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PROGRAM NOTES: Baroque Virtuosi

by Eric Bromberger

Concerto in D Major for Four Violins, TV 40:202

March 14, 1681, Magdeburg
June 25, 1767, Hamburg

While Telemann wrote numerous concertos for solo instruments and orchestra, he also composed four concertos for four violins without orchestra. These “chamber concertos” made good sense formally: it is difficult to give four soloists enough to do in any concerto, and Telemann simplified his task by dispensing with the orchestra altogether and giving the entire musical argument to the soloists. The resulting concertos are an effective combination of the refinement of chamber music with the brilliance of concertos.

Telemann, though, was no lover of virtuosity for its own sake, and his concertos are more memorable for their musical values than for dazzling technical display. In the Concerto in C Major for Four Violins, he emphasizes the interplay of four equal voices: the musical line passes easily between the violinists, none of whom is given a dominant role. In fact, Telemann mixes his voices so evenly that the third and fourth violins at times play above the first and second violins. While these concertos require accomplished players, it may well be that Telemann wrote them in part for amateur musicians (all four parts remain in first position throughout, with the exception of the few measures, where some of the violins are briefly sent up to third position).

Though he calls this music a concerto, Telemann sets it in the slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of four movements typical of baroque chamber music. The opening Adagio is very brief and functions simply as an introduction to the Allegro, which begins brightly on a sequence of canonic entrances; the movement is in a compact binary form. The Grave, slow and solemn, is in 3/2, while in the finale, marked simply Allegro, Telemann frequently sets the violins in pairs and has the melodic line leaping between those two pairs.

Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066

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

If Bach were to attend this concert, he would not recognize this music by its title on the program page. The name “suite” is the invention of scholars and musicians who came a century later, when Bach’s four works in this form were given a name that corresponded to later musical practices. Bach himself called these four works ouvertures, a spelling that makes clear the French origin of the form. The French ouverture was an instrumental work in one movement divided into a slow-fast-slow sequence: a slow introduction led to an extended fast section, usually in fugal form, and then a conclusion on an abbreviated return of the slow opening material. The ouverture movement was followed by a collection of dance movements, but Bach used the title to refer to the entire work. To complicate matters further, Bach may in no sense have intended this as orchestral music. His original manuscripts have vanished, and the scores have been re-created from the surviving parts. Evidence suggests that he may have intended this music for a chamber ensemble of about eight string players.

What is not in doubt, however, is the quality of the music itself. Bach’s First Orchestral Suite is buoyant music, full of energy and good spirits. He scores the suite for two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo and appends a varied collection of dances to the opening Ouverture. This opening movement is without tempo indications–the marking Grave for the opening and Vivace for the fugal section are not in Bach’s hand and are considered spurious (though they do reflect the general shape of the movement). The slow opening section is based on sturdy dotted rhythms, and the fugal section has a powerful main theme; Bach occasionally lets the wind instruments take over the development of this theme. The Courante flows smoothly on its propulsive main idea (that French title originally meant “running”), while the fourth movement, Forlane, is based on a stately old dance of Venetian original. The other four dance movements are in ABA form. Bach preserved the French titles for all his dances (it was the usual practice in Germany to use French titles for movements). These movements–gavotte, minuet, and bourrée–require little comment. The Passepied–that title means “pass-foot”–was originally a French sailors’ dance in triple time. Bach’s Passepied, which features distinctive writing for the oboes in the middle section, brings the suite to a lively close.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major, BWV 1051

Early in his tenure as Kapellmeister at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723), Bach 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. He 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 dedication–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 Bach’s death.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is one of the most unusual of the set. Bach eliminates violins altogether from the orchestra (their absence gives this concerto a dark hue) and instead scores this music for two viola da braccia, two viola da gamba, cello, and continuo part (usually played by bass and harpsichord). The scoring is quite flexible: this concerto can be performed by as few as seven players–making it chamber music–or it can be expanded to orchestral dimensions by adding more players. The viola da braccia is the modern viola, held under the chin with one’s arm (braccio is Italian for arm). The viola da gamba was a bass-viola with frets, played while held between the knees (gamba is the Italian word for leg). The viola da gamba part in this concerto is relatively easy, suggesting that Bach may have written it for Prince Leopold, who liked to take part in orchestral performances.

Bach left no tempo indication for the opening movement, but the general thrust of the music suggests an Allegro. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is essentially a double concerto for two violas, and the writing for the solo violas in this movement is extremely ingenious. Much of it is canonic, with one instrument repeating the other’s music. The violas are sometimes several measures apart, sometimes as close as an eighth-note, giving this movement an extremely “busy” feel as the melodic lines mesh and interlock.

The Adagio ma non tanto is a lovely, extended duet for the solo violas. The viola da gamba are silent in this movement, and the only accompaniment is a walking bass line far below the solo voices. The concluding Allegro is an energetic gigue, a dance form related to the jig. The two violas sail forward brilliantly, at first playing in unison and soon rapidly exchanging phrases. The center section brings cadenza-like passages for the soloists before the opening material returns.

Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins and Strings, Opus 3, No. 10, RV 580

Born March 4, 1678, Venice
Died July 26/27, 1741, Vienna

In the early years of the eighteenth century, Vivaldi held the rather modest position of director of a conservatory for homeless girls in Venice, but his compositions were carrying his name throughout Europe. In 1711, he published a collection of twelve violin concertos under the title L’Estro armonico, translated variously as “The Spirit of Harmony” or “Harmonious Inspiration.” Significantly, Vivaldi chose to have this set published in Amsterdam, and for two good reasons–printing techniques there were superior to any available in Italy and, perhaps more important, his music was extremely popular in northern Europe.

