October 2019

Every once in a while a piece of music you’ve had in your collection for ages emerges to capture your attention in a special way, such that you ask yourself, “Why have I never heard this gorgeous thing before as it deserves?”  Exactly that recently happened to me with a piece by Giovanni Felice Sances, “O Jesu mi dulcissime,” which renders as “O my sweetest Jesus.”  It’s a concerted motet for two voices but I have it in an instrumental performance by L’Arpeggiata, directed by the inimitable Christine Pluhar, on a recording called Vêpres sous Charles VI à Vienne issued in 2002 on the Naive label.  A quick check in Amazon shows it as “currently unavailable,” which doesn’t surprise me but irritates me nonetheless because it’s hard enough to lay hands on recordings of Sances’s music.

I should give myself credit for having recognized the special quality of the motet in question early on because it was memory of it that led me to rifle through my collection and find it — as one composition on an anthology of music by several composers it’s not immediately to hand in my file list.  I haven’t yet done a track-level database of all the recordings I own to make easily searchable works contained in anthologized collections.  And you can stop making the fish face as you gasp in disbelief — not all of us are hares, tortoises have their place in Creation, too, let us not forget.  I’ll get there eventually.  It took me a good while to find the piece since L’Arpeggiata was the only searchable element I had to go on.  And curiously enough, I remembered the performance as vocal, not instrumental.  I have no idea what mechanism in the human brain brought into being that state of affairs but I’m disposed to leave it as one of life’s mysteries.  It is indeed a vocal motet but L’Arpeggiata uses two violins as replacements for the voices.  It works a treat and I haven’t the slightest objection to raise with the instrumental approach, but I remembered it being sung for some reason.  Your guess is as good as mine as to what that reason might be.

The piece comes from Sances’ collection of 1638 entitled Motetti a una, due, tre e quattro voce.  The collection was published in 2003 by A-R Editions in its series “Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era” as volume 126.  It’s available from Amazon for a cool $95.  A-R’s webpage for the volume (here) brings us the following information:

This edition makes available an important collection of sacred music by Giovanni Felice Sances (ca. 1600–1679), a composer who has long been known primarily through his early secular works. The compositions of his Motetti a una, due, tre e quattro voci (Venice, 1638) provide fascinating examples of the seventeenth-century motet from the imperial court in Vienna. Relatively few pieces are through-composed in the manner of the Renaissance motet; most employ some structural device such as a refrain, instrumental ritornello, walking bass, ostinato, or quasi-ostinato. The collection is equally interesting as a cultural document, for it mirrors the liturgical, devotional, and representational needs of Sances’s patrons, the Austrian Habsburgs. One motet, for example, provides a calculated homage to Emperor Ferdinand III, and others reflect the private devotional practices of members of the imperial family. Indeed, Sances’s collection actively shaped seventeenth-century Viennese culture by helping to impose Catholic cultural hegemony, and publicly by articulating Habsburg notions of Catholic piety, monarchal duty, and the divine right of kings.

Here I thought I was just listenting to gorgeous music and it turns out I’m aiding and abetting the imposition of Catholic cultural hegemony.  How shocking a state of affairs for a lapsed Lutheran like myself.  It just goes to show that a girl can’t be too careful these days …  But let’s leave the socio-political element aside, shall we?  We have enough such muddles on our hands these days, we don’t need to go looking for them in the 17th century.

Since the link between music and text is a hallmark of the Early Baroque, let me give the text of the work so you have an idea of the thoughts and emotions at play (webpage here):

O Jesu mi dulcissime,
spes suspirantis animae or [O spes! Spirantis animae]
Te quaerunt piae lacrimae,
te clamor mentis intimae!

Mane nobiscum, Domine,
et nos illustra lumine.
Pulsa mentis caligine,
mundum reple dulcedine.

O Jesus, most sweet to me,
Hope of the yearning soul;
The tears of the pious seek you;
the innermost soul cries out to you!

Stay with us, Lord,
and shine your light upon us.
Drive darkness away,
and fill the world with your sweetness.

For those unfamiliar with Sances, a bit of biography.  When I first came across him lo these many years ago I looked at the name and thought, “Well, we must have an Italicized Spaniard on our hands.”  Sances in Italian is pronounced “Sanchez” and if you’ve hung around Latino culture as much as I have the syllables “Sanchez” don’t put you in mind of Rome.  Giovanni Felice is also quite easily turned into Juan Felix to go along with the Sanchez, so it seemed a slam-dunk to me that Sances was from the Iberian peninsula and adapted himself to things Italian in the same way that the German lutenist Kapsberger had done, going from Johannes Hieronymus to Giovanni Girolamo.

