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PROGRAM NOTES: Marsalis Well-Tempered

by Eric Bromberger

Air from Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068

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

Is this music–so simple, so spare, so moving–the most beautiful Bach ever wrote? Certainly it has become some of the most famous–it has been arranged for many different instruments and was best-known a century ago in an arrangement for violin and piano by August Wilhelmj called Air on the G-String. In fact, the Air is the second movement of Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major, and even within that context it stands apart as something special. Bach’s four orchestral suites consist of an overture followed by a series of brisk dance movements. An air, however, is a purely melodic piece, and this achingly beautiful music brings a moment of chaste repose amidst the vigor of the other movements of the Third Suite.

It is impossible to date the Suite No. 3 accurately. While Bach’s instrumental music is usually assigned to his years at the court of Anhalt-Cothen (1717-1723), recent evidence suggests that the Third Suite may actually have been written around 1730, when Bach–then 45–was serving as cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Though the Suite is scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, and strings, the Air uses only strings and continuo.

One of the most impressive things about the Air is how Bach creates so beautifully-proportioned a work in so short a span: the Air–without repeats–is only nineteen measures long. Over a quietly walking bass line, Bach spins a long-lined melody that begins simply but grows in power and complexity, then subsides quietly. The stately quality of this music has made it something of a memorial piece: the strings of the Cleveland Orchestra played it–without conductor–in memory of conductor George Szell immediately after his death in 1970.

Concerto à Cinque in C Major for Oboe, Strings, and Continuo, Opus 9, No. 5
(Transcription by B. Marsalis)

Born June 8, 1671, Venice
Died January 17, 1751, Venice

Tomaso Albinoni himself was a contemporary of Bach, who admired his music and who paid Albinoni the subtle compliment of borrowing some of his themes to use as fugue subjects. The son of a wealthy family, Albinoni never had to take a court or church position to support himself as a musician, but he was far from being a dilettante, as he is sometimes characterized: he wrote over fifty operas, forty cantatas, and a vast amount of instrumental music that was widely published, and his name was–at the time of his death–known throughout Europe.

In 1722 Albinoni published as his Opus 9 a set of twelve concertos in Amsterdam. These are sometimes referred to as Concerti à Cinque because the string orchestra consists of five parts–two for violin, two for viola, and a bassline. Opus 9 offers several concertos for strings alone, several for oboe, and several for trumpet. The Oboe Concerto in C Major is in the three-movement form that Albinoni helped to establish for concertos, and these movements are in the expected fast-slow-fast sequence. The finale, a sprightly movement in 3/8, is particularly attractive. This concerto, like all the solo pieces in this program, is heard in an arrangement for saxophone by Branford Marsalis.

Don Quixote, TWV55:G10

Born March 14, 1681, Magdeburg, Germany
Died June 25, 1767, Hamburg

Miguel de Cervantes’ great novel Don Quixote has charmed and moved (and haunted) readers for the last four centuries. Not only has that novel contributed a word to the English language (quixotic), but everyone identifies with its hero, an idealistic man forced to live in a prosaic and compromised world. It has inspired countless operas and plays, a Broadway musical (Man of La Mancha), and pieces by composers as diverse as Mendelssohn, Ravel, Falla, and Richard Strauss, whose tone poem Don Quixote may be the greatest of them all.

Georg Philipp Telemann was also taken with Cervantes’ tale, and late in his long life he composed what he called a “burlesque de Quixote”: an orchestral suite with movements inspired by some of the most famous scenes from the novel. Audiences should approach this music fully aware that musical scene-painting was in its infancy when Telemann wrote his Don Quixote. Richard Strauss, a master of descriptive music, once claimed that his highest aim was to write fork music that could never be mistaken for a spoon, and his musical portraits of scenes from the novel are masterly. By comparison, Telemann’s can seem more generalized, but we should not judge Telemann for failing to be Strauss, and his musical scenes are quite enjoyable on their own.

Telemann begins with an Overture in the French style. The powerful opening, full of dotted rhythms, is marked Maestoso, and the music rushes ahead at the fugal central episode before the return of the opening material. There follow five “scenes” from the novel, all but one in binary form. The Awakening of Don Quixote is followed by the spirited Attack on the Windmills. This is probably the most famous (and the most dramatic) scene in the novel, and Telemann writes a particularly active part for the first violins here. The gentle Amorous Sighs over the Princess Dulcinea is followed by Sancho Panza Mocked–here the Don’s faithful servant is tossed on a blanket when he and the knight cannot pay for their lodging. The next movement is in three-part form: the Gallop of Rosinante depicts the gait of the Don’s aged horse, while the trio section–The Gallop of Sancho’s Ass–offers a variant portraying the trot of the squire’s mount. The last movement, Repose of Don Quixote, brings the death of the noble knight, and Telemann marks this movement doucement (“gently”). Rather than ending heroically, the music simply fades away, and that conclusion is all the more effective for its understatement.

Concerts royaux, Premier Concert

Born November 10, 1668, Paris
Died September 11, 1733, Paris

François Couperin trained as an organist and a harpsichordist, and his rise was meteoric. In 1693–at the age of only 25–he was named organiste du roi, and in 1717 he became clavecinist to the king. Much of his music was composed for the cultured Louis XIV, and from the music he composed for the court Couperin later drew a series of what he called Concerts royaux: “Royal Concerts.” These were suites of brief movements, but the remarkable thing was that Couperin did not specify an exact instrumentation for them, nor did he seem to care. He said that they might be performed by a single harpsichord or by a chamber ensemble that consisted of a high melodic instrument (like violin, oboe, or flute), an instrument of somewhat lower range (viol or bassoon), and a bass continuo line that could be undertaken by different instruments. For Couperin, the instrumentation of this music was fluid, and he doubtless would have been delighted to hear it this evening in Branford Marsalis’ arrangement.

