Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   December 12, 2015 Pr...
December 01, 2015

December 12, 2015 Program Notes

Born Bologna, 9 July, 1879; died Rome, 18 April, 1936.
Laud to the Nativity (Lauda per la Natività del Signore)
Composed 1928-30 and premiered in Siena at the Chigi-Saracini Palace, 30 November 1930, with an ensemble led by the composer. The score calls for 3 vocal soloists, chorus, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 bassoons, triangle, and piano four-hands. Performance time is about 25 minutes.

Best known for orchestral works like the tone-poem trilogy The Fountains/Pines/Festivals of Rome and his Baroque-inspired suite The Birds, Ottorino Respighi also composed a good deal of vocal music, from songs to opera. For his Laud to the Nativity he chose a very unusual ensemble to accompany his singers: a sextet of what he called “pastoral” woodwinds, namely flute and piccolo, oboe and English horn, and two bassoons. For one passage near the end he adds a piano four-hands and a triangle to brighten and enrich the sound.

For his text Respighi chose a poem by Jacopone da Todi (c.1230-1306), a Franciscan friar who wrote a number of laudi (poems of praise) in his native Umbrian dialect, and is thought to have also written the Latin poem Stabat Mater Doloroso, a favorite text for composers of many centuries. Jacopone was a controversial figure in his day because of his insistence upon a doctrine of the spiritual value of absolute poverty, and it is worth noting that his Lauda per la Natività del Signore puts considerable emphasis upon the birth of Jesus in a scene of poverty and humility.

Jacopone’s poem is in the form of a short play, with parts for an angel, a shepherd and Mary, as well as a chorus. One can easily imagine it being performed in a church setting, like Christmas pageants of modern times. In setting it to music Respighi created a work that is certainly of the 20th Century but in its harmonies and phrasings it has many echoes of medieval, Renaissance and baroque music, from plainchant and Italian carols to madrigals and Monteverdi.

The opening music for the woodwinds is in a lilting triple-beat rhythm that is traditionally considered pastoral or “Sicilian,” imitating tunes piped by shepherds. The first voice heard is that of an angel (soprano solo) announcing to the shepherds the birth of their Savior. A chorus of angels describes the manger (“mangiatoio”) of Jesus, who “does not mind lying between the ox and the ass, with hay for his coverlet.” Voices of the solo and chorus intertwine.

A shepherd (tenor solo) expresses gratitude to the Lord for descending from Heaven to Earth, with the chorus gently humming in the background. The rhythm picks up as the other shepherds arrive at the manger and remark upon the poverty of the setting. The solo shepherd repeats his prayer.
Now the English horn accompanies Mary (low soprano or mezzo solo) as she addresses her son: “As I hugged you I did not care about poverty, for you gave me so much sweetness with your eternal joy!” The chorus of shepherds sings a fervent duet with her as they offer their own cloaks as swaddling for the baby. The male voices of the chorus sing unaccompanied, in the style of medieval chant, as they ask Jesus to “give light to all people.”

The woodwinds return to introduce the shepherds’ humble request to touch the child for a moment. (The rhythm becomes syncopated as if to suggest their hesitation.) Mary grants the request, and now for the first time we hear the piano, and later the triangle, as the chorus sings “Laude, gloria e onore a te” (Praise, glory and honor to thee”). The joyful outburst subsides to a quiet glow, with the solo angel voice singing ”Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Finally, the opening pastoral music returns as Mary sings of her new joy at feeling renewed (“tutta renovata”), the angel again welcomes the birth of the Savior (“Or ecco ch’è nato il Salvatore!”), and the chorus sings a quiet “Amen.”

Born Venice, 4 March 1678; died Vienna, 28 July 1741.
Gloria in D major, RV 589
Composed c.1716 and presumed to have been first performed soon after at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. The first modern performance was on 20 September 1939, led by Alfredo Casella at Siena’s Chigi-Saracini Palace. Tonight’s performance features 2 soprano soloists, chorus, oboe, trumpet, strings and organ continuo. Performance time is about 27 minutes.

A Gloria is a part of the Latin Mass, but sometimes the words are used for a stand-alone piece of music. Such a piece always begins with words from the Christmas story according to Luke, the proclamation from the angels to the shepherds: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”).

For many years Antonio Vivaldi was maestro di violino (Violin Master) and later Master of Concerts at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage for girls and also a renowned music school. Here he not only gave lessons and conducted performances but became famous across Europe after the 1712 publication of a set of his violin concertos. At times Vivaldi served also as interim Chorus Master, in which office he was expected to write music for his singers. One result was the Gloria in D, RV 589, thought to have been composed in 1716 (shortly after another but much less well known Gloria in D, RV 588), and possibly performed to celebrate a Venetian success in a war with the Ottoman Empire. The work would have been sung originally by girls and women of the Pietà (the choral bass parts have a relatively high range).

