Sweet Philomela Program Notes

Sweet Philomela

Friday, September 22

Good evening and welcome to Sweet Philomela, the first program of a season devoted to Artful Women and their various interactions with the musical world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We’re delighted to welcome back soprano Sherezade Panthaki and to introduce glass harmonica virtuoso Dennis James to our home audience. Dennis gave a memorable performance of Hasse’s L’Armonica with Ars Lyrica at Cornell University in November 2014, and we’re very pleased to be able to reprise this extraordinary cantata with him in Houston.

Sweet Philomela serves up both myth and reality, from a beloved literary character to a pair of talented sisters who set the European musical world on its ear during the 1760s and 70s. Who was Philomela? The Roman poet Ovid relates, in Book VI of the Metamorphoses, the tale of an Athenian princess violated by her brother-in-law Tereus, who cut out her tongue and abandoned her. The gods later transformed Philomela into a nightingale to escape his further revenge. That bird’s sorrowful but beautiful song, which runs like a thread through tonight’s program, is a useful reminder of the transporting nature of art itself. For those still suffering the effects of Houston’s recent catastrophic flooding, we hope this music will be a balm for both the ear and the soul.

Our 2017/18 season of Artful Women continues November 12 with Italian Sirens, a program featuring music by three remarkable female musician-composers of the early seventeenth century. Subscriptions are still available and can be purchased either at intermission or through the Hobby Center box office. Check the Ars Lyrica website for the most recent information: www.arslyricahouston.org.

Thanks for joining us and enjoy the program!

Matthew Dirst, Artistic Director

Program

Excerpts from L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, HWV 55, and the Twelve Concerti Grossi, Op. 6        George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)

    Largo (Op. 6/7/i)

    Air: “Come, thou Goddess, Fair and Free”

    Larghetto andante (Op. 6/2/iii)

    Accompagnato: “Come, Pensive Nun” 

    Arioso: “Come but Keep thy Wonted State”

    Allegro (Op. 6/7/ii)

    Accompagnato: “First, and Chief, on Golden Wing”

    Air: “Sweet Bird”

Adagio for Glass Harmonica, K. 356    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

Quartet in G Major from Tafelmusik, TWV 43:G2    Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)

    Largo–Allegro–Largo

    Vivace–Moderato–Vivace

    Grave–Vivace

Symphony in F Major, Wq. 183/3    Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)

    Allegro di molto

    Larghetto

    Presto

L’Armonica    Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783)

    Introduction: Un poco Lento–Allegro di molto–Lento

    Aria: “Ah perché col canto mio”

    Recitative: “Ardir Germana”

    Aria: “Alla stagion di fiori”

Notes on the Program

Handel composed his ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in 1740, as English-language works finally replaced Italian operas once and for all in English theaters (though a preference for Italian titles lingered). Not properly speaking an oratorio, this grandiose ode—more a poetic than musical category—is a dialogue between the extrovert and introvert in all of us. Its inspired libretto incorporates two John Milton poems, L’Allegro (Mirth) and Il Penseroso (Melancholy), plus Charles Jennen’s Il Moderato (Moderation), itself an homage to Milton. Though Milton’s poetry was then over 100 years old, its wide range of quintessential English imagery—from lovely pastoral scenes to stirring cathedral music—still held great sway over Handel’s audiences. Among this ode’s most fetching movements are several that evoke sounds from nature: the warbling of the nightingale, for example, features prominently in “Sweet Bird.” Our opening set, which mixes various solos from this work with Handel concerto movements, is a kind of miniaturization of the composer’s own practice: the first performance of L’Allegro in February 1740 included two of his Op. 6 concerti as intermission features.

Just two decades later, Benjamin Franklin enchanted London audiences with his latest invention: the glass harmonica. This instrument mechanized the familiar practice of rubbing rims of glasses filled with varying amounts of water, thereby producing a strange, unearthly resonance. Franklin’s wondrous machine operates by means of glass bowls of varying sizes nested horizontally on a spindle, rotated steadily by a foot treadle (like a spinning wheel), and played by applying wet fingers to their rims. When new, the instrument was celebrated for its ability “to accompany the voice…and never [be] out of tune,” and it continued to captivate audiences well into the nineteenth century, by which time it was often associated with occult practices, mesmerism, and madness. Mozart’s famous C-major Adagio, the best-known solo work for glass harmonica, highlights its distinctively veiled yet transparent timbre, which has often been compared to the voices of angels. 

Georg Philipp Telemann, arguably the most wide-ranging composer of the late Baroque, also knew how to create music that people craved. His Tafelmusik or Musique de Table, part of a long tradition of diverse chamber collections “for the table,” was one of the most successful publications of its day. Its initial announcement in 1732 garnered some 250 subscriptions from all over Europe, a truly astonishing number (Bach’s Art of Fugue, by contrast, had barely 30 subscribers). Telemann packed its three volumes with all manner of pieces in his signature “mixed” style: effectively a combination of Italian virtuosity, German learnedness, and French savoir-faire. Each “Production,” as he called them, includes an ouverture with dances, a quartet, a concerto, a trio, and either a sonata or some other kind of solo work. This evening’s G-major Quartet, from Production 1, is scored for flute, oboe, violin, and basso continuo.

As Telemann’s successor in Hamburg (as Director of Music at that city’s five principal churches), C. P. E. Bach used his fame and prominence to cultivate an increasingly international music-buying public. His four “Symphonies for Twelve Obbligato Instruments,” Wq. 183, came about thanks to a 1775 commission from a Hamburg patron whose name, alas, is lost to history. The title of these works reflects a new trend in writing symphonic music in the 1770s: unlike Emanuel Bach’s previous two sets of string symphonies, these new works are scored for two horns, two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, violone, and harpsichord continuo (for a total of thirteen instruments: Emanuel neglected to count himself at the keyboard). Each comprises three movements: an imposing Allegro, a tender and introspective slow movement, and a light-hearted finale. In addition to his signature melodic swoops, harmonic deflections, and sudden stops, C. P. E. Bach provides transitions in these symphonies from one movement to another, turning each into a self-contained dramatic scena

The glass harmonica (or “Armonica,” as its inventor called it) enjoyed its greatest heyday during the 1760s-80s, especially under the hands of the first English virtuosa Marianne Davies, who had been taught by Franklin himself. In 1768 Davies and her sister, the singer Cecilia, left for an extended concert tour of Europe armed with letters of introduction from Johann Christian (the “London”) Bach to his brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedman. In Vienna they lodged in the house of the legendary court composer Johann Adolph Hasse and became favorites of Empress Maria Theresia. No surprise, then, that their magical music-making inspired a cantata by Hasse for the 1769 wedding celebrations of Duchess Maria Amalia to the Spanish prince Ferdinand of Bourbon, Duke of Parma. 

L’Armonica, set to a libretto by the esteemed poet Pietro Metastasio, celebrates the power of music to bless the royal nuptials while drawing attention, in a curiously self-referential way, to the union of voice and glass harmonica in the Davies sisters’ performances. Ben Franklin owned a copy of the libretto, and must surely have been gratified that his invention had found such favor at the Hapsburg court. Metastasio’s enchanting text invokes in its first lines Philomela, whose “sweet chain for souls” inspires both the vocal line and its magical accompaniment, made by “skilled hands [on] resonant, ever-changing crystals.” What a rapturous wedding this must have been, with Cecilia matching perfectly her voice to the uncanny sonorities of her sister Marianne’s glass music.

© Matthew Dirst & Annette Richards