Puer natus in Betlehem
Baroque Music for Christmas
The features common to the
works on this
disc which otherwise differ in their genres, structures and
instrumentation, are their links with the Christmas season and their
dating. They are all Baroque works. The term Baroque in music covers
approximately hundred and fifty years from 1600 to 1750. The main
features were far from uniform in that time, despite some unchanging
principles of composition and performance: a continuo bass played on a
bass stringed instrument or instruments or one or more chordal
instruments such as an organ, harpsichord or lute; a musical fabric
consisting of this bass and one or two solo-like upper parts; a rhythm
derived from dances or from speech; a close relationship between music
and rhetoric, etc. So the 150 years divide into several shorter
periods, and the customs of composition differed not only from period
to period but from country to country. The two most typical and
contrasting national styles were the Italian and the French. They
nourished the music of other European countries, such as Germany, whose
own national ways mingled with them to a greater or lesser extent.
Christmas during the Baroque period became associated with a special type of music, the pastoral. It was of Italian origin, and later spread all over Europe in its vocal and its instrumental forms. (In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term pastoral was used for all literary, musical or dramatic works that presented rural scenes, characters or moods in a strongly stylized way, the characters usually being shepherds and shepherdesses.) The first collection of Christmas pastorals, dating from 1637, were composed by Francesco Fiamengo, an Italian, for Christmas music-making at the home of his high-ranking patron. Pastoral music has an uneven number of beats to the bar (3/2, later 6/8 or 12/8), a rocking rhythm, a mainly stepping melodic line, parallel thirds, an accompaniment that imitates the bagpipes, and a preference for symmetrical phrases. All these are present in the music of Italian shepherds (pifferari), who in Italian towns performed on a rustic, oboe-like instrument called the piffero as well as on the bagpipes, since the early 16th century. So the pastoral style of the 17th and 18th centuries may well have been an imitation of this style of folk music. One type of the Italian vocal pastoral is called the ninna. It is a lullaby addressed to the infant Jesus and remained common at least until the 19th century among both Italian and German composers. In the early 18th century the pastoral also became incorporated into the forms of the concerto grosso and the oratorio (usually providing one movement in each case). The structure of this pastoral movement consists of alternate playing by the full ensemble and a small consort of soloists. The most widely known example of the "Christmas concerto grosso" favoured by the Italians is Corelli's popular No. 8, Op. 6, which was printed in 1714, after the composer's death. It presumably served as a model for many similar works by other Italian composers, although the chronology has not so far been fully clarified.
Francesco Onofrio Manfredini (born in Pistoia in 1684, died there in 1762) was a minor Italian composer who studied in Bologna under Giuseppe Torelli, a significant exponent of the Italian concerto grosso, and others. Compared to his contemporaries Manfredini was not a fertile composer, he has been identified as the author of 43 printed works, a few other instrumental pieces in manuscript, and six oratorios. He published his concertos Op. 3 in 1718, dedicating them to his patron Prince of Monaco. The last piece in the cycle of twelve appears to unitate Corelli not only in style but with its subtitle "Fatto per la notte di natale" (#10-12). Employing two solo violins and a string ensemble, the piece uses the three-movement form of the mature Vivaldi concerto, but departs from it in the character of the movements. In the Corelli work the famous pastoral appears at the end of the Christmas concerto grosso, in Manfredini this rocking, Largo in 12/8 time replaces a fast opening movement. The same, gentle, naively charming character continues. Even the third movement, though marked Allegro, is not really fast.
