April 8, 2016 “The Motet from Palestrina to Bach”




Kyrie, Gloria, Missa Sine nomine, 6vv**

Tristis est anima mea, 5vv*+

Exultavit cor meum, 6vv

Ad Dominum cum tribularer, 5vv+

Puer qui natus est, 8vv*

Die mit Tränen säen, 5vv+

Erforsche mich, Gott 8vv**

Dulcissime et benignissime Christe, SWV 67, 4vv+

Propitiare, Domine, 10vv

Sicut Moses serpentem in deserto, SWV 68, 4vv

Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229, 8vv**+

Lobet den Herrn, BWV 230, 4vv

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)

Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)

Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612)

Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)

Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629)

Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)

Sebastian Knüpfer (1633-1676)

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Giuseppe Peranda (1626-1675)

Heinrich Schütz

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Johann Sebastian Bach

* found in the collection Florilegium Portense of 1616-21 used in Leipzig in Bach’s day
** known to have been performed by Bach in Leipzig
+performed a cappella



Kristina Boerger, Melissa Fogarty, Michele Kennedy, Dominique Surh – sopranos
Robert Isaacs – countertenor
Nathaniel Adams, Neil Farrell, Peter Gruett, Michael Steinberger, Christopher Preston Thompson – tenors
Jeffrey Johnson, Thomas McCargar – baritones
Kurt-Owen Richards, Peter Stewart – basses

Webb Wiggins – organ
Mary Anne Ballard – viola da gamba
Marilyn Fung – violone

Commentary on the Program

by Alexander Blachly

    As a term to describe the period in European music from 1600 to 1750, Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music, recommends replacing the label “Baroque” (a term he finds misleading) with “continuo period,” since nearly all ensemble music in this 150-year span supported one or more melody lines with a continuo instrument or group. As suddenly as the continuo appeared around 1600, it disappeared again in the later eighteenth century. Yet in between it served as a principal engine that drove the music. So ubiquitous was its presence, and so necessary did composers and performers of the continuo period consider it, that even when performing music from the a cappella tradition of the late Renaissance, performers would often create a continuo bass line taken from the lowest sounding notes at any given moment (not necessarily from the bass part itself) to create a Basso seguente, sometimes supplied with numbers. In this way even sixteenth-century music could be performed in the modern continuo manner with a reinforced bass line and chordal support. The continuo group in tonight’s concert consists of organ, bass viola da gamba, and violone.

    Our program traces the evolution of the motet—loosely considered to encompass Masses and other sacred vocal music, such as Magnificats—from Palestrina to Bach. Bach himself performed Palestrina’s six-voice Missa Sine nomine in Leipzig, and his continuo part has survived, as have his lightly edited parts for Palestrina’s six voices. Bach’s vocal parts, though almost identical with Palestrina’s originals, alter the overall effect in a more tonal direction by the addition of leading tones which would not have been added in Palestrina’s day by singers applying the normal rules of musica ficta. Even Bach’s few additions significantly transform the harmonic quality of Palestrina’s music. The added continuo modernizes the music further.

    To highlight the difference in sonic effect between sixteenth-century music modernized with continuo and music from the same period performed a cappella, we follow Palestrina’s Kyrie and Gloria with Lassus’s 1565 setting of the Holy Week text Tristis est anima mea, sung without instruments. This motet was republished in the seventeenth century in Erhard Bodenschatz’s Florilegium Portense, a collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Latin and German works owned by many schools in Germany, including the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where Bach used it. The collection served as a storehouse of single- and double-choir motets to be sung at the beginning of the Sunday morning church service and at evening Vespers in fulfillment of Lutheran liturgical requirements.

    Though Lassus’s style did not change significantly during his forty-year career, he played an important role in exploring how the words being set could trigger musical effects that illustrated them in ways listeners could appreciate. This thoroughly “rhetorical” approach became standard for the continuo period of the next two centuries and stands as a hallmark of all serious polyphonic vocal genres—motet, madrigal, Mass, and Magnificat—from the later Renaissance until after Bach’s death in 1750.

