Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Salve Regina (1756)
Twenty-five years ago, all of us in the world of classical music were revving up for the 300th anniversary of the shared birth year of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti. Music festivals were being planned, recording collections were being compiled, and books and scholarly editions of music were hitting the presses. For lovers of Baroque music, the frenzy generated by that particular tercentennial in 1985 was far more exciting than our own nation’s bicentennial in 1976 had been, or even than the Y2K celebrations would generate fifteen years later. What caught many of us off guard, though, was the inclusion of Domenico Scarlatti. To some, that shared presence seemed like an annexation; such can be the nature of the rather exclusive pride shared by some Handelians and Bach followers. But to others, it was an opportunity to learn more about Scarlatti and to clarify the otherwise blurred lines of distinction between him and his father, Alessandro, born twenty-five years earlier.
Domenico Scarlatti (born, of course, in 1685) was the son of one of the most influential composers of Italian opera. That’s quite an estimation, but it is nevertheless true. Alessandro’s work did much to differentiate the singing styles of aria from recitative. His compositions also established the Neapolitan style of overture: three movements that follow the pattern of fast–slow–fast tempos. And it was his primary focus on vocal music that led to his composition of more than 600 cantatas. Domenico’s reputation is founded on at least the same number of compositions for keyboard (but probably many more), of which about 550 have survived. A virtuoso widely acclaimed in his own day, he traveled throughout Europe as a performer, and he is credited as being one of the few primary founders of the “modern” school of keyboard playing, having incorporated previously un- or under-utilized technical devices including rapid arpeggios, quickly repeated notes, and hand-crossings.
Of note is the fact that the father’s domineering control over his son was stifling, so much so that in 1717, at the age of thirty-two, Domenico had to secure legal intervention to free himself from Alessandro’s authority and interference. What followed was a period of great productivity and invention, manifested in those superior keyboard works. In 1719, Domenico moved to Lisbon and gave keyboard lessons to the Portuguese princess, Maria Barbara. After marrying in Rome in 1727, he followed Maria Barbara, now wed to the Spanish crown prince, to the court in Seville and later to the court in Madrid, where he remained for the rest of his life. He became good friends with the famous castrato, Farinelli, who copied out a number of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas and later transported them to Italy. In his last year, though, Scarlatti turned his pen back again to the composition of sacred music, a focus that had been mostly suppressed since his employment as Maestro di Cappella at the Basilica Giulia in Rome from 1713 to 1717. Ralph Kirkpatrick, one of America’s foremost harpsichordists and authorities on Scarlatti’s life and works, wrote in his biography of the composer the following bit of intuitively enhanced insight:
“Soon thereafter , for what may have been the first time in years, Scarlatti deserted the harpsichord to compose his last work, a beautiful Salve Regina for soprano and strings. Perhaps he did not need to come to Spain to find out the meaning of the phrase ‘in hac lacrymarum valle’ [‘in this vale of tears’], which he set so eloquently. But surely he had ample occasion to learn it. The whole rustle and bustle of the harpsichord has suddenly ceased, and we hear his prayer to the Mother of Heaven: ‘ad te, ad te clamamus’ [‘to thee, to thee we cry’].”
Although imbued with a touch of romanticism, Kirkpatrick’s words refer to the misapprehension that Scarlatti returned to Naples in 1754, presumably to live out his last days there. But no such homecoming took place. And perhaps Kirkpatrick’s reference to Scarlatti’s own experience “in a vale of tears” refers more to his professional and paternal conflicts than to any spiritual ones. Nevertheless, his return at the age of seventy to the composition of sacred music produced a truly sublime work.
Originally composed for soprano (quite probably for Farinelli) and strings, we perform the Salve Regina transposed down a whole tone to accommodate richer color of the alto voice. The motet opens ecstatically with a series of suspensions that always seem best executed in the hands of composers from the Italian Baroque school. Trumpet-like fanfares, played by the violins, give credence to the sincerity of the cries of Eve’s children, and the ensuing drawn out declamations of “exules” [“exiles”] leave no doubt as to the reality of their desolation. From here on, the masterful word-painting reaches new heights of effectiveness, one after another, until a suitably reserved but highly confident “Amen” gives the singer a chance to move from sheer expressiveness to more outgoing vocalism.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170 (1726)
“Bach’s cantatas were closely associated with the texts of the New Testament readings at the main morning service, thus providing a commentary and reflection on the Scripture concerned. Most importantly, the music provided a depth of emotional engagement that no other art could muster. Thus, in the tradition of Luther’s own supreme regard for both music and preaching, the cantata was profiled as a focal point of the service, together with the sermon itself (indeed these followed one another in the liturgy).”