Manfredini's concerto grosso belongs to one of the most typical Italian Baroque genres. The other work on this recording, scored for a large ensemble of instruments, is a Telemann ouverture that takes the typically French suite as its model. The suite is a piece in several movements, in most cases a variety of dances, introduced by a ternary overture - the ouverture which is likewise typically French. Often a whole work was styled an ouverture by 18th century German composers. (Bach used "ouverture" as the original title of four of his orchestral suites.) Georg Philipp Telemann (born in Magdeburg in 1681, died in Hamburg in 1767) was a prolific 18th century composer highly esteemed in his own lifetime. His "Ouverture à la Pastorelle" in F major (#2-8), which has survived in manuscript form (Hessische Landes- and Hochschulbibliothek, Darmstadt, 1034/41) is an unusual work, as the title indicates. Although the opening movement has the ternary structure (ABAv) of a French ouverture, based on two kinds of musical material, the musical material differs from what was customary: instead of a solemn introduction in a taut, dotted rhythm, followed by a vivid, virtuoso, concerto-type middle section, we hear gentle Christmas music of a clearly pastoral character in Section A, where the accompaniment imitates the bagpipes, and in Section B, where the rhythm is a rocking 6/8. The dances that follow the overture all contain simple, mainly chordal music and are frequently rustic in character. In several movements there is a repeated use of upward and downward progression in unison. This is a really decisive element in the Air, which is entirely based on an incessant alternation between two contrasting materials: a gentle Andante and "angry" unison progressions. Alongside three well-known Baroque types of dance - a bourrée in the second movement, a minuet and a gigue - the piece has genre movement titles familiar from other Baroque suites such as "Air," "Caprice" and "Carillon." However, they are not entirely supported by the music that follows them.
The Christmas pastoral music is linked not only by certain compositional techniques but by the use of two instruments which moved from folk music to forms of composed music popular above all among the French aristocracy, precisely thanks to the literary and musical pastoral. One of them is the hurdy-gurdy (vielle in French), which was used at Versailles festivities by participants dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, and between 1731 and 1733 featured as a solo instrument at the famous Paris orchestral Concerts Spirituels. The other typically "pastoral" instrument, is the musette, a small bagpipe, which enjoyed great popularity in 17th and 18th century France. It too was often played by someone dressed up as a shepherd. A special tablature form of notation was devised for it. Two period musette tutors have survived. (The term "musette" was also used for a type of gavotte related to the pastoral that used a drone-bass and was employed by composers from Couperin to Handel and Bach. The same term denoted dances of a similar type in the early 18th century French ballets.)
Michel Corrette (b. in Rouen in 1709, d. in Paris in 1795) was an organist, a composer and the author of at least 17 tutors for various instruments. He wrote a number of works which, according to the custom of the time, could be performed on a wide variety of descant instruments. However, pride of place among the possible instruments is usually given to the vielle and/or the musette, for which the composer seems to have intended them. This recording also uses the vielle and the musette (accompanied by the organ and other continuo instruments) for a suite by Corrette (#16), and for a series of variations on a popular French children's song (#9). An Italian lute piece in a simple, binary dance form, originally entitled a "sonata" is also a kind of pastoral. It survived in a manuscript collection (Biblioteca "G. B. Martini," Bologna) and bears no relationship, to the later, classical Viennese sonata or sonata form (#14).
After these secular chamber works, the recording enters the completely different realm of German Protestant church music, with a series of chorale variations played here on the organ (although they may originally have been intended for a different keyboard instrument, since they have no pedal part). The composer Georg Böhm (born in Hohenkirchen in 1661, died in Lüneburg in 1733) became the organist of the Lüneburg Johanniskirche in 1698, the played a particularly important part in the development of the chorale variation form. His style influenced the young Bach, although it cannot be proved that Bach was Böhm's pupil. According to the recollections of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach "liked and studied" Böhm's works, and what he learnt from them was chorale arrangement. Luther's chorale "Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ" (1524) (#15), was usually sung on Christmas Day in the German Lutheran churches. Apart from Böhm's there have been arrangements of it by other composers, including several versions by Bach (for example the grand opening choral movement of his cantata of a similar title, BWV 91).
