In a few weeks time it will be Easter, always a time of the year that I get in the mood to listen to Passion music. See for example my posts St Matthew Passion and Stabat Mater . In this post I will write about another masterpiece of religious music, the Seven Last Words of Christ, written in 1786 by Joseph Haydn.
For those readers who are not familiar with the Christian religion, some information. Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he came to Earth to save mankind by carrying the burden of their sins. His sufferings culminated in his crucifixion and his death. On the third day he resurrected from his grave and fourty days later he ascended to heaven.
The resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday (this year on 21 April). On the Friday before in some churches a devotion is held from noon till 3 o’clock , the Three Hours’ Agony, commemorating the three hours of Christ’s hanging at the cross. This devotion was devised in the 17th century in Peru by Jesuit missionaries and soon became popular in Europe. It consisted of sermons and meditation about the seven “words” uttered by Jesus when he was hanging at the cross.
In 1786 Joseph Haydn was requested by the clergy of the Cádiz Cathedral to compose seven instrumental adagios, to be played after each of the “words” and meditations. Not an easy job, as Haydn wrote himself: ” …. it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners ..“. Haydn added an Introduction and a Finale.
The work became a success immediately and the next year Haydn wrote a version for string quartet. It is this version which is usually performed nowadays. In 1801 he published a choral version.
For this blog I have used the orchestral version, recorded in 1965 in Barcelona.
I decided that it would be interesting to split the work into its separate pieces and combine them with the corresponding utterances by Jesus. The seven last words come from different gospels. Here is the introduction.
Introduzione in D minor
Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do
While Jesus is hanging at the cross, he is being mocked by the Jewish rulers, the soldiers and many of the spectators.
Sonata I in B-flat major
Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Two criminals are crucified at the same time, one at Jesus’ left side, one at his right side. One of them also mocks Jesus, but the other one rebukes him, saying: we are punished for our crimes, but this man didn’t do anything wrong. And he says to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you arrive in your kingdom.
Sonata II in C minor, ending in C major
John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother
Of course Jesus’ followers are also there, among them John, the writer of this gospel. Jesus says this when he sees his mother Mary, and the “disciple whom he loved” (i.e John) standing nearby.
Sonata III in E major
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus says this in the Aramaic language: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani and the crowd thinks that he is calling the prophet Elijah.When somebody wants to give Jesus something to drink, they say, don’t, let’s see if Elijah will come
Sonata IV in F minor
John 19:28: I thirst
As John explains in his gospel, Jesus says this because he knows that everything has now been fulfilled.
Sonata V in A major
John 19:30: It is finished
In Bach’s St John Passion, this is one of the emotional peak moments, listen to Es ist vollbracht
Sonata VI in G minor, ending in G majorLuke 23:46: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.After Jesus calls this with loud voice, he breathes his last.
Sonata VII in in E-flat major
Matthew 27:51: And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent
This is the description given by the gospel of St Matthew. Haydn uses it for the finale, no adagio for this part, but “Presto e con tutta la forza”!
Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor
When you listen to this masterwork, put the volume on loud! And when you are interested, search YouTube for The Seven Last Words of Christ. You will find many recordings.
A few months ago I listened for the first(!) time to Dixit Dominus, composed by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) in 1707. It is an absolute masterpiece of Baroque music.
Not surprisingly numerous recordings can be found on YouTube. Here are two, one conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in 2014
The second one with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the hr-Sinfonieorchester and her Chœur du Concert D’Astrée in 2017
When you search YouTube for Dixit Dominus Handel, you will find more than ten different recordings. I found it interesting to compare them. Listen for example to the first bars of the slow recording by Sir David Willcocks 1965) and the very fast one by Andres Mustonen (2018)!
Händel wrote Dixit Dominus when he was 22 year old and staying in Italy, in Florence and Rome. In Germany he had already made a name for himself with the opera Almira, composed when he was 19 year old.
But during his stay in Rome, operas had been (temporarily) banned by pope Clement XI because he considered them immoral. So Händel composed mainly sacred music while in Rome.
The portrait is dated about 1710.
