Venice Baroque Orchestra with Nicola Benedetti, violin

 

Concerto à Quattro No.2 in G major
Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785)

This evening’s program opens with music by two composers who are almost certainly new to the majority of our audience: Italy’s Baldassare Galuppi and England’s Charles Avison. Born only three years apart, both men interacted with major musical figures of the day, and each absorbed contemporary technical and stylistic elements into his own music.

Galuppi was known in his lifetime as “Il Buranello,” after the Venetian island of Burano, where he was born. Benedetto Marcello reputedly recommended him to Antonio Lotti, with whom he studied harmony, counterpoint, and keyboard instruments. Galuppi began his career as an opera harpsichordist in Florence, and by 1728 had established himself as a prolific composer of operas.

From 1741 to 1743 he was in London, writing opera for the Haymarket Theatre, before returning to Venice. There he was active in the city’s musical life, rising to maestro di musica at San Marco, as well as writing more operas. During the 1760s, he spent three years in St. Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great, composing Russian sacred music.

Historically, Galuppi is far more important as a composer of opera, cantata, and oratorio than of instrumental music; however, at least 90 keyboard sonatas and some short orchestral works by him have survived. As its title implies, the Concerto à Quattro that opens this program is in four parts; the title page specifies two violins, viola, and basso obbligati. Only one manuscript source survives: in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, about 85 miles southwest of Venice. Galuppi’s music, while dating from the late Baroque period, clearly anticipates early classical style.

The concerto’s four movements are arranged slow-fast-slow-fast, with the opening Andante functioning as an introduction to the first Allegro. Echo effects and a combination of imitative and homophonic textures invite the contrast of solo and tutti [full ensemble] exchanges. The third movement is an expressive Andante in G minor with dramatic contrasts of piano and forte. Galuppi concludes with a lively Allegro assai in 3/8, a finale type made popular by Albinoni.

Concerto Grosso Opus 3 No.8 in E minor, after Scarlatti
Charles Avison (1709-1770)

Charles Avison was a younger contemporary of George Frederick Handel who became the most important exponent of the concerto grosso in late Baroque England. Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, near the Scottish border, Avison spent most of his career in the north of England. He came of age in an England that was wild for the Italian style, particularly the concerti grossi of Arcangelo Corelli. Avison learned Corellian style through several early years of study in London with Francesco Geminiani, another gifted Italian who settled in England.

Avison also wrote about music. His best-known treatise, Essay on Musical Expression (1752) prompted controversy because he emphasized expression as taking precedence over the theory and technique of composition. He also proclaimed Geminiani a superior composer to Handel, prompting a flurry of indignant responses in the musical press.

His most important professional position was as organist of Newcastle’s St. Nicholas Parish Church (it is a cathedral today). He also taught harpsichord, violin, and flute. Avison’s reputation was widespread, and he eventually turned down offers from other, larger cities, opting to remain in the north country. He was influential in organizing music societies and concert series in Newcastle and Durham. These were the settings for performances of his sonatas and concerti - all pioneering works in English music.

Ironically, the best known of Avison’s concerti derive not from Corelli or Geminiani, but from Domenico Scarlatti, who spent most of his career in the Iberian peninsula. Avison drew not on Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, but on his 2 Books of Lessons for the Harpsichord. In 1743, he arranged these pieces as a dozen concerti in seven parts. Published in 1744, Avison’s arrangements became exceptionally popular and continued to be played into the early years of the 19th century.

The E minor concerto conforms with the Italian sonata da chiesa [church sonata]: four movements arranged slow-fast-slow-fast. All remain in the home key except the Amoroso, which moves to G major and is played without harpsichord, emphasizing its tenderness. The concluding Allegro provides a vigorous close, with a good workout for the two principal violins.

Concerto Grosso in D minor, “La Follia” (after Corelli)
Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762)


Folia [or La Follia] is one of those tunes that has inspired many composers writing in different eras and vastly different musical styles. Its roots extend back to the 15th century. The term folia, which is of Portuguese origin, is related to the Latin word for ‘fool’ or ‘madness,’ and refers to a dance that was likely a court “fool’s dance.” The follia music that has inspired composers from the Baroque era to the modern day is a harmonic pattern related to two additional dances: the passamezzo antico and the romanesca.