This Gloria was one of Vivaldi’s first choral works to be revived successfully in the 20th Century, following the discovery of an original autograph score. Its modern premiere was led by composer Alfredo Casella, as part of a Vivaldi Week he had organized at the same Chigi Academy in Siena where Respighi’s Laud to the Nativity was premiered nine years earlier.

The Gloria is in twelve sections. (The very brief fourth section leads to the fifth without pause.) It opens jubilantly with lively pace, octave leaps and the bright sound of trumpet and oboe joining the strings, as the chorus sings Gloria in excelsis Deo. The second half of the angels’ proclamation, Et in terra pax, is a separate movement, the longest of the twelve: a somber, quietly impassioned plea for peace on earth.

Laudamus te (“We praise you, bless you, worship you, glorify you”) is a joyful duet for two sopranos. It’s followed by the solemn declaration Gratias agimus tibi (“We give thanks to you”), a lead-in to the allegro fugal Propter magnam gloriam tuam (“for your great glory”).

For another striking contrast, the Domine Deus (“Lord God, heavenly king, God the Father almighty”) is a lovely, gently swaying duet for soprano and oboe in a 12/8 siciliano rhythm. Then the chorus sings Domine Fili unigenite (“Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ”) with a brisk dotted rhythm, French Baroque style.

A low-soprano soloist joins with the chorus and just the bass and organ continuo for the gentle Domine Deus, Agnus Dei (“Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”). The plea for mercy continues with the chorus singing Qui tollis (“You who take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer”) in a straightforward non-contrapuntal style. The soloist returns for Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris (“You who sit to the right of the Father, have mercy on us”), in a strong-rhythmed dialogue with the strings.

The jubilant music of the opening section of the Gloria returns briefly for Quoniam tu solus santus (“For only you are holy, only you are the Lord, only you are the highest, Jesus Christ”). The final number, Cum Sancto Spiritu (“With the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen”), is a vigorous fugue. Here Vivaldi adapted a piece by a fellow Venetian composer, Giovanni Maria Ruggieri, changing it enough to make it a satisfying finale to this celebratory work.

Born London, 28 October 1938.
The Snowman
Composed for the television film The Snowman, first broadcast 26 December 1982, with Blake conducting the Sinfonia of London and boy soprano Peter Auty. The score calls for narrator, boy soprano, 2 flutes (doubling piccolos), oboe (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, drum kit, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, bell tree, sleigh bells, claves, woodblock, cabasa, vibraslap, piano, celesta, harp and strings. Performance time is 26 minutes.

The Snowman began life in 1978 as a children’s book by author/illustrator Raymond Briggs. It was a wordless picture book, telling the story in panels, comic-strip style, of a boy who not only builds a snowman but befriends it after it comes to life. In 1982 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) the fledgling British television network Channel 4 broadcast an animated cartoon version of The Snowman which, like the book, used no narration or dialogue (except for a brief live-action prologue in which the boy, now a man played by author Briggs, recalls his experience). The cartoon makes the story more of a Christmas tale: we see a Christmas tree in the boy’s home; later, a little girl has a card on her windowsill picturing Santa Claus/Father Christmas and his reindeer; and most important, the Snowman takes the boy on a flight to the North Pole, where Father Christmas is presiding over a party for snowmen and gives the boy a present—a scarf decorated with snowmen. (His name is on the present’s tag: James, in Brighton.) In the book the boy and the Snowman fly only as far as Brighton Pier—near Briggs’ own home—and back.

Drawn in a style faithful to the book, the cartoon was a huge success: it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and became a beloved holiday tradition in Britain, rebroadcast every Christmas season. There was a stage production in 1986; a 1990s dance version which became an annual event in London; and a cartoon sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog, in 2012.

Undoubtedly, Howard Blake’s musical score was a very important part of The Snowman’s success. The song “Walking in the Air,” heard midway through the film, became a hit on the British charts, and Blake soon produced a concert version of the whole score, with the voice of a narrator to guide the listeners through the story, as well as an arrangement for the ballet.

Blake began his career writing music for the last season of the British spy series The Avengers (1968-69), and created scores for Ridley Scott’s first feature, The Duellists (1977), and (working with Queen) the 1980 Flash Gordon. He has also written concertos for a variety of instruments, oratorios and a good deal of chamber music.

His score for The Snowman has great charm and poignancy. At times the music follows the onscreen action very precisely (a practice the industry calls “mickey-mousing”): the boy bounding through the snow and hitting a window with a snowball; the chiming of the clock and tinkle of a Christmas tree bell; the Snowman turning a light switch on and off, and trying to suppress a sneeze. But more often Blake paints a broader picture: the boy’s excited anticipation when he wakes up to see the snowfall; the Snowman coming to life; the exhilarating motorcycle ride through the woods; the brief sad moment when the boy finds the Snowman melted. There are also engaging passages of dance rhythms: when the Snowman responds to the ballerina music-box’s tune and when the boy joins the snowmen at the Christmas party in a boisterous dance.

Share this on: