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ClassicsOnline Home » MAYR, J.S.: Innalzamento al trono del giovane re Gioas [Oratorio] (Brown, Frey, Sellier, Burkhart, Simon Mayr Choir and Ensemble, Hauk)
Bavarian-born Johann Simon Mayr achieved renown as an Italianate opera composer, his earlier work taking the form of sacred oratorios. Gioas is a combination of both forms, being a parody-oratorio closely following Mayr’s opera I misteri eleusini, which was considered by Stendhal to be “among [the] most powerful musical works of the age”. This mythical drama of kings, priests and goddesses was ideally suited for its intended devotional use, and it joins other pioneering recordings from Franz Hauk which include David (8.570366–67) and Samuele (8.572721–22).
By David J. Baker
Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Oratorio in Two Parts
Libretto by an unknown author
Sebia (Zibiah, Mother of Joash) – Andrea Lauren Brown, Soprano
Gioas (Joash, her son) – Robert Sellier, Tenor
Adrasto (Confidant of Zibiah) – Cornel Frey, Tenor
Giojada (Jehoiada, High Priest) – Andreas Burkhart, Bass
Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble
Directed from the harpsichord by Franz Hauk
Born in the Bavarian town of Mendorf, near Ingolstadt, in 1763, Simon Mayr was the son of a schoolteacher and showed some early ability as a musician. He was a pupil at the Jesuit College in Ingolstadt, before entering the university to study theology, while continuing to demonstrate great versatility as a musician. His musical training, however, only began in earnest in 1787, when a patron, noticing his talent, took him to Italy. There, from 1789, he studied with Carlo Lenzi, master of the music at Bergamo Cathedral. There followed, through the generosity of another patron, a period of study with Bertoni in Venice. His early commissioned compositions were largely in the form of sacred oratorios, but in 1794 his opera Saffo was staged in Venice. His turning to opera owed much to the encouragement he received from Piccinni and Peter von Winter, and other operas followed for Venice and then for La Scala, Milan, and for other Italian theatres, with an increasingly large number of performances abroad. In 1802 he followed Lenzi as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of Sta Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, becoming director of the cathedral choir school three years later. Mayr held these positions until his death in 1845. As a teacher he won the particular respect of his pupil Gaetano Donizetti. He did much to promote the knowledge of the Viennese classical composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in Italy. His own style reflects something of this, but essentially in an Italian context. He was, needless to say, immensely prolific as a composer, with nearly seventy operas to his credit between 1794 and 1824, and some six hundred sacred works.
Gioas Opera as Oratorio: A Parody Procedure in Nineteenth-Century Italy
It can be easily assumed that the practice of re-working operas into oratorios was carried out mostly without the knowledge of, or even the involvement of, composers. However the fact that Mayr was not opposed to the practice is apparent from his adaptation of Étienne-Nicolas Méhul’s opera Joseph.
Johann Simon Mayr’s parody-oratorio of an opera, Gioas (Joash), was written in Florence. The work was commissioned by the Confraternità degli Scolopi (Brotherhood of the Piarists) which gave the first performance of it in the church of San Giovanni Evangelista (Church of St John the Evangelist) in 1823. Gioas is based on Mayr’s own opera I misteri eleusini which was first performed at La Scala, Milan in 1802. If the history of the work’s reception is to be believed, it should rightly be counted among Mayr’s most popular stage works. Stendhal had a high opinion of it and in 1824 wrote: “I misteri eleusini ranked among the strongest and most powerful musical works of the age.”
The operatic model for the parody was heard by the Florentine public in 1806 at the Teatro della Pergola. Right up until 1823 Mayr was constantly engaged with the composition of operas; in all he wrote twenty-one for Florence’s various opera houses, most of them for the Teatro della Pergola, including several revivals such as Ginevra di Scozia and L’amor coniugale. An opera by Mayr (Ginevra di Scozia) was presented for the last time in Florence in 1824, one year after the parody Gioas was heard for the first time in the Church of St John the Evangelist. There is no record of any further performances in Florence of operas by Mayr.
The name of the Brotherhood of the Order of the Piarists, which was founded in Rome in 1597 by the Spanish counter-reformer Joseph Calasanz, is derived from the “Fathers of the Sacred Schools”. The principal aim of the brotherhood, whose official name was “Clerics of the Mother of God”, was the education of poor children and at the end of the eighteenth century it took on the spiritual line of succession of the Jesuits. Abolished by Napoleon in 1808, from 1815—the year in which Ferdinand III was reinstalled as Grand Duke of Tuscany—the order devoted itself once more to teaching duties, naturally including religious education.
As a result of this, in 1820 the order also reintroduced the quarantore (the forty hours’ devotion) to the last three days of Carnival at its church of St John the Evangelist, known also as S. Giovannino, San Giovanni degli Scopoli or San Giovanno degli Scolopi. With that there began just under a century of a continuous oratorio tradition within the context of the religious activities of the brotherhood in this church. The first quarantore celebration to include an (unknown) oratorio was documented in 1821 and Vittorio Trento’s I Maccabei was performed in 1822. Mayr’s parody Gioas followed later. From 1828 it was usual each time to perform two different oratorios on the three evenings, a custom which was abandoned in 1844. The last oratorio to be performed in the Church of St John the Evangelist, in 1912, was Emilio Cianchi’s lyrical tragedy Giudetta, which had been composed in 1854. According to newspaper reports of the three evenings at which the most holy sacrament was to be presented “in the form of the quarantore”, the church was decorated and lit solemnly. Podia were erected for the musicians and sermons were delivered between the two parts of each oratorio.
