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Hildegard, Aleotti, Haydn, and Mozart, with H+H

The perspective of this photo is from the risers on stage. You see what the H+H Chorus members see: other singers surround you with black binders full of sheet music, Harry Christophers conducts you from an otherwise empty stage, and a sea of audience members stretch back into the darkness of Symphony Hall. This concert appears to be completely sold out.
Sam Brewer
Harry Christophers conducts the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus.

Sunday, March 31, 2024
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, Conductor Laureate Harry Christophers leads a series of works anchored by stunning settings for the human voice, including Mozart's Solemn Vespers and Coronation Mass, as well as sacred pieces by 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen and Italian Renaissance composer Raffaella Aleotti, in a program that begins with Haydn's Symphony No. 49, La passione.

Harry Christophers, conductor
Joélle Harvey, soprano
Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano
Aaron Sheehan, tenor
Matthew Brook, bass-baritone
H+H Orchestra and Chorus

Joseph HAYDN Symphony No. 49, La passione
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Vesperae solennes de confessore, K.339
Hildegard von BINGEN O filie Israhel
Raffaella ALEOTTI Vidi speciosam
HILDEGARD Flos campi
ALEOTTI Surge propera amica mea
MOZART Mass in C Major, K.317, Coronation

This concert was recorded Feb. 25, 2024 at Symphony Hall and is no longer available on demand.

See the program notes here.

For information about upcoming concerts, visit the Handel and Haydn Society.

To hear Harry Christophers describe the musical journey from Hildegard to Mozart as he hears it, listen to his conversation with Tyler Alderson using the audio player above and reading the transcript below.


Tyler Alderson I'm sitting here with Harry Christophers of the Handel and Haydn Society! He has come back for a really interesting concert of Haydn, Mozart, and a couple composers that you may not have heard much of: Hildegard von Bingen and Raffaella Aleotti. And I'm going to ask about all of those. But first of all, Harry Christophers, thank you so much for sitting down, and welcome back!

Harry Christophers Thanks very much indeed. It's very nice to be back.

Tyler Alderson So you've been involved with the Handel and Haydn Society for a long time. But this is the first time that you're coming back in a long time as a guest, not as the music director. And I was wondering, is there is there a slightly different feel to the experience?

Harry Christophers Well, not really. I mean, I finished in 2022, and I was very honored to be made conductor laureate. Sounds very posh! The title sounds as if I'm a poet as well, but I'm not. So yes, it's lovely. I mean, it's nice in the sense that I'm just sort of revisiting friends, really. And, so actually, the rehearsals have been lot of fun. Not to say they weren't fun in my 13 years of tenure here, but there's a certain sort of relaxed nature which is lovely. And, of course, my successor, Jonathan Cohen, I know very well anyway. So it's lovely, he's somebody who's, I think in many ways quite like me, really laid back and he's intent on just making the music happen.

Tyler Alderson Well, speaking of revisiting old friends, you do have a couple of old friends on the program as well. And I wanted to start with Haydn. He wrote just so many symphonies over many, many decades of his life. And I was wondering, as a conductor, do they all feel like the same composer, or are you approaching them differently as he moves through his life, as he moves through his composition? And where does this one fit in?

Harry Christophers Yeah, I mean, it was H+H that introduced me to Haydn really in a big way. And I got the bug, I can safely say that. And his symphonies, you are quite right, he wrote at so many, but they are all different. And there's a real progression, that'd be principally in size. Obviously, by the time you get to the Paris symphonies and the London symphonies the orchestras are much bigger. The earlier symphonies are smaller. But, you know, even with this, we're doing Symphony 49, which is called La Passione. Nobody quite knows why it was called that. It's believed it may well have been performed on Good Friday, hence the nickname. And it is a nickname, it wasn't Haydn's title. But it is a really brilliant symphony. It's more in the Sturm und Drang feel.

