Instrumental music in the Baroque period developed in different geographical locations in Europe. Distinct Italian, French and German styles emerged, but these did not stay perfectly self-contained. As composers traveled, so did music. All of the composers on tonight’s concert are German, but the music they wrote displays characteristics not just of that style, but of the French and Italian styles. One thing they all have in common is the use of the basso continuo, two players who round out the harmonies and bassline of a piece. One person plays a bass instrument, while the other continuo player performs on an instrument that has the capacity to sound more than one note at a time, a “chordal” instrument. In the Baroque period, the combination most often consisted of a violone (a low string instrument) and a harpsichord. The combination of the two instruments provides a harmonic anchor that fills out the texture. The basso continuo allows for greater freedom in the other instruments since they are not responsible for contributing directly to the harmony. Of course, the harpsichord can also be a solo instrument, filling roles both in the background and in the spotlight. Tonight’s concert features four different instrumental genres: overture, sonata, quartet and concerto.
Philipp Heinrich Erlebach was a German composer from the middle Baroque period. His style encompassed elements of the French and Italian styles. He wrote more than 100 instrumental pieces, among them half a dozen overtures like the one on this program. There are six movements in Erlebach’s Ouvertüre IV. Like the Baroque Suite, the Ouvertüre is a collection of dances, preceded by an opening piece (itself called an overture, usually in the French style—two parts, the first slow and stately, the second, fast and imitative). Erlebach’s Ouvertüre IV continues with a Gavotte and Courante, followed by three movements that are featured less often in instrumental works of this nature: an Air Entrée, Air Traquenard and Air Lentement.
Erlebach represents the generation that came before Bach and Telemann, who were contemporaries in the late Baroque. Bach and his contemporaries wrote an extraordinary amount of music. Some of Bach’s output consists of sacred vocal music, like cantatas, and his instrumental music is often for the organ or harpsichord, but he wrote for other types of ensembles, including trio sonatas and concertos that showed off his gifts for counterpoint and melody. Telemann was also very prolific, penning an impressive number of operas (not often performed today), cantatas and passions, but his most programmed works are his concertos and suites. Tonight’s concert features two works by Bach and a Quartetto by Telemann.
Telemann’s style reflects his experiences with not only the German, French and Italian music he encountered in his travels, but also the influence of music he heard when he spent six months working in Poland. Telemann composed the Quartetto in G major while he was in Hamburg in the 1730s. The work’s name, Quartetto, is misleading as it actually calls for five, not four, players; the basso continuo counts as a single entity. The piece alternates tempos in the movements, beginning with a peaceful Largo, followed by a lively Allegro. This alternation continues until the final Vivace.
Bach’s Sonata in G minor for Oboe and Harpsichord is a shining example of the composer’s ability to make the contrapuntal interplay between two instruments a conversation of equals. In his Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, Bach shows his mastery of the concerto, a genre that takes the idea of conversation and brings it to a larger ensemble. This particular Concerto was likely based on a violin concerto that is lost to history. Because the source material had a single-line instrument as soloist (it can only play one note at a time), and because the harpsichord can play many notes simultaneously, Bach’s work in transcribing the original added complexity and left-hand harmony to the harpsichord part. The first and third movements of the three-movement piece are faster in tempo, while the middle movement is marked Adagio. The two outer movements are similar in structure and begin in D minor. They then change to a closely related major key, before returning to D minor. The first and third movements also feature quick passagework both in the harpsichord and in the ensemble. There is intensity in this Concerto, a seriousness and relentless drive that comes to a brief rest only in the middle movement. The soloist must have incredible endurance to play this piece because the activity never stops. It is the quintessential high Baroque concerto: virtuosic, rigorous and unrelenting.