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Students return a forgotten score to the Baroque repertory

Beria's partbook for alto (left) and companion volumes. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Beria's partbook for alto (left) and companion volumes. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

CLASSNOTES

Class: MU 405: "Senior Seminar"

Instructors: Adjunct Assistant Professor Jeremiah McGrann, Assistant Professor Ann Spinney


On the first warm evening of April, with the light fading behind the stained glass windows on the north wall of St. Mary's Chapel and the Easter lilies in bloom on the altar, the opening notes of a Kyrie float down from the organ loft to be heard for the first time in more than 300 years. Thanks to a collaborative feat of reconstruction by Professor Jeremiah McGrann and the 11 music majors in the senior seminar he taught with Professor Ann Spinney in the fall of 2004, the work of an obscure 17th-century north Italian organist and composer named Giovanni Battista Beria is receiving its Boston premiere.

Beria's musical resurrection goes back to the preceding summer, when McGrann was browsing through printed texts and manuscripts in the rare books collections of the Burns Library, looking for a suitable subject for the senior seminar on research methods. He and Spinney had already decided to focus on liturgical music. Ethnomusicologist Spinney would teach approaches to studying oral traditions in ritual music from the Celtic world and Native American cultures. For his part of the course, McGrann wanted to try an experiment: to challenge the students with a written primary source and see what they could make of it.

McGrann found a number of possible candidates, including a 14th-century Franciscan antiphonary and an 18th-century manuscript of vespers from a convent in Florence. Then he came across a set of five partbooks of Concerti Musicali, sacred music by Beria, printed in Milan in 1650. According to John Atteberry, a senior reference librarian at Burns, the rare work—one of only two complete copies known to survive—was purchased in 2000 with the Cecilia A. and John F. Farrell, Jr., Music Endowment Funds, at the suggestion of T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, then chair of the music department.

To McGrann, fresh from completing a critical edition of Beethoven's Mass in C, Opus 8, the idea of producing a performable score of Beria's Concerti—the books contained 33 pieces in all, including motets, duets, and a Mass for two to four voices with organ continuo—seemed "pretty manageable." McGrann saw the Concerti as windows into a musicologically interesting period, when the influence of Palestrina was giving way to the more dramatic and emotionally involving style of Beria's great older contemporary Claudio Monteverdi. The students, too, were intrigued when, at the first meeting of the seminar, McGrann took them to see the books in the Burns Library.

"The first time I saw them, I was like, 'wow!'" said Jaclyn Rada '05, recalling how she and her classmates put on white cotton gloves to handle the slim quarto volumes. The music that had been typeset on the books' thick, slightly yellow pages was in unfamiliar diamond-headed notes, with decorative woodcut initials and cramped Latin text.

The five hand-sized volumes each represented a part—soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and organ. The students' first task was to transcribe them individually, then layer them together to make a readable score. McGrann provided a handout delineating changes in musical notation since the Baroque period. As violist Christine Sama '05 describes it, these included changes in clef—Beria had written the three upper parts in the old, moveable C clef rather than the modern, stationary G clef. Different symbols for rests and an absence of printed measure lines compounded the challenge, as did the need to work from photocopies, to preserve the fragile originals. Distinguishing between smudges and rests and other intentional marks required many trips back to the library to check the actual texts.

"We had these piles of paper everywhere, and we were all freaking out," laughed Rada. "We thought everything was wrong all the time." And sometimes it was, said McGrann, as the students uncovered mistakes and ambiguities in the original, and made errors of their own in transcription. "We were all slugging around together," he said. "They couldn't rely on me for having the answer." Assembling the different parts seemed at first like tackling a jigsaw puzzle, recalled pianist Hana Lee '05. "We had to become the problem solvers."

But transcription was only part of the puzzle. The students also had to decipher and translate the Latin texts into English. Some, like the Mass, were relatively familiar. Others were more obscure—for example, "The dialogue between the soul and Christ," a piece of dramatized dogmatism typical of Counter-Reformation Milan. McGrann's original goal of making an edition of all 33 pieces began to seem wildly ambitious. "It probably would have taken us three semesters," said Annie Swehla '05, who plays and teaches piano.

"I had always heard that senior seminar was hard," said Rada. Thinking back on how the class struggled with transcription, translation, and research essays, on top of their work for Professor Spinney, which included interviews with practitioners in the field of sacred music, she said, "I realize now how much work it was. It was fun, though—it got us prepared for grad school."

The group's labors eventually resulted in transcriptions of all 33 pieces, with help from McGrann. Percussionist Alex Jung '05 generated 16 corrected, readable scores for performance on his computer, using a notational software package. McGrann, meanwhile, sought and received funding from the music department, the Jesuit Community, and the Jesuit Institute to produce a concert of Beria's works, scheduled for April 7. Ryan Turner, a critically acclaimed tenor and voice instructor in the University's music department, secured the performers.


WITH AN hour to go before concert time, the four soloists—Turner, his fiancée soprano Susan Consoli, alto Mary Gerbi, and bass Mark McSweeney—run through the program in St. Mary's chapel, accompanied by the harpsichord continuo of Michael Sponseller. Despite their extensive professional experience in Baroque music, Turner admits that the unfamiliarity of the pieces is making all the performers slightly nervous.

Just before the concert, McGrann greets some of his students with a broad grin and says, "This could be the best performance Beria's ever had!" Jung, who has been listening to the music on his computer, says he is "really excited" to finally hear it live. And he is not disappointed.

"Quite thrilling!" is McGrann's verdict when the concert is over. "The operatic quality came out much more than I expected," he says. Jung is struck by the emotional impact the performance added. "From the scores," he says, the music "seemed very thin, slightly corny. We couldn't hear all the textures."

Professor Ann Spinney has been marking students' papers while listening to the concert, and the successful realization of the class project brings a gleam to her eye. "There are many things in the Burns Library that I'd like to work on," she says, speculatively.

Jane Whitehead


Jane Whitehead is a freelance writer in the Boston area.

 

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