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Concerto for Four Violins in B Minor, opus 3, no. 10
Born March 4, 1678 in Venice, Italy; died July 21, 1741 in Vienna, Austria
The publication in 1711 of Vivaldi's L'estro armonico ("The Harmonic Fancy"), a set of 12 brilliant concertos for various combinations of instruments, swiftly spread the composer's fame beyond the borders of his home city, Venice, to most of Europe. Even far away in German Saxony, J. S. Bach was fascinated with this collection and later transcribed this concerto for four violins, the tenth in the set, for four harpsichords so that he and his sons could play it at their Leipzig coffee-house concerts. He was just one of many composers of the day who adopted Vivaldi's formal techniques and daring expressive devices to enrich their own concerto writing.
This extremely brilliant concerto was most likely written for performance at Venice's L'Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi taught and directed concerts off and on between 1703 and 1725. The Pietà was a school for orphaned and indigent girls that boasted some of the finest concerts given in Venice. Superbly trained as singers and instrumentalists, the young ladies amazed Venetians and foreign visitors with their virtuosity. Vivaldi may have written this concerto to show off himself and three of his students, or all four solo parts may have been played by these gifted young violinists.
Rhythmic vivacity dominates this lively concerto, even in the "slow" movement, whose central section boasts a rather quick tempo, framed by slower music in the dotted-rhythm French-overture style. The solo parts are treated as four dueling violins, each frequently clinging to his or her own rhythmic pattern. Vivaldi contrives the parts so they never sound muddy — rather the contrasting patterns and fast imitations create non-stop energy and excitement.
Heinrich von Biber
Born in Wartenberg, Bohemia, c. August 12, 1644; died in Salzburg, Austria, May 3, 1704
Besides being a notable composer, Heinrich von Biber was generally considered to be the greatest violin virtuoso of the middle Baroque period. The "von" in his name was added in 1690 when Emperor Leopold I of Austria, who adored his playing, raised him to the nobility. Although Biber's early career was spent in his native Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), he achieved fame only after he moved in 1670 to the court of Salzburg (where Mozart served a century later) where he ultimately rose to the top post of Kapellmeister.
Three years later (1673), Biber created the fascinating piece of program music we’ll hear this morning: Battalia ("Battle"). It is a vivid example of the Baroque penchant for composing descriptive works that expressed non-musical themes or scenes. The most famous work of this type is, of course, Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Much of the European 17th century had been scarred by war, notably the infamous Thirty Years War that devastated most of central Europe between 1618 and 1648. But 25 years later, the pain of those bad times had receded sufficiently that Biber could actually create this little eight-movement work that treated warfare in a playful, virtuoso manner.
At the beginning of his score, Biber provided this summary of the action: "The Battle. The dissolute horde of musketeers, Mars, the fight, and the lament of the wounded, imitated with arias, and dedicated to Bacchus [the Roman god of wine and revelry]." The energetic opening Sonata sets the general mood. It exploits the contrast between loud and soft — often echo — passages, and some of these echoes are given a strange rattling sound by the musicians striking their strings with the wood of their bows (a technique known as "col legno").
Biber called the next movement "The dissolute company with all types of humor," and its content is as unusual as its title. In fact, its level of dissonance is so extreme it sounds as though someone has slipped in a bit of advanced 20th-century music on us. But instead this is an example of a quodlibet: a Renaissance and Baroque musical style in which various popular melodies of the day are mixed together. Thus, the dissonance here is created by the simultaneous playing of eight songs in different keys and meters. As Biber explained: "Here it is dissonant everywhere, for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs."
After a charming quick interlude clears our ears, we move on to "Mars," a clever imitation by strings of a military fife and drum band. Biber instructed the cellists to place a piece of paper over the strings "so that it creates a rumbling" to approximate the sound of drums. Then follows another Presto interlude and a lovely gentle Aria that provides relief from the war episodes.
With a rush of sixteenth notes, "The Battle" is fought. Notice the snapping pizzicati mimicking the thump of cannon fire.
The closing slow movement, "Lament of the Wounded Musketeers," portrays the wailing cries of those injured in the battle. And, as in real life, this musical portrayal of suffering lasts much longer than the battle itself.
Concerto for Two Horns in F Major, RV 538
No composer of the Baroque era is more popular today than the Venetian Antonio Vivaldi. Ordained to the priesthood as a young man and known as the "Red Priest" for his flame-colored hair, Vivaldi presided for some three decades as music master at Venice's L'Ospedale della Pietà, a charity school for orphaned girls, and made its concerts one of Venice's leading cultural attractions, a must-do for all cultivated visitors to the city. A celebrated violin virtuoso — one contemporary wrote that he played “like a demon” — he composed some 800 works, including 500 concertos for virtually every instrument (though, of course, he strongly favored his own), as well as operas and church music. But it was the elegant form and the nervously energetic style of his concertos that influenced many other composers of his era, including J. S. Bach.
