About this Recording
8.551077 - Roman Christmas: Italian Concertos and Cantatas

Christian Pastoral Poetry – The Pastorale

Christian Pastoral Poetry – The Pastorale


That Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio constitutes for Central Europeans today the embodiment of the sacred festival, to which only Handel’s Messiah comes near in solemn splendour, should not deceive us into thinking that Bach’s interpretation of the Christmas story in its formal unity and theological statement is completely exceptional. However, it is less representative of the long tradition of Christmas musical narratives from the Middle Ages to the present day. These were robust, entertaining works, intended to be performed as lessons on this fundamental chapter of Christian history.


Relics of the great liturgical Christmas plays of the Middle Ages are found in the popular shepherd and nativity plays found today in Catholic southern European regions. Characteristically it was these very pastoral plays to which Baroque composers were particularly devoted. Their preferred form, the Pastorale, inspired by folk-music, was so immediately clear to audiences of the time that Bach and Handel were able to incorporate them in their oratorios as instrumental pieces, without fear of misunderstanding. The rocking 12/8 rhythm and drone bass were stylistic features of music that was played in Rome every year on Christmas Eve by shepherds from the Campagna on the zampogna (a bagpipe typical of the region) and the shawm, which are still played today. Arcangelo Corelli provided a musical model of this in the last movement of his Concerto grosso in G minor, as an accompaniment to the performance of shepherd scenes during the Christmas Mass. He has become as well-known for this movement alone as he is for all his trio-sonatas and concerti grossi.


Ancient Pastoral Poetry – The Accademia dell’Arcadia


Corelli’s pastoral music in Rome had a significance of its own, closely associated as it was with the numerous Roman academies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The most famous of them, the Accademia dell’Arcadia, had in 1690 a number of prominent patrons, poets, and musicians, among them Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Pasquini, Bononcini and Corelli himself, meeting for the purposes of aesthetic decadence in the sane intellectual world of a Utopian Arcadia. In the spirit of the bucolic world of Virgil’s Eclogues a challenge was mounted to the overcharged poetry of the Roman High baroque and its monumental music theatre. The participation of influential cardinals in the Accademia dell’Arcadia shows that ancient heathen and Christian themes, as touched on in the shepherd episodes of the Christmas narrative, were understood always as common symbols of a better world.


From the pastoral ideology of the Arcadians came a particularly rich quantity of pastoral and Christmas music. Scarlatti’s cantata Oh di Betlemme and the Concerto grosso fatto per la notte di natale of Corelli are outstanding masterpieces of the genre.


Included in this pastoral music are instrumental concertos in which the solo instruments have a clear reference to Christmas events the oboe as a descendant of the old shepherd shawm and the trumpet as a symbol of the power of God, heralding the birth of the Christ child.


Michael Struck-Schleon


From the Concerto Grosso to the Solo Concerto


The development of Baroque style is closely associated with the evolution of the Concerto grosso. As in earlier choral works, a small solo group with its own tone-colour and instrumental virtuosity is contrasted with the grosso, the body of the string orchestra. This was the first suggestion of the increasing emphasis given to individual personality, which as finally to find its true from in the sole concerto.


The oldest example included on this recording of this new formal principle is the Sonata a otto viole con una tromba (Sonata for eight strings with a trumpet) by Stradella, for two string orchestras. With the solo trumpet the dialogue between the string groups takes on an extra dimension. The work was written in 1682 and proclaims itself, in its four-movement form, a Sonata da chiesa (church sonata).


The Concerto grosso achieves its most perfect form in the twelve Concerti grossi, Opus 6, of Corelli, published in Rome in 1712, with the Christmas Concerto, included here, the best known.


During the period of development from concerto grosso to solo concerto came two intermediate forms, the opera-sinfonia and the concerto a cinque in which the solo part with its virtuoso violin cadenza often has its own stave in the score and a separate part-book, but is still bound in with the grosso. The oboe concertos of Albinoni and Marcello are eloquent examples of this form.


As in the secular solo concerto, so there developed subjective feeling and as increased desire for expressiveness in the sacred solo motet, which took the place of the choral motet in the first half of the eighteenth century. Contemplative empathy with the life of Mart, the Christmas events and personal sharing in the Passion narrative were the chief subjects of motets. Scarlatti’s Christmas cantata is one of the earliest models of this new dramatic and emotional style of church music.


The present programme, therefore, brings together prescious compositions from the High Baroque which are associated with the events of Christmas and which, in their blend of the contemplative and festive, draw the modern listener under their spell.


Helmut Muller-Bruhl

(Adapted from the German by Keith Anderson)



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