Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday January 27, 2011

Handel Trio Sonata in G minor, Op. 2, No. 8

orchestration: oboe, violin; cello, harpsichord

Boismortier Trio Sonata in E minor, Op. 37, No. 2

orchestration: oboe, bassoon; cello, harpsichord

Telemann Quartet in G major from Tafelmusik, Part 1

orchestration: flute, oboe, violin; cello, harpsichord

Bach Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother, BMV 992

orchestration: solo harpsichord

Bach Contrapunctus 1 and 4 from Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080

orchestration: oboe, bassoon, violin; cello, harpsichord

Vivaldi La Pastorella (“The Sheperdess”)

orchestration: flute, oboe, bassoon, violin; cello, harpsichord

This evening’s concert features instrumental masterpieces from the middle to late Baroque period. In the Renaissance period in music —the era immediately preceding the Baroque era—the majority of written music was vocal. There were sacred motets and masses and secular madrigals, but very little was written specifically for instruments. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, which had the greatest body of written music before the advent of music printing, had no music for instruments because instruments were not permitted in the church for hundreds of years. Also, instruments themselves could be quite expensive, and since a voice is usually included in our human make-up, it was an economical way to make music. Words too, have always been an important part of music-making, and only a voice can sing text.

In the Baroque period, however, purely instrumental music grew in prominence for the first time in recorded musical history. Music printing, which had been invented around the turn of the 16th century, made the mass production of written music easier and more affordable. The middle class could afford the scores and the instruments on which to play them. At first, publishers simply put out instrumental versions of vocal works like madrigals, but in time, composers took up the challenge of writing instrumental music both for professional and amateur players. A composer on the program tonight, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, was one of the first composers to make a living through public sales of his music. Unlike his contemporaries, Boismortier did not rely on the favor of patrons to earn money; he received a license for music engraving when he moved to Paris at the age of 35. He produced a great deal of music and consequently achieved a degree of financial security from his compositions.

In the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods, instrumental ensembles were arranged into consorts. A so-called “whole” consort consists of musical instruments that are all from the same family; there can be a consort of strings or a consort of winds, for example. A “broken” consort is a group that consists of musical instruments from different families. As the Baroque period went on, broken consorts gave way to small orchestras and ensembles. Almost all ensembles in the Baroque period are supported by the basso continuo, usually two players who round out the harmonies and bassline of a piece. One person plays a bass instrument while the other continuo player performs on an instrument that has the capacity to sound more than one note at a time, a “chordal” instrument. In the Baroque period, the combination might have consisted of a violone (a low string instrument) and a harpsichord. In modern times, the continuo instruments might be a double bass and a piano. In either case, the combination of the two instruments provides a harmonic anchor that fills out the texture. The basso continuo allows for greater freedom in the other instruments since they are not responsible for contributing directly to the harmony.

The most popular of the early Baroque ensembles was the trio sonata, which featured two soloists and the basso continuo. The term trio sonata is something of a misnomer since there are actually four players in the group, but the basso continuo duo really counts as one entity (the Quartet in G major by Telemann counts the basso continuo as a single entity as well). Tonight’s program features Trio Sonatas by Boismortier and Handel. Many trio sonatas and quartets in the Baroque were written for violins, but much of tonight’s program highlights the woodwind instruments. Vivaldi’s La Pastorella, for example, is a chamber concerto—an orchestral work with more than one solo instrument—that features the following solo instruments: flute, oboe, violin and bassoon. Since the title of the work means “The Shepherdess,” the music must address the natural scene in which a shepherdess lives and works, thus woodwind instruments seem a fitting choice. Pastoral scenes in music are often represented by a single woodwind (perhaps accompanied by a larger group) to mimic the gentle sound of a lone shepherd piping away on a flute. These scenes are often serene and quiet. Vivaldi’s piece, through its use of the woodwinds, suggests a rustic charm and a pleasant natural backdrop.

The Baroque keyboard, however, has little connection with nature. It is not a rugged instrument, ready to travel like a flute or an oboe. It is a finicky piece of equipment, in need of constant maintenance. Luckily for it, it is also an instrument that produces a beautiful sound. JS Bach, master of the high Baroque style, wrote wonderful works for the harpsichord throughout his career. The Capriccio dates from early in Bach’s career, while the Art of the Fugue is one of Bach’s last works. The former features an improvisatory style, while the latter is a monument to Baroque counterpoint. Interestingly, the Art of the Fugue was written for unspecified instrumentation because Bach wrote out each “voice” on its own staff. (Fugues have multiple lines of music, called “voices,” that interact with each other.) This has led some to believe that Bach might have written these fugues as an intellectual exercise rather than as something meant for performance, or that perhaps Bach meant the lines to be played on different instruments. Musicologists, however, have argued persuasively that Bach meant this work to be played on the harpsichord because it was not uncommon for keyboard pieces to be written with each voice on its own staff. Musicologists also point out that the ranges of the lines in the fugues do not match the ranges of instruments of the time period. Furthermore, if the fugues were meant to be played by an ensemble, Bach would have written a part for basso continuo.

The Capriccio and the fugues display different possibilities for Baroque keyboard music. The free style of the Capriccio allows a performer to show off not only his (or her) skill, but also the expressive possibilities of the instrument. A fugue, on the other hand, must follow stringent rules. That Bach could make such a strict form sound so beautiful is a credit to his talent. These keyboard pieces, bookends to an incredible career, are quintessential instrumental works of the Baroque.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD