Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday February 22, 2007

Telemann Concerto in F major for Three Violins, from Tafelmusik II, No. 3

orchestration: 3 solo violins; continuo; strings

Handel Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op. 6, No.12

orchestration: continuo; strings

Bach Orchestral Suite No.1 in C major, BWV 1066

orchestration: 2 oboes, 1 basson; continuo; strings

Vivaldi String Concerto in F major, RV 141

orchestration: continuo; strings

In his own day, Telemann was vastly better known and more highly regarded than J. S. Bach. The only reason Bach was hired as music director in Leipzig was that Telemann had already turned the job down, having merely used the offer to bid up his salary in Hamburg. A consummate professional, Telemann could turn out a polished piece in almost no time at all, always maintaining an astonishingly high standard for his work. He was so extraordinarily prolific that his complete works are more voluminous than the combined outputs of Bach and Handel—neither of whom was any slouch when it came to producing music in short order. The complete catalogue of his work lists more than 3,600 pieces, including over 1,000 church cantatas and 46 settings of the Passion.

In 1733, Telemann published an elaborate collection of pieces under the title Tafelmusik (Table Music). The name was particularly appropriate for chamber music of that time, as it was often played by friends at small gatherings—sometimes even around a table! Tafelmusik contains three “productions? consisting of an overture with a suite for seven instruments, a trio, a solo, and a finale for seven instruments. Music in those days was most often sold by subscription before it was published, and Telemann’s fame attracted a large subscription list of 206 individuals. Fully one quarter of subscribers ordered the work from abroad, including Handel himself—under the title “Mr. Hendel Docteur en Musique?—from London.

The Concerto in F major from Telemann’s Tafelmusik calls for three solo violins plus an orchestral ensemble of violin, viola, cello, and harpsichord. The orchestral exposition of the Allegro is filled with bustling energy as all the instruments join in. As the solo instruments begin to take their turns, the rhythm becomes more varied, with jerky “Lombard? rhythms (short-long rhythms with stress at the beginning) and lilting triplets. The Largo, in D minor, is broadly flowing as the instruments enter in imitation of one another. In the central section, the soloists play almost entirely by themselves. The Vivace finale in 3/8 time has the drive of an Italian concerto of the kind found in the work of Vivaldi.

The years 1738 1739 marked Handel’s creative turn from Italian opera to English oratorio (compositions featuring powerful choral movements that had never been possible in the opera house). Though he had produced oratorios before, his heart had remained in the opera house, even in the face of changing tastes in England where few operas were popular or even understood. Throughout the 1730s, Handel continued to write opera with steadily decreasing commercial success, though often with stunning artistic accomplishment. At the same time, his oratorios were increasingly well-received by the English public. As a musical entrepreneur, Handel gravitated slowly toward writing more oratorios. The huge success of Saul and Israel in Egypt in the early months of 1739 convinced Handel to offer a series of oratorio performances.

These concerts also included intermission music in the form of concertos. Thus, with new oratorios on the horizon, Handel turned in the autumn of 1739 to the medium of the concerto grosso, in which a group of solo instruments alternates with the full ensemble. He produced no fewer than twelve concertos in the month between 29 September and 30 October—yet another example of Handel’s astonishing fluency at composing under time pressures, especially if one considers that he also composed the elaborate choral and instrumental work, Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day in the same period!

The entire set of twelve concertos was published the following year as “Opus 6.? Undoubtedly all of the concertos were introduced as intermission features at oratorio performances. Inspired by the model set by Corelli at the beginning of the century, they were nonetheless bold and forward-looking, redolent from beginning to end of Handel’s own very distinct personality.

In the twelfth and last concerto, Handel uses a simple arch form, in terms of tempo. A Largo-Allegro pair begins and ends the concerto, while a single movement (“Larghetto e piano,? followed by a variation) forms the centerpiece. In each of the paired movements, the Largo is quite short, and the Allegro extensive and brilliant. The middle movement is a respite from high energy: tranquil and almost hymn-like, its tuneful line reappears in the variation with one or another of the three instrumental parts decorated by smooth-running eighth notes.

