Western Hemisphere premiere of a French grand motet from 1690 anchors the program
By Peter Alexander
Evanne Browne really loves the music she is conducting for Halloween with Boulder’s Seicento Baroque Ensemble.
The centerpiece of their season-opening concert “Dies Irae: Halloween Goes Baroque,” (7:30 Friday Oct. 31, at St. Paul Lutheran in Denver and Saturday, Nov. 1, at First United Methodist in Boulder) is the recently rediscovered and reconstructed Dies Irae (Day of wrath) by Michel-Richard Delalande, which she describes as “gorgeous” and “luscious. ”
Another piece on the same program by Delalande, De Profundis (From the depths) is “gorgeous, gorgeous.” And J.S. Bach’s funeral motet Der Gerechte kommt um (The righteous must perish), arranged from music by Johann Kuhnau, is also “gorgeous, gorgeous.”
To set the mood for a Halloween concert, Browne turned to organist Kajsa Teitelbaum. “We open this concert with one of the scariest Halloween Baroque pieces written,” Browne says, “the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Just in case anybody would get the idea that this whole concert is so serious, I think we’re taking a really lively and exciting approach to celebrating Halloween and All-Souls’ Day.”
More Halloween fun will be provided by a scene for witches from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which opens with the call “Wayward sisters, you that fright/The lonely traveler by night . . . Appear!” The witches, who keep cackling “Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho,” are clearly up to no good, in spite of their relatively spirited music. They announce their plot to separate the lovers Dido and Aeneas, singing of “The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate.”
If Bach provides some menace and Purcell some light-hearted Halloween fun, the remainder of the program is more serious. The other works are all associated with the liturgy of All Saints or All Souls Day (Nov 1 and 2), the days following Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve (Oct. 31), in the church calendar; or with liturgical services for the dead.
It was Delalande’s Dies Irae, forming the second half of the concert, that first caught Browne’s attention. A composer and organist at the court of Louis XIV, Delalande is not well known in this country, and the Seicento performance will be the U.S. and Western hemisphere premiere of his Dies Irae.
The text is a rhymed poem from the 13th century that now forms part of the Catholic liturgy for All Souls’ Day and the Requiem Mass. It is the latter context that is most familiar, with the Dies Irae movements from Requiems by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi being particularly memorable.
“I heard (a commercial recording of Delalande’s piece) months ago, and I thought, this is a work for Seicento,” Browne says. “It’s a fabulous work and needs to be performed, and the French Baroque is a style that we worked on pretty hard in our second year.
“It’s tricky, and it’s got such tremendous tonal chord progressions, and beautiful, beautiful sounds. So after I heard it I thought, well, that’s what we’ll do, and set out to find the music.”
That proved easier said than done. Delalande’s grand motet—a term for sacred music written for orchestra, chorus and soloists—was composed in 1690 for the death of the Dauphine, Princess Marie-Anne-Christine-Victoire, wife of the Grand Dauphin, son of King Louis XIV. It was revised in 1711 at the death of the Dauphin, but then disappeared and was assumed lost.
But as sometimes happens, an unknown copy unexpectedly showed up at an auction in Paris in 1950 and then vanished again after being purchased by a private collector. It was not until 1983—after meeting and wooing the reclusive collector over many years—that the English musical scholar Lionel Sawkins was able to make a microfilm copy of the score, and then only under vanishing late-afternoon light, after being served a five-course meal that took most of the day!
Happily, Browne’s detective work was not nearly as strenuous as that, but she did have to track down Sawkins, make contact through a friend of a friend, and arrange to rent the score and parts for performance. “Because Sawkins knows who has had the score, we know that it has only been performed in the UK, in France, and in Sweden,” Browne says. “And probably fewer than a dozen choirs have actually performed this work in this century, or last century.”
This kind of undiscovered jewel from a little-known repertoire is just the kind of challenge that Browne relishes. “This is the mission of Seicento, to bring the wonderful music of the 1600s to audiences, and mostly music that they probably have never heard,” she says.
“We’re different from other groups in town because we’re not just looking at Baroque and thinking high Baroque—Handel, Purcell, Bach. We’re doing the earlier things.”
Much of this earlier music requires special performance techniques that go beyond the notation in the original scores. This is particularly true of the French Baroque, which had a tradition and distinct performance styles that differed from the rest of Europe. Many of those performance traditions were forgotten over time, and have to be studied and relearned by specialists such as Seicento.
“There is the language issue, there is the ornamentation issue, there’s the stylistic issue,” Browne says. “If you were to perform this piece of Delalande as it’s written, it wouldn’t have that life, that lilt, that glorious sound” that comes from applying the historical performance techniques of French Baroque music.
“And then also we perform with period instruments,” Browne explains. “That brings (the music) to life in a different way. For this concert we’re using Baroque strings and we have a Baroque flute payer joining us. It’s a different sound.”
Several other pieces will benefit from the Baroque performance techniques that Browne and the singers of Seicento have studied, and the “different sound” they get from the historical instruments. Among these will be portions of Delalande’s grand motet of 1689, De Profundis, a setting of a penitential psalm that is often sung in commemoration of the dead.
Also on the program will be three motets for All Saints’ Day, conducted by Seicento’s assistant conductor, Alan Filbert: two by the relatively unknown Pompeo Cannicciari and Vincenzo Bertulosi, and one by the great English Renaissance composer William Byrd. And ending the first half of the concert will be the music of the German composer Johann Kuhnau, arranged by J.S. Bach as the funeral motet Der Gerechte kommt um.
Browne admits that’s a lot of music written for the dead. “There’s a little morbidity to this concert,” she says. “But one of the things that is so exciting to me is that we’re having fun with the idea of Halloween and All Saints.”
And did she mention that the music is gorgeous?
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Dies Irae: Halloween Goes Baroque
Seicento Baroque Ensemble and soloists
Evanne Browne, artistic director
7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1
First United Methodist Church, Boulder