The sacred oratorio Messiah (HWV 56) by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is arguably one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in western music. Handel wrote it in 1741, to a scriptural text by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version from the Psalms included in the Book of Common Prayer. In contrast to most of his other oratorios, in Messiah the singers do not assume dramatic roles, and there is no single dominant narrative voice. The three-part structure of the oratorio resembles that of Handel’s three-act operas, and Jennens further subdivides the “parts” into “scenes.” Handel used a technique called ‘text painting’, where musical lines mimic the lines of the text.
This concert programme features both the instrumental movements in the work. The opening Symphony is in the style of a French overture, and formally subdivided into two parts in complementary styles: a slow part in dotted rhythms ending in a half-cadence in the dominant key; this is followed by fast part in fugal style, ending in a brief recollection of first part, repeating some of its melodic content. The pastorale Pifa (or ‘Piva’, the Italian word for bagpipe, played by shepherd pipers or ‘pifferare’ who descended from the Italian mountains to play in village streets at Christmastime) is the second instrumental work. It is often called the “pastoral symphony’ and is positioned at the middle of Part I of the Messiah oratorio.
Three soprano arias are also featured in this programme: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!” is the opening aria Scene Five (Christ’s healing and redemption) of Part I; “How beautiful are the feet” is the third movement of Scene Five (The beginnings of Gospel preaching) of Part II; and “I know that my redeemer liveth” opens Scene I (The promise of eternal life) of Part III.
The Brandenburg concerti (originally titled Six concerts à plusiers instruments) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are a set of six instrumental works presented by him to Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg- Schwedt in 1721, perhaps as a thinly-disguised ‘job application.’ Unfortunately, Bach received nothing in return, not even a fee, a performance or even a thank-you. Nevertheless, they are widely considered as among the best orchestral compositions of the Baroque period.
The Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major BWV 1048 is scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos and basso continuo (including harpsichord). It was probably written in Weimar, and is in the style of an Italian concerto grosso that Bach seemed so taken by at this time. The work has Vivaldian motoric rhythm, clear melodic shapes and motivic construction but Bach improves upon this form with his clarified harmony and much more interesting counterpoint.
The lines between the concertino (the ‘soloists’) and the ‘ripieno’ (the whole ensemble) get blurred in a kaleidoscopic whirl of colours, as various sections of the ensemble ‘step back’ at different points to allow the others to make their musical statement.
The lovely central Andante movement of Mozart’s Opus K. 138 (125c) features on this concert programme for its peaceful ardour and its tender lyricism. It was written in early 1772 in Salzburg, when he was sixteen, when he was preparing to set out with his father on his third and last trip to Italy (It was in this trip that he wrote his ‘Exsultate jubilate.’). The K. 138 work is believed not to have been given a specific title by Mozart, and was written as a set of three works in readiness for his forthcoming trip in the event that a potential patron should request his music. In this sense, this too is a ‘job application.’ Even the forces (string quartet or small ensemble) are not so clear. This movement has a definite Italianate mood, charm and elegance.
Exsultate Jubilate K. 165 is a religious solo motet composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) in 1773 when he was just a few days away from his seventeenth birthday, in Milan. It was written specifically with the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, to whom Mozart had also given the role of Cecilio in his opera Lucio Silla. It is now sung by soprano. But the fact that it was conceived for a gifted castrato is obvious from the wide span from high to very low notes, and its coloratura style.
Although the term ‘motet’ usually denotes a piece of Renaissance choral music, Mozart applied it to this work in keeping with the description of his contemporary composer-colleague Johann Joachim Quantz: ‘In Italy the name [motet] is applied at present time to a sacred Latin solo cantata that consists of two arias and two recitatives that closes with an Alleluia, and is sung by one of the best singers during the Mass after the Credo…A motet [does not resemble] a gay opera aria…[but] in general the introduction of more liveliness is permitted in the church music of the Catholics than that of the Protestants’.
Its three-movement structure seems to have inspired Mozart’s instrumental concertos, a genre he embarked upon shortly after having written Exsultate. This work begins with a brightly scored Allegro proclaiming ‘Exsultate jubilate’ (Rejoice, be glad!). A recitative ‘Fulget amica dies’ (The friendly day shines forth) is the ‘bridge’ to the second movement ‘Tu virginum corona’ (You, O crown of virgins). The last movement is an ecstatic Allegro presto ‘Alleluja” paean, bursting forth with joy and full of operatic flourishes.
Programme notes © Dr. Luis Dias
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