The Woods so Wild:
Annette Richards Plays Works by Byrd, Frescobaldi, and Sweelinck
Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643): Capriccio sopra “Il Cucho” (1624)
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621): Echo Fantasy in a
Sweelinck: Variations on “More Palatino”
William Byrd (c. 1540-1623): Variations on “The Woods so Wild” (1598)
Sweelinck: Variations on “Under a Green Linden Tree”
Sweelinck: Toccata in C
Sage Chapel has the air of an enchanted grove. Vines and tendrils extend across the terrazzo floor, reaching out to the glossy leaves that spread up the mosaic walls in the Memorial Apse, to the vegetation that seems to curl around the angels’ wings above, and spread out across the building’s magnificent ceiling, enveloping it in branches, leaves and flowers.
Designed by Professor of Architecture Charles Babcock, the Chapel was formally dedicated on 13 June 1875. The university’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, was closely involved in the planning and oversaw many details of Sage Chapel’s creation (the mosaics and sylvan decoration were added later, designed by the studio of J & R Lamb in New York City in 1898). White was especially interested in the organ, and, an organist himself, he negotiated directly with builders Hook and Hastings of Boston for the chapel’s first instrument. At the dedication of the building, the architect William Henry Miller (class of 1872) played the organ.
The 18th-century Italian organ that stands today at the front of the chapel (facing, at a distance, its very different sister, the 1940 Aeolian-Skinner organ) is a relatively recent addition to this space—but in subtle and beautiful ways it has made it its home. Sounding particularly well in Sage’s acoustic are this organ’s silvery plenum and mellifluous 8’ principal, but it is the warbling ‘ussignoli’ stop, mimicking the trilling of a flock of tiny birds, and the lovely 4’ flute that so perfectly evokes the song of the cuckoo, that seem particularly suited to this magical space.
Inspired by the combination of these sounds with the glorious greenery of the chapel, and cheered by the glowing spring day outside, today’s program takes its title from 16th-century English composer William Byrd’s variations on “The Woods so Wild.” In Byrd’s charming piece, the lilting song tune weaves through the individual voices, the textures constantly changing yet still preserving the sense of pastoral simplicity. Byrd’s music marks the central point of this program, but its main focus is his younger Dutch contemporary Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the famous organist-composer whose keyboard art inspired, indeed formed, Northern European keyboard practice for many generations, as young musicians flocked from northern cities to Amsterdam to study with the great man, returning to pass on what they had learned to their own students in turn.
This year, as we mark the 400th anniversary of Sweelinck’s death, we are reminded not only of the networks of composers—from England to Italy—whose craft informed Sweelinck’s, but also of the singular achievement of his oeuvre, handed down to us through student copies (none of Sweelinck’s keyboard music was published in his time). From Fantasies and Toccatas, to sets of variations on popular songs or sacred melodies, Sweelinck’s keyboard art combines sophisticated contrapuntal expertise with virtuosic techniques of elaboration and decoration that push keyboard practice to its limits.
An equally influential keyboardist opens today’s program, Sweelinck’s younger Italian contemporary, the incorrigible Roman virtuoso Girolamo Frescobaldi, whose ingenuity is on full display in the Capriccio sopra il Cucho. In this brilliant exercise of musical wit, the cuckoo’s call is heard incessantly throughout the ingenious multi-sectional piece, as it interrupts, insists, or rudely intrudes upon the contrapuntal investigations at hand. A virtuosic invocation of the natural world outside (perhaps the forested landscape that can be glimpsed through the Chapel’s Tiffany window), even as it rings out within the walls of Sage Chapel’s fantastical facsimile of a wild wood.