The first movement belies it because it's very, very slow. It's very sedate. It's quite beautiful. And then you've got a very lively second movement. You've got the usual minuet and trio, which always fascinate me because Haydn wrote so many symphonies, how could he be as inventive as he is in each minuet and trio he writes? And here you got a very, just soothing trio. A many of the later symphonies, they're all full of a lot of wit. There's a sort of calming nature to the trio of this symphony. And then the final movement is so vibrant. It's very fast. It looks as if it's in long note values and then suddenly it's not because it just goes like that! It goes like a rocket. And it's brilliant. And for strings, I think you ask any string player, they love playing Haydn and this particular symphony. Because it's an early one it's only accompanied by two oboes and two horns, so subtle textures there. But it's principally string writing, and it is a lot of fun.

Tyler Alderson And then after the Haydn, you have this string of sacred music. And it includes Mozart, which I think most people might be aware of him. Aleotti, maybe not. And Hildegard of Bingen as well. We're stretching back to medieval times and the Renaissance with von Bingen being medieval. And I was wondering, is there a particular thread that runs through everything that you feel ties all of this together? Because we're talking centuries, we're talking very, very different composers.

Harry Christophers We are. In a sense, yeah, there's a sort of tie. I think the Hildegard pieces, they're so individual they're unlike anything else. You've got to remember, this is 12th century, a German abbess, and I think, a Benedictine order she was she was attached to. And the totally individual thing with her, and she is an absolute rarity: she wrote her own texts and wrote her music. The music is a single line, it's monody. We have no real idea quite how it is performed, whether it was always performed by just a single voice, but with [medieval music theory writer] Anonymous IV much later, we get an insight that maybe the tempi that moved on and moved back in tempo, there may have been some sort of bending of pitch sometime on the notes, there might have been a sort of trillo on a note or something. So, I've just come up with my own ways, because what I've made is a sequence here. I go from Hildegard as a monody line into a five part piece by Aleotti, then another bit of Hildegard, then into a double choir piece.

The two Aleotti pieces are Song of Songs texts. So they are rich, they're vibrant. Song of Songs was the Song of Solomon, but originally it was Hebrew love poetry written over hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. So, this is ostensibly very, very sensual, but of course, it became then synonymous with the Virgin Mary. And for composers be it Palestrina or Victoria or indeed Aleotti as a nun, it was very, very sensual to be writing this sort of music. So what I've done with the Hildegard, Hildegard wrote her own [texts] and so her texts, they're flowery, they're gorgeous. And I just thought, well, this is a nice way to interweave something that Symphony Hall will never have heard before. I'm pretty sure they've never heard anything like this. And what I've done with Hildegard is I put drones in from some of the singers, I've bent some of the pitches, and I've done how it might have sounded. Or might not have sounded! I mean, it certainly makes it incredibly atmospheric. And I think that's one of the things, when you bring on sacred music of the past, 12th century, 16th century, whatever to what is ostensibly a secular concert hall, then you need to do something that is going to be something special. You want to create a sound world. And that's really what I've done with this, to create something different.

Fantastic to have female composers from the past. And for me, Aleotti is a real discovery. Raffaella Aleotti, she was—Hildegard was Benedictine, Aleotti was, I think, Augustinian order and, of course, Italian. And she wrote a lot of music. She was also the first woman to have any sacred music published. There are other people from that era, like the likes of Casaluna, who had books of madrigals published. But I think the only sadness for me is that all these pieces last about 2 or 3 minutes long. So we've got, I'm presenting here a Song of Songs text in five parts, and then a double choir one, and they're really lovely pieces. And as I say, my sadness is that there's nothing longer.

Tyler Alderson You mentioned a little bit about, not being sure [about] some of the things of von Bingen's time and all that. And I wonder about this because there are probably no two [composers], maybe Beethoven, I guess, who are performed more than Haydn and Mozart at this point. And there's been tons of research into that. Aleotti, I've read some people put her name is Violetta Aleotta or, Raffela Aleotti. So you're talking about two very different amounts of information as a conductor. That must provide a lot of challenges, especially in an organization that prides itself on having that period feel and that sense of authenticity to the era if you don't have as much information on the era.

