Program Notes for 20 May 2007

The Albuquerque Baroque Players
present
Orchestral Music of the 18th Century
a concert supported by a grant from the Albuquerque Urban Enhancement Trust Fund
3 p. m., Sunday, 20 May 2007
Central United Methodist Church

Hipocondrie à 7 concertanti................................................................................................................................................. Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)
[Grave]—Allegro—Adagio—Allegro—Lentement—Adagio

two oboes, bassoon, strings, basso continuo

Concerto grosso in D minor, op. 7/4.................................................................................................................................... Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762)
Andante
Andante—Adagio
Allegro—Adagio—Allegro

two violins, viola, and cello (concertino); strings, basso continuo (ripieno)

Concerto à 5 .......................................................................................................................................................................Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Andante
Allegro
Siciliano
Presto

two horns, two oboes d’amore, bassoon

*****intermission*****

Suite in A minor............................................................................................................................................................................................................... Telemann
[Lento]—Allegro—[Lento]
Les Plaisirs
Menuets I and 2
Réjouissance
Polonaise—[Lento]

recorder, strings, basso continuo

Sinfonia, from Samson ...................................................................................................................................................George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Andante
Allegro
Menuetto

two oboes, two horns, strings, basso continuo

 

The Orchestra

Violins I: Stephen Redfield, leader
Brad Richards
Violins II: Linda Vik
Kerri Lay
Viola: James Bell
Cello: Chase Morrison
Violone: Mary Bruesch
Oboes and oboes d’amore: MaryAnn Shore
Kevin Vigneau
Bassoon: Denise Turner
Horns: Erin Brewer
Joel Scott
Harpsichord: Susan Patrick

 

Program Notes

The standardized orchestra emerged from the French tradition of massed instruments created by Jean-Baptiste Lully in the 1660s for his musical tragedies, and the initial stage of its development continued through the first half of the 18th century. In addition to keyboards, Lully’s string band, which could be doubled by oboes and bassoons and other winds, comprised 24 violin-family instruments in five groups: six violins, four alto violas, four tenor violas, four bass violas, and six cello-like instruments (basses de violon). Lully directed this band from the wings by thumping a large stick on the floor (or, once, on his own foot—but that’s another story). During the century following, though practices varied from place to place, the number of instruments generally increased, horns were added to the wind group, low stringed instruments (contrabassi or violones) were added to reinforce the cello part an octave down, and performers began to specialize rather than playing several instruments. The number of string groupings shrank to the four we’re familiar with: first and second violins, violas, and cellos. Usually one violinist made decisions concerning tempos, bowings, and ornaments, and he led the orchestra—without benefit of big stick! While the early-18th-century orchestra was a bit small by today’s standards, it often included about 40 players and, for special occasions, as many as 60. By the 1720s-1740s, the period during which the pieces on today’s program were composed, this type of ensemble was in residence in courts and churches all over Europe.

This new ensemble would encourage composers to provide it with new types of music, pieces not meant for ballet or opera or church service or royal ritual, but for concerts without vocalists. Variously called sinfonias, concertos, suites, capriccios, overtures, and more fanciful titles, they allowed instrumentalists much freer expression than they’d had as accompanists, though, to be sure, their earlier role wasn’t entirely left behind.

Alas, we don’t have an orchestra of 60, or even of 40. Nonetheless, we intend to offer a sampling of different types of 18th-century instrumental music, most of it for orchestra, and most of it without ties to vocal works.

The Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka worked for nearly all his career in Dresden, where he was underappreciated, underpromoted, and underpaid. Some blamed his personality—his bigotry, frankly—for the situation, but more likely he was just a man out of sync with his times. His study with Johann Fux, the great scholar of Palestrina’s 16th-century contrapuntal practices, encouraged Zelenka’s natural bent toward musical complication. Quite simply, he became a master of intricate polyphony. To augment the complexity of his music, he favored imaginative rhythms, asymmetrical phrases, intense motivic play, all kinds of interrupted and suspended and deceptive cadences, and a fair amount of chromaticism. His music was admired by both Bach and Telemann, and he taught Quantz.

Most of Zelenka’s music is vocal, masses and motets furnished for the Roman Catholic Church. But in 1723, he was invited to contribute to the musical festivites surrounding coronation ceremonies in Prague. Among these contributions are four instrumental works, Hipocondrie one of them, all for the same scoring. No one knows the origin of the title “Hypochondria,” and, while it’s tempting to attribute the quick changes from major to minor and back to this “hypersensitivity,” we can’t read the composer’s mind. The subtitle, “à 7 concertanti,” denotes that all seven instrumental parts face equal challenges. Some modern critics dub this kind of piece a “group concerto.” At the same time, the piece is styled loosely after the French overture. In one long movement, it begins with a majestic, dotted section, which is followed by a quicker fugal section. The fugue is a double fugue, on two themes. It’s interrupted once, then suddenly halted by an abrupt harmonic surprise before closing gently.

