Performance Thursday, March 15, 2012 | 7:30 PM


Via Crucis

Zankel Hall
Explore the pervasiveness of spiritual feeling in the Southern European Baroque with L’Arpeggiata and guests, including Ensemble Barbara Fortuna, as they trace the passion story through Corsican folk music, and sacred Italian and German music.
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The texts are either in Italian or Latin, and are written mostly in ottava rima. The subject matter consists of stories from the Bible combined with secular, mythological, allegorical, and comic elements, which frequently have very little to do with the themes of the plays themselves. The plays often received sumptuous productions involving stage machinery, music, costumes, and dancing. A Russian visitor to the 1439 Council of Florence described the combination of staged drama, music, and dancing in the following words: “God the Father was surrounded by angels and children carrying musical instruments. The Angel Gabriel flew on a cord to the Virgin Mary, singing spiritual songs ...” A description of the 16th-century Rappresentazione di Santa Uliva reports that the performance lasted two days and was given an opulent production with magnificent costumes, impressive stage machinery, musical insertions, and ambitious choreography. Set melodic phrases were used to recite the stories, and were interspersed with laude, frottole, canzoni, and madrigali. There were also dramatic interludes (similar to intermedi) between the scenes, which served the purpose of broadening the subject matter and introducing more variety into the plays.

There are more than 100 rappresentazioni sacre texts surviving from the 15th and 16th centuries, by poets such as Feo Belcari, Castellano Castellani, Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Bernardo Pulci. Some tell the stories of the lives of saints (Sacra rappresentazione di Santa Caterina, Sacra rappresentazione di San Lorenzo, Sacra rappresentazione di San Giovanni), while others bear titles such as Rappresentazione del Giudicio universale, Rappresentazione del Figlio Prodigo, and Rappresentazione della Vita e Morte. The Rappresentazione della gloriosa Passione di Cristo was printed in Rome in 1672.

From the mid-16th century onwards, the Jesuit colleges in Rome took the lead in mounting regular productions of rappresentazioni; these were performed by young boys from the colleges, and most of them featured elaborate stage machinery. Emilio de’ Cavalieri wrote his Rappresentazione di Anima, et di Corpo (Rome, 1600) in order to revive interest in the rappresentazione sacra, which by then was beginning to go out of favor. The rappresentazione sacra was the most important element in the development of both opera and oratorio. Soon after the birth of opera, the first oratorios in both Latin and the vernacular (the oratorio latino and the oratorio volgare) were created in Rome in about 1630. These were based on similar subjects to the 16th-century rappresentazioni: for instance, Marco Marazzoli’s Santa Caterina, Luigi Rossi’s San Giuseppe, Giacomo Carissimi’s Daniele, and the first example of an oratorio about Christ’s Passion, Rossi’s Oratorio per la Settimana Santa. This work is of particular interest in that it begins with a scene in which devils attempt to break down Christ’s resistance to temptation. In the second half of the 17th century, the main center for Italian rappresentazioni outside Italy itself was Vienna. Descriptions of Viennese performances bring to mind the laude spirituali of the Middle Ages as well as the rappresentazioni sacre of the Italian Renaissance. Actor-singers carried the cross, wept, and covered the body of Christ with a veil. Biblical figures such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Abraham, as well as the Angel and Lucifer, appeared in the sepolcri and interacted with the main characters (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Judas, and Pontius Pilate).

One of the chief representatives of this form was Giovanni Felipe Sances, who is known to have written six sepolcri: Le lacrime di S Pietro (1666), La morte debellata (1669), Le sette consolationi di Maria Vergine (1670), Il trionfo della croce (1671), Il paradiso aperto per la morte di Cristo (1672), and L’ingiustitia della sentenza di Pilato (1676). In Italy, the spirit of the medieval laude popolare lives on even today, and Passion plays are performed during Holy Week in southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily. The performers are villagers, who carry the cross and reenact the story of Christ’s Passion. The audience becomes emotionally involved in the performance, commenting on it, weeping, and drawing parallels between the actors and the roles that they play. The figure of Lucifer has symbolized death ever since the Middle Ages. In one very beautiful anonymous text set to music by Orazio Michi dell’Arpa in his Sonetto de la Morte di Xsto (ca. 1635), Death rises up out of hell and kills Christ with his arrow. But through the death of the son of God, Death kills himself, for in dying, Christ gives eternal life.