Each of the concertos of L’Estro armonico is a concerto grosso, in which one or more violin soloists is set against a main body of strings and harpsichord continuo. The intent in these concertos is not so much virtuoso display (though they are difficult enough, certainly) as in making contrast between the sound of the solo instruments and the main body of strings. The twelve concertos of L’Estro armonico quickly became popular and influential in northern Europe. Bach knew this music very well, and–if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery–paid Vivaldi the immense compliment of transcribing six of these concertos for different instruments and using them as his own: the present Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins became Bach’s Concerto in A Minor for Four Claviers, BWV1065.

Four of the concertos in L’Estro armonico are for four violins, and of these the Concerto in B Minor has become the best known. A concerto for four soloists, particularly for four soloists playing the same instrument, is a difficult matter: the composer must find enough for all four to do without burying anyone or allowing the same sonority to become tedious. Vivaldi brings this off with the rapid exchange of passages between soloists, an ingenious contrapuntal texture, and a great deal of rhythmic variety. In the opening Allegro the main theme is being varied and ornamented almost before it has been completely stated, and Vivaldi quickly has that vigorous main idea leaping between soloists. The slow movement opens with an even slower introduction; the main section has the four soloists playing over quiet continuo accompaniment, and Vivaldi assigns an important part of the continuo to a solo cello throughout the concerto. In the concluding Allegro the soloists play in various combinations with the solo cello as the concerto drives to its close on an energetic tutti.

Violin Sonata in A Minor, Opus 2, No. 5

Born April 8, 1692, Pirano, Istria, Slovenia
Died February 26, 1770, Padua, Italy

Audiences in the early twenty-first century remember Giuseppe Tartini as the composer of one work–the famous “Devil’s Trill” Sonata–but in fact he wrote a vast amount of music, including about 135 violin concertos, many concertos for other instruments, sacred vocal settings, and number of sonatas for various instruments. Tartini’s life reads like something out of a novel rather than a music history text. As a boy, he learned to play the violin and to fence and was so good at both that he supported himself at law school by giving violin and fencing lessons–he even thought briefly of making a career as a fencing-master. But fate intervened, as it so often does: at age 20, Tartini eloped with one of his violin students, only to discover that his youthful bride was under the protection of her uncle, the archbishop of Padua, who came after Tartini with a vengeance. The young violin-and-fencing teacher had to flee Padua for Assisi, where he hid in a monastery. Only after the archbishop had calmed down (which took two years) could Tartini return to Padua. He had used his time in the cloister to study composition, and he now devoted himself completely to music, becoming music director of Saint Anthony’s in Padua and eventually founding a violin school; this became so famous that it attracted students from all over Europe, earning it the nickname “School of the Nations.” In his later years, Tartini devoted himself to mathematical speculation and studies in musical theory.

The Sonata in A Minor is the fifth of a set of six sonatas for violin and continuo that Tartini published in Amsterdam in 1743. The sonata may be in the expected three movements, but these take an unexpected sequence: a slow first movement is followed by a fast movement, and this in turn is followed by an even faster final movement. All three movements are in A minor, and all are in binary form, with performers given the option of repeating the first part. The Andante cantabile offers the violin an ornate melodic line over steady accompaniment, while the Allegro is based on its sturdy opening theme, which turns brilliant as the movement proceeds across its extended span. Tartini moves from this fast movement to the even faster finale, marked Allegro assai (“Very fast”). This movement, with its wide skips and quick alternation of lyric and energetic passages, requires some very accomplished fiddling.

Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, “La Folia”

Born December 5, 1687, Lucca, Italy
Died September 17, 1762, Dublin

Francesco Geminiani was one of the great violinists of the eighteenth century. He learned to play the violin as a boy, then went on to Rome, where he studied with Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti. He was briefly a member of the Naples opera orchestra before moving to England in 1714 when he was 27. Geminiani quickly established himself in London: within two years of his arrival he performed before King George I, accompanied by Handel at the keyboard. Thereafter, Geminiani made his career in London, with extended periods spent in Dublin and Paris, and late in life he wrote several treatises on the art of playing the violin. Geminiani was also an art collector, and that proved an expensive hobby–he occasionally landed in financial difficulties as a result.

Geminiani discovered that the music of his teacher Corelli was wildly popular in London, and in the 1720s he arranged a number of Corelli’s works for string orchestra, including the twelve violin sonatas of Corelli’s Opus 12, which had been published in 1700. The most famous of these is Corelli’s Violin Sonata in D Minor, Opus 5, No. 12, which featured a set of variations on an old tune known as La Folia (or La Follia). The La Folia tune was already several hundred years old when Corelli used it for his variations. It appears to have originated in fifteenth-century Portugal, where it was originally a fast dance in triple time, performed so strenuously that the dancers seemed to have gone mad–the title folia meant “mad” or “empty-headed” (it survives in our usage as “folly”). Over time, this dance slowed down and became the famous theme we know today, and its solemn chordal progression and stately melody have made it irresistibly attractive as the basis for variations. Among the many other composers who have surrendered to its charm are Vivaldi, Marais, Bach, Lully, Liszt, Nielsen, and Rachmaninoff.

Geminiani’s arrangement, which may be understood as an act of homage to his old teacher, has become one of the most popular of his own works. Geminiani recast Corelli’s sonata as a concerto grosso for three soloists–two violins and a cello–accompanied by string orchestra and continuo. Geminiani did not simply orchestrate Corelli’s sonata, but in the process of transforming it into a concerto grosso he re-composed it slightly, emphasizing different voices, heightening solo lines, and expanding its range of sound. Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso is heard at this concert in a version for two violins, viola, and cello. Corelli’s variations are concise and sharply-contrasted, and they offer some brilliant writing for violin. This is invigorating music, in whatever form it is heard.