More widely touted and better appreciated than Zelenka, Francesco Geminiani was probably, in his late years, just as unpredictable. In one early job, he was demoted because, it was claimed, he couldn’t keep time, but might it not be that he was just exercising his famous irregular bowings and phrasings? At any rate, he was shamed, and in 1714 he moved from his native Italy to London to compose and concertize. He specialized in the concerto grosso, in which a small group of instruments, the concertino, alternates with a larger group, the ripieno. Curiously, after the huge success in the 1720s of his op. 3 concertos, with their obviously Corellian cast, Geminiani was treated as if he were already dead. Op. 3 became classics, yet his later works were largely ignored, and the composer turned more to writing treatises—important ones.

He didn’t give up composition completely, and in 1746 he published his op. 7 concertos, most of which were defiantly experimental. The third in the set, for example, claims three different styles, French, Italian, and English; and the sixth of the set consists of 14 brief movements. In contrast, the fourth concerto seems tame—but not very tame. The first evidence of its experimental nature is that 51 bars for the concertino (except for the viola) alone precede the first entrance of the orchestra. For those 51 bars, one might well believe he’s listening to a trio sonata for two violins and cello. Subsequently, more subtle evidence of experiment piles up: asymmetrical phrases and melodies and rhythms abound; and, in the final movement, meter and mode change after a few bars, and a slow, pastoral section is inserted when the original key returns. Op. 7 was a failure in the 1740s, but performers and audiences today are more apt to accept and enjoy Geminiani’s quirks.

A quintet, not an orchestral work, by Georg Philipp Telemann ends the first half of our program. There’s no datable source, but similar pieces by Telemann come from the 1720s. It’s a light, galant piece, not meant to challenge either performers or listeners. You won’t feel overly full, then, and reluctant to taste the cookies and punch that will await you at intermission!

Telemann’s Suite in A minor, the only piece on our program that’s well known today, is a bigger mouthful. An enormously prolific composer, one who typically didn’t reuse his own and others’ music as both Bach and Handel did, Telemann left us about 125 such pieces. Sometimes called “concerto overtures,” they are suites that open with a French overture and continue with dances and character pieces, and also allot solo passages to one or more instruments. In other words, they’re a hybrid between suite and concerto. The solo instrument in this case is a recorder, which comes to the forefront mostly in the middle sections of movements. The Suite in A minor dates from 1725, a few years after Telemann had taken up his last major position, in Hamburg.

Telemann also composed about 125 concertos, dozens of other orchestral works, 40 quartets, well over 200 other chamber compositions, 150 keyboard pieces, 1700 church cantatas, 50 Passions, at least six oratorios, numerous other church works, perhaps over 50 operas, and a large number of songs and secular cantatas and serenatas. These numbers reflect only what’s extant or known to be by him. It’s obvious that music dominated his life, yet he had time and energy to sustain a marriage, work in both church and opera house, direct a collegium musicum, publish much of his own music, perform in public, actively encourage domestic music-making, and make good friends—among them Handel, with whom he had a long friendship dating from their student days; Bach, for whose son Carl Philipp Emanual he served as godfather; and numerous French musicians, for whom he wrote delightful quartets and with whom he performed.

Telemann was surely the most famous musician in Germany, but George Frideric Handel’s renown was international. After hanging around the Hamburg opera house (before Telemann was there) in his youth, then studying and maturing in Italy, Handel moved to London, anglicized his name, and, except for a few trips, mostly to hire singers for his opera house, never went home again. While it appears that Telemann spread his talent evenly between sacred and secular, instrumental and vocal music, Handel concentrated on the production of large-sale vocal pieces, Italian operas and English oratorios. This is not to imply that smaller works and instrumental pieces aren’t significant or well-crafted. On the contrary, the sonatas and keyboard suites are very fine, and the “Water Music” is justifiably loved. Even within the operas and oratorios, Handel carefully used instrumental timbres to support drama and characterization, and he understood the capabilities and strengths of instruments.

The sinfonia that opens the oratorio Samson, first presented in 1743, sets the mood for the festivities of the Philistines, who are honoring their god Dagon at the beginning of the action. The first two movements could be viewed as a single one, somewhat like a French overture, and the final movement is a minuet. Each movement is bound to the next with a brief adagio, where some improvisation was expected, usually by the violinist-leader. Apparently there was at one time a fourth movement in this sinfonia, but the minuet ending became the norm for sinfonias in the mid 18th century. Some of Handel’s borrowings here have been identified: two themes from Telemann plus one from Muffat combined to form the fugue subject, and a theme from Kaiser led Handel to the minuet theme. At a certain period in his life, Handel kept a notebook of themes that interested him. Whether he used others’ ideas or reused his own, though, the result belonged to him and was well suited to its new position.


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