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Bach & Respighi

Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite No. 1
Ottorino Respighi
b. Bologna, Italy / July 9, 1879
d. Rome, Italy / April 18, 1936

First performance by the RPO.

Respighi found his greatest success as a composer for the concert hall, more so than any of his fellow Italians. His colorful and atmospheric style blends elements of Romanticism (in particular the influences of Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Puccini) with the limpid pastel Impressionism of Debussy.

He composed several charming suites for small orchestra, including Ancient Airs and Dances, The Birds, and Botticelli Triptych. The popularity of the first suite of Ancient Airs (1917) led him to create two more, in 1923 and 1931. He drew most of the tunes he used in them (including all those in the first suite) from collections of Italian and French lute and harpsichord music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They had been gathered and published during the 1880s by the Italian musicologist and lute soloist, Oscar Chilesotti.

Suite No. 1 opens with the Balletto detto “Il Conte Orlando,” published in 1599 by composer Simone Molinaro (c. 1570–1633). The first section grows from a gentle opening to a stirring climax. A quieter interlude based on the same theme follows, then the opening panel is repeated.

Vincenzo Galilei (c. 1520–1591) composed the following Gagliarda. An amateur composer and lutenist, he is best known as the father of Galileo, the pioneering astronomer and physicist. This type of dance, also known as a galliard, was executed with exaggerated leaps that bordered on contemporary Italian ideas of obscenity. This is a bold, strongly accented number with richer scoring than the preceding Balletto. Respighi uses a sweet tune, an anonymous Italiana, as the contrasting middle section.

The composer of the third section, Villanella, is unknown. A villanella was a street song, derived from an earlier Spanish vocal form, which came to popularity in Naples. It flourished side-by-side with, and in contrast to, the more refined madrigal. Respighi scored this haunting, melancholy air, the gentle jewel of the suite, with a delicate palette: flute, oboe, harp, and strings. The finale, Passo mezzo e mascherada, combines two contrasting forms, through a pair of anonymous melodies. The opening passo mezzo is fast-paced, the central mascherada is flowing and songful.

Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068
Johann Sebastian Bach
b. Eisenach, Germany / March 21, 1685
d. Leipzig, Germany / July 28, 1750

First performed by the RPO on May 7, 1940; José Iturbi, conductor. Last performed on October 15, 2006; Christopher Seaman, conductor.

The Baroque orchestral suite developed along parallel lines in several countries. Its principal origins lay in France. The first great figure in its history was Jean-Baptiste Lully, who developed the one movement overture (a name derived from the French verb ouvrir, to open) to introduce performances of other, longer works such as operas and ballets. The combination of the overture and brief instrumental pieces extracted from the larger work, mainly dances, made up another form, the suite (from the verb suivre, to follow).

By Bach’s time, virtually every important German composer had written independent overture-suites for large instrumental ensembles. Some of his four surviving orchestral suites (it’s likely he composed more) probably date from his years in service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717–1723), others from the later period in Leipzig. Suite No. 3 is a festive piece, a quality accentuated by Bach’s inclusion of trumpets and timpani in the scoring. For all its brilliance, the most memorable segment is the second movement, the celestial Air for strings alone (nicknamed “Air on the G String”).

Trittico botticelliano: The Adoration of the Magi
Ottorino Respighi

First performance by the RPO.

In the Trittico botticelliano (Botticelli Triptych, 1927), Respighi adopted a style that is similarly “antique” to that of the Ancient Dances, but here the themes are Respighi originals. It offers vivid reactions to paintings by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), one of the finest Italian artists of the Renaissance. During the serene meditation of the second movement, The Adoration of the Magi, Respighi quoted the medieval Christmas hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243
Johann Sebastian Bach

First and last performed by the RPO on December 4 & 6, 1997; Robert Bernhardt, conductor; Roberts Wesleyan Chorale and soloists.

This superlative choral work was one of the first pieces to be performed during Bach’s residency in Leipzig, the 27 final years of his life. The original version is listed in the catalogue of his works as BWV 243a. Bach set it in the key of E-flat Major, and scored it for solo vocalists, five-part chorus, and an orchestra of recorders, oboes, trumpets, timpani, strings, and continuo. It included four items directly related to Christmas. Bach directed the first performance, in Leipzig on December 25, 1723. He revised it in 1728–31, replaced the recorders with flutes, and transposed the entire work to D Major.

The text, which begins with the words “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” comes from the New Testament gospel of St. Luke, quoting the Virgin Mary’s praising of God. In addition to Bach, it has attracted numerous prominent composers. They have written settings of the Magnificat either as stand-alone compositions or as portions of larger works: Claude Le Jeune and Claudio Monteverdi; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (in the Vesperae solennes de Confessore); Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt; and such prominent figures of our own time as Krzysztof Penderecki, Sir William Walton, and Arvo Pärt.

Bach’s Magnificat has 16 sections. Exuberant choruses, in which the string orchestra is bolstered by trumpets and drums, alternate with arias based on more reflective texts, which Bach has aptly scored with more modest forces. The first section, Magnificat, opens with an orchestral introduction dotted with fanfares, before the chorus enters jubilantly. The soprano aria Et exsultavit spiritus meus (And my spirit hath rejoiced) extends this animated atmosphere. The chorus enters with Vom Himmel Hoch (From heaven on high). In strong contrast comes Quia respexit humilitatem (For He hath regarded the low estate), also for soprano, a quiet, devotional aria plaintively colored by oboe d’amore. This section features ones of the score’s several directly illustrative elements, as the chorus enters abruptly on the words Omnes generationes (All generations).

Next comes a flowing baritone solo, Quia fecit mihi magna (For He that is mighty), then Et misericordia (And His mercy). The chorus then sings Freut euch und jubiliert (Rejoice with triumph glad). Contralto and tenor pay tribute to God’s mercy in a gently swaying siciliano rhythm. The stirring, virtually martial chorus, Fecit potentiam (He hath shown) rekindles the music’s joyous energy, capped by a concluding passage of slow, serene majesty. The chorus returns with Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory be to God on high).

The forceful tenor aria Deposuit potentes (He hath put down the mighty) vividly describes God’s favoring of the humble over the haughty. Another sharp shift in mood comes via the pastoral contralto aria Esurientes implevit bonis (He hath filled the hungry), with its delicate embroidery by flutes. Soprano and baritone sing together on Virga Jesse floruit (Jesse's maid then fruit did bear). A solo trio of two sopranos and contralto sing fervidly of God’s love for his chosen people in Suscepit Israel (He hath helped his servant Israel). The score concludes with a pair of choruses: the sturdy, fugal Sicut locutus est (As He spoke to our fathers), and the exultant Gloria Patri (Glory to the Father). Bach provides another illustrative touch when he brings back the music of the opening Magnificat at the words Sicut erat in principio (As it was in the beginning).

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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