CHORAL MASTERPIECES (Naxos: 8.550827)
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and other Choral Masterpieces
Trained as a chorister in Rome from the age of nine, Gregorio Allegri (1582 - 1652) continued as a singer in Rome and at Fermo and Tivoli. In 1628 he became maestro di cappella at the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia in Rome and from 1630 he was a singer in the papal chapel of Pope Urban VIII. His best known composition for the papal choir is his nine-part Miserere, a psalm-setting customarily performed by the choir in Holy Week. The work remained the exclusive property of the papal choir and was copied out from memory by Mozart, when he heard the work sung in Rome in 1770. Three years later Dr. Burney took a copy of the Miserere, with other music of the chapel, during the course of his extended investigative journey through Europe.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26- 1594) was probably a native of Palestrina, the source of the name by which he is now best known. Born in 1525 or 1526, he had his principal career in Rome, largely at the Cappella Giulia. Under Pope Julius III he was admitted to the choir of the Sistine Chapel, from which, as a married man, he was dismissed under a successor. After various employment at the church of St. John Lateran and elsewhere, he returned in 1571 to the Cappella Giulia, where he remained until his death in 1594. Palestrina remains the most important representative of the Roman school of sixteenth century polyphony, his style a model for later students and composers. The Lamentations of Jeremiah form part of the liturgy for Holy Week, with three Lessons for the three final days of the week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
If Palestrina has proved to be a model for students of modal counterpoint, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 -1750) has long occupied a pedestal of similar height as a model of late Baroque tonal counterpoint. A Lutheran, from 1723 until his death in 1750 employed as cantor at the choir-school of St. Thomas in Leipzig, Bach left various settings of the Latin Mass, the most important of which is the great Mass in B minor, a composite work drawing on a variety of his earlier compositions. The Osanna in excelsis, from the Benedictus of the Mass, and the Agnus Dei are derived from a secular cantata of 1734. The Cantata Ein teste Burg ist unser Gott, A firm stronghold our God is still, BWV 80, was written in 1724 or perhaps 1730, but derived from an earlier cantata for use at Weimar in 1715. The cantata celebrates the Confession of Augsburg of 1530, the official date for the establishment of Lutheranism. The opening chorus here included is a polyphonic version of the original chorale. The music of the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, was written for Weimar in 1716, revised and re-used in Leipzig in 1723. The chorale Jesu bleibet meine Freude, Jesu, joy of man's desiring, is among the best known of all Bach cantata movements. The Christmas Oratorio of 1734-35 is again compiled from earlier cantatas. The oratorio opens in jubilant triumph with Jauchzet, frohlocket, Rejoice and be joyful.
Handel (1685 -1759), an exact contemporary of Bach, made his earlier career principally as a composer of Italian opera, moving from his native Hallé to Hamburg, then to Italy and after that by way of Hanover to London. In the 1730s, as expensive and exotic Italian opera in London met increasing difficulties, he turned his attention to a new form, musically not unlike Italian opera. This was English oratorio, a genre that appealed to the national linguistic and religious prejudices of English audiences. The most famous of all Handel's oratorios is Messiah, written in 1742 with texts concerning the life of Christ largely drawn from the Bible and the Psalter of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Best known of all the choruses in Messiah is the brilliant Hallelujah Chorus, closely rivalled by For unto us a Child is born from the first of the three parts into which the oratorio is divided. The final chorus adds an Amen to one of the most overpoweringly influential choral compositions in English repertoire.
The simple clarity of the Ave verum of Mozart (1756 -1791) reflects the circumstances of its composition. The composer spent the last ten years of his life in precarious independence in Vienna, after a childhood centred on Salzburg, where his father had done much to protect him from the practical difficulties of life as a musician. He wrote his setting of the Ave verum, Hail true Body, scored for four-part choir, strings and organ, for a church of relatively limited resources in Baden, where his wife was convalescing, during the last summer of his life. The same period brought work on a setting of the Requiem Mass, commissioned anonymously and hence arousing the composer's superstitions. This remained unfinished at the time of Mozart's death in early December 1791, but he had sketched a good part of the work, including at least the outline of the Lacrymosa. It was at this point that, according to one account, he broke down in tears, as his friends gathered at his death-bed to sing through with him the completed parts of his Requiem. The Solemn Vespers of a Confessor belong to a happier period, 1780, before Mozart had abandoned the security of employment together with his father in the musical establishment of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Laudate Dominum is for soprano solo, with four-part choir, bassoon and strings, without violas.