Dixit Dominus is a musical setting of psalm 109 from the Book of Psalms, which is part of the Christian Old Testament. The title comes from the first line of the Latin text of the psalm: Dixit Dominus Domino Meo, which translates (in the King James version) as The Lord said unto my Lord .
A rather cryptic line, is the Lord talking to himself? The explanation is that in the Hebrew text two different words are used for Lord. The Lord who speaks is God and he speaks to the psalmist’s lord. This lord is seen as the Messiah and in the New Testament Jesus quotes this psalm that he is the Messiah and the son of God.
That is the reason that this psalm 109 plays an important role in the Christian liturgy, the psalm is sung often in the Roman-Catholic Vespers.
Actually, Händel was not the only composer who wrote a Dixit Dominus. Vivaldi even wrote three versions, RV 594, RV 595 and RV 807 (my personal favorite). On YouTube you can also find versions written by Pergolesi and by Alessandro Scarlatti (the father of Domenico).
The last line of the psalm in the Händel version is sung as a duet by two sopranos and choir. It is impressively beautiful and in the Gardiner recording it was given as an encore. Here it is, put the volume high and listen to what you can read in one of the comments: One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
When I heard this emotional, moving duet, I got curious about the text, expecting it to be equally emotional and “deep” ..:-). But no, the last line of the psalm is in Latin:
De torrente in via bibet, propterea exaltabit caput.
He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.
What does that mean, it sounds so trivial? I got intrigued, started searching the Internet and found this website Psallam Domino where all the psalms are analysed in a very thorough way. About psalm 109 the blog says “This is a hard psalm to interpret correctly” and “… it is very theologically dense”
The webpage about the last line has the title “Prophesying Christ’s humility and the Ascension” . The humility is that he just was drinking water from a brook, the ascension is indicated by the lifting of the head .
Being a non-believer, I gave up after this and just will enjoy the music…:-)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, in 1767, when he was eleven(!) years old. Recently I have been listening many times to this fascinating work of art, really amazing that it was written by an eleven year old boy.
Not many recordings exist. Here is a beautiful one.
The Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus is an interesting one, because it describes the love between the god Apollo and the boy Hyacinthus. The Greek gods were not picky and had love affairs with both men and women. Famous example is the love of Zeus for the boy Ganymede.
In this case both Apollo and Zephyros, the West Wind god, were in love with the handsome Spartan prince. Hyacinthus preferred Apollo. When the two lovers were playing with the discus, Apollo threw it very high and far and Hyacinthos tried to catch it. Jealous Zephyros blew the discus off its course, it hit Hyacinthus and killed him. Apollo was desolate, could not bring the boy back to life, but created from his blood a beautiful purple flower.
Painters loved the subject, here is a version by the Russian artist Alexander Kiselyov. The discus is lying on the ground. The flower was not the present hyacinth, but probably the blue larkspur. Ovidius who describes the story in his Metamorphoses, tells that Apollo inscribed “Ai Ai”, the Greek expression of grief on its petals. And indeed, with some imagination you can see in the flower an A en an I …:-)
How is this homoerotic love affair between Apollo and Hyacinthus, with Zephyros as a jealous rival presented in the opera? Mozart used a libretto written by Rufinus Widl, priest and philosophy professor at the University of Salzburg that had commissioned the opera. Father Widl removed the controversial theme by introducing a sister of Hyacinthus, Melia, who is the subject of Apollo’s love and Zephyros’ jealousy!
I got intrigued how Widl had done this. The libretto is written in Latin and my knowledge of that language has become quite rusty, but I found an English translation…:-) . I have created a webpage on my site: Apollo et Hyacinthus , where you can read the Latin and English text, while listening to the corresponding parts of the opera. Give it a try!
Here is a screenshot of my webpage. Note that there are only 5 soloists, Hyacinthus, his sister Melia, his father Oebalus, Apollo and Zephyros. More about the soloists later
Here is a synopsis of Widl’s libretto
The opera starts with a conversation between Hyacinthus and Zephyros . Hyacinthus is preparing an offering for Apollo, and Zephyros is wondering why especially Apollo. Oebalus and Melia appear, everything is ready, but then lightning strikes and destroys the offering. Oebalus is upset, what have they done wrong? Could it be because of what Zephyros had said?
