Archive for the Programs and repertoire Category

Bringing “The Rebel Queen,” Armonia Celeste’s second recording, to life

Posted in Programs and repertoire, Recordings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by armoniaceleste
Queen Christina as Minerva Unknown artist, 1700s

Queen Christina as Minerva
Unknown artist

As you may recall, Armonia Celeste recorded its second CD last fall.

Sarah, Dianna, Rebecca, Lyle, and Paula convened in Silver Spring, Maryland, to make the recording. An all-star cast was brought in to help: UK-based producer Malcolm Bruno oversaw the festivities, and guest artists Cynthia Roberts and Madeline Adkins on baroque violin and Allen Whear on baroque cello supplied bowed-string color (and brilliant panache) on a couple of the selections.

The ensemble was able to record all the music, but must raise money to finish the editing and post-production processes before the recording can be submitted to the record label for distribution. (Yes, in these dark days of the music industry, musicians must fund the costs of their recordings on their own.)

Armonia Celeste needs your help to raise $6000 by August 2 in order to finish this historically and musicologically important recording and release it to the public.

And what wonderful music comprises this CD? Music from the chapels and courts of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), who was enamored of Italian musical, religious, and political culture–so much so that she abdicated the Swedish throne and moved to Rome to set up court, where she patronized the finest composers and performers of her time. Armonia Celeste’s The Rebel Queen features haunting sacred and stirring secular music from such musical lights of the era as Mazzocchi, Rossi, Carissimi, Pasquini, and the harpist-singer Marazzoli, exquisitely sung with the ensemble’s signature blend, and accompanied with verve and style on period instruments.

drottning kristina igen

“King Christina” with sword and crown, 1650. 18th-century copy after the lost original by David Beck

By all accounts, Queen Christina of Sweden was a strong-willed, mischief-making, and rule-breaking woman. Her shocking exploits included cutting her hair short, wearing men’s clothing, and chatting flippantly with common merchants and beggars. We delve more into her mold-breaking character and remarkable life here and in the video below.

You’ll also hear a preview track from the album: La Corista by Lelio Colista, featuring our guest artists on bowed strings and Lyle and Paula on plucked-string continuo (theorbo and baroque triple harp).

Have a look and a listen to the delights that await you and the 21st-century audience if Armonia Celeste succeeds (with your help) in bringing this recording to the public! As always…many thanks for your support.


How we made our own Vespers

Posted in Concerts, Programs and repertoire on January 28, 2014 by armoniaceleste

HIP_Logo_2014date (1)Armonia Celeste is collaborating with the Duke Vespers Ensemble as part of the North Carolina HIP (Historically Informed Performance) Festival in the Raleigh-Durham Triangle Area. The Festival runs from January 21 to February 7, and features a wide variety of performances by well-known ensembles. Concerts range from  Handel’s opera Theodora, with the English Concert, to a new contemporary concerto for period instruments by Stephen Jaffe, and take place in various venues in Durham and Chapel Hill. See the complete listing at:

Our concert, “Roman Vespers in the Seventeenth Century,” will be performed in Durham on Friday, February 7, at 8:00 p.m. in the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.

It has been an interesting challenge to find a program that would unite the forces of the Duke Vespers Ensemble and Armonia Celeste. The Duke Vespers Ensemble, directed by Brian Schmidt, provides service music for the Duke Chapel, and Armonia Celeste is primarily a group that is focused on Italian secular music for seventeenth-century Rome—slightly different focuses. Luckily, there was a logical link to be found in the seventeenth-century Vespers tradition, which unites the riches of the sacred music repertory for three sopranos with the seventeenth-century Vespers choral repertory. A concert based on this Vespers tradition provides the structure for a program that involves both this wonderful music and these two ensembles.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Rome was a musical epicenter of festive, dramatic works of exceptional quality that often employed large performing forces. This style permeated operas, cantatas, masses, and concerti, but found its special focus in the great Sunday evening Vesper services, especially at St. Peter’s and other important churches. The greatest Roman composers often reserved their best works for these services. Five psalms—Dixit Dominus, Beatus Vir, Confitebor, Laudate Pueri, and Laudate Dominum—are commonly at the heart of the Vespers service. At major services, the psalms were sung polyphonically and were generally paired with a chant antiphon that changed daily. However, in the more festive services, these antiphons were frequently replaced with sacred concerti, performed by solo voices and sometimes accompanied by instruments. In the service, the psalms were always followed by the Magnificat, the Marian canticle found in the Gospel according to Luke. Other elements in the service, such as hymns, a Bible reading, and a homily or sermon were also often found. The service ended with a blessing.

