Quartetto in G major…………………………………………..………Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
recorder, oboe, violin, and basso continuo
Concerto in G major, op. 17/5…………………………………..Jacques-Christophe Naudot
flute, 2 violins, and basso continuo
Concerto in C major, BWV 1061……………………………….………Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
2 harpsichords, strings, and basso continuo
Trio sonata in A major………………………………………………………………………...…….Telemann
flute, oboe d’amore, and basso continuo
Concerto in e minor………………………………………………………………………………....Telemann
2 oboes, solo violin, strings, and basso continuo
Musical terminology is slippery at best. For example, this concert has three pieces on it entitled “concerto,” yet all are different, and none corresponds to the usual meaning of the word after about 1750. During the Baroque era, even into the early 18th century, a concerto was a vocal piece, most often a sacred work, such as the earliest vocal church music by J. S. Bach. Even when the word referred to instrumental music, there might not be a single soloist, but rather several; or the solo instruments might change or disappear within the course of the piece; or the instrument might serve as soloist only by virtue of its timbre, with a musical line no more difficult or highlighted than any other instrument’s; or there might be no soloists at all! Furthermore, there’s no implication in the title that there need be an orchestra, in which each musical line would be played by more than one performer.
The situation is just as inconsistent in the realm of what we now call chamber music. Many instrumental pieces are called “sonatas,” which simply means they’re for instruments rather than singers. If the composer uses a numerical word in his title, such as in the trio and quartet on our program, he’s pointing out the number of musical lines, not the number of performers, which could vary according to forces available and personal preference. Significantly, these duos, trios, and quartets might contain concerto-like elements; for the very nature of Baroque music, with its emphasis on drama and contrast, encouraged the use of soloists, whatever the title of the piece. While we may like to think of concertos as “big” pieces and chamber music as “small” ones, the dividing line between these two categories in the Baroque period isn’t so clear.
Georg Philipp Telemann’s Quartetto in G major is a case in point, as it could well have been entitled “concerto.” In the first movement, the violin plays as if it’s teasing the more melodious recorder and oboe into joining in its flights of fantasy. In subsequent movements, though, the three instruments share the same musical material. (By the way, the three-movement format as heard in this piece was very common by the mid 18th century; you might notice that all the pieces on our program have the same structure, a slow movement between two quick ones.)
In some contrast to this quartet, which borders on being a concerto, is the Concerto in G major, op. 17/5 by Jacques-Christophe Naudot, which is really a piece of chamber music. Naudot was a teacher and virtuoso flutist in Paris, and most of his compositions were written for flutes. Nonetheless, because he wished to sell his pieces to as many people as possible, he didn’t always specify instrumentation. It’s not surprising, then, that the flute part in this concerto sounds quite similar to the violin parts. Sometimes the flute seems like a soloist—partly because its timbre is so different from string timbre and because its range is higher—and sometimes not.
J. S. Bach, one of the first composers to write concertos for keyboard, left concertos for one, two, three, and four harpsichords with strings. In this Concerto in C major, the two harpsichords dominate throughout, leaving the strings to punctuate, double, and occasionally venture a few notes of their own. Yet the strings perform a significant role: they have control over their dynamic level, while the harpsichords do not, so they can indicate climaxes and cadences more cogently than the keyboards alone. We are using only two violins, one viola, and a cello, each on its own line; other performances may strengthen the parts with many more strings, setting up a greater contrast between “orchestra” and soloists. Both types of scoring can be successful, depending on the instruments involved and the performance venue, but the choice of the thinner instrumentation further blunts the distinction between a concerto and a piece of chamber music.
Telemann’s Trio sonata in A major was composed for an unusual combination of treble instruments: a transverse flute and an oboe d’amore. The dark, almost vocal sound of the oboe d’amore allows the delicate flute to emerge without being overpowered. Of all the pieces on our program, this one is the least likely to be considered a concerto; yet it, too, has moments when the oboe and flute converse like two soloists in dialogue.
The Concerto in e minor for two oboes, solo violin, strings, and continuo, also by Telemann, seems to call for three solo instruments. And so it does, at least in the first movement, where oboes and violin alternately step forward from the ensemble. In the second movement, the solo and accompanying string parts are very nearly the same, and by the third movement, all instruments are equal, no one is a soloist, and all but the viola and the continuo play in unison. Just as in the Bach concerto, we are using only two violins and viola, plus continuo instruments (including two harpsichords), to accompany the oboes and solo violin.
To continue further in debunking what we may think of as established categories of music, we find that many Baroque composers encouraged keyboardists to read from open score, playing sonatas and concertos by themselves. Indeed, the Bach Concerto in C major can be played on the two harpsichords without the strings.
Like other slippery matters of Baroque style, such as ornamentation and articulation, the slippery musical terminology is offering us not a mystery to be solved in a single way, but evidence of a flexible approach to scoring and performance. The result for us as performers and listeners should be ears and minds that are open to numerous possibilities rather than only one.
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