Borrow, Steal, Recycle

Sonata in G minor .............................................................................................................................Giovanni Benedetto Platti (1697-1763)
Adagio
Allegro
Adagio
Allegro

oboe, viola da gamba, basso continuo

 

French Suite #5 in G major................................................................................................................ Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Allemande
Courante
Sarabande
Gavotte
Bourrée
Loure
Gigue

harpsichord

 

*****intermission*****

Sonata in C major....................................................................................................................................... “Signor” Graun (18 th century)
Andante
Allegro
Largo
Allegretto

recorder, basso continuo

Sonata in G minor on “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” .......................................................................August Kühnel (1645-c. 1700)

viola da gamba, basso continuo

Trio in E minor.......................................................................................................................................................................... Bach
Adagio—Vivace
Andante
Un poco allegro

recorder, viola da gamba, harpsichord, basso continuo

 

Program Notes for 15 & 16 November 2008

    Our catchy program title is no exaggeration. We refer not only to the thoroughly respectable practice of borrowing pre-existent musical materials and to the refashioning of one’s own materials, but also to the deliberate theft of another’s creative work in order to pass it off as one’s own. Borrowing was very common from the Middle Ages on, whether of tunes or of musical motives or of structural devices, and it usually indicated a degree of respect for the “lender,” or at least for the lender’s popularity. It wasn’t a clandestine practice, though it was often cleverly accomplished, and it usually entailed some deciphering on the part of the listener. We have less knowledge about recycling during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, because church and court normally required new, not reworked pieces, from their hired hands, and because composers rarely kept copies of unused music around. As for musical thievery, it seems to have been new in the 17 th and 18 th centuries, paralleling the increasing availability of printed music for public perusal and the growing feeling among composers that what they penned belonged in a sense to them, not only to their employers, as personal property.

We present two recycled pieces by the renowned J. S. Bach along with sonatas by three much less well-known composers.

August Kühnel’s sonata, which he called an “aria sola,” for viola da gamba and continuo demonstrates the most obvious method of borrowing. It’s a series of challenging variations on the chorale tune “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut,” which was first printed in the Lutheran Dresden Gesangsbuch of 1593 and which still finds a place in the modern German Lutheran hymnal. The tune isn’t always at the forefront, but its harmonic and formal structures are ever present. The composer’s penchant for lyricism is evident, as is his facility in Italianate ornamentation. Though Kühnel spent some time studying in Paris, the French side of his musical personality doesn’t make an appearance in this piece. The sonata forms part of a 1698 publication of 14 sonatas and suites for one or two violas da gamba with continuo—or without, as the continuo may be omitted in half of the pieces. Some of the pieces are French-influenced, and some are more inspired by Italian style; some aren’t difficult, and some are for advanced players; some consist of dances, some are studies on viol techniques, and some, like our selection, are sets of variations. Kühnel’s career led him from court to court in Germany, as well as to England as a performer, and his only extant music is for the instrument he played, the viola da gamba.

The attachment of a flute sonata by one of the Graun brothers at the end of a print of five sonatas by Antonio Besozzi might be scandalous if we knew any of the gory details. Alas, it wasn’t an isolated example of the opportunism of publishers, as this breed of entrepreneurs aimed to make a buck at every turn, printing spurious pieces by, for example, Handel and Haydn, when these composers were in great demand. In this publication, the Graun sonata is in a different font and font size, not to mention a totally different style. Could it be that the printer just made an error in appending the Graun piece, or could it be that he wanted to be able to offer six sonatas for sale? In any case, our sonata is definitely not by Besozzi and is deemed securely, for other reasons, to be by “Signor” Graun. Which Graun, though, is a question that no one has satisfactorily answered. There were three, born within only a few years of each other: Johann Gottlieb (1702/03-1771), Carl Heinrich (1703/04-1759), and, the least likely author of our piece, August Friedrich (1698/99-1765). The first two held positions at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, making an effort to please him by writing Italianate, galant-style music that was accessible within the king’s good but not excellent grasp of technical and musical subtleties. We’ll perform this sonata on recorder, often an acceptable substitute for a flute.