Thus John Butt explains the essence of the mutually dependent relationship between the scriptures and the precise rhetoric of Bach’s cantatas. For the sixth Sunday after Trinity, the Gospel reading is an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, in which is decried the failings of the scribes and Pharisees to uphold the law, compared to the righteousness of the true Christian. Accordingly, Bach chose a text (by Georg Christian Lehms) that, completely through poetic verse, points out the falsities of the inhabitants of a perverted world, “a house of sin” (“Sündenhaus”), and points directly to the only viable alternative: one must move as quickly as possible from life to death in order to be received all the sooner by Jesus. While there is a great deal of musical finger-pointing to be heard, the cantata begins conversely with music that is as rapturous as any that can be found in all of Bach’s cantatas. Scored for oboe d’amore and strings—the “alto” quality of the oboe d’amore blending richly with the first violin—the first movement is really a pastorale; its gently rocking motion, slowly descending bass notes, and occasional pedal tones create a peaceful and reassuring texture over which the expansive vocal lines of the alto soloist reveal the happy contemplations of the poet’s voice, who rests contentedly in his state of righteousness. The effect is rhapsodic, but all too short-lived. The stark realities of the harsh nature of life on earth, especially as evidenced by the great distance by which Man has alienated his God, are lamented in a dry (or “secco”) recitative that is oddly devoid of the sort of angular and jarring harmonies that one might expect from Bach in setting a text of this sort. Rather it is the unadorned and nearly stoic quality of the harmony that aptly represent depravity and loss.
The central aria is nothing less than a masterwork of rhetorical complexity and achievement. Here the organ takes on a solo role (organo obbligato), but its utilization is hardly in keeping with Bach’s usual method of writing for the instrument within the context of a cantata. Most often, i.e. in other cantatas, a solo organ part is introduced in a sinfonia that amounts, more or less, to an organ concerto. But in this case, by reserving the instrument for a later movement, its entrance is highly dramatic. In this aria, the absence of a bass (continuo) line takes on the significance that Bach generally ascribes to such movements. Alfred Dürr (translated by Richard D. P. Jones) describes the lack of “foundation” as being meant to convey one of two things:
“In order to realize Bach’s intention we must bear in mind the function of the thoroughbass at that time: it was the foundation, the reliable support of all music. As a rule, its omission by Bach has a symbolic character and refers either to someone who does not need this support or else to someone who has lost it, who no longer has the ground under his feet and has withdrawn from God.” (from The Cantatas of J.S. Bach)
The brilliance of this implementation is that the bassetto line (the lowest line here played by violins and viola in unison, rather than by the continuo or bass section) signifies both! The poet’s voice (the alto soloist) does not need the support because he is already well on his way to redemption, but the perverted hearts (“verkehrten Herzen”) to which he refers are so hopelessly lost that they no longer have “a leg to stand on.” Above this lack of solid ground, the organist plays two melodic lines that are nearly always more dissonant and in conflict with each other than they are in agreement, or consonant. In fact, the only brief moments when the organ part sounds at all pleasant are, ironically, when the text describes either the rejoicing in vengeance and hatred of the contrary souls, or their mocking scorn of God’s sentencing admonitions. Listen for the horn-like passages of parallel motion, as if the only moments during which the lost can agree are when they utter blasphemies or voice their hateful sentiments. In other words, the otherwise “twisted” organ parts have only brief excursions of relief, but those fleeting moments are only the self-deluded exercises of false souls.
In yet another layer of truly fascinating intricacy, those same “twisted” and discordant voices played by the organ are full of another of Bach’s most stereotypical melodic devices: the crossings up and down of chromatic notes depict, literally on the page, the cross by which the false scribes and Pharisees might hope to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. Indeed, the singer negotiates the difficult-sounding chromaticism with great ease, having already recognized that the passage to his own salvation is through such tests of stamina and harmonic struggle. One more overt depiction of this most unpleasant scene occurs when the singer trills on the word “verlacht” in describing the way in which the Satanic subjects laugh at God.
