Saint Cecilia was revered as the patron saint of music throughout Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Numerous depictions of Cecilia playing or holding an organ, spinet harpsichord, lute, or even a fiddle, were painted by painters such as Raphael, Gentileschi, Rubens, and Poussin. Beginning as early as the 1570’s musical associations sprang up to honor Cecilia on her feast-day, November 22nd, with a day of musical performances, usually involving newly composed music and poetry in her honor. The tradition caught hold in London fairly late; but by 1683 the Musical Society there had inaugurated an annual series of concerts to celebrate Cecilia and music, which in its course inspired poetry and music by the likes of Dryden, Congreve, D’Urfey, Pope; Purcell, Blow, Draghi, and Handel. The Ode to Saint Cecilia we hear today, “Welcome to all the Pleasures”, with text by Christopher Fishburn and music by Henry Purcell, published by John Playford in 1684, was composed expressly for the London Cecilian Festival of 1683, launching an English tradition that would continue in one form or another right to the present day. Benjamin Britten composed the beautiful Hymn to Saint Cecilia on a text by W.H. Auden in 1942 , and concerts in support of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund are still likely to take place in London on Saint Cecilia’s day.
In this fine tradition and its spirit of celebration, we offer a kind of musical Grand Tour of Europe in Purcell’s day, in a program of music composed around the time of the 1683 launch of the London Cecilian Festivals.
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber published his third collection of chamber music, Fidicinium Sacro-profanum, in that year. The unusual title of the collection, decoded, provides some information about the composer’s intent for these musical gems, composed for stringed instruments (“fidicinium”) for use on sacred or secular (“sacro-profanum”) occasions, and perfectly suited therefore for a celebration of the patron saint of music! Biber was undoubtedly one the most accomplished violinists of his day; the great Tyrolean violin maker Jacob Stainer described him in a letter of 1670 as “the formidable virtuoso Herr Biber.” It was in 1670, at the age of 26, that the Bohemian violinist found his way to Salzburg, where he spent the rest of his career, first as a member of the Kapelle, then as instructor of the cathedral choirboys, Vice-Kappellmeister, Dean of the choir school, and finally Kapellmeister of this excellent musical establishment. His compositional oeuvre includes sacred vocal music as well as opera and school-drama, instrumental music for trumpets as well as string ensembles, and an outstanding corpus of solo violin literature with
basso continuo. Biber seems not to have traveled or concertized widely; his reputation elsewhere spread mainly on the basis of his compositions, which are remarkable not only for their evidence of a superlative violin technique, but also for their striking harmonies, elegant counterpoint, and above all their sonorous richness.
Alessandro Scarlatti, often considered the founder of Neapolitan opera, spent most of his career in Rome and Naples. Most prolific as a composer of vocal music, with more than 60 operas, at least 25 Serenatas, almost as many Oratorios, 10 Masses (including Missa Santa Cecilia, of 1720), numerous motets, and over 600 cantatas to his credit, contributed some wonderfully contrapuntal concerti grossi to the instrumental repertory rather late in his career, probably in response to the “Corellian fever” that was spreading rapidly through European musical circles at the beginning of the 18th century. The publication in England 15 years after the composer’s death of one of these collections might be explained by the fact that his brother Francesco, a violinist, traveled to England, likely taking compositions of Alessandro with him as part of his traveling repertory, and speaks to the enduring popularity of the Concerto Grosso format.
Unlike Scarlatti, Georg Muffat wrote instrumental music almost exclusively. Unlike Biber, his contemporary and sometime colleague in Salzburg, Muffat was widely traveled, and in some senses epitomizes the emerging model of Cosmopolitan Musician. He was born in Savoy, of Scottish descent, grew up in Alsace, traveled to Paris as a young man, where he absorbed the French dance style as a student of Jean-Battiste Lully — the head of the musical establishment of Louis XIV and one of the most influential musicians of the century. Then, after a stint as a Jesuit student and organist back in Alsace, Muffat made his way to Salzburg in 1678, by way of Bavaria (where he briefly matriculated as a student of law), Prague, and Vienna. In Salzburg, Muffat found employment as cathedral organist and chamber musican to Biber’s patron, Archbishop Maximilian Gandolphe, but by 1680 his employer had sent him to expand his musical experiences in Italy. He studied in Rome with Pasquini, became acquainted with Corelli and Corelli’s concerto grosso style, made his own compositional experiments with concerto grosso principal and had the opportunity to try them out in musical sessions with Corelli’s ensemble. In 1682, on his return to Salzburg, he published these pieces in his first collection of compositions, Armonico Tributo, from which we perform today his Sonata V. This sonata and particularly the grand “Passagaglia” that closes the work, and our program, is one of his most enduring efforts and represents a fine amalgamation of the French and Italian styles; he made a reworked, even more Italianate version of the final movement under the title “Ciacconna” in his final collection, published in 1701. We owe a great deal of our information about French and Italian performance practices and string style of the late 17th century to Muffat’s extensive prefaces to his instrumental ensemble collections, which he published in French, German, Italian, and Latin, and in which he purposes to instruct his less well-traveled contemporaries in the fine points of French and Italian performance style.
The French dance style traveled to England by quite a different route, arriving with French dancers who were employed by the English court and theater for their entertainments, and with English musicians, such as the violinist Pelham Humfrey (one of Purcell’s early music masters), returning from sojourns in Paris infused with a French sense of fashion, music, dance, and manners. John Dryden remarked in his dedicatory preface to the semi-opera Dioclesian, a 1690 Dryden-Purcell collaboration, that English music and was “now learning Italian, which is its best Master, and studying a little of the French Aire to give it more Gayety and Fashion.” Henry Purcell began writing incidental music for the English theater as early as 1680. Though he never traveled to France himself, Purcell’s theater music is infused with the dance style from across the channel, while remaining a harmonic creature of his inimitable contrapuntal genius, to the last drop. We open our program today with a grand French Overture, along with several dances and instrumental aires — the “ Musick in Abdelazor” – incidental music for the 1695 production of the play by Aphra Behn, known in her time as a “female wit,” and one of the first Englishwomen to support herself entirely with her writing. 1695 was a prolific year for Purcell in the theater, Abdelazor being one of 7 or 8 plays for which he contributed a song, duet, chorus, or instrumental music, in addition to his composition of two ‘semi-operas’ produced that year: The Indian Queen (text by Dryden and Howard) and The Tempest (text by Shadwell, after Shakespeare.) Sadly, it was also his last year in the theater, in the court, in the chamber, in the chapel; he died November 21, 1695, the day before the annual Saint Cecilia festivities, at the age of 36. Shortly after his death, his widow, Frances Purcell, collected his instrumental music for theater for publication by his long-time colleague and friend John Playford.
Purcell’s death cast a pall over the 1695 Cecilian Festival, as all of musical London went into mourning, but the legacy of Saint Cecilia, and Purcell’s contribution to the celebration of Saint Cecilia and her gifts, lives on and continues to inspire musicians and music-lovers worldwide. Io Cecilia!
© 2004, Dana Maiben