Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday May 8, 2008

Geminiani Concerto Grosso in D major, Op. 3, No. 1 (after Corelli)

orchestration: strings; continuo

Telemann Horn Concerto in D major, TWV 51:D8

orchestration: solo horn; oboe; strings; continuo

Vivaldi Concerto in G minor for Two Cellos, RV 531

orchestration: 2 solo cellos; strings; continuo

Bach Concerto in D major for Three Violins, BWV 1064

orchestration: 3 solo violins; harpsichord; strings

With two Italian and two German composers on the program, it might seem tempting to differentiate between the Italian Baroque style and the German Baroque style. While we can specify certain musical traits that seem to reflect the tastes of one nation over another, drawing true national stylistic lines is not such a simple matter. Throughout the Baroque period, famous musicians from Italy, Germany, England and France left their homelands to study abroad with famous teachers, play in orchestras and take appointments at churches or courts. As musicians traveled through Europe, they tended to mesh styles rather than separate them. Thanks to this musical culture of openness, various influences combined into the art form’s first cohesive musical language during the 18th century, establishing what musicologists refer to as the “€œcommon practice period” of composition.

In the early Baroque, composers and musicians from Italy were seen as the musical vanguard. England’s King James I reportedly paid Italian musicians double what he paid native-born English players. Arcangelo Corelli was one such artist, and he spread the Italian style as he traveled and played his violin throughout Europe. Corelli, teacher of Francesco Geminiani, was extremely influential upon the musical scene in Germany, Spain and England. Because the musical collections he composed sold so many copies, he helped popularize the trio sonata and later, the concerto grosso. His music inspired others, not just in the Baroque period, but throughout the following centuries. Composers from Bach to Tippett have used Corelli’s music as the basis for new compositions.

Corelli and Geminiani were well connected to the music scene of Rome and thus disseminated an Italian style heavily influenced by church music. Although Geminiani was roughly contemporaneous with Bach and Handel, he was conservative, and didn’t stray much from his teacher’s idioms. Antonio Vivaldi, who came from the more secular and cosmopolitan Venetian branch of the Italian musical family tree, was more inventive, writing concertos with one, two, three and four soloists. The sheer volume of work he produced allowed him to experiment with the genres of the solo concerto and concerto grosso. The virtuosity of his solo parts enhanced what Corelli had done and made the concerto a more demanding art form. (For an in-depth discussion of the concerto genre, see the notes to Baroque Conversations 2.)

Composers like Handel, who studied the instrumental style of Corelli and Vivaldi, as well as the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, found great success and fame writing Italian operas for the English public. When Italian opera fell out of favor, and the public sought works like English ballad opera, Handel found himself influenced by his adopted culture. Not only did Handel write odes in English for the Crown, he also began to write oratorios, the most famous of which is Messiah. Even though they were in English, Handel’s oratorios still bore the mark of his experience with Italian opera. In his work, we can hear different national styles homogenizing into a single Baroque idiom.

In Germany, Georg Philipp Telemann was considered the leading composer of his day, and his works show the hallmarks of both the Italian and French Baroque styles. The concertos of Vivaldi were an important influence, as were the keyboard works of Couperin and the orchestral works of Lully, a composer who was born in Italy but became the primary exponent of the French Baroque while working in the court of Louis XIV. While Telemann held some church appointments that initially curtailed his work in opera, his enthusiasm for both sacred and secular music allowed him to succeed in both arenas, eventually reconciling differences between them. Telemann may have received some inspiration through his close friendship with Handel, particularly for the many oratorios he wrote in his last decade.

While Telemann enjoyed a certain level of fame during his lifetime, Johann Sebastian Bach is certainly the better-known composer now. Though Bach did not travel much, he was still quite aware of the musical styles of his day. He studied the works of German organist Dietrich Buxtehude, arranged Vivaldi concertos for the organ, composed French and English suites, and wrote keyboard works and concertos that showed influences of the Italian style. It is perhaps because Bach stayed relatively close to home that he represents the fusion of Baroque national styles so well. Unlike the other three composers on the program, who went out to meet other composers and experience performances first-hand, Bach — through pure study of the music — seemed to internalize the unique influences and trademarks that each country’s musicians contributed to the Baroque repertoire.

In a very general way, we can define national distinctions in the music of the Baroque. We can say that the early Italian style featured the first true codification of how harmony functions; Italian composers were also very interested in the conversational give-and-take between differing forces (as we see in concertos). French Baroque composers seemed to be interested in dance forms, overtures and melodic embellishment. The German composers of the period seemed to excel in the extremely complex counterpoint that is the most defining feature of Baroque music. These general differences, however, gradually began to disappear as composers traveled and shared their music. The fusion of styles reached a high point with Bach in the 18th century, and indeed with all the composers on tonight’s program. Even as these composers represent the pinnacle of achievement in the instrumental music of their era, they also signal the beginning of the Baroque period’s end. Their coherent and homogenous style began to die away as new composers brought change through novel philosophies about music, some of them in direct reaction to the style of this older generation. By Bach’s death in 1750, the sun had set on the Baroque era, and the Classical period had seen its dawn.

— Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

tonight’s compositions in LACO’s history

This evening, we will hear the first performances by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra of Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in D major and Telemann’s Horn Concerto in D major. The Vivaldi Concerto in D major for Two Cellos was first programmed in 1971by Sir Neville Marriner and most recently performed in 2004 with Jeffrey Kahane conducting cello soloists Douglas Davis and Armen Ksajikian. Yo-Yo Ma also performed this work with LACO in 1983. Three former music directors — €”Sir Neville Marriner, Gerard Schwarz and Iona Brown — have led the Orchestra in Bach’s Concerto in D major for Three Violins, with the first performance in 1975 and the last before tonight in 1991.