Writing sample by Aaron Grad.
© 2012 Aaron Grad. All rights reserved.

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Dawn Upshaw Sings Baroque Masterpieces

From Monteverdi’s first opera in 1607 to Telemann’s last oratorio in 1762, the Baroque era was a glorious time for vocal music. Most composers in that time earned their keep writing music to be sung, whether in the church, the theater, or both. For Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who spent most of his life in church positions, cantatas formed the core of his musical output. He composed more than 200 sacred cantatas for use in Lutheran services, as well as dozens of secular cantatas for other special events. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), born the same year and less than 100 miles away from Bach, first made his name composing Italian operas. As a young man, Handel served as Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, who went on to be crowned King George I of England, while the Elector’s son, whom Handel had entertained as a child, was the future George II. Handel moved to London in 1712 and served the Hanover kings until his death. He composed more than 40 operas, but his greatest contributions were his 20 oratorios set in English, most famously Messiah (1741).

A generation before Bach and Handel, Henry Purcell (1659-1695) grew from a boy chorister into England’s greatest homegrown composer. He only concentrated on theatrical music in the last six years of his too-short life, after the Protestant rulers William and Mary displaced the Catholic James II and reduced Purcell’s duties as organist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell wrote incidental music for several dozen plays, and only four works with enough singing to qualify as “semi-operas.” His one true opera, Dido and Aeneas, introduced an aria that has become an icon of the Baroque era: “Dido’s Lament,” heard here in its first ever performance by Dawn Upshaw.

HANDEL

Handel singlehandedly created the genre of the English-language oratorio, merging the best aspects of German sacred music and Italian opera. While his oratorios usually examined religious themes, they were expressly designed as public entertainment, and they earned Handel healthy profits. These works for soloists, chorus and orchestra were typically performed in theaters, although without staging, costumes or sets.

Handel composed his first English oratorio, Esther, in 1718. After 1741 he abandoned opera entirely, and he composed the majority of his oratorios in the decade that followed. Theodora (1749) tells the story of a 4th-century Christian martyr whom the Romans forced into prostitution. The Overture comprises three linked movements, a custom borrowed from Italian opera. The opening section has a French design, with the slow introduction, full of stately dotted rhythms, leading to a fast fugue. (We will encounter this pattern again on this program, from both Purcell and Bach.) The central section, labeled a trio and set in a gentle Larghetto e piano tempo, takes up a contrasting major key. The final section, a restless courante, returns to the home key of G minor.

The aria “Angels Ever Bright and Fair” comes from Act 1 of Theodora, after the heroine learns that her punishment for defying the Romans is not to be death, but consignment to a brothel. This serene song, with text by Thomas Morell, is Theodora’s plea to the angels for protection.

Handel assembled twelve concerti grossi, or “Grand Concertos,” in 1739. They were meant to help attract audiences to performances of his oratorios and odes, with the concertos appearing during the intermissions. He published the set in 1741, grouped as Opus 6. Handel’s publication shared the same opus number as Arcangelo Corelli’s posthumous collection of concerti grossi, published in England in 1714 to great acclaim. Handel also borrowed Corelli’s Opus 6 instrumentation: a solo group of two violins and cello, offset by full string sections and basso continuo.

Handel’s Concerto grosso in F Major, Op. 6, No. 2, like most of Corelli’s concertos, uses the sonata da chiesa form, with four movements grouped slow-fast-slow-fast. (Historically, a sonata da chiesa, or “church sonata,” was a more serious work considered appropriate for use in a church, as opposed to a sonata da camera, or “chamber sonata,” made up of dances.) In the opening Andante larghetto movement, the solo violins break out to follow each other in imitative counterpoint. The brisk Allegro develops a quivering neighbor-note figure, first in solos and then in full group statements. The third movement alternates between two tempos, a pastoral Largo peppered with trilling duets and a pulsing Larghetto andante. The concerto closes with a fast fugue, the subject head cleverly phrased in groups of two beats so as to cut against the grain of the 3/4 meter.

PURCELL

Purcell composed the opera Dido and Aeneas around 1689, using a libretto by Nahum Tate. The story, based on an episode from Virgil’s Aeneid, concerns the ill-fated romance between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the Trojan prince, who is tricked by a sorceress into abandoning Dido. The work was first staged at a boarding school for girls—which explains why Aeneas is the only male role—and then it was not heard again in Purcell’s lifetime. The short Overture, in two parts, again follows the French convention: first a slow introduction with dotted rhythms, and then a fast continuation.

In 1692, Purcell wrote one scene of music for a revival of Oedipus, King of Thebes, a 1678 reworking of Sophocles by Nathaniel Lee and John Dryden. The aria “Music for a While,” sung by a priest, celebrates the healing power of music. The “Alecto” referenced in the song is one of the Furies, whose role is to torment those who have wronged others, and whose head is covered in snakes, like Medusa. In the aria, music is described as being so beguiling that it has the power to cause the snakes to drop from Alecto’s head, those drops made vivid in a series of offbeat punctuations. The melody unfolds over a cycling ground bass, a signature technique for Purcell.

