On 12 December 2015, Camerata Child’s Play India will perform as its centrepiece an interesting work by a composer even many classical music aficionados may not have heard about: Francesco Onofrio Manfredini (1684-1782).
The Baroque era (1600-1760) is studded with a star cast of composers who are revered even today, with Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) as their high priest, of course. But so fertile was the era that just in Bach’s birth-year alone, there was a bumper crop of pretty illustrious composers: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) along with a clutch of lesser-known peers. Even this grand trio jostle for space in the Baroque hall of fame alongside Peri, Dowland, the Portuguese Duarte Lobo, Allegri, Monteverdi, Lully, Vitali, Abel, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Albinoni, Vivaldi and Tartini. The list of the entire era is staggering, with over a thousand names. So history can perhaps be forgiven for consigning Manfredini to a footnote, if that.
But that does not really do justice to him. He was an accomplished violinist, having studied with Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709). By a strange coincidence, Camerata Child’s Play India played Torelli’s Christmas concerto last December, and for this Christmas concert, it is the turn of his pupil, Manfredini, with his own Christmas concerto (“Per il santissimo natale”, Opus 3, number 12 in C major) for 2 violins, cello, strings, and continuo. That Torelli taught Manfredini is quite significant, because Torelli is widely considered among the most important composers credited with the development of the concept of the Christmas concerto. Manfredini was one of Torelli’s most notable pupils, and would almost certainly have been inspired to write a Christmas concerto by his teacher.
Last December, I had written in one of my columns about the tradition of itinerant rustic musicians called pifferari (pipers) playing their music before images of the Madonna and Child in Italy at Christmastime, recalling the music supposedly played by shepherds at the Nativity in Bethlehem on their woodwinds and bagpipes, to ease the labour pains of the Madonna and to soothe the baby after birth.
This tradition has crept into the classical music repertoire whenever references to the Nativity are made, be it the various Christmas concertos written in the Baroque era, or L’Adieu des Bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell) from the oratorio L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). The Shepherds’ Farewell will also feature in the Camerata Child’s Play India programme.
Manfredini wrote oratorios too, nine of them; and it is a pity that these are not accessible, as only his ‘secular’ works remain in the repertoire.
Manfredini’s Christmas concerto is in three movements. The first is a Pastorale, a slow siciliano in 12/8 metre. It has a swaying rhythm reminiscent of a cradle being rocked, and paints a picture of shepherds and shepherdesses gathered at the Nativity. There are beautiful intimate passages for the two violin soloists, accompanied just by solo cello (in places, the line resembles the lowing of cattle) and continuo.
The second movement (Largo) is a sublime piece in A minor, the relative minor of C major which started the work. It is a ripieno movement for orchestra, with no soloists. The movement is built upon the concept of descending broken-chord figures, and undergo lovely transformations before launching into the joyful third movement. This is a lively gigue-like Allegro back in C major, and again has the concerto grosso structure, alternating between soloists (two violins, cello and continuo) and the rest of the orchestra (ripieno). There are undulating figures alternating in the strings while the other voices play held notes, mimicking the rustic bagpipes of the pifferari. The work ends conveying the excitement felt by the shepherds after their adoration of the Newborn.
It is a skilfully written, reverent work. One can hear the influence of Manfredini’s contemporary Antonio Vivaldi, despite the fact that it makes no extraordinary technical demands upon soloists or orchestra.
Berlioz’ L’ Adieu des Bergers (The Shepherds’ Farewell) was actually the starting point for his oratorio L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ). L‘Adieu des Bergers was first written as an organ piece for a friend, then transformed into a choral piece depicting the shepherds bidding farewell to the baby Jesus just before the flight into Egypt. Berlioz played a prank on his friends, passing it off as a work by an earlier composer called ‘Ducré’. One lady was convinced “Berlioz would never be able to write a tune as simple and as charming as this little piece by old Ducré”. The favourable reception encouraged Berlioz to gradually build upon it until the oratorio was complete.
Berlioz takes the same ‘pifferari’ devices, the woodwinds to suggest the pastoral setting, and the rocking rhythm with a melody sung almost like a lullaby, but he orchestrates this simple idea into a composition of ethereal beauty. And what struck me is that both the original French lyrics and the later English version hint at the shepherds almost knowing what is in store for the baby on growing up: “Q’un bon ange vous avertisse/ Des dangers planant sur vous” (May a good angel warn you of the dangers hovering over you). The English version refers to this Babe, all “mortal” babes excelling. Mortality is not something one thinks about at the birth of a baby. It brought home to me my own shock when as a very young child I first realised that the babe in the crib at Christmas was the same person nailed to the cross on Good Friday. The lyrics only add to the poignancy, the fragility of this masterpiece.
(An edited version of this article was published on 6 December 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)