Program Notes – June 4, 2016

PROGRAM NOTES for the 25th Anniversary Choral Concert with James Bagwell Conducting

The sunny C-major Regina Coeli, K. 276, is the last of three settings Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made of this antiphon in praise of the Virgin. Its autograph score is lost so its date of composition is conjectural. Scholars believe that its stylistic similarities to the precisely dated Dominican Vespers place it as a work from 1779. We also know that in 1777, Mozart attended a Messiah performance in Mannheim. Among the many felicities of this piece is the thrice-repeated “Alleluia” whose rhythm immediately recalls in the listener a familiar and popular chorus by Handel.

Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed, is a motet in D major, with text composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi and autograph dated June 17, 1791. It is only forty-six bars long and is scored for SATB choir, string instruments, and organ. The manuscript contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce at the beginning. Mozart composed the motet while in the middle of writing his opera Die Zauberflöte, and while visiting his wife Constanze, who was pregnant with their sixth child. It was fewer than six months before Mozart’s death. The motet foreshadows aspects of the Requiem such as declamatory gesture, textures, and integration of forward- and backward-looking stylistic elements.

Admirers of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach consider him in many ways the most original and interesting of the composer-sons of the great Johann Sebastian. His music fell generally into the transitional period between Baroque and Classical styles, but it was distinctive and personal. Naturally, he was taught by his father, who also sent him to study violin with J.G. Graun and saw to it that W.F. Bach’s great successes in general education at Leipzig’s Thomasschule and the University of Leipzig (where he studied philosophy, law, and mathematics) did not interfere with his music. After graduation he worked as a musical assistant for his father. He left home at the age of 23 to become organist of the Sophienkirche in Dresden. This was a part-time position, allowing him time for more math studies, and composition of operas and ballets for the local Court.

In 1746, W.F. Bach became the organist at the Liebfrauenkirche in Hallé, a better position involving not only playing organ in that church, but organizing orchestral performances in the city’s three main churches. He became known for his brilliant organ improvisations and is generally listed as the last great German Baroque organist. He ran into trouble due to his interests in modern enlightenment philosophy and his inability to take seriously the very pious style of the town’s rulers. Chafing at their attempts to restrict him, he applied for various jobs elsewhere as they opened up, further irritating the town fathers.

In 1751 he married Dorothea Elisabeth Georgi. In 1756, with the coming of the Seven Years’ War, Hallé became an open city and Bach and his family suffered depredations from the various armies that went through. Despite inflation, the town fathers turned down his request for a raise in 1761. In 1762, he received an appointment as Kapellmeister in Darmstadt, seemingly a congenial position. But Bach delayed leaving Hallé and lost the job. He finally walked off the job in Hallé in 1764, setting himself up as a teacher in the town. He lived precariously after that, often sabotaging himself in attempts to get new jobs. He also earned the undying enmity of generations of music historians by losing many of the manuscripts of his father that had come into his care, receiving pages of bad press from them as a result. He treated his own music as carelessly, and much of it is also lost. He died in poverty in 1784 from a pulmonary disease.  (Artist biography by Joseph Stevenson)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s composition, Duet for 2 Violas, is one of three duets for two violas, all written in or around 1775, the same year he wrote six duets for two flutes.

Mozart composed his Sinfonia Concertante in 1779 while on a tour of Europe that included Mannheim and Paris, where the sinfonia concertante genre was growing as a showpiece for multiple soloists. His piece is scored in three movements for solo violin, solo viola, two oboes, two horns, and strings, the latter including a divided viola section, which accounts for the work’s rich harmony. This work can be considered his most successful realization in this cross-over genre between symphony and concerto. It also has a legacy. In 1808 an uncredited arrangement of the piece for string sextet Grande Sestetto Concertante was published by Sigmund Anton Steiner. More recently, the Sinfonia Concertante was mentioned in William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice; after a stranger molests Sophie on the subway, she hears the Sinfonia Concertante on the radio, which brings back memories of her childhood in Kraków and snaps her out of her depression. Variations on the slow second movement were used for the soundtrack to the 1988 Peter Greenaway film Drowning by Numbers by composer Michael Nyman. The original piece is also heard after each of the drownings in the screenplay. The American composer and bassist Edgar Meyer was so interested in this work that in 1995 he wrote a double concerto for double bass, cello and orchestra that, while very different in style, closely mirrors the structure of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. The first movement of the piece was briefly heard in the 1984 movie Amadeus, and the andante movement was featured in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film Uzak.

Jan Dismas Zelenka, aka Johann Dismas Zelenka, was a Czech Baroque composer whose music was notably adventurous with great harmonic invention and mastery of counterpoint. He studied music in Vienna and Venice in 1715 and 1716, but lived most of his life in Dresden. Zelenka played the violone, the largest and lowest member of the viol family, analogous to the double-bass in the violin family. His compositions included three oratorios, 12 masses, and numerous other pieces of sacred music. His Magnificat was apparently not written for the Vesper service on a high feast day as it does not require a festive choir of trumpets. His orchestral and vocal pieces are often virtuosic and demanding. In particular, his writing for bass instruments and oboe was said to be far more challenging than that of other composers of his era. Zelenka is known to have visited J.S. Bach, who admired him and reportedly instructed his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, to copy the Amen from Zelenka’s Magnificat for use in Leipzig at St Thomas’s. While Bach’s Magnificat is clearly the most well-known, it is difficult to ascertain who influenced whom.

Antonio Vivaldi wrote at least three settings of the hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo, whose words date probably from the 4th Century and which is an integral part of the Ordinary of the Mass. Two survive: RV 588 and RV 589. A third, RV 590, is mentioned only in the Kreuzherren catalogue and presumed lost. The RV 589 Gloria is the familiar and popular one, probably written in 1715. The Glorias remained in a relatively unknown status, until RV 589’s revival by Alfredo Casella during “Vivaldi Week” in Siena (1939), along with the Stabat Mater (RV 621). Now performed at many sacred events, including Christmas, it has been recorded on almost one hundred CDs, sometimes paired with Bach’s Magnificat, Vivaldi’s own Magnificat settings, or Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir. Gloria has also been used in a number of films. The first movement featured in the 1996 Scott Hicks film Shine about pianist David Helfgott, as well as in the 2011 film The Hunter. An adaptation of the second movement was used with profound effect in the final climactic scenes of the 1985 Andrei Konchalovsky film Runaway Train.

                                                                    — All notes have been gleaned from materials in the public domain.