The vocal pieces on this recording represent a wide variety of Italian origin known uniformly today as cantata. Originally, the 17th century Italian cantata had many different names and it developed in two types. One was longer, with alternating recitatives and arias. The other was a short work consisting of a single aria. Most pieces in Harmonia caelestis by Prince Pál Es¬terházy, the Hungarian Baroque composer, are of the latter kind. The Prince (who was Palatine of Hungary from 1681) practised composition and poetry, and his collection, printed in 1711, contains 55 cantatas, in Latin, grouped according to feasts of the church. The first of the Christmas ones was a setting of a popular medieval chorale, Puer natus in Betlehem (#1), or more precisely an extended version of its first verse: "Puer natus in Betlehem / Unde gaudet Jerusalem / Laudetur sancta Trinitas / Deo dicamus gratias." The text Puer natus appears in many different versions in the 17th century, including folk hymns noted down in Hungary. In form, the piece alternates three different materials: an instrumental sonata with a leaping melodic line and dance lilt, which is fairly long compared with the work as a whole; a flexible part for solo soprano, including the traditional text along with the first line of the added refrain ("Quam mirabilia ista"), and rejoicing music, in a lively dotted rhythm from the chorus, which sets the rest of the refrain (Canite Caelites).
Cur fles Jesu (#17) is another piece in a simple form with a strophic structure introduced by an instrumental sonata. Both its text and music relate it to the lullaby type of Italian pastoral. The first four bars of the soprano solo are a varied form of the beginning of a Hungarian folk hymn, Haec que facis (György Náray: Lyra Caelestis, 1695). The long sustained note sung to the word dormi and the repeated leap of a fourth by the violins, heard above it, may also originate from this folk hymn (which is of the lullaby type). Both solutions - the sustained notes in the vocal part and the rocking nature of the accompaniment - appear to have been internationally popular mannerisms at the time. (A well-known example is Arnalta's famous lullaby in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.)
The German Protestant cantata mainly served church purposes. Although it uses soloists, it assigns a big part to the choir and to the Protestant chorale. The cantatas of Dietrich Buxtehude (born around 1637, died in Lübeck in 1707) differ widely in the choice of their texts, their performing apparatus and their composing style. Verse and prose texts, biblical passages and chorale words, solos and choruses, concerto movements and chorale arrangements all feature, often alternating within the same piece. Das neugeborne Kindelein (#13), for the first Sunday after Christmas (BuxWV 13) uses the whole text of the chorale that begins with those words (Cyriakus Schneegaß, 1588), but without the melody of that chorale. The cantata scored for a four-part mixed choir, three violins and bass, is a masterpiece. The music exhibits luxiriant imagination and a careful construction, yet it gives the impression of being a spontaneous, integrally developing, autotelic process. Although the main lines of division in the music coincide with the strophic division of the text, the music is not strophic as such, but freely composed throughout, so that each strophe is given a different musical setting. Buxtehude used the text as the point of departure for his composition. According to one of the basic principles of the Baroque the music is employed to stress and reinforce the meaning of the words. The first strophe is flanked by a chordal, orchestral ritornello in a dancing rhythm. This returns in an unchanged form, and the same musical material is then taken over in lines 1-3 by the choir, with a continuo accompaniment. The strict form is broken only in the last line, where there is an imitation in a melismatic part-fabric of the words auserwählten Christenschar. In the second strophe, each line is assigned to different musical material that represents specific words or combinations of words in the text: "The angels rejoice" is set to alternating jubilant concertante note repetitions of the choir and instrumental ensemble; "Affably" elicits gentle, tied note-pairs; "They sing" sets off a long melismatic concertante; "God" calls forth a chordal section with long note-values. The rhetorically similar structure of strophes 3 and 4 called for similar musical treatment. They are each centred around their third lines, using a highly flexible, openwork musical fabric as a start. The soloists toss leaping motifs of 2-3 notes from one part to another, exploiting in Strophe 3 the consonantal sounds in the word trotz to arouse the negative feelings linked to the mention of Devil and Hell. The ascending leaps of fourths at the same place in Strophe 4 express in a very tangible way the meaning of the words Frisch auf.