Mediterranean Baroque Christmas

Saturday, December 19, Old South Church, Boston
Sunday, December 20, First Unitarian Church, Worcester

Sinfonia II for traverso, violin, viola, and continuo

Michel Corrette

From Six Symphonies en Quatuor contenant les
plus beaux Noëls 
    Allegro Ou s’en vont ces gais bergers
    Largo Noël Polonois
    Allegro Laissez paitre vos bêtes


Per il Natale

Antonia Bembo (c.1640-c.1720) 


Sinfonia à tre, per il Santissimo Natale, op. 1, 12 

Giuseppe Valentini (1681-1753)


A Belèn caminad pastorcillos

Juan Francés de Iribarren  (1699-1767)

Sonata No. 4 in A Major for traverso & continuo Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782

Preludio (Largo) • Allegro ma non Presto   
    Pastorale ad libitum • Allegro

Con pace si bella Francesco Mancini


Barbara Kilduff, soprano
Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso
Sarah Darling, violin and viola; Abigail Karr, violin
Daniel Ryan, cello; Michael Bahmann, harpsichord

Program notes

This program presents a sampling of the varied styles and traditions of music composed for the Christmas season by Baroque composers based in France, Spain, and Italy. Composers in all three countries imbued their works with expressions of the rustic and pastoral nature of the Christmas story, reflecting the simple music of the shepherds who first witnessed the birth in a lowly manger. In each of these countries, a predominant musical form developed: in France it was the noël, in Spain the villancico, and in Italy the pastorale.

The French noël’s origins can be traced to the 13th century. By the 15th century, it developed into the form that characterized it through the 18th century—a strophic song sung in the vernacular, often with a folksong origin. By the 17th century, instrumental noëls began to appear. Michel Corrette was one of many French Baroque composers who created instrumental settings of popular noël melodies.

Corrette made an important contribution to French musical life as an author of numerous musical instruction books as well as through his compositions. He was an ardent advocate of the Italian style, and his works show the influence of Vivaldi and other Italian composers. It is his internationalism and lively imagination which shine through in his Symphonies de noëls. Colorful variations on the noël melodies include virtuosic figuration in the Italian style. This collection is also the first to include carols from other nations, including a Polish noël as Sinfonia II’s central movement.

The villancico tradition is unique to the countries of the Iberian peninsula and their colonies. First appearing in the 16th century, the villancico used the local vernacular language in a rhythmically lively, strophic format, and its association with the rustic made it especially favored for use in Christmas celebrations. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a “modernization” of Spanish music was underway and soon after the Italian cantata style was introduced, the villancico began to include some Italianate elements, including the use of recitative and aria. An important proponent of this new style was Juan Francés de Iribarren, the maestro at Salamanca and Málaga cathedrals and a prolific composer of villancicos and cantatas. A Belèn caminad pastorcillos is an example of this modern, Italianate villancico style. With its alternation of recitative and aria, and the presence of a Pastorela, it is structurally and stylistically similar to an Italian Christmas cantata.

A uniquely Italianate expression of the rustic nature of the Christmas story is the pastorale, a chiefly instrumental form written in imitation of the music of their contemporary bagpipe-playing Italian shepherds. The lilting, triple-time melodies of the pastorale became ubiquitous in Baroque Christmas music throughout Europe, as exemplified in Corelli’s famous Christmas concerto, the Piva and aria “He shall feed his flock” in Handel’s Messiah, and in the Il Pastor fido sonata by the Italianate French composer Nicolas Chédeville included on this program. This flute sonata, which was formerly attributed to Vivaldi, has an obbligato cello line added in the tender Pastorale movement. Its tambourin-like final movement provides a festive conclusion.

The Sinfonia à tre of Giuseppe Valentini is very much in the style of Corelli’s Christmas concerto. As a younger colleague of Corelli in Rome, Valentini would have undoubtedly known the work. In many of his works, Valentini consciously strives for innovation, and this early Sinfonia is no exception. Interesting features of the work include the placement of the pastorale near the beginning of the piece rather than at the more customary finale and the triple fugue of the third movement.

Franceso Mancini was a Neopolitan composer who spent most of career at the court of the viceroy as Alessando Scarlatti’s deputy maestro di cappella. He succeeded Scarlatti in 1725 and remained in the maestro post until his death in 1737. Mancini was particularly well-known as a composer of sacred music and his works were circulated widely during his lifetime. The cantata Con pace si bella is preserved in a manuscript copy now held at the British Library. The work characterfully sets a libretto suffused with imagery of nature describing the beautiful and joyous scene of the holy birth and the throngs who travel to witness it. In the second aria, Mancini delightfully conveys the rapido corso (rapid pace) of the crowd through close imitation among the instruments and brilliant vocal coloratura. The concluding pastorale features charming echo effects in the instruments.

Antonia Bembo was a Venetian noblewoman and a gifted singer and composer who studied with Cavalli and sang with the guitarist Corbetta. She traveled from Venice to Paris and, having been abandoned by her escort, received the protection of Louis IV, finding refuge in the cloistered Petite union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaumont. She spent the rest of her life here composing a variety of sacred and secular vocal works.

The Cantata Per il Natale is part of her Produzioni armoniche, a large collection of vocal works dedicated to Louis IV. It is a multi-sectioned work that freely shifts from recitative to aria. It is an intimate work with a text focusing on the Virgin Mary’s personal reflections on the birth, conveyed through both first-person and third-person narration.

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf