Douglas Shambo II

Composer

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 – Not for the Faint of Heart

The following is an article I wrote several years ago to serve as the program notes for a performance of Monteverdi's Vespers by Consortium Carissimi:


The music of Claudio Monteverdi can strike fear in the heart of the most technically capable singer; it can also create similar feelings of shock and awe for the typical modern listener. It is not that Monteverdi makes vocal demands that differ sharply from those of other composers of his day – historical evidence shows that he really didn’t. For singers, Monteverdi’s music seems to force a different approach vocally and interpretively. For listeners unfamiliar with Monteverdi’s music, understanding this difference requires a bit of context and explanation.


Singers today are trained to sing in the Bel Canto style. This manner of singing places emphasis on maximizing resonance and breath through a low position for the larynx, low breath support, a free vibrato, a raised soft palate, and an open throat – and in not using the larynx or throat to manipulate or stop sound. What results is the resonant, flexible sound we generally think of as healthy and beautiful. This technique works well for singing most vocal repertory.


What generally impresses the average listener first about Monteverdi (and can scare the heck out of singers) is his use of – and seeming insistence on – many ornaments, the execution of which can seem at great odds with Bel Canto. He made lavish use of (and wrote frequently of his fondness for) the trillo, a rapid repetition of the same note in almost machine-gun-like fashion. He also made liberal use of trills, grupetti, apoggiature, accaciature, and rapid melismas requiring the singer to employ the throat and breath in very non-Bel-Canto-like ways.

These ornaments were not unique to Monteverdi. Such expressive effects were actually common and expected in the interpretation of the music of the new secunda practica (second practice), ushered in by the then-new medium of opera, all the rage in Florence and Venice. Singers were expected to let the text lead the singing (as opposed to the more objective, intellectual style of the prima practica), painting the text expressively through precise diction and lavish ornament. The new stile recitative style was monophonic, featuring a single vocal line (as opposed to the prima practica of closely imitative multiple vocal lines), supported by a realized “general bass” accompaniment (which later became, with symbols or “figures” to define the harmony, the “figured bass”). The composer generally left the decision about ornamentation to the singer.


In the preface to his collection of monodies entitled Le Nuove Musice, Monteverdi’s contemporary Giulio Caccini attempted to define the conventions of the style. Caccini documented such elements as the filling in of melodic leaps with melismatic flourishes and grupetti, cadential ornaments, trills, and effects such as the trillo, tremolo, and grogia. Caccini notwithstanding, exactly how singers of the time ultimately handled these is a still matter of scholarly inquiry.


Unlike his contemporaries who left ornamentation largely to the singer, Monteverdi actually wrote ornaments into the music in the places he wanted them sung. (Years later J.S. Bach pursued a similar compositional practice, for which he was harshly criticized by his contemporaries.) In so doing, Monteverdi elevated vocal ornamentation from a merely expressive and somewhat ad libitum element to an integrally structural one.


As much as he was invested in the secunda practica, Monteverdi was nonetheless a dedicated student of the prima practica. Among the composers of that era that he admired were Josquin des Prez, Jacques Arcadelt, and Nicolas Gombert. All three combined strong intellect and technique with powerful expressive gesture. Monteverdi’s admiration of Gombert is particularly noteworthy, since he is known even today to have written some of the most complex music ever composed.


—–


The Vespers of 1610 is perhaps the most unique of Monteverdi’s works. The choral movements, with their dense counterpoint, are remarkably similar to those of Gombert. The best example of this kind of writing in the Vespers is “Nisi Dominus,” with its moments of almost incomprehensively complex counterpoint and its chorus-versus-chorus dialogue. And, like the sacred music of the prima practica, there is a plainchant cantus firmus present in nearly every movement, although the cantus does not really seem to perform its traditional role of structurally underpinning any of the movements, given the swirling imitative counterpoint over, under, and around it.


The solos, duets, and trios, though, are very much of the secunda practica, and represent some of Monteverdi’s most daring vocal writing. In the movement “Duo Seraphim,” a veritable tour-de-force for three tenors, the top two lines are heavily and imitatively ornate, with frequent melismas, grupetti, and trilli. When the third tenor finally enters about half way through the movement, Monteverdi reverts for a moment to a very prima practica bit of suspension and resolution, and then goes quickly back to the close and complex ornamental imitation of the beginning of the movement.