It is this basic overall form that organizes our program. The five psalms are being sung using larger ensembles on four or five parts. The music of the sixteenth-century Roman composers, Felice Anerio (who followed Palestrina as the official composer for the papal choir) and Tomas Luis de Victoria, is included because their fame led to their music being performed for decades after their deaths, especially in Rome. (Victoria was engaged at the Pontifical Seminary and the Collegio Gemanico [see below] before returning to Spain.) These works were composed and performed in alternatim style, where the verses alternate between polyphony and chant. We have also included psalms of the most famous Venetian composers, Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Rovetta, whose music was performed though out Italy and certainly reached Rome.

The composer Giacomo Carissimi

The composer Giacomo Carissimi

Aside from these composers, the musical focus of our Vespers is on the works of the most important seventeenth-century Roman composers: Virgilio Mazzochi and Giacomo Carissimi. Mazzochi’s “Surge amica mea” will be performed as the opening hymn; Carissimi’s “Si linguis” will stand in as the antiphon/Bible reading, while his “Quo tam loetus” serves as the little sermon. The magnificent double choir setting of the Magnificat, one of Carissimi’s Vespers masterpieces, is the focus at end of the service, followed by his lovely blessing, “Benedictus Deus.” Instrumental pieces were sometimes included, and we are using the trio sonata “La Chorista” by Lelio Colista, a well-known Roman composer and lute player. Virgilio Mazzochi was one of the most important composers in the first half of the century; he was the maestro di cappella at St. Peter’s, and also had connections to the Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Probably the most famous composer in the middle of the century was Giacomo Carissimi, head of music at the Collegio Germanico, the Jesuit training facility for clergy from German-speaking countries that included music as a central part of the training.

Commemorative plaque on the 400th anniversary of the composer's birth. "Every note was a gem"

Commemorative plaque on the 400th anniversary of the composer’s birth. “Every note was a gem”

Much of his music, including the famous oratorios Jepthe and Jonas, was first performed at the Collegio. He also became the head of chamber music for the Swedish Queen Christina upon her abdication and move to Rome. When Carissimi died, the Collegio decreed that they would keep all of his music manuscripts and none were to be published—a tragic policy as it turns out, since his manuscripts were eventually given to nineteenth-century fishmongers for wrapping their wares. The original manuscripts disappeared forever. Luckily, much of his music was copied by students and others, and was widely distributed across Europe. Despite the great amount of music left to us, one wonders how much was lost to the world.

–Lyle and Patricia Nordstrom

Armonia Celeste presents “The Rebel Queen: Music from Christina’s Swedish Court in Rome”

Posted in Programs and repertoire on January 14, 2013 by armoniaceleste
Christina in 1650

Christina in 1650

“She walked like a man, sat and rode like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldiers.” So she was described by one of her biographers. This was Queen Christina, the Rebel Queen, a queen like no other.

Christina was constantly upending expectations of her. This even happened at her birth in 1626 where, because of her hairy appearance, they first thought she was a boy. The daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, she became queen at age six when her father was killed in the Thirty Years’ War. Before he left for battle, the king had ordered that she be raised and educated like any prince, and she took great advantage of her education. Obviously very bright and extremely curious, she could speak six languages; it was said that her talent for languages was “nothing short of unique.” She slept only about six hours a day and spent the rest of the day in her studies, often dressing in male clothes as she felt it was more efficient. Christina eventually invited the French philosopher René Descartes as well several other foreign artists and intellectuals to her court. She amassed one of the largest libraries in Europe and became known as “the Minerva of the North.”

Through conversations with Descartes and probably her Italian musicians, she gradually became interested in the Catholic faith. Queen Christina eventually decided not to marry. In June 1654, she abdicated the Swedish throne, discarded the Lutheran faith, converted to Catholicism, and began her journey to Rome to take up residence there. Christina traveled though Europe, often dressed as a knight, and finally arrived in Rome in December of 1655 to great fanfare. She entered the city though the Porto del Popolo, newly redecorated in her honor by Bernini, where she could read Pope Alexander VII’s personal greeting that is still inscribed over the gate: “Felice faustoque ingressui – 1655” (“May your entry be happy and propitious”). Over the next few weeks she also attended a special performance of Carissimi’s oratorio Il sacrificio d’Isacco at the German College, along with several theatrical and opera performances at the Barberini palace.

