Les Voix Baroques, Stephen Stubbs, director, officially opened the 2011 Boston Early Musical Festival at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Monday, June 13. The program was devoted to settings of texts from the biblical Canticum canticorum, or “Song of Songs,” in a wide-ranging selection of settings covering a period of over a hundred years from the mid-sixteenth to the late seventeenth century.
For over 2000 years, Jewish and Christian scholars have attempted to interpret symbolically the erotic texts of the “Song of Songs.” According to the informative program note by François Filiatrault in the Festival program book, the poems, long attributed to King Solomon, are probably a fourth-century BCE compilation of Hebrew, Syrian, Egyptian, or Moabite songs that were sung at wedding ceremonies and feasts, and then included among the canonical Old Testament texts. Early in the Christian era, Jews began to consider the “Song of Songs” as an allegory representing reciprocal love between Yahweh and the Synagogue. Christians followed suit, reinterpreting the loving couple as Christ and his Church, and later equating the female lover metaphorically with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen, or simply the human soul. With the inclusion of passages from the “Song of Songs” in the liturgy for the feasts of the Virgin, and the intensified cult of the Virgin from the twelfth century on, composers chose to set these vividly erotic texts as devotional motets as well as marriage songs.
Veni in hortum meum (I am come into my garden), from the Sacrae cantiones of 1562 by Roland de Lassus, demonstrated this prolific and versatile composer’s mastery of late Renaissance counterpoint in the skillful interweaving of multiple melodic lines and at the same time his expressive use of declamation as all five voices came together on the words Comedite amici et bibite (Eat, O friends and drink). The vocal ensemble — Yulia Van Doren, soprano, Matthew White, countertenor, Colin Balzer tenor, Sumner Thompson, baritone, and Douglas Williams, bass-baritone — was ably led by director Stephen Stubbs. Still, one had the impression that these highly trained musicians could have performed as well — and perhaps with more immediacy — without a conductor. Indeed, for the remainder of the program Stubbs led from his place as luthenist and guitarist within the continuo ensemble, consisting of Maxine Eilander, baroque harp, Erin Headley, viola da gamba, and Jörg Jacobi, organ and harpsichord.
Selections from two early collections by Heinrich Schütz showed how the German composer, trained in Venice, absorbed both late-Renaissance Italian madrigal style and the newer freely expressive style of solo melody of early seventeenth-century opera. Madrigal style dominated in the four-voice settings from the Cantiones sacrae (Sacred Songs) of 1625, Ego dormio et cor meum vigilat (I sleep but my heart waketh) and Vulnerasti cor meum (Thou hast ravished my heart), sections in freely-imitative polyphony alternating with declamatory passages, the continuo band of organ, viola da gamba, harp, and lute providing color and harmonic support but no independent melodic lines. Published only four years later, Schütz’s Symphoniae sacrae (Sacred Symphonies) of 1629 call for solo voices and solo instruments along with basso continuo. Anima mea liquefacta est (My soul was melted) and Adiuro nos, filiae Jerusalem (I charge you, daughters of Jerusalem) has parts for two tenors (sung by Colin Balzer and Sumner Thompson) and two treble instruments (violinists Miloš Valent and Peter Spissky). Here Schütz’s depiction of stylized speech rhythms, so evident in his German-texted works, came to the fore along with brilliant passage work on expressive text words such as amore langueo (I am sick of love).
A setting of Nigra sum sed formosa (I am dark-skinned but comely) from the Song of Songs was included in Claudio Monteverdi’s Marian Vespers of 1610. Tenor soloist Colin Balzer delivered the beautifully evocative text with virtuosic panache, reaching an expressive high point on the words “surge amica mea” (arise my love). Countertenor Matthew White was the equally adept soloist in Monteverdi’s Ego flos campi (I am the flower of the field), with sweet, unforced tone and restrained ornamentation of the often wayward vocal line. The rapturous final love duet for Nero and Poppea is not from the Song of Songs, of course, and may not even be by Monteverdi. It has, however, a four-note descending-scale ground bass pattern supporting a catchy imitative duet for the lovers. As an instrumental interlude, Maxine Eilander and Stephen Stubbs devised a series of intricate variations on the ground and its melody that showed off the compositional inventiveness as well as the brilliant finger work of both performers in delightful style.
The first half of the program concluded with a selection from the oratorio Membra Jesu nostri patientis sanctissima (The most holy limbs of our suffering Jesus) by Dietrich Buxtehude, composed in 1680. Each of its seven parts is a cantata dedicated to a different part of Christ’s crucified body. Part IV, addressed to the side (Ad latus), includes a concerto on the text Surge, amica mea (Arise my love) scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor, bass, two violins, and basso continuo. Buxtehude’s vivid concerto style, full of expressive dissonances and suspensions, was enhanced by the warmth and color of the instruments and the singers’ skillful use of vibrato and ornamentation.
After intermission we were introduced to the relatively unknown composer Domenico Mazzocchi, whose Dialogo della cantica paraphrasing the Song of Songs was composed in 1640 to celebrate the union of Paolo Borghese and Olimpia Aldobrandini. The varied scoring featured alternate verses sung by Yulia Van Doren, with choral responses by the male voices and echoes by Catherine Webster. In another paraphrase, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s grand motet Dilecti mi . . . Agnus innocens (O my beloved, O innocent Lamb) followed the spirit, if not the letter, of the Song of Songs with its rich late baroque harmonies and dramatic declamation (Les Voix Baroque used French-style Latin pronunciation here) exploiting both contrasting and blended tone colors in the scoring for a trio of countertenor, tenor, and bass with basso continuo. Charpentier’s shorter antiphon Pulchra es et decora (Thou art beautiful and comely) for the Assumption of the Virgin featured an upper-voice trio of two sopranos and countertenor. In between the two Charpentier works we were treated to another set of spirited ground-bass variations, this time a Passacaille for two violins and continuo by Marin Marais. In a continuous series of permutations, the la-sol-fa-mi bass and the melodic fantasies above it were heard in diatonic and in chromatic form, plain or ornamented, in duple or triple meter, by turns soulful or incisively percussive. Finally, all members of the ensemble joined forces for Henry Purcell’s setting of five familiar verses from the King James Bible: “My beloved spake . . . rise, my love, my fair one,” a truly magnificent close to an evening of stellar performances.
Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.