Saturday, December 19, 2009

Response to Brett's Journal: St. Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach

I was immediately drawn to Brett’s journal on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion because it is presented in such a personal way that I couldn’t help but be taken in. I especially appreciated his discussion of the arias of the work. Brett’s descriptions of these movements made me eager to listen to them and discover each character’s personal voice.

The first aria is sung by the alto, immediately after the story of the woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment. This story foreshadows the anointing of Jesus’ body for His burial. The alto’s recitative and aria are a prayer to Jesus, offering her own tears as ointment, in repentance for her sins. Bach uses word painting in this recitative during the text, “To pour upon thy head an ointment.” The voice and accompanying winds both make a descent through this line portraying the outpouring of tears. The opening lines of this aria, “guilt and pain” can truly be felt throughout. It is filled with appoggiaturas that represent the weeping and pleading of the soloist.

When the alto sings again later in the piece, it is another cry for mercy. This time, the alto sings her recitative and aria right after the scourging of Jesus. There is much more urgency in the music of this recitative, as she pleads for the tormenters to cease and for God to have mercy. This aria, just as the aria she sang in the beginning, speaks of her tears being offered as a sacrifice. The phrases in this movement move in downward patterns, reminding us of her flowing tears and her begging for mercy.

Unlike the alto, whose character is primarily repentant, the soprano’s role is to comment on the meaning of Jesus’ actions in a very personal way. In the recitative that she sings, directly after the last supper, she sings of the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice with the words “…His testament makes me glad. His flesh and blood, o preciousness, He bequeaths into my hands.” The aria that directly follows is one of the most joyful movements of the work in which she pledges “I will give my heart to thee; sink myself in it, my Salvation.” This is a beautiful love song, in which the soprano remarks on the power of Jesus’ sacrifice and makes it truly personal for her. In this aria, you can really see a deep relationship between her and her savior.

Just after Jesus has been praying the words, “My Father, if possible, allow this cup to pass from me; but not as I will, rather as thou wilt…” in the garden of Gethsemane, the bass sings a recitative and aria in which he comments on the roles of Jesus’ followers to take up their own crosses and follow in His steps. Bach uses word painting in the very opening lines of the recitative with the lines, “The Savior falls down before His father; thereby He raises me and all people from our fall” incorporating appropriate descent and ascent in the vocal line. The aria that follows is very heavy, in the lower range of both the voice and the accompaniment, to portray the weight of the decision he makes saying, “I will gladly submit myself to take up my cross and cup…”

Like the bass, the tenor serves as a commenter on the meaning of Christ’s passion for the Christian. After the High Priest has accused Jesus of blasphemy and Jesus does not speak to defend himself, the tenor sings a recitative and aria about how Jesus’ actions translate to his followers. The text of the recitative reads, “We should be like Him and hold our peace in time of persecution,” and the aria speaks of how if he acts like Jesus, God will give his heart its vengeance in the end. The viola de gamba often is playing a dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm throughout this aria. This rhythm creates a sense of anxiety, that the singer is eager for the day when holding his tongue in the face of insult will pay off and God will give him his retribution.

In his journal, Brett wrote, “…the main soloists…all have an array of arias that serve to show the emotions and depth of the story.” My investigation of the text lead me to uncover an array of characters portrayed by the soloists that make the work personal for the listener. Bach has created a work that is not only musically moving, he has made Christ’s passion relevant and meaningful for Christians of his time and today.

Monteverdi: L'Incronazione di Poppea

The first public opera house, Teatro San Cassiano, was opened in Venice in 1637. With this new facility, opera became more accessible and wildly popular. Claudio Monteverdi’s opera,L’Incoronazione Di Poppea , was composed in 1642 to be performed in a public opera house like this one, during the carnival season in Venice. It was premiered in 1643 with Anna Renzi, a famous singer of the time, singing the role of Octavia (Fabbri, 269).

