Mi PalPita il Cor: Baroque Passions

by Steven Ledbetter and Musica Pacifica


The vocal pieces on this program deal with love in all its various shadings—an especially attractive subject for Baroque composers. The “vagaries of love” offered wonderful raw material for composers to display the highly expressive gestural language they developed, in parallel with contemporary poets and visual artists, to express powerful feelings. Rhythms, harmonic patterns, and melodic figures projected moods and their manifestations (sighs, laughter, angry outbursts, lassitude, and so on). Of course, no words were sung in sonatas or concertos, yet this expressive approach, named “the Doctrine of

Affections” by twentieth-century scholars, was so widespread and so thoroughly understood that performers and listeners could connect it with the same kinds of gestures that might appear in vocal music and therefore draw similar emotional reactions.


This recording highlights another notable aspect of Baroque music: the intermingling of once distinct national styles. Composers, performers, and musical scores traveled far afield from the tip of the Italian boot to the British Isles. Steffani, Sammartini, Handel, and Telemann lived and traveled all over Europe, picking up the various styles which they adopted to provide new color and variety in their own music. Even Rameau, who never left France, absorbed all kinds of exotica into his music. During the 1730s there was a vigorous aesthetic battle between the partisans of Lully (ironically, of Italian origin himself) who codified the French Baroque style, and those of Rameau, who was reviled for emphasizing Italian and other foreign elements in his work. It is nearly impossible to find “pure” expressions of national style and the best composers were all-inclusive.


Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) was born near Venice but spent most of his life in Germany. His treble voice was no doubt the reason he was taken to Munich at the age of 13; he remained part of the musical establishment there for over two decades. He also spent time studying and working in Rome and also in Paris where he encountered the music of Lully. His next post was in Hanover, where he wrote for the Italian opera but also developed a career as a diplomat that came to dominate his time and attention during his recurrent journeys between Germany and Italy. His works include more than a dozen operas and dozens of vocal duets. These latter were perhaps his most influential works and provided a stylistic link between the mid-seventeenth-century Carissimi and the later Telemann and Handel.


Guardati o core comes from a collection of Scherzi written in Munich, likely in the 1680s. Its text is of a piece with hundreds of similar poems of the period: a warning to beware of Cupid. Again and again the vocal line illustrates the “affect” of the poem with techniques derived originally from the Renaissance madrigal: racing sixteenth notes to represent Cupid’s “fiery arrows” and an unexpected change of harmony to evoke the “bitter pains” of love. Some love stories end happily, but this one ends with a warning that all the expected pleasures of love may be undone.


Giuseppe Sammartini (1695-1750) moved from his native Italy to England in the 1720s. There he became renowned as an oboist, with the usual flute and recorder doubling—indeed, many of the oboe solos from Handel’s operas were written for him. Although he did compose some vocal music, it was instrumental music—solos, trios, concerti—that was his forte. The B minor trio is the last of six sonatas for one or two flutes published in London in 1736 as Op. 1. This expatriate Italian in England has put together an Austro-German ensemble suite: Opening with a Frenchified overture, its jagged rhythms are followed by an Allegro that briefly mimics imitative texture. Then follow two stylized dances, a Handelian “Sarabande” (marked Andante e staccato) and a quick Telemannian “Bourrée.”


George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was born and raised in Halle, in what is now Germany. After working in Italy for three critical years, “The Saxon” (as he was known there) settled permanently in England before reaching the age of 30. There he wrote works of all kinds in response to changing demands and opportunities. Among the ways he earned his living was teaching, for which he used his own pieces as exercises and examples. It seems likely that the cantata Mi palpita il cor was among those he used for teaching composition and keyboard playing, which naturally would include continuo realization. Probably written around 1715 in England, it seems to be based on his 1707 Roman cantata for alto Dimmi, O mio cor, which was first rewritten for alto with flute and exists in other versions as well. The text comes from the same world of pastoral complaint as Steffani’s, although in Handel’s text there is no ironical distance between the singer and the victim of Cupid. Here the torments of unrequited lust are suffered directly—“I feel my heart pounding”—along with turmoil, anguish, jealousy, fury, grief, and pain.