Giovanni Benedetto Platti’s sonata, originally for oboe, cello, and continuo, has been recycled not by one of his contemporaries, but by us. With the simplest of alterations, we have recast the cello part as a line for viola da gamba. Otherwise the piece remains as Platti wrote it. To be sure, Platti’s peers or followers might have done the same thing—and, indeed, we, ABP, do this kind of recycling frequently. Platti, a teacher, composer, tenor, and virtuoso on oboe, flute, violin, cello, and harpsichord, left us about 50 elegant and shapely sonatas, sonatas that mark the change from high Baroque style to the lighter, less complex galant style of the mid-18 th century. This sonata opens with a siciliana, seemingly betraying some latent Neapolitan background, but it continues in a more contrapuntal mainstream Italian medium.

We arrive at Bach, well-versed in reusing his own music. Yet one of the pieces on our program demonstrates once again our own recycling, as well as Bach’s. You’ll hear the trio in E minor, originally for the two hands and feet of a really adept organist, performed with a recorder on the right-hand part, a viola da gamba (and then the harpsichord, for the final movement) on the left-hand part, and the harpsichord (and then the viola da gamba, for the final movement) fleshing out the pedal part. Did we say “originally”? That’s not quite true, as the first movement is a recycled sinfonia from one of Bach’s cantatas, and some believe that the second movement arose out of an earlier organ piece. What we have, then, is a recycled recycled piece! We have no idea if ABP’s kind of rescoring was done during Bach’s lifetime, but it’s certainly not unusual now. After all, Bach composed very few trio sonatas for two solo instruments and continuo, and we are greedy for more. So we mine his other music to see what we can “create.”

The keyboard suite in G major is another matter, since we’ll perform it on the instrument for which it was composed. Bach never published what were called his “French” suites. He wrote them down first in 1722-25, as far as we know, in a notebook of pieces he was collecting for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, an accomplished keyboardist. There were five suites, or sets of dances, in various stages of completion, and very few of the dances were in a French style. Prior to this time, he’d already composed six “English” suites, which, similarly, he never published. Later writers identified the two sets of suites by their regional references as if they were well-established titles, but no one knows exactly why. A bewildering array of 18 th-century copies of the French suites exists, and each manuscript differs in number and order of the suites, number and order of the movements, and ornamentation. We can say, then, that they were repeatedly recycled. In most modern editions, you’ll find six French suites, but there are two more that could easily be appended—and are, in some scholarly editions. The core movements are a calm and stately German allemande; either a moderately paced, rhythmically complicated French courante or a fast and clearly phrased Italian corrente (a corrente in the G major suite, even though Bach called it a courante); a slow and expressive sarabande; and either a French gigue with dotted rhythms or an imitative and quick Italian giga (a giga in the G major suite). Other dances might be added. In the G major suite, Bach included a gavotte, a bourrée, and a loure. The gavotte is a fairly simple dance with a half-measure upbeat, and the bourrée is similar but faster, with a shorter upbeat. The loure is like a slow gigue.

Who in more contemporary times would think to borrow, or steal, or recycle? Well, many composers, apparently, not to mention performers! Borrowing is more common than many music lovers know, for besides using obvious quotations and old tunes, composers seem to delight in arcane references to each other’s works. Thievery isn’t an acceptable practice, and never has been, but you hear about it occasionally, most likely within the realm of popular music. Recycling, too, isn’t unheard of, and some composers regularly reclothe their own compositions. Think of Copland’s Third Symphony, recently performed by the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, which hints at and then fully acknowledges his “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Think of Boulez, who sometimes withdrew compositions, only to reissue them later, with new layers added. Even during the heyday of romanticism, ostensibly with its emphasis on creative originality, borrowing and recycling were common enough. We won’t speak of theft...but we could mention, for example, the songs by Fanny Mendelssohn that her brother Felix appropriated and published as his own, relinquishing authorship only later.