Josquin Despres (c. 1440-1521) was acknowledged by his contemporaries as the most accomplished composer of his time. Martin Luther proclaimed that, “Josquin is a master of notes, which must express what he desires; on the other hand, other choral composers must do what the notes dictate.” Although very little is known about Josquin’s early life in the lowland region of northern France, he most likely received his musical training through his service as a singer at the chapel of the Milan cathedral in Italy. His career was spent as a composer attached to various churches in northern Italy and France, and most of his compositions are sacred, either settings of the mass or motets, sacred compositions based on Latin poetry suitable for inclusion in a church setting. Josquin's four-voice motet Ave Maria...virgo serena (1502) is an outstanding Renaissance choral work. This Latin prayer to the Virgin is set to delicate and serene music. Josquin connected the composition to music already existing within the church by adapting the melody for the opening phrases from a Gregorian chant, a technique known as parody. The rest of the motet was not based on a chant melody.
Following the predominant practice of the time, the setting of Ave Maria is a cappella, a term now taken to mean that only voices are used but derived from its literal meaning, “as it is in the chapel.” The opening uses polyphonic imitation, in which each voice sings the same melody in succession. In this style, the voices often continue to add secondary melodies to accompany the following voice entries as at the text “dominus tecum.” In addition to the imitation among individual voices, imitation occurs between pairs of voices. Duets between the high voices are imitated by the two lower voices at the text “Ave, cuius conceptio.” All four voices participate in singing the phrase “virgo serena,” creating a skillful closing punctuation to this musical section. Throughout this section of the motet, as well as in the rest of the piece not heard in this excerpt, Josquin skillfully varies the textures, using the contrast between two, three, or four voices to create distinct musical sections. Whereas the works of composers of polyphonic music before Josquin mainly relied upon the processes of polyphonic composition to spin out their works, Josquin’s use of contrast signifies a more modern approach to creating musical form.
|00:00 |Ave Maria, |Hail Mary, | |00:14 |gratia plena |full of grace | |00:32 |dominus tecum, |the Lord is with thee, | |00:49 |virgo serena. |serene Virgin. | |01:02 | Ave, cuius conceptio, . . . |Hail, whose conception, . . . | |01:20 |End of excerpt | |
Thomas Weelkes: As Vesta Was Descending
Throughout the 16th-century, Italian composers became increasingly attracted to a secular genre called the madrigal. In this genre, an emotionally expressive poem, often dealing with love, was set to vocal music that attempted to musically illustrate the words or their emotional content through a technique known as word painting. Madrigals were the musical counterpart of the literature and visual arts of humanistic movement. Members of the courts and other upper class citizens performed madrigals for each other as entertainment, sometimes without any audience other than the performers. The popularity of madrigals in Italy, and the resulting translation and publication of a number of them in England, resulted in the rise of a school of English madrigal composers. Among these composers was Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), who served as the organist at Chichester Cathedral until his dismissal from his post on grounds of being a habitual common drunkard and a notorious swearer and blasphemer. As Vesta Was Descending comes from The Triumphes of Oriana (1601), an anthology of English madrigals written to honor Queen Elizabeth, referred to as Oriana in the poem. (Note the reference in Vesta to the “maiden queen.”) Although the Italian version of word painting often served the purpose of amplifying the emotional content of the text, English composers wrote music similar to that in Vesta, in which the music attempts to illustrate individual words especially those that indicated number or direction. The variety in a music setting such as Vesta produced a musical composition requiring skill to perform and pleasing to the performers.
As Vesta Was Descending has the light mood typical of English madrigals. Word painting is plentiful, e.g., the word “descending” is sung to downward scales and “ascending” to upward ones. When Vesta's attendants run down the hill in twos, threes, and larger groups, the setting is for two voices, then three voices, then six voices. A solo voice proclaims that the goddess is left “all alone.” In the extended concluding section, “Long live fair Oriana,” a joyous phrase is imitated among the voices. In the bass this phrase is sung in long notes, with the longest note on the word long. The length of time dedicated to this proclamation, one third of the composition, is indicative of the ultimate purpose of the composition, to flatter the Queen.
