Concerto for Oboe in D Minor
Born in Venice, Italy, March 4, 1678; died in Vienna, Austria, July 21, 1741
The popularity of the music of Antonio Vivaldi shows no sign of abating in the 21st century. Almost forgotten by the world for two centuries after his death in 1741, this Venetian Baroque master suddenly soared to the top of the hit parade in the early 1950s when The Four Seasons began appearing on countless concert programs and filling the grooves of the newly invented LPs. And unlike many rediscovered composers, Vivaldi wasn’t loved simply for this one work. After all, he had written more than 500 concertos, dozens of operas and an extensive catalogue of church music. If the operas failed to catch on, certainly the concertos did, becoming the party background music that proved one’s taste and sophistication in the 1960s and 1970s.
Generally, we turn to the Baroque era for music of serenity and order that provides a respite from the pressures of harried contemporary lives. But as the renowned scholar H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested, Vivaldi’s appeal may lie partly in the fact that his music does uniquely match our time. He writes of the Italian’s “wiry nervous sound”: a kind of nonstop energy and vivacity rooted in rhythm that was unmatched by any other Baroque composer and seems to mesh perfectly with our own driven pace.
Vivaldi refined a formula of three movements, fast–slow–fast, that dominated the late Baroque concerto. The two fast movements are bound together by an ensemble refrain, known as the ritornello, which establishes the overall character of the music. In between, solo episodes display virtuosity and allow scope for melodic inventiveness and harmonic modulation.
Though Vivaldi wrote most of his concertos for his own instrument, the violin, he did not slight the wind instruments. From a set of 13, we will hear the first in D minor. Its opening Allegro is a feast of syncopated rhythms: nearly every phrase is attacked off the beat. Its ritornello refrain also exploits echo effects and is embellished with a slyly slithering motive, descending by half steps.
Both the second and third movements emphasize strongly contrasting roles for the soloist and the ensemble. In the Largosecond movement, the ensemble is restricted to a stately but monotonous tread in constant eighth notes; above this, the oboe flies free in a rhythmically flexible aria of lyrical beauty. In the Allegro finale, the ensemble ritornello is permeated by a heavily accented, descending two-note motive with a melodramatic and ominous character. Oblivious to this implied warning, the oboe dances rapidly, merrily and without a care in the world.
Instrumentation:Solo Oboe, Harpsichord and strings.
Born in Mantua, Italy, c. 1600; died c. 1640
While most of this concert showcases music of the High Baroque era of the early 18th century, Carlo Farina’s engaging Capriccio stravagante takes us back a century earlier to the highly experimental first decades of the Baroque style. Incubated in the courts of northern Italy, the early Baroque style was one of the most adventurous in musical history. Around 1600, opera was born and was immediately enriched by one of its greatest practitioners, Claudio Monteverdi. Both the art of singing and the art of instrument playing (and manufacture) evolved rapidly as musicians sought a variety and intensity of expression rarely glimpsed in Renaissance music.
It is very possible that Carlo Farina studied with Monteverdi, who was the maestro di cappella at the Court of Mantua, where Farina’s father was a violist. We actually know very little about the details of Farina’s life — even his exact birth and death dates. But we do know that he was one of the finest violin virtuosos of his day and that his prowess won him an appointment in 1625 at the Court of Dresden in German Saxony, where he worked alongside the renowned Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Farina is credited with developing and expanding many new playing techniques for the violin — some even credit him with the invention of double-stopping or the technique of playing two different pitches simultaneously — and he ignited a passion for virtuoso violin playing in Germany.
Between 1626 and 1628, Farina published in Dresden a series of five volumes containing all his known music for various string ensembles. From the second volume comes the piece for which he is best known today: the brilliant Capriccio stravagante for strings and continuo, in which other instruments and even animals are skillfully and sometimes hilariously imitated by exploiting the new playing techniques such as sul ponticello, col legno, and pizzicato. This delicious music had been forgotten for centuries until it was rediscovered by the Baroque specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt and recorded by him and his Concentus Musicus in 1968.
Capriccio stravagante comprises many tiny movements lasting 18 minutes in all; the various “special effects” passages are linked by short dance movements in contrasting fast and slow tempos. The first of the character movements is “La lira,” referring to the lira da braccio, a relative of the violin still used in folk music that has drone strings; the string ensemble imitates the wail of those drones. The “Lira variata” was a kind of hurdy gurdy, and again Farina uses a drone effect in his descriptive music.
One of the most amazing movements is the “Qui si bate con il legno del archetto” or playing on the strings with the wood of the bow. This is a savagely percussive sequence producing wild dissonances that sound like out-takes from Stravinsky; such harmonic daring occurs frequently in this piece.
Farina uses sul ponticello or playing at the bridge of the violin to capture the thin, wiry sound of “Il flautino” or little flute and later for the soldiers’ shrill fifes (“Fifferino della soldatesca”) accompanied whimsically by cello drummers. And he creates extremely clever imitations of animals: “La gallina” (the hen), “Il gallo” (the rooster), “Il gatto” (cat) and “Il cane” (dog); the latter two are so harmonically and technically daring that they actually sound like 20th-century avant-garde music! Finally, Farina uses pizzicato or plucked strings for a charming evocation of “The Spanish Guitar.”
