Photo: briar press
Witchcraft and black cats, horror and death. All Hallow’s Eve is the theme for this spooky installment of Harmonia.
One of the things that makes Halloween such a haunting time of year is the sight of leafless, gnarled branches against the night sky. The 13th Century song, Loibere risen, or “Leaves fall to the ground,” by minnesinger Wizlâw II von Rügen is performed by Studio der Frühen Musik on the 1996 CD release from the Teledec label, Troubadours, Trouvères, Minstrels. The harpsicord solo “The Fall of the Leafe” is performed by Swedish ensemble Joculatores Upsalienses on the recording entitled The Four Seasons.
John Wilbye get us in the mood for All Hallow’s Eve with this 1609 madrigal full of slightly weird harmonies. It calls for the night to descend so we might better commune with the shades and darkness. The Cambridge Singers perform on the 1993 CD release, Flora gave me fairest flowers: English Madrigals.
François Couperin provides the next bit of mood music, with a sarabande from one of his suites for harpsichord entitled, “The Lugubrious One.” Sarabandes in general are not known for their cheerfulness, but this one sets a particularly spooky mood. Harpsichordist Skip Sempé performs on the 1995 release from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi entitled François Couperin: Pièces de clavecin.
It was a dark and stormy night; In the recitative opening a cantata by Antonio Vivaldi, we have an evocative description of a wayfarer making his way through an unknown woods at night: a “deep and dreadful vale of earth, without a glimmer of starlight.” In the aria Qual Passagier son io, we learn that the woods are really only a metaphor for the dark and impenetrable heart of an arrogant lover; a place perhaps just as dangerous.
Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is accompanied by Ensemble Artaserse in a performance of the Vivaldi cantata RV 677 on the 2005 Virgin Classics release, Vivaldi: Virtuoso Cantatas.
Witches and monsters are an important part of any Halloween celebration, and we have a few of our own here at Harmonia. First, “Die Katzenpfote” imitates with complicated rhythms the motions of a cat’s paws as it hunts and plays and perhaps casts a few spells. The Holbein Consort performs this 15th Century song on the CD release entitled Middle Ages Music.
Next, the Divertissements written for the French court by Jean-Baptiste Lully are similar compositions to the earlier masques performed in England in that they’re dramatic pieces intended for intimate chamber performance for members of the court only. Guillemette Laurens and Capriccio Stravagante perform “Air pour les démons et les monsters” on the 2004 CD release, Lully: Divertissements.
No Halloween would be complete without a blood-curdling tale of murder. Here we have one of the earliest known English ballads, dating from as far back as the 16th century. It’s about a young lady who was so jealous of her sister that she lured her to the water’s edge and pushed her in. The jealous sister ignored her piteous cries and attempts to bargain for her life, and her drowned body was later found floating by a dam. The band Tramps and Hawkers performs the early English ballad “The Twa Sisters” on the 1995 recording entitled Sailor’s Alphabet.
The words of the next piece begin, “We are hastening towards death; let us cease sinning!” One would think such a weighty sentiment would be set to an appropriately dolorous tune, but instead the 14th-century Llibre Vermell of the Shrine to the Virgin at Montserrat provides a madcap danse macabre. The New London Consort performs on the 1992 release from Polygram records, Llibre Vermell: Pilgrim Songs and Dances.
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For some, the dance of death may be but a few paso dobles away from dancing with the devil, especially at Halloween. Two of the instruments most frequently pictured in medieval manuscripts in association with demonic music is the pipe and tabor. This association with the dances of the devil may have something to do with the pipe and tabor’s relationship to the aulos and tympanum of pagan times. Poul Høxbro performs a melody from the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria on the 1999 release from Classico Records, TuTu Pan Pan.
The interval of the tritone is the incarnation of the devil himself in music. This medieval mnemonic is still repeated by music theory students today, to help them remember that this harmony is the most dissonant of all. Johann Sebastian Bach deliberately inserted the haunting interval into the harmonies of a chorale that expresses a longing for death and release.
Bach Collegium Japan performs the chorale “Es ist genug”, “It is enough,” on the 2001 release from the BIS label, J.S. Bach: Cantatas, Vol. 15.
For our featured release, Teatro Lirico, directed by Baroque guitarist Stephen Stubbs, offer several 17th-century sonatas and a selection of folia improvisations, on their new CD from ECM Records. Self-titled “Teatro Lirico,” it would make a fine treat for an early music lover.