Album Notes by Cathal Twomey
This album opens with Bach’s ‘Magnificat’. Setting the words of the Virgin Mary, her prayer of thanks for the honour of bearing a divine son, this is one of the great composer’s most popular works, and aptly demonstrates his flair for vivid, sometimes whimsical writing. ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ (‘He hath filled the hungry with good things’) is a bouncy number, mingling suave (smug?) enthusiasm for the blessings God lavishes on the faithful with a sort of dismissive scorn for those left in the cold. Again, as with the ‘Nisi Dominus’, this concept could make us a little uncomfortable; it comes off fairly self-righteous. But again, it is an exquisite rendering in music. And catchy.
Va Tacito E Nascosto
Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (‘Julius Caesar in Egypt’) is one of his most successful today. Then, as now, facts were never allowed to get in the way of a good story: the already sensational historical tale of political intrigue, seduction, murder, and revenge was embroidered for the operatic stage (and given a happy ending; opera was popular entertainment, and the public didn’t like to go home sad). In this scene, Caesar has just arrived in Alexandria, and has been received coolly by King Ptolemy. Suspicious of his host, Caesar sings (to himself, of course) that he will act with caution, careful not to alarm anyone, but all the while he will be ready to strike, like a hunter stalking its prey. Handel seizes the metaphor and writes what sounds like a hunting song, complete with horn. But the cheerfulness of the music is made disturbing by the subtext of the words. Like Caesar himself, Caesar’s song is not what it seems. Handel wrote the opera over a millennium after the event, and we hear it now three centuries on; but, human nature being what it is, the message of shrewd political manoeuvring and basic human deception is no less relevant than it was.
He Was Despised
Messiah is Handel’s most popular work to modern audiences. Written when his Italian opera ventures were failing and his career needed to change course or sink, proceeds from its premiere in Dublin in 1741 were given to charity.
‘He was despised’ is from the section dealing with the Crucifixion, and it alternates plaintive, tearful lamenting (‘He was despised and rejected of men’) with furious, panicked, and off- kilter bellows (‘He gave his back to the smiters’). The message is clear: to be rejected by one’s loved ones is painful, but to be actively persecuted by one’s enemies is genuinely terrifying.
He Shall Feed His Flock/ Come Unto Him
By contrast, ‘He Shall Feed His Flock/ Come Unto Him’ is a radiant vision of faith. The metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd inspired Handel to a lilting, rustic melody (intended to sound like bagpipes). The movement constantly seems to build tension, only to dissipate it almost at once, as a constant reassurance (and what a comforting reassurance it can be, if we can bring ourselves to believe it, especially in time of trouble) that all will be well.
Mortal Cosa Son Io
Claudio Monteverdi is widely known today as the first great opera composer. However, Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (‘The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland’) is quite late in his output, composed as he was entering his seventies and had become the grand old man of the Venetian operatic scene. In this, the opera’s allegorical prologue, the spirit of Human Frailty bemoans all the various ways in which the world conspires to deprive people of happiness. Already weak and feeble by nature, humans waste into infirmity with the passing of time, are driven to self-destructive madness by love, and can be struck down with sudden misfortunes at a moment’s notice. Clearly, our modern concern for the future, our sense of our lives hanging by tenuous threads, has always, in some way, figured in the human condition.
The second half of this album, we turn to a setting of the first half of psalm 127, whose message can be summed up in three words from its first verse: ‘Nisi Dominus, frustra’ (‘Without the Lord, in vain’). Vivaldi’s music puts a very positive spin on that idea: we go away with a sense of how good it is to trust in God, not how lonely it is not to.
The first movement is a firm, forthright statement of faith, full of assured (if a bit blustery) confidence. Today, it that confidence sounds almost like fanaticism. But extreme passions, and extreme contrasts, are the stock and trade of the Baroque composer. If this seems a little like religious scenery-chewing, we should remember that Vivaldi also left us over 40 operas; he was no stranger to drama.
The second movement is gentler, more lilting. Every bit the silver-tongued salesperson (and, again, perhaps the unnervingly charismatic manipulator we recognise all too well in our own time), our faithful worshipper has changed tack to hold our attention. We are now coaxed to sample the faithful’s blessings after being impressed by the sureness of their faith.
O Quam Tristis
Baroque composers loved to represent images in sound, and the third movement is full of such tricks. We are told to ‘rise up’, and, in two different ways, the strings and the voice rocket higher and higher. We are told to do so ‘after having sat down’, and the music slows dramatically, relaxing so much that it seems to have flopped into an armchair. The word ‘doloris’ (‘of pain’) is spun out with agonising languidness.
Eja Mater & Amen
A ‘glory to the father’ and an ‘Amen’ comes at the end of every psalm. Listening to this ‘Gloria’’s ecstatic violin solo, we remember that Vivaldi was one of the first musicians to make an independent living from composition, publication, and touring, rather than patronage by a wealth benefactor. It is not a stretch to imagine him crafting this solo for himself, to show off, to impress, and in hopes to earn further bookings.
The ‘Amen’ is in the composer’s best, almost-too-enthusiastic grand finale style. The first word is made to sound like something between a scream of joy and a breathless series of overexcited gasps (‘A-a… a-a… a-a-men’). And the orchestra supercharges the atmosphere with a kind of giddy restlessness that is a perfect backdrop for the pinwheeling voice. Again, drama is to the fore. Again, we might be a little put off by the extremity of the worshipper’s devotion. But again, it is nearly irresistible music, and we wait, as breathless as the ‘A-a-a- men’-ing worshipper for the final, clinching, and surprisingly harshly stark conclusion.