A guide to help listeners appreciate Chorus pro Musica’s upcoming performance of Respighi’s “Lauda per la Natività del Signore,” which makes exquisite musical drama of a medieval hymn of praise to the birth of Jesus.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
Ottorino Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore will be performed by Chorus pro Musica on December 16 at 8 p.m. at Old South Church of Boston under the direction of Betsy Burleigh and featuring talented soloists Kathy Linger (soprano), mezzo-soprano Majie Zeller (mezzo-soprano), and Greg Zavracky (tenor). Here are some observations that will help listeners appreciate this lyrical piece.
Ottorino Respighi, a composer some falsely consider the Italian impressionist, was born in Bologna in 1879 and died in Rome in 1936. Best known for his Roman, symphonic poem trilogy, the Pines of Rome, the Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals, Respighi worked in all musical forms. A violinist by trade — first violinist of the Mugellini Quartet until 1908 — he then turned his complete attention to composition, moved to Rome in 1913 to be a professor of composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, and eventually became the director of the conservatory for short period.
His uneasy relationship with the Fascist regime was not as severe as that suffered by Arturo Toscanini, but he did have his political detractors. The third of the trilogy, Roman Festival, has been seen by many as a satiric response to requests that his music glorify Italy. Continuing to compose, he also became a devoted musicologist, publishing such works as those of Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Marcello.
Lauda per la Natività del Signore was written between 1928 and 1930. The text is attributed to a Franciscan priest, Jacopone da Todi (1230–1306) and taken from an anonymous collection, Lauda Umbra. A medieval hymn of praise focuses on the birth of Jesus: “God incarnate, come to save the world from sin, in the form of a helpless babe, watched over by Mary, his mother, and Joseph, her spouse.” The text in Italian, because of its natural accents, does not translate well into English and should be sung in Italian.
The dramatis personae consists of the Angel (a coloratura), the Virgin Mary (mezzo-soprano), a Shepherd (tenor), and Joseph (non-singing role). Supporting cast includes a chorus of Angels and Shepherds and an instrumental ensemble composed of two flutes (the second doubling on piccolo), oboe, English horn, two bassoons, triangle, and piano (four-hands).
Elsa Respighi, wife and a composer in her own right, championed her husband’s work and describes how the work might be staged, although it is usually sung in normal choir formation: “an Italian manger of the 15th or 16th century . . . The chorus . . . and the instrumental ensemble should remain out of sight. The Angels and Shepherds should be performed by dancers or mimes, who will assume graceful poses according to the words sung by the chorus . . . [she] also suggested that instead of a graphic representation of the Child being placed between the Virgin Mary and Joseph, that there be some straw, only, in the manger, lighted from the inside. In the last scene, while the rest of the stage dims little by little, the brightness of the straw gradually becomes stronger, so to light the faces of the Virgin and Joseph, kneeling in an adoring attitude” (From the vocal score published by Ricordi).
Two features of the work give it the pastoral character that permeates the score. One is the instrumentation, particularly the double reeds, frequently associated with a pastoral aura but supported in that regard by the flutes. The other is the pastoral rhythm of a duple pulse, each divided in three (usually notated in 6/8). After the instrumental opening that sets the character of the piece, the Angel tells the shepherds not to fear, for she brings good tidings. She tells the well-known story of Jesus; the chorus, composed of the usual voices of women and men, frequently divisi in this score, answers with reference to the lowly stable in which the babe, pure and holy, lies.
The music, recurrently melismatic in both vocal and instrumental parts, relies on changes in timbre as well. Unaccompanied men’s voices humming underlie the Shepherd singing how Jesus must be so offended being born in a lowly stable. The male shepherds pick up the soloist’s lament and decry the conditions: Joseph sleeping out of weariness of the journey to Bethlehem and Mary unaided watching over the baby. The shepherd returns to his lament. Now Mary enters echoing the Shepherd and expressing her affection, her heart filled with gladness. The full chorus of shepherds now beholds the child and appreciates Mary’s watchfulness, but they now must leave because their flocks are unguarded. “Praise to thee, newborn babe, who gives light to every nation.”
Mary expresses her joy and sense of blessedness to bore this child of God incarnate, while the shepherds offer their cloaks for the baby. As they return to their flocks, the male shepherds observe this light to the nations now become manifest.
Respighi follows with a beautiful manipulation of the rhythmic threes by inserting duple divisions (called hemiola in musical parlance) in a brief instrumental interlude, bringing on a request from the shepherds to touch the babe, although realizing their uncleanness as mere peasants; the music also trades threes and fours in the musical meter. Mary permits them to draw close and if they bow before this blessed babe: “Go to your flocks rejoicing.” The shepherds respond: “Glory to thee, Father in heaven for such a gift to the world. Glory to God in the Highest! You came in pity to save the world from sin and evil. Good will and peace to all.” Mary, filled with pure emotion, bows in humility for being chosen to bore the Son of God. The shepherds close with an appropriate Amen as the Angel soars to a beautiful high A, one of the effective points in this exquisite drama.
Anders Öhrwall‘s choral composition Gaudete will also be featured on this holiday program.