Well, I was dead wrong.  Sances was as Italian as pesto.  Here’s the skinny from the HOASM website (here):

Italian composer. Relatively little is known of Sances’s youth. His early career seems to have centered in Rome: he received training at the German College between about 1609-14, appeared in a performance of the opera Amor pudico sponsored by Cardinal Montalto in 1614, and spent a period in the employ of Pio Enea degli Obizzi. By 1636 he was a tenor in the chapel of Emperor Ferdinand II, and continued to serve at the imperial court under the emperor’s successors Ferdinand III and Leopold I. Sances was appointed vice-Kapellmeister in 1649, and on April 16, 1669 succeeded Antonio Bertali as imperial Kapellmeister, a position that he held until his death a decade later. During his service in Vienna he was active as a composer of sacred music, operas, sepolcri and secular chamber music. Sances was one of the long list of early baroque composers who wrote vocal variations on ostinato harmonies that included Caccini, d’India, Cifra, Dognazzi, Domenico Mazzocchi, Monteverdi, Landi, Giovanni Steffani, Vitali, Milanuzzi and Frescobaldi. In his time Sances was among the most renowned composers in Europe.

Anybody whose interest in early Baroque music is as intense as mine will find the names mentioned in the bio leaping out like lightning bolts in the night sky.  Antonio Bertali figures near the top in my Best Of Early Baroque Composers list.  The same goes for d’India, Domenico Mazzocchi, Stefano Landi — Monteverdi and Frescobaldi are givens, of course, one need say no more about them.  Pay attention especially to the last sentence: “… among the most renowned composers in Europe.”  You’d never know it from what’s available of his music in recordings today.  By right he should be on the same level as Monteverdi and Frescobaldi — as should Antonio Bertali for that matter.  But no, for some reason neither I nor you nor anybody else can rationally explain he remains well off on the sidelines.  What an enormous pity.  His music is superlative.

You don’t take over the position of Kapellmeister (i.e. chief musical honcho) at the Imperial Court of Vienna without being a Big Deal.  That in and of itself should have been enough to consolidate Sances’ reputation for posterity.  Having attained to that position after the likes of Antonio Bertali had occupied it is proof enough of Sances’ proficiency as a composer, so I see no need to elaborate at length about how good a composer he was technically.  His music in general and the motet I mentioned specifically strike me as special because of the human presence Sances communicates.  His music is particularly heartfelt.  He offers from the heart and speaks to the heart, however clever his counterpoint and harmonies may be — and they are clever, elegant and masterful.

What makes this heartfelt quality communicable to a listener of the 21st century?  That’s where L’Arpeggiata comes in, since without a heartfelt performance the heartfelt quality in Sances’ music would go missing.  It doesn’t show transparently on the printed page, I can attest to that.  The printed page of any early Baroque composition save those of obviously virtuosic nature (e.g. the sonatas of Marco Uccellini or Dario Castello) only gives the skeleton of the work, the flesh must be added by the performance.  L’Arpeggiata fleshes out the compositions it performs with a wide array of approaches and textures.  What on the page sppears as a single continuo line becomes in the hands of Pluhar and her associates a lushness equivalent to a rainforest with vines spreading their shoots out in every direction.  Harps, theorbos, and lutes weave a fabric of plucked sonorities to accompany the vocal lines on the recording I have.  That’s the hallmark of L’Arpeggiata, directed by Pluhar, a lutenist whose specialty is the theorbo.  Without that lush sonority underpinning the vocal lines the piece would seem thin and strained, like Maggie Thatcher’s smile.  None of the heartfeltness would come through without the underlying lusciousness the Pluharian continuo layer provides.

I’ve not been able to lay hands on the full score of O Jesu mi dulcissime, it being locked away securely in the pay-for-view world of the score published by A-R Editions.  I did manage to find the first page on the website of the Open Music Archive (here):

Sances motet incipit

As it happens, page one is enough for my purposes.  It contains the bars that brought the special quality of the piece to my attention and continue to rivet my attention every time I hear them.  I’m thinking of bars 7-13 specifically, which will serve as a good example of what becomes in the hands of L’Arpeggiata a heartfelt and touching gesture of spirit, which for me is the hallmark of Sances’ music.

How do they do it?  Let’s start at the beginning.  The score gives us in the first bar of the basso continuo line a single whole note.  Obviously that can’t be the whole story or we’d get nowhere fast.  L’Arpeggiata turns the whole note into a luscious tapestry of textures spreading across the range from bass to treble.  They thereby set the tonality as a point of local gravity — the tonic key is G minor.  In the High Baroque the bass line often participates as a co-equal line with the upper voices.  Telemann and Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (he of the theme used by Bach for the Goldberg Variations) come to mind in that vein.  The Early Baroque doesn’t go in for the contrapuntal approach to basso continuo.  It’s all about foundation, about giving the upper voices the structural and sonic support they need to weave their magic while enveloped in a lush tapestry of sound coming from below and around.  L’Arpeggiata is masterful at creating a lush continuo context that both supports and grounds the solo voices.  They accomplish that effect by impelling the continuo line through its harmonic progression to points of repose.  The continuo line is teleological, to put it another way — it always leads somewhere, from motion to a point of relaxation.

Early Baroque music is based on a structure perhaps best called episodic.  When rendered effectively the episodes either become single musical and emotional gestures or contain multiple gestures that combine into a single affect.  There can be many such episodes in the course of a single work, as is the case with Sances’ motet.  I find this episodic structure especially attractive and satisfying.  I think it contributes to the emotional immediacy of Early Baroque music in a way that’s absent from the High Baroque, the structures of which tend much more toward abstract intellecualism.  I’m extremely fond, for example, of Goldberg’s incredibly tightly-structured trio sonatas, but I experience in the music of Sances, Bertali and their ilk an emotional bond I have with few composers of the High Baroque.  It all comes from gesture.