The Vespers show Monteverdi at the height of his intellectual and expressive powers. They show him to be, like Beethoven or Stravinsky, at the culmination of an older style, and at the vanguard of a new one.

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Unique and Beautiful Music

Posted on April 1, 2021 at 7:45 PM Comments comments (852)

I have a great admiration for Bulgarian women's choirs. Granted, their sound is a somewhat acquired taste: They sing with a different, more nasal vocal technique than one hears in western classical music, and they use a different intonation and tuning system. From a purely technical standpoint, they routinely do things easily that western singers would generally find daunting: constant mixed meter, voices moving in consecutive seconds, amazingly elaborate ornamentation and rhythm.

 

But listen for awhile...and there's something in this music that hits you where you live. The Bulgarian women's folk music tradition grew out of the songs women sang while working in the fields, picking roses and rosehips (Bulgaria is the world's leading producer of rose water).

 

Bulgaria in ancient times was Thrace -- the home of the mythic Orpheus, whose music, it was said, could make stones weep. Their sounds echo the days when music was considered a means to shape character, to cause changes in the physical world, to cure -- or cause -- disease. Music had an almost occult power.

 

If you listen to this too long, be sure you have a hanky close by. You will likely shed a tear.


Here is the Bulgarian Women's National Radio Chorus on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after their recording "Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares" won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album. Aside from the two superb pieces they sing first (note the studio audience's reaction to them!), there's a surprise for Americans at the end of their appearance on the Carson show.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrcgDhpS3uo


And here is a live performance in 2017 from KEXP in Seattle. Enjoy!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFgzzWT3zX4

Serious Composition and COVID-19

Posted on July 29, 2020 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (323)

These days, we’re all (hopefully) “social distancing,” disinfecting, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings outside the home, and generally giving anyone walking in our general direction the widest possible berth. This is good for our own health, and for the health of our community and society in general. TV reporters in the field hold microphones up to their masked faces. Late-night talk show hosts are doing their shtick from their basements, living rooms, or patios; the only response to their opening monologue is a sort of awkward silence. Interviews are done remotely, live over Zoom or Facetime. Ads celebrate the sacrifices of "essential workers." Who knew the folks working the checkout at the local grocery store were so important?


COVID has also exacerbated the despair of many people in our society who've been put down, trodden upon, denied, or even killed, only because of the color of their skin. George Floyd died three miles from where I sit typing this; Philando Castile died just a mile from here. We've seen the glow of the fires, heard the continual screech of the sirens, and put up with the noise of helicopters over our house all day and all night for days. We've heard the protesters chant down the main streets near us. The cruel regularity of these murders, magnified by the dread feeling of isolation - already a problem before COVID - only serve to heighten everyone's frustration, and magnify the underlying feeling: Something has to change.


As most of you who are at all interested in music-making are aware, COVID-19 has pretty much kicked the pins out from under us. No rehearsals or concerts with large ensembles; no private lessons or small ensemble rehearsals in cramped studios or practice rooms – all on hold for some other day. And classical music performances these days happen electronically over social media, mostly solo performers from their studios or parlors, or a small ensemble, standing or sitting far apart in over-generously empty spaces.


While composers have the luxury of doing pretty much what they’ve always done – alone in their workroom with their thoughts – composition has been radically altered by COVID, at least for the long interim from now until “herd immunity,” and possibly even permanently. It’s altered the market. Demand for large ensemble pieces is on hold until all of this goes away. Chamber music is at present pretty much the rule.


For the moment, I don’t mind. I have always thought public taste - even the taste of that part of the public supposedly informed about good music – has been focused too much on large ensemble and big sounds. The intimacy and intricacy of chamber music, whether it be for solo performer or a small group, has taken an undeserved back seat.


