Special Events Program Notes 2017-2018

Special Events

by Kalindi Bellach ©2017

Messiah / Respighi's Church Windows


George Frideric Handel (1685–1759)

Since its composition in 1741 and premiere in Dublin in 1742 ,George Frideric Handel’s oratorio Messiah has become a holiday tradition. Although nowadays it is performed almost exclusively at Christmastime, it was originally presented at Easter. The current institution of performing Messiah during Christmas, especially popular in the United States, may have been born at least partly of necessity: Laurence Cummings explains that “there is so much fine Easter music – Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, most especially – and so little great sacred music written for Christmas.” However, if you read the libretto, written by Charles Jennen, you will see that an Easter performance is fitting. Jennen drew his text from the Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s coming all the way through the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Jennen was not trying to create a narrative as much as a contemplative piece. He writes, “[The oratorio is] a meditation on our Lord as Messiah in Christian thought and belief.”

Handel’s Messiah is an example of a new genre, the English oratorio, which was explored, shaped, and developed by Handel, and has ensured his lasting popularity. It’s not that the oratorio form was new; it was tied more to Italian opera than to the English vocal tradition, which served as one of Handel’s chief inspirations. The Italian oratorio, however, is similar to an opera, based on a sacred subject, and performed in a concert hall rather than a theatre. For Handel, the oratorio was no less dramatic or vital than opera. Essentially, he viewed the oratorio as a sort of transposed opera, the main difference being the expanded roles of the chorus.

Handel’s use of chorus is one of his most significant modifications to the genre of oratorio, which traditionally used a minimal number of ensembles. Handel gave the chorus much more distinction within the structure, as evidenced in Messiah. Laurence Cummings, director of the London Handel Orchestra, explains, “The chorus propels the work forward with great emotional impact and uplifting messages.” The chorus’s viral contribution in Messiah serves several key roles: sharing in the drama, moving the narrative along, and, as musicologist Peter Burkholder adds, even “commenting on events like the chorus in Green drama…. The grand character of his choral style… [places] emphasis on communal rather than individual expression.” Handel’s generous and appropriate use of the chorus (and orchestra to support the vocal parts) is certainly a factor in the popularity of Messiah.

Handel completed Messiah in only twenty-four days during August 1741. No doubt this sounds like a ridiculously short time to us, but it was not unusual for Handel to produce sizeable works in the gap between theater seasons. Also, while many of his works show evidence in the sketches and correspondence of extensive collaboration with the librettist(s) – there are many letters between Handel and Jennens concerning Saul and Belshazzar, for example – it seems Handel worked on Messiah without such collaboration. The assumption that he left the text virtually untouched is further borne out in a letter written in July 1741 from Jennens to a friend: “Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall perswade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him, & perform it for his own Benefit in Passion Week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

In creating new compositions, Handel often borrowed from his older works and the works of others. This was fairly common practice at the time, and no doubt also facilitated the speedy completion of new pieces. Handel lifted material more gracefully than most and usually managed to improve upon it in some way. For example, the section in Messiah that begins, “All we like sheep have gone astray” is based faithfully on one of Handel’s earlier Italian duets; the text fits perfectly with that older melody. As Burkholder points out, the chorus sings, “All we like sheep” as a group, then the words “have gone astray” in separate melodic lines. “We have turned” is set to an undulating figure, and “everyone to his own way” is characterized by the persistent repetition of a single note. The only new material in this section appears at the end, as the chorus shifts inexorably into a slower, minor key with the words “And the Lord hath laid on Him in iniquity of us all.”

Messiah is set in three main parts. Musicologist Donald Burrows describes Part I as “[dealing] with God’s promise and God’s comfort, and its season is Advent and Christmas.” “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley Shall be Exalted” are especially lovely sections – with “ecstasy being expressed in vocal brilliance,” according to Burrows. “Thus Saith the Lord” submerges us into the darker key of D Minor, coloring the references to the trembling of the heavens and earth. The first allusions to the Nativity story also appear in Part I, with the joyful “For Unto Us a Child is Born” following Isaiah’s proclamation that “darkness shall cover the earth.”

Part II contains the darkest moments in Messiah, including Christ’s suffering and Passion. It opens with “Behold the Lamb of God” and, according to Burrows, is intended for the season of Passiontide and Easter. The famous “Hallelujah” chorus ends Part II.

Part III is associated with Ascension and Pentecost and concerns the promise of redemption and resurrection. Following the glory of the “Hallelujah” chorus, the gentle soprano air “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” welcomes us into the lovely glow of E Major. The key change and the character are exactly what we need; Handel’s excellent orchestration skills are evident as he manages to heighten the effect left by the “Hallelujah” chorus, which in the moment feels like the climax of the entire work. He closes the work with a double chorale finale: “Worthy Is the Lamb” and “Amen.”