A very large part—we will probably never know how large—of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is lost. Based on an assessment of his output made shortly after his death, probably two fifths of his cantatas have disappeared. A much larger percentage of the purely instrumental music is lost, simply because there was no institutional means of organizing or preserving it. Many of the surviving works were composed during the six years (1717-23) that Bach spent in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt Cöthen. Bach himself was a Lutheran and the prince’s court was Calvinist, which meant they used no elaborate music during the church services. Thus the appointment represented the one period of Bach’s life when he had no official church duties and devoted himself almost entirely to the production of secular and instrumental pieces for his music loving patron, Prince Leopold.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major comes from the Cöthen period, though its precise date of composition or first performance is unknown. The term “suite? is a modern convention, used to describe a composition consisting of a series of dance movements that follow one another in succession. Bach himself called these works after their first and largest component, the grand French style overture, and indeed they are published as Ouvertures. The French overture, created by Lully in the 1650s, quickly spread throughout Europe to be used as a festive musical introduction for operas, ballets, and suites. It combines a slow opening section, marked by dotted rhythms and harmonic suspensions, followed by a fast section that is lightly fugal. Occasionally—as here—the slower opening section returns briefly at the end of the cadence.

The remainder of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 consists of stylized dance movements that employ the basic metrical patterns of the dances for which they are named, but are intended for concert use rather than actual dancing. The dances selected indicate a strong French influence at this particular time, though there is one, the Forlane, a Venetian dance in 6/4 time, of popular origin. For several of the movements, including the Gavotte, Menuetto, Bourrée, and Passepied, Bach includes two dances of the same type, one right after the other. These are to be performed alternatively, in ABA pattern, for example: Menuetto I—Menuetto II—Menuetto I.

Vivaldi’s life is full of ironies and contradictions. Born into humble circumstances as the son of a Venetian baker turned violinist, he rose to the heights of European fame only to descend again to poverty and interment in a pauper’s grave. He suffered ill health from birth, yet traveled tirelessly in a day when international travel was exhausting and risky. Though ordained a priest, he soon gave up saying Mass and later caused scandals by traveling with two sisters, Anna and Paolina Giraud, the first of whom, at least, was almost certainly his mistress as well as his singing pupil. He was notoriously vain and hard to work with, yet his talents were such that employers willingly endured his vagaries.

For some 15 years, between 1703 and 1718, he worked on and off (between travels and arguments with supervisors) in various capacities at the Pio Ospedale della Pieta, a charitable, state run orphanage. The girls of the orphanage were given special training in music. Their expensive education was not offered out of a sheer love of art. Instead it was offered out of a practical desire to get the orphans off the public rolls by educating them and making them suitable marriage partners or, at worst, fitting them for a career as a professional musician, a line of work that was still rare, but possible, for a woman. It was for the remarkably talented girls in this institution that Vivaldi composed most of his sonatas and concertos. The boys in the orphanage were taught more practical skills such as carpentry and horseshoeing.

From the time of Vivaldi’s death until the 1920s, the only works known to have come from his pen were the sonatas and concertos that he published in his lifetime—a substantial but not enormous number. Then in 1926 two huge manuscript collections were discovered and purchased for a library in Turin, Italy. Scholars believe that this was Vivaldi’s own personal archive of his music, which he kept so that he could make copies as needed. Suddenly we learned that he had composed hundreds of concertos and other instrumental pieces, as well as a large volume of church music and opera that had been completely unknown.

The String Concerto in F major is from that collection. Though the best-known of Vivaldi’s concertos feature one or two solo instruments, he also composed a fair number of works for string orchestra without a soloist. These ensemble works are laid out like concertos in the fast-slow-fast arrangement of their movements and with individual sections that present themselves in competitive contrast. As with his other concertos, Vivaldi offers vigorous outside movements, to which he contrasts a lyrical and slow inner movement.

(c) Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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