Fellow composers, if the moment is giving us only lemons, let’s make lemonade. Write some really well-crafted chamber music. The medium can sustain a level of complexity and profundity that might amaze you if you’re willing to give it a shot. Or take an extended period of time to plan and execute a really quality piece for a large ensemble. They will come back someday. In the meantime, let’s take advantage of the gift of time away from the hustle-bustle. Let’s wrest something good out of all the tragedy and sadness. Let’s honor those who have suffered and died, and take this long moment to step back, think/feel through, and create something wonderful.

 

Recording of Aaron Jay Kernis' "The Blue Animals"

Posted on November 19, 2014 at 9:55 AM Comments comments (1225)

My wife found this on YouTube the other day. It's a recording I did in 1994 of Aaron Kernis' "The Blue Animals" for the Minnesota AIDS Quilt Songbook, with members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwvYiWyxeE8

A Tribute to My Mentor

Posted on October 1, 2014 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (221)

Almost everyone who has achieved anything in his or her life has had someone behind them who was instrumental in their development. For me, that person was J. Lee Flynn, the choir director during both my junior high school and high school days.


J. Lee was a natural showman with an exceptionally attractive and expressive personality, backed with thorough technical knowledge and solid musicianship. He was a popular teacher; many students fawned over him and sought his favor.


I was – and still am – a shy person, with many interests in addition to music. Although I came from a musical family, and had long participated in choirs, bands, and orchestras, my family life was very difficult; it was certainly not one that would build any confidence in the exceptionally gawky and socially awkward teenager that I was. Despite all of the turmoil at home, I was a straight-A student and a hard worker. For most of high school I was sure that I was headed for a career in medicine, academia, or research. I was never part of – and never wanted to be a part of – the mass of drooling sycophants constituting the “J. Lee Flynn fan club.”


Oddly enough, despite all of his adoring fans, he actually sought me out, casting me in a show-stealing cameo role as the Courier in the Watertown Lyric Theater production of “1776.” Thanks to him many other stage roles and solo opportunities followed. He also encouraged and aided my first efforts as a composer, editing my pieces and suggesting changes and improvements. When J. Lee and Frank Sacci, the band director, got wind that I was contemplating pursuing some career other than music, they called my mother into the music office for a conference. After the meeting, my mother looked at me very sternly and told me, “Well! It seems that you’re headed for life as a musician. They both told me in no uncertain terms that yours is a rare talent that should not be wasted. So you and I have a decision to make, Young Man!” Mother was convinced, even if I wasn’t. 


J. Lee, Joan Jones (Music Coordinator for Watertown Public Schools, and founder of Watertown Lyric Theater), Frank Sacci, Owen and Dorothy Willaman, Father Roswell G. Williams III (rector of my parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church), Philip and Roxanne Pratt (Mr. Pratt was my fifth grade teacher), Carolyn Brox (my 10th grade English teacher), Clarence and Betty Giles (fellow parishioners at St. Paul’s) and a few others (known affectionately as “The Baker’s Dozen”, since there were thirteen of them) put their time, heads, and resources together, and raised all the grants and funds needed for me to attend my first year of music school. J. Lee , Frank, and Mr. and Mrs. Willaman drove me to each of my auditions. After my freshman year I was on full scholarship from Hartt College of Music for the remainder of college. The rest, as they say, is history…


As it happened, just about the same time as I had moved to New York, J. Lee , who had retired from teaching, was doing the New York theater audition circuit, and had just landed his first off-off Broadway roles. We saw a fair bit of each other; I attended his shows when I could, and he paid me a visit at my office at Carnegie Hall. I also saw him perform here in St. Paul at the Ordway Music Theater in the national tour of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” starring Tommy Tune. It was a fortunate coincidence, because, on his day off during that run, he came over to St. Louis Church (where I was composer-in-residence) to hear the premiere of my French Mass for choir and orchestra.


It was only a few weeks ago that my wife Deb and I had the great pleasure of seeing J. Lee and Barb and catching up a bit. He was weak, bent over, walking slowly with a cane. Although it was clear he could follow the conversation, it took him awhile to formulate a response. After we said our goodbyes, and Deb and I had gotten in the car, I broke down. I couldn't believe that the person I had known, the person of boundless ideas and joy, was so close to the end. That end came Sunday morning at Samaritan Medical Center, the place where I and so many of us Northern New Yorkers were born. 