In his own lifetime, the German Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was hailed as a master on the order of Bach and Handel among his direct contemporaries (he was four years older than both of them and as prolific as both of them combined). After being invited to visit France many times, where there was evident passion for his music, Telemann finally went to Paris in the autumn of 1737 and stayed until the spring of 1738. Four major instrumentalists who extended the invitation (flutist Michel Blavet; violinist Jean-Pierre Guignon, gambist Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, and a cellist/harpsichordist identified only as Prince Édouard) premiered his “Nouveaux Quatuors” with great success. The publisher LeClerc issued six earlier quartets and the new ones under a royal privilege from the King, a convenient device by which a king could provide income to a composer without using any of his own money. The subscription list shows 138 copies ordered in France, 77 in Germany (one from a certain “Mr. Bach” in Leipzig), and 22 from other countries.


In the “Nouveaux Quatuours,” Telemann blended a sophisticated understanding of French style with Italian vigor and formal simplicity (helping to win acclaim in the wake of Vivaldi’s contemporary Parisian triumphs) and with a conversational lightness that incorporates the galant style starting to appear. Telemann labeled the movements in this set with French adjectives usually describing a tempo or mood, but four of the internal movements of the Quatuor in G Major were inspired by French court dances: Légèrement = bourrée, Gracieusement = menuet; Vite = canaries (a fast gigue). Most intriguing is the Modéré, a polonaise. From 1705 to about 1708, Telemann had been in the service of Count Erdmann II of Promnitz at Sorau (now Żary, in Poland), where he likely heard musicians in the countryside, probably inspiring the movement’s remarkable sonorities. The last movement contrasts slow sections marked by typically French harmonies and figurations and fast sections that show Italian or even German influences, with their vigor and clever counterpoint.


Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was recognized early in his career for his harpsichord pieces and his massive and influential Treatise on Harmony. He also wrote a number of cantatas, which gave him experience in the vocal expression of dramatic moments. This experience stood him in good stead when he began his long and brilliantly successful career as opera composer at age 50.


La Grande Encyclopédie of 1751/1752 defines the cantata as: “a short poem written to be set to music, recounting a tale of love or heroism; it comprises a récit which states the subject, an air en rondeau, a second récit, and a final air which contains the moral point of the work.” The narrator/vocalist probes the hearts of several different characters, without the aid of staging; the setting is almost always mythological. Written some time between 1715 and 1720 during Rameau’s years as organist at Claremont, the witty and refined Orphée is typical in its subject matter. Rameau here unifies French and Italian musical techniques effortlessly. He builds on the Encyclopédie model, expanding the simple second récit of the model into a récit-air-récit that incorporates an energetic obbligato line for the viola da gamba, and turning the typically simple final moralistic air into a substantial piece.


Orphée recounts a small part of the one of the favorite operatic subjects of all time—the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. The text does not deal in mere generic Arcadian lovesickness but instead builds on the Orpheus legend. This allows Rameau to represent not only the usual complaints about the Tyranny of Love, but also to extol the Power of Music, and to offer an advanced course on the importance in love of timing, letting neither indolence nor impatience spoil the “moment marked for our reward.”


Handel’s Mi palpita il cor exists in versions for soprano or alto variously with oboe or flute (one also exists with only basso continuo) to accompany a soprano. The ensemble bases this performance on the version marked for soprano and oboe with basso continuo (HWV 132b), using a tenor recorder on the solo instrumental line in the arias and a doubling violin in the second for a more brilliant effect.


Telemann’s Nouveaux Quatuors of 1737 do indicate a specific instrumentation that is followed here, with the exception that the transverse flute indicated in the score is replaced with a voice flute––a tenor recorder pitched in D, a third lower than the standard alto recorder.


The Rameau cantata has only one (unspecified) instrumental melody line, which at one point in the central aria is marked “Flûtes et violons.” implying multiple instruments. The ensemble has orchestrated this instrumental line throughout, using various recorders and violin in multiple configurations.


In the Steffani (scored for 2 violins) and the Sammartini (scored for 2 flutes,) the melody lines both fit within the ranges of the violin and recorder; the ensemble plays the solo lines in both pieces on violin and voice flute.


© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com) and Musica Pacifica (www.musicapacifica.org)



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