Corelli’s introduction to an heroic woman

Spring will be female. © Charles Thibo

Less than a month ago when I left the house in the morning at the usual time I witnessed the moment when the night ends and dawn begins. An irregular patch of dark blue at the horizon surrounded by the opaque black night. This is not trivial, at least not for me. It means that I will soon see the sun rise when I leave home and that is the announcement of spring. Usually I do not feel affected by long, dark winter nights, but this year it is somewhat different. Perhaps because it wasn’t really cold and winter felt more like a long, drawn-out November, wet, grey, dull, unfriendly.

But from that day on I knew that spring will come sooner than I had expected and that made me happy. I long to see nature’s colours, to smell its multiple scents, to hear its multiple voices. Until then I will have to contend with beautiful voices and instrumental sounds. In 2015 I have in one of my earlier posts praised the beautiful concerti grossi that Arcangelo Corelli wrote in the 17th century. In 1689 he wrote a sinfonia in D minor (WoO 1) to be included in the oratorio Santa Beatrice d’Este, written by Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier. Just like the concerti grossi it has been recorded by the Baroque ensemble Gli Incogniti.

Lulier, a forgotten composer

Since I have covered Corelli’s biography in the post of 2015, I will take the time to say a few words about Lulier. He was a composer in the service of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the later Pope Alexander VIII (1610-1691) and he also played the cello and the trombone. He is thought to have been Corelli’s cellist when the latter’s works were performed. For many years, musicologists thought that no instrumental works for cello by Lulier have survived. In 2009, the cellist Klaus-Dieter Brandt and the ensemble Alte Musik Köln recorded a cello concert only recently discovered and attributed to Lulier. A number of vocal works with concertante cello parts written by Lulier have also survived.

But back to Corelli, whose lovely sinfonia I recently enjoyed since it is well suited to get a first taste of spring. Don’t let the label sinfonia mislead you. This piece, written in four movements, is barely eight minutes long, and cannot be put into the same category as a Beethoven symphony. From the middle of the 17th century on, the genre of the opera and the oratorio started to converge, at least in Italy, and a frequent subject of the oratorio was the narration of the life of a saint, similar to the story of a hero that would be the subject of an opera. Recitative parts would alternate with arias and ariosi. The orchestra would often perform grand overtures, and I suspect that Corelli’s piece had the function of the “sinfonia avanti l’opera” – an introduction to the oratorio.

Hagiographical subjects

Lulier’s oratorio recounts the life of Beatrice d’Este, a woman from the 13th century who devoted her life to the service of God when her groom was killed in a battle just before their wedding. According to Howard E. Smirther’s article for Grove Music Online “the prominence of hagiographical subjects for oratorios has been attributed to the influence of the Counter-Reformation […] Since the oratorio was so important in Rome within the cultural milieu of the Counter-Reformation, it is not surprising that many oratorio librettos reflect aspects of Counter-Reformation sensibility: heroism, mysticism, asceticism, gruesomeness and eroticism are all present.”

From what I could find out, the libretto of Lulier’s oratorio has been lost, but I suspect that the aspect of the heroic woman, struck by grief over the loss of her groom and finding relief in her devotion to God was the dominant theme. Beatrice d’Este entered the Benedictine order and although the Benedictines do not take a vow of silence, hours of strict silence are set, and at other times silence is maintained as much as is practically possible. A challenge, no doubt. But times have changend and today heroism in not to be found in silence, but in speaking up – against discrimination and abuse. Women, speak up! Men, take a vow of silence! At least for some time.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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