Then Apollo appears, as a shepherd, because he has been banned from the Olympos by Jupiter. He is humble and promises to help Oebalus if he can stay in his kingdom. Melia adores him and Apollo accepts her love with pleasure. He will also be a good friend of Hyacinthus. Zephyros, in an aside: Alas, now Apollo is snatching my beloved boy from me!.
Conversation between Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus has no doubt that Apollo wants Melia as his wife and Melia is eager to accept him. They wait for the return of Apollo, who is playing discus with Hyacinthos and Zephyros
Then Zephyros enters with the news that Hyacinthos is dead, hit by a discus thrown by Apollo. Of course Oebalus and Melia are upset, a marriage with Apollo is now out of the question. Zephyros, in an aside: What’s this I hear? Is the god considering marriage? Is he bent on stealing my beloved Melia from me? Will he who stole Hyacinthus also snatch her love from me?
Oebalus asks Zephyros to go back to Apollo and tell him that he is banished from the kingdom, but Zephyros replies that Oebalus better tells Apollo himself. Again in an aside: If only he expels him, so that my crime can be hidden, for I am the one guilty of committing the murder. Oebalus leaves. Zephyros again: Everything is going as I wished, my plot is working, and my beloved Melia now remains to be my bride.
Zephyros tries to convince Melia that Apollo is bad and that she better can choose him. She is sad about her brother’s fate and refuses his advances. Then Apollo enters. He curses Zephyros who is transformed in a wind and swept away.
Melia is now even more furious, refuses to listen to Apollo’s explanation and banishes him from the kingdom.
Oebalus finds Hyacinthus still alive but dying. Hyacinthus tells his father that it was not Apollo but Zephyros who killed him. Then he dies.Oebalus swears to avenge Zephyros’ crime. Melia enters, still thinking that Apollo killed her brother. She tells her father that she banished the god who also killed Zephyros. Oebalus then explains that Apollo was right, because it was Zephyros who threw the fatal discus. Both are upset that the god will take revenge after being banished wrongly
Apollo enters, saying that his love for Hyacinthus made him return. He can not bring the boy back to life, but lets hyacinth flowers spring from his dead body. Both Oebalus and Melia apologise for the banishment, asking for forgiveness. Apollo promises to stay in the kingdom, hoping that Melia is still willing to become his bride. Oebalus gives his permission, saying: Hyacinthus is dead: you will be for me another Hyacinthus, if you deign to remain in our land as husband of my daughter.
The opera ends with a terzetto, sung by Apollo, Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus sings: “After furious battles, the joyful pledge of love unites you. After these events decreed by fate, the longed-for marriage torch will crown you and inspire me”.
As Shakespeare already wrote: All’s well that ends well… 🙂
Some comments, mainly about Zephyros
In the myth Zephyros is a (minor) god himself, here he is just a mortal, a “friend” of Hyacinthus
His aside that Apollo is snatching his beloved boy from him, doesn’t make sense in Widl’s adaptation.
In the second aside, he is suddenly in love with Melia, afraid that Apollo will steal her like he stole Hyacinthus.
Why did he kill Hyacinthus? To put the blame on Apollo? So Melia can become his bride?
As revenge for the killing of Hyacinthus, Apollo transforms Zephyros in a wind. In the myth Apollo can not punish (the god) Zephyros, because Eros protects him, as the crime was committed out of love!
I hope you will agree that Widl has managed to eliminate thoroughly the theme of the original myth .. 🙂
Let me conclude with some details about the soloists. The parts of Oebalus and Melia are sung by a tenor and a soprano. Those of Apollo and Zephyros by countertenors. The part of Hyacinthus is sung by Arno Raunig, a sopranist , a male soprano. LIsten to him, singing Bach’s Ave Maria. Four years ago I have published a post Countertenors and castrati, where you can find more information about male altos and sopranos..