Unlike Monteverdi’s popular opera, L’Orfeo, which was composed in 1607 under the patronage system, L’Incoronazione Di Poppea calls for a small performing force. InL’Orfeo, Monteverdi denotes a very (omit very) specific instrumentation, including a great number and variety of instruments. L’Incoronazione Di Poppea was written with a much smaller budget(a smaller budget in comparison to what? I would put an example in here), and therefore uses fewer instruments (Beat, 277-281). Basso continuo is used to accompany dialogue and a very small instrumental ensemble plays the ritornellos. The low budget is only one reason for this light instrumental scoring.(This sentence about the budget being the only reason seems a little redundant) The 17th Century Venetian opera focused on the singers and the storytelling, and Monteverdi’s orchestration allows the instruments to be subordinate and supportive.

L’Incoronazione Di Poppea was one of the first operas in which the plot is not based on Greek mythology, but rather historical events and people. Librettist Gian Francesco Busenello based much of his libretto on Suetonius’ biographies of Roman emperors. The opera tells the story of the Roman emperor Nero’s mistress, Poppea (illustrated above), and her quest to be crowned empress. Mythology does play its part in the production, with Fortune, Virtue and Cupid as main characters (Carter, 263-264).

The opera begins with a very short instrumental prelude. This introduction is in two sections. The first is slow, and uses only strings. One violin plays the role of soloist, playing a more virtuosic line with fast runs and embellishments, accompanied by two other treble stringed instruments, viola de gamba, and of course, harpsichord. The second part of the introduction is fast and dancelike, and a flute doubles the top violin voice. This type of instrumental interlude, or ritornello, appears in short segments throughout the opera.

I was surprised to hear flutes and violins accompanying the dialogue on this recording. In reading the liner notes, I found an interesting discussion on the topic by the conductor, René Jacobs. It is his opinion that the performance practice of the time would have been for instrumentalists to improvise over the basso continuo, as musicians of the time were well-versed in improvisation. He also argues that with only about ten minutes of ritornello for the entire show, it would not make sense to pay instrumentalist to sit and relax during the remaining three hours of the opera, especially on this kind of a tight budget (Jacobs 34-35). I found his argument compelling, and the addition of instrumentalists to the dialogue enhancing to the text rather than distracting.

This opera displays several of Monteverdi’s compositional characteristics. He demonstrates the effectiveness of dissonance in service to certain texts. In Act I, during a farewell scene between Poppea and Nero, Poppea says, “It is such a bitter word that from one hint of it, ah, dying, I feel my soul expiring.” Monteverdi composes at minor second between the voice and continuo to portray the “bitter word” and allows the line to descend slowly to illustrate the feeling of her soul expiring. Occasionally, he alters the libretto slightly to enhance the drama, allowing texts to overlap and interrupt one another, and sometimes repeating lines for emphasis (Burkholder, 444).

I very much enjoyed listening to this recording of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione Di Poppea. I found it particularly interesting to uncover some of the details of performance practice. Listening to and researching this opera helped me gain a better perspective on the context within which Baroque opera composers were working, and provided me with a better foundation for understanding all opera.

Works Cited

Beat, Janet E. The Monteverdi Companion. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1972.

Burkholder, J. Peter, and Claude V. Palisca. Norton Anthology of Western Music: Volume 1: Ancient to Baroque; Sixth Edition. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010

Carter, Tim. Monteverdi's Musical Theatre. London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Fabbri, Paolo. Monteverdi. Translated by Tim Carter. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Jacobs, RenĂ©. Liner Notes from Monteverdi: L’Incoronazione Di Poppea. Harmonia Mundi. 901330.32, 1990. CD.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Reaction to Vince Mazzoni's Renaissance Listening Journal

In the beginning of Vince’s analysis of the Hilliard Ensembles recording, Motets et Chansons, he summarizes the style of Josquin des Prez by stating that he “preserves the tradition of textual clarity while emphasizing varied vocal texture and human emotion.” Vince did a fine job evaluating the dominance of the text and the role that variety plays in his music. But I wanted to know more about the ways Josquin is able to convey the depth of human emotion in his music, so when I listened to this recording, I had a distinct purpose: to experience the range of emotions in the music and uncover the techniques that he uses to display them.