The next Purcell selection, “Now that the Sun Hath Veiled His Light” (familiarly known as “An Evening Hymn”) was published in a 1688 collection of hymns. Like “Music for a While,” it uses a ground bass that shifts to a contrasting key for a time. Purcell’s setting takes the text’s closing lines to heart—“And singing, praise the mercy / That prolongs thy days”—elongating the ending in jubilant repetitions of “Hallelujah!”

Shifting back to Dido and Aeneas, the next selection is a Ritornello. Meaning “return” in Italian, a ritornello is a short, self-contained musical statement that returns between numbers. This musical device appeared in the earliest operas, starting around 1600, and later developed into an instrumental form of its own, heard in many of Vivaldi’s concertos, for example.

In the closing scene of Dido and Aeneas, Aeneas has left, and Dido knows her death is near. The recitative “Thy Hand, Belinda” is Dido’s entreaty to her sister Belinda, and it prefaces Dido’s legendary final aria, “When I am Laid in Earth,” commonly known as “Dido’s Lament.” Before she dies, heartbroken, she takes her leave with this poignant goodbye, closing with the plaintive repetition, “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” This aria is Purcell’s most famous example of a ground bass, with the five-measure cycle hewing a chromatic descent that embodies Dido’s own impending burial.

Purcell’s last major theater work was the 1695 semi-opera The Indian Queen, based on a 1664 play by John Dryden and Sir Robert Howard. In the fanciful tragedy, the Mexican queen Zempoalla is waging war against the Peruvians. Zempoalla falls in love with the mercenary Montezuma, who had recently joined the Mexican side, but only because he was banished from the opposing camp for asking to marry the Peruvian princess, whom he still loves. In “I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly in Vain,” Zempoalla tries to forswear her hopeless love for Montezuma. Much of the music is surprisingly chipper, perhaps a sign of Zempoalla’s reluctance to relinquish her feelings.  The Third Act Tune follows Zempoalla’s aria, bringing down the curtain with a docile Rondeau.

BACH

From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach directed music for the principal churches of Leipzig. While his church duties required him to compose mostly sacred music, Bach found a secular outlet when he took a side job in 1729 to run the Collegium Musicum, an amateur ensemble originally founded by Telemann. Bach wrote four Orchestral Suitesfor that group, including the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, composed around 1731. The Overture is another example of the French style, descended from the opera and ballet overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Bach’s Overture maintains the same tempo between the slow and fast sections, with quicker rhythms creating the illusion of a jump in tempo. The overture shifts seamlessly between the flowing fugue and the stately opening material, closing in the more ceremonial mood of the slower music.

Bach’s Cantata No. 202 (“Wedding Cantata”) was likely composed in 1723 in Cöthen, where Bach’s duties were mainly secular. He wrote this solo cantata for a wedding, probably in the springtime, judging by the text. The opening aria, “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten,begins in a slow Adagio tempo with rising string figures. A mellifluous oboe serves as the obbligato counterpart to the soprano. The pace quickens for the second portion of the text, beginning with “Flora’s mirth.” A da capo (“from the head”) repeat closes the aria with the initial wintry material.

Returning to Bach’s instrumental music, the Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 is one of his most well-known movements. Its fame stems from a 19th-century arrangement by violinist August Wilhelmj, who transposed the melody so he could play it all on his lowest string, hence the nickname “Air on the G String.” In Bach’s practice, an air indicated a song-like composition, just as the familiar term for a vocal solo, aria, is Italian for “air.”

Composed in Weimar in 1714, Bach’s Cantata No. 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” is a sacred work, intended for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. The aria “Wie freudig ist mein Herz” (“How Joyful is My Heart”) sets a cheerful text by Georg Christian Lehms in a bouncing triplet meter.

Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite ends with a series of dances borrowed from French traditions. The Gavotte features a heavy pulse of two beats per measure, with the introductory upbeat of each phrase emphasized. A second Gavotte begins with unison figures; when it is complete, a da capo marking sends the ensemble back through the first Gavotte. Next, the sprightly Bourée stays on its toes with the added zest of trumpets and timpani accentuating the weak beats. The closing Gigue, a dance adapted in France from the jigs of the British Isles, retains the reeling triplet pulse of its folk source.

By the time Bach and Handel died, the rich Baroque style they had perfected was in its final throes. Bach’s own sons helped lead the charge toward the lean and balanced aesthetic that would come to define the Classical era, an ascendant time for abstracted instrumental forms such as the symphony, concerto and string quartet. Composers continued writing for voices, but never again would sung music be so central to the art and profession of composition as it was for the Baroque masters.