Orchestral Suite No. 3
Johann Sebastian Bach
Born in Eisenach, Thuringia (now Germany), March 21, 1685; died in Leipzig, Saxony, July 28, 1750
In the intellectual rigor of his fugues and the spiritual depth of his passions and cantatas, J. S. Bach seems to represent the loftiest state to which music can aspire. But this formidable German had his lighter side as well, and his four orchestral suites show him as a master entertainer, wielding the courtly dance forms of his day with wit and panache.
Scholars are still not sure when and where the Suites were written. Their secular nature and courtly style would seem to place them in the period of 1717 to 1723 when Bach served as kapellmeister at the princely court of Cöthen and primarily created secular instrumental works, notably the six Brandenburg Concertos. But Prince Leopold's orchestra was of modest size and presumably unable to provide the exceptionally sumptuous complement of three trumpets required by Suites 3 and 4. Therefore, though Bach may have composed earlier versions of these works at Cöthen, most likely the work we hear tonight was created in the late 1720s or early 1730s during his long service in Leipzig.
In addition to his primary duties providing music for the services of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, from 1729 to 1737 Bach directed that city's Collegium Musicum, a voluntary association of professional musicians and university students. The Collegium gave weekly concerts — in summer in an outdoor square and in winter at Zimmermann's coffee house. Here Bach could put aside sacred texts and exercise his secular genius. And since he had a large pool of musicians to draw upon, if he wanted three trumpets and timpani they were at his service. With their splendid scoring, the Third and Fourth Suites must have been intended for very festive occasions and most likely for outdoor performance.
Like its three siblings, the Suite No. 3 in D Major is an amalgamation of two forms very popular in this period: the French overture, used to introduce operas and plays, and the dance suite, based on traditional French courtly dances. Taking up more than half the work, the opening movement follows the traditional French-overture form with slow outer sections emphasizing stately dotted rhythms enclosing a faster, fugal middle section. Here the music is very grand indeed, with its majestic rising phrases italicized by the brilliance of the trumpets and the roll of the kettledrum. When Mendelssohn played this overture on the piano for Goethe in 1830, Goethe's response, even without benefit of trumpets, was: "There is such pomp and ceremony here that one can actually see a procession of elegantly dressed people descending a vast flight of stairs."
This is followed by an Air, a pair of Gavottes, a Bourrée and a buoyantly bounding Gigue to finish. The Air is one of Bach's most beloved creations. Adapted for solo violin by A. Wilhelmj in 1871, it has become almost too familiar as the "Air on the G String." But listen to how much more beautiful it sounds in Bach's original setting, with the two violin parts and the violas weaving in rich counterpoint above the walking bass. The vigorous pair of Gavottes, with the first repeated after the second, emphasizes the contrast between the power of the full ensemble and the gentleness of the strings with their accompanying oboes. In the Bourrée, Bach plays delicious rhythmic games, stressing the "weak" second beat with melodic leaps and emphatic trumpet entrances and pretending that the usually dominant first beat doesn't exist at all.
Instrumentation: two oboes, bassoon, three trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and strings.
Music for the Royal Fireworks
George Frideric Handel
Born in Halle, Saxony (now Germany), February 23, 1685; died in London, April 4, 1759
By 1749, when he wrote his Music for the Royal Fireworks, George Frideric Handel was 64 and the acknowledged monarch of British music. He had long outlasted King George I and was now entertaining his son, George II.
This score of unparalleled instrumental splendor was created for a spectacular fireworks display in London to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending nearly a decade of war—known as the War of the Austrian Succession—between Great Britain and Austria on one side and France, Spain and various German principalities on the other. For months, an elaborate Palladian edifice was constructed in the city’s Green Park as a backdrop for the fireworks. George II insisted that Handel's music (which was to be performed before not during the fireworks) be written only for "warlike instruments," that is trumpets, horns and drums. Handel, however, was stubborn enough to override his majesty's wishes and include strings as well. For this first performance on April 27, 1749, the orchestra consisted of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine horns, nine trumpets, three sets of timpani and strings! When Handel performed the music at an indoor concert the next month, he significantly reduced the number of wind players.
Even without the extra instruments, this is the grandest instrumental work Handel ever wrote and sums up the splendor of Baroque music just as it was about to yield to the cooler Classical style. Its most glorious movement is its Overture in the ceremonial French ouverture style: an opening slow section with stately double-dotted rhythms, followed by a faster section. Usually, the fast section would be highly contrapuntal, even fugal in character. However, knowing that the interplay of so many separate voices would produce a muddle in an outdoor situation, Handel instead stressed splendid antiphonal effects between the different instrumental groups. Then follows a series of short dances: a bourrée and two minuets drawn from the Baroque dance suite as well as two character pieces: La Paix, in which peace is illustrated in a gently rocking pastorale, and the brilliant La Réjouissance ("Rejoicing"). Handel emphasizes the contrasting colors of his large ensemble by specifying different scoring for the repeated passages.
Instrumentation: Three oboes, two bassoons, contrabassoon, three horns, three trumpets, timpani, harpsichord and strings.