There is a very simple reason why Mozart wrote his opera for these voices. During the first (and during Mozart’s lifetime only) performance, all parts were sung by boys! They were students and choristers of the Salzburg University and we actually know their names (and ages)
Oebalus : Mathias Stadler, student of moral theology and law: 22 years old
Melia : Felix Fuchs, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 15 years old
Hyacinthus : Christian Enzinger, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 12 years old
Apollo : Johann Ernst, boy contralto, chapel chorister, 12 years old
Zephyrus : Joseph Vonterthon, boy contralto, fourth-year pupil:, 17 years old.
Even the part of Melia is sung by a boy soprano.
Are you curious how this first performance might have looked like? In 1983(!) a television recording has made of the opera, with soloists from the Tölzer Knabenchor. The quality of the recording is not that good, and the YouTube video is split in eight parts, so I have created a playlist. Here it is: Apollo et Hyacinthus .
To give you an impression, here is a better quality video of Melia’s aria, sung by boy soprano Alan Bergius. In this aria she sings how happy and proud she is to become the bride of the god Apollo
Immediately after this aria Zephyros enters with the message that Apollo has killed her brother.
By the way, the part of Zephyros is sung by Panito Iconomou, who, two years later, excels in Es ist Vollbracht . (St John’s Passion under Harnoncourt)
I have written this blog with more than usual pleasure and I hope the reader will enjoy it
A chaconne is a musical dance form in triple metre, popular during the Baroque and consisting of a theme with variations. Just to name a few composers, Telemann, Pachelbel, Couperin, Vivaldi have written chaconnes (the links refer to YouTube).
But when music lovers talk about The Chaconne. they mean the last movement of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin.
Yehudi Menuhin called it “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”
And Joshua Bell has said the Chaconne is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history”
Over the years I have heard Bach’s chaconne numerous times and still it affects me deeply. There has been a time that I thought it would be perfect music for my funeral, but later I decided that it might take too long.. :-).
Of course you can find numerous versions on YouTube. Here is beautiful one, performed by talented violinist Hilary Hahn.
She plays the chaconne quite slowly (almost 18 minutes), most performers play it faster, in about 14 minutes. For example Yehudi Menuhin in a recording from 1956.
Not surprisingly, there are also plenty recordings where the chaconne is played on other instruments. An obvious choice is the guitar. In the opinion of some the chaconne sounds even better on a guitar. Personally I don’t agree, but I must admit that for example this performance by John Feely is brilliant and moving.
In my opinion woodwinds are not suitable for this work. The marimba recording is actually quite nice. Organ and accordion are too massive for me. The cello recording is not bad, but I find the range of the violin more suitable.
In 1930 the English conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote a transcription of the chaconne for symphony orchestra. More transcriptions exist, but this is probably the most famous one. Very romantic and dramatic, but emotionally it has no effect on me. Listen to this recording, put the volume on maximum and fasten your seat belts :-). The recording is from 1950 and conducted by Stokowski himself.
You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the piano until now. That was on purpose. Of course there are many recordings for piano. Most pianists play the transcription of Ferrucio Busoni. He was an Italian composer, pianist, conductor, etc, who has transcribed many of Back’s work in a romantic way. More a recreation than a transcription, that’s why it is often called the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Here is a brilliant recording by .Evgeny Kissin. You can follow the score.
An impressive performance of Kissin, but still I think something is missing.
There exists another transcription, created by Brahms. He wrote it for the left hand alone! A brilliant idea, listen to Daniil Trifonov.
De gustibus non est disputandum (tastes differ), but for me this is the recording that comes close to the original in transparency and emotional power.
The last week I have been listening to dozens of recordings of the chaconne, never boring. It remains for me one of the pinnacles of human culture.
I like listening to (classical) music. When I was still living in Amsterdam, I was a regular visitor of the Concertgebouw . Here in Malaysia I have visited several times the Petronas Filharmonik Hall. Nowadays I am mostly listening to YouTube…:-)
At YouTube you will find not only recordings of compositions by the “great” names (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc), but also works of lesser well known composers. Recently I have collected many of these recordings, limiting myself to piano concertos composed between 1805 and 1830. Why piano concertos and why these dates?
