Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday February 17, 2011

Muffat Concerto Grosso No. 12, “Propitia Sydera” (“Lucky Stars”)

orchestration: harpsichord; strings

Handel Chaconne from Terpsichore

orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 flutes, bassoon; harpsichord; strings

WF Bach Harpsichord Concerto in D major

orchestration: harpsichord; strings

Royer Suite in C minor for Solo Harpsichord

orchestration: harpsichord

Rameau Suite of Dances from Hippolyte et Aricie

orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 flutes, bassoon; strings

Tonight’s program abounds in suites, an elegant term meaning simply a collection of dances. The word “dances” in our modern vernacular almost always refers to different styles of movement: tango, waltz, hip-hop, ballet. In the case of Baroque suites, however, the word “dance” also refers to the music which accompanied the physical movements. Many dances were common during the Baroque period, each with its own characteristic music. The music grew to be more stylized, and eventually dances became the focus of a seated audience rather than a dancing one. Composers and musicians could then choose to alter forms or tempos, as they were no longer concerned with writing music for a crowd of ball attendees, not all of whom were “light on their feet!”

A typical dance suite consisted of a few standard dances like the allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. The allemande, the first movement of a suite which does not begin with a prelude or overture, was fashioned in the style of lively German dances popular in the 16th century. The allemande gets its name from the French word for “German.” The courante was a slow triple meter dance sometimes described as majestic, but with a feeling of expectation. The sarabande, similar to the courante, is in a slow triple meter, but the sarabande developed from a spirited Spanish dance once banned as obscene. The vivacious gigue was usually the finale of a suite, employing more complex meters than the preceding movements. It grew out of the English jig and retained the effervescence of the original style. Once the dance moved from the dance floor to the concert setting, soloists—particularly harpsichordists—could play entire suites on their own.

The harpsichord is probably the most important keyboard instrument in the Baroque period. Not only did it evolve into a solo instrument in the later Baroque (Bach himself wrote many pieces for solo harpsichord), the harpsichord was also important as a continuo instrument. Along with a bass instrument like the violone or Baroque bassoon, the harpsichord provided a harmonic underpinning for instrumental ensembles. It was the harmonic anchor of any ensemble, because it provided the chords underneath the other instruments, most of which could only play a single melodic line.

The harpsichord was effective as a solo instrument only for audiences who were prepared to listen quietly, as the harpsichord is anything but brash. The sound mechanism for the harpsichord works like this: the player presses a key, and a plectrum—usually made of a quill—plucks a string. When the player stops pressing the key, the plectrum returns to its original position and the string is silenced by a 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, which are touch-sensitive. Because the harpsichord’s sound is so soft, the soundboard located under the strings is necessary to amplify the music to an audible volume.

The musical style of Georg Muffat, the first composer on tonight’s program, was a cultural pastiche, influenced by just as many different nationalities as a Baroque suite itself. He was born in Savoy in the Alps, part of modern day France, but was of Scottish heritage. He traveled all around Europe, learning from composers in France, Italy and Austria, and his music, including tonight’s Concerto Grosso No. 12, is a fascinating fusion of the different styles he encountered. Using older styles to create a unique musical language is also a trademark of WF Bach. Though he studied at the feet of his esteemed father, JS Bach, he developed his own personal style of composition, often noted for its improvisatory flair. WF Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D major embodies this electric spontaneity, and although the use of counterpoint was fading in popular music, he also included many contrapuntal passages in his work lending it complexity and interest.

Rameau’s Suite of Dances from Hippolyte et Aricie are not dances taken from different parts of the world but rather from different parts of an opera. Though opera and dance do not necessarily go hand in hand today, it was common for French Baroque composers to end each act with a grand chorus and dances. As operas commonly had five acts, and as each act was followed by a dance, dance music abounded during Rameau’s time. Rameau eventually became the main composer of French opera. At first his compositions suffered the age-old criticism of being too “modern,” but soon his work gained popularity. Rameau’s extraordinary knowledge of harmony—he wrote a treatise on the subject in 1722—allowed him to write music that was fresh and daring, but still appealing to the public.

Pancrace Royer’s most famous compositions were also operas in the French Baroque style, among which are the tragedies Pyrrhus and Prométhée et Pandore. Royer would have been familiar with the tradition of including dances in operas; he stepped outside of this tradition to write his Suite in C minor, a collection of dances for solo harpsichord. Even though composing dances was most popular in France, this is not to say that dances were absent from other nation’s musical customs. The Chaconne by Handel comes from Terpsichore, a prologue the composer wrote for his Italian opera Il Pastor Fido. The opera was composed in 1712 and revived in 1734, and it was for this later version that the prologue—featuring solo arias and dancing—was written. Terpsichore’s story is a wonderful tale to be celebrated by dances: as one of Greek mythology’s nine muses, she rules over the art of dancing. Her name in Greek means “delight of dance.”

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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