Program Notes for 25 June 2006

Music of France and Italy

 

Sonata 12, from Sonate concertante in stil moderno, Bk. 2.......................................................... Dario Castello (1 st half 17 th c.)

recorder, violin, viola da gamba, continuo

L’Impériale, from Les Nations ................................................................................................................François Couperin (1668-1733)
Sonade: gravement; vivement; gravement et marqué; légèrement; rondement;
vivement
Allemande: sans lenteur
Courante
Sarabande: tendrement
Gigue: d’une légéreté modérée

oboe, violin, continuo

Concerto in D major, RV 84............................................................................................................................. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Allegro
Andante
Allegro

recorder, violin, continuo

 

*****intermission*****

 

Suite in E minor, from Pièces en trio.................................................................................................................. Marin Marais (1656-1728)
Prélude: lentement
Fantaisie
Gavotte
Rondeau
Sarabande en rondeau
Menuet
Passacaille

oboe, recorder, violin, continuo

Trio sonata in D major, op. 1, no. 4.......................................................................................................... Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Preludio: grave
Corrente: allegro
Adagio
Giga: Allegro

oboe, violin, continuo

Sonade en trio: La paix de Parnasse, from L’Apothéose de Lulli....................................................................................... Couperin
Gravement
Saillie: vivement; rondement
Vivement

oboe, violin, continuo

One of the livelier musical debates of the Baroque era centered on the relative merits of French and Italian styles. Indeed, of the variety of musical styles practiced in Europe during this period, no two were more nearly polar opposites — or, for that matter, more pervasive in their influence — than these. Even today, we tend to regard the extroverted Italian style, grounded in vocal expression and instrumental virtuosity (think Vivaldi!), as the norm, while much of the French music of the period, based on stylized court dances on the one hand and on the very un-Italian (and un-English) rhythms of French speech on the other, may seem less accessible to our ears. And the contrasts were no less marked during the 17 th and 18 th centuries, when this music was being composed. In a spirited — and entertaining — series of pamphlet wars, or “quarrels,” musicians and literati alike took sides on the French-versus-Italian question. As we shall see, a compromise, in the form of a “union of styles,” was probably inevitable. In any event, we won’t take sides in the quarrel, but will bring you a sampling of the rich variety of music that came out of these two very different traditions.

The Baroque sonata was born in the republic of Venice, with origins in the instrumental canzona — which in turn stemmed from polyphonic song — and in the virtuoso tradition of improvising elaborate variations on a musical line. These traditions come together in the work by Dario Castello that opens our program. Like most early sonatas, this one comprises not discrete movements but continuous sections marked by frequent changes of tempo, affect (i.e., emotional character), and texture. The canzona-like ensemble sections alternate with written-out solo improvisations that allow the soloist considerable rhythmic and expressive freedom.

 

Castello published his second book of sonatas “in the modern style,” from which our selection is taken, in 1629. Meanwhile, in France, the appearance of basso continuo — now generally considered a defining characteristic of Baroque music — was over two decades away, with French operas, sonatas, and concertos even further down the road. Not that France was insulated from foreign influences: there had been an Italian presence at court since the 16th century, and the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, regent for the young Louis XIV, actively promoted Italian opera. After Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis’ assumption of absolute power would extend into the artistic realm. The music performed at his court in Versailles, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Lully, was strictly regulated by way of underscoring French political and artistic supremacy.

 

The Lully establishment is represented on our program by his protégé Marin Marais, who was largely untouched by Italian influences and whose Pièces en trio are organized into suites in the French style, comprising preludes, dances, and character pieces. Marais is best known for his five books of suites for viola da gamba, in which he explored and extended that instrument’s technical and expressive possibilities. It is perhaps his gift for expressiveness, along with a rich harmonic language, that makes him one of the most appealing of the non-Italianizing French Baroque composers.

 

By the end of the 17th century, Louis’ personal and political troubles were making life at Versailles increasingly grim. The center of French intellectual and artistic life shifted to Paris, where a craze for the music of violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli, according to Sébastian de Brossard, had “every composer in Paris … madly writing sonatas in the Italian manner.” Corelli had achieved instant international success with the publication, in 1681, of his opus-1 trio sonatas, though it would be another decade before his music caught on in France. Our selection, from his opus 4 (published in 1694), comprises two abstract slow movements and two dance movements. Ironically, while Corelli professed ignorance of French styles, the “Corrente” in this sonata is full of shifts between duple and triple rhythms — a defining characteristic of the French courante!

 

Among the composers “madly writing sonatas in the Italian manner” during the 1690s was the young François Couperin, who went so far as to sign his early sonatas with Italianate anagrams of his name. Couperin’s ultimate goal, however, was not to compose “Italian” music but to combine French and Italian styles — an ideal captured in the title of his 1724 collection Les goûts réünis (“the styles united”). This ideal is evident in the four ordres, or suites, of Les nations. Each ordre comprises a multipartite sonata in the Italian style, followed by a French dance suite. Among the Italianate features of the sonata that opens L’Impériale are the “walking bass” in the opening Gravement and the brilliant fugal writing in the concluding Vivement — but notice the French tempo indications! Our other Couperin selection, “La paix du Parnasse” is the conclusion of a long, quasi-operatic musical allegory that imagines an encounter on Mount Parnassus between the spirits of Corelli and Lully. Persuaded at long last by Apollo that the union of French and Italian styles will raise the art of music to perfection, Lully and the “French muses” (represented in our performance by the oboe) join Corelli and the “Italian muses” (represented by the violin ) in a trio sonata that juxtaposes and blends the two styles. But perhaps the French muses get the last word, after all: in the epigraph to the sonata, they demand that “Sonade” be spelled in the French manner by analogy with “Ballade, Sérénade, &c.!”

 

If French composers, by and large, ultimately embraced the goûts-réünis ideal, the Italians, by and large, did not. Antonio Vivaldi did use French elements on occasion – by way of paying homage to a French patron, for example – but his style, like Castello’s, is unmistakably and flamboyantly Venetian. Our selection, despite its trio-sonata scoring, is on the model of the late Baroque concerto, where a soloist, or group of soloists, is pitted against the larger ripieno group (roughly, the orchestra); the two groups are differentiated both by texture and by thematic material. Here, the entire ensemble plays the ripieno role, while the virtuoso solo episodes are played by the recorder with continuo.

 

Vivaldi’s influence on Johann Sebastian Bach — and on the subsequent development of the international style of the 18th century — is well documented. And Bach learned much from Couperin as well. Les goûts réünis, in the narrow sense, might have been a French phenomenon, but the union of national styles, in a larger sense, would ultimately transcend national boundaries.

 

 


 

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