SAMMARTINI: Gerusalemme sconoscente ingrata / Confitebor / Symphonies
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Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700/01-1775)
Cantata: Gerusalemme sconoscente ingrata, J-C 122 • Confitebor • Symphonies J-C 25/56
A pillar of eighteenth-century Milanese musical life, Giovanni Battista Sammartini was a versatile and prolific composer. He is often credited as the leading Italian symphonist, almost as if to compensate for having been eclipsed in reputation over the years by his Northern European contemporaries, but he played a wider rôle than that in the history of music and accordingly deserves greater appreciation than he currently enjoys. He was never tied to a single patron or institution and was able to take full advantage of the varied cultural life of his native city, making his name known in its academies, outdoor concerts and opera houses, as well as in teaching circles. Many people, including some very talented amateurs, were involved in instrumental and orchestral music-making, a fact that encouraged Sammartini to write a huge number of structurally and stylistically varied symphonies, all underpinned by his absolute mastery of compositional technique. This is evident in the Symphony in E flat major, J-C 25, and the Symphony in G minor, J-C 56, featured on the present recording. The first of the two comprises a pair of fast movements in ternary form, while the second has three movements, in the usual fast-slow-fast sequence, and both demonstrate a fine use of contrast, grafted on to a fluid, uninterrupted rhythmical background. The first movement of J-C 25also appears in the Lenten cantata Maria addolorata (Naxos 8.557431), where the horns are replaced by oboes.
Sammartini was, however, more than a symphonist. Twenty or so sacred works survive as evidence of his years as a hard-working maestro di cappella, including one Mass and eight Lenten cantatas. These were written for performance by a "congregazione", a Catholic association of (primarily) lay people, funded by members' subscriptions, worshipping on the margins of liturgical practice and devoted to religious and charitable works.
Sammartini maintained a close relationship for nearly fifty years (from 1724 to 1773) with the Congregation of the Most Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Solitude of the Most Holy Sorrowing Virgin, which met at the Jesuit Church of San Fedele. It had been founded by the Spanish governor of Lombardy in 1633 and over the years counted Spaniards, Austrians and Italians among its members, depending on which group was ruling Milan at the time. Lent was the central focus of the Congregation's religious year, and each Friday during that period a form of worship above and beyond the usual liturgy took place. This included a sermon and a cantata in Italian, which were written for the occasion by the maestro di cappella and which, given their content and style, could be classed as sacred theatrical pieces.
The eight surviving Lenten cantatas (five for 1751 and three for 1759), now held in Milan, Genoa, Einsiedeln, Munich and Prague, are the only complete works we have as testimony of Sammartini's collaboration with the Congregation of the Most Holy Sepulchre. Each of the cantatas has three solo parts (for soprano, alto and tenor). The libretti, by unknown authors, are not strictly faithful to Scripture, unlike, for example the Lutheran Passions. Instead they include prose monologues and dialogues, rendered musically as recitatives, which alternate with lyrical-meditative sections set as arias. The sentiments portrayed are human rather than strictly religious, at times attributed to those involved in the Passion story, while an edifying message is given in the final recapitulatory trio.
All the cantatas follow more or less the same formal pattern, with minor variations: a sweeping, lively orchestral introduction, symphonic in feel, is followed by three expressive nuclei, each formed of a recitative and a da capo aria featuring significant orchestral interventions, before a concertato trio brings the work to an end. The orchestral forces are standard for the time: strings, oboes, horns and basso continuo.
The cantata included here has the catalogue number J-C 122 and is entitled Gerusalemme sconoscente ingrata (Ungrateful and disowning Jerusalem). Both number and title are taken from the catalogue drawn up by Bathia Churgin and Newell Jenkins in 1976, in which there is a certain confusion with regard to the libretti, characters and dates of two of the cantatas (J-C 122 and J-C 124). According to the original printed libretto, the correct titles are, for J-C 122, La perfidia giudaica (Jewish Wickedness; wrongly catalogued by Churgin and Jenkins as J-C 49, among the lost works), composed for Lent 1759; and, for J-C 124, Gerusalemme sconoscente ingrata (Naxos 8.570254). The music for the cantata Della Passione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo is presently lost.
The antisemitism all too evident in the very titles of these works, to the point of making them unacceptable in their complete form, is not unfortunately an isolated example in Lenten liturgy. Indeed such prejudice was rife within the Catholic Church, a reality that led to many a tragic outcome, for which in recent times the Church has quite rightly admitted its guilt and asked forgiveness. It remains, of course, a despicable sentiment whose presence in the text of this cantata might tempt us to let it fall into complete oblivion. This though would be to incur an even greater error: that of forgetting not just the original wrong, but also the warning not to repeat past mistakes that comes precisely from remembering and reflecting on them. In the end, the universal value of music prevails – this, if we want it to, can survive and raise itself above and beyond the text, becoming the spokesperson of all that unites all humanity rather than divides it and, for those who believe, of the one God with many names.
Also recorded here is the contrafactum Confitebor, whose Latin text is set to the music of the aria Non bastò l'immenso affanno from the cantata L'addolorata divina madre (Naxos 8.570254). This is a later elaboration (attribution unknown), carried out to make a piece of music written for a different purpose suitable for liturgical use.
Each cantata employs a variety of different states of mind and contrasting musical climates, all clearly defined by means of Sammartini's knowledge of expressive resources, as tried and tested within the various fields in which he worked. The fluency of the writing has lost none of its freshness over the years; it comes from an artisan-like approach to composition, one characterised by a subtle balance between artistic effect and relative economy of means. The vocal style, based on cantabile virtuosity, stands out against the dense instrumental fabric, already moving towards the full orchestral autonomy that would culminate in the Austro-German symphonic style.
Maria Daniela Villa
(English version: Susannah Howe)
Further information can be found at www.danieleferrari.com
Critical editions by Daniele Ferrari
Sung texts with English translations are available online at www.naxos.com/libretti/570253.htm