The number of musicians in the ensemble can be ascertained from the number of parts which have survived, such as in the case of Gioas. The orchestra, therefore, probably consisted of thirty-three musicians (twenty string players, twelve wind players and a percussionist) while the choir comprised at least twenty-two singers. It is presumed that no women sang; even if soprano parts have survived these were probably sung by boys. The musical activities of the Padri Scolopi were financed generously by the governors of the time and by the city’s patrons of the arts. This new tradition, linked to the celebration of the quarantore, continued the history of the oratorio which had been developed in Florence in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which extended most impressively into the nineteenth century. Musically the parody adheres closely to its operatic model. Arias, ensembles, choruses and accompanied recitatives are borrowed virtually word for word from the original texts. The ordering of the movements accords with those from the score of the opera. New texts and new settings are present above all in the secco recitatives.
The religious action of Gioas takes place in mythical times in a sacred wood dedicated to the goddess Ceres, as well as in and around the temple of Ceres. Antinous, the king of Thebes, is burdened with guilt. He had once killed the king Lysander in revenge for the abduction of his son Polybetes, and kidnapped Lysander’s daughter Themisto. Later, out of jealousy, he has her and her family killed. In order to unburden himself of his sins he visits the shrine of Ceres. In the temple he finds in Adrasto someone who reminds him of his son, whom he believes to be dead. But the high priestess, who is to carry out the holy ceremony for the stranger, is none other than Themisto herself, who has survived the attempt on her life and contemplates revenge. Earlier she had promised Adrasto and her retinue that she would avenge the death of her family. As soon as Themisto recognizes her adversary an earthquake interrupts the ritual. In the second act Adrasto swears everlasting friendship to the unfortunate, unknown, king. Meanwhile the high priest decides to reveal to Antinous the identity of Polybetes, alias Adrasto, who was entrusted to him by the dying Lysander. Themisto has decided against the murder of Antinous, which Adrasto is expected to carry out. At the eleventh hour Adrasto is arrested by the high priest, learns the truth and is in despair at the thought that he almost murdered his own father. In order to appease the goddess Adrasto and Themisto are sentenced to death for having planned the wicked deed. To assuage his own guilt Antinous wishes to die instead of his son. Touched by Antinous’s desire for self-sacrifice Themisto renounces retribution. The high priest carries out the happy ending, allows Adrasto to return to Thebes with his father and commands Themisto to devote herself solely to the service of the goddess.
The “pseudo-sacred” subject-matter with its numerous choruses of priests, ceremonies and its prayers, was perfectly suited to a religious parody. It picks up on the Old Testament account of the rescue of the young Joash from the murderous Athaliah and his enthronement as king by the priest Jehoiada (2 Kings 11).
The action of the oratorio begins shortly before the coronation ceremony. At the grave of her son Zibiah harbours thoughts of revenge against Athaliah CD 1  and of atoning for the fate of her family, with which Adrasto, her confidant, is expected to help CD 1 . Later Zibiah comes upon Joash with the priest Jehoiada, and Joash reminds her of her own son CD 1 . Joash is moved by her fate CD 1 . Jehoiada, who knows Joash’s true identity, observes the scene but decides to keep quiet in order not to jeopardize the coronation CD 1 . The finale of the first part begins with the ceremony CD 1 . But the ceremony is interrupted by Athaliah and her retinue. The intervention of the adversary occurs off-stage; Adrasto merely comments on what happens: “Cinta d’armati, e spade/Urta del Tempio i cardini /L’empia Atalia così” (Armed with weapons and swords/so does the wicked Athaliah/attack the doors of the Temple) CD 1 . The first finale ends in general uproar and consternation CD 1 .
At the beginning of Part Two Adrasto reports to Zibiah that Athaliah is now indeed dead, but that Joash, as the supposed son, will be crowned by Jehoiada in order to maintain her power CD 2 . When Joash meets Zibiah again after that, she rejects him, bitterly accusing him of treachery CD 2 . Standing by the graves Adrasto contemplates Zibiah’s fate CD 2 . Joash, who now knows the whole truth from Jehoiada, mourns for his hapless mother CD 2 . The high priest succeeds in persuading Zibiah that in fact her son is still alive CD 2 , but only later does he tell her his name CD 2 . Meanwhile Adrasto decides to fulfil his promise to Zibiah and to kill the false Joash CD 2 . In the nick of time he is prevented from carrying out his intention and is informed of the true identities, at which he breaks down, horrified CD 2 . Jehoiada proclaims divine providence and completes the coronation CD 2 . The oratorio concludes with joyful singing from Zibiah and Joash at the happy ending CD 2 .
At the centre of the action in the oratorio, Joash and his mother Zibiah stand in opposition to one another in their conflict-ridden relationship, in a parallel with the father-son axis of the opera. The Joash episode was popular subject-matter for oratorios but it was Metastasio who, in his azione sacra Gioas Re di Giuda (Joash, King of Judah: 1735), first introduced the figure of the mother. Metastasio featured Zibiah in various spiritual states. As early as the second part of his azione sacra the subject of her doubt about the sincerity of Jehoiada can be found and Zibiah sees Joash as a traitor. This motif, which Metastasio raised to the highest emotional tension, is now developed further in Mayr’s Gioas parody and, following on from the template of the opera, establishes the core of the plot. Even so, in this respect the libretto for Gioas goes far beyond the characterisation of Zibiah in Metastasio’s work, in which the mother has no thoughts of a bloody revenge.
English translation by David Stevens
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MAYR, J.S.: Innalzamento al trono del giovane re G...