A Pair of Oratorios by Benedetto Marcello: Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni and Il trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica

By Michael Burden

Benedetto MarcelloMusical works rarely come in pairs—at least in genuine ones, that is. But the two oratorios written to mark the feast of the Assumption by the Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello—Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni (1731) and Il trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica (1733)—are exceptional in this regard. They were both written by the same composer for the same feast day, the same venue, and the same series of oratorio performances; and both texts, though unconnected, are highly allegorical in nature.

Marcello was born into the higher echelons of Venetian society to Agostino Marcello and Paolina Capello on 24 July 1686. The family—ancient, originally Roman, and sporting a doge in 1473—had a steady history of service to the Venetian republic. Benedetto continued this tradition: when he turned 20, he was chosen by lot to be one of the members of the Maggior Consiglio, the Great Council of Venice, which numbered about 2,000 members, made laws, and elected the members of the Council of Ten.

In addition to their public service, both Benedetto and his brother Alessandro were cultured and active in the arts, and both composed music. Among Benedetto’s compositions were Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni and Il trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica, composed for the Jesuit church of San Giovanni in Macerata, in the Marche. The feast of the Assumption that they celebrate takes place on 15 August and marks the death and translation of Mary, a story that survives in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic texts. The tale as told in the first three of these is the one relevant to the feast as celebrated in Marcello’s time. Marcello’s two oratorios were part of the series of oratorios that Luigi Ricci promoted regularly from 1722 to 1740; of all those he presented, only these two were allegorical. The oratorios were certainly performed there in their respective years of composition, though not only in Macerata: Denis and Elsie Arnold have found documentation of private performances of both at Marcello’s Venetian palazzo in those same years.

Both oratorios are characteristic of the genre as Italy understood it in the early eighteenth century. The oratorio volgare—as opposed to the oratorio latino—was the dominant genre by this time, and the two-part structure would still be the norm at the end of the classical period. In both works, the story is carried forward by a small number of characters, with little or no involvement of a chorus. The nature of their texts, however, is less expected.

The first of the pair, Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni, has an anonymous libretto. Marcello may have written it himself—he had earlier written the text for his oratorio Giuditta—but the title page of the autograph score attributes the text to one Giulio Vitelleschi “della Compagna di Gesù” (1684–1759). Part 1, which begins with the return of Winter from the mountains, tells of the efforts of Spring, Summer, and Autumn to convey to Winter the terrible news of the death of the Virgin Mary. In their grief, the seasons use a striking series of images, many of them drawn from biblical and deuterocanonical sources, to describe the lost Lady; the first part closes with all of them joining in mourning. Part 2 opens with Summer identifying confused emotions: should the seasons mourn, or should they rejoice? For in fact Mary lives; she has ascended higher than the stars, entered heaven, and triumphed over death. The seasons then compete with each other to be the one to make an offering to their Lady. In the end, they all agree they have an equal claim: “Autumn, in which you were born; Summer, in which you died; Spring, the time of your Annunciation; and Winter, in which you were immaculately conceived.”

The text of the second oratorio, Il trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica, was dedicated by “The [anonymous] author of the oratorio to the noble pupils of the Clementine College,” who “in each year sing the celebrations of Mary, who died on earth and was assumed thence and crowned in heaven.” This dedication establishes a connection to the Roman Collegio Clementino, whose chapel was dedicated to Santa Maria dell’Assunzione. The Collegio was under the patronage of Benedetto Pamphili, a significant patron of the arts and a practicing librettist, who himself produced over a dozen oratorios. This work, too, has as its central premise a competition among allegorical figures: Music and Poetry debate their respective merits and vie for the privilege of praising Mary’s assumption into heaven, eventually setting aside their differences to praise her jointly. The term trionfo in the work’s title was understood at this time to mean a parade or a procession, and was a popular conceit in contemporary opera and oratorio.

Despite their kinship, the balance between musical forms in the finished oratorios is quite different. Il pianto has a preponderance of da capo arias, few choruses, and one duet; this was a balance that was generally maintained until the da capo aria fell out of favor as the century progressed. The recitative is mostly secco; as might be expected, the few passages of accompanied recitative have a specific dramatic purpose, with its infrequent use heightening its effectiveness. In contrast, Il trionfo features, in addition to the two main characters  Music and Poetry, unnamed SATB soloists and four distinct choral groups: Musici Veterani, Musici Principanti, Poeti, and Arti Liberali. There are more ensembles and fewer da capo arias, and each of the four choruses is characterized differently by Marcello, who gives them a range of small and flexible musical forms. As Eleanor Selfridge-Field suggests in her monograph on The Music of Benedetto and Alessandro Marcello, Marcello employed in both works the “whole arsenal of string techniques he had mastered over a quarter-century.” This is most obvious in the articulation given to the strings, which is detailed, consistent, and elegant. The staccato, for example, is very carefully provided; although dashes, wedges, and dots were often used interchangeably for staccato in the eighteenth century, Marcello clearly distinguished between the interpretation of dots and dashes in the autograph copy of Il pianto. Both Il pianto and Il trionfo offer further important clues to performance practice; the plethora of trills in Il pianto would likely never have occurred to most by modern performers had Marcello not notated them, and the performance instructions in the libretto of Il trionfo show us an approach at which we might only guess if the author had not included them.

Given that the oratorios were written only two years apart, it is interesting that Il trionfo should be, overall, the more “modern” of the two works. This may reflect the possible origins of the libretto as an opera prologue; as discussed above, Marcello manipulates the recitative-da capo aria plan for his own ends, and in Il trionfo the academic, slightly passé style of Il pianto has given way to the lighter, more homophonic approach of the early classical style that the oratorio had by this time begun to adopt from other genres. Selfridge-Field comments that both oratorios are “highly poetic, generally mellow, faintly comic works,” but ones in which the texts preserved “fidelity to nature.” This mellow feeling partly arises, I would suggest, from the blend of sacred and secular elements. As Selfridge-Field puts it, Il trionfo “summarizes the creed of a lifetime” and “is a last testament to music.” Perhaps this academic dispute ending in a balance between the two parties was, for Marcello, the best outcome of all—one expressed in the oratorio’s only duet, “Cantar Narcisso, e Clori,” in which Music and Poetry are given equal musical weight.



Michael BurdenMichael Burden edited Marcello’s Il pianto e il riso delle quattro stagioni (B118) and Il Trionfo della Poesia, e della Musica (B191). He is professor of opera studies at Oxford University and chair of the board of the Faculty of Music; he is also fellow in music at New College, where he serves as dean. He has published research on the stage music of Henry Purcell and on aspects of London opera, dance, and theater in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.  Other recent publications include a collection of opera documents, the five-volume London Opera Observed 1711–1843 (2013), a study of the London years of the soprano Regina Mingotti (2013), a volume edited with Jennifer Thorp, The Works of Monsieur Noverre Translated from the French: Noverre, His Circle, and the English “Lettres sur la danse” (2014), and a volume edited jointly with Wendy Heller, Jonathan Hicks, and Ellen Lockhart, Staging History 1740–1840 (2016). He is currently completing a volume on the staging of opera in London between 1660 and 1860, and among his forthcoming articles is “Masquerading at the London Opera Houses; or, ‘The Dangers of Leisure,’” which will appear in a volume edited by Kerstin Fest on leisure in the eighteenth century. He is director of productions of New Chamber Opera.