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ClassicsOnline Home » SAMMARTINI: Sacred Cantatas
By Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700/01–1775)
Cantatas: Della Passione di Gesù Cristo, J-C 124 &
L'addolorata Divina Madre e Desolatissima nella Soledad, J-C 123
Born in 1700 or 1701, Giovanni Battista Sammartini spent all his life in Milan or in its surroundings, playing a very important rôle in the musical life of this city. At that time there was a great deal of musical activity in Milan and, with the support of the local aristocracy, one of the centres of this activity was the Teatro Regio Ducale, which later became the Teatro alla Scala. Sammartini used his abundant musical skills in the composition of symphonic, chamber, sacred and theatre music. His contribution to the birth of the symphonic style was decisive; he wrote some seventy symphonies, which clearly show the development and refinement of his compositional skills.
In sacred music, Sammartini did not devote himself only to the official Catholic repertoire, settings of the Mass, motets on Latin texts, or liturgical music. Of particular interest is his long collaboration, spanning approximately fifty years, with a lay Congregation which regularly met in the Jesuit Church of San Fedele, the Imperial Regia Congregazione del Ss.mo Entierro di N. S. Gesù Cristo e Soledad della Ss. Vergine Addolorata (Imperial Royal Congregation of the Most Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Solitude of the Most Holy Sorrowing Virgin). The mixture of Italian and Spanish is due to the origin of this Congregation, which was founded in 1633 by Spanish and Italian aristocrats. The Congregation was also to include some Austrian members, in addition to Italians and Spaniards, in the later period of Austrian domination. As the name indicates, the Congregation’s devotion centered on Christ’s Passion, and therefore became particularly intense during Lent, when its members met for non-liturgical celebrations, which often included the performance of a Lenten Cantata. These cantatas were frequently commissioned from Sammartini. All those from the Fridays of Lent in the year 1751, as well as two dating from 1759 and one from 1760, have survived, complete in both text and music. Of many others only the words have survived, while the music is lost.
The texts are in the form of libretti, which were printed at the time of the first performance. They are preserved partly in Milan (Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense) and partly in Genoa (Biblioteca Franzoniana), while the music (surviving copies date from the nineteenth century, copied and assembled into a complete score by a Benedictine monk, Father Siegismund Keller) is partly in Einsiedeln (Switzerland) and partly in Munich. Other sources can also be found in Prague. For the first time in recent years all eight cantatas have been performed and recorded on the basis of a critical edition prepared by Daniele Ferrari from all the sources currently known. Since the music was not meant for liturgical purposes, the texts are in Italian instead of Latin. The author is unknown. Unlike the Lutheran Passions the subject is not taken literally from the gospel narrative, but concerns human feelings and emotions, thus in a way providing a substitute for theatrical representations, which were forbidden during Lent. All the cantatas make use of three soloists, a soprano, an alto and a tenor, parts sung by members of the cathedral choir. Each soloist sings an aria, preceded by a recitative, and each cantata ends with a trio. Sometimes the recitatives offer a sort of dialogue between the characters.
The cantata Della Passione di Gesù Cristo, J-C 124 (On Jesus Christ’s Passion), was first performed in San Fedele on 9 March 1759, the first Friday of Lent. This title, which was published in the catalogue of Sammartini’s works (Harvard University Press, 1976), does not correspond to the text found in Father Keller’s manuscript. The text belongs instead to the cantata Gerusalemme sconoscente, ingrata (Jerusalem, ungrateful and disowning), which bears the number J-C 122. In the catalogue, this number belongs to the text of the cantata La perfidia giudaica (The Jewish Wickedness), which is considered lost and is catalogued as number C-49. According to the current state of research the 1760 cantata Della Passione di Gesù Cristo, Signor nostro seems to be lost. The cantata J-C 122 will be included in Naxos 8.570253.
The real title of the cantata, Gerusalemme sconoscente, ingrata (Jerusalem, ungrateful and disowning), clearly shows the anti-Semitism of its text. All too often religious texts, particularly those concerning Christ’s Passion, would unfortunately express anti-Semitic feelings. In this cantata three citizens of Jerusalem, the Apostles Peter and John and Mary Magdalene, themselves certainly Jews, paradoxically express their deep disappointment that the miracles of Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s honouring of the Saviour should have been misunderstood by the Jews and thus contributed to his death.
The cantata L'addolorata Divina Madre e Desolatissima nella Soledad, J-C 123 (The Sorrowing Divine Mother and Most Afflicted in Her Solitude), was first performed on the fifth Friday of Lent in 1759. Three pious women Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome comment upon the Holy Virgin’s destiny, each singing a recitative and an aria. Mary Magdalene emphasizes that Mary’s pain at the death of her son is made more intense by the thought that he was condemned as if guilty of a crime; Mary Cleophas points to the silent presence of the Holy Mother throughout the whole of her son’s life, recalling Simeon’s prediction that "…a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also" (Luke, 2,35), this the image of the grieving Mother, the Mater Dolorosa; whilst, in the most heroic aria of the cantata (Non così d'Alpe in cima) (Not even an ancient oak on an Alpine peak), Mary Salome considers the suffering Mother’s inner strength, so firm and immovable that not even an ageold oak on a snowbound Alpine peak or a storm-lashed rock in a sea of shipwrecks could match it. Apparently Father Keller did not possess the original text, since we find in his score the melody of the aria with a Latin text: "Ecce panis angelorum". In this recording we have the aria complete with both its music and its Italian text, in the reconstruction by Daniele Ferrari from the original libretto. In the finale the three holy women move forward to a more positive attitude in spite of their sorrow: the text is a paraphrase of the Latin sequence Stabat mater dolorosa (The Mother Stood Sorrowing), whose author is probably Jacopone da Todi. Mary Magdalene’s "Non bastò l'immenso affanno" (More than the immense pain) can be found in Father Keller’s sources in the form of a contrafactum with the Latin text Confitebor taken from the Mass (it was common at the time to take already existing music and arrange it for different purposes). This version of the aria will be released on Naxos 8.570253.
The structure, as well as the style, is the same in both cantatas: the vocal parts show a typically Italian, operatic virtuosity, while in the instrumental texture, with an orchestra of oboes, horns and strings, we recognise Sammartini’s symphonic characteristics. What struck Sammartini’s contemporaries was the rhythmic vitality and the pursuit of contrasts, in short, the composer’s character, which stood out immediately from the music. To the modern listener, too, Sammartini offers a musical language which is still surprising and challenging.
Maria Daniela Villa
English translation by Gino Masini (edited by Naxos)
Further information can be found at http://www.danieleferrari.com
Critical editions by Daniele Ferrari
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SAMMARTINI: Sacred Cantatas