Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday March 31, 2011

Handel Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 3, No. 2

orchestration: 2 oboes, bassoon; strings; continuo

Purcell Chaconne from The Fairy Queen

orchestration: strings; continuo

Arne Trio No. 4 in F minor

orchestration: 2 violins, cello; continuo

Corelli Concerto Grosso in F major, Op. 6, No. 9

orchestration: strings; continuo

Handel Concerto Grosso in A major, Op. 6, No. 11*

orchestration: strings; continuo

Tonight’s program pays tribute to England. Guest conductor Harry Bicket is British, and both Henry Purcell and Thomas Arne were native Englishmen. Handel came to England after working for the Elector of Hanover. Arcangelo Corelli was an Italian composer, but he does have an indirect connection to England, as his music and the Italian style he practiced influenced both Handel and Purcell.

Purcell is the best-known English composer of the early Baroque period, and indeed the best-known English composer until the emergence of Elgar and Britten in the early 20th century. He composed instrumental music, odes, operas and masques, which are lively court entertainments featuring singing and dancing. Many of his works combined stylistic elements of French and Italian music, such as the stately gestures of the French Baroque and the lyrical melodies of Italian opera. The Chaconne on tonight’s program is an excerpt from Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen which premiered in 1692. (A chaconne is a musical work featuring a repeated harmonic pattern in the bass, over which a composer might write variations.) The music from this work fell out of favor for years, but was found and revived at the turn of the 20th century. The narrative of the opera was adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Thomas Arne is part of the last generation of English Baroque composers. He was a contemporary of Handel, and saw live performances of Handel’s work when he was a young man. Not as well known as Purcell, Arne did write a patriotic tune that is still played in England today: “Rule, Britannia!” premiered as part of the Masque of Alfred. In addition to masques, Arne wrote operas, including the first English opera to be sung throughout with no dialogue: Thomas and Sally (1760). Instrumental music is the minority of his output, although he did write a number of overtures, sonatas and concertos as well as the Trio No. 4 in F minor that we will hear this evening. In addition to their connections to England, Handel and Arne have something else in common. When both were young men, their families forbade them to study music, but their dedication to the craft inspired them to sneak keyboard instruments secretly into their houses. Arne would even play his with a cloth dampening the strings inside so no one else would hear.

Arcangelo Corelli, in contrast to Arne, wrote exclusively instrumental music. He wrote 48 trio sonatas, a dozen violin sonatas and a dozen concerto grossos, including the Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 9. His instrumental music influenced generations of composers, who transcribed and studied his work as the pinnacle of early Baroque instrumental music. He left Italy for Paris, where he made a name for himself before moving to Germany to work for a Bavarian nobleman. He returned to Italy in the mid 1680s and settled in Rome. His compositions were quintessential examples of the Italian style and the concerto principle (when a soloist or group of soloists vie for prominence with the larger ensemble). Corelli was also a teacher whose students, such as Geminiani and Locatelli, helped to spread his influence throughout Europe.

George Frideric Handel is one of the high Baroque’s towering figures. Born in 1685, the same year as Bach (the annus mirabilis, so called because it was a “miraculous year” that saw the birth of both of these composers), Handel’s career took quite a different path. For one thing, Bach wrote no operas, while Handel made his fortune in England writing Italian opera, having studied the form in Florence. When Handel later settled in London, he left his position as the Kapellmeister for the Elector of Hanover. The Elector was not happy about Handel’s departure, but the two would meet again when the Elector of Hanover became the King of England in 1714. Worried that previous events would leave him in the King’s bad graces, Handel composed Water Music as a gift for the King, effectively smoothing things over.

Although Handel is probably best known for his operas and his oratorios (42 and 29 of each, respectively), he did write some instrumental music, including chamber music, concertos and keyboard suites. The Concerto Grosso Op. 3, No. 2 was written some time between 1715 and 1718 and first published in a 1734 collection. Op. 6, No. 11 was written in 1739 and published in 1740. Part of this piece consists of Handel’s reworking of an earlier organ concerto. Reworking pieces, or transcribing music from one instrument to another, was a practice that was very common in the Baroque period. Both concertos are wonderful examples of the genre, displaying virtuosity and well-constructed interplay between the soloists and the rest of the ensemble. Indeed, the varied examples of instrumental music on the rest of the program show the quality of the art of the Baroque period throughout its many years, from the simpler forms and transparent harmonies of the 17th century to the imitative complexity and virtuosity of the High Baroque.

–Christine Gengaro, PhD