Christina at first took up residence in the Palazzo Farnese, eventually settling in the Palazzo Riario. Music and the arts remained an important part of her life and patronage as she quickly established her Academia d’Arcadia, where participants enjoyed and took part in music, theatre, literature, philosophy, science, and languages. She named Carissimi her Maestro di Cappella del Concerto di Camera, making him central to the musical aspects of her gatherings. This was a major coup, as Carissimi was firmly situated as the chapel master at the Jesuits’ German College and had already refused several important positions elsewhere. She also had close relations with the Barberini family, and “borrowed” several of their musicians, including Marazzoli, Pasqualini, Vittori, and Giuseppe Melani. (She apparently took voice lessons from the castrato Loreto Vittori and was accompanied by Marazzoli, probably on the famous Barberini harp.) Eventually she became patron to the composers Bernardo Pasquini and the future important composers Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti.
Christina was a member of the “Libertines,” the freethinking branch of the Catholic faith, and she often made disparaging remarks about the Pope and others in power. She was an advocate of women performers who commonly participated in events at the academy and in operas she staged. She had several women musicians in her employ such as the singers Maria Landini and her daughters Angelica and Mariuccia. Other singers included Angela Maddalena Voglia (who also played lute, theorbo, and keyboards) as well as the famous soprano Antonia Cortesi, who had been one of the leading opera singers in Venice. It is also possible that she heard one of the other ensembles of women in Rome (an important inspiration to Armonia Celeste), as detailed by André Maugars in a visit to Rome towards the middle of the seventeenth century:

There was also the Leonora Baroni and her daughters who were in Rome for several years…. I must tell you that she did me the special favor of singing with her mother and her sister, her mother playing the lirone, her sister the harp and she the theorbo. This concert, composed of three beautiful voices and three different instruments, so affected my senses and so ravished my spirit that I forgot my mortal condition and thought I was among the angels enjoying the delights of the blessed.

Christina was known for often going against conventional Roman customs and mores. This applied not only to promoting women performers but to other traditions as well. For example, in Rome, there was a reprehensible custom of chasing Jews through the streets during Carnival; she issued a proclamation that Roman Jews were under her protection. It was said that she took a practice shot with a cannon at the Castel Sant’Angelo without bothering to aim it, and hit the door of the Villa Medici. (The dented door is still there, and the supposed cannon ball is now atop the fountain in front of the entrance.) She became both the darling and the scandal of Rome and at the same time, one of the great patrons of the arts.

Christina died in 1689 and was buried in St. Peter’s Grotto, one of the few women ever to ever receive that honor. In 1933, the great Greta Garbo appeared in “Queen Christina,” a fictionalized movie about her life and abdication. Christina remains one of the most interesting women in history, and numerous books and articles have been and continue to be written about her. Her lasting reputation as a witty and freethinking historical figure is complemented by the enormous musical legacy she fostered during her years in Rome as patron to the arts. The music on Armonia Celeste’s program is a testament to the strong musical traditions cultivated in her courts and academies.

–Lyle Nordstrom

September concert tour of the Midwest!

Posted in Concerts, Programs and repertoire with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2012 by armoniaceleste

We are performing “Udite Amanti: Lovers, Beware! Music from the Seventeenth-Century Barberini Court,” our exciting program that has gotten audiences to their feet everywhere we’ve toured it. The concert explores the dangers of love in early baroque Italy, giving listeners a glimpse into a forgotten—yet strangely familiar—world.

In the Rome of the mid-1600s, the patronage of the powerful Barberini family engendered a period of great productivity within vocal chamber music and opera. The trios, duets, and solos—both instrumental and vocal—on this program represent the refinement of style that occurred in the Barberini court. Works of the Roman composers who were heard at this court or who served the Barberini family during the mid-seventeenth century are highlighted, with the music of Rossi, Carissimi, and Cesti (named by Perti in 1688 as “the three greatest lights of our profession”) serving as the centerpiece; other composers of the era such as Frescobaldi, Tenaglia, Marazzoli, and Pasqualini (one of the Barbarini castrati) are also represented.

To complete the historical picture, an exquisitely carved and gilded copy of the famous Barberini harp, made for this prestigious family ca. 1630, will be played for this program.

Further in-depth information on the composers and repertoire in this concert can be found here and here.