The piano developed and became accepted in the late 18th century (successor to the harpsichord). Not surprisingly many composers wanted to explore the possibilities of this “new” instrument, in combination with an orchestra. What I like in piano concertos is the contrast between the sound of the piano and that of the orchestral instruments, because the piano is not represented in the orchestra already (in contrast with concertos for violin, flute, hobo, cello, etc)
The dates are of course rather arbitrary. In 1805–1806 Beethoven wrote his Piano Concerto no. 4, here performed by Mautizio Pollini. It is my favourite Beethoven concerto. And in 1830 Chopin composed his Piano Concerto nr 2 (when he was only 20 year old!). Another favourite of mine. The recording is by Rosalía Gómez Lasheras (19 year old!). You might say that the dates mark the transition from Classical to (Early) Romantic
Before I started searching YouTube and Wikipedia, I was not really aware of any other piano concerto composed between those dates.
Here is what I found. I have ordered them according to the birth date of the composer. The first link refers to a Wikipedia article about the composer. All concertos are worth listening to, but of course I have my favourites. They are marked with *****
Johann Baptist Cramer (1771 – 1858), English musician, from German origin, a renowned pianist, highly appreciated by Beethoven.
Friedrich Kalkbrenner 1785-1849, French of German origin, pianist, composer, piano teacher and piano manufacturer. A vain man, thinking that after Bach, Mozart Beethoven, he was the only classical composer left.
Usually I come back to the Netherlands when spring has started, but this time I was earlier. The weather was cold and grey, not inviting to go out and enjoy the countryside. Maybe visit a museum? But which one, Amsterdam has more than 50 of them! Two of them are housed in patrician canal mansions and I decided to visit those.
First I visited the museum van Loon. This merchant mansion was built in 1671, has had many tenants (for example the painter Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt) and owners and was finally bought in 1884 by the aristocratic family van Loon, who still owns it, but doesn’t live there anymore.
Here is a collection of pictures. These mansions have a big garden, with at the back the coach house. The kitchen is in the basement, the (elevated) ground floor has reception and living rooms, the first floor the bedrooms. The second floor (not accessible nowadays) contained the servant quarters. The museum gives a good impression how the rich merchants lived in those days.
Garden and coach house
In the coach house
The ornamental garden
A reception room
One of the bedrooms
During my visit there was an interesting special exhibition. The van Loon family belonged to the Dutch aristocracy and many exhibits show their personal fashion style, from 1850 until present.
My second visit was to the Willet-Holthuysen museum. Built for Jacob Hop, mayor of Amsterdam, around 1685. Also here many owners, the last one was Mrs. Willet-Holthuysen, she bequeathed the entire house to the city of Amsterdam on condition that it became a museum in 1895.
Similar design as the van Loon mansion. Elevated ground floor with diningroom and sitting room and a large ballroom. Kitchen in the basement, with access to a town garden. Bedrooms on the first floor. Notice how the 17th century building is flanked by ugly modern buildings
Also for this museum a collection of pictures. The Willet-Holthuysen couple were part of what you would call nowadays the jetset. Traveling a lot, giving parties, collecting art.
View of the garden
Stairwell to first floor
When I was searching the Internet for opening times etc, I found that there used to be another townhouse museum, the Geelvinck-Hinlopen mansion, unfortunately closed indefinitely last year. But the regular concerts of classical music, given in this museum, arestill being organised, only in a different location, in the Huis met de Hoofden (House with the Heads). This mansion was built in 1622. The interior is under renovation, only one room is accessible for concerts. Impressive facade.
There is a legend that the six heads represent thieves, beheaded by a servant, when she noticed a burglary. Not true, they represent Greek gods…:-)
the House with the Heads
Some of the heads
Gods, not thieves
It was my lucky day, there was a concert on this grey Sunday afternoon! Musica Batavia , three musicians, on harpsichord, violin and recorder, were playing music by Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and others.
Inside the house
Waiting for the musicians
Ready to play
They played very well, here is an example of their musical style, a sonata by Pietro Locatelli (an Italian composer who, by the way, lived most of his life in a canal house in Amsterdam!)
The International Chopin Piano Competition is one of the oldest and most prestigious music competitions in the world. Held every five years in Warsaw, it is exclusively devoted to Chopin’s works for piano. The first competition was held in 1927 and last week was the final of the 17th one.