Harry Christophers I mean, luckily we've got the music and that's the main thing. We have that, and that's good. And as I said before, we have publications from Aleotti, which is good. It's a shame that there must be a lot that's lost, over the years. But I think that's the beauty for a conductor because with all early music, I'm talking about Renaissance and back, basically, you are trying to find a way to interpret it because you're not given much. You're not giving any dynamics, you're not given a tempo. We know sort of basic principles that the music went with the heartbeat. If the music is more joyful, then the heart is going a little faster. If it's sad, you go a little slower. So those are the sort of basic principles we work around.

We also work around the fact that this music was sung in abbeys, churches, cathedrals, some small, some big. But they all have one thing in common. They all have arches. And that is the architecture of the sound that, that actually as a basic concept stretches right from Gregorian chant, right through and that carries right through into the Baroque and indeed early Classical, which is fascinating. This whole idea of the architecture dictating the way we play the music in very, very simple terms. It's amazing just how many people ignore it, really, but a simple term of architecture, the phrase goes up and you add a little crescendo, the phrase comes down, you get a diminuendo. So you're following the nature of the music. If you were singing in a big cathedral, that sound would, as the theme goes up, it enriches with the stonework, and as it falls, it disappears. And all we're doing is recreating that. When we put in the concert hall, we're got to do a little bit more to actually achieve that.

But this is exactly the same as in the Mozart, in the Coronation Mass. I think of the string writing that rises and falls. We again, we use all that. And when we get to those later pieces, of course, we get more information, which is good. But as you said before, we have little to go on and a lot of confusion of her name. I'm sure, give us another 20, 30 years, and a researcher, an academic will come up, and say "yes, she was definitely Raffaela." I like to think that that's what her name is! But, you know, I do find the whole world of Renaissance music fascinating. I come from England, obviously, where where countless music was lost because of the Reformation. And it's amazing just how much has survived. And we're still piecing things together. And it's also fascinating to find in the libraries of South America, for instance, particularly Mexico, music from the Iberian Peninsula that we think we've lost. But there it is in libraries out there. And so there's a wealth of music there. And I think it's just nice for, particularly a Handel and Haydn Society audience here at Symphony Hall just to hear something that's just a little different.

Tyler Alderson You mentioned the Reformation, and I've thought this at a lot of sacred music concerts. Certainly in Hildegard Von Bingen's time, but also, even in Mozart and Haydn's time, you're talking about a very different, not just religious environment than we have right now, but Christian environment. I mean, Hildegard of Bingen [was] before the Reformation came through. As the audience is likely to be a lot more secular, a lot less homogeneously Christian as the audiences that they had back then, do you feel like you have to approach the music differently? Do you feel like you have to take that into consideration when you're doing sacred music? Or do you feel like there's something in the music that can be brought through, even in a more secular context?

Harry Christophers I think there are two things there. I think you as performers, and I'm certainly, I'm very always been very text led. So an audience, wherever you are, 99% of them don't know any Latin. Particularly in England, you know, Latin has gone out of school curriculum years ago. So people don't [know it]. So therefore, as performers, I firmly believe, particularly Renaissance music, I have the conviction that in the way we are conveying that to an audience, I need to somehow convey the sense of those words. There are lots of songs out there that are absolute brilliant, make this gorgeous sound, etc., and it's lovely. But it sounds to me like that it's more interested in the sound and not the text. That there's nothing wrong with that, because back in 16th century, 11th century, 12th century, whatever century, this all sacred music was part of the liturgy. It was subservient to the liturgy. It was for the glory of God. It wasn't necessarily listened to that much. It was to embellish or enhance the service, enhance the liturgy. So by the single act of taking it out of the liturgy, bring it into a concert or bring it into a concert performance, whether that be a secular concert hall or a sacred cathedral, you've got to inject that sense of the words and what the music is all about. It's a little bit like having somebody sign languaging something, that is exactly really what I'm doing with the music. So that's one side of it.

