Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Schubert: Spiritual Arias (Piety and Beauty In Dialogue with Bach)


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    Today it is not uncommon (though not as common as it should be) to find a Liederabend, a soirée of Lieder, on the billboard of a concert season or music society. Within such a framework, it is possible to enjoy song cycles or collections of individual pieces sung by professionals for the pleasure of an audience. This, however, was not always the case; the primary destination of most Lieder and cycles was private performance, either for the enjoyment of the performers only, or for a very limited audience of family and friends. Moreover, performance of Lieder by a single musician who sang and accompanied him/herself at the piano was extremely frequent; in those cases, he or she could be the only recipient of the sung work. I used “he or she” in the preceding sentence, but anecdotal evidence suggests that, from the Baroque era to the twentieth century, to play and sing Lieder was a typical occupation for female pianists/singers, and one in which a plethora of bourgeois ladies used to spend many hours, while the male members of the household were outside their homes, or in order to restore their husbands when they were back. Surely, however, this activity was favourably seen by society. To spend time singing and playing Lieder was an elevated activity, one which could “embellish” the performer in moral, artistic, human and personal terms. To these adjectives, one could add “and spiritual”, if the lyrics’ content expressed a religious meaning. The practice of singing Psalms or spiritual songs during one’s leisure time was actively encouraged, as it was an occupation which evidently gave pleasure to the performer, while also inviting him or her to meditate on the sung words in order to receive spiritual refreshment and comfort. This is found already in the first published collections of keyboard music (e.g. for the spinet or virginal), and remains as an undisputed milestone of the vocal repertoire. This Da Vinci Classics album gathers some magnificent examples of this repertoire of “spiritual songs”, written by some of the greatest composers of the Western tradition, but frequently neglected on the concert stage. Many of them refer, more or less tangentially, to the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach, who represents an undisputed icon of how music can support, express, foster and encourage a person’s spirituality. The most explicit homage, of course, is found in the Five Spiritual Lieder after J. S. Bach written by Benjamin Britten. This beautiful set of songs, recorded here for the first time, can be described technically as the continuo realization and arrangement of five songs excerpted from two collections with a different history and destination. The so-called “Schemellis Gesangbuch” was a songbook comprising almost a thousand (!) spiritual songs (only 69 of which are provided with music), compiled, edited and published in 1736 by Georg Christian Schemelli, the father of a pupil of the Thomasschule, attached to the St. Thomas Church. Scholars debate as to the extent of Bach’s cooperation in the collection and arrangement of the musical materials. Among the works whose Bachian authorship seems to be uncontroversial is Komm, süßer Tod, listed as 478 in the catalogue of Bach’s works (BWV). This song became one of the most popular among those written by (or attributed to) Bach, and has been the object of several arrangements by important composers, including Max Reger. From Schemelli’s songbook come also Kommt, Seelen, dieser Tag (BWV 479) and Liebster Herr Jesu (BWV 484), whilst Gedenke doch (BWV 509) and Bist du bei mir (BWV 508) are excerpted from a manuscript collection, known as the “Second Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach”. Bach’s second wife was an appreciated professional singer, and she liked also to play the keyboard, albeit as an amateur. Particularly the second of her music albums, compiled in 1725, reveals the handwriting of eight different hands, including those of Anna Magdalena herself and of her husband. The purpose of such a collection was twofold: to provide the young bride with nourishment for her technical and musical proficiency, and to furnish material for unconstrained music-making, just for one’s pleasure. Among the songs found in this Notenbüchlein, one stands out for its beauty and the success it enjoyed in the following centuries. Bist du bei mir has been defined by the editor of the authoritative Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe (1892) as “one the most beautiful songs he knows”, and therefore, arguably, as Bach’s most beautiful Lied. The point is that Bist Du bei mir is not by Bach… This exquisite song has been identified as coming from Diomedes (1718), an opera by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Its misattribution to Bach might have deprived its true composer of the glory due to him, but certainly guaranteed the fame and survival of an exquisite piece of music. This success is testified also by the existence of metrical translations into other languages, such as English: “If Thou Be Near”, or “Be Thou with me” are but two of these “singable” translations. Britten was probably rather unconcerned with authenticity issues, which moreover were just starting to timidly emerge within the restricted circles of specialist musicologists of his time. He selected five songs by Bach or attributed to him by the “infallible” Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, and created piano parts for them out of the bass line found in the BGA. In spite of their miscellaneous provenance, and of their likely multiple authorship, the five songs constitute, in Britten’s setting, a homogeneous whole, also by virtue of the numerous red threads uniting them. The theme of longing, for instance, is markedly present, along with that of a reflection on death. This last subject is very unpopular in today’s world, but evidently our forebears were much more familiar with it, to the point of singing with pleasure songs about death. (As we will see, this theme recurs also in other songs recorded here, with varying degrees of sadness). For instance, in the first of Britten’s Songs, the soul is invited to think to death, but the accompanying music is sweet and almost cheerful. The third and fourth songs express the “longing for death” typical for some devotional literature; in Liebster Herr Jesu, the soul expresses her yearning for the encounter with the Lord – an encounter which will reach its fullness only through death. In Komm, süßer Tod, death itself is invoked and desired. In Bist du bei mir, the presence of a loving person whose hands will gently close the eyes of the dead is seen as the guarantee for a peaceful and serene death. The only song which is free from death thoughts is Kommt, Seelen, a joyful piece recounting the refreshing miracles of Pentecost. Britten himself was the pianist at the set’s premiere, on June 18th, 1969, at Blythburgh Church for the Festival of Aldeburgh. The singer was Peter Pears, who also authored the English translation of the lyrics. The set was published in 1971, but, in 