    By the second half of the sixteenth century, most Latin motets were settings of Biblical texts, either literally, or, in the case of settings of propers for the Mass and Office, lightly paraphrased. This practice was retained and augmented during the continuo period. According to various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers in Germany, a motet text should be either an excerpt from the Bible or a chorale. The most consistent stylistic aspect of text-setting in serious vocal music during the later sixteenth century was a change of texture at each new change of words, especially in madrigals and motets. Thus, in the somber opening of Lassus’s Tristis est anima mea, when Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane says, “My soul is sad unto death,” the sorrowful opening music actually comes to a halt and “dies” at the word “mortem.” Later on, when Jesus refers to the “crowd which will surround me,” all five voices adopt a point of imitation shaped like a sine wave, the way to represent a circle in time. Lassus sets the words “you will take flight” (vos fugam capietis) as a point of imitation (a musical fuga) sung by all five voices in turn and repeated eleven times, as though Jesus directs these words to each of the disciples individually (Judas being absent). Not every composer was as literal in representing text as Lassus, but in the following two centuries motets could be counted on to respond to the words to which they were set by a change of musical motif and/or muscial texture for each new textual idea.

    To see how the post-Renaissance motet style originated, we hear next Giovanni Gabrieli’s six-voice Exultavit cor meum from his Symphoniae sacrae II published posthumously in 1615. This motet from the very beginning of the continuo period can be sung a cappella, but Gabrieli supplied it with a Basso seguente-style continuo part labeled “Basso per l’organo.” David Bryant, in his article on Gabrieli in the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, points out that the influence of Gabrieli’s music was as great north of the alps as in his native city of Venice. This was true both for his multi-choir works and for his older-style motets for single choir. We may conclude that his transalpine influence was in some measure a result of his having studied in Munich with Lassus and worked at the Bavarian court for five years starting in 1575. The self-sufficient nature of Gabrieli’s stile antico motets, requiring no instrumental participation, is also a feature found in single-choir motets by various Northern composers of the early seventeenth century, including Hans Leo Hassler and Johann Hermann Schein. In recognition of this fact, we perform tonight’s motets by Hassler and Schein a cappella.

    Johann Gottfried Walther considered this self-sufficient quality of the motet to be one of its fundamental characteristics, along with a polyphonic style based on pervading imitation. In his Musicalisches Lexicon of 1732, he explained that a piece of this type was “a musical composition written on a biblical Spruch, to be sung without instruments (basso continuo excepted), richly ornamented with Fugen and Imitationibus.” He went on to note that instrumental colla parte participation was acceptable: “the vocal parts can be taken by and strengthened with diverse instruments.” Colla parte doubling did not change a motet’s essential nature as music that required no independent instrumental parts.

    Just as the Italian Gabrieli studied north of the Alps with Lassus in Munich, so did Heinrich Schütz, born in the German city of Köstritz, study south of the Alps with Gabrieli in Venice from 1609 until Gabrieli’s death in 1612. Tonight we perform one Schütz motet with continuo and one without, though both are supplied with a figured bass in their source, the Cantiones sacrae of 1625. The necessity for employing these continuo parts in performance, however, is called into question by the fact that they were added in response to pressure from Schütz’s publisher. Both motets conform in many respects to the imitative, a cappella style of the late Renaissance, but Dulcissime et benignissime also has seconda pratica moments. Especially notable is the dramatic change of character from the slow, intense dissonances of the opening section, expressing the passion of St. Augustine’s initial words, “Dulcissime et benignissime Christe” (O sweetest and most benign Christ), to the nervous music of “infunde obsecro, multitudinem dulcedinis tuae…pectori meo” (Pour, I pray, the abundance of your sweetness…into my breast), which sounds almost like liquid splashing onto the poet’s chest. Echoes of the “infunde” music recur until the end of the motet. Nervous figures of this type, notated in semifusae (sixteenth notes, see facsimile on page 8 below) were heard as early as Monteverdi’s madrigal Cruda Amarilli (Libro Quinto, 1605), where they also served to intensify words, in that case the lover’s anguished cry of “Ahi lasso” (Alas!) as he contemplates Amarilli’s cruelty.

    Hieronymus Praetorius’s double-choir motet Puer qui natus est for the feast of St. John the Baptist was published in eight partbooks in 1599 by the Hamburg printer Philipp von Ohr. There is no continuo partbook. The extremely low bass voice in “Chorus secundus” descends often to low D and occasionally even to low C. Perhaps this suggests that Praetorius intended it to be doubled by one or more instruments, but we can’t be sure, because extremely low bass parts were not uncommon in German vocal works of the seventeenth century. For tonight’s concert we perform Puer qui natus est with a continuo derived Basso seguente-style.

