NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
G. P. da Palestrina (1 525-1 594)
Giacomo Antonio Perti (1661-1756)
Rorate Sunday is the fourth and last Sunday in Advent. The Dorian mode plainchant that opens this evening's program used to be sung at evening Benediction during Advent. The text Rorate coeli comes from Isaiah 45:8: "Pour out dew from above, you heavens, and let the clouds rain down the Just One." No other plainchant in the entire Gregorian repertory begins with an upward fourth after two ascending major seconds.
Palestrina published his Rorate coeli in 1572 as the second part of a responsory motet. The first part is entitled Canite tuba. Both the first and second parts culminate in a stirring Alleluia, the music for each of which Alleluias is the same. This means that measures 57-69 of Canite tuba are identical with 75-87 of Rorate coeli. In Music Appreciation courses, much is nowadays made of the formal symmetries that tie together the works of the Viennese classicists. But much earlier Palestrina and other leading 16th-century composers had endowed their works with symmetries no less poignant. Palestrina dedicated his 1572 motets to Guglielmo Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua who had promised his 22-year-old son Rodolfo a lucrative musical post. To show how talented both his sons Rodolfo (1 549-1 572) and Angelo (1551-1576) were, as well as his own younger brother Silla (died 1573), Palestrina published motets by all three side by side with his own in his Motettorum ... Liber Secundus (Venice, 1572, 1573, 1577, 1580, 1588, 1594).
In Rorate coeli he uses the same text set in 1570 by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) and in 1605 by William Byrd (1543-1623). As in Palestrina, Byrd's first imitative point begins with the vigorous ascending skip of a fourth. Byrd chooses however D minor for his key whereas Palestrina preferred the sunlight of what to modern ears sounds like C major. One of the telling strokes in Palestrina's setting comes at the invocation: "Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation." For heightened drama, Palestrina here inserts a dramatic general pause in all voices just before the four luminous major chords heard at "Show us" (Ostende nobis).
Palestrina's entire life was tied to Rome, Perti's to Bologna near which city he was born June 6, 1661, and where he died at the enviable age of 94 April 10, 1756. Between 1679 and 1717 he composed 24 operas, but he is today best remembered for his sacred music and for his pupils- at least two of whom attained great fame, Padre Martini (1706-1784) and Torelli (1658-1709). Perti's through-composed setting of Vulgate Psalm 111 (King James 112) for SATB and organ judiciously mixes the traditional and the new. He begins and ends with verses during which the ancient Eighth Tone formula for singing psalms is thrown into relief (GAGCBCDC; CBCAG). Halfway through he places the same formula in high relief when the psalmist alludes to the "imperishable memory" (in memoria eterna) of the just man. The dramatist in Perti inspires him to fast runs when the psalmist mentions the wicked man's "grinding" (fremet) his teeth. To emphasize the good man's chief claim to fame Perti inserts rests in all voices before the adjective "merciful" (misericors).
Insofar as the text goes, the Hebrew consists of 22 short clauses each beginning with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph Happy the man who fears the Lord Beth by joyfully keeping his commandments! Ghimel Children of such a man will be powers on earth, Daleth descendants of the upright will always be blessed. He There will be riches and wealth for his family, Wau and his righteousness can never change. Zain For the upright he shines like a lamp in the dark, he is merciful, tenderhearted, virtuous. Teth Excessive interest is not charged by this good man, Yod he is honest in all his dealings. Kaph Kept safe by virtue, he is ever steadfast, Lamed and leaves an imperishable memory behind him; Mem with constant heart, and confidence in the Lord Nun he need never fear bad news. Samek Steadfast in heart he overcomes his fears, Ain in the end he will triumph over his enemies. Pe Quick to be generous, he gives to the poor, Sade his righteousness can never change; Qoph men such as this will always be honored, Resh though this fills the wicked with rage Shin until, grinding their teeth, they waste away, Tau vanishing like their vain hopes.
G. F. Handel (1685-1759)
George I's last gift to Handel was British citizenship bestowed February 20, 1727. Although cool to Handel during his father's last years, George II immediately commissioned Handel to compose four anthems for the Coronation at Westminster Abbey October 22, 1727. As a rule, ceremonial music loses its attraction once the ceremony is over. But the magnificence of these four anthems has insured the repetition of at least one in every succeeding coronation. Their order at first performance was Let thy 'hand be strengthened ("after the People signify their willingness and Joy by Loud Acclamation"), Zadok the Priest (after George ll's anointing). The King shall rejoice (during his crowning), and My heart is inditing (during the anointing and crowning of Queen Caroline). According to some misinformed historians, Handel told two archbishops that he intended to pick his own texts from the Old Testament (Psalm 89:13, 14; 1 Kings 1:38-40; Psalm 21:1, 5, 3; Psalm 45:1, 9, 11). This piquant anecdote has however been recently disproved. Instead, he used texts already compiled for previous coronations. Another anecdote has it that "he had but four weeks for doing this work which seems scarcely credible." Credible or no, the results were magnificent beyond belief. In Zadok the Priest he reverted to the musical idea already found at the opening of his 1707 psalm Nisi Dominus, but lifted it to an incomparably loftier plane. Nothing could be more stirring than the rising string arpeggios that in Zadok usher in the sumptuous seven-part chorus. In 1733 he borrowed all three sections of the single Coronation Anthem not in D major, Let thy hand be strengthened (which is in G), for the close of Part I in his oratorio Deborah.