1970, Britten created one further version of Liester Herr Jesu and Komm, süßer Tod, both set for choir and organ. Connections with Bach are also found in the Sechs Lieder von Gellert op. 48 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1803). On the more superficial plane, these lyrics by Christian Furchtegott Gellert (1715-1769) were set to music also by one of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel, within few months from the lyrics’ publication. More deeply, Beethoven’s interest in the great tradition of the German chorale, as exemplified by Bach’s settings, is clearly revealed in several pieces, and especially in Die Ehre Gottes. The lyrics are clearly inspired by the Bible, even though they “rewrite” the Scriptural originals in terms closer to the Enlightenment perspective. For instance, Die Liebe des Nächsten echoes the New Testament letters of John and James, while Die Ehre Gottes rehearses Psalm 18 and Bußlied is reminiscent especially of Psalm 50 but also of other penitential psalms. Vom Tode is centered once more on the meditation on death, whose nearing is chillingly evoked by the pointillist notes and chords by the piano. This is one of the most desperate and beautiful of Beethoven’s songs. By way of contrast, the initial intense sadness of Bußlied flows into a radiant second section, in the major mode, where the piano’s scoring resembles that of a Piano Sonata. Beethoven’s interest in Gellert’s Lieder dates back to 1798, when he set one of them, in a version he later discarded; the composition of the set, as we know it, was prompted by the untimely death of Countess Anna Margarethe von Browne, the wife of Count Georg. Death is also meditated upon in the beautiful Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, where Brahms realizes a magnificent and arduous harmonization of a three-part Chorale found in Bach’s Cantata BWV 44. The intense chromaticism of the piano part lends it an extremely modern character, embodying beautifully the tortured anguish of the lyrics – but the final destination of this tormented path is “Himmel”, heaven. This setting was published in 1877 in Hamburg, and, in the same year, employed as a model discussed in Carl Gustav Peter Grädener’s Harmonielehre (Manual of Harmony). The same longing for Heaven is touchingly expressed in Franz Schubert’s Himmelsfunken (1819), whose extremely delicate atmosphere depicts the soul’s yearning for the “heavenly land”. The piano’s accompaniment seems to echo the iambic rhythm of Beethoven’s Vom Tode. Conversely, the praise of creation, found in Beethoven’s Die Ehre Gottes also transpires in Schubert’s vibrant and quivering Die Gestirne (1816), while Litanei – Am Tage Aller Seelen (1816) expresses a prayer for all the departed souls. The intercession seems to caress, lullaby-like, the stories of the dead, as if in a musical Spoon River. Peace is also the protagonist of Pax vobiscum (1817), set almost chorale-like, and evoking the gift of peace imparted by the risen Christ to his disciples. Death is also the protagonist of Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, completed on the day of the composer’s last birthday (1896), and whose composition had been prompted by the death of Brahms’ dearest friend, Clara Schumann. The lyrics, excerpted from the Bible by Brahms himself (as had happened with the Deutsches Requiem), meditate upon death; at first in a very anguished fashion, on words from Ecclesiastes, but later with a glimpse of hope. Indeed, the last Lied, on lyrics from 1st Corinthians, is a hymn to faith, hope and charity, the three theological virtues. While the presence of God is somewhat hidden in these songs, whose texts do not affirm explicitly the Christian faith in resurrection, this final hymn to virtues which cannot be reached by the unaided human will represents an implicit, but forceful, profession of faith.Together, the spiritual songs recorded here trace an itinerary between belief and unbelief, between a faith so strong that it can contemplate death unwaveringly and the dark doubts of people living in times of incredulity. Still, the very fact of expressing doubts, longings, yearnings and pleas through poetry and through music is a powerful creed in the lasting character of Beauty – which, finally, is but one of God’s names.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Chiara Bertoglio (piano): Born in Turin in 1983, Chiara Bertoglio began her piano studies at the age of three, obtaining her Diploma in Piano summa cum laude and with honours at the Conservatory of Turin when only sixteen. She obtained Master’s Degrees in piano at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the University of Venice in musicology, as well as the Swiss Diploma of Virtuosity, always with top marks and honours. She obtained a PhD in Music Performance Practice from the University of Birmingham, with the supervision of Kenneth Hamilton. She also studied with M. Rezzo, I. Deckers, E. Henz, P. Badura Skoda, S. Perticaroli and K. Bogino. She made her debut as a soloist with orchestra at the age of nine, under the baton of Ferdinand Leitner; later she performed with orchestras such as Rome Symphony Orchestra, the European Union Chamber Orchestra, the Curtis Chamber Orchestra, the Italian Philharmonic Orchestra, the Aargauer Symphonieorchester and many others. In 2005 she made her debut at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Leon Fleisher. She performed in such venues as the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the Royal Academy in London (during the Messiaen Festival 2008), the Mozarteum in Salzburg, the Chopin Institute of Warsaw, the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and other festivals such as “Imago Sloveniae”, “Woerthersee Classics”, “MITO Settembre Musica” and many others. She performed both recitals and concertos with orchestra in Italy, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Israel, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Slovenia, and was often broadcast by national radio and TV programs (RAI, ORF, AVRO Klassiek, Polish and Slovenian Radio and TV etc.). Her most important recordings include Respighi’s Toccata for piano and orchestra, two albums for “Velut Luna” (Schubert’s complete Impromptus, and “Mors&Vita”, with works by Mussorgskij and Messiaen, both issued in 2012) and a selection of Mozart’s Piano Concertos for “Panorama”. Her first book dates 2005, and is a study on Mozart’s piano and opera music, prefaced by Paul Badura Skoda. Later she wrote other musicological books, mostly published by Effatà, and her PhD thesis has been recently published by Lambert Academic Publishing. Her monumental monograph Reforming Music (De Gruyter 2017) has won the prestigious RefoRC Book Award in 2018. She also wrote several musicological articles for important Italian and international journals, and is often invited as a speaker at musicological conferences in Europe and the USA; she also gives seminars for Italian and British universities. She teaches musicology at the Theological University of Northern Italy and piano at the Conservatoire of Novara. Since 2007 she gives annual cycles of lectures and concerts for the private university “Studio Filosofico Domenicano” in Bologna.

