Christoph Bernhard (1628 – 1692) held a number of kapellmeister posts in Dresden and Hamburg during his career. He worked primarily in the sacred realm but also wrote a few secular pieces, along with a number of musical treatises. His cantata “Fürchtet euch nicht' (the title translates as “be not afraid”) is based on the scriptural account of the angel’s visit prior to the birth of Christ.
Recognized as one of the founders of modern opera, Alessandro Scarlatti (1660 – 1725) was always a forward-looking composer, hinting in many of his works at musical developments which would take place during the Classical era. He wrote over 60 operas and over 600 cantatas, in addition to a number of sinfonias which are still in the repertoire.
In Rome, during the late Baroque period, it was customary for the citizenry to engage in festive celebrations during the time between the first Vespers of the Nativity and the Mass on Christmas Eve. A typical evening would begin with a lavish dinner, followed by a concert. Scarlatti’s Christmas Cantata was commissioned for one of these soirees. The work, scored for soprano, strings, and continuo, premiered on Christmas Eve in 1695.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653 – 1713) has been called the world’s first great violinist. His fame and reputation were comparable to that of Niccolo Paganini (1782 – 1840) in the early 19th century. Corelli was regarded as a virtuoso, but in the 17th century, the primary criterion for that sort of accolade had more to do with a player’s tone rather than his dexterity on the instrument. Corelli moved in aristocratic circles and, like his Italian countryman Scarlatti, was a favorite of Queen Christina of Sweden.
Corelli was the first player to comprehensively codify the rudiments of violin technique. He was a respected teacher, counting violinist-composers Francesco Geminiani (1687 – 1762), Pietro Locatelli (1695 – 1764), and Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) among his pupils. Corelli’s compositions also influenced Johann Sebastian Bach, who based an organ fugue on one of his themes.
As a composer, Corelli was not extremely prolific, but he made a significant contribution to music by expanding and developing the concerto grosso. This musical form utilizes two groups of instrumentalists, in the case of Corelli a string trio (two violins and a cello) and a string orchestra. The concerto grosso became the one of the most popular types of composition during the baroque era, with composers such as Geminiani and Locatelli exploring the territory staked out by Corelli.
Corelli’s Christmas Concerto is taken from his Op. 6 set of twelve concerti grossi, a collection which represents the pinnacle of the form. This set was published posthumously, but Corelli began composing the music early in his career, refining the works over the years after numerous concert performances. The Christmas Concerto gets its name from its final movement, which is marked Pastorale, the term taken from the Italian word pastori, which refers to the shepherds who visited the manger in Bethlehem. During Corelli’s time, it was a custom in Italy for shepherds to travel to the nearest town on Christmas Eve and play their pipes at a nativity scene. Typically, these shepherds would play a sicilianoin 12/8 time, and Corelli utilized this form as a musical reference to Christ’s birth.
While George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759) is abundantly represented on holiday stages by his oratorio Messiah, his cantata Gloria offers a Christmas-themed alternative to the more well-known work. Gloria, scored for coloratura soprano and strings, was probably composed in 1706, but not performed until 2001. The manuscript was found in a collection of arias by Handel in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London and subsequently authenticated by Hans Joachim Marx of the University of Hamburg.
Marx said, “The music is fresh, exuberant, and a little wild in places, but unmistakably Handel.” Soprano Emma Kirkby, who was featured in the first recording of the work in 2001 commented, “The piece has individuality and charm, good bravura moments, and, more important, some moments of depth, beauty, and poignancy.”
Program Notes by Tom Richards