Please make sure you come back and say hello after the concert—we’d love to meet you!


Richmond, Indiana
Sunday, September 23, 2012  4:00 PM

Earlham College
Stout Meetinghouse
801 National Road West (US 40)
Richmond, IN 47374

Free admission


Cincinnati, Ohio
Tuesday, September 25, 2012   7:30 PM

Christ Church Cathedral
318 East Fourth Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202-4299

$15 general admission; $5 students/seniors; free to children age 12 and under.
Tickets available at the door


Columbus, Ohio
Early Music in Columbus
Friday, September 28, 2012, 8:00 pm
Pre-concert lecture  7:30 pm

Mees Hall
Capital University
1 College and Main
Columbus, OH 43209

Tickets $27 Regular, $22 Seniors (age 62 and over), $12 Students
Buy tickets


Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Academy of Early Music
Saturday, September 29, 2012  8:00 PM
Pre-Concert Lecture at 7:00 PM

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
306 N. Division Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

$20 General/$17 Members and Seniors/$5 Students
Buy tickets


Rochester, Michigan
Sunday, September 30, 2012  7:00 PM

Varner Recital Hall
Oakland University
Rochester, Michigan 48309

Tickets $14 general, $8 students
Buy tickets


First edits back from our new CD!

Posted in Programs and repertoire, Recordings with tags on March 1, 2012 by armoniaceleste

We are very excited at having received the first edits back from our January recording session of our upcoming CD, tentatively entitled “Udite Amanti–Lovers, Beware!: Music from the Seventeenth-Century Barberini Court.” You can read more specifics about the repertoire and composers on this CD in recent blog posts, but in brief this looks like shaping up to be an enchanting mix of instrumental solos and duets punctuating sung trios, duets, and solos all accompanied by various combinations of lute, theorbo, baroque guitar, and baroque triple (Barberini!) harp.

The music is alternatively flirtatious, plaintive, lush, and ethereal, with our producer and recording engineer having gotten a very rich sound out of our palette of three voices and historical plucked strings. It is a sound that promises to take you back nearly 400 years, immersing you in a world of intrigue, privilege, and passion.

We are currently preparing some clips to post on our website to give you a sneak preview of what you can expect from the CD. Stay tuned for these and let us know what you think when you hear them…we hope you will be as excited about the finished disc as we are!

The greatest composer you never heard of

Posted in Programs and repertoire with tags , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by armoniaceleste

The composers of the music for Armonia Celeste are not yet common names among concertgoers. This is unfortunate, as the quality of their music and contributions to the history of music is often enormous. It is especially true of Luigi Rossi, the prime composer for Armonia Celeste’s current concert and forthcoming recording.

Rossi was born in southern Italy in the town of Torremaggiore, and apparently received his early training in Naples under Giovanni de Macque.  However, where he really made his mark was in Rome, where he served several patrons, including Cardinal Antonio Barberini.

Facade of the Barberini Palace

The Barberinis were great patrons of the arts, and Rossi’s first opera, Il Palazzo Incantato (The Enchanted Palace) was written for them in 1642. In 1645, the Baberinis were forced to leave Rome, and relocated temporarily in France under the protection of Jules Mazarin. Under his influence and that of the Barberinis, Rossi produced another opera, Orfeo; though long, this opera has a great deal of wonderful music (and received a fine production at the Boston Early Music Festival in 1997). Rossi returned to Rome for a final time in 1649, and died a few years later in 1653.

Although these two operas were significant, the major part of Rossi’s output was within the realm of the cantata, a repertoire that numbers around 400 pieces. These pieces are composed in a great variety of styles and for various numbers of performers. The greatest share of them is for solo soprano, but there are a number of duets, trios, and quartets, which make the music obvious for the three sopranos of Armonia Celeste.

Earlier in the century, there was a division of styles — the more serious monody madrigals that were first championed by Giulio Caccini, and the more metrical “aria” style, often written in strophic dance forms. Rossi was able to take these styles and combine them within a single piece, giving it greater variety and often length. He was always aware of the text and its needs for a musical interpretation. Where the libretto demanded that the listener understand the story or meaning, he would use the monody or a freer, more reciting style. Where the meaning was lighter or more universal, the more metrical styles took precedence. Rarely do these styles last longer than a minute before the ear is refreshed and the mind becomes interested in different music. Some pieces use strophic variation — that is, the libretto is basically organized in verses. This is the type of piece for which earlier composers would compose music for just the first verse and leave the underlay of the subsequent verses to the performer without changes in the music.  However, Rossi would essentially retain the music for each verse, but would pay attention to the subtle changes and needs of each, writing a few variations as needed. (“Fanciulla son io” on the Armonia Celeste website is one of these strophic variation pieces.)  This close attention to the details of the libretto is one of Rossi’s hallmarks, making the music interesting and intriguing to perform and hear.