Josquin was composing music at a time when the motet was a very important genre. Unlike the motets of the Medieval period, Renaissance motets were entirely sacred and the focus was on the words. These motets no longer had multiple texts, but rather one, and every compositional choice was made to enhance the meaning of the words. In his analysis of the first motet on the recording, Ave Maria, Gratia Plena, Vince discussed several techniques that characterize Josquin’s music, including imitation, seamless polyphony, a mixing of polyphony and homophony and varied vocal textures. All of these techniques can be found in the other motets on the album, as well as other methods which are used to display the emotions of each particular motet.

The motet Absalon, fili mi, a lament of David, is a lament for the death of his son Absalom. Josquin sets the text in a low register and writes slower rhythms to give the listener a real sense of the grief David felt for the loss of Absalom. Although there are only five lines of poetry, the music stretches on, moving slowly towards the last phrase, “Let me live no longer, but descend into hell weeping,” where the bass finally settles on B-flat. This motet displays one of the extremes of human emotion, grief, by setting a very slow pace and rarely leaving the lower registers of the voices.

The motet De profundis clamavi is set in a similar way. In the opening line the psalmist cries, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice!” Josquin begins his motet with each voice entering individually, highest to lowest. Each voice is low in its range, so when the bass finally enters the sound is low and solemn. The rhythmic motion is slow, and the mood is very grave. As the text becomes more optimistic near the end, “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption,” the upper voices sing in a higher register, filling out the sound, and the rhythm becomes much more active. Even the harmonies sound more hopeful. Josquin allows the voices to rest on thirds and sixths, whereas the opening was built on emptier intervals. The raising of the register, quickening rhythmic motion, and near-triadic harmonies lead the listener from the more somber cry of the opening phrase to the hopeful redemption of the end.

In his journal, Vince stated, “Josquin artfully blends his techniques so his music does not sound technical, but captures the listener through beautiful colors and varied textures.” I absolutely found this to be true while I was listening to this recording. I had a hard time dwelling on the technical aspects of Josquin’s writing because I was so taken with the colors he uses to exhibit the emotional character of each piece. Vince’s journal gave me several launching points for my own analysis. I really enjoyed reading it, and listening to this recording of Josquin’s music.

Palestrina: Missa Assumpta est Maria

When the Council of Trent met from 1545 to 1563, they intended to eliminate all polyphony from the Mass. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was able to convince them that polyphony does have a place in that Mass, and can be used to enhance and clarify the texts through simple melodies with lighter, more balanced textures. The Missa Assumpta est Maria is a perfect example of this style of writing, and how it is effective.

The Mass is scored for six voices: two sopranos, one alto, two tenors, and one bass. Palestrina achieves a certain lightness throughout the work by exploring primarily the voices' upper ranges. Even the basses rarely dip into their lower range (Coates, 127). He varies the textures by only sounding a few voices at a time, which also contributes to the lightness of the work. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei in particular feature this type of texture play. Palestrina rarely has all six voices sing simultaneously (Roche, 28). For example, All six voices sing “Kyrie eleison”, but only four sing “Christe eleison,” and even within these textures, voices are constantly dropping out and joining in.

The Missa Assumpta est Maria is based on a pre-existing motet, Assumpta est Maria in Caelum, which can be heard in the opening of the Kyrie and the Sanctus. Palestrina's use of the motet marks his Mass as a paraphrase Mass, since he does not quote the motet exactly or entirely. He altered voicing, rearranged rhythms, and related only about the first ten measures clearly to the motet. In the absence of obvious motet references, Palestrina provides a short figure of five ascending notes to unify his work. This ascent is first presented in the third bar, and appears often throughout the piece. This little ascending theme could be interpreted as symbolic of the Assumption, which the work celebrates (Coates, 127).

Unlike the Kyrie and Agnus Dei whose main interest is texture, the Gloria and the Credo are more homophonic and demonstrate the ways Palestrina is able to paint the text. When the words “Laudamus te,” (“we praise thee”) is sung, five voices sing in strict homophony covering a range of two octaves, creating a full sound to sing praise to God. All six voices sing “Adoramus te,” (“we adore thee”) and “Glorificamus te” (“we glorify thee”), expanding the texture and the range to the fullest sound in the movement. This full, homophonic voicing is used by Palestrina in the sections where the text is giving glory directly to God. This type of attention to the text can be found throughout the work, and especially in the wordier movements, like the Gloria and the Credo. Palestrina uses homophony in these movements in such a way that the music almost sounds Baroque, and can be seen as a precursor to the music of his successors (Roche, 28).

