Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday March 15, 2007

Corelli Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, No.11

orchestration: continuo; strings

Bach Viola Concerto in E-flat major, reconstruction after BWV 169, 49, & 1053

orchestration: solo viola; continuo; strings

CPE Bach Symphony in B-flat major, H 658

orchestration: continuo; strings

Torelli Sonata in D major for Trumpet and Strings, G. 1

orchestration: solo trumpet; continuo; strings

Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, Op. 3, No. 8

orchestration: 2 solo violins; continuo; strings

Arcangelo Corelli, the most famous and highly regarded Italian composer of his day, left only a modest body of work—and all of that instrumental, at a time when vocal music dominated the scene. He was, in a sense, a prisoner of his own reputation and gradually became unwilling to allow the publication of any work that he felt was not absolutely polished. There is evidence that at least some of his concerti grossi had already been composed in the early 1680s, but he spent his last years still working on pieces that were already renowned for their finish. They did not see print until 1714, the year after his death.

Among the elements in Corelli’s work that struck his contemporaries as new and significant were the music’s directness and simplicity; indeed, his style was appropriated by so many composers that it eventually became a clichĂ©. He sought a singing melodic quality in his music, and his harmonies generated a modern sense of tonality. His concertos, known as concerti grossi, oppose a ripieno (large group of instruments) with a concertino (smaller group of soloists) generally consisting of two violins, cello, and continuo. Sometimes both groups play together, but when the parts diverge, the soloists present the more elaborate musical material, often contrapuntal, faster and livelier. His Concerto Grosso in B-flat major, Op. 6, No. 11 became established as the classic standard for the concerto grosso, the model against which all others were measured.
Much of Corelli’s music is notable for sweetly languorous interplay of the two top melodic lines, which evokes a poignant mood of yearning. Some of this mood can be heard in the Preludium of the 11th concerto grosso, and still more in the later Andante largo. But for the most part the mood of the piece is sprightly and cheerful. The Allamanda sets the two solo violins to a dialogue in which they throw two-note figures quickly back and forth. In fact, “hocket,â€? an old term for this movement back and forth of interlocking thematic material, is derived from the Latin for “hiccupâ€?! Meanwhile, the cello races along in non-stop sixteenth notes underneath. The Sarabanda is a slow and stately dance, while the closing Giga skips along, allowing the solo violins to indulge in a competitive game of leapfrog, each taking every opportunity to jump over the other’s line. The vigor and interplay of the large and small groups in this mood makes for a delightfully vivacious piece.

Johann Sebastian Bach was gripped by the frenzy of discovery when he encountered Vivaldi’s concertos during his years in Weimar (1708 17). He studied them closely and learned Vivaldi’s technique by transcribing a number of his violin concertos into keyboard concertos. The concertos of Vivaldi’s Opus 3 taught many composers how to use the orchestral ritornello form as a efficient organizing principle. In the ritornello form, the basic material of the movement is set forth by the full orchestra in a passage that returns in various keys before being restated in the tonic at the end of the movement. These frequent restatements justify the term “ritornello,â€? which literally means “that which returns.â€? The function of these restatements is like that of the piers of a suspension bridge, supporting the airy span of the soloist’s (or soloists’) line. So effective is the ritornello that it was adopted as the formal principle for everything from concertos to opera arias in the ensuing decades.

In the 1730s, Bach composed keyboard concertos for his sons and other pupils to play. Most of them are actually reworked from earlier Bach concertos that have since been lost. Scholars have studied Bach’s transcription technique and have, in several cases, determined what the original solo instrument must have been. Then they have “back-composedâ€? some pieces to recreate the hypothetical original compositions.

The Viola Concerto in E-flat major was back-composed using three sources: two church cantatas (BWV 169 and 49) in which Bach recast the original concerto movements with an elaborate soloistic counter-melody, and a keyboard concerto in E major (BWV 1053). The keyboard concerto shows that the three movements belong together, while the cantata arrangements seem to represent a version closer to the original viola concerto. Wilfried Fischer, who made this reconstruction, analyzed the solo part to decide that it had originally been composed for viola, and not for oboe or violin. This is good news for violists, who otherwise do not have an original concerto by Bach!