The tune was already well known by the end of the 17th century. Alessandro Scarlatti, Marin Marais, Vivaldi and Bach were among the many Baroque composers who took this harmonic pattern as the basis for variations sets. The most famous of them all was by Arcangelo Corelli. His La Follia, a sonata for violin and continuo, was published with eleven other trio sonatas as Op.5. The collection appeared in Rome in 1700. Corelli used a 16-bar series of chords supporting the simple melodic line.

La Follia remained popular in the pre-classical and classical eras, when Grétry and Cherubini adapted it. Franz Liszt followed in the romantic era with his Rapsodie espagnole. Twentieth-century iterations include Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42. In the 21st century, Puerto Rican born Roberto Sierra has taken his bow to Folias as well.

The Follia concerto on this evening’s program is listed as being by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762); however, it is really an arrangement and embellishment of Corelli’s sonata, Op.5, No.12. Geminiani was a violinist, composer, and theorist from Lucca who spent most of his career in the British Isles. (He died in Dublin.) His Concerto Grosso in D minor, La Follia, is one of a dozen such arrangements of Corelli’s Op.5 for orchestra. He published them in two groups of six, in 1726 and 1729, with a dedication to King George I.

VIVALDI AND THE CONCERTO
No name is more closely linked to the Baroque concerto than Antonio Vivaldi. In his day he was known as ‘il prete rosso’ - the red priest – because of his red hair, a physical attribute he apparently inherited from his father, who was also a violinist. Although he traveled widely, he was based for much of his career in Venice, where he served as music master at the Ospedale della Pietà, a girls’ orphanage and music school.

Vivaldi composed every type of concerto: for solo instrument; for two, three, or even fourinstruments; concerti grossi featuring the full ensemble, and a handful of concerti for double orchestra. The vast majority of his 500+ concerti – approximately 330 – are solo concerti, that is, for solo instrument, strings and continuo. Of those, about 220 feature solo violin. That disproportionate majority reflects Vivaldi’s own mastery of the instrument and the large number of girls studying violin at the Pietà.

Vivaldi’s principal importance as a composer of concertos lay in breaking from the established norm of Arcangelo Corelli’s works, which adhered to the older church style of four or even five movements, usually with more than one slow segment. Vivaldi crystallized the more concise three-movement concerto arrangement of fast-slow-fast, a pattern that prevailed in instrumental concertos for the balance of the 18th century and well into the 19th.  Although he favored a limited number of basic melodic types, he varied them with virtually unlimited imagination. His upper lines are endlessly entertaining in their rhythmic profile and ornamental detail.

Another Vivaldi innovation was incorporating elements of the vibrant Venetian opera. Though he is best known today for his instrumental music, Vivaldi was one of the most celebrated opera composers of his era. He wrote more than fifty operas and dozens of secular cantatas. He was also active in church music, writing motets, psalms, masses, and other works for voices. Inevitably, his extensive experience composing for the human voice influenced his instrumental style. His slow concerto movements often evoke the world of the opera aria, with their florid figuration and richly ornamented lines.

Concerto in D major for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, RV212a
“Per la solennità della S. Lingua di S. Antonio in Padova”
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)


Precise chronology is rarely possible with Vivaldi’s concerti. This D major work is an exception, thanks to Vivaldi’s subtitle. Italian churches that were dedicated to a patron saint celebrated that saint’s day at least once a year. The basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padova [Padua] observed two annual celebrations: one on 15 February - the Solemn Feast of the Holy Tongue of St. Anthony - and another on 13 June: Feast of the Saint himself. It was customary to commission a prominent composer to write a work for such occasions, importing additional musicians from nearby cities for the service. In this case, the Venice-based Vivaldi was both famous composer and virtuoso soloist.

Two sets of surviving parts survive for this concerto, one in Torino, the other in Dresden. Because both sets are inscribed, we know that this concerto dates from February 1712, and that its first performance took place on 15 February. Neither source is complete. The Dresden parts, prepared by Pisendel, added oboes to the ensemble.

The work is unusual for its brilliant cadenzas in both outer movements. Featuring eye-popping extremes of register, lightning quick figuration, double stops, and wide leaps, such cadenzas were impractical for published versions of the concerti, intended for amateurs. These cadenzas have been preserved in written-out versions attributed to Johann Georg Pisendel, a Dresden violinist who studied with Vivaldi in 1716 and became good friends with the Venetian master.