The penultimate movement is an accompanied recitative. Here the strings lend an elevated, more “heavenly” texture, reminiscent of Bach’s famed treatment of the recitatives of Christus in the Saint Matthew Passion. At this point, the singer recalls God’s instructions to love enemies as one would love friends. The music quickly takes on a lovely and comforting sonority, the recitative turning to arioso for its last verses. Remarkable qualities of the last movement are no less significant than the complexities of the middle aria. The organ, which had previously been charged with representing hatred and adversity, now plays a jubilantly animated accompaniment to the singer’s resolve to move expediently to the next life. But this release is only after the opening bar (whether played or sung) in which the “unsingable” and certainly unpleasant interval of a tritone is employed to melodically depict the word “loathe” (“ekelt”).
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Arias from Opera and Oratorio
Many of Handel’s successes were generated by the charmed nature of his knack for following on the heels of new musical trends, but making much better of them than any other composer ever could. By the time he arrived in London, its audiences had already been introduced to Italian opera, and specifically to the nature of opera seria, characterized by the predominance of da capo arias with their A–B–A form. What is most remarkable about Handel’s genius, though, was his ability to humanize characters, even within the restrictions of the conventions of opera seria. Scenes and arias typically had to fit rigidly prescribed dramatic molds, yet Handel and his music brought truly personalized characters to the London theatres, all the while providing singers with the most delicious opportunities to exhibit their crafts as expressive and athletic vocalists.
The arias chosen for these concerts (and for the recording that will be made next week) were all written for castrati. But it is important to note the differences between castrati, countertenors, and what we nowadays call “pants roles.” Castrati had a wide variety of ranges. There were soprano castrati, mezzo-soprano castrati, and alto castrati, corresponding with the typical ranges of their female counterparts. A countertenor is a “surgically intact” male who sings in the range of an alto. And a “pants role” is simply a male character (within a dramatic work) that is sung by a female singer. All of these manifestations of vocal gifts and ranges existed in Handel’s day, and all were employed by Handel in his various London theatres. A modern-day countertenor, in the absence of castrati, may choose to sing some roles that were intended for castrati. But some will be impractical, as a good number were written for singers with a very high soprano range. Ariodante is a good case in point; its tessitura (or predominant range) is really much too high for almost any countertenor. A modern-day countertenor can also choose to sing roles that were originally composed for countertenors, but those existed primarily in Handel’s oratorios. (Countertenors were, and still are, an integral component of cathedral and chapel choirs.) But what is probably not appropriate, and certainly not necessary due to any lack of available and qualifed singers, would be the performance by countertenors of roles that were specifically written for female voices, despite the gender of the character that is meant to be portrayed.
Having chosen for these performances arias of operatic roles that were created for castrati is simply an arbitrary and deliberate decision. It is also a rather clever one, as practically none among Handel’s singers were as famous and celebrated as his castrati. For them he composed his best works. They were brilliant technicians and even more compelling interpreters. Each one would typically have a set of “demands” when it came to the particular nature of the fioratura (fast passage work) and other dramatically expressive devices that Handel would employ in their arias. They each had their trademark effects, and Handel intelligently would include opportunities for them in his operas. After all, the continued success and celebrity of his singers would have a logically beneficial impact on ticket sales and, ultimately, his own income.
The first half of the eighteenth century was a golden age of singing, and an even more resplendent one when we consider the inestimable worth of Handel’s glorious operas and oratorios.
– © Jeffrey Thomas
Salve Regina (1756)
Alto solo, Strings, Basso continuo
Salve Regina, mater misericordiae;
Vita dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Hail, O Queen, mother of pity;
Our life, delight, and hope, hail.
Andante - Grave
Ad te clamamus exules filii Hevae.
To thee we cry, Eve’s children, exiles.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle.
To thee we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Eja ergo advocata nostra illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
See then how we call to thee and turn thou those pitying eyes on us,
and Jesus, blessed fruit of thy womb,
Nobis post hoc exilium ostende.
Show us after this our exile.
O clemens, o pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.
O merciful, O faithful, O sweet maiden Mary.
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170
Alto solo, Oboe d’amore, Organo obbligato à 2 Clav.,Violino I/II, Viola, Continuo
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust!
