Handel’s Tra le fiamme and cantatas by Bernier, Clérmbault, and Hasse
Passa da pena in pena Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783)
Thea Lobo, mezzo soprano; Na’ama Lion, flute;
Rebecca Shaw, cello; Andrus Madsen, harpsichord
Le Triomphe de Psiche Nicola Bernier (1665–1734)
Shannon Canavin, soprano; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba;
Andrus Madsen, harpsichord
L’Amour piqué par une abeille Louis Nicolas Clérambault (1676–1749)
Jason McStoots, tenor; Catherine Liddell, theorbo;
Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba; Andrus Madsen, harpsichord
Tra le fiamme George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)
Shannon Canavin, soprano; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba;
Laura Gulley & Cynthia Miller Freivogel, violin;
Heloise Degrugillier & Justin Godoy, recorder;
Lindsay Fernandez-Hollingshead, oboe; Elizabeth Hardy, bassoon;
Catherine Liddell, theorbo; Rebecca Shaw, cello;
Andrus Madsen, harpsichord
Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 3pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston
Notes on the Program
From the time of the Renaissance onwards, the arts were, for the nobility of Europe, a distinctive feature of aristocratic life that spoke of a high level of cultivation and could be used as a tool for public prestige. Performances of chamber music for a small circle of connoisseurs in splendid stately-home settings were one element in this culture of the pursuit of beauty. The music was commissioned from professional composers and often could be performed not only by well-established virtuosos, but also by amateur musicians among the patrons themselves, who were able to take their place at the keyboard, or pick up a violin. Today’s program offers four cantatas by French and German composers with strong Italian influence that represent some of the finest examples of the 17th- and 18th-century cantata forms for such nobility and settings.
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699–1783) made his first appearances in Northern Germany as a tenor, and when he was not much more than 20 he travelled to Italy, where he assimilated the country’s culture to a profound degree: he converted to Catholicism, spoke only Italian, set texts exclusively in Latin or Italian, and married one of the international stars of Italian opera, Faustina Bordoni. He spent his career primarily in central Europe (30 years as Kapellmeister in Dresden and a decade at the Imperial Court in Vienna), but never severed his links with Italy, particularly with Venice, where he returned as opera composer and chorus master at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, and where he was ultimately buried. He stood as a model for the Enlightenment (in the dedication of his Six Sonatas Op. 3, the young Mozart hoped to become “immortal, like Handel and Hasse”), only to fade from European musical consciousness, but today has become a renewed focus of interest for scholars and performers.
Although Hasse’s teacher in Naples, Alessandro Scarlatti, was an inevitable model for the younger composer’s cantatas, the new wind of the pre-classical style that the composer himself was helping to create at the very time pervades his vocal music. It can be heard in the freshness of his melodic invention, the clever use of rhythm, the natural quality of the coloratura writing, and the transparent accompanying textures: in a nutshell, those characteristics that Hasse’s operatic music would establish on a continental scale as a model of the new style.
Nicolas Bernier (1665–1734) was a leading exponent of the French cantata and strongly influenced by the Italian style. He distinguished himself as a composer, clavecinist, theoretician, and pedagogue. He held great respect as a musician, and became perhaps the most renowned teacher identified with the second generation of grand motet composers. Bernier is thought to have received his training in his hometown of Mantes-la-Jolie, about thirty miles downstream from Paris, and at the cathedral of Évreux, after which he studied in Rome with Antonio Caldara. After spending a few years in Paris, where he made a name for himself as a harpsichord teacher, he became maître de musique at Chartres Cathedral in 1694, a position he left four years later to take up similar duties at St. Germain l’Auxerrois in Paris. He then accepted a post at Ste Chapelle in Paris (1704–1726), where he succeeded Marc-Antoine Charpentier. In 1723 he was appointed to serve the Royal Chapel at Versailles, a post he held for the rest of his life. Bernier may be viewed as a progressive force in French music, one that forged a good balance of French and Italian elements in his works. He probably became most famous for his secular cantatas and petits motets that became available in print, but 11 grands motets survive; at least 9 others have been lost.
