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8.557432 - SAMMARTINI: Pianto degli Angeli della Pace (Il) / Symphony in E-Flat Major
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Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700/01-1775):
Il pianto degli Angeli della Pace • Symphony J-C 26

Giovanni Battista Sammartini, son of the French oboist Alexis Saint-Martin, was most probably born in Milan on 1700 or 1701; his death certificate, dated 1775, gives his age as 74. Little is known about his childhood, but in 1774 he is already documented as being a maestro di cappella, and we 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 non-professionals), 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 were abundantly testified to by his contemporaries, sometimes in odd ways. Their judgements could 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. They cannot have been alone in this, given that the twenty-year-old 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 ideas typical of a time of transition between the aesthetics of the late Baroque and those of the full-blown 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, both in that capacity or as organist, for as many as ten churches and congregations in Milan. Yet, 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 set to 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 cantata Il pianto degli Angeli della Pace was first performed in the church of San Fedele in Milan in 1751. It features three rôles, the Angel of the Alliance, a contralto, the Angel of the Testament, a soprano, and the Angel of Grace, a tenor. After an extensive orchestral introduction, the action begins with a trio, entitled Amare lagrime (Bitter Tears). This is in the form of a refrain that returns three times in the course of the composition, giving vent to the mournful feelings which prevail, sometimes with desperate and sometimes with melancholy accents, throughout the whole composition. Each character sings a da capo aria, preceded by a recitative. The plot is not based upon an episode of the Gospel, but is an edifying dialogue about the history of salvation and its fulfilment through Jesus Christ. The angels’ weeping for the passion and death of the Saviour, in which the whole of creation joins, constitutes, in effect, a leading motif linking all the episodes of the cantata. The instrumentation, traditional at the time, calls for strings, oboes, horns, and basso continuo.

Sammartini’s Symphony J-C 26 is part of a large corpus of more than seventy works in this genre. Most of these compositions consist of three contrasting movements and were intended to entertain Milan’s enthusiastic audience either in enclosed or open spaces. From our point of view they form a kind of field for experimentation, showing a stylistic evolution towards the modern symphony and sonata form. All Sammartini’s symphonies display the composer’s brilliant temperament. A constant flow of melodic and rhythmic ideas, occasionally abrupt changes in the harmony, and highly varied formal structures reveal a constant striving after an ever more daring instrumental language.

The style employed in these works, which seems facile only when looked at cursorily, can only be called ‘Sammartinian’, a term that admittedly 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 wealth of ideas.

Maria Daniela Villa
Translation by David S. Tabbat

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