I’ll use as an example bars 7-13 as I mentioned above.  In bar 7 comes the onset of the second melodic/harmonic episode, placed on the second beat of the measure, which is a weak beat in the Baroque way of looking at things, so to begin a new melodic episode in such a place is done for a reason: emphasis, surprise, tension, emotional impact.  The episode begins with a sustained note across two beats, long enough for a messa di voce, a swell from soft to loud to soft again, with moving harmonics beneath it in the continuo line.  The harmonic progression is ambiguous about its center of gravity and in such a harmonic context the high sustained note in the vocal line becomes plangent.  But when the second vocal line takes up the melodic figure it alters it by changing register and the harmonic envelope lands squarely in the major and on a point of exquisite harmonic repose.  It’s as if the second voice answers the first by transforming its plangent melodic figure into a musical equivalent of Julian of Norwich’s statement of comfort coming from Mother Jesus:

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

“These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved.”

The first voice rejoins the second with the harmonic underpinning still in the major and the two voices move together to a cadence in the major.  In the short space of seven bars an entire melodic and harmonic event has taken place, moving from statement to counterstatement to resolution.  I can listen to just those seven bars out of the motet over and over and never tire of them.  They go by very quickly when one listens to the work in its entirety, but those seven bars are what made the motet stick in my mind as something special over the course of several years.  When I went back to find the work in my collection, paid close attention to the performance and sought out the score, the reason it seemed special to me became clear.  It’s an act of soul-soothing worthy of a medieval mystic.

It’s time now for a word about the performance, which is what brings Sances’ music to life and gives it the power of affect it has.  The violinists playing the vocal lines in the recording I have are Veronika Skuplik and Christine Moran.  Ms. Skuplik has become one of the stars in the firmament of Baroque performance practice for the violin, much like Anette Sichelschmidt has been in her work with Musica Antiqua Koln.  The oboe is said to be the instrument perhaps closest to the human voice, but I believe the case can be made that the expressiveness of the violin gives an equally valid counterfeit of what comes out the mouth of a singer.  In skilled hands a violin can whisper, roar, complain, shout and do all manner of things the human voice can do.  The question is whether the hands playing it are sensitive enough to join the capabilities of the instrument to the affect of the music.  There’s no question about that sensitivity on the part of Ms. Skuplik and Ms. Moran.  How they came to their interpretation of the vocal line I can’t say — I have no idea whether it came from them or was suggested by Ms. Pluahr in her role as director of the ensemble.  I can only say that the affect produced by the interpretation fits the music perfectly and works very powerfully to communicate the spirit of the work.

It’s useful to add what the performers do to bring out the affect of what’s on the page in the bars mentioned above.  Ms.  Skuplik usually plays first violin in the ensemble, so I assume she’s playing the upper vocal line and Ms. Moran the lower.  In the upper vocal line Ms. Skuplik intensifies the plangent quality of the melodic figure by ornamention, thereby giving the plangency an urgency it would otherwise lack.  In the melodic response of “all shall be well” of the second vocal line Ms. Moran uses an aspiration before the dotted quarter note on beat 3 of bar 7 and adds no ornamentation to that note or to the half-note on beat one of the following bar.  The effect: repose.  It’s exactly the right thing to do to bring forward the comforting, soothing affect of the vocal line itself as well as of the underlying harmonic progression of the continuo line, which at that point softens and arpeggiates to create a gossamer texture.  Such things are the work of good musicians and have everything to do with sensitivity to affect and the ability to convey it.  It’s a process I know up close and personal from being a performer myself.  When I come across performers as masterful at it as Mss. Skuplik and Moran my hat tips in acknowledgement of their craft and their humanity.

Sances’ motet could well serve as a species type for Early Baroque compositions from the point of view of both structure and affect.  On the same recording with Sances’ motet appear works by another unknown composer of the period, Johann Melchior Gletle (1626-1683), an organist who served as Kapellmeister at Augsburg Cathedral.  I’d never heard of the guy before and I’m sure I’m in the majority in that regard, not the minority.  The three pieces of Gletle’s on the recording are ravishing works.  It makes one wonder how many more composers of wonderful music lay mouldering in archives in Europe waiting to be discovered and brought to hungry listeners like me.  Every new discovery of a composer like Sances or Gletle brings me a special delight because I’m participating in pushing back the darkness that has obscured their creations for so many years.

So not only is this post a shoutout for Sances and L’Arpeggiata, it’s also a record of the music lesson both composer and performers give me in the listening.  They go hand in hand.  Because of the performance by L’Arpeggiata I now understand the music of Sances better from a structural point of view and can approach music of his period with wiser eyes and sharper ears than I could before.  That’s a very great benefit for which a simple “thank you” is hardly enough.  I also have keener insight into the performance practices that bring this music to the life it deserves for ears of today to hear.

That’s a win-win situation if ever there was one. 🙂