Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday April 30, 2009

Handel Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 6, No. 5

orchestration: 2 oboes; strings; continuo

Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto in C major, RV 443


Handel Organ Concerto in G minor, Op. 4, No. 1


Telemann Wassermusik (“Water Music”)


In the middle Baroque, the royal court was the center of musical life. Avid patrons of the arts like Louis XIV turned the court into a musicmaking machine. Because royalty continued to put a high value on music, much in the same way that Elizabeth I did during the early Baroque, those in the upper class desired to learn how to play, and amateur musicianship grew. As a result, the sales of both music and instruments flourished. Keyboard instruments became very popular. There were several types of these instruments, and each was designed to be played for different occasions and in different locations. The following is a primer of some of these instruments, how they work and how composers used them.

The harpsichord is probably the most important keyboard instrument in the Baroque period. Not only did it end up functioning as a solo instrument in the later Baroque—the works of Bach are particularly important—the harpsichord was also important as a continuo instrument. Along with a bass instrument like the cello or bassoon, the harpsichord provides a harmonic underpinning for Baroque instrumental ensembles, fleshing out the chords underneath the other single-voiced instruments. Both the Handel Concerto Grosso in D major and Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C major demonstrate the harpsichord in its role as a member of the basso continuo.

The sound mechanism for the harpsichord works differently from the familiar piano: When the player presses a key, the other end of the key rises, and in turn, causes a piece of wood called the “jack” to rise as well. The jack has a plectrum—usually made of quill—attached to it, and this plucks a string. When the player stops pressing the key, the plectrum returns to its original position; the quill does not hit the string again. The descent of the jack allows the string to be silenced by the damper. There is no sustain and no dynamic range to the harpsichord. Every hit of the key—hard or soft—results in the exact same plucking action, unlike today’s pianos, in which the keys hammer rather than pluck, and the sound is touch-sensitive. Because the harpsichord makes such a soft sound, the design of its body is essential to make the instrument audible, especially in an ensemble. The soundboard (located under the strings) amplifies the sound. Some harpsichords have one string per note, while others have multiple strings per pitch.

Another instrument, the virginal, is like a small table-top harpsichord with one string per note. The rectangular shape of the instrument often meant that the plectrum would hit the string in the middle, unlike a harpsichord where the plectrum usually plucked the string at its end. The resultant sound was slightly rounder in the virginal. The instrument was probably given its name for one of two reasons. Essentially a portable harpsichord, it was an instrument for inside the home and was often played by young women. Some also say that the flute-like tone of the instrument is like that of a girl’s voice. The instrument was very popular during the reign of Elizabeth I and, since she herself was both the “virgin queen” and an avid musician, the name of the instrument was even more fitting.

The clavichord (not to be confused with the clavecin, which is the French word for harpsichord) was invented in the 1400s and it remained popular in Germany and Scandinavia until the 19th century. It was primarily used inside the home. Composers like Mozart and Bach would have used clavichords to work out their compositions away from the eyes and ears of the public. One of the clavichord’s greatest supporters was Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (one of JS Bach’s sons), but most composers used the instrument privately since its sound is so quiet. In recent years, with the rise of authentic performances of early music, the clavichord has become a much more public instrument. Unlike the harpsichord and the virginal, the strings inside the clavichord are played by a hammer mechanism. When a key is hit, a metal strip called a “tangent” hits the brass or iron strings inside the clavichord. Like the harpsichord, there may be more than one string per note. The clavichord is touch sensitive, so you can get a louder sound with a firmer hit of the key. In the modern piano, the hammer bounces back from the string, but in the clavichord, the tangent touches the string until the player releases the key. Sometimes, a player will press the key and then—with it still pressed—rock his finger on the key causing a vibrato effect known as bebung. The term bebung comes from the German word for “trembling.” This technique was considered an embellishment to be added at the player’s discretion, but was sometimes indicated specifically by a composer. The clavichord shares some characteristics with the modern piano and certainly with the pianoforte. The pianoforte came to the fore in the 1700s, and the modern piano of today is an invention of the 1800s.

The Baroque organ, like the modern pipe organ, had multiple manuals (keyboards) and a pedalboard to be played with the feet. The sound is produced by air traveling through pipes, by means of bellows. The air flow is constant through the pipes for as long as the key is pressed, so the sound does not decay until the player stops holding the key. The size and shape of pipes varies widely, and sets of pipes are called “ranks.” Because the ranks differ in shape and size, the organ was capable of producing varied sounds. Players would choose different sets of ranks to play using stops like the Chimney Flute, Posaune and Vox Humana, and could therefore manipulate the timbre of the sound they produced. Handel wrote 12 famous organ concertos, including tonight’s Organ Concerto in G minor.

Telemann’s Wassermusik uses the entire orchestra, keyboard included, to evoke the sea. Since it was composed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Admiralty of Hamburg in 1723, each of the dance movements in the suite depicts the mythological gods and goddesses associated with the water, while the overture imitates oceanic characteristics in a more general way.

As for how a composer decided which keyboard instrument to use in a composition, certain musical effects work better on the harpsichord since the mechanism that creates the sound allows for a more precise attack and virtually no decay of the sound. The harpsichord was also moveable and relatively small, and was therefore well-suited to chamber compositions. Organs were primarily found in churches, although portable organs, especially in the last fifty years or so, have become more popular (and more technologically advanced), allowing the organ repertoire to leave the church and enter the concert hall.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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