Dich kann man nicht bei Höllensünden,
Wohl aber Himmelseintracht finden;
Du stärkst allein die schwache Brust.
Drum sollen lauter Tugendgaben
In meinem Herzen Wohnung haben.
Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul!
you cannot be found among the sins of hell,
but rather in the concord of heaven;
you alone strengthen the weak breast.
Therefore the pure gifts of virtue
shall have their dwelling in my heart.
Die Welt, das Sündenhaus,
Bricht nur in Höllenlieder aus
Und sucht durch Haß und Neid
Des Satans Bild an sich zu tragen.
Ihr Mund ist voller Ottergift,
Der oft die Unschuld tödlich trifft,
Und will allein von Racha! sagen.
Gerechter Gott, wie weit
Ist doch der Mensch von dir entfernet;
Du liebst, jedoch sein Mund
Macht Fluch und Feindschaft kund
Und will den Nächsten nur mit Füßen treten.
Ach! diese Schuld ist schwerlich zu verbeten.
The world, that house of sin,
erupts only in hellish songs,
and attempts, through hatred and envy,
to carry Satan’s image upon itself.
Its mouth is full of viper’s venom,
which often mortally attacks the innocent,
and will only utter vengeance!
Righteous God, how far
has humanity distanced itself from You;
You love, yet its mouth
proclaims curses and enmity
and wishes only to trample a neighbor under its feet.
Alas! this crime is difficult to atone for.
Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen,
Die dir, mein Gott, so sehr zuwider sein;
Ich zittre recht und fühle tausend Schmerzen,
Wenn sie sich nur an Rach und Haß erfreun.
Gerechter Gott, was magst du doch gedenken,
Wenn sie allein mit rechten Satansränken
Dein scharfes Strafgebot so frech verlacht.
Ach! ohne Zweifel hast du so gedacht:
Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen!
How I surely pity the perverted hearts
that are so very contrary to You, my God!
I truly tremble and feel a thousand pains,
when they rejoice only in vengeance and hate.
Righteous God, what might You be thinking,
when they, with true Satanic guiles,
so impudently deride Your strict command for punishment.
Alas! Without a doubt You have thought:
how I surely pity these perverted hearts!
Wer sollte sich demnach
Wohl hier zu leben wünschen,
Wenn man nur Haß und Ungemach
Vor seine Liebe sieht?
Doch, weil ich auch den Feind
Wie meinen besten Freund
Nach Gottes Vorschrift lieben soll,
Mein Herze Zorn und Groll
Und wünscht allein bei Gott zu leben,
Der selbst die Liebe heißt.
Ach, eintrachtvoller Geist,
Wenn wird er dir doch nur
Sein Himmelszion geben?
Who should hereafter
wish, indeed, to live here,
when one sees only hatred and adversity
in return for His love?
Yet, since I too should love my enemy
like my best friend
according to God’s instruction,
my heart flees
from anger and resentment,
and wishes only to live with God,
who is Himself called Love.
Ah, spirit full of concord,
when will He indeed give you
His heavenly Zion?
Mir ekelt mehr zu leben,
Drum nimm mich, Jesu, hin!
Mir graut vor allen Sünden,
Laß mich dies Wohnhaus finden,
Woselbst ich ruhig bin.
I loathe to live longer,
therefore take me away, Jesus!
I shudder at all my sins,
let me find this dwelling-place
where I may be at peace.
O Lord, whose mercies numberless (Largo)
David’s aria from Saul | Libretto by Charles Jennens, after I Samuel:17–II Samuel:1 and Abraham Cowley: Davideis
O Lord, whose mercies numberless
O’er all thy works prevail:
Tho’ daily man Thy law transgress,
Thy patience cannot fail.
If yet his sin be not too great,
The busy fiend control;
Yet longer for repentance wait,
And heal his wounded soul.
Cara sposa (Largo)
Rinaldo’s aria from Rinaldo | Libretto by Aaron Hill (after Torquato Tasso: La Gerusalemme liberata), translated into Italian by Giacomo Rossi
Cara sposa, amante cara, dove sei?
Deh! ritorna a’ pianti miei.
Del vostro Erebo sull’ara
colla face del mio sdegno
io vi sfido, o spirti rei.
My dear betrothed, my dear one, where are you?
Come back at my tears.