The Mystery Play in the German-Speaking World

Originally written in Latin, the various types of mystery plays were soon also provided with German texts. German manuscripts containing fragments of two Passion plays survive from the 13th century. The first of these, Ludus paschalis sive de passione Domini, contains a few German verses, while the second is entirely in German. The oldest Easter play created entirely in German comes from the Benedictine monastery of Muri in Switzerland and also dates from the 13th century. Easter plays from Innsbruck (14th century, Middle-German), Redentin (1464), the Rhineland (15th century, Mainz), and Erlau (15th century, South-German) have also been preserved. Later transcriptions, from the Frankfurt Passion Play to the Low-German Marienklage, for the most part derive from older sources.

Easter plays depicting scenes from the Resurrection can be traced back to the High Middle Ages. They grew out of the Quem-quaeritis-Tropus, which appeared for the first time in a 10th-century manuscript from the monastery of St. Gallen in Switzerland and is regarded as one of the sources of the medieval theater tradition. This text describes how the grieving women visited Christ’s tomb, only to find it empty. Originally quite brief, over time these scenes acquired more complex plots in which extra characters such as Mary Magdalene and Herod were introduced and the whole story of Christ’s Passion retold, eventually taking several days to perform.

In these plays, the story is given a melodramatic treatment. Spoken texts alternate with sung sections in which Latin hymns are performed at length, and the action is enlivened with comical and even farcical episodes, for example from the life of Mary Magdalene before her conversion or the three Marys’ buying of ointment and spices before visiting Christ’s tomb. Some scenes could be quite ribald, for example that of Pontius Pilate and the Jews, the scene of the Devil and the chorus of sinners, or the race of the apostles to the tomb. The plays often lose sight of their original educational purpose, and a love of spectacle for its own sake gains the upper hand. The representation of Christ’s Passion is often introduced by other episodes (which occasionally go back as far as the Creation) or is padded out with Dances of Death and scenes from the Last Judgment.

Passion plays are still performed in the Catholic parts of Germany, especially in Bavaria, as well as in Austria. The most famous are those that take place every 10 years in Oberammergau, and every year on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the Möll Valley in Carinthia, Austria; in the latter, the Passion play is performed in old costumes, and the ceremony of carrying Christ’s cross is done mainly in dumb play. For some years now, an amateur dramatic society has performed the Via Crucis in the southwest German town of Saarlouis.

Holy Week in Corsica

Corsicans celebrate Holy Week with a whole range of religious ceremonies, in which Christian traditions are combined with ancient rituals. On Good Friday, processions take place throughout the island, but clear regional differences can be discerned. Three distinct types of procession are held in northern Corsica: the cerca, the parafa, and the granitula. All three are accompanied by traditional songs and are imbued with the rich symbolism of Holy Week. The cerca (from the verb circà, “to seek”) is a rural procession in which the entire population of the locality takes part. It begins at daybreak on Good Friday, covers several kilometers, and ends at midday. Children carrying rattles walk at the head of the procession; after them, and led by the mazzeri (the word for “magician” in some villages), come members of religious confraternities wearing white robes. The men take the lead and are followed by women dressed in the traditional costume known as the faldetta, a dress worn only on feast days, with a dark blue skirt that is short at the front and long at the back. Dark blue used to be the color of mourning in Corsica, and it was traditional for the faldetta to be worn at funerals. During the cerca procession in the Brandu district, the religious confraternities set off for several different villages at once, pausing at all the sepulchres attached to the various churches and chapels, without meeting each other during the course of their perambulations. On this occasion, the confraternities also display the pullezzula or large palm leaf, that they have woven into a plait in the days leading up to the ceremony; the pullezzula is attached to the top of the crucifix that is carried at the head of the procession.

