Music

Seraphic Fire Reconstructs A Lost Piece of Music For ‘Gods and Mortals’

Written By Sean Erwin
October 30, 2023 at 10:23 PM

For the opening concert of its 21st season, Seraphic Fire presents “Gods and Mortals: Music of the French Baroque” with concerts in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. (Photo courtesy of Southern Land Films)

For Patrick Dupre Quigley, artistic director and founder of Seraphic Fire, the mission of the twice Grammy-nominated, Miami-based professional choir includes bringing exciting music to audiences in Miami that they may have never heard.

Sometimes that means performing little-known works by music canon greats like Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Or it may mean exposing audiences to rarely heard African American composers like Joel Thompson, Roland Carter and Betty Jackson King as the company did in their “Old|New” program last January.

But sometimes it means reviving and reinventing music that time has nearly erased.

For its latest program, “Gods and Mortals,” Quigley had his eye on a rarely performed version of the opera, “Castor et Pollux,” by the French composer and music theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).

Seraphic Fire Soprano Rebecca Myers performs at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples. (Photo Courtesy of Naples Creative)

Rameau’s opera debuted in 1737 and tells a multi-layered love story of two half-brothers – Castor and Pollux, one mortal and the other immortal.

The opera begins with the mortal Castor’s death on the battlefield.  Pollux arrives from war during the funeral of his brother and encounters grieving princess Telaira, whom both brothers love. Pollux announces his love for the princess, but the princess professes her love for his deceased brother.  She asks Pollux to intercede with his Divine father to bring Castor back to life.

The themes of mortality and immortality appear throughout Rameau’s work.

Rameau penned his first opera, “Hippolyte et Aricie,” in 1733 when the composer was already 50 years old.

His first operatic works incited heated controversy among music lovers for the changes he made to the operatic conventions of the middle Baroque period Italian opera master Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was writing from 1650 to 1700.

Explaining the controversy, Quigley first recalled that Rameau’s compositions happened in a totalitarian regime, the court of Louis XV, who became king at the age of five in 1715 and ruled for 59 years.

For Quigley, the conflict boiled down to musical tastes: the conservative versus the avant-garde.

Patrick Dupre Quigley, artistic director and founder of Seraphic Fire. (Photo courtesy of Dario Acosto)

“There was no ability to become angry at governmental decisions because it was a totalitarian government,” says Quigley.   “In a place (like 18th-century France) where you could only argue over clothes, fashions — even the ornaments of music shifted every season — the conflict was between those with conservative and those with avant-garde musical tastes.  We see similar conflicts playing out today.”

Where the style of Lully reflects the Italianate simplicity of highly prescribed formulas and conventions that show up, for instance, in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Rameau’s style was harmonically complex with quick shifts of mood. For Quigley, the change reflected Rameau’s background as a music theorist.

“Rameau’s ‘Treatise on Harmony’ is very far-reaching,” says Quigley, referring to Rameau’s 1722 seminal work.  “(In it) Rameau has thought about the construction of chords, the relationship of tonic to dominant, the treatment of dissonance and its meaning in music.  When a work uses a dotted rhythm, quick changes in dynamics (soft to loud), these create emotions within us.”

But, the conservatives thought of it as noise.  As a result, the original “Castor et Pollux” was not performed again after its debut.

Nearly 20 years later, Rameau revived the opera with substantial cuts and alterations.  In its second life, the work found an enthusiastic audience, but much of Rameau’s original had been already lost.

One of the elements cut from the 1754 version was the opera’s substantial Prologue.

Seraphic Fire Chorus led by Artistic Director Patrick Dupre Quigley performing at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples. (Photo courtesy of Naples Creative)

“The prologue for this piece is important because it is a perfectly constructed gem of a piece of music,” says Quigley.  “It is like a spectacular Baroque music box.”

For Quigley,  performing the lost parts of the original was another matter since no complete score exists for the original “Castor et Pollux.”

Quigley had to reconstruct the original starting from the surviving heavily condensed version of the original score and a much later remake of it by French composer, Auguste Chapuis (1858-1933) whose version incorporated anachronistic musical techniques popular at the start of the 20th century.

Quigley tackled the challenge of restoration with the help of Wesley Roy, a second-year D.M.A. candidate at UM’s Frost School of Music and Seraphic Fire assistant conducting fellow.

Roy described his process as akin to removing the additions later painters made to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes.

“It was Patrick’s idea to work on this,” says Roy.  “We went over the history and the ins and outs of how to read the notation, which is not completely legible to your standard modern musician, and we went forward doing the transcriptions using Sibelius (a music notation software).”

Working this way, Roy successfully retrieved the original opera’s Prologue from near oblivion.

Wesley Roy, second-year D.M.A. candidate at UM’s Frost School of Music and Seraphic Fire assistant conducting fellow. (Photo courtesy of Seraphic Fire)

“The Prologue at its core is just beautiful,” says Roy, “and it is a significant amount of the original work.  It functions as a modern theater overture would as a summary of everything the audience is about to hear.”

Quigley says Roy was indispensable.

“He’s an incredibly thoughtful young musician and we couldn’t have done this without him making this edition,” says Quigley.  “He created the full score, then the score for the singers, and then each of the individual parts of the orchestra.”

For the November program, Seraphic Fire pairs Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux” with “Dominus Regnavit” (1734) by one of Rameau’s contemporaries, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville.

Mondonville’s “Regnavit”  is a work for choir in six movements that, like “Castor et Pollux,” also explores the difference between the human and divine.

“In the program, we contrast (Rameau’s opera) with Mondonville’s piece,” says Quigley, “which was written a few years earlier for the church rather than for the theater.  (Mondonville’s) piece talks about the immortal king that reigns.  The contrast of these two works contrasts the church sphere with what is going on in the theatrical world at that time while also opposing different ideas of immortality.”

WHAT: Seraphic Fire’s “Gods and Mortals: Music of the French Baroque” 

WHERE AND WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2 at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox, 2401 SW 3rd Ave., Miami; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3 at Church of the Little Flower, 2711 Indian Mound Trail, Coral Gables; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4 at All Saints Episcopal, 333 Tarpon Dr., Fort Lauderdale; 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5 at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach.

COST:  $50 for all performances except Kravis Center, which are $45 and $55.

INFORMATION: 305-285-9060 and seraphicfire.org.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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