Although Messiah is performed hundreds of times each year around the world, there is no definitive version of it. Handel reworked parts for soloists with varying abilities as well as for whatever group of instrumentalists were available to him at any one time. Therefore the instrumentation has remained inconsistent. Critic Michael Steinberg explains, “Messiah is a moving target. Until 1754, Handel changed it every time he revived it, which was often; in fact, even the first performance departed from what he had originally written.” In 1798, Mozart re-orchestrated Messiah to give it a “more modern sound” more in keeping with the ideals of the Classical period, but included a note that his changes should not be viewed as any “effort at improvement.” On hearing Messiah, Beethoven remarked that its composer was the “greatest composer that ever lived.”

Messiah calls for four soloists, a soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass, and a full four-part chorus. The orchestra part is scored for pairs of oboes and bassoons to double the choral lines, two trumpets, timpani, strings, harpsichord, and organ. Accounting records from early performances indicate that Handel sometimes included two French horns as well, but there’s no record of what they played, as there are no horn parts.

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Respighi's Church Windows

Giordano Bellincampi, conductor
James Kibbie, organ


Cocker - Tuba Tune
Tournemire - From Cinq improvisations
Sowande - Prayer (Oba a ba ke)
Widor - From Symphonie No. 6, Op. 42, No. 2
Respighi - Vetrate di Chiesa (Church Windows)

Tonight’s program, “Respighi’s Church Windows,” has been designed to pay homage to Toledo’s Our Lady, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral and the wonderful E. M. Skinner organ housed here. Constructed and richly ornamented in the Spanish style, the Rosary Cathedral was begun in 1926, though it was planned for over a decade before. It took five years to complete, and the first public services were held in 1931. This is also the year that the Skinner organ was first dedicated by Palmer Christian, who was the Professor of Organ at the University of Michigan. This is the appointment that our soloist this evening, Dr. James Kibbie, now holds.

The Skinner organ is named for its maker, Ernest Martin Skinner (1866-1960), who was one of the most renowned pipe-organ builders of the twentieth century. Skinner made several major innovations to the instrument, but perhaps the most important is his “electro-pneumatic switching systems” – a sort of computer built of several tons of metal, wood, and leather that uses electricity (low voltage) and pressurized air to control relay of information from the console to the instrument. This apparatus produced two results. First, the pipes could now be set up anywhere in the building, even hundreds of feet away, and second, a single organist could exercise total control. A Skinner organ of this size could have tens of thousands of moving parts, and tens of thousands of feet of wiring within.

The Skinner organ in the Rosary Cathedral was built at the height of E. M. Skinner’s craftsmanship. It is also a rarely well-preserved example of his work, displaying many elements that were designed personally by Skinner himself, who had a reputation for fervent care for each detail. Our organ has Skinner’s own stamp of approval. In a letter from 1930, Skinner writes, “I look your scheme over every day with renewed satisfaction. It gives me every opportunity to fulfill the confidence you have given me in according the Skinner organization a perfect opportunity to build a great work of art.” The Rosary Cathedral’s sister organ lives in the Peristyle at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Tuba Tune by Norman Cocker (1889-1953) is a wonderful work on which to showcase the organ. A celebrated organist, Cocker’s flexibility as a performer was somewhat legendary. Though he served as organist for the Manchester Cathedral, he also maintained a career as a cinema organist (playing soundtracks for films live in real time). One source describes him running back and forth between the cinema and the cathedral wearing slippers!

Dr. Kibbie notes, “The title ‘Tuba Tune’ refers to the organ register Tuba, represented on the Rosary organ by E. M. Skinner’s iconic Tuba Mirabilis.” While Cocker wrote any number of hymns, several of which are still in regular use, this piece combines theatricality of the cinema organ with the majesty of the cathedral organ to dazzling effect. Tuba Tune was published in 1922.

Petite rapsodie improvisée from Cinq Improvisations by Charles Tournemire (1870-1939) and transcribed by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) was composed in 1958. A student of César Franck (who was vastly influential in the field of organ music in the nineteenth century), Tournemire succeeded his teacher as organist for St. Clotilde in 1898, a post he held for over forty years. Tournemire also taught at the Paris Conservatory after Franck, and it was during this time that Maurice Duruflé became his assistant.

In 1930 and ’31, Tournemire recorded several works by Franck, two movements from his own L’Orgue mystique, and five improvisations. Three of the improvisations (Cantilène improvisée, Fantaisie-improvisation sur l’ ‘Ave maris stella’, Choral Improvisation sur le ‘Victimae paschali laudes’) were recorded in April 1930, and the others (Improvisation sur le ‘Te Deum’ and Petite rapsodie improvisée) in the fall of 1931. Dr. Kibbie points out that these Improvisations (of 1931) were created in the same year as the installation of the Rosary organ.

Commentator J. Melvin Butler describes the Petite rapsodie in particular as “a French confection—a light, airy work reminiscent of the famous scherzi, intermezzi, and impromptus of Vierne, Gigout, and Widor.” They are simultaneously French, Romantic, and Impressionistic.