More than 450 applications were received, from which 160 pianists were selected to play in the preliminary rounds in April. The jury admitted 77 pianists to the main competition, which consisted of three rounds, followed by the final.
The whole event has been documented brilliantly on the website Chopin Competition 2015 The concerts have been uploaded almost immediately to YouTube, here is the complete list of all concerts , 28 videos, totaling more than 100 hours of recordings!
Many of the participants are really young. And surprisingly(?) many of them are of Asian descent. There are 13 participants from China, 12 from Japan, 8 from South Korea and a few from the United States and Canada who have their origins in Asia. Here are the five who made it to the final round.
Seong Jin Cho (21)
Kate Liu (21)
Eric Lu (17)
Aimi Kobayashi (20)
Yike Yang (16)
Here they are again. From left to right in the foreground Aimi, Kate, Eric and Yike with Seong Jin in the background between Eric and Yike. Seong Jin got the 1st prize, Kate the 3rd, Eric the 4th, Yike the 5th, while Aimi got a honorable mention. Yike is the youngest prizewinner ever at a Chopin competition (minimum age to participate is actually 17, which he will be only in December)
I have been watching many YouTube recordings these last few weeks. To see these promising youngsters play is added pleasure. Here are a few examples
Seong Jin Cho
In the final round, all ten participants had to play Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor Op. 11. Here is Yike Yang. I find it absolutely amazing that a 16 year old boy can play this beautiful concerto in such a brilliant and sensitive way.
This week is Holy Week for Western Christianity. On Good Friday Christians celebrate the Crucifixion of Jesus and on Easter Sunday his Resurrection.
Throughout the ages people have been inspired by these events to create works of art. The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1498) is world famous.
For me the most impressive musical work of art about the last days of Jesus’ life has been written by Johan Sebastian Bach in 1727: the St Matthew passion.
When I was a school boy, my father took me for the first time to the Matthäus-Passion as it is called in German. It was performed in a church, and the atmosphere was religious. No applause for example after the concert! At that young age it was a long session, more than three hours. Still I was impressed.
When I moved to Amsterdam in 1961 for my studies, I became a regular concertgoer, mostly listening to the Matthäus Passion in the Concertgebouw. I think I must have attended it more than 40 times.
Although I am an atheist, Bach’s music still can move me to tears. For example this aria: Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (Out of love my Savior is willing to die)
Now that I live most of the time in Malaysia, I can not always attend live performances of the Matthäus Passion, as the work has never been performed here as far as I know. But no problem, I have a few recordings on CD and we have now YouTube!
You can find there a large number of recordings. Here is my favourite: a recording by Dutch conductor and harpsichordist Ton Koopman in the St Joris church in Amersfoort, March 2005. Very clear and transparent, impressive soloists.
The orchestra is playing on authentic Baroque instruments, as is common practice these days. Also considerably faster than in the past. The (beautiful) recording in 1971 by Karl Richter takes 3 hours and 18 minutes, more than half an hour longer than Koopman’s recording.
One more recording deserves to be mentioned. In 1989 Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman’s teacher, recorded the Matthäus Passion, with the female parts (alto & soprano) sung by males (counter-tenors and boy-sopranos/altos) as was a common practice in Bach’s time.
Bach has written more Passions, but of those only the St John Passion has survived. More dramatic, shorter, for many years I did not pay much attention to it. But that has changed…:-) Here is a recording by Ton Koopman . My favourite aria in this Passion is “Es ist volbracht”, written for alto. In Koopman’s recording it is sung by Andreas Scholl.
Listen to the performance by Panito Iconomou, boy alto in the Tölzer Boys Choir. Harnoncourt is the conductor. Try not tot get emotional…:-)
One closing remark.
It has always intrigued me that for Bach (a Lutheran Christian), it seems that the death of Jesus is the end of the story. There is no expectation of a resurrection. In the final chorus of the St Matthew, the choir starts with: “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We sit down in tears“). They continue with “Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!” (“Rest gently, gently rest!“)
Some time ago, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video in which the countertenor Philippe Yaroussky sings arias by Vivaldi, Haendel, Porpora etc.