    MAURO BORGIONI, Baritone
    He studied singing at the Civic School of Milan, Conservatory of Cesena and Fondation Royaumont of Paris. He collaborated with various orchestras and ensembles like La Capella Rel de Catalunya, Concerto Italiano, Mantova Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra Sinfonica della Rai, Il Giardino Armonico, Accademia Bizantina. He collaborated with important conductors and musicians including Jordi Savall, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Giovanni Antonini, Diego Fasolis, Ottavio Dantone, Johnatan Webb, Federico Maria Sardelli in some of the most important halls and theaters including Wien Konzerthaus, Teatro Regio Torino, Cité de la Musique Paris, Kolner Philarmonie, Auditorium de Madrid, National Centre for Arts of Pechino, UCLA Los Angeles. Specialized in baroque repertoire, he has sung the role of Orfeo in “L’Orfeo” by Claudio Monteverdi (Teatro Regio of Turin, Teatro Comunale of Ferrara, Teatro Ponchielli in Cremona); Ulisse in “Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria” by Claudio Monteverdi (Roma Reate Festival, Teatro Ponchielli in Cremona ); Aeneas in “Dido & Aeneas” by H. Purcell (Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Teatro Alighieri of Ravenna, Teatro Verdi of Gorizia), Acrimante ne "L'Empio punito" di A. Melani (Reate Festival); Haman in Esther and Polyphemus in “Acis anda Galatea” by G.F. Handel (Teatro Comunale di Ferrara). His repertoire includes baroque masterpieces like Monteverdi's Vesper & Operas, Matthäus & Johannes Passion, Mass in B Minor by J.S. Bach; Handel's Messiah & La Resurrezione; classical works like Pauken & Nelson-Messe by Haydn, Mozart Vesperae and Missae; He is also active in contemporary repertoire, he has interpreted The Traveller in “Curlew River” and Noe in Noye’s fludde by Benjamin Britten with Prato Chamber Orchestra and Johnatan Webb; Aye in “Akhnathen” by Philipp Glass with the Orchestra of Teatro Regio in Turin with Dante Anzolini.
    He has participated in various festivals and concert seasons in Italy, Europe also in Mexico, Canada and USA, and has recorded for Zig-Zag Territories, Alpha-Prod, Brilliant Classics, Elucevanlestelle Records, Stradivarius, K617, Glossa, ORF, Arcana, Ricercar and for radio and television.


    Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.

    Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
    The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.

    Johannes Brahms: (b Hamburg, 7 May 1833; d Vienna, 3 April 1897). German composer. The successor to Beethoven and Schubert in the larger forms of chamber and orchestral music, to Schubert and Schumann in the miniature forms of piano pieces and songs, and to the Renaissance and Baroque polyphonists in choral music, Brahms creatively synthesized the practices of three centuries with folk and dance idioms and with the language of mid- and late 19th-century art music. His works of controlled passion, deemed reactionary and epigonal by some, progressive by others, became well accepted in his lifetime.

    Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.