that repeats throughout. Worthy of note is Purcell’s wonderfully speech-like setting of the first word in the text: Mu-u-u-sic.
Fairest Isle and the Cold Song both come from Purcell’s most successful semi-opera, King Arthur, performed at the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1791. Fairest Isle is sung as part of a masque conjured by the magician Merlin near the end of the work in which the future greatness of the British nation is foretold. This buoyant minuet-song with its patriotic text eventually became a national favourite to rank with Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia of 1742.
The Cold Song is an astonishing example of the pictorial vividness with which Purcell could invest his music. It comes from the so-called Frost Scene in the third act and as its name implies, it paints the bone-chilling effects of a Winnipeg-style winter on some of the inhabitants of King Arthur’s Britain. Just like the opening of Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons, a steady pulse of 8th notes in the accompaniment paints the nippiness of the winter wind to set up the dramatic entrance of the vocal line, which quivers and shivers up and down in synch with the accompaniment, chillingly intense and relentlessly chromatic in its tonal wanderings.
Strike the viol is from Purcell’s birthday ode to Queen Mary entitled Come Ye Sons of Art (1694). Here again Purcell uses a ground bass, eight bars in length, modulating from minor to major. In the text, a number of musical instruments are exhorted to sing and play in joyous celebration of their “patroness” (i.e. Queen Mary). Their unbounded delight in the occasion breaks out with a long melisma on the word “cheerful”.
Your awful voice I hear is from a masque inserted into a 1695 adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This being a story of shipwrecks and miraculous sea-changes, musical numbers referencing the weather and the aquatic environment form natural musical side-panels to the main dramatic action. In this air the mythological figure Aeolus, representing the wind, sings to his lord Neptune, “brother to Jove and monarch of the sea.” While the fugal counterpoint that permeates this setting would not be unusual in a piece by Purcell, scholars have cast doubt on his authorship because of the song’s overtly Italianate style of writing.
The poem If music be the food of love, by the would-be poet Col. Henry Heveningham MP (1651-1700), borrows the first line of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and then takes its meaning in an entirely different direction. While Shakespeare’s Duke Orsini hopes to gorge on a feast of music to sate and thus quell the yearnings of his lovesickness, randy old Col. Henry has quite the opposite intention: to spur on the lust for sexual conquest through seduction. And in typical Restoration style his poem contains many a panting phrase and ‘wink-wink-know-whadda-mean’ double entendre.
Purcell made three settings of this poem and we are gratified to know that Mr. Orliński chooses to sing the outrageously florid 3rd version of 1695, with its many contrasts of dramatic semi-recitative and pictorial melismatic melody. Purcell’s warbling word-painting on the syllables of jo-o-oy and ple-e-ea-sure represent musical peacock-preening of the first order.
Henryk Czyż was a Polish conductor and composer known for championing the music of his Polish contemporaries, especially Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), whose St Luke Passion and The Devils from Loudun received their first performances under his baton.
His song cycle Pożegnania (Farewells), a setting of three poems by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), dates from 1948 and was originally written for the bass voice. In this work Czyż uses the Scriabinesque harmonic vocabulary of late Romanticism to create dramatic settings with a direct emotional appeal, emphasizing sustained lyrical melody in the vocal line and accompaniments closely wrapped round the singer’s voice.
Pushkin, widely considered Russia’s greatest poet, displays in these poems his ability to convey powerful complex emotions that combine psychological opposites. In Kochałem Panią, a Polish translation of his famous poem Я вас любил (I loved you once), it is the opposition between a former lover’s disappointment and his generosity of spirit. In Na wzgórzach Gruzji (Over the hills of Georgia) the poet feels “both sorrowful and light-hearted.” And in Ostatni raz (For the last time) his thoughts of love arrive “with anguished, bashful tenderness.”
Mieczysław Karłowicz is often cited as a leading proponent of the ideals of the Young Poland movement (1890-1918) which sought to forge a distinctly Polish personality in the arts by assimilating new modernist trends into national traditions. As a literary movement it embraced the fin-de-siècle attraction to decadence and a generally dark view of human existence.
The songs composed by Karłowicz in his student years between 1895 and 1896 reflect well the bleakness of this worldview. Many of them are set to melancholy poetic texts by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1865-1940), a leading poet of the Young Poland movement.
Karłowicz’s harmonic language is an extension of that used by Chopin, whom he revered, and heavily influenced by the morose emotionalism of Tchaikovsky as represented in his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony No. 6. His attraction to the music of Wagner, especially to Tristan und Isolde, is evident in his frequent use of tonally ambiguous harmonies (German sixth chords, augmented triads) to express the kind of infinite yearning evoked in Wagner’s Tristan. This slippery chromaticism well suits the Wagnerian themes of love and death that radiate out from Przerwa-Tetmajer’s poems in lines such as: These words flowing toward me / Are like a prayer at my coffin. / And in the heart of death they make me thrill.
Dark as these poetic texts are, the luscious harmonic richness of Karłowicz’s textures allows us to enjoy a strangely ‘decadent’ pleasure when hearing them sung.
Stanisław Moniuszko was the leading composer of Polish opera in the 19th century. But apart from his more than 20 operas and operettas, he also wrote a good 360 songs for domestic use issued in several sets entitled Śpiewnik domowy (‘Home Songbook’) beginning in 1843.
His musical language is essentially conservative, and a strong vein of Polish nationalism runs through his work, often expressed in melodies that sound like Polish folk songs and rhythms borrowed from Polish dances such as the polonaise, mazurka and krakowiak.
Moniuszko’s gift for soulful lyrical melody is on full display in Łza (The Tear), a strophic song of lament from the last Home Songbook, published posthumously in 1876, four years after the composer’s death. Its melancholy message of loss and the pain of remembrance finds expression in the song’s falling musical lines and painful dissonances in the piano accompaniment.
Prząśniczka (The Spinning Girl) comes from the third edition of Moniuszko’s Home Songbook (1851). It paints a scene of parting between young lovers, one of whom, like Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, is busy at her spinning wheel. Highly dramatic in form, it begins with a slow introduction that sets up the entry of the whirling spinning wheel motif in the piano accompaniment. This signals a new point of view on the story, as scraps of folk-song melody ironically imply that the girl’s affections can turn as fast as her spinning wheel.
George Frideric Handel
Alleluia, Amen in D minor HWV 269
There is a mystery concerning the two dozen or so virtuoso arias on the words “Alleluia” and “Amen” that Handel wrote over a period of more than 20 years beginning in the 1720s. No one knows, you see, why he wrote them. They are far too elaborate for use in public church services, so it has been proposed that they were intended for private devotional use.
Intended as contemplative vocal meditations on personal religious faith, they are nevertheless outstanding display vehicles for the singer’s voice. Structured as a da capo aria, the Alleluia and Amen in D minor HWV 269 features long held notes to showcase the tone colour of the singer’s voice, extended melismatic passages in 16ths to display breath control, and trills aplenty in the melodic line to show off the singer’s vocal technique and agility.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022