Roman Christmas: Italian Concertos and Cantatas

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ChristianPastoral Poetry - The Pastorale


That JohannSebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio constitutes for Central Europeanstoday the embodiment of the sacred festival, to which only Handel's Messiah comesnear in solemn splendour, should not deceive us into thinking that Bach'sinterpretation of the Christmas story in its formal unity and theologicalstatement is completely exceptional. However, it is less representative of thelong tradition of Christmas musical narratives from the Middle Ages to the presentday. These were robust, entertaining works, intended to be performed as lessonson this fundamental chapter of Christian history.


Relics ofthe great liturgical Christmas plays of the Middle Ages are found in thepopular shepherd and nativity plays found today in Catholic southern Europeanregions. Characteristically it was these very pastoral plays to which Baroquecomposers were particularly devoted. Their preferred form, the Pastorale,inspired by folk-music, was so immediately clear to audiences of the time thatBach and Handel were able to incorporate them in their oratorios asinstrumental pieces, without fear of misunderstanding. The rocking 12/8 rhythmand drone bass were stylistic features of music that was played in Rome everyyear on Christmas Eve by shepherds from the Campagna on the zampogna (abagpipe typical of the region) and the shawm, which are still played today. ArcangeloCorelli provided a musical model of this in the last movement of his Concertogrosso in G minor, as an accompaniment to the performance of shepherdscenes during the Christmas Mass. He has become as well-known for this movementalone as he is for all his trio-sonatas and concerti grossi.


AncientPastoral Poetry - The Accademia dell'Arcadia


Corelli'spastoral music in Rome had a significance of its own,closely associated as it was with the numerous Roman academies of theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most famous of them, the Accademia dell'Arcadia,had in 1690 a number of prominent patrons, poets, and musicians, among themAlessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Pasquini, Bononcini and Corelli himself,meeting for the purposes of aesthetic decadence in the sane intellectual worldof a Utopian Arcadia. In the spirit of the bucolic world of Virgil's Ecloguesa challenge was mounted to the overcharged poetry of the Roman High baroqueand its monumental music theatre. The participation of influential cardinals inthe Accademia dell'Arcadia shows that ancient heathen and Christian themes, astouched on in the shepherd episodes of the Christmas narrative, were understoodalways as common symbols of a better world.


From thepastoral ideology of the Arcadians came a particularly rich quantity ofpastoral and Christmas music. Scarlatti's cantata Oh di Betlemme and theConcerto grosso fatto per la notte di natale of Corelli are outstandingmasterpieces of the genre.


Included inthis pastoral music are instrumental concertos in which the solo instrumentshave a clear reference to Christmas events the oboe as a descendant of the oldshepherd shawm and the trumpet as a symbol of the power of God, heralding thebirth of the Christ child.




From theConcerto Grosso to the Solo Concerto


Thedevelopment of Baroque style is closely associated with the evolution of the Concertogrosso. As in earlier choral works, a small solo group with its owntone-colour and instrumental virtuosity is contrasted with the grosso,the body of the string orchestra. This was the first suggestion of theincreasing emphasis given to individual personality, which as finally to findits true from in the sole concerto.


The oldestexample included on this recording of this new formal principle is the Sonataa otto viole con una tromba (Sonata for eight strings with a trumpet) by Stradella,for two string orchestras. With the solo trumpet the dialogue between thestring groups takes on an extra dimension. The work was written in 1682 andproclaims itself, in its four-movement form, a Sonata da chiesa (churchsonata).


The Concertogrosso achieves its most perfect form in the twelve Concerti grossi,Opus 6, of Corelli, published in Romein 1712, with the Christmas Concerto, included here, the best known.


During theperiod of development from concerto grosso to solo concerto came two intermediateforms, the opera-sinfonia and the concerto a cinque in which the solopart with its virtuoso violin cadenza often has its own stave in thescore and a separate part-book, but is still bound in with the grosso.

The oboe concertos of Albinoni and Marcello are eloquent examples of this form.


As in thesecular solo concerto, so there developed subjective feeling and as increaseddesire for expressiveness in the sacred solo motet, which took the place of thechoral motet in the first half of the eighteenth century. Contemplative empathywith the life of Mart, the Christmas events and personal sharing in the Passionnarrative were the chief subjects of motets. Scarlatti's Christmas cantata isone of the earliest models of this new dramatic and emotional style of churchmusic.


The presentprogramme, therefore, brings together prescious compositions from the HighBaroque which are associated with the events of Christmas and which, in theirblend of the contemplative and festive, draw the modern listener under theirspell.



(Adaptedfrom the German by Keith Anderson)



Disc: 1
Concerto Grosso, G minor, Op. 6, No. 8
1 I. Allegro
2 II. Aria
3 III. Canzona
4 IV. Aria
5 I. Andante e spiccato
6 II. Adagio
7 III. Presto
8 I. Sinfonia
9 II. Recitativo 'O di Betlemme'
10 III. Aria ' Dal bel seno d'una stella'
11 IV. Recitativo 'Presa d'uomo la forma'
12 V. Aria 'L'Autor d'ogni mio bene'
13 VI. Recitativo 'Fortunati pastori'
14 VII. Aria 'Tocco la prima sorte a vio'
15 I. Allegro
16 II. Adagio
17 III. Allegro
18 I. Vivace, Grave
19 II. Allegro
20 III. Adagio, Allegro, Adagio
21 IV. Vivace
22 V. Allegro
23 VI. Pastorale
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