The entire piece is written in common time, except for one short section at the end of the Sanctus, which is in triple meter. Further research led me to discover that finding a passage in triple meter anywhere in Palestrina’s music is rare. He reserves triple time for certain passages to express joy. In his Masses, he uses the triple meter specifically for the words of the Sanctus, “Hosanna in excelsis,” (“Hosanna in the highest”) (Boyd, 40). It is also at this point that he seems to break away from the strict clarity of his polyphony and allows himself to be a bit more creative, blurring the sounds of the voices and obscuring the text more than anywhere else in the work.

Listening to this work gave me a deeper comprehension of how Palestrina was able to use polyphony to clarify the text of the Mass. I can now understand why the Church was unable to ban all polyphony from the service. Palestrina’s music is so beautiful and so clear, unlike the compositions of many of his predecessors. The polyphony of Palestrina really does enhance the text of the Mass, deepening the experience of the listener.

Works Cited

Boyd, Malcolm. 1973. Palestrina’s Style. London: Oxford University Press.

Coates, Henry. 1948. Palestrina. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Roche, Jerome. 1971. Oxford Studies of Composers: Palestrina. London: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Reflection on Cantigas de Santa Maria by Alfonso X

King Alfonso X, also known as King Alfonso el Sabio (the Wise), organized and possibly contributed poetry and music to the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 cantigas (songs) written in honor of the Virgin Mary, around 1270-90. Each cantiga tells the story of a specific occasion on which, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, everyday people were granted miracles. The subjects of the poetry range from merchants and robbers to more interesting characters, such as an incestuous widow and a pregnant abbess (Yudkin, 304-305).

Secular song was becoming very popular in many regions of Europe during the Medieval Period, and although the Cantigas de Santa Maria are sacred in nature, there is a clear influence from this secular movement in the music. The most prominent of these secular movements was the troubadours of Southern France. These poet-composers had a particularly strong influence on the music and culture of Spain. It was not uncommon to find French troubadours at Spanish Court and ties between French and Spanish royal families were strong (Wilson, 177). The influence of troubadour music on that of Spain can be seen in the Cantigas' form, as both troubadour songs and the songs of the Cantigas de Santa Maria were mostly strophic and syllabic. The troubadour influence can also be seen in the Cantigas' language. The troubadours were some of the first musicians to write in the vernacular, and the Cantigas de Santa Maria, though religious in nature, are written in Galician-Portuguese, the Spanish dialect of the time.

The recording of the Cantigas de Santa Maria that I chose to listen to was performed by the Ensemble Unicorn. This ensemble concentrates on performance of music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and their goal is to give a historically appropriate performance of the works. Illustrations of the music being played, such as those seen below, accompany the manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Based on these images, the performers use instruments such as the flute, shawm and pipes and tabors, the vielle, bagpipes, and numerous percussion instruments in their recording of the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

There are four manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, three of which are written using mensural notation. This notation makes this collection some of the only songs from the period that can be transcribed confidently into modern meters with modern note values (Hoppin, 318-322). The instrumentation based on the art accompanying the manuscripts and the translatable notation of the songs convinced me that this is an accurate representation of the original music.

The Ensemble Unicorn’s recording is a compilation of thirteen cantigas, including the prologue, epilogue, and three instrumental tracks. The first track on the recording is the prologue, and it is clear right away that conveying the poetry is the primary goal of the music. The work opens with percussion accompanying two instruments, most likely shawms, playing a melodic line in parallel fifths. After this introduction, a drone plays while a narrator speaks rather than sings the text. The clarity of the spoken text emphasizes the poetry.

