Henry Purcell Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

Program Notes: Jakub Józef Orliński

J.J. Fux
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
Selected songs

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
Pożegnania (Farewells)

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
Selected songs

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
Selected songs

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

 

Program Notes: Arcanto Quartet

This evening the Arcanto Quartet offers us a chance to explore chamber music from the end of the 17th century to the recent past, sampling music for four players by Henry Purcell (1659–95), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

 

Henry Purcell

Long before the primacy of the string quartet, consort music for viols was a pre- eminent genre of instrumental music. Sixteenth century British composers such as William Byrd and Thomas Tallis wrote impressive polyphonic compositions for three, four, or five performers. Slightly over a hundred years later, the young Henry Purcell became the last major figure to explore this particular format. His early fantasias and in nomines for viols—compositions based on a particularly popular chant fragment—were created at the transitional moment when the older viol family of instruments was giving way to the more brilliant timbre of the violins.

Purcell’s reputation as the first homegrown British composer to truly master the Baroque style is unassailable. Much of his music is indebted to Italian practice, yet his 13 fantasias demonstrate an implicit conservatism—close to the last gasp of an indigenous British string tradition.

What Purcell might have made of the sound and timbres of the modern string quartet is anyone’s guess. But modern interest in the unique charm of Purcell’s music has encouraged contemporary string quartets to program these varied and delightful compositions. Purcell had no more sincere admirer than Benjamin Britten, who adapted his Chacony in G minor for string quartet as early as 1948, in part to familiarize players and audiences with his distinguished predecessor’s music.

 

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s purely instrumental works have been somewhat eclipsed by the splendour of his creations for the opera stage, but his string quartets—written, conveniently, in “early,” “middle,” and “late” career—are gradually finding their way into the standard repertoire of the world’s great quartets.

His first quartet, conceived in 1928, when the composer was 14, was a substantial four-movement affair immediately withdrawn, and not published until the 1990s. The “official” First Quartet dates from 1941, created during the composer’s unsatisfactory self-exile in the United States. The Second Quartet was written four years later, just as Britten’s first great opera, Peter Grimes, was being premiered in war-torn London. Characteristically, it pays extravagant homage to Purcell with an astonishing concluding Chacony.

Creating the Third Quartet had to wait until the final months of Britten’s life. Commissioned by the Amadeus String Quartet in 1974, it is very much a final summing up and a farewell. Some of its musical materials were quarried from Britten’s last opera, Death in Venice, but it is by no means just a suite of best bits or recycled out-takes from that stage work.

Like Shostakovich, his composer friend of later years, Britten filled his music with coded references and intentional ambiguities, though it might seem that choosing to base an opera on Thomas Mann’s tale of infatuation and the end of a life devoted to art is fairly unambiguous.

Whatever its sources, the Third Quartet is chamber music of the highest quality, rife with allusive references to the historical idea of the string quartet. Its five-movement structure, with such operatic focuses as “duets,” “solo,” and “recitative,” relates to similar five-movement structures in two of the 20th century’s other quartet masters, Bartók and Shostakovich, and reflects a conscious desire to push beyond the conventional classic four-movement quartet format. The use of Lydian mode in the second movement inevitably brings to mind Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132, with its “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity”—a fairly unpleasant

bit of irony given the precarious state of Britten’s health when he was writing the piece. The Burlesque evokes Mahler, one of Britten’s abiding heros, and his embittered scherzos.

Then comes the finale. Britten made a final pilgrimage to Venice in November 1975, where he created much of the music heard at the end of the quartet. It is his last use of the passacaglia/chaconne type of variations, an old pre-classical structure he

employed with spectacular variety throughout his work. In opera Britten uses the form to underscore moments of great seriousness and drama, making it a potent symbol as well as a musical structure. In abstract contexts such as the finales of both the second and third quartets, it is left to the listener to ponder extra-musical meanings.

Britten heard a private run-through of the piece at the end of September, 1976, but died a few weeks before the quartet’s premiere by the Amadeus in The Maltings, the concert hall Britten created near Aldeburgh, in mid-December 1976.

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

By the time Beethoven turned his hand to the “Razumovsky” Quartets in the middle of the first decade of the 19th century, he was accepted as one of the major composers in Vienna. His flashy early years were over, and he was well-advanced into what scholars generally call his middle period, a compositional phase where he focussed on pushing boundaries and exploring new ideas.

Beethoven’s three Opus 59 string quartets are central to the development of the string quartet as chamber music’s most important genre. Beethoven accepted the four- movement sequence standardized by Mozart and Haydn—weighty first movement, slow movement, Minuet, and fast finale—but he expanded the classic idioms with his own unmistakable textures, formal devices, and harmonic language.

The nickname “Razumovsky” refers to one of Beethoven’s patrons, Count Andrey Razumovsky (1752–1836), a Russian diplomat at the Austrian court. A player as well as a connoisseur, Razumovsky maintained a resident quartet (apparently sitting in occasionally as second violin) and commissioned Beethoven to write the three quartets that have kept the count’s name alive long after his career as a powerful figure in the complicated world of international diplomacy has been forgotten.

Beethoven did remarkable work in the three Opus 53 quartets, but not all his contemporaries got the point; indeed at least one writer recorded his reservations. An 1807 observer for the weekly music publication the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the compositions as “very long and difficult.” The writer was by no means entirely negative, adding, “They are profoundly thought through and composed with enormous skill,” before concluding “but [they] will not be intelligible to everyone.”

This mixed review did not extend to the C major quartet, however—“Which by virtue of its individuality, melodic invention and harmonic power is certain to win over every educated music lover.” As it has to this day.

 

 

Top