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Concert Notes, or Reflections on the Key of F minor

by Warren Cohen, edited by Bob Altizer


While Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) lay dying of tuberculosis, he composed a new version of the ancient Stabat Mater cycle, and it reached the top of the hit parade for that year. Immediately after his death, perhaps fueled in part by the romantic story of the composer isolated  in a monastery and finishing his masterpiece just hours before taking his final breath, the work became immensely popular. It was put on by churches all over the Catholic world, and within a few years was heard even in areas where Catholicism was not the dominant faith, and was even presented outside of Church settings.

The reason for the appeal of the work is not hard to find. Pergolesi hit that sweet spot between the familiar and the novel that is essential to a work appealing to a broad audience. It uses many of the devices that one would expect in a Church work; it is an austere setting of the text, with limited and simple writing for the accompanying strings, and the vocal parts confined to two singers. However, Pergolesi’s vocal writing has much more in common with the music one would hear in the Italian operas of the day than the typically dry Church music. The lines, although fairly simple, are striking and beautiful, and the interplay of the parts is ingenious and continuously innovative. In fact, although the work was generally highly regarded even by the critics of the day, there was some dissent from those who wanted “pure” Church music, with one critic sniffing that the music resembled Pergolesi’s  “degenerate” comic opera “La Serva Padrona” more than any music that should be heard on sacred grounds.

The popularity of the work, and its inappropriately Italianate beauty, created a dilemma in Northern Germany, where memories of the Thirty Years War were still fresh, and the idea of presenting a work that explicitly presented the Virgin Mary in a kind of quasi-deistic light was not something the authorities were comfortable with. After all, one of the reasons for the schism in the Christian faith was the objection of the reformers to “Mary idolatry”. But somehow, this work was being heard all through Protestant northern Germany.

Here is where Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) enters the picture. The great composer decided to adapt Pergolesi’s masterpiece to the needs of the Protestant areas of the German states. There is no doubt that there would have been a market for such an adaptation; other saw the need too- there were several other composers who tried to adapt the Pergolesi to different ecclesiastical needs.

However, we have no idea where the Bach adaptation was first presented, or even if was presented during his lifetime. Nor do we have any evidence of a commission or request made to Bach to do this work. It is even possible that he did it with no immediate performance in mind.  Bach was an insatiable autodidact (a self-taught person), and it possible he did it for private reasons of his own.  Throughout his life Bach frequently copied out the music of other composers to study their styles and as prelude to his own attempts to compose in that style. It might have been simply part of his study of Catholic Church music. It was shortly after his work on the Pergolesi that he  expanded the material he had previously composed into the final “Catholic” version of the  B minor Mass.

That said, Bach’s adaptation is far more than a copying out of the original. The text was changed from the traditional Stabat Mater text — a thirteenth century hymn that depicts the suffering of the Virgin Mary during the Crucifixion — to the Protestantly appropriate Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (God, annul all my sins). The accompanying orchestra parts are different. In Pergolesi’s setting the viola largely doubles the cello part, while in Bach it is wholly independent. The two violin parts are more strongly differentiated as well. Within the vocal lines the changes are much broader than those required to accommodate a different text. Where Pergolesi has a long held note, or repeated notes, Bach will introduce some melodic material. On the other hand, he suppressed many of the trills and other ornaments found in the original. He alters many of the dynamics found in Pergolesi’s score, some of them for textually obvious reasons, others not. He divided one of Pergolesi’s numbers into two numbers, for no musically obvious or necessary reason; he altered the order of the last three numbers; and he added a second Amen to the one that Pergolesi had-in the key of F major instead of F minor.

Several of these changes are quite interesting and revealing. The musically unnecessary splitting of the fifth movement into two makes the number of movements, if you consider the Amen a separate movement, fourteen. The number fourteen was used by Bach as a self-identification, as according to the alphanumeric code system known as Gematria, the name “J. S. Bach” adds up to the number fourteen (and curiously, “Johann Sebastian Bach” adds up to forty-one). And the addition of a second, major key Amen distances the music further from the darker character of Pergolesi’s music, and underscores the differences in the two texts used.

