The church music of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Italy is probably less well known than that of any other country at the time. More familiar are the Lutheran tradition that led to Bach, the Anglican repertory of Purcell and his successors, and the motet (grand or petit) of Catholic France. Isolated examples of Italian sacred music, such as the Vivaldi Gloria, Lotti Crucifixus, Pergolesi Stabat Mater or, of course, Handel Dixit Dominus (composed in Rome), appear regularly on CD and in concert, but most of the repertory is eclipsed by secular works - opera and concerto, chamber cantata and sonata.
So it is with Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), one of the greatest Italian composers of the period, who is remembered above all for his chamber duets and operas. The majority of these works were composed at Munich, where he became court organist and director of chamber music in 1675, and at Hanover, where he moved in 1688 as Kapellmeister; from 1703 to 1709 he served Elector Johann Wilhelm at Düsseldorf, but there he was appointed to work for the government and the church. It is ironic that his sacred music should have slipped out of sight, for of the several composers who were also Catholic priests he was by far the most zealous and active. His ordination in 1680 was followed by his appointment as abbot of Löpsingen (north of Augsburg) in 1683, provost of Seltz (south of Karlsruhe) in 1706, bishop of Spiga (in Asia Minor) in 1707, apostolic vicar of North Germany in April 1709 and abbot of San Stefano at Carrara (between Padua and Rovigo) in September 1709. As apostolic vicar he strove, with Johann Wilhelm, to reconvert north Germany to the Catholic faith.
The majority of Steffani's sacred works were composed, nevertheless, during his period at Munich (1667-88), the only Catholic court where he was appointed as a musician (Hanover was Protestant from 1679). At the age of eighteen he was sent to Rome "to perfect himself further in his art". There his education as a composer was guided for nearly two years (1672-4) by Ercole Bernabei, maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia. There, too, he became a member of the Congregazione dei Musici di Roma, the foundation stone of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, and published his Psalmodia vespertina (Rome, 1674), settings of vesper psalms and the Magnificat for two antiphonal choirs and organ. His only other printed book of church music, Sacer Ianus quadrifrons (Munich, 1685), comprises twelve smallscale concertato motets for three voices and continuo. Since any one of the voices can be omitted, every motet can be performed in four ways: hence the title of the publication (‘Holy Janus of the four faces').
The present CD draws on neither of these printed collections but includes all but two of the pieces of sacred music that are ascribed to Steffani in manuscript sources and can confidently be attributed to him. All but three of these settings date from the beginning of his compositional career in the 1670s. Most of them are preserved in a manuscript in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, that bears the inscription "Abbot Stephani's own Writing, and bound for Himself". The volume has been (carefully) rebound in recent years, but it appears to be autograph and supplies dates for all but one of the pieces it contains.
Further inscriptions against Triduanas a Domino and Laudate pueri suggest that both settings were composed for St Cecilia's day (22 November) in 1673. The former (dated 20 November 1673) is an antiphon at Second Vespers on that feast, the latter (November) a vesper psalm. Both works are scored for two groups of singers, but they differ in compositional approach. In Triduanas a Domino the two equally constituted four-part choirs are given music in the Palestrinian stile antico. In Laudate pueri, by contrast, the first choir comprises five parts, probably intended for soloists, while the second choir, in four parts, performs the function of a tutti: the piece is essentially a sacred concerto with organ accompaniment, the forces combining for a virtuoso fugal setting of "Amen". The Fitzwilliam manuscript also includes Steffani's earliest sacred settings in the small-scale concertato idiom - Sperate in Deo (1674), for five voices and organ, and a setting of the vesper psalm Beatus vir (undated, but probably 1674) for three voices, two violins and organ. Sperate in Deo, of which the text pays tribute to the pope and martyr Anacletus (or Cletus), is his first piece of church music to fall into clearly defined movements and exploit the potential of recitative, while the Beatus vir (not included on this recording) is his earliest known composition of any kind to call for instruments in addition to voices. In his Beatus vir for eight voices and organ (16 September 1676), which survives in a partly autograph manuscript in Assisi, the voices are divided into two equal choirs, but the music is far more responsive to the words than are the simple chordal textures of the Psalmodia vespertina. Of course, the same is true also of the pieces in the Fitzwilliam manuscript, which must have been written for virtuoso singers and display an even wider range of style and technique.
The remaining three works on this CD, of which the autographs are lost, date from later periods and illustrate further facets of Steffani's creativity. Non plus me ligate, preserved in Berlin, is his only sacred setting for solo soprano (with two violins and continuo). It probably dates from the first quarter of the eighteenth century, especially if the world-weary words reflect the mood of the composer. The motet Qui diligit Mariam was written in 1727 for the Academy of Vocal (later "Ancient") Music in London, which had been established in 1726 for the study and performance of unaccompanied vocal polyphony; Steffani had already sent them his five-part madrigal, Gettano i re dal soglio. Qui diligit Mariam, which is scored for the same voices, was much admired, despite its overtly Marian text: an appreciation was written by John Ernest Galliard, who praised, among other things, the masterly reintroduction of the opening theme towards the end of the work. Steffani himself described his setting of the Stabat Mater as his last composition and his masterpiece. Although he sent this, too, to the Academy, it is doubtful whether he originally intended it for them, for it requires instruments in addition to voices. The composer-priest was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary, and the Stabat Mater, which had been removed from the liturgy in the sixteenth century, had been reinstated for universal use in 1727: this may be what prompted both his setting of the text and those of Astorga, Caldara, Pergolesi, Domenico Scarlatti and others. Be that as it may, Steffani offered his work to the Academy a month before his death and sent it to them almost immediately. Although the fact that it was his swansong must have contributed to its celebrity, and although its style is old-fashioned for the late 1720s, his Stabat Mater is a moving setting of an emotive text addressed to the mother of Christ at the foot of the cross, and an eloquent demonstration of Steffani's faith. It seems fitting that his career as a composer should have ended with Marian works.