Porpora? I had never heard about him. So I searched the Internet and found a website, the Porpora Project, dedicated to this 18th century Italian composer of Baroque operas, oratoria, cantatas etc.
A composer, but also very famous in his time as a singing teacher. Especially of castrati, boys who were castrated before they reached puberty, so they kept their high (soprano) voices! Yes, no kidding! In the beginning of the 18th century that was a not uncommon practice, it is estimated that more than 4000 boys yearly underwent this “operation”. Some of them became famous singers, like Carestini, Senesino, and last not least: Farinelli. He was a student of Porpora
Here is the aria Alto Giove from Porpora’s opera Polifemo. This opera was first performed in 1735 in London, with Farinelli as singer.
Here the aria is beautifully sung by Philippe Jaroussky. Is he a castrato? Of course not, castration for musical reasons became illegal in the 19th century and the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. Here you can hear him in Ave Maria
Jaroussky is, like my favourite Andreas Scholl, a countertenor. His vocal chords have developed normally during puberty, “breaking” his voice. But all males can still sing high, using their “head voice” and not their “chest voice. Try it out for yourself! Technically it is called the falsetto register and countertenors are trained to use it.
About Farinelli a fascinating movie has been produced in 1994. The movie can be seen on YouTube. The movie is not historically accurate, but really worth viewing. Here two times Farinelli, a portrait and a screenshot. The singing in the movie was done by a soprano, by the way!
There are nowadays a few singers who are “natural castrati”, for endocrinological reasons their vocal cords have not grown during puberty. One of them is Radu Marian. Here he sings Lascia Ch’io Pianga by Haendel.
Another example of a natural castrato (male soprano) is Michael Maniaci , who sings here Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate
As I wrote before, Andreas Scholl is my favourite countertenor, so this post would not be complete without a recording by him. A recording of one of the most beautiful arias I know, from the Nisi Dominus by Vivaldi.
Baroque operas often had a castrato as a lead singer. Nowadays these parts are sung by a countertenor. Or of course by a soprano. One (mezzo) soprano who does this very well is Cecilia Bartoli, another favourite of mine. Here is a collection of Castrati arias sung by her.
Many of the arias in this recording have been composed by Porpora. More about Cecilia Bartoli in a later blog.
At the moment I am working on a post about music, the title will be Countertenors and Castrati. As usual I do quite a lot of surfing on Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, to collect information. Surfing around I can get easily distracted. This time it happened again…:-) Here is an intermezzo about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
My distraction started with this YouTube recording of Mozart’s symphony nr 25 in g-minor. The Wiener Philharmoniker directed by Karl Bohm in 1978, when he was 84 year old.
When Mozart composed this symphony (in only two days), he was a teenager of 17 year old! Almost unbelievable! Even when you are not really a lover of Western classical music, you should at least listen to the opening bars of this symphony. Because it could well be that the theme is familiar to you. It is used in the award winning movie Amadeus, about the life of Mozart Here is a trailer, with the same music.
If you have not seen this movie, you don’t know what you miss. I have watched it many times and always get weepy eyes…:-). Short videos from the movie can be found on YouTube, like for example this clip, where Mozart comes home to find that his wife has left him. In the next scene his vulgar mother-in-law scolds him, and this scolding goes over in the famous Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s opera die Zauberflote. Pure magic.
You can find many recordings of this beautiful aria on YouTube. Here are two interpretations by the sopranos Diana Damrau and Lucia Popp
And here is another recording, this time by a boy soprano, 14 year old Robin Scholtz:
Before puberty sets in, with its voice break, boys can sing soprano parts. Here is another recording, by Jacques Imbrailo , also 14 year old when this was recorded in 1993, he is now a well known baritone.
But this young man, Olmo Herdia Blanco is 16 years old. He sings the aria as a countertenor. He looks nervous, but he has a promising voice.
So we are almost back at the topic of my next blog, Countertenors and Castrati…:-)
To end this post in a lighter vein, here is a hilarious performance by a 7(!) year old Chinese boy. At the piano a not much older girl. Clear fight between the singer and the pianist, won convincingly by the girl…:-)