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Cliché-Free Christmas

December 9, 2008

The California Bach Society has a long history of elegant performances, but it rather outdid itself Friday with a program titled "A Venetian Christmas." Director Paul Flight assembled a program, performed at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, entirely devoted to the glories of Venetian Christmas music from the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The program was highlighted by two Monteverdi settings of the Magnificat, the Magnificat primo tutono a quattro voci — the four-voiced one — and the even more impressive Magnificat a otto voci con sei instrumenti, for double choir and seven instruments. Along the way we heard four pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, two from Adrian Willaert.

California Bach Society

There were also single works each from more obscure composers such as Giovanni Croce, Giovanni Rigatti, Giovanni Bassano, Alessandro Grandi, Tarquinio Merula, Gregor Aichinger, and Giovanni Battista Buonamente. The fact that most concertgoers have not heard of these composers, let alone their music, is no indication of their worth. Most of them were able workmen, if not always blessed with great ideas.

I will skip listing all 12 vocal and two instrumental selections on the program, together with their Latin titles and translations. That would tax the space available to me, as well as the patience of our readers. Suffice it to say that the vocal works were largely for double choruses, sung from either side of the hall, or as single choruses stationed in the altar area.

Most were sung a cappella. Some were accompanied by various combinations from a small portative organ, two violinists with awful intonation problems, a seven-string French gamba (which the program called simply a "cello"), and a quartet of sackbuts (the early trombone).
It Started in Venice
The late 16th and early 17th centuries in Venice constituted a major period of innovation in European music. That era saw the gradual shaking off of the extreme formalities of Renaissance counterpoint, especially by means of user-friendly religious compositions. The Venetians increasingly turned toward drawing out the listeners' emotions through a more comprehensive presentation of the texts. Venice also saw the dawn of opera, with Claudio Monteverdi at its cutting edge.

Names such as Monteverdi (1567-1643), the Flemish master Willaert (1490-1562), and Gabrieli (1557-1612) have remained well-known to music lovers. It was Willaert who introduced Italian composers to the contrapuntal techniques of northern Europe before adjusting to the new Venetian style. Listeners at Friday's concert could clearly hear the superiority of invention of these three composers over their colleagues whose work was scattered throughout the program. That, however, does not mean the second level composers were just so much chopped liver.

Bassano’s Hodie Christus natus est (Christ is born today), for instance, features lively scrambled rhythms and a charming peal of alleluias rippling down the scales. There were also beautifully balanced echo effects during Grandi’s setting of Quem vidistis pastores? (Whom did you see, shepherds?), sung by the female chorus to a text also set by Gabrieli. It’s in pieces such as these that an audience hears the increasing use of folksy elements over 15th-century formality.

Some of that old-style formality appeared in the program here and there. Aichinger (1565-1628), a German immigrant to Venice, held on to the stiff contrapuntal style of his boyhood. His Noe, noe, psallite (Noel, noel, sing noels!) suffers from being no more than proper, thus avoiding the criticisms leveled at Monteverdi in Giovanni Maria Artusi’s notorious 1600 essay "On the Imperfections of Modern Music."

A major religious-music theorist in Venice, Artusi was devoted to complex counterpoint, even writing a book on the subject. Among other things, he was much upset by the use of unprepared dissonances, where Monteverdi simply hit them head on rather than sliding into them. That, and long stretches of monody, avoided orthodox counterpoint altogether.

But in the process, Monteverdi revolutionized music by opening doors to the Baroque. He also created an entirely new concept of expression, and virtually invented opera. Others had written what they called operas before him, but Monteverdi’s were the first operas truly worthy of the name. I remember Alfred Frankenstein once telling me, "Monteverdi simply solved all the problems of opera before they turned up."
To the Heights
Monteverdi also took religious music to new heights, as attentive listeners could hear in those two Magnificats, both published in 1640. The first of the two contains contrapuntal passages, while the text is secondary. But when a point needs to be vividly brought home to the congregation, Monteverdi shifts into basic, single song lines. Those he underlined with his exceptional sense of dissonant harmony.

By contrast, the second Magnificat of Friday’s program was a far more complicated piece of work. It uses six voices, and features soloistic passages, including an episode sung soli by two tenors. Then too, it's quite a lively affair in 6/8 meter, filled with folk implications, and often with frequent tempo changes. What Monteverdi did here was to turn the Magnificat text into a sort of miniopera. Monteverdi was music’s Shakespeare — simply the greatest of his age, and of most others.

Merula’s Canzone "La Maruta," Op. 12, No. 1, for violin, gamba, and small organ, turned out to be a kind of free-form set of variations of no particular distinction — or interest. The second instrumental piece, a Buonamente Sonata for two violins and a quartet of sackbuts, was scarcely better, but here the violin intonation was grating on the ear. In each case, these were mere fillers designed to give the vocalists a rest. I only wish the California Bach Society had come up with something better for instruments.

After the first part of the program took about an hour, the second was shorter and lighter. As a special little surprise, director Flight, himself a fine countertenor, turned around and sang a verse of Gabrieli’s Quem vidistis pastores?, all the while conducting the instrumental ensemble. The peak of the event, however, came with Monteverdi’s second, lively Magnificat a otto voci con sei instrumenti, a Magnificat for eight voices and seven instruments, which concluded the program. No encore was forthcoming, which was understandable. Any such attempt would likely have been a lead balloon after Monteverdi’s loftily floating, super Magnificat.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.