Engraving of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, patron of Rossi

As harmony was not yet codifed into strict rules, he would often use harmonies that were quite advanced for the time, with added notes or dissonances foreign to the key or mode — wonderfully intriguing. Of special interest here might be the little chorus from Orfeo,Dormite begl’occhi” (which can also be heard on the Armonia Celeste website), where one finds a “d” added to a c minor chord and several other small but beautiful dissonances.

Another connection with Armonia Celeste was that Rossi’s wife, Costanza da Ponte, was a famous harpist considered to be one of the finest musicians of the time.  The use of harp to perform the continuo accompaniments was certainly a common practice for Rossi’s compositions in his time, and reflected in the performances by Armonia Celeste.

Very little of his music can be found in modern publications, and much of the music for Armonia Celeste comes from transcriptions from the original manuscripts.  As the number of works is so great, we are always finding new and exciting music to perform, a search that will continue for years.

Rossi became quite famous in his time, and there were numerous attestations to his compositional abilities. Perhaps the greatest tribute was by Giovanni Perti, who listed him with Carissimi and Cesti as one of the three “major lights of our profession,” an accolade that we think deserves current recognition as well.


Some background on our repertoire

Posted in Programs and repertoire with tags , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2012 by armoniaceleste

I have often been asked about the repertoire for Armonia Celeste and why we do this relatively unknown literature.  Actually, the answer is quite easy.  It is a fabulous and immense repertoire.  The wealth of material is sometimes almost overwhelming.  There are a number of high-level composers attached to the courts of Italy, especially the Barberini palaces. This includes people like Luigi Rossi, Mario Savioni, Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, Giacomo Carissimi, and Marco Marazzoli.

For example, Marazzoli has 379 cantatas extant, plus a raft of operas and oratorios.  Luigi Rossi has a similar amount, and cantatas from other composers number hundreds more.   These numbers just highlight the secular music.  When one adds in the sacred music by Carissimi, Foggia, and others, the music potentials become vast.  These numbers are basically only in Rome; adding the rest of Europe, the numbers grow even more.

Lutes, baroque guitar, and a small baroque triple harp

This is huge repertoire, but numbers only mean something if they are balanced by the quality of the music.  This is true in this repertoire.  The basic form is the cantata, not the 18th century style of Bach and others, but the emotional, secular style of the 17th century.  There is a large variety of styles and forces with numbers of high quality and interesting pieces.  Though the greatest share of them are for solo voice, primarily soprano, there are a number of duos, trios and even quartets.  This works well for Armonia Celeste.  Our three singers all have quite different and unique types of voices and styles; this allows a better fit to these different styles and ranges.  Mixing and matching these voices and styles into duets and trios makes for a more interesting program as well.

The instrumentalists of Armonia Celeste also add to the variety and match the different styles of composition.  Two of the primary continuo instruments, baroque triple harp and theorbo, are used for the bulk of the continuo realization, but different lutes and guitar can also be called upon when the need arises. The accompaniment of the harp must also have been common.  Marco Marazzoli was known as a harp player, and played the famed Barberini harp (of which our harpist plays a rare modern copy), and Luigi Rossi’s wife was also a virtuoso harpist.  Theorbo and lute players were common throughout Italy.  Kapsberger was even attached to the Barberini courts.

The ensemble of three women singers has a long history in Italy.  It started in the 1570’s with the “Concerto delle Donne” in Ferrara.  This ensemble became so famous that it was imitated in Modena, Florence (under Caccini), and other courts.  Though trios were still performed in the 17th century by women, the castrati also became primary singers.  Several of them were associated with the operas and other music of the courts, and it became natural for them to sing in the princely chambers when opera was not being performed.

This is the basis for the music for Armonia Celeste. Unfortunately, only a small amount of this repertoire is available in modern editions.  We are still combing the many manuscripts and prints of the time to bring some of these jewels to the 21st century.  This is part of the fun, recreating an exciting era of music for our audiences.


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