Evil spirits, I defy you
with the fire of my wrath
on your infernal altar.
Va tacito e nascosto (Andante, e piano)
Cesare’s aria from Giulio Cesare | Libretto by Nicolo Francesco Haim
Va tacito e nascosto,
quand’ avido è di preda,
E chi è a mal far disposto,
non brama che si veda
l’inganno del suo cor.
Silently and stealthily
the cunning hunter moves
when he is eager for prey.
And he who is disposed to evil
does not wish the deceitfulness
of his heart to be seen.
Frondi tenere e belle...Ombra mai fu
Serse’s aria from Serse | Libretto adapted from Nicola Minato and Silvio Stampiglia
Frondi tenere e belle
del mio platano amato,
per voi risplenda il Fato.
Tuoni, lampi, e procelle
non v’oltraggino mai la cara pace,
né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.
Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
Ombra mai fu
care ed amabile
Never was made
more dear and loving
Ah! stigie larve...Vaghe pupille
Orlando’s scene from Orlando | Libretto adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece, after Ludovico Ariosto: Orlando furioso
Ah, Stigie larve!
Ah, scelerati spettri,
che la perfida donna ora ascondete,
perchè al mio amor offeso,
al mio giusto furor non la rendete? Ah, misero e schernito!
L’ingrata già m’ha ucciso;
sono lo spirto mio da me diviso,
e qual’ombra adesso io voglio
varcar là giù ne’regni del cordoglio! Ecco la Stigia barca;
di Caronte a dispetto
già solco l’onde nere.
Ecco di Pluto le affumicate soglie,
e l’arso tetto.
Ah, Stygian shades!
Ah, fearful spectres,
who now hide that faithless woman,
why do you not give her up
to my offended love and righteous wrath? Wretched and scorned am I!
The ingrate has killed me;
I am but my spirit divided from myself,
I am a shade
and as a shade I wish to enter
the realm of the underworld! Behold the Stygian ferryboat;
In spite of Charon,
I plow the black waves.
Behold the soot-blackened doors
and the burnt roof of Pluto.
Già latra Cerbero
e già dell’Erebo
sen viene a me!
Now Cerebus begins to howl,
and out of Hell
all kinds of
come toward me!
Ma la Furia,
che sol mi diè martoro, dov’è?
Questa è Medoro!
A Proserpina in braccio vedo che fugge,
or a strapparla io corro —
Ah! Proserpina piange?
Vien meno il mio furore,
se si piange all’inferno anco d’amore.
But where is the Fury,
who alone torments me, where is she?
There is Medoro!
To Proserpina’s arms I see him flee,
now I run to pull her away —
Ah! Proserpina weeps?
Now my rage abates,
for I see that even in Hell one weeps for love.
A tempo di Gavotta
Vaghe pupille, no, non piangete, no,
che del pianto ancor nel regno
può in ogn’un destar pietà.
Vaghe pupille, no, non piangete, no!
Mà sì, pupille, sì piangete, sì,
che sordo al vostro incanto
ho un core d’adamanto,
nè calma il mio furor.
Ma sì, pupille, sì piangete, sì.
Beautiful eyes, do not weep,
even in this realm
weeping can call forth pity in anyone.
Beautiful eyes, do not weep!
But yes, eyes, yes, do weep,
I am deaf to your spells,
I have an adamantine heart,
and my rage will not be quelled.
But yes, eyes, yes, do weep.
Al lampo dell’armi (Allegro)
Cesare’s aria from Giulio Cesare | Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, adapted from Giacomo Francesco Bussani
Al lampo dell’armi
Non fia che disarmi
la destra guerriera
che forza le dà.
In the shimmering of arms
This my warring soul
Will take revenge.
Whatever gives it its strength
this fighting hand.
Recording Engineer: Andrés Villalta
Producer: Chris Landen
Ian Howell photo: Koren Reyes
Recorded April 23-25, 2008 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, CA
This recording was made possible through the generosity of James Meehan, Fraser and Helen Muirhead, Hugh Davies and Kaneez Munjee, Russ Irwin, Richard and Sharon Boyer, John and Lois Crowe, Tom Flesher and Adam Verret, Jan Goldberg and Ken Hoffman, Richard and Patricia Lee, Paul and Sandra Ogden, Gambs Family Foundation, and Connie Harden.