Leonardo Leo’s (5 August 1684 – 31 October 1744) influential roles as teacher, composer, organist, and maestro di cappella all centered around Naples. Having studied at the Pietà dei Turchini, he later returned there to teach, eventually succeeding his own mentor Nicola Fago as primo maestro in 1741. He held that position until his death. During these same years, he was primo maestro at the Sant’Onofrio Conservatory where he taught such notable composers as Nicolò Jommelli and Nicola Piccini. His service in the Real Cappella di Napoli began in 1725 when he assumed the position of first organist following the death of Alessandro Scarlatti. Gradually, Leo rose through the ranks of this most prestigious musical organization and finally assumed the role of primo maestro just a few months before his death.
As with most of his contemporaries, Leo achieved fame primarily for his operas. These works not only received performances in major Italian locales but also in several foreign cities such as Dresden, London, Madrid, and Paris. Closely following opera was Leo’s reputation for sacred music composition. He composed more than seventy liturgical works, including at least eight Dixit Dominus settings, eight sacred dramas or oratorios, six Masses, five Miserere settings, two Magnificats, and a Te Deum.
The Introito del Mercoledì delle Ceneri is an excellent example of the stile antico that was generally used during Lent in the Neapolitan churches and chapels. However, Leo was never afraid to bend the rules as the texture of this piece calls to mind the Renaissance masters, but the harmonies keep the listener firmly planted in the eighteenth century. In the months immediately following this composition, Leo would compose a series of a cappella compositions with continuo like this one but leaving the stile antico behind. This hybrid style was Leo’s attempt to reform church music, and several pieces from this set would be held up as a model for church composition for well over fifty years.
The work appears to have been written for Ash Wednesday mass on 19 February 1744, only twenty-five days after Domenico Sarro’s death opened the door for Leo to become maestro di cappella of the Real Cappella. Although the title page identifies the piece as only an Introit, the four sections of this work actually comprise the Introit, Gradual, and latter part of the Tract for this mass.
Our edition of the Messa à Piu Voci was prepared from the composer’s autograph, which was a part of Vincent Novello’s personal collection and now resides in the British Library. The manuscript indicates that Leo completed the composition on 18 February 1739. The scope of the work and its full orchestral setting would seem to indicate that the piece was composed for use in one of Naples’s larger churches and not the Royal Chapel. The way in which he uses the winds—horns for only the first part of the Kyrie, trumpets in only one movement, and oboes in only two—make it likely that the wind players came out of the choir to play their respective movements, a regular practice when using conservatory musicians.
The manuscript has no title page, but the first page of music identifies the work as “Messa à piu voci con V.V. [violins], Violetta, Trombe, Oboi e Corni di cacchia ad libidum, del Sigr. Leonardo Leo.” Composed before the introduction of Leo’s reforming style of church music, this piece is typical of the mid-century Neapolitan Galant, incorporating antico-style counterpoint as well as the clean homophonic style that was gaining popularity. Particularly notable is Leo’s use of the strings in a way that supports but is independent of the voices. The instruments frequently rest for several measures, returning in an accompanimental role with little doubling of the voice parts. Additionally, the soloistic use of the oboes and trumpets in their respective movements leads to an interesting orchestral color scheme.
The typical Neapolitan mass setting of this time period includes only the Kyrie and Gloria texts, as demonstrated in the Messa a Piu Voci. However, The title Messa Completa à Quattro Voci Piena indicates that this piece also includes a Credo. While the manuscript used in the preparation of this edition offers no composition date, it does specify that the piece was written for the Real Cappella. The setting is for choir and organ only and written in the style that typified Leo’s late reforming church pieces, which would seem to indicate that the piece was written after 1740 and possibly during Leo’s brief time as primo maestro. Because it is a “complete” setting of the mass, the work was likely composed for a festival Sunday, such as Easter or Pentecost. Therefore, the music reflects the celebratory nature of these occasions. Even the Crucifixus movement, with its G-major tonality and rhythmic vitality, seems oddly joyous for the text at hand.
As with the Piu Voci and fairly standard in concerted church music by Leo and his Neapolitan followers, the Magnificat à Cinque Voci blends the stile moderno and stile antico. Stile moderno traits such as periodic melodies, light accompaniments, limited counterpoint, and strongly contrasting thematic materials are demonstrated most noticeably in movement three. The stile antico is evidenced in the very opening of the work by the use of older mensuration signs and long note values. An older style of fugal writing with points of imitation is also found throughout this work, especially in movements two and seven.
The work was written in 1740. Like the Piu Voci, its size and scope make it unlikely that it was intended for use in the Royal Chapel. Of particular interest is the string writing, which displays much variety and independence. Not content merely to double the vocal lines, Leo gives the strings introductory, interlude, and concluding functions in sections throughout the work. In comparison with the vocal writing, the string parts are much more disjunct, constantly weaving through the choral fabric.
Chicago Galant Consort
Thomas J. Tropp, music director
Elizabeth E. Doran, associate music director, rehearsal accompanist
Melinda Alberty, Bethany Brautigam, Julia Davids, Jennifer Haworth, Alexandra Plattos, Stepanie Sheffield
Sammi Block, Elizabeth Doran, Alex Edgemon, Elizabeth Jankowski, Elda Peralta
Micah Dingler, Ace Gangoso, Jay Kory Johnson
Tamaron Conseur, Ryan O’Mealey
Deborah Stevenson, Erica Anderson
Melanie Cottle, Dan O’Connell
Christopher Martin, Bill Baxtresser
Martin Davids, Jeri-Lou Zike, Wendy Benner
Jerry Fuller, Phillip Serna
Executive Producer: Elizabeth E. Doran
Producers: Elizabeth E. Doran, Thomas J. Tropp
Engineers: Anthony Holmes, Thomas J. Tropp
Cover photo: High altar (Dionisio Lazzari, 1674), Chapel of the Royal Palace, Naples
All music heard on this recording is newly edited and published by The Galant Masters Project.