The opening movement’s ritornello is built of figures especially suitable for arpeggiation by stringed instruments, while the soloist’s first entrance is a rhythmic scale figure that provides a contrapuntal alternative. The Siciliano lilts gently with a rocking motion, sometimes supported by a gently running accompaniment. The final Allegro has a sprightly dance quality that is entirely fetching.

Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, was the most original composer of the time, linking his father’s generation with that of Haydn and Mozart. For nearly three decades he had served at the court of Frederick the Great in Potsdam, a solid and lucrative position, but increasingly, he chafed under his patron’s conservative tastes. When Emmanuel’s godfather Telemann died in 1767, freeing one of the most sought-after musical positions—as music director in wealthy, cosmopolitan Hamburg—Emmanuel obtained leave from the reluctant monarch to seek the position, which he won.

From this point on, his symphonies are suddenly fresher and more modern in their viewpoint—even the set composed, conservatively, for strings alone. It was commissioned by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who later had connections with both Haydn and Mozart, and who directed Emmanuel “to let himself go entirely without taking into account the difficulties of execution which necessarily must arise as a result.â€?

Emmanuel Bach’s music of this period fuses two elements that evoked an amazed reaction from listeners. The first was a desire to be thoroughly expressive in a highly emotional way, though often only for a few moments at a time. The other was the short-lived phenomenon of Sturm und Drang (“storm and stressâ€?), a literary movement that pursued extremes of passion also reflected in music of the time. Bach’s string symphony is daring in its range of ideas, variety of moods, and contrasts of every kind.

The first movement of the Symphony in B-flat major is by turns fiery and quirky, serious and playful, often changing from one mood to the other and back in a few seconds. The first movement ends abruptly and segues into a slow movement full of sighs and darkness. The final Presto breaks out almost shockingly with a burst of energy that dominates the finale, though there are still surprising and passionate changes of character. Emmanuel Bach’s vibrant creativity pulses in every bar of this remarkable score.

Giuseppe Torelli made an ensemble instrument of the trumpet, whose early history had to do more with power than with art. Especially during the 17th century, the instrument mainly served as the principle device for signaling to soldiers in the field. In civilian life, trumpets added a brilliant effect to grandiose court ceremonies. Until the end of the 18th century, trumpets were severely restricted in the pitches they could play. Few solo works were composed for the trumpet, since its inability to change key seemed too severe a limitation.

Torelli was a distinguished violinist who began his career at the church of San Petronio in Bologna. The presence there of an excellent trumpeter, Giovanni Pellegrino Brandi, had inspired the creation of a series of festive works for trumpet and strings to open the celebration of the Mass. His Sonata in D major, G. 1, composed in 1690, is his first known work for solo trumpet. It is laid out like the sonata di chiesa (church sonata) of the time, with four movements alternating between slow and fast. The second movement employs a brief fugue theme familiar in the late 17th century. The trumpet is silent in the third movement (giving the player a chance to rest his lip!) before it returns in the brief, lively finale.

Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, No. 8 was published as one of a dozen concertos collected in his Opus 3. (For additional biographical information about Vivaldi, see Baroque Conversations notes #1). Vivaldi chose to publish his Opus 3 in Amsterdam rather than Italy, because the new Dutch technique of engraving looked much more elegant. But it also made Vivaldi’s music available in northern Europe, where it became sensationally influential. Vivaldi may not have invented the ritornello form of the Baroque concerto, but these 12 compositions—only a tiny percentage of his more than 500 concertos—did more than any others to establish the form all over Europe. From the tip of the Italian boot up to England and Scandinavia, composers attempted to imitate the directness of Vivaldi’s pregnant themes and the energy of his rhythms, not to mention his highly refined ear for orchestral color.

The published title of Opus 3, L’Estro armonico is hard to translate, but “The Harmonic Fantasyâ€? is a more or less literal equivalent. Vivaldi probably thought of it as “The Musical Imagination.â€? In any case, within this volume of 12 concertos—four each for one violin, two violins, and four violins—Vivaldi’s fantasy caught the attention of musical Europe. The eighth concerto of his Opus 3 set is one of the most popular. It has the vigorous energy of favorite passages in The Four Seasons and a playful way of handling the two solo violins singly or together—echoing, teasing, challenging, or supporting one another in joyous, harmonious, or stormy moods.

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

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