    Bach performed Sebastian KnüpferῬs Erforsche mich, Gott in Leipzig, and complete performing parts in his own hand datable to ca. 1746/47 survive. They include a separate part for “Organo/Cembalo/Violine” supplied with figures (numbers) that show the continuo players the harmonies formed by the eight vocal parts. The vocal parts themselves specify that Coro I was to be doubled by strings and Coro II to be doubled by winds, evidently Bach’s standard scoring for double-choir motets. Knüpfer, who was Thomascantor from 1657 until his death in 1676, wrote the motet for the funeral of the wife of the mayor of Leipzig in 1673.

    Giuseppe Peranda, a singer and composer from the Italian city of Macerata, spent nearly his entire career in Dresden following a few years in Rome. He scored his motet Propitiare, Domine for a five-voice choir of “Favoriti,” another five-voice choir of “Ripieni,” a true continuo part complete with figures, and parts for two violins, two violas, and bassoon. The string and bassoon parts, though, are not independent but double the vocal “Ripieni,” which in turn double the “Favoriti.” Propitiare, Domine is, therefore, in truth an orchestrated five-voice motet that conforms in many respects with stile antico examples from the sixteenth century. However, it sometimes departs from that model. At the words “et benignus nos protege coelesti auxilio, ac concede” (and kindly protect us with your heavenly aid), the seconda pratica of Monteverdi makes a brief appearance in a florid duet for the two sopranos of the “Favoriti” supported by continuo, followed by “ut te toto corde, ore et opere ita diligamus” (that we may love you with all our heart, and with our words and deeds), sung in rapid triple meter by the full forces in a Gabrieli-style double-choir format, juxtaposing phrases for three singers with answering phrases by the full forces. At the words “ut non amittamus aeterna” (that we not lose things eternal), the motet concludes with a grand finale of dense counterpoint in thoroughly mid-seventeenth-century style.

    Of BachῬs two works heard at the end of our program, the double-choir motet Komm, Jesu, komm has no continuo part, while the four-voice Lobet den Herrn has an additional single bass line labeled “Organo,” with no figures. For Komm, Jesu, komm Bach used a text by Leipzig poet Paul Thymich, originally set as a motet by Bach’s predecessor Johann Schelle, Thomascantor from 1677 to 1701, for the funeral of Rector Jakob Thomasius in 1684. The occasion for which Bach wrote Lobet den Herrn remains unknown. Some scholars have wondered whether Bach himself wrote the work, since the earliest source post-dates Bach’s death and supplies only an ambiguous attribution: “Signor Bach.”

    In 1908, Hugo Leichtentritt claimed that Bach’s motets “stand entirely apart in the motet genre” and should really be called “cantatas for chorus.” Daniel Melamed wrote a book-length study in 1995 to examine that claim and provide a more nuanced view. J. S. Bach and the German Motet showed that in fact Bach’s motets are in nearly every respect the logical culmination of the motet tradition extending back to the sixteenth century. It is true that Bach’s motets tower above their predecessors in length and contrapuntal intricacy, but the principal markers of the genre are mostly in place. The text of Komm, Jesu, komm represents a slight exception. It is not a traditional chorale, but rather a strophic poem like a chorale, but one without an associated melody. As Melamed points out, a biblical connection can be seen in the final line of each strophe of Thymich’s poem—lines which quote or paraphrase John 14:6, “Ich bin der Weg, und die Wahrheit, und das Leben.” Structurally, Bach adheres to the double-choir format heard in tonight’s motets by Praetorius and Knüpfer. Lobet den Herrn sets a traditional psalm text used by composers earlier than Bach. Learned counterpoint, which eighteenth-century writers considered an important feature of motet style, gives both Bach motets heard tonight their densely elaborate character. The lack of independent instrumental parts is in line with traditional norms of motet composition. Perhaps most importantly, Bach’s treatment of the texts he set, with each new verbal phrase inspiring a new musical idea and often a new texture, stands as a compositional procedure typical of motets from the time of Lassus.

                    —Alexander Blachly

 Posted by at 3:53 am