|00:00 |As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending, |Descending scales on “descending” | |00:15 |she spied a maiden queen the same ascending, |Ascending scales on “ascending” | |00:38 |attended on by all the shepherds swain, |Melody gently undulates, neither ascending nor descending. | |00:58 |to whom Diana's darlings came running down amain. |Rapid imitative descending figures on running down | |01:25 |Two, three then solo voice |Two voices, three voices, and then all voices | | |First two by two, then three by three together, | | |01:36 |leaving their goddess all alone, hasted thither, |solo voice | |01:51 |and mingling with the shepherds of her train with |All voices in delicate polyphony | | |mirthful tunes her presence entertain. | | |02:15 |Then sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana, |All voices unite to introduce the final proclamation | |02:29 |Long live fair Oriana! |Brief, joyful phrase imitated among voices is repeated over and | | | |over | |03:40 End | | |
Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Fugue in G minor, (“Little Fugue”)
Although Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)is today recognized as a master of baroque composition. He composed in all contemporary genres except opera, an omission in his oeuvre that was certainly a result of his twenty-seven year appointment as the music director for the major churches in Leipzig, Germany, and the tension between the church and the secular opera establishment. One of Bach's best-known organ pieces is the Little Fugue in G Minor (composed about 1709), so called to differentiate it from another, longer fugue in G minor. Mastering the very strict compositional form of the fugue, based upon the earlier imitative vocal polyphony of the renaissance, was thought to be one of the highest achievements of a baroque composer. In this form a single melody, the subject, is the basis of all the following music in the composition. Bach’s command of this compositional genre was so great that he was called upon to improvise a fugue given to him in 1744 by Frederick the Great. Bach later based the composition of the Musical Offering , a virtual encyclopedia of polyphonic forms, on the royal theme. The investigation of musical construction dominated Bach’s last decade, during which his membership in the learned Society of Musical Sciences where Bach and his fellow composers sought the perfect polyphonic musical materials from which endless compositions could be wrought. Listening Tips:
In a fugue, each melody is called a voice and uses the designations from vocal music from highest to lowest of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Each of the fugue’s four voices presents the subject in turn starting with the top voice and progressing to the lower voices, until it reaches the bass, where the organist’s feet on the pedal keyboard play it. When the subject appears the second time, the first voice proceeds to the counter-subject, a melody that accompanies the subject balancing its melodic motion and harmonic content. After each opening section, the subject appears five more times, each time preceded by an episode, a period in which the entire subject is not played. The first episode uses both new material and a melodic idea from the countersubject. Though the fugue is in minor, it ends with a major chord, a frequent practice in the Baroque period--major chords were thought to be more conclusive than minor chords.
|00:00 |Subject in soprano voice alone, minor key | |00:18 |Subject in alto, countersubject in running notes in soprano | |00:42 |Subject in tenor, countersubject above it; brief episode follows | |01:01 |Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in tenor | |01:17 |Brief episode | |01:28 |Subject begins in tenor, continues in soprano | |01:48 |Brief episode, running notes in a downward sequence | |01:56 |Subject in alto, major key; countersubject in soprano | |02:13 |Episode in major, upward leaps and running notes | |02:25 |Subject in bass (pedals), major key, countersubject and long trill above it | |02:42 |Longer episode | |03:00 |Subject in soprano, minor key, countersubject below it. | |03:16 |Extended episode | |03:47 |Subject in bass (pedals), countersubject in soprano. Fugue ends with major chord. | |04:12 |End |
George Frideric Handel: Messiah, Ev'ry Valley Shall be Exalted
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) began his career in his native Germany as a musician as an organist and violinist. After composing his first operas in the early 1700s, he went to Italy, spending three years composing and studying opera in Florence, Rome, Naples and Venice. In the 1710s, he relocated permanently in London where he became a successful composer and presenter of Italian-style operas. He began composing oratorios in the 1730s as an alternative to opera, which could not be produced during the season of Lent. Besides being based on a sacred story, oratorios did not involve stage acting but were rather presented in concert, a more austere performance style appropriate for the season of abstinence. After the premiere of Messiah in 1742 in Dublin, Handel abandoned opera, which had become unprofitable, and for most of the remainder of his life composed and presented oratorios. At these performances he usually played a concerto on the organ during the intermission. Handel composed Messiah in a little over three weeks in 1741, declaring upon its completion, “I do believe I have seen all of Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” In order to fit a larger than normal audience at the premiere, ladies were advised to not wear hoops and gentlemen to leave their swords at home. The work was an immediate success despite controversies surrounding his use of theatrical singers to present a work with a sacred text.