The second is that, I think for audiences today (and I've certainly known and seen this a lot at home in the UK) that audiences need this music that is sacred, even though they might not be church goers or live certainly in a very secular way. They need the sacred music because there's something about it for wellbeing, mindfulness, all these sort of things, calming people after a difficult day at work, soothing them when they're in pain or there's been just awful things going on in the world. We won't happen to go into political things at the moment but I mean, when there is disasters in the world, what do we call? We often call on the human voice to give us something. And it's music we call on and it will very often have a sacred element behind it. And I think that's part of this world we're in and live in. But for me, what's so beautiful about it is that if we can, with this sort of music, be soothing people, be giving people comfort and inspiration. It's not just about comfort. If I said it was just about comfort, I would be almost saying it's wallpaper music, and it's not. We're about injecting emotions into it. A lot of this music can present joy. I've had so many people in concerts I've done in the past who come up to me at the end of the concert and they say "if I believed in heaven, I've just been there."

Tyler Alderson That's a lovely sentiment! Talking about the text and the contents of these, the final piece on there is the Coronation Mass by Mozart. And one of the things I find interesting about this is, the Mass is the Mass. There are so many composers who have written masses. Mozart wrote multiple masses. So it feels like we almost have a little bit of a comparison, that we can draw between him and how he did things and other composers. What do you see Mozart doing with the Mass, both in this and in the other masses that he has done?

Harry Christophers Well of course his position in Salzburg was such that as part of his job there, he had to write music for the liturgy. And I think for Mozart, I think sometimes that might have been a bit of a trial, or sometimes he was so gifted that he can do anything. I often compare, for instance, Haydn's masses with Mozart. Haydn was such a fervent Catholic. So you really do feel there's a personal statement going on between the way he sets each of his masses. Mozart, I would say just a little less so. But sometimes there will be something that he really wants to show off on, and it will usually be an aria. In the Solemn Vespers, for instance, again, a nickname, you've got the Laudate Dominum, and it's just a soprano. It's beautiful, sung at weddings all over the place. Before that you've got just choruses, chorus after chorus for all the Vespers psalms In the Mass, likewise, the Coronation Mass, you've got very, very small bits of solo. But then he reserves this for again a special, special moment. And the Agnus Dei is just glorious. Again a soprano aria! Quite low tessitura. It makes the sopranos go low and high as he does in the famous C minor Mass.

But there is, I sort of laugh at the players because there's a lot of trills in Mozart. And for me, I don't want to undermine Mozart in any way at all, but there's a lot of it. I think he's having fun with the communion bell. I just often see these trills. Just remember, you're in Salzburg, in a Catholic mass, and you've got the little bell going "dingalingaling." It's got to be great! And that's that sort of effervescence that dictates the Gloria. It dictates the Dona Nobis and all sort of things. I think there's a real sense of joy more often than not, I think in Mozart masses, there's an overriding sense of joy. And that comes from, I think, Mozart's personality. And I just love it. It's great.

It's very interesting that, the two pieces we're doing, the Vespers and the Coronation Mass again, another nickname, it will never called the Coronation Mass, there are no violas, so it's just violins, cellos, and bass. And in the Solemn Vespers, we have the addition of two trumpets and timpani. And in the mass, we have the addition of that, two oboes and two horns, which is lovely. What's also, I think fabulous sounding, and it's a joy talking to our trombone players here, is that they play on small bore trombones. They were just saying to me, thank you for programming the Vespers. And they love playing color parties, so their parts are doubling the alto, tenor, and bass of the choir. So it gives a real clarity. And when you hear it if it's played, this is one of the big differences—sorry I'm digressing a bit—but it's one of the big differences between performing this music and original instruments and having it on a symphony orchestra. If you've got modern trombones playing that, it becomes much thicker, [you need] to get them to play very delicately and lightly, which is what these small trombones allow you to do. They become very much a vocal instrument, and it's an enhancement of that. So that allows then what I call this filigree that happens in the two violin parts, to be effervescence and bubbly and joyful all the time.

Tyler Alderson Well, it's sounds like a fantastic program. I'm really excited to hear it. And I think that, audiences, whether church goers or not, as you say, are going to find a lot in these pieces. As I've been listening to them, to prepare for the concert, they're spectacular, even the ones that I never heard of before. So, Harry Christophers, thank you so much for joining me.

Harry Christophers Great pleasure. Thank you very much indeed!