The later version of the concerto that we hear is catalogued as RV 212a, and is believed to date from 1718-20. Its central Largo is an orchestral version of Vivaldi’s Violin Sonata RV 22. The first movement provides an opportunity for the soloist to improvise a cadenza, while the finale incorporates a dazzling written-out cadenza that soars to a high F-sharp.

The Four Seasons [Le quattro stagioni], Op.8, Nos. 1-4
Antonio Vivaldi


The Four Seasons constitute the first four of a large cycle of twelve concerti that Vivaldi gathered under the fanciful title Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione (“The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”). The idea was the contrast of rational technique (harmony and the theory of composition) to free imagination (invention). Il Cimento was published in 1725 as Vivaldi’s Opus 8. The Amsterdam publisher Le Cène issued the concerti with a sonnet at the head of each ‘season,’ explaining its programme.

Excerpts from the poems also appeared in the printed music, pinpointing places where a specific event or natural phenomenon was being illustrated. Such illustrative text-painting was particularly popular in France. These concertos were performed regularly at Paris’ Concert Spirituel, one of Europe’s first public concert series, after it was founded in 1726. It is a measure of Vivaldi’s fame that he was published in the faraway Netherlands and performed throughout Europe.

The Four Seasons remain Vivaldi’s best -oved compositions. The four Italian sonnets, possibly written by Vivaldi himself, provide a vivid narrative for the music, with recurring images of breezes and gusty winds, bird calls, rain and thunderstorms, and rustic songs and dances. All are illustrated in the music. The finale to the ‘Autumn’ concerto is distinguished by a hunt (caccia).

Each concerto is in the three movement, fast-slow-fast sequence that Vivaldi standardized as concerto form. The orchestral sections are almost exclusively ritornelli [a recurring musical idea for the full ensemble, restated in various keys]. Vivaldi takes his virtuosic flights in the solo passages, evoking the seasonal images of each poem. His imaginative writing in the solo sections is characterized by strong rhythmic vitality and highly idiomatic passage work. Nearly three centuries after they were composed, The Four Seasons still present a formidable challenge to the virtuoso violinist.

Translations of the four sonnets follow.

SPRING

Spring has come and with it gaiety
The birds salute it with joyous song.
And the brooks, caressed by Zephyr’s breath,
Flow meanwhile with sweet murmurings.
The sky is covered with dark clouds,
Announced by lightning and thunder.
But when they are silenced, the little birds
Return to fill the air with their song.
Then does the meadow, in full flower,
Ripple with its leafy plants.
The goat-herd dozes, guarded by his faithful dog.
Rejoicing in the pastoral bagpipes,
Nymphs and Shepherds dance, in love,
Their faces glowing with Springtime’s brilliance.

SUMMER

Under the heavy season of a burning sun,
Man languishes, her herd wilts, the pine is parched
The cuckoo finds its voice, and chiming in with it
The turtle-dove, the goldfinch.
Zephyr breathes gently but, contested,
The North-wind appears nearby and suddenly:
The shepherd sobs because, uncertain,
He fears the wild squall and its effects:
His weary limbs have no repose, goaded by
His fear of lightning and wild thunder;
While gnats and flies in furious swarms surround him.
Alas, his fears prove all too grounded,
Thunder and lightning split the Heavens, and hail-stones
Slice the top of the corn and other grain.

AUTUMN

The country-folk celebrate, with dance and song,
The joy of gathering a bountiful harvest.
With Bacchus’s liquor, quaffed liberally,
Their joy finishes in slumber.
Each one renounces dance and song
The mild air is pleasant
And the season invites every increasingly
To savor a sweet slumber.
The hunters at dawn go to the hunt,
With horns and guns and dogs they sally forth,
The beasts flee, their trail is followed.
Already dismayed and exhausted, from the great noise
Of guns and dogs, threatened with wounds,
They flee, languishing, and die, cowering.

WINTER

Frozen and trembling amid the chilly snow
Our breathing hampered by horrid winds
As we run, we stamp our feet continuously,
Our teeth chatter with the frightful cold.
We move to the fire and contented peace
While the rain outside pours in sheets.
Now we walk on the ice, with slow steps
Attentive how we walk, for fear of falling.
If we move quickly, we slip and fall to earth,
Again walking heavily on the ice,
Until the ice breaks and dissolves;
We hear from the closed doors
Boreas and all the winds at war,
This is winter, but such as brings joy.

All four concerti are scored for solo violin, strings and continuo.

Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2017