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Magnificat presents the music of Schütz as a ‘reflection’ of Monteverdi

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Nika Korniyenko’s imaginative design for the cover of the program book for last night’s concert by Magnificat (Warren Stewart, Artistic Director) at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church presents a depiction of seventeenth-century Dresden as a “mirror reflection” of a depiction of seventeenth-century Venice (reproduced in color in the preview article I wrote for this concert last month). The full title of the concert is Curiose e Moderne Invenzioni: Schütz Visits Venice, 1629. Heinrich Schütz was no stranger to Venice. After studying law at Marburg, he spent four years there as a student of Giovanni Gabrieli, beginning in 1609 and concluding with Gabrieli’s death in 1612. After briefly serving as organist at Kassel, Schütz moved to Dresden in 1615 to serve as court composer to the Elector of Saxony. Unfortunately, Saxony entered the Thirty Years War (as we now call it) in 1627; and funding for music was promptly reallocated for more military matters. Schütz left Dresden to return to Venice in August of 1628.

Claudio Monteverdi had succeeded Gabrieli as maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s Basilica, a position which he assumed in 1613 and held until his own death in 1643. There is no direct documentation of Schütz having met Monteverdi, but the German could not have avoided the influence of the Italian’s music. The practice of music was enjoying a new round of “curious and modern inventions,” a phrase that comes not from Monteverdi but from the title of a set of eight virtuoso sonatas by Biagio Marini. Venice in 1629 gave Schütz much upon which to reflect, and those reflections would reach into several decades following his visit.

That theme of reflection, presaged by the cover design, also provided the structural plan for the program of vocal and instrumental music that Stewart prepared for last night’s concert, performed without an intermission. At the central “axis of reflection” was “Chiome d’oro” (golden tresses) from Monteverdi’s seventh book of madrigals (published in 1619). This so impressed Schütz that he set a German text on a similar theme (“Güldne Haare”) and adopted Monteverdi’s thematic material. This allowed for a performance of the fifteen lines of text that smoothly shifted from Monteverdi to Schütz after the eighth line.

This central point was preceded by two madrigals and one sacred aria by Monteverdi, along with instrumental selections that included one of Marini’s sonatas. The same pattern followed for the second half of the program, except that all the Schütz texts were sacred, the earlier ones from the first book of Symphoniae sacrae (published in 1629) in Latin and the conclusion in German, “Es steh Gott auf” (let God arise), from the second book of Symphoniae sacrae (published in 1647). However, this sacred German motet again drew upon Monteverdi for thematic material, in this case the two secular madrigals performed at the beginning of the program, “Zefiro torna” (return O Zephyr) and “Armato il cor” (with heart armed).

Thus, while his focus was on the seventeenth century, Stewart designed a program with the fourteenth-century inspiration of the rondeau by Guillaume de Machaut entitled “Ma fin est mon commencement.” That title was then translated into English for the first line of “East Coker,” the second of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

In my beginning is my end.

There was also an elegant symmetry in the resources for this concert. Two sopranos (Laura Heimes and Jennifer Ellis Kampani) were complemented by two violinists (Rob Diggins and Jolianne von Einem). Continuo was provided by Jillon Stoppels Dupree, alternating between harpsichord and organ, Michael Leopold on theorbo, and Stewart playing cello. Almost all of the work involved the entire ensemble; but, with the exception of Stewart, every musician had a solo opportunity. Kampani sang Monteverdi’s “Exulta filia Sion” (rejoice daughter of Zion), which was “reflected” by Heimes singing Schütz’ “Exultavit cor meum” (my heart exults). Dupree accompanied Diggins for a duo sonata by Dario Castello, while Leopold accompanied von Einem for a duo sonata by Carlo Farina. Both Leopold and Dupree performed solo toccatas, the one for theorbo by Alessandro Piccinini and the other for harpsichord by Johann Jakob Froberger.

The result may have been low on the sort of spectacle one tends to associate with St. Mark’s Basilica. However, it was thoroughly engaging in its quiet intimacy. Each performer presented a solid command of his/her material, whether it involved solo virtuoso turns or finding just the right level of balance for the close harmonies to have their fullest effect. The result was a compelling and absorbing account of a pivotal time in music history, presented to the audience with its own latter-day logic of “curious and modern inventions.”

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