Handel's orchestra throughout all the Coronation Anthems includes strings, oboes, and continuo. These instruments suffice for Queen Caroline's anthem and for Let thy hand. But Zadok and The King shall rejoice call additionally for three natural trumpets in D and for kettledrums. As he proved in the Hallelujah Chorus, also in D, and on numerous other occasions, Handel alone knew how to write so much continuous music in this "royal" key without surfeiting the listener. The limitations of the overtone series dictated of course the relatively few notes available to the trumpets - only Trumpet I ever playing even the one "out-of-key" note, G sharp.
Sept Repons des Tenebres
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Francis Poulenc was born at Paris January 7, 1899, and died there January 30, 1963. Already at the age of 19 he made his mark as composer of graceful Mouvements perpetuels for piano that still remain among his most often played works. In later life he turned to opera, Dialogues des Carmelites (La Scala, Milan, January 26, 1957), and to choral works with sacred texts. He himself considered his outstanding religious works to be his Stabat Mater (1950), Gloria (1960), and Sept Repons des Tenebres (1961/2), each of the three for soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra. In a letter dated March 26, 1962, to the baritone singer Pierre Bernac (with whom he had premiered numerous songs for voice and piano), he wrote: "The Tenebres are finished. I don't regret having spent so much time and care on them. Together with the Gloria and Stabat Mater, I hope to have composed three worthy religious works that may win me a few days' respite from purgatory if indeed I escape the worse fate that I deserve. I leave Bagnols where both the Gloria and Tenebres were composed with some melancholy because next winter will be a time of constant struggle."
The Sept Repons des Tenebres were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for their first season in Lincoln Center. By far the best known settings of the same Holy Week responsories previously composed were the unaccompanied versions published in 1585 by Victoria and in 1588 by Ingegneri (sometimes attributed to Palestrina). Poulenc rearranges the traditional order of the responsory texts, as follows: 8, 5 of Maundy Thursday; 8, 9, 5 of Good Friday; 9, 6 of Holy Saturday. Also, he repeats and abridges the traditional texts for greater dramatic impact. In his order, the texts do tell a better connected story. The story can be thus summarized: I Couldn't you stay awake at least an hour? Judas isn't asleep. II Judas kissed Jesus and Jesus didn't draw back. Judas did it for money. III They took Jesus to the high priests while Peter followed a long way off. IV My eyes are filled with tears. Oh look at me, all you who pass by, and see if there is anyone whose sorrow equals mine. V Darkness fell over the face of the earth while they crucified Jesus. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, My God, why have you forsaken me? He then bowed his head and died. VI He was buried and stone rolled up to the tomb with soldiers to guard it. VII Thus dies the just man with nobody willing to take his death to heart.
Poulenc sets each of these texts with his usual consummate artistry. His melodic lines are always a model of lyricism. The orchestration is sure but never overpowering. Although Poulenc was sometimes underestimated in his lifetime, he now bids fair to be the most frequently performed member of the famous Group of the Six to which he belonged in early youth.
Vincent Persichetti (b. 1915)
Vincent Persichetti, born at Philadelphia June 6, 1915, was a child prodigy who made good the promise of his early years by writing over 100 opuses before the age of 50 (over half of them published) . After studying two years with Roy Harris at Colorado College he began teaching at the Juilliard School in 1947. In 1952 he also became editorial director of Elkan-Vogel in his hometown city. In 1958 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. William Schuman called his text published in 1961 Twentieth-Century Harmony "one of the great books on the art of music" (Musical Quarterly, XLVII/3, J_uly, 1961).
The Te Deum, opus 93 (1963), was published by Elkan-Vogel in 1964 with a dedication to the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association. Persichetti's text is that of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Throughout he shows some Harris influence in his chordal movements and his diatonic lines. Usually the high note in a diatonic passage has the highest harmonic tension and resolves stepwise downward. Such devices as the thematic carryover from "We praise thee" at the start to "O Lord" at the close lend chiastic unity to the entire eleven-minute work. The orchestration shows throughout the practiced hand of a master craftsman.