Saturday, October 5, 2013

Conductor’s Notes

            By Stephen Gothold, Music Director

Love classical choral music?

Ever wanted to know more about how a Music Director selects a program?

“Conductor’s Notes” posts several times in advance of each of our concerts, sharing through a series of brief essays the history, objectives, and personal passion that led to the choice of that particular music.

On October 26 Chorale Bel Canto sings Love Songs through the Ages at 4:00 p.m. in the Whittier College Memorial Chapel, at the corner of Philadelphia St. and Painter Ave., just east of the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts.

The music captures true love, unrequited love, illicit love, courtly love, and humorous love, expressed by composers from five centuries, from madrigals to George Gershwin and the Beatles—Monteverdi to McCartney!

The prospect of selecting music for a 75-minute program from the thousands of choral compositions dealing with the topic of Love, was at once exciting and daunting...

In the end, I gravitated toward a program organized into five groups, each group having certain aspects in common.

Our first group consists of three remarkable pieces from the high Renaissance, the latter half of the 16th century—what we now call Madrigals. Actually, the word madrigal refers to a specific kind of 16th century composition, a sophisticated yet expressive piece set to serious poetry. Many other genres exist in what we now call madrigals—light pieces with “fa-la-la’s,”--humorous and silly pieces, and chansons of many different styles and forms.

Our program opens with Mon coeur se recommande à vous, attributed to Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), a Flemish composer trained in Italy, working in Germany, and composing in French. For the last 40 years of his life, he was court composer for Albrecht V of Bavaria. He was extremely prolific, and besides a huge collection of sacred music, he composed secular music in five languages, including 150 compositions in French.

The French chanson (song) was a widely international style, composed, performed, and printed all over Europe during this period. The true “courtly” chanson is set to mature poetry, set for many voice parts, and noted for its expressivity. The piece chosen for this program is perhaps the most famous piece attributed to di Lasso, and for decades was on the recommended repertoire lists for high school choirs all over the nation. The text is by Clement Marot, who besides penning many chanson texts and epic poems, achieved great fame for translating the Psalms into French, forming the basis of worship for Jean Calvin and his followers in the Reformation.

My heart commends itself to you,
Full of weariness and torment;
Despite jealous eyes, at least
Let me bid you farewell!

My mouth that was accustomed to your smile
And used to speak with elegance,
Now only curses those who banished me from your eyes.

The second piece in this group is April is in My Mistress’ Face, by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and is taken from his First Book of Ayres (1594). It is in madrigal style, that is, composed expressively to a poetic text. In this case, the poet attributes characteristics of his lover to the months of the year, and the result is that we learn that she is rather cold-hearted.

In 1588 Nicholas Yonge published Morley’s Musica transalpina, (Music from across the Alps), a collection of Italian madrigals fitted with English texts, which touched off the explosive and colorful vogue for madrigal composition in England. Morley obviously found his compositional direction at this time, and shortly afterwards began publishing his own collections of madrigals (11 in all).

April is in my mistress’ face,
And July in her eyes hath place.
Within her bosom is September,
But in her heart a cold December.

The final piece of this set is Quel augellin che canta  (from the Fourth Book of Madrigals, by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi is one of the most important composers in music history. He trained as a Renaissance composer, but almost single-handedly propelled Italy into the Baroque period, both with his music, and by his writings about the changing aesthetics of music. He composed nine books of Madrigals, the first four of which are in Renaissance style (stile antico). The last five launch the Baroque ideals of basso continuo, word-painting, extreme contrasts of expression, and use of instruments (stile moderno). Some of these later pieces resemble opera scenes, with soloists, instruments, etc.

Monteverdi sets this poem for five voices (SSATB) in mature Renaissance style, with some sections in block chords, while flowing eighth notes in counterpoint signify the flying, singing little bird:

That little bird which sings so sweetly,
And gaily flies now from the fir to the beech tree,
And now from the beech to the myrtle,
If he had a human mind,
Would Say, I burn with love, I burn with love!
But in his heart he burns indeed,
And calls to his beloved
Who replies to him:
I too am burning with love!
How fortunate you are,
Sweet little loving bird!

Stay tuned for further notes from our conductor!

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