Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: baroque conversations 1

Thursday December 5, 2013

Weiss Passacaglia in D major

orchestration: lute

Kohaut Lute Concerto in F major (No. 1)

orchestration: solo lute; 2 violins; continuo

Cazzati Trattenimento per Camera, Op. 22, Passacaglia

orchestration: 2 violins; baroque guitar; continuo

Cazzati Varii e Diversi Capricci, Op. 50, Ciaconna

orchestration: 2 violins; baroque guitar; continuo

Corelli “La Follia,” Op. 5, No. 12

orchestration: violin; baroque guitar; continuo

Scarlatti Sonata in E minor, K. 81

orchestration: violin; continuo

Scarlatti Sonata in G major, K. 91

orchestration: violin; continuo

Scarlatti Sonata in D major, K. 140

orchestration: harpsichord

Merula Ciaccona

orchestration: 2 violins; baroque guitar; continuo

Tonight’s concert spotlights the passacaglia and the ciaccona (known in French as the chaconne). These forms feature repeated patterns that allow composers to write continuous variations. Writing variations was popular in the Baroque period, as it gave composers the opportunity to create increasingly complex musical ideas over an unchanging scaffold. Our program also features the trio sonata, a small chamber genre with a delicate texture of two solo instruments and basso continuo (usually harpsichord or some other chordal instrument and a bass instrument).

We begin with a Passacaglia by Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a German composer and lutenist. He was incredibly prolific, writing about 600 works for lute and a number of works for chamber ensembles. As a performer, he was considered technically brilliant, and this passacaglia shows off the level of his technical mastery.

Next we present another composition featuring the lute: Karl Kohaut’s Concerto in F major (No. 1.). Kohaut was another talented lutenist, and one of the last composers to write for that instrument in the Baroque period. He was also a skilled violinist and served as a diplomat for Austria. Belgian composer and critic François-Joseph Fétis said of Kohaut: “of all the lutenists of his time, he was the most skillful, and the music that he composed for the instrument was also considered as the best available in its genre.”

Maurizio Cazzati continues our variation theme tonight. Cazzati was a priest, whose appointment as Maestro di Cappella at Basilica de San Petronio in Bologna granted him many opportunities to compose sacred music for his stable of highly paid singers and instrumentalists. His work there was not without controversy, however. GC Arresti, the organist at S. Petronio, waged a lengthy battle with Cazzati in the print media of the day. (Arresti and others complained, among other things, that Cazzati had a tendency to break certain counterpoint rules of the time.) In comparison with his output of sacred pieces, Cazzati’s collection of secular instrumental music is small. But it is with his secular music—including the Passacaglia from his Trattenimento per Camera and Ciaccona from his Varii e Diversi Capricci on tonight’s program—that the composer became an influential figure. In addition to writing sonatas and canzonas in the Venetian tradition, he pioneered the composition of trumpet sonatas and was among the first composers from this area in Italy to compose and publish solo violin sonatas.

Arcangelo Corelli, in contrast to Cazzati, wrote instrumental music exclusively. He wrote 48 trio sonatas, a dozen violin sonatas and a dozen concerti grossi. His dedication to Baroque instrumental music influenced generations of composers. He traveled extensively, making a name for himself in Paris before moving to Germany, where he worked for a nobleman in Bavaria. When he returned to Italy in the mid 1680s, he visited Naples but settled in Rome. His compositions are quintessential examples of the Italian style and the concerto principle (having two musical entities vie for prominence in a musical work, like the orchestra and group of soloists in a concerto grosso). Corelli was also a teacher whose students like Geminiani and Locatelli helped to spread his influence throughout Europe. Tonight we hear Corelli’s “La Follia,” variations on a musical framework that has been used by over 150 composers.

Johann Heinrich Schmelzer worked for Emperor Leopold I at the Habsburg court in Vienna in the second half of the 17th century. The Emperor was particularly fond of Schmelzer’s dance suites and ballet music. As a performer, Schmelzer was an accomplished violinist, his fame on this instrument equal to that of Kohaut and Weiss as lutenists. Schmelzer was particularly sensitive to the textures of his chamber music, and his most influential works were instrumental pieces for small groups, like his Ciaccona in A major.

Domenico Scarlatti was a transitional figure, spanning the end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the Classical era. He was born in the same year as Bach and Handel, but his compositions touched composers in later musical periods like Chopin, Brahms and even Shostakovich. His experience in Spain greatly influenced his musical style, and he often made musical gestures mimicking the guitar in his keyboard works. He composed operas and sacred works, but the bulk of his output consisted of sonatas, including tonight’s pieces: Sonata No. 81 in E minor, Sonata No. 91 in G major and Sonata No. 140 in D major. He worked constantly, penning a staggering 555 keyboard sonatas, although much of his work remained unpublished at the time of his death. The first two of the three pieces that appear on the program this evening come from a collection of his sonatas meant to be played by both a solo instrument and continuo.

We end the evening with one final Ciaccona, this one by Italian composer Tarquinio Merula. Considered stylistically to be a member of the Venetian school, he showed great innovation and insight, which is especially notable considering that he is the earliest composer on this program. Although he wrote some sacred vocal music, he was very influential in furthering the development of musical structures and formulas, among them the cantata and the sinfonia. He composed only one opera, but satisfied a flair for the dramatic with solo madrigals. He was particularly fond of ostinato (repeating) bass lines, and the skill with which he dealt with such musical frameworks is evident in this Ciaccona. Its brilliance and skill provide a fitting end to our evening of Baroque variations.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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