The viola da gamba is one of the larger members of the viol family. It is played while being grasped between the legs, and it covers a range similar to that of the modern cello. The word gamba (meaning leg) in its name distinguishes it from the smaller viola da braccio (of the arm). It differs from the cello in a few ways including its tuning and the presence of frets on the gamba, but the repertoire composed for the viola da gamba is playable by the modern cello. This evening’s program presents a mix of pieces from the late Baroque and early Classical periods. Most of the music is meant for cello, but one was composed for viola da gamba, although all selections are played on the modern cello tonight by Andrew Shulman. The two other players, Trevor Handy and Patricia Mabee, comprise the basso continuo—the heart of the Baroque ensemble.
We begin with Sammartini’s Cello Sonata in G major for Cello and Continuo, Op. 4, No. 6. Sammartini was an early classicist whose works include some of the earliest classical symphonies, and wonderful early examples of the simple yet intriguing galant style. The works in the Op. 4 date from the composer’s middle period, when Sammartini was exploring some of the musical principles we would come to associate with Classicism, including sonata form. There are three movements in this charming sonata, the outer two in G major, both displaying lively rhythmic drive and regular phrase structures. The slow Adagio in the center feels pensive, but no less intense than the opening and closing movements. In this work, Sammartini brings out the symmetry and consistency of the nascent Classical style while also featuring some sequences and passages that suggest the High Baroque. It is, in many ways, the best of both worlds.
We move from Milan to Venice, with Benedetto Giacomo Marcello, a composer, writer, and teacher. He was born in 1686 and died in 1739. Many of his pieces were works for solo instrument and basso continuo, including the Sonata in A minor for Cello and Continuo, although he also composed oratorios, keyboard works and masses. He composed a dozen sonatas for flute and continuo, six for cello and continuo and six for two cellos and continuo. The viola da gamba could stand in for the cello in those pieces, if need be.
Another, better-known Italian—and a great influence on Marcello—was Antonio Vivaldi, an extremely prolific composer whose concertos number in the hundreds. Many of them are for violin, Vivaldi’s primary instrument, but he also wrote for other instruments. Sometime between 1720 and 1730, Vivaldi composed a set of six sonatas for cello and continuo. The one on this concert, the Sonata in B-flat major, shows off Vivaldi’s adroitness in contrasts. An opening Largo gives way to a lively Allegro. Another Largo follows and then an Allegro finale displays the composer’s particular skill in writing for the strings.
Willem de Fesch was a Dutch composer and violone player. The violone was the largest member of the viol family, similar in range to the double bass. De Fesch worked in Amsterdam from 1710–1725 and then in Antwerp as Kapellmeister of the Cathedral for the subsequent six years. He later moved to London, playing violone for Handel, among others. His Sonata in A minor for Cello and Continuo is the fifth in a set of six published around 1745. It opens with a challenging and highly ornamented Largo, followed by an effervescent two-part Presto—the movement in both of these sections is nearly perpetual. A stately Sarabande follows, and de Fesch concludes the Sonata with a dancelike duple meter piece he marked “Tempo di Gavota.” Willem de Fesch was a virtuosic player, and his considerable command of the instrument is truly apparent in all sections of this Sonata.
The final piece is the Sonata in G major for Viola da Gamba and Continuo, BWV 1027 by Bach, the master of the High Baroque. Although we are not sure of an exact date for this Sonata, it may have originated from his time working as Kapellmeister in Cöthen, a time when Bach wrote much of his instrumental work. Prince Leopold of Cöthen enjoyed music, especially instrumental music, and Bach was more than happy to provide this to him. To write the Viola da Gamba Sonata, Bach reworked his Trio Sonata in G major (BWV 1039), for Two Flutes and Basso Continuo. Bach makes a masterful transition, since he had to reinvent the lines of the flute soloists by giving one to the gamba (therefore moving it to the appropriate range for the instrument) and transferring the other flute line to the harpsichord. There are four movements, beginning with an Adagio. The opening slow movement is in line with the Baroque sonata da chiesa structure. In the following movements—Allegro ma non tanto, Andante and Allegro moderato—Bach demonstrates his enormous talent for counterpoint, showing why he is regarded as the master of the Baroque style.