Friday, March 7, 2014

Conductor's Notes

By Stephen Gothold

On April 5, Chorale Bel Canto will present two very festive works for chorus, soloists and orchestra. One is a cantata, the other an oratorio. I thought it might be helpful to describe the meanings of these terms, to better understand how and why they were written.

Cantata is an Italian term, meaning simply:  a piece to be sung, as opposed to sonata, a piece to be played on instruments. Early in the 17th century in Italy, the cantata was a secular form for one solo singer, consisting of an alternation of recitative and aria, usually accompanied only by continuo (a bass instrument and a keyboard instrument). Later in the century, composers employed a great variety of schemes, and gradually included orchestra.

As the cantata migrated north into the German speaking lands, the cantata moved into the church, again, alternating solo and recitative and gradually, adding a significant role for the chorus, and later, a vital involvement of the orchestra. The cantata reaches its greatest heights at the hands of Johann Sebastian Bach, who probably wrote over 300 pieces for use in the Lutheran Church.

His works are rich in their diversity and imagination, and almost always involve the use of chorale (Lutheran hymn).  The cantata in Bach’s time occupied a place in the liturgy similar to  the anthem in worship today. However, Lutheran worship in Leipzig was a four hour affair, the cantata (usually 20+ minutes) sung between the Gospel reading of the day and the one hour sermon. Some of the longer cantatas are divided into two parts, the sermon being delivered between the two parts.

The oratorio has a different story. The term is derived from the room , the oratory, or prayer room, where the first performances were held around 1600 in Rome. The oratorio is a first cousin of opera, in that it involves a continuous story, performed in operatic style, but without benefit of costumes, scenery or action. Elsewhere in Europe the oratorio was a substitute for the opera, which was not allowed during the seasons of Advent and Lent. Many hundreds of oratorios were written from 1600 until the middle of the 18th century, and the form was revived at the hands of Franz Josef Haydn (The Creation) and Felix Mendelssohn (Elijah). Sometimes oratorio-like compositions are called historia (stories or histories), which seems like a more appropriate term. It is ironic that the most famous of all oratorios, Messiah of George Frederick Handel, is not  a continuous story, but an arrangement of thematic Biblical passages.

Next issue we will examine Ein feste Burg, the cantata which Bach wrote for the Feast of the Reformation, using Luther’s hymn, which became the battle cry of the Reformation in the northern countries.

No comments:

Post a Comment