Every tenth song in the collection is a general song of praise to the Blessed Virgin instead of the story of a miracle. For instance, “Rosa das Rosas,” one of these songs of praise, is one of the most popular of the Cantigas and is included in many recordings of the work. I found it to be the most lyrical and the most beautiful song on the recording. The setting of the text is mostly syllabic, with just a few ornaments that make the melody more elegant. The voice sings a slow, flowing melody, accompanied by a drone and usually another instrument sounding either an octave or a fourth above. The refrain is the first section introduced, and thereafter is played instrumentally, alternating between sung verses. The very last refrain is sung while doubled by a solo instrument. The drone plays throughout the song. This cantiga is a good example of the standard strophic form found in the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

Another song in particular caught my attention because of its unusual form. The song “Quen Serve Santa Maria” seems to have a much more unique form than the other cantigas, which are nearly all strophic. The song opens with percussion playing a cadenza-like section, which melds into a more solid rhythmic pattern. The percussion is then joined by several instruments that play a rhythmically active, loud, and rambunctious melody. The section that follows is drastically different. A lute plays a short transition and is joined by the voice which sings a very slow, simple melody. The same percussion introduction comes back and this time the voice joins the instruments in repeating the first melody. This is unusual for the collection, because most of the songs have several verses with the same refrain appearing after each verse. I found this to be the most interesting cantiga featured on this recording because it was so unique.

I really enjoyed this recording of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The performers did a wonderful job giving a historically accurate performance, which helped to further my understanding of Medieval song and dance and deepen my appreciation for all Medieval music.

Works Cited

Hoppin, Richard H. 1978. Medieval Music. New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Wilson, David Fenwick. 1990. Music of the Middle Ages. New York, New York: Schirmer Books

Yudkin, Jeremy. 1989. Music in Medieval Europe. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Response to Lindsay Lozito's Journal on Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame

Lindsay Lozito’s journal on the Messe De Nostre Dame by Guillaume De Machaut immediately made me aware that Machaut was composing something totally unique with this setting of the mass. In her opening paragraph, Lindsay mentions that the Messe De Nostre Dame is the first complete polyphonic setting of the mass and that before the composition of this work, polyphony was reserved for the elements of the Mass Proper; this is all certainly unique. What really caught my attention though was her reference to the six movements of the Ordinary - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est – being linked by common motives, styles and tonality. I chose to listen to this work to try to discover these links.

The Kyrie features very interesting rhythms and use of rests. Lindsay mentions in her journal that the syncopated rhythms that are found in this movement, and throughout the piece, reminded her of another culture. For me, the culture that comes to mind is our own. The rhythmic interaction of the voices along with the complexity of each individual line reminds me of something that might be composed today. It is the alternating sections of monophonic chant in the Kyrie which remind me that this work was written for a Cathedral setting in the 1300s.

Many of the same rhythmic patterns featured in the Kyrie can be found in the Gloria, though the setting of the text is much more neumatic, as there are many more words to fit into the music. Machaut takes much more liberty on the last word of the movement, “Amen.” This one word is where a real connection to the Kyrie can be heard. The rhythms are almost identical at times, as are the pitch collections. Like the Gloria, the Credo displays this same trend of being mostly neumatic until the final “Amen,” which, in this case, is more than a full minute of the same rhythmic intricacy. Further listening proves that all of the elements of the Ordinary exhibit this common rhythmic connection.

The Messe de Nostre Dame was composed during the height of the Ars Nova movement in France. Because of advances in rhythmic notation, composers during this time began experimenting with more complex rhythms, and the evidence of that experimentation can be directly seen in the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est of Machaut’s Mass. In addition to hearing interesting rhythms in these movements, a closer look shows us that Machaut also included a new compositional technique called isorhythm, in which sets of pitches and rhythms are repeated throughout, in four of these movements: the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Ite Missa Est (Burkholder 127-132). Machaut’s use of isorhythm in these movements makes the ties between them even stronger.

Like Lindsay, I found this recording of Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame much more interesting and attention-getting than I anticipated, though perhaps for different reasons. While Lindsay featured more of the many styles displayed in Machaut’s Mass in her writing, what I found truly interesting was the way he used rhythm to unite the movements. The elements of motive, style and a tonal focus may have helped to unify the six movements of the Mass Ordinary, but I found the rhythm to be the dominant link. Lindsay’s journal really inspired me to delve deeper in Machaut’s work, and I am glad I did. I found the rhythmic choices that Machaut made in his Messe de Nostre Dame to be incredibly fascinating.

Works Cited

Burkholder, Peter J. and Claude V. Palisca. 2010. Norton Anthology of Western Music: Volume 1: Ancient to Baroque. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company