Fela Sowande’s (1905-1987) Prayer (Oba a ba ke) was published in 1958. IT is a gentle piece arranged in four sections. To use the composer’s words, “This melody may have been borrowed from non-Christian sources. It is equally possible, however, that it may have been composed either by the late Rev. J. J. Ransome-Kuti of Abeokuta, or by one of the early Yoruba converts. Whatever its origin, the mind of the Yoruba Christian is far from his drum-rhythms as he sings “Oba a ba Ke, awa o ke, Olugbala a ba sin, awa o sin; Jesu a ba sin, l’aiye nbu o, Olodumare, dariji ni o. Tori Jesu, dariji ni o” which translates freely thus, “The King (of Heaven) whom we should cherish, we do not cherish. The Savior (of mankind) whom we should serve, we do not serve; Jesus whom we should worship, He is the very one the world derides and abuses; Lord of the Rainbow, forgive us our offences; for the sake of Jesus, grant us pardon.”

Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) composed the Adagio & Finale from Symphonie VI, Op. 42, No. 2 around 1880, when it was published along with three other works of the same opus number. As solo organ pieces, they conformed to Widor’s more generalized use of the word ‘Symphonie’ in reference to “concordant sound.” He went on to arrange several movements for organ and orchestra, selecting these movements from different Op. 42 works.

Though this version for organ and orchestra was essentially forgotten after an 1882 performance by the London Philharmonic, the original work is still incredibly popular in the organ repertoire.

Tonight you will hear the second and fifth movements, the Adagio and Finale. In his dedicatory recital for the Rosary organ in 1931, Palmer Christian also closed with the Finale from this Symphonie.

On the second half of tonight’s program we present Ottorino Repighi’s (1879-1936) Vetrate di chiesa or “Church Windows.” Born and educated in Bologna in the turn of the twentieth century, Repighi was steeped in a musical world that was in an even higher state of flux than usual, caught between late Romanticism and a host of more modern aesthetic languages. Commentator James Keller explains that while he sometimes “flirted with modernism… [he] always retreated to an essentially conservative stance.”

In 1919, Respighi married mezzo soprano (and his composition student) Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo, who sheds some light on the early stirrings of inspiration for Vetrate di chiesa. She describes a conversation early in their marriage when she offered to teach him about Gregorian Chant, an area of music history and theory that he had since not had time or opportunity to explore in depth. He accepted, and in the weeks following, “… not a day passed but he asked [Elsa] to intone a passage from the Roman Gradual while he listened spellbound. The maestro was considerably influenced by this music, for there are echoes of Gregorian Chant in almost everything he wrote after 1920… The Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies were completed a few months later at Capri in the summer of 1919 and brightly reflect Respighi’s state of mind at that time – delighted wonder at a revelation and the mystic exaltation of profound religious feeling… The maestro told me how wonderful it would be to recast those magnificent melodies in a new language of sounds, free them from the rigidly formal catholic liturgy of the Roman Gradual and revive the indestructible germ of real human values contained therein.”

The Three Piano Preludes (Tre Preludi sopra melodie gregoriane) for solo piano that Elsa mentions here are the beginnings of Respighi’s Vetrate di chiesa. They were completed in 1919-21, and Respighi later adapted them for orchestra, finishing around the same time that he completed the fourth movement in 1926.  The full work is subtitled “Four Impressions for Orchestra.”

While Vetrate di chiesa has a clearly defined programmatic significance, this program was not the inspiration for the music. Rather, the music inspired the program. Respighi’s friend Claudius Guastalla, a professor literature apparently came up with much of the textual references, and even suggested the title! 

The sound of the first movement (“The Flight into Egypt”) seemed to Guastalla reminiscent of “… the passing of a chariot beneath a brilliant starry sky,” and so he suggested that Respighi incorporate references to text adapted from the Gospel of Matthew 2:14. “… the little caravan proceeded through the desert, in the starry night, carrying the Treasure of the World.”

The second movement features what Guastalla calls “a battle in the skies,” and suggested St. Michael the Archangel from the Book of Revelation. “And a great battle was made in the Heavens: Michael and his Angels fought with the dragon, and fought the dragon and his Angels. But these did not prevail, and there was no more place for them in Heaven.” This text comes from the Homily of St. Gregory on Matthew 7-8; Revelations 12:7-8.

The third movement, “The Matins of Santa Chiara (St. Clare),” provides a sweet contrast to the movements around it, reflecting the “mystical, pure, and convent-like” character of St. Clare in “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.” “But Jesus Christ, her bridegroom, not wishing to have her thus disconsolate, had her miraculously carried by the angels to the church of Santo Francesco, and to be at the whole function of Matins.”

The fourth and final movement is dedicated to St. Gregory the Great, who was Pope in the sixth century who made such vast musical contributions that his name was applied to what we now call Gregorian Chant. The movement is called “St. Gregorio Magno,” and references the text, “Ecce Pontifex Maximus!... Bless the Lord… sing the hymn to God. Alleluia!” from the Roman Gradual (Comm, Sanct. 33).

Vetrate di chiesa was premiered in 1927 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. It is scored for…

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