Like opera, oratorios consist of arias (expressive songs), recitatives (sections of sung dialog), and choruses. Except for the subject matter, the musical style of arias and recitatives from Handel’s oratorios is virtually indistinguishable from the style of his operas. His oratorio choruses are unlike anything in his operas. As in many baroque arias, Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted opens and closes with an instrumental section. Throughout the piece, the orchestra both accompanies and alternates sections with the voice. This aria is striking in its vivid word painting, a renaissance technique still used by certain baroque composers in Handel’s time. In addition, the ornamental style of singing, prominent on the text “exalted,” is a musical counterpart of the ornate style in the visual and architectural arts of this period. The virtuosic abilities of the singer, both in the technical aspects and expressive aspects of vocal production, are amply demonstrated in the final sung section, labeled cadenza.
|00:00 |Instrumental Introduction |Orchestral section. Phrases are repeated at differing dynamic | | | |levels. | |00:21 |Ev'ry valley shall be exalted. |Word painting: Ascending rapid notes on “exalted” | |00:55 |And ev'ry mountain and hill made low, |Word painting: High tone on “mountain”; Low tone on “low” | |01:01 |The crooked straight, and the rough places plain. |Word painting: Wavy melody on “crooked”; smooth melody on | | | |“plain” | |01:41 |Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry mountain and |Word painting on “exalted,” “mountain,” “low,” “crooked,” and | | |hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough |“plain” | | |places plain. | | |02:50 |Cadenza: The crooked straight, and the rough places |Slow, ornamented vocal section | | |plain. | | |03:08 |Instrumental introduction repeated | | |03:30 |End | |
Antonio Vivaldi: La Primavera, Movement I
In 1703, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), already well known as a violinist, secured the position as maestro di concerto at the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian institutions for the care and musical training of orphaned girls. In his solo career, he had at times been criticized for having too great a command of his instrument, and “being of a volatile disposition, having too much mercury in his constitution.” His new position at the Ospedale provided him with performing ensembles and audiences eager for his compositions. While at the institution, he composed 500 concertos, forty-nine operas for the Venetian opera houses, and many other works. The instrumental concerto style of Vivaldi was the result of a century of development and experimentation on the principle of concertto, or concerted music, in which contrasting sections are placed side by side in a single piece of music. Early concerti often contrasted solo, choral, and instrumental sections, as seen in the compositions of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, organists at the Church of St. Mark in Venice from 1566 to 1612. The unusual physical design of St. Mark’s, featuring multiple choir lofts, was especially conducive to sectional contrasts in dynamics, instrumentation, and spatial separation. The principle of contrast and unification is the primary feature of the later baroque concerto in which an instrument or small group of instruments is contrasted with the orchestra. Listening Tips:
La Primavera (“Spring”) is a concerto that is also an early example of program music, music that references external objects or concepts. Vivaldi clearly indicated his references by writing the phrases of a poem in the musical score. (Those references are included in the listening guide below.) In addition, the music is structured by contrasting sections for the orchestra and the violin soloist, who is accompanied by the orchestra. This movement opens with an energetic orchestral section called a ritornello. Each of the ritornello’s two phrases is played loudly and then repeated softly in the terraced dynamics typical of baroque music. The pictorial passages in the solo sections of this movement provide contrasts between returns of the ritornello theme and contain tone painting, in which Vivaldi attempts to imitate the sound of natural objects: birds, a stream, a storm. Birdsongs are imitated by high trills and repeated notes played by violins. Murmuring streams are suggested by soft running notes. Rapid loud scales and chordal figures represent thunder and lightning.
|00:00 |Ritornello opening phrase: loud and soft |Spring has come, | |00:14 |Ritornello closing phrase: loud and soft | | |00:32 |High repeated notes and trills |And joyfully, the birds greet it with a happy song. | |01:06 |Ritornello closing phrase | | |01:14 |Running notes below sustained tones in violins. |And the streams, fanned by gentle breezes, flow along with a | | | |sweet murmur. | |01:38 |Ritornello closing phrase | | |01:46 |Upward rushing scales introduce high solo violin, |Covering the sky with a black cloak, thunder and lightening come| | |brilliant virtuoso passages answered by low strings |to announce the season. | |02:15 |Ritornello closing phrase | | |02:23 |High repeated notes and trills |When these have quieted down, the little birds return to their | | | |enchanting song. | |02:43 |Ritornello, varied | | |02:55 |Solo violin, running notes | | |03:11 |Ritornello closing phrase | | |03:32 |End | |