The most popular of the early Baroque ensembles was the trio sonata, which featured two soloists and the basso continuo. The trio sonata’s heyday occurred with Arcangelo Corelli (1653–1713), a famous violinist who traveled around Europe pleasing patrons with his virtuosic playing. The term trio sonata is something of a misnomer since there are actually four players in the group, but the basso continuo duo counts as a single entity. Tonight’s program features trio sonatas by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow and George Frederic Handel. While many trio sonatas in the Baroque were written for violins, tonight’s program throws a spotlight on the woodwind instruments and celebrates our host, LACO principal bassoon Kenneth Munday, now in his 40th season with the Orchestra. In Handel’s time, the trio sonata was still a viable genre, and allowed for great interplay between the two solo instruments who could play in counterpoint with each other, or play together in harmony. The evening ends with a sonata, an instrumental genre that in this instance features two oboes, bassoon and basso continuo.
François Couperin, known as le grand to distinguish him from the other musicians in his family, was heavily influenced by the work of Corelli, especially the trio sonatas. Couperin is perhaps best known as a harpsichord player—he published an important treatise on playing the instrument called L’art de toucher le clavecin (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) and also wrote four collections of harpsichord music—but he also composed music for ensembles. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes Couperin’s passion for meshing national styles as a “lifelong effort to unite in his music the best of the French with the best of the Italian.” This dedication is readily apparent in his Concerts royaux, four suites published in 1722. Couperin did not specify the instrumentation for these pieces, consequently, they can be played by a harpsichord soloist or by various ensembles. Two years later, Couperin published Les goûts-réunis ou Nouveaux concerts, a sequel of sorts to the Concerts royaux. The title refers to the reunited French and Italian styles. Our performance features the bassoon and the basso continuo, and they are heard in a work in four movements: Vivement, Air, Sarabande and Chaconne.
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow was an accomplished organist, composer and teacher and, although he had a successful career of his own, he is perhaps best known as one of Handel’s first teachers. For most of his life, he held a position as organist at the Marienkirche in Halle (Handel’s birthplace), where he also directed musical performances and composed new works for the choir. His choral works are especially rich, and Handel no doubt learned a lot about writing for the voice from Zachow. Among Zachow’s works, two dozen cantatas and some keyboard pieces survive. He seemed particularly interested in the strict counterpoint of fugues, and he passed this knowledge along to Handel. The Trio Sonata in F major on tonight’s program is one of the only surviving works of this genre associated with Zachow.
We know Handel best as a composer of operas and oratorios, but at the beginning of his musical career, he tried out many different genres, including the trio sonata. The Trio Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major, HWV 382 has four movements, starting with a slow Adagio and ending with an Allegro. Thanks to the teachings of Zachow, Handel had a great understanding of counterpoint, and this is on full display in the Alla breve and Allegro movements. The solo instruments weave individual melodies, but also join in foreground harmony with basso continuo support. In the slow movements, Handel’s gift for melody is even more apparent, with cantabile lines that prefigure the composer’s great vocal works.
Johann Friedrich Fasch was a contemporary of Handel and Bach, but his later works suggest a transition to the nascent Classical style of the mid-18th century. This development can be seen most clearly in his instrumental works. Although Fasch was well-known during his career, not one of his works was published during his lifetime. When his compositions were rediscovered in the 19th century, they were overshadowed by the revival of another famed Baroque composer—none other than the great JS Bach. Fasch’s emergence as a historical figure is still very much in progress. In hearing his Sonata in D minor, FaWV N:d1, as we do tonight, perhaps we can begin to appreciate the unique place Fasch held as a composer of both the High Baroque and the early Classical period.