The parafa procession (from the verb parà, “to stop”) is held on the evening of Good Friday. The houses and streets are lit up with candles placed on windowsills, low walls, and ledges. Whereas during the cerca the inhabitants of individual villages follow each other from one place to the next, during the parafa the villagers visit each other. The inhabitants of the visited villages line the streets while the visiting procession passes by. They all then set off together for the sepulchres, where hymns are sung, after which reciprocal ceremonies are held in other villages. The granitula (“periwinkle”) represents the highpoint of Corsican Easter rituals and is also performed by the religious confraternities. Led by a mazzeru, the granitula imitates the spiral shape of the sea creature it is named after; it coils around itself, forms a compact middle-point, then spreads out into a circle that rotates and finally disintegrates.

In southern Corsica, the Holy Week processions are known as casci and catenacciu. Casci refers to the statues or shrines devoted to patron saints, which in Bonifacio are believed to protect different areas of the town, with their small chapels and confraternities. At daybreak on Good Friday, the inhabitants join the confraternities in visits to the saints’ shrines. When one procession encounters another, the confraternities greet each other in silence by touching banners and then continue on their way. At midday, they have a ritual meal consisting of herrings and green beans. In the evening of Good Friday, the confraternities carry the reliquary casket of their patron saint—which can be extremely heavy—to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The catenacciu procession (the name means “the chained one”) is held on Good Friday in various localities; the most famous example takes place in the village of Sartène.

In this dramatized version of the Way of the Cross, variants of which can also be found in other Mediterranean cultures, the catenacciu (whose identity is kept a strict secret), wearing a red robe and with his face covered by a hood, carries a heavy cross barefoot through the streets. He climbs a hill, on top of which there is a rough altar, stops there for a moment, and then returns to the church, followed by a crowd of villagers. He is surrounded by nine hooded figures dressed in black, one of whom represents Simon the Cyrenian, who helps him to carry the cross. The procession ends at the foot of the altar, where the catenacciu falls onto the cross. The faithful walk past him, touching him and making the sign of the cross before they leave the church. The catenacciu is then locked up in a cell, where he spends three days in silence and fasting, after which he leaves the village as secretly as he arrived.

The Sacred Cradle-Song in the 17th Century

Throughout Europe, there can be found examples of liturgical and semi-liturgical cradle-songs that relate to the feast of Christmas. One of the earliest examples is a medieval lullaby with a Latin text, Dormi fili, dormi mater. In 17th-century Italy, the cradle-song often had a folk-like character. Though the majority were originally intended for a single voice and to be sung unaccompanied, more advanced compositional techniques were later brought to bear and the pieces were elaborated so that they became fully harmonized works of art, with little left to suggest any folksong origins they might once have had. When Mary and the shepherds summoned by an angel sing a “ninna nanna” to the bambin Giesù (the baby Jesus), they often imitate the sound of the zampogna (a kind of bagpipe still played in southern Italy), and popular melodies are worked up into fully harmonized pieces or dialogues. Giovanni Francesco Anerio’s Dialogo pastorale al presepio di nostro signore is a collection of 17 three-part laude dating from 1600, which describe scenes from the shepherds’ visit to the manger.

The connection between the birth of Christ and his Passion can be traced back a long way in the iconography. In accordance with the tradition of ways of representing the membra Jesu nostril (“limbs of our Lord Jesus”), symbols such as a goldfinch, a cross, or a bunch of grapes were placed in the hand of the newborn child as a symbol of his future sufferings. Madonna-and-child images showing the child with a cross—indicating that Mary knew from the moment of her son’s birth that he would one day be crucified—appear as far back as the 11th century.

—Christina Pluhar

Perspectives: L'Arpeggiata
Duff and Phelps 115 x 31
The Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is sponsored by Duff & Phelps.
This performance is part of Baroque Unlimited, and Perspectives: L'Arpeggiata.

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