Baroque in the Methodist ambience

May 2014

Following the highly successful singing day at the Wesley Memorial Church Hall on 7 September last with David Allinson, TVEMF returned to the venue on 5 April, under the direction of another conductor with local connections, James Weeks. Many of the 59 participants had had the pleasure of working with James on previous occasions, whereas it appeared that relatively few were acquainted with the delights of Rosenmüller.

It is something of an oddity that a meeting-place whose name carries associations of temperance and rectitude should be the venue, on successive occasions, for the study of composers whose lives might be described, euphemistically, as “controversial”. In “A Methodist Renaissance” your reviewer commented on the episode in the life of Gombert which led to his falling out of favour with Charles V, though he was rehabilitated and may have died in the odour of sanctity. Rosenmüller, who matriculated in the theological faculty at Leipzig in 1640, worked his way up the Saxon musical hierarchy, obtaining appointments to the Nikolaikirche, the Thomaskirche (prospectively) and the court at Altenburg, but in 1655 his career in Germany terminated abruptly; Manfred Bukofzer, (Music in the Baroque Era, Norton, 1947) describes him as “a composer of unquestionable genius [who] wrecked his promising career by questionable morals, which made it necessary for him to flee Leipzig and live in Venice”, where he next surfaces in musical history as a trombonist at San Marco in 1658. He remained in Venice as organist, teacher and composer, until at least July 1682, when his term as composer to the Ospedale della Pieta came to an end. He returned to Germany at some time during the last two years of his life, becoming Kapellmeister at the court of Wolfenbüttel, which was at that time the seat of the dukes of Brunswick, and was buried there on 12 September 1684, where his epitaph declared him to be “the Amphion of his age”. The mythological Amphion, however, played the lyre, not the organ or the trombone. In order to prepare us for our encounter with Rosenmüller, James directed some warm-ups which were unremarkable until we reached the “Bella Signora” stage. The simple arpeggio which your reviewer recalls from singing the Monteverdi Vespers with James at Dartington in 2006 has now developed into a baroque operetta involving encounter, attempted seduction, passion (not entirely requited), the imprisonment of the ardent lover, his attempt to rebuild the relationship on his release, and crushing final rejection and despair. From this simple story of ordinary folk we moved on to the first of the three psalms for Vespers which constituted the programme.

Rosenmüller was a prolific composer of vocal sacred music and his output includes over 50 psalm settings. Most of them, says the New Grove, share a clear overall structure articulated by instrumental ritornellos. All three which we sang are scored for SATB, five instrumental parts (played, on the day, by violins, double-bass, theorbo, cornetti, sackbuts and curtal) and continuo.

Laudate pueri dominum (psalm 102) opens with the cantus firmus in the soprano part and the servants being firmly exhorted to praise the Lord. Sit nomen domini benedictus is both more rapidly moving and more rhythmically complex, and this alternation of style continues throughout the text, the cantus firmus moving down to the alto at a solis ortus usque ad occasum and to the tenor at quis sicut Dominus Deus noster; then follows some very expressive word painting at the point where the poor are raised out of the dust and the needy from the dunghill. The basses take over the cantus firmus for the last two verses of the psalm until, in the thirteen bars leading up the Gloria, the barren woman becomes a joyful mother of children. The Gloria is scored for soprano and tenor for the 43 bars up to the final spiritui sancto, when it goes back into four parts in a structure which initially mimics the opening section of the psalm, with an Amen rhythmically similar to the excelsus section. Having mastered this piece to James’ expressed satisfaction, we were dismissed for an early lunch; it was decided that in the afternoon, we would work on each of the other psalms in similar detail and not have a sing through at the end.

Lauda Jerusalem, which is a setting of psalm 147 from v 12 to the end, provided a very distinct contrast to laudate pueri dominum; there is a great sense of urgency from the outset, and even when we are being filled with the finest of the wheat (the King James translation of adipe frumenti) the music does not suggest a leisurely banquet. From then on it is all rapid action; his word runs with extreme swiftness and the various meteorological phenomena are very vividly painted. It was our rendering of nebulam sicut cinerem spargit which led James to refer to “fluffy tenors” (an epithet new to your reviewer in that context) and, at a slightly later stage, he remarked of the basses that they had reached heights (or possibly plumbed depths) of subtlety not usually achieved. The Gloria is scored for four voices throughout, with the three-time section, as before, ending with spiritui sancto, but the concluding section does not, as in laudate pueri dominum, mimic the opening.

James had, at an earlier point, referred to the Italian influence on the German traditions in which Rosenmüller had grown up, mentioning on the one hand Pachelbel and Buxtehude, on the other, Monteverdi and Gabrieli. Nisi Dominus (psalm 126) he found reminiscent of Monteverdi’s Dixit Dominus, and one point of resemblance (though it may well not be what he had in mind) is that both works have quite substantial sections for one or two voices. Thus, at bar 43 of Nisi dominus, it is the altos who inform us that it is vain to rise before dawn, and the basses who call upon us to arise, before the message is taken up by the choir as a whole, while from bar 153, sicut sagittae has passages for alto and bass interspersed with some declamation by the full choir. Similarly in the six-part Monteverdi Dixit dominus there is a passage beginning at virgam virtutis tuae initially for soprano I who is joined by soprano II and bass before the full choir returns to the action quasi parlando, and a similar sequence of events later on, at juravit Dominus, where the solo parts are for tenor I and II and bass. It was at bar 155 of the sicut sagittae passage that the basses were exhorted to be worthy of their top D. It is not altogether clear to your reviewer why that D is so noteworthy, though the late Victorian literary figure, J.K.Stephen, presumed, in his “sincere flattery of Walt Whitman” that the fundamental note of the last trump was D natural. The setting of the last verse of the psalm text decisively affirms that the blessed man with his quiver full of arrows shall not be ashamed, and this is followed by a sixty-bar Gloria which alternates between highly ornamental settings of the single word “Gloria” in 4-time and a more broadly rhythmical setting of Gloria filio et spiritui sancto in the usual 3-time. Unlike the corresponding section of lauda Jerusalem which was sung by sopranos and tenors en masse, this was sung as a solo by Amélie Saintonge, who gave us a most admirable rendition before we came together for the rousing finale.

TVEMF has done its members proud in recent years by unearthing hidden treasures from the Renaissance mines - Richafort and Phillip van Wilder, Josquin’s Phoebe radiis, Jaquet of Mantua and Loyset Pieton, and this foray into the luxuriant Baroque woodlands was equally enjoyable. We are greatly indebted to James for directing the event, and if chance has had it that he has become the evangelist, so to speak, for Rosenmüller, it is to our good fortune. Warm thanks are due to Nicola Wilson-Smith for organising the event and to all the unidentified toilers in the vineyard who arranged sustenance for the labourers.

Sidney Ross

© Sidney Ross 2017