Program Notes By Eric Bromberger

Concerto in B-flat Major for Organ and Strings, Opus 4, No. 6, HWV 294

Born February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany
Died April 14, 1759, London

Some listeners will discover that they already know this endlessly graceful music, but as a concerto for harp and orchestra, and thereby hangs a tale.  During the 1730s, when Handel made his reluctant (but fortunate) transition from opera to oratorio, he felt that he needed something to entertain his audiences between the different parts of oratorios.  He had on hand the organ used to accompany choruses during the oratorios, and this led to his composing organ concertos to be performed between the acts.  This entr’acte music could be elaborate: during a performance of the oratorio Alexander’s Feast in 1736, the interpolated pieces included a concerto grosso, an organ concerto, and a harp concerto.  This harp concerto was later rewritten and published as an organ concerto (which is the version heard on this concert), but in its original form for harp it had a very specific purpose in Alexander’s Feast.

That oratorio is based on an ode by the same name, written in 1697 by the English poet John Dryden.  Alexander’s Feast tells of the victory banquet put on by Alexander the Great to celebrate his conquest of Persia.  At this banquet, the playing of the musician Timotheus on the flute and lyre so overpowers Alexander that he rushes out to avenge Greeks slain in earlier battles.  Handel placed the Harp Concerto near the beginning of Alexander’s Feast as a demonstration of Timotheus’ powers on the lyre, and it was originally intended to follow the lines in the oratorio:

Timotheus placed on high,

Amid the tuneful Quire,

With flying Fingers touch’d the Lyre;

The trembling Notes ascend the Sky,

And heav’nly Joys inspire.

Two years later, in 1738, Handel decided to gather a group of organ concertos he had performed during his oratorios and publish them.  Recognizing how good the music of the Harp Concerto was–and how easily it might be adapted for organ–he arranged it as an organ concerto, and it was published as the sixth concerto of his Opus 4.

In either version, this is delightful music, delicate in texture and expression.  Handel provides a very restrained accompaniment: the orchestra usually announces the main theme and then offers unobtrusive accompaniment to the extended solos.  The opening movement has the unusual marking Andante allegro (apparently an indication of a moderately-fast tempo), and following the orchestra’s statement of the main subject the organ extends this at length.  The orchestra’s opening statement of the Larghetto is surprisingly strong, but once again it retreats and allows the organ to take center stage; Handel breaks down this main orchestral theme and uses parts of it to accompany the organ, which has lengthy solo passages in this movement.  The brief concluding Allegro moderato grows out of the opening statement of the orchestra, which is allowed a little higher profile here.

Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170

Born March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany
Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig

Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust is the first movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 170, first performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on July 28, 1726, and scored for alto soloist and small orchestra.  This aria, expressive and heartfelt, is regarded as one of the finest in Bach’s entire cantata sequence.  Its text declares that true peace is found in heaven and pledges to live in virtue.  Bach sets this aria, which is in da capo form, in a 12/8 meter and marks it Lento.  The orchestra is an important part of this aria: its noble prelude sets the tone precisely, and Bach alternates the vocal line with orchestral interludes.

Violin Sonata in D Major, HWV 371

Handel’s six violin sonatas appeared in various editions in London and Amsterdam during the 1720s and 1730s.  This has, in some cases, made for problems of authenticity, but–remarkably–Handel’s own manuscript for the Violin Sonata in D Major has survived across nearly three centuries, and this music is unquestionably authentic.  The Sonata in D Major is one of his finest chamber works, made famous by distinguished recordings from Joseph Szigeti, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, and many other violinists.

The sonata is in four movements in the slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of the Italian sonata di chiesa.  There is some question about Handel’s marking for the first movement: in some editions it is Affetuoso (“affectionate”), while in others it is simply Adagio.  The very beginning is striking.  The violin lays out what seem to be the notes of a D-major chord (D-F#-A-D), but instead of the final D, Handel instead goes up one step, so that the opening statement is the unexpected D-F#-A-E.  The effect is surprising–unsettling!–and that upward span of a ninth will recur throughout this first movement, grinding dissonantly against the harmonic context that we expect.  From his dissonant opening, Handel builds a long slow movement of great dignity, and perhaps it is the jagged and unexpected effect of that opening gesture that gives this movement its strength.

The second movement, fugal in construction, is marked Allegro but seems to accelerate as it proceeds, as Handel diminishes the time-value of his note-sequence: he begins with a half-note, then goes to eighths, then to sixteenths, and then to trills and mordents, so that the tempo seems to rush ahead even as the performance should be rock-steady.  The Larghetto, in B minor, has a dark and ceremonial character as the violin’s melodic line arches over the keyboard’s steady chordal accompaniment, while the concluding Allegro, in binary form, is driven along the energy of its dotted rhythms and sixteenth-note runs.

Those who know Handel’s oratorios will recognize some of the music of this sonata, for he liked the two Allegro movements of this sonata enough to come back to them several decades later and adapt them for larger forces.  The second movement became the basis for the choral double fugue that opens the second act of Solomon (1749), while the final movement became–with the addition of a viola part–the sinfonia in Act III, Scene I of Jephtha (1751).