Vivaldi refined a formula of three movements, fast-slow-fast, that dominated the Baroque concertos of the early 18th century. The two fast movements were bound together by a recurring orchestral refrain, known as the ritornello, which established the music’s basic character. In between, wonderfully idiomatic solo episodes for his chosen instrument displayed the player’s virtuosity and allowed scope for melodic inventiveness and harmonic modulation. The slow-tempo middle movement provided expressive and dynamic contrast; usually it was a lyrical song dominated by the soloist.
Vivaldi only featured the horn in two concertos, and both are concertos for a pair of the instruments. In the early 18th century, the horn was not yet a regular member of the orchestra; it was associated with court occasions and especially with the favorite royal sport of hunting. The predecessors of our modern horns were actually carried by riders in the hunting party who played traditional calls to signal the hunt’s progress. Here, those calls provide inspiration for the horn duo’s melodies in the fast outer movements. Vivaldi produces a splendid effect by having the two soloists play their patterns in close canon so that we hear them as call and echo. In the slow movement, the horns fall silent while the cello plays a grave aria in D minor over a spare continuo accompaniment. Perhaps because of the limitations in the pitches early-18th-century horns could play, he did not trust them to be able to carry a more complex melody, though in his Second Horn Concerto he did risk this — and won handsomely.
Violin Concerto in E-flat Major, “La tempesta di mare”
One of the most famous sets of Vivaldi’s concertos is his opus 8, published in 1725, which was given the wonderful title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione — “The Contest Between Harmony and Invention” — that is, a contest between the learned side of music and freer creative expression. This set of 12 concertos is best known today for its first four concertos, which comprise The Four Seasons. Several other opus 8 concertos also are descriptive works, including No. 5, La tempesta di mare (“Storm at Sea”) and No. 10, La caccia (“The Hunt”). We will hear “La tempesta di mare,” the concerto that immediately follows The Four Seasons in this collection.
As residents of a city literally on the sea, Venetians were acutely aware of ocean storms, for they threatened not only its merchant ships but even the city itself. With its frenzied Presto tempo, the first movement of this concerto epitomizes Vivaldi’s high-energy style. The orchestral ritornello opens in stunning fashion as the rapid imitative entrances of the various string parts mimic the rushing action of the waves. Downward-cascading scales provide another musical image of the storm-tossed waters. Movement two, in a slow Largo tempo, portrays a calm respite from the storm, which, nevertheless, betrays a mood of anxious watchfulness in its plaintive solo and ominous-sounding ensemble music. Downward-cascading scales again dominate the ritornello of the closing movement, but now the storm seems to be subsiding, and the soloist is allowed opportunities to relax the agitated tempo and play expressively with her phrases.
Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, op. 3, no. 2
George Frideric Handel
Born in Halle, Saxony (now Germany), February 23, 1685; died in London, April 4, 1759
In the 18th century, music publishers, always eager to make a buck, were not exactly scrupulous in their practices. London’s John Walsh was a typical example. Although he also brought out legitimate publications of Handel’s works and remunerated the composer properly for them, he was not adverse to running his own lucrative sideline business in Handel scores without either consulting or paying him. Such seems to be the case with the opus 3 Concerti Grossi, which he published in 1734.
By this time, concertos in the Italian style of Vivaldi and Albinoni were in high demand in England. And Walsh must have thought that music by Handel — England’s greatest and most popular composer of the day — in a similar vein would be even more saleable. Therefore, he assembled the six concerti grossi now belonging to the composer’s opus 3, drawing on various pieces Handel had written between 1710 and 1720. In some cases — and the Concerto Grosso No. 2 we’ll hear today is an example — the various movements came from different sources and thus hadn’t even been conceived as part of the same work. Nevertheless, the resulting concertos were extremely attractive and have remained popular down to our own day. Because of their prominent parts for oboes, they became known as Handel’s “Oboe Concertos,” but in fact, they belong to the same concerto grosso genre as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos: works that feature a group of soloists rather than a single one.
After Walsh died in 1736, his son, John Jr., took over the publishing business and adopted a more above-board relationship with Handel. And in 1739, he published Handel’s opus 6 Concerti Grossi, twelve works that the composer intentionally created to show his mastery of the genre.
In keeping with its provenance from different previous scores, the concerto we’ll hear is really a hybrid of a concerto grosso and a Baroque dance suite, with minuet and gavotte movements added to the traditional three-movement Baroque concerto form. The opening movement was originally used in Handel’s Brockes Passion, a choral work of 1716. Two violins serve as soloists, their smoothly rippling sixteenth notes forming a fine contrast with the crisp dotted rhythms and angular shape of the orchestral theme announced at the beginning.
Movement two is the concerto’s slow movement. Here a solo oboe sings a plaintively beautiful lament in G minor over two cellos’ gently oscillating arpeggios. Another movement originally from the Brockes Passion, the third movement does not feature soloists but rather flowing counterpoint among all the players. Dueling cross rhythms add spice to this music.
Movement four is a graceful minuet featuring the two oboes and two violins as soloists. The fifth and final movement is a sprightly gavotte, whose theme is presented by a trio of two oboes and bassoon, with assistance from the full string ensemble. Two variations of this dance follow, the last of them glorifying the theme with rolling violin triplets.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008