SAMMARTINI: Il Pianto degli Angeli della Pace / Symphony in E Flat Major
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Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700/01-1775):
Il pianto degli Angeli della Pace Symphony J-C 26
Giovanni Battista Sammartini, son of the Frenchoboist Alexis Saint-Martin, was most probably born inMilan on 1700 or 1701; his death certificate, dated1775, gives his age as 74. Little is known about hischildhood, but in 1774 he is already documented asbeing a maestro di cappella, and we know that he wasactive as a performer on the oboe and organ, winningadmiration for the individuality of his touch on thelatter instrument.
Over the course of a long life, Sammartini had abusy, not to say frenzied, musical career as, amongother things, maestro di cappella and organist ofassorted confraternities, the moving spirit behind theorchestra of the Royal Ducal Theatre in Milan (whichwas to be replaced, after its destruction, by La Scala), amuch admired conductor both of \academies" (concertsheld outdoors or in the homes of the aristocracy) and ofreligious music, a composer of operas and cantatas, aprolific writer of symphonies, maestro di cappella atthe ducal court, co-founder of the Accademia Filarmonica(an orchestra made up of skilled non-professionals),and a respected teacher who was on the faculty ofvarious colleges attended by local nobility. Today,Sammartini is remembered primarily as the father ofthe symphony. This description is amply justified bythe attention he dedicated to the genre, which he wasamong the first to treat as one of real importance.
Sammartini's fame and success were abundantlytestified to by his contemporaries, sometimes in oddways. Their judgements could be contradictory, tendingto reveal a certain alarm in the face of his exuberantpersonality and musical unorthodoxy. Haydn denigratedhim as a mere scribbler, while Leopold Mozart, in hisletters, spoke of him with the respect due to anauthority, without, however, expressing an opinion ofhis music. The writers Laurence Sterne and CharlesBurney, both of whom attended performances whereSammartini conducted his own works, were muchstruck with his personality and charisma. They cannothave been alone in this, given that the twenty-year-oldGluck was sent to Milan by his patron Prince Lobkowitzfor the express purpose of advanced study withSammartini, with whom he remained from 1737 to 1741.
The long career of Sammartini covers a span goingfrom the maturity of Vivaldi and J.S. Bach to theemergence of Haydn and the young Mozart. Thus hiscompositions, especially the earlier ones, reveal ideastypical of a time of transition between the aesthetics ofthe late Baroque and those of the full-blown Classicalstyle; and we find, along the way, the most diverseadmixtures of elements. Nowadays, he deserves to beconsidered the most important Milanese musician ofthe eighteenth century, and a key figure in the broadermusical world of the period.
As we have noted, Sammartini had a brilliantcareer as a maestro di cappella. During the last decadeof his life, in fact, he worked, both in that capacity or asorganist, for as many as ten churches and congregationsin Milan. Yet, no more than twenty or so compositions,including a Mass and a total of eight Lenten cantatas,are all that have come down to us in the way of sacredmusic. Deserving of particular note is his ongoingcollaboration, over some fifty years, from 1724 to1773, with the Congregation of the Most HolySepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Solitude ofthe Most Holy Sorrowing Virgin, which had itsheadquarters at the Church of San Fedele. Founded in1633 by the Spanish governor of Milan, its membershipincluded, at various times, high-ranking Italian,Spanish, and Austrian personages. The Congregationshowed an intense spiritual devotion every year at Lent,manifested in the celebration on Friday evenings of anon-liturgical service including a sermon and a cantataset to an Italian-language text. Lay religiouscongregations in Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies expressed their devotion through forms otherthan those of the liturgy proper, and were supported by thesubscriptions and contributions of members. Sometimesthey were linked with religious orders or church institutions.
The cantata Il pianto degli Angeli della Pace wasfirst performed in the church of San Fedele in Milan in1751. It features three r??les, the Angel of the Alliance, acontralto, the Angel of the Testament, a soprano, andthe Angel of Grace, a tenor. After an extensive orchestralintroduction, the action begins with a trio, entitledAmare lagrime (Bitter Tears). This is in the form of arefrain that returns three times in the course of thecomposition, giving vent to the mournful feelings whichprevail, sometimes with desperate and sometimes withmelancholy accents, throughout the whole composition.
Each character sings a da capo aria, preceded by arecitative. The plot is not based upon an episode of theGospel, but is an edifying dialogue about the history ofsalvation and its fulfilment through Jesus Christ. Theangels' weeping for the passion and death of theSaviour, in which the whole of creation joins,constitutes, in effect, a leading motif linking all theepisodes of the cantata. The instrumentation, traditional atthe time, calls for strings, oboes, horns, and basso continuo.
Sammartini's Symphony J-C 26 is part of a largecorpus of more than seventy works in this genre. Mostof these compositions consist of three contrastingmovements and were intended to entertain Milan'senthusiastic audience either in enclosed or open spaces.
From our point of view they form a kind of field forexperimentation, showing a stylistic evolution towardsthe modern symphony and sonata form. All Sammartini'ssymphonies display the composer's brillianttemperament. A constant flow of melodic and rhythmicideas, occasionally abrupt changes in the harmony, andhighly varied formal structures reveal a constant strivingafter an ever more daring instrumental language.
The style employed in these works, which seemsfacile only when looked at cursorily, can only be called'Sammartinian', a term that admittedly will not meanmuch to those unfamiliar with the composer. The vocaltexture is largely dominated by a typically Italianatemelodiousness and virtuosity, while the orchestralwriting, full of daring and unusual harmonies, displaysthe symphonic style characteristic of Sammartini, withdarting, fluid rhythms, sparkling themes, and a refinedand inexhaustible wealth of ideas.Maria Daniela Villa
Translation by David S. Tabbat"