The first in the series Premier concert takes the general form of the baroque partita, which was understood to be a collection of “parts”: generally a collection of dance movements. The movements of Couperin’s piece conform very closely to Bach’s notion of the partita (an opening Prelude followed by an Allemande, Sarabande, and Gigue), and–like Bach again–Couperin adds extra movements such as a Gavotte and a Minuet. Audiences listening to this music might imagine themselves at one of the Sunday afternoon concerts at Versailles, enjoying music that had been composed specifically for the pleasure of the court. Couperin begins with a suitably solemn Prelude–his marking his Gravement–and then offers a series of elegant dance movements. These are usually in binary form, and they are very brief–each movement is printed on a single page. The one departure from binary form comes in the last movement, a Minuet in the expected ABA form.

Sonata in G Major for Oboe and Basso Continuo

Born about 1680
Died after 1756, Paris

Louis-Antoine Dornel was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, and he made his career in Paris, but beyond that little is known about him. His birth and death dates are unknown, much of his music appears to have been lost, and we are left with a handful of works: vocal settings, keyboard pieces, and chamber music. Dornel was an organist, and some of his music for that instrument has survived as well.

Among the most popular of his compositions is a series of sonatas for oboe and bass continuo: the latter could be undertaken by keyboard or by an instrumental ensemble. The Sonata in G Major has become the most popular of these and has been recorded several times. It consists of four brief movements. The Prelude gets off to a stately beginning in 4/4, then shifts to 3/4 and speeds ahead before concluding with a return to the opening meter and tempo; the Fugue is based on a very short subject. The solemn Gravement–only 21 measures long–features a richly-embellished melodic line, while the concluding Gigue is in binary form.

Concerto Grosso in C Minor, Opus 1, No. 6

Born September 3, 1695, Bergamo, Italy
Died March 30, 1764, Amsterdam

Pietro Locatelli learned to play the violin as a boy, and he quickly became so good that his parents sent him south from his native Bergamo for further study in Rome. There he developed into a virtuoso and toured throughout Italy and the German states. In 1729, while still in his early thirties, Locatelli settled in Amsterdam and made that city his home for the rest of his life. By all accounts a highly educated man, he became involved in publishing music in these years, when Amsterdam was the center of music publishing.

As might be expected, Locatelli wrote a great deal for solo violin, but his Opus 1 was a set of twelve concerti grossi, which he published in Amsterdam in 1721; eight years later, when he settled in Amsterdam permanently, Locatelli returned to this set, revised it, and republished it.

Locatelli may have studied with Antonio Corelli in Rome–the evidence is unclear. But what is clear is that Corelli’s conception of the concerto grosso–with a set of solo strings emerging from the texture of a larger string orchestra and contrasting with it–very much influenced Locatelli. The Concerto Grosso in C Minor, the sixth in Locatelli’s Opus 1, falls into four brief movements in the expected slow-fast-slow-fast sequence. The firm beginning of the opening Adagio establishes the dark mood of this music, and from out of this powerful sound the four solo instruments–two violins, a viola, and a cello–emerge with lines of their own. The Allegro is a spirited fugue; this time the solo instruments lead and are gradually joined by the larger ensemble. Solo strings once again open the brief Largo, which really serves as a preparation for the final movement. In binary form, this Allegro bristles with rhythmic energy–much of it is sharply syncopated–and drives to its conclusion on a firm C-minor chord.

Concerto for Oboe, Strings, and Continuo in F Major, BWV 1053


In April 1729, shortly after leading performances of his monumental St. Matthew Passion, Bach made a significant change in his musical life. After six exhausting years as cantor at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig–during which he had composed cantatas, oratorios, and passions for religious observances–Bach became director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. The Collegium Musicum corresponded somewhat to the modern university-community symphony orchestra: it was an ensemble of student, amateur, and professional instrumentalists who rehearsed weekly and performed orchestral music. The orchestra gave public concerts on Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 6 in a coffee-garden called Grimmische’s Thor during the warm months and inside Zimmerman’s coffee-house on Friday evenings from 8 to 10 during the winter. After six years of having to produce a new cantata almost every week, Bach was–at age 44–doubtless glad to put his responsibilities for church music behind him and turn to the quite different pleasures of secular music.

As director, Bach was responsible for choosing the music the Collegium Musicum performed, and he quickly discovered that he needed new keyboard concertos, probably for his talented sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel to perform with the orchestra. He turned to his library and recycled a number concertos he had written much earlier–often for other instruments–by arranging them as keyboard concertos. These concertos had been composed during his years as kapellmeister in Cöthen (1717-1723), and some may actually date from his years in Weimar (1708-1717). In 1738-39, Bach carefully prepared manuscripts for seven of these keyboard concertos, and so they exist today in accurate texts, although it is not always possible to determine the exact instruments for which they were originally composed.

Evidence suggests that the Concerto in E Major may have been transcribed from an early oboe concerto, and scholars have been able to recreate that earlier version, transposing it to F major in the process. The concerto is heard this evening in an arrangement for saxophone and orchestra by Branford Marsalis.

The opening Allegro bursts to life with a great rush of ebullient energy, and the bright spirits of that ritornello sustain the entire movement; it is a feature of this non-stop energy that the soloist plays throughout the movement. After the glistening first movement, this Siciliano sounds particularly somber. Bach preserves the swaying dotted rhythms of that old dance form (its title suggests its place of origin) and has the violins announce the main idea as the soloist accompanies; gradually the soloist assumes the central role, and the strings accompany. The concluding Allegro returns to the key and manner of the opening movement. Set in a quick 3/8, this movement spins off energy and dances the concerto to its spirited close.