Program Notes – Baroque Choral Music 1600-1750

After the Renaissance period, we see the creation of tonality as the driving force behind composition. The word ‘Baroque’ actually means misshapen pearl, in Portuguese; originally deemed as a negative term for the pictorial arts, it finally became accepted in the early twentieth century as descriptive for music written during this period.


Stabat Mater – Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 – 1736)

Born in Jesi, Italy, as a weak child with a slight handicap, Giovanni Pergolesi didn’t live very long; he died of tuberculosis aged only 26 years. There is a lot of confusion as to what he did or did not compose, but there is no doubt that the Stabat Mater was one of his works.

The Stabat Mater is believed to be one of his final compositions in 1736 and was a commission from an Order of Naples, the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo. It became one of his most popular works and was widely imitated by other composers

Written for soprano and alto soloists, two violins, viola and basso continuo, the piece is divided into twelve movements – the first is the most well-known and was once described by Jean Jacques Rousseau as ‘the most perfect and touching duet to come from the pen of any composer’. The words for this, and all the other composers’ Stabat Mater’s (there are a few!) are from a poem written in the 13th century; it is a meditation spoken by a woman at Christ’s cross; and a heartfelt one. The translation of the first verse below shows the depth of feeling they portray and why the poem is still in use in the Roman Catholic Church liturgy and why it has been such an inspiration for composers.

At the Cross her station keeping

Stood the mournful Mother weeping

Close to her son to the last


The work alternates from solo to duet pieces and ends, somewhat unexpectedly with a sombre prayer; usually the words ‘may my soul thy goodness praise’ elicits some triumphalism from the composer, but in this example, it is as if Pergolesi sees his imminent demise. The ending is filled with fear and sadness. Amen translates as ‘so be it’.


In these delightful pleasant Groves – Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695)

Set to the words of Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of The Libertine (1676), this song can be performed from any ensemble from a quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) to a full choir. There a multitude of arrangements for choir with piano, harpsichord or simply sung a capella. It is deemed to be one of the last madrigals written in the English tradition; it’s a happy song with joyous lyrics.

In these delightful pleasant groves,

Let us celebrate our happy loves

Let’s pipe and dance and laugh and sing

Thus every happy living thing

Revel in the cheerful Spring

Purcell was another short-lived composer (35-6 years), but he was also hugely prolific. Appointed as organist to Westminster Abbey at the age of 19 after the incumbent, John Blow, resigned the position in favour of his pupil, Purcell then wrote almost exclusively for the church; he’d previously written for the theatre. Returning to less sacred output after 1687 he then produced his most famous work, the opera Dido and Aeneas. This monumental work of the time was largely ignored after the beginning of the eighteenth century and wasn’t heard of again until the re-emergence and revival in the interest of Baroque music in the twentieth century.

Married to Frances, who produced six children with him (of whom only two survived infancy), he probably died of tuberculosis and was buried in Westminster Abbey next to the organ. Henry Purcell is considered to be one of the greatest English composers – and his legacy was his uniquely English variant of Baroque music with its roots in the Italian and French schools of the time.


Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light  – J S Bach

The chorales of Bach were, in effect, no more than harmonisations of German chorale melodies written for German stanzas. In this example, the original text was by Johann Rist, and the melody composed by Johann Schop. But therein lies the magic; the complex Bach harmonisations and his standardisation of the form and rhythmic structures took these simple pieces to another place. Slower than the originals, they were used in his Cantatas and oratorios as a way of involving the congregation.

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
and usher in the morning;

O shepherds, shrink not with affright,
but hear the angel’s warning.

This child, now weak in infancy,
our confidence and joy shall be,

the power of Satan breaking,
our peace eternal making.

This is a hymn for Epiphany and appears in Part II of the Christmas Oratorio (written 1733-4).

The chorales harmonized by Bach have become standards for mixed choirs and are a great test of musicality and precision. Those such as Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light (from Christmas Oratorio) or O Sacred Head Now Wounded (from St. Matthew Passion) are among the most popular. They are a great exercise for mixed choirs, not only in helping to understand Bach’s harmonic approach but also for increasing the singers’ musicality; they each possess a subtly expressive connection between words and music.


Amen Chorus – George Frederick Handel

The final chorus of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, is called the Amen chorus and follows another Chorus, Worthy is the Lamb. The seven and a half minute finale represents a fitting end to Handel’s most popular and enduring work. Written in English (Handel spent most of his productive working life in London England), it was first performed in Dublin, Ireland in 1741. Using a mixture of solos, duets and choruses, the structure of the work follows the liturgical year; Part I is Advent, Part II, Lent, Easter, Ascension Pentecost, and Part III the end of the church year including the Resurrection, and the glorification of the Messiah. It is not a typical Hanel oratorio in that there are no named characters and the story is more implied than told. For performance, there is the standard SATB choral layout with the simple orchestral scoring of strings, oboe, bassoon, trumpets, timpani and basso continuo or harpsichord.

The Amen Chorus begins with a fugue sung by just the Basses and continuo. One by the one the other voices join in the theme until, quite unexpectedly, the violin plays the theme again, but alone. This quiet interlude simply entrances a full four-part setting with the theme in the bass – slowly the chorus develops into a fully contrapuntal version of the theme through the four voices; it ends with a full Adagio perfect cadence.