In this concert, MusicaNova is alternating movements of the Pergolesi and Bach work (see the text and translations).  Interleaving the two works is fascinating, as it underscores the differences in style between the music of Italy and the music of North Germany In the early 18th Century, and it is also a vivid way to directly hear the difference between identifiably Catholic and Protestant music.  In a way, Bach’s version of Pergolesi is akin to a pop musician doing a “cover” of another musician’s work, and by his Gematric “signing” of the work, Bach was taking possession of it, as if to say “This is my version of the most popular work of the 1740s.”

Haydn in Esterhazy court livery

Haydn Symphony no. 49 “La Passione”

  1. Adagio
  2. Allegro di molto
  3. Menuete Trio
  4. Presto

Around 1768,  Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) entered one of the most interesting, and certainly the most unusual, phase of his composing career. His music at this time became notably more intense, expressive and complex. It is generally thought that he was responding to the recent trend in European literature and theatre which became known as  the “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) movement, which began as a literary reaction to the rationalist ideas of the Enlightenment.  Sturm und Drang literature emphasized and often glorified emotionalism, subjectivity, and irrationality as truly “human” characteristics. In music, there was a reaction to the “cool” emotions, clarity and simplicity of the Rococo style that arose around the same time.  Many composers cultivated music of considerable complexity (especially in rhythm), abrupt changes of mood and free, often improvisatory forms. (a favorite title of the period was “Fantasy” or “Fantasia”). The leading composer in this style was probably Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (1714-1788), although some of the most extreme examples of the style were written by his brother Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784). In the late 1760s, Haydn studied a number of the scores of CPE Bach, and it led to what he described as a deepening of his musical expression. His music from this period is darker, more intense, more dissonant. It makes frequent use of minor keys, extreme registers of the instruments, and very fast or very slow tempos.

(Contrast this writing with the “Day Trilogy” of his symphonies, Nos. 6, 7, and 8, that MusicaNova performed in January 2018.)

The seriousness of the music is underscored in his Symphony No. 49, La Passione (The Passion), by using a formal structure that mirrors an archaic style of music known as the “Church Sonata.” This was a work in four movements in which the first and third are slow and the second and last are fast. All four movements in such a piece are in the same key. The general mood is generally somber in works with this format, and the works are generally in a minor key.  In the case of the “La passione” Symphony, it is in the key of F minor, a key that Haydn “owned.” It was so rarely used by other  composers of that period,  that, for example, there is not a single movement in all of Mozart’s six hundred works in that key. The suggestion to one and all was a work of great seriousness, and  subtitled “La passione,” suggests a connection between this work and the suffering of Jesus at the end of his life.

As it turns out, the title “La passione” was affixed not by Haydn but by the producers of a concert in the city of Schwerin in 1790. The city had placed a ban on all secular music, and, wanting to perform this Symphony, they decided on a plausible title for the work based on its form, style and general mood, and the name stuck.  The ultimate irony is that the deep seriousness of the work may have been intended for precisely the opposite reason.  It seems that the music was derived from incidental music that Haydn had written for a popular comedy called in German “Die Quäker,” written in 1764 as “La jeune indienne” (The Young Indian) by French playwright Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794). That music was intended as a satirical depiction of the overly earnest Quaker of the title.  The use of the “tragic” key of F minor for satirical purposes was used on several other occasions by Haydn – for example, it was used in his 1766 opera buffa La Canterina to depict the faux-sorrowful entreaties of the manipulative title character, to wonderful comic effect.  In fact, the theme of the last movement of this Symphony is varied form of the melody he used in La Canterina!  That a work could plausibly suggest both the suffering of Jesus and the droll earnestness of a bumbling comic character tells us a lot about the flexibility of musical perception, and perhaps something as well of the genius of Haydn.