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676–1749) came from and later added to a family known for its musical service to French royalty; his father, Dominique Clérambault, was a musician for the king’s violin consort (the famed Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi), and he himself served both at Versailles and at royal churches. Both his sons were musicians and organists for royal churches, and one of them, César François Nicolas, was also a minor composer. He was one of the most respected composers and performers of his time, and like Campra, helped to lead French music out of the musical isolation that Lully had imposed, adding more melodiousness and energy to the delicacy and grace that had become almost the sole considerations for composition and performance. Also like Campra, Clérambault added a strong Italian influence, but with a French style; one contemporary quotation says that “If Campra writes modulations in the Italian style, [his music] speaks in the French style.” He was also one of the first composers to give names to his sonatas.
Clérambault’s 25 cantatas are a veritable compendium of the genre, ranging from the galant L’Amour piqué par une abeille to the larger dramatic ones for which he was chiefly known, such as Orphée and Léandre et Héro. The first cantata of his first book, L’Amour piqué par une abeille (“Love [or Cupid] stung by a bee”), is a delightful introduction to his art. In this work, a witty text is wedded to music of the utmost delicacy and charm. At its climax, when Cupid, who has been stung while smelling a flower, cries out in pain, his mother, Venus, chides and moralizes as she heals his wound. The Italian influence on Clérambault’s music can be heard in this cantata, as in the patterned sequences of sevenths underlining the word “chaines” so pictorially.
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was born in Halle, Germany one month before J. S. Bach. Though his father intended for him to go into law, Handel’s musical interests and gifts prevailed. Following his musical studies in Germany, Handel spent more than 3 years in Italy (1706-1710), during which time he studied with Corelli, the master of the Trio Sonata. Handel wrote a number of cantatas during his Italian years, mostly for solo voice and instrumental ensemble, intended for performance at private occasions hosted by nobles in their great houses. They were generally dramatic portrayals, substituting for operas, particularly in Rome, where opera was not permitted. Tra le fiamme, which has a prominent solo part of the viola da gamba, was probably written in 1708 while Handel was under the patronage of Cardinal Pamphili, who also wrote the libretto. The main text tells the story of Icarus, who with the wings designed by his father, Daedalus, flew bravely, but approached too near the sun, melting the wax which held the apparatus together. A few verses framing this text make it clear that the story is intended to be an allegory about the heart of a man lured by love, deceived by a pretty face into flying “among the flames” seeking happiness, but it has also been conjectured that Pamphili was directing his message specifically to Handel. The image of the phoenix makes Pamphili’s voice clear, as his pastoral Arcadian name was Fenicio (phoenix) Larisseo, and perhaps he can be seen as well in the paternal figure of Daedalus (Pamphili was 54; Handel, 22). That the “advice” (the actual title of the cantata is Il consiglio, or “The Advice”) could have been directed to Handel can be suspected, not just because the cardinal handed the text to Handel to set, but also because rumors were circulating about a relationship between the composer and the singer Vittoria Tarquini, the mistress of Prince Ferdinand de’ Medici of Florence. The way William Coxe describes this in his Anecdotes of George Frederick Handel (1799) makes it sound as if Handel adhered to Pamphili’s advice: he writes that Handel’s “youth and comeliness, joined to his musical fame, had made an impression on [Vittoria’s] heart; but Handel was too prudent to encourage an attachment, which might have occasioned the ruin of both.”
Tra le fiamme, whatever its personal meaning, is an extraordinary musical work. It is distinguished by the inclusion of a virtuoso solo part for the viola da gamba, in addition to two recorders, oboe, and strings. Although Tra le fiamme is often heard with double bass (indicated by Handel’s rare specification of a “violone grosso” in the continuo part), we have chosen to follow the lead of other ensembles to omit any 16-foot instrument, allowing the sound of the solo gamba to be more beautifully magnified and clarified. In the opening aria “Tra le fiamme,” the gamba and voice interact, echo, and mirror one another, surely illustrating the singer’s heart playing like the moths among the flames. In the second aria, “Pien di nuovo e bel diletto,” the gamba generally takes a more sustaining role, seeming to depict the flight of the more cautious Daedalus (who, like the phoenix, survives), while the plunging line in the violins illustrates the consequence of Icraus’s bravado. In the third aria, “Voli per l’aria,” whose text advises that man should restrict flying to his thoughts, the gamba and voice join together in flights of fancy. Unusually, the cantata then returns to the A section of the opening aria, reiterating the dilemma of the singer’s heart that flies among the flames. An remarkable and dynamic work, it can be counted among the finest secular vocal works of the Baroque era.
Notes by Shannon Canavin