HANDWASHERS’ NEWSLETTER 21st MARCH 2021
When considering settings of the Passion, most of us would be naturally drawn to the incomparable masterpieces of Bach. Rather lesser known is this setting by Handel based on a text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes.
Barthold Heinrich Brockes, German Poet
Composed in London whilst Handel was enjoying much success as an operatic composer, this work has been described as by some commentators as a sacred opera.
George Frideric Handel
Following the passion narrative from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, Handel uses a series of chorales, choruses, arias and recitatives to tell the story. Perhaps surprisingly, there are comparatively few choruses – maybe this is one of the reasons for the work’s lack of popularity. However, it is really the quality and quantity of the arias (there are forty of them in total!) which sets this work apart.
With a playing time over two hours, you may prefer to dip in and out of this piece rather than listening in one sitting. Maybe you could aim to listen to the entire work by Good Friday? Happy listening!
ST MARK’S VENICE a memorable venue for Victoria?:
If you have ever wondered what choristers in Mediterranean countries wear under their cassocks when the summer heat is pushing 40C, I can tell you. Not very much.
I discovered this when I was singing with my daughter’s school choir on a tour of Slovenia and the Veneto. The choir had a parents’ section for big concerts such as the Verdi Requiem, and when the annual summer tour came around, parents could volunteer to join the tour to take the place of sixth-formers who had gone off on gap years or whatever.
On this particular tour, my friend Kitty (mother of my daughter Nevada’s best friend Becca) and I were standing in as altos, singing anything from Kenneth Leighton (who coincidentally was one of my professors at Edinburgh) to the Louis Vierne Messe Solennelle, with its wonderful growly organ introduction.
(Members may remember singing this in 2011: https://youtu.be/wh1-lKlGVVY Ed.)
We’d been warned about the cassock situation, and although we had come prepared, we didn’t quite believe it until we saw Jonathan Holmes, our conductor, solemnly climbing into his cassock wearing a pair of swimming shorts in a tropical print. All the children had their swimsuits on, but Kitty and I opted for cycle shorts and crop tops. We felt it was more decorous, as well as kinder to middle-aged spread.
There seems to be a law that the bigger and more famous the church, the less sympathetic its staff will be to visiting choirs. No matter how good your choristers are, you are viewed as only one rung up from tourists and the great unwashed.
At St Mark’s in Venice, we had to queue up at the back door for 20 minutes before being taken briskly to a small room where we were told to make absolutely no noise and be ready in five minutes.
Singing in St Mark’s was the highlight of the tour in terms of boasting back home, but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. We were singing at Mass, so the altar (of course) was the focal point, and the Mass was in Italian. We were on one side, almost hidden from the congregation, under the eye of a grumpy deacon who signalled when we were to sit, stand and sing by glaring at us.
We only had two real faux-pas, when Jonathan told the choir to sit down as the Lord’s Prayer began, and didn’t realise they had to stand up for the Prayer after Communion. Being Catholic, I dragged the kids around me to their feet, and got two evil glares this time, one from Jonathan and one from the deacon. It was the most stressful performance I have ever experienced.
Compared to this, our next concert was a delight. It was in a small town near Vicenza, and I’ve forgotten the name of the church, but it had a beautiful Renaissance organ which was said to have been played by Monteverdi, and a “hill of humility” sloping floor, depicting the soul’s journey to heaven.
The locals greeted us like long-lost family, demanded an encore (the Hallelujah chorus, which they then demanded we sang again!), and the mayor treated the whole choir to pizza afterwards in a local restaurant. It may not have been as prestigious as San Marco, but it was much more fun.
(Apparently John Elliott Gardner didn’t find everything as it should have been at St Mark’s either, when he recorded the Monteverdi Vespers there in 1990: https://youtu.be/QJIwFO9A1f8 Ed.)
And, while we’re thinking about Venice:
LORENZO DA PONTE (1749 – 1838) Tim explores the ‘interesting’ life of the man who wrote Mozart and introduced Italian opera into America:
Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in Ceneda, near Venice, to Jewish parents. After the death of his mother his father decided to marry a Catholic woman, so the family converted to Catholicism and Emanuele, aged 15, took the name of the bishop who baptised him, as was the custom. His seminary education led to his ordination as a priest in 1773.
Chiesa San Luca
Fr. Lorenzo Da Ponte moved to Venice where he became a priest at San Luca, which living he supplemented by teaching Latin, Italian and French. This workload didn’t prevent him from taking a mistress with whom he had two children, living in a brothel and organising the entertainments therein. Eventually, in 1779, he was charged with ‘public concubinage’ and ‘abduction of a respectable woman’. He was banished from Venice for 15 years.
Eventually he was appointed librettist at the Italian Theatre in Vienna where he collaborated with Mozart, Salieri and others including writing the libretti for Mozart’s: The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790). Da Ponte’s enduring merit was said to come ‘from his ability to infuse borrowed themes with new life and to interweave tragic and comic elements’. This excerpt from Don Giovanni seems particularly apt: https://youtu.be/iJnJjpMdT3Y?t=148
In 1790 Da Ponte was dismissed from Imperial Service in Austria and, being still banished from Venice, resumed his wanderings accompanied by his companion Nancy Grahl (with whom he eventually had four children). He had a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette in Paris but, with revolution in the air, decided instead to head for London where, after a precarious start, and holding several jobs including that of grocer and Italian teacher, he became librettist at the King’s Theatre, London, in 1803.
In 1805 he emigrated to the United States to escape his creditors, eventually becoming the first professor of Italian language and literature at New York’s Columbia College. At the age of eighty-four, he founded the Italian Opera House which, after several fires, re-buildings and bankruptcies eventually became the New York Academy of Music and the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Da Ponte’s death in 1838 was followed by a grand funeral ceremony at St Patrick’s Cathedral. He was buried in Manhattan and his remains later reinterred in Queens where a memorial stone was placed in 1987:
JOHN WRIGHT’S ORGAN RECITAL We have received this message from John:
While musicians everywhere are longing to get back to giving live performances to real audiences, in the meantime here are details of a short organ recital I am giving at 3.00 this Saturday (20th March) in the lovely Victorian church of St Barnabas in the Jericho area of Oxford. The programme, and information about the church, can be found via the link below. The event is free to watch and can also be seen at any time afterwards but, as you will see, the church is inviting donations towards the new organ that they hope to install in the next few years.
AND FINALLY . . .
Gill Hornby advises us to reject an application for membership from Mrs Beamish: https://youtu.be/xurRums49oY