My life has been a unique and fortunate one, chock full of great music making, travel, and accomplishments. All those things came my way because J. Lee Flynn saw something in me that he felt strongly should be developed and nurtured. I was by no means the only student for whom he did this, but I always knew that he expected me to do a little better, and go a little farther.


Though his body has died, J. Lee’s spirit still lives on, through his family, through the many students he taught and encouraged, and through the great joy he shared with audiences in both his music making and his stage work. It was a great honor and privilege for me to have known him, worked with him, and to have had the benefit of his counsel and help. I owe him more than I could ever begin to repay. May his joyful, energetic, and generous spirit rest in peace.

An Obsession with the Mass

Posted on June 28, 2014 at 10:55 AM Comments comments (674)

Like every composer, I write works for hire. I take a professional approach to these works, keeping my patron in mind, even as I look for the inspiration and instinct to create something fresh and original. And, like every composer, I have those works I write for myself, initiated by the odd idea, often coming from a desire to experiment and explore what for me is previously unexplored territory.

 

Lately, all of my self-stimulated random ideas for new works have been settings of the Latin Mass. All of my own ideas for the last six months seem to be focused on it. Why the Latin Mass? There are a few reasons. First, I know the texts intimately and feel them deeply. Second, they offer many possibilities for settings. Third, they are tied to choral music and ritual.

 

There is another mass in me to complete by the end of this calendar year. This will be a daring concert setting that will demand much of those who sing it, and will use a choir in ways not previously employed. I can clearly hear the piece in my head. I’m excited by what will emerge once the piece is “out there.”

 

A New Direction - From Old Music?

Posted on October 18, 2013 at 11:55 AM Comments comments (654)

For the last seven years or so I have been performing with the Twin Cities-based ensemble Consortium Carissimi, a group specializing in Italian Baroque music. Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1684), the group’s namesake, is a particularly fascinating figure, for his many fine compositions, for his life (what little we know of it), for his teaching and widespread influence, and for the times in which he lived. In fact, the few facts about his life that we know provide potentially interesting and fertile ground for this composer today. It may take a bit of background to get to the point, but, I assure you, there is one!

 

Taken together, there are three aspects of Carissimi’s life of particular interest: his life as a Jesuit priest; his involvement with the “court” of Christina, the erstwhile Queen of Sweden; and the period in which he lived, one of breathtaking change and transition in many disciplines. Even a cursory look into these three aspects is bound to leave one wondering exactly where Carissimi stood, particularly on matters of faith.

 

St. Ignatius Loyola founded The Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in 1534, also the year of the English Reformation:

 

Ignatius and six other young men, including Francis Xavier and Bl. Peter Faber, gathered and professed vows of poverty, chastity, and later obedience, including a special vow of obedience to the Pope. Rule 13 of Ignatius's Rules for Thinking with the Church said: "That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity [...], if [the Church] shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black." Ignatius's plan of the order's organization was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 by the bull containing the “Formula of the Institute.” (from the Wikipedia article The Society of Jesus)

 

Such black-and-white thinking admits no flexibility, nor any consideration of alternative points of view. Indeed, the Jesuits were the most effective of the new orders in the Counter-Reformation in defending the doctrines of the Church reaffirmed by the Council of Trent.

 

Carissimi was ordained a priest of the Jesuit order in 1637. He became the maestro di cappella at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum in Rome, a post he would hold for the remainder of his life, refusing offers from many prominent establishments, including an invitation to succeed Monteverdi at St. Mark’s, Venice.

 

In spite of Carissimi’s involvement with the Jesuits, his life as composer, teacher, and courtier could easily prompt some speculation about his worldview. His many extant compositions – both sacred and secular – show him to be a man of learning, breadth, sophistication, and innovation. Hailed by many as the father of the oratorio, and an innovator through his advance of the recitative (so important to much of early Italian opera), his career spans the shift in the dominance of sacred music to the predominance of secular music, through all of which he was at the forefront. He was a most influential teacher, his renown and influence spreading far beyond his native Italy. However, the strongest evidence that his outlook might have differed from the stern doctrine of the Society of Jesus comes from his involvement in the court of Christina, who arrived in Rome in 1668 as the recently abdicated Queen of Sweden.

