Directed by Peter Leech

Backwell WI Hall, Backwell; 20th July 2019
Music at the Viennese Court of Emperor and Composer Leopold I

Led by Peter Leech of Cardiff University, this workshop concentrated on the rich and thriving musical life of Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, during the reign of Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) who was himself a trained musician and composer. Under his enlightened patronage, musicians from all over Europe were drawn to the city, to Leopold’s court opera house, to the palaces of the Austro-Hungarian nobility and particularly to the city’s numerous churches, convents and monastic houses.

The one common factor uniting them was the influence, not of the emperor, but of a composer and teacher who rarely left his native Rome, never travelled abroad, but whose writings and compositions were absorbed by all his informed contemporaries. He was Giacomo Carissimi (1604-74) who virtually single-handedly created the musical form we call the oratorio, and whose importance in the development of music in northern Europe cannot be overstated.

Peter brought us several pieces which he had himself transcribed and edited, the copies having been kindly loaned to SWEMF for the day by the Chamber Choir of Cardiff University. These included three items by the emperor, probably composed to be sung in one of the churches under his patronage: Quindi, o alme redente, a chorus from his oratorio on the life of St Antony of Padua, Ut nobis impetret the finale from his setting of The Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the lovely motet Sub tuum praesidium, the words of which are the oldest known hymn to Mary as the Mother of God.

We also sang a splendid funeral anthem by the only composer whose name I knew before this workshop, Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), In Expositione Funeris, and then a charming little piece by Maria Anna von Raschenau (1650-1714), entitled Peregrin di Lido in Lido from what I take to be a semi-secular “oratorio” Il consiglio di Pallade, composed in 1697.

Maria Anna was an Augustinian Canoness at the Convent of St Jakob in Vienna, highly esteemed by her contemporaries, and typical in many ways of the musical life of the convents. She, and many other nuns, provided music and musicians for both conventual and public services, and trained some spectacular choirs in which all the voice parts, from high soprano down to deep bass, were sung by the nuns themselves, at true pitch! As Peter told us, this musical life of the convents and their female composers, is an area ripe for further study…

Peter had not come unarmed as far as the instrumentalists present were concerned, providing scores for a Sonata for 7 parts by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, one of the emperor’s particularly favoured violinists, and a Sonatella for 5 instruments by Antonio Bertali, the Italian born Kapellmeister to Emperor Ferdinand II. Both pieces were played with grateful enthusiasm!

This is not to imply that our instrumentalists were not kept busy during the day, for the principal work studied was the extraordinary Missa pro Defunctis by Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-93).

Kerll was German born, very highly esteemed in his lifetime, a pupil of Carissimi, a teacher of Fux, greatly admired by both Bach and Handel, and nowadays virtually unknown…It is believed that he composed this Requiem Mass for his own funeral, but whether it was performed then we do not know!

The Mass is set for various differing combinations of voices with wind and string instruments and basso continuo, but while the settings of the Ordinary of the Mass – the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei – are fairly orthodox, the same cannot be said of Kerll’s settings of the Propers – the Introit Requiem aeternam, the Offertory Domine Jesu Christe, the Communion Lux aeterna, all beautifully done with careful consideration given to the texts.

The outstanding movement is, however, the Sequence Dies Irae. Each of the sixteen verses is set for different combinations of instruments and voices. Some are for all voices, others for just one or two, presumably originally soloists. Some verses have extended accompaniment, others just a basso continuo (valiantly played for us by Heather Gibbard). The most extraordinary verse of all is the Quantus tremor set for strings, continuo, and bass voices, in which the strings play hemi-demi-semiquavers over the continuo and voices. Once everyone was up to speed, the effect was spine-chilling, as Kerll had doubtless intended that it should be!

Those SWEMF members who were unable to attend this workshop certainly missed something! Peter was, as usual, a mine of information. The music he had chosen was mostly unfamiliar and therefore both challenging and very satisfying to work on. In all, another feather in the Leech, and SWEMF, caps!

Incidentally, if you wish to hear what you missed, the Requiem in full can be found in a recording by Vox Luminis under Lionel Meunier (Ricercar RIC368) , available on Spotify and  Deezer etc.

David Adams

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