About this Recording
8.557431 - SAMMARTINI: Maria Addolorata / Il Pianto di San Pietro
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Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700/01-1775):
Maria Addolorata, J-C 121 • Il pianto di San Pietro J-C 117

Giovanni Battista Sammartini, son of the French oboist Alexis Saint-Martin, was most likely born in Milan in 1700 or 1701; his death certificate, dated 1775, gives his age as 74. Not much is known about his childhood. In 1724 he is already documented as being a maestro di cappella; we also know that he was active as a performer on the oboe and organ, winning admiration for the individuality of his touch on the latter instrument.

Over the course of a long life, Sammartini had a busy, not to say frenzied, musical career as, among other things, maestro di cappella and organist of assorted confraternities, the moving spirit behind the orchestra of the Royal Ducal Theatre in Milan (which was to be replaced, after its destruction, by La Scala), a much admired conductor both of “academies” (concerts held outdoors or in the homes of the aristocracy) and of religious music, a composer of operas and cantatas, a prolific writer of symphonies, maestro di cappella at the ducal court, co-founder of the Accademia Filarmonica (an orchestra made up of skilled nonprofessionals), and a respected teacher who was on the faculty of various colleges attended by local nobility. Today, Sammartini is remembered primarily as the ‘father of the symphony’. This description is amply justified by the attention he dedicated to the genre, which he was among the first to treat as one of real importance.

Sammartini’s fame and success are abundantly testified to by his contemporaries, sometimes in odd ways. Their judgements can be contradictory, tending to reveal a certain alarm in the face of his exuberant personality and musical unorthodoxy. Haydn denigrated him as a mere scribbler, while Leopold Mozart, in his letters, spoke of him with the respect due to an authority, without, however, expressing an opinion of his music. The writers Laurence Sterne and Charles Burney, both of whom attended performances where Sammartini conducted his own works, were much struck with his personality and charisma; nor can they have been alone in this, given that the twenty-yearold Gluck was sent to Milan by his patron Prince Lobkowitz for the express purpose of advanced study with Sammartini, with whom he remained from 1737 to 1741.

The long career of Sammartini covers a span going from the maturity of Vivaldi and J. S. Bach to the emergence of Haydn and the young Mozart. Thus his compositions, especially the earlier ones, reveal conceptions typical of a time of transition between the aesthetics of the late Baroque and those of the fullblown Classical style, and we find, along the way, the most diverse admixtures of elements. Nowadays, he deserves to be considered the most important Milanese musician of the eighteenth century, and a key figure in the broader musical world of the period.

As we have noted, Sammartini had a brilliant career as a maestro di cappella; during the last decade of his life, in fact, he worked, whether in that capacity or as organist, for as many as ten churches and congregations in Milan, but no more than twenty or so compositions, including a Mass and a total of eight Lenten cantatas, are all that have come down to us in the way of sacred music. Deserving of particular note is his ongoing collaboration, over some fifty years, from 1724 to 1773, with the Congregation of the Most Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Solitude of the Most Holy Sorrowing Virgin, which had its headquarters at the Church of San Fedele. Founded in 1633 by the Spanish governor of Milan, its membership included, at various times, high-ranking Italian, Spanish, and Austrian personages. The Congregation showed an intense spiritual devotion every year at Lent, manifested in the celebration on Friday evenings of a non-liturgical service including a sermon and a cantata on an Italian-language text. Lay religious congregations in Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries expressed their devotion through forms other than those of the liturgy proper, and were supported by the subscriptions and contributions of members. Sometimes they were linked with religious orders or church institutions.

The cantatas on the present release, Il pianto di San Pietro and Maria Addolorata, were first performed in the church of San Fedele in Milan in 1751. Both compositions feature three rôles, sung by a soprano, contralto, and tenor. The formal structure is quite simple. After an extensive and lively orchestral introduction, each character has a recitative followed by a da capo aria, the contrasting middle section of which is designated intermezzo in the early sources: after these three arias, a trio concludes the work. The instrumentation, traditional at the time, calls for strings, oboes, horns, and basso continuo. The style is already far removed from Vivaldi’s: the prevailing tone may be described as pre-Classical, while certain progressions would seem to attest to the Milanese composer’s influence on the young Mozart.

It is readily apparent from the texts that these cantatas in no way aspire to the status of serious theological exegesis, their only aim to awaken in the listener, with the help of music, pious sentiments in the face of Christ’s Passion. The unknown author does not follow the text of the Gospels literally, but reveals a lively, simple imagination, expressed in the recitatives in a mixture of prose with some rhyme, and in short, simple phrases in the arias, which are always made up of two strophes. The first strophe is set forth and immediately repeated with changes in the vocal line and key structure; the second comprises the abovementioned intermezzo, followed by the usual da capo. Each episode is framed by appropriate orchestral passages. The final trio does not involve repetitions of the text and is primarily contrapuntal in texture. Sammartini does not seem to have felt that the occasion called for a strict ecclesiastical style, given that the words were not part of the liturgy.

The musical language employed in these cantatas, which seems facile only when looked at cursorily, can only be called ‘Sammartinian’, a term that will not mean much to those unfamiliar with the composer. The vocal texture is largely dominated by a typically Italianate melodiousness and virtuosity, while the orchestral writing, full of daring and unusual harmonies, displays the symphonic style characteristic of Sammartini, with darting, fluid rhythms, sparkling themes, and a refined and inexhaustible fund for welling up of ideas.

Maria Daniela Villa
Translation by David S. Tabbat

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