We started the evening with a piece with a rather interesting background. Why Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran who had been writing Lutheran material for years, would write a full Catholic mass has been a mystery for years. He sent the Kyrie and the Gloria sections, together referred to as the Missa, to the Elector of Saxony, as part of an attempt to be named Court Composer. He eventually received the honor, but the Mass was never performed. He added bits and pieces over time, finally completing it in 1749, a year before his death. It was never performed in his lifetime, but it is considered one of the more monumental works of the Baroque era.
Just as the music is important, so was this recording. This is a 1960 recording by the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, led by Robert Shaw, that won a Grammy for Best Choral Recording. Shaw was a noted choral conductor, and many of the choral leaders that he mentored went on to do important work in the American choral scene. Shaw also had an important place in the development of the current trend towards historical performance. For works like this and others (i.e. Messiah, for which Shaw made a notable recording with the Atlanta Symphony), Shaw pointedly used a smaller orchestra and a smaller chorus, and made instrumental arrangements in a manner similar to Bach’s own practice. Shaw wrote this in the liner notes for the B Minor Mass:
“Perhaps the greatest logistic danger to the performance of Bach’s choral works is the usual grandiose size of both choral and instrumental forces. This may provide a great experience for the participants, but it is a questionable service to the listener, for Bach’s light, airy and intricate texture is overwhelmed by great and glutinous sound.”
For our next piece of music, we’re going to hear a Tragédie en musique by Jean Philippe Rameau. Born on September 25, 1683, Rameau was one of the most important French composers and theorists of the Baroque era. His writings and theories were important in the development of harmony, but while he wanted to be known as a theorist, it was his operatic work that achieved the most fame. He did not write an opera until 1733, when he was close to 50. But the premiere of his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was quite controversial due to his aggressive use of harmony, which contrasted greatly to that of Jean Baptiste Lully, who had been the leading operatic composer up to that point. He eventually began writing operas that blended in ballet elements, and this concept held sway in French opera for almost 100 years.
Tonight’s opera, Zoroastre, written to a libretto by Louis de Cahusac, was premiered on Dec 5 1749, but received a lukewarm reception. So Rameau made significant revisions in Acts 2, 3 and 5, and performed this revised version on Jan 19 1756 with great success. This was the last of his operas that would be performed during his lifetime. The opera was somewhat innovative, dispensing with the allegorical prologues that were popular during the period, and it doesn’t portray Greek or Roman mythological characters (the characters are drawn from Persian mythology). There are elements of Freemasonry scattered throughout the opera (the main character, Zoroaster, refers to a Persian deity that is also referred to in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote as “Sarastro”; de Cahusac was a Freemason, and liked to use Freemason allusions in his works) This is something which was common during the Enlightenment.
Tonight’s recording is a 2001 recording of Les Arts Florissants that features Mark Padmore, Nathan Berg, Gaëlle Méchaly, Anna Maria Panzarella, Matthieu Lecroart, François Bazola. William Christie is the conductor.