 

Christina was both remarkable and enigmatic. She often wore men’s clothes, and was rumored to have at least one female lover (there is extant documentary evidence for this). Of a fiercely independent mind and temperament, she was most interested in music, theater, and something known at that time as Natural Philosophy (now called Science). She amassed an enormous collection of art works. Among her wide circle of correspondents and acquaintances was the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who, upon visiting her and finding the cold of Stockholm not exactly conducive to his good health, died during his visit to her court in 1650.

 

Christina converted from Swedish Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism in large part as a result of her discussions with Descartes. Since it was illegal for the Swedish monarch to be Catholic, she abdicated, turning her throne over to her nephew, and eventually made her way to Rome. Her arrival in Rome was the cause of great celebration (mostly because she was a formerly Protestant ruler who had converted back to Holy Mother Church). Christina was hardly a good Catholic. She once even asked the Pope himself how closely she needed to hold to Catholic teaching to remain in good stead. She surrounded herself with a grand retinue of artists, philosophers, poets, playwrights, and musicians, among them Carissimi. Her “Academia di Arcadia” was a center of music, theater, languages, poetry, and intellectual discussions. Her “academia” was also not without its fair share of scandal, murder, and intrigue.

 

Carissimi could not have weathered his time with Christina completely unaffected by her explorations in the many alternative philosophies of the day. Though publicly he may well have clung to the Jesuit line, it’s within the realm of possibility that, privately, he may well have had other thoughts…

 

I have proposed to Consortium Carissimi an idea for a composition premised, in part, on the many extraordinary advances in science, mathematics, religion, and philosophy during Carissimi’s lifetime – advances which made possible much of what we have been privileged to witness in the present age - and on his potential private thoughts and doubts. The composition would use themes of Carissimi, and would serve as a musical explication of the extraordinary changes taking place during his lifetime. (I will say much more about these changes in the next blog entry - they are so extensive they deserve their own separate entry.) The piece would be scored for voices and Baroque instruments. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this for fear of giving too much away, but there’s very fertile ground here for a unique and interesting piece. We’ll see what happens…

 

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens…“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:1, 3,4)

The Ninety-degree Turn Toward the Radical

Posted on October 6, 2013 at 3:45 PM Comments comments (7846)

It's a coincidence that, just as I launch my composer web site, my composition style seems to have taken a sharp turn toward something hopefully richer and more complex than in the past. I see two reasons behind the change in direction. First, after many years putting composing "on the back burner," favoring singing and conducting as primary activities, I have finally decided to pursue writing music fully and forcefully. Second, I have fallen pretty heavily under the influence of my hobby, astronomy, drawing increasing inspiration from principles of science and mathematics in that field. I'm interested in how to realize in musical terms such phenomena as the gravitational resonance among bodies orbiting around a common object or axis, fractal or algorithmic composition, a trip through a planetary system, or the musical equivalent of a journey through a wormhole. Lest you think that all of this stuff is cold, calculating, and devoid of feeling, consider the inspiration that comes from gazing at the Milky Way on a dark, clear night, or on meditating over the great questions of Cosmology: What is the origin of the universe? What is its development, mechanisms, and ultimate fate? It's entirely natural and mystical, on the grandest possible scale.


In the past, most of my writing has been "gebrauchtmusik" - the practical stuff written either to fulfil a commission, or for a specific purpose, usually for some ensemble limited in size, ability, or both. I was glad to write for these groups, and happy for the opportunity to craft something of hopeful quality that suited them. But I have a real sense I've moved on from that.


I find a lot of the new music I hear these days to be pretty nice, safe, and somewhat unadventurous. I suppose that's where the market is these days. I've never been one to chase the market, though. I may realize little income from writing at the edge, but I hope that, if what I have to say is worth something to some others out there, the dare will earn me a small but unique place among the stars... 


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