Con l’ali di constanza from Ariodante

At the start of the 1734 season, Handel moved his opera company from the King’s Theatre to the new Theatre Royal at Covent Garden.  For the new season in a new hall he composed Ariodante between August and October 1734, and it was premièred at Covent Garden on January 8, 1735.  Its beginning was not auspicious: the opera ran for eleven performances and then disappeared for nearly two centuries before it was revived in Germany in 1928.  Today, however, Ariodante is recognized as one of Handel’s greatest operas, full of great music and beautifully written for its singers.  Set in Edinburgh, the opera tells of the prince Ariodante’s love for Ginevra, the plot that falsely convinces him of her infidelity, his despair, and the eventual happy ending.

Handel wrote the part of Ariodante for the great Italian castrato Giovanni Carestini (born about 1704 and died about 1760).  Carestini made his early career in Italy and Munich, and in 1733 Handel brought him to London, where he sang the principal parts in Handel’s Arriana in Creta, Parnasso in Festa, Alcina, and Ariodante.  Carestini’s singing was widely admired–the composer Johann Adolf Hasse noted: “He who has not heard Carestini is not acquainted with the most perfect style of singing.”  In modern performances, the part of Ariodante is usually undertaken by a mezzo-soprano.

Ariodante sings “Con l’ali di constanza” late in Act I.  The aria is in standard da capo form, and its brief text offers a conventional sentiment: Ariodante states that love and fidelity have the power to sustain (the title translates “With wings of constancy”).  What makes this aria distinctive is the blazing virtuosity of the vocal part.  A brief but very fast introduction sets the mood, and then the singer must master some of the most difficult writing for voice ever imagined, full of runs, florid decoration, and unbelievable breath control.  At moments it almost seems as if Handel is treating the voice as an orchestral instrument: the violins will rip at full speed along passages of sixteenth-notes, and then Handel will require the singer to articulate those same passages at the same speed.  It is a brilliant aria, full of strength and excitement, and its many difficulties suggest just how fine a singer Carestini must have been.


Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, BWV 1048

Bach served as kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen from 1717 until 1723, an unusually happy period for the composer.  Prince Leopold was an enthusiastic and informed amateur musician who put the full resources of his court–including a seventeen-piece orchestra–at Bach’s disposal.  Early in his tenure at Cöthen, Bach had journeyed to Berlin to order the construction of a new organ at Cöthen.  While in Berlin, he played for Christian Ludwig, the younger brother of King Wilhelm I of Prussia; as a member of the royal family, Christian Ludwig enjoyed the official title of Margrave of Brandenburg.  The Margrave expressed some interest (perhaps simply polite) in Bach’s music, and the composer promised to send him some.  Bach, however, was in no hurry to get around to this, and it was not until several years later, in March 1721, that he finally sent off a handsomely-copied manuscript of six orchestral concertos–with a flowery letter of introduction–to the Margrave in Berlin.  The manuscripts were later found among the Margrave’s papers (he apparently never had them performed), and the nickname Brandenburg Concertos was attached to them long after the composer’s death.

The genial Third Brandenburg has presented scholars and performers with a surprising number of problems, and those who feel that it is more properly chamber music than an orchestral concerto may have a point.  They note that it is scored for three violin parts, three viola parts, and three cello parts, plus bass and continuo, and so modest an ensemble belongs in a small room suited to intimate music rather than the concert hall.  The competing view notes that the three cellos, which usually play in unison, create an overpowering sound in the lower register that must be compensated for by increasing the number of violins and violas; thus the Third Brandenburg demands a chamber orchestra just to keep the voices balanced.

A further problem is the slow movement, an Adagio only one measure long: what possibly could Bach have meant by this?  Some have suggested that this measure is there just as a modulation, but since both outer movements are in G major, no modulation is necessary.  Others believe that there existed a movement for several instruments which is now missing; the modulating chords make good sense if the concerto moves from a slow movement in E minor to a finale in G major (which is the exact harmonic progression of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4).  Still others believe that Bach, who doubtless played in performances of this music at Cöthen, simply improvised on the violin or viola in this interval.  We will probably never know what Bach had in mind, and modern performers have solved this problem in a number of ways, including placing other Bach slow movements in this slot.

In any case, the exuberant Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 takes its character from the outer movements, both marked by bright energy and the warm sound of a string ensemble.  Bach left no tempo marking for the first movement, but it must be some form of Allegro.  The sturdy main theme, heard immediately, dominates the movement; it is a long theme, but Bach builds the movement on parts of this theme, with brief figures tossed between different voices, rocking along and intermeshing beautifully.  At certain points, instrumental solos emerge briefly from the orchestral texture, then quickly return to the ensemble.  The concluding Allegro is a gigue in 12/8.  The different voices make what seem to be fugal entrances (though the movement is not a fugue), and once again solo voices emerge from the orchestral texture for brief moments of individual glory.  The energy of this two-part movement is remarkable.  Even more remarkable is Bach’s ability to wring rhythmic variety from what is an almost non-stop progression of steady sixteenth-notes.