Program Notes for 28, 29 March 2009
with guest Jay Hill, tenor

A Tribute to George Frideric Handel, on the 250 th Anniversary of his Death


Suite in D minor................................................................................... ..........Nicola Matteis (fl. 1672-1700)
Preludio: Prestissimo
Fuga in fantasia: Presto
Grave: Adagio—Prestissimo—Adagio
Ground per fa la mano: Allegro

recorder, violin, basso continuo

Selected Songs......................................................................................................Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Halcyon Days, from The Tempest
Bid the Virtues, from Come, ye sons of art
Nymphs and shepherds, from The Libertine

tenor, oboe, violin, basso continuo

 

Selected German Songs........................................................................George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Süβer Blumen ambraflocken
Flammende Rose

tenor, oboe, violin, basso continuo

****intermission****

Suite in A Major.................................................................................................................. ...........Handel
Präludium
Allemande
Courante
Gigue

harpsichord

When love’s soft passion...............................................................Johann Christopher Pepusch (1667-1752)
Recitative
Aria, Siciliana: O Love, thou know’st my anguish
Recitative
Aria, Vivace: Why should I love the fair that fly’s me

tenor, recorder, basso continuo

Trio sonata in B minor, op. 2/1.............................................................................................................Handel
Andante
Allegro, ma non troppo
Largo
Allegro

oboe, violin, basso continuo

 

Notes

In this final concert of our 2008-2009 season, we honor George Frideric Handel on the 250 th anniversary of his death. We are pleased to welcome back Jay Hill as our guest artist so that we can bring you a pair of Handel’s exquisite German songs, and we couldn’t resist including a set of songs by Henry Purcell as well – especially since the year 2009, by happy coincidence, also marks the 350 th anniversary of Purcell’s birth! While our “Handel and Friends” theme thus can’t be taken too literally, all four of our composers spent most, if not all, of their careers in London, and all of the music on our program was composed or published there. Three of the four – Matteis, Pepusch, and Handel himself – emigrated to London from the European continent, lured by the vibrant musical life of court, church, and town.

Nicola Matteis, a Neapolitan violinist and composer, arrived in London around 1670. Despite getting off on the wrong foot at court (Roger North said of Matteis that “no person must whisper while he played, which sort of attention had not been the fashion”), he quickly won a reputation as a brilliant and expressive performer on both violin and guitar. Although he never managed to secure a court appointment, he enjoyed great success as a performer, teacher, and composer. These three strains come together in his four books of Ayres for the Violin, in which Matteis claimed to try to accommodate English tastes, “though not to so great an extent as to separate myself too much from the Italian school.” The Ayres were designed to accommodate players of both greater and lesser skill, and Matteis added optional second-violin parts to the second edition of the third and fourth books, thereby allowing us to perform the D-minor suite as a trio for violin, recorder, and continuo. There are musical and technical challenges for the student and the advanced player alike. For example, the second movement, “Fuga in fantasia,” isn’t really a fugue, but nonetheless requires the first violinist to play simultaneous contrapuntal lines, and the sparkling “Ground per fa la mano” (roughly, “to form the hand,” suggesting a pedagogical intent) is an Italianate riff on the English tradition of improvising divisions over a repeated bass line (a.k.a. “ground”).

Just as Matteis bent to English tastes but remained Italian at heart, Henry Purcell assimilated elements of Italian and French styles but stands alone as the quintessential English Baroque composer. The only native Englishman on our program, Purcell spent most of his career at the courts of Charles and of James II, where he composed anthems and services for the Chapel Royal as well as secular works for the Private Music. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, William and Mary severely pruned the musical forces at court, and Purcell turned to the theater. Had he lived into the 18 th century he might have rivaled Handel as a composer of (probably Italian) opera; still, the importance of incidental music and song in Restoration drama can’t be underestimated. Our program includes three songs from three different English plays. The first of these, “Halcyon days,” is from an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest and is generally attributed to Purcell, although it’s now thought to be spurious. In “Music for a while,” from John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s Oedipus, the reluctant ghost of Oedipus’ father is coaxed up from the underworld to identify his murderer. The song is composed over a disjunct and chromatic ground bass; Curtis Price has suggested that this ground suggests both the confines of the grave and the ghost’s ascent to earth. “Nymphs and shepherds” comes from a pastoral interlude in Thomas Shadwell’s Libertine, based on the familiar Don Juan legend. Within the context of the play, this scene recalls Zerlina and Massetto’s wedding (after which the Don’s fortunes turn for the worse) in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but Shadwell’s brutal Don John utterly lacks Giovanni’s urbane charm. This lighthearted song, however, gives no hint of impending carnage, and has become a perennial favorite quite apart from its original context.

By Handel’s time London was still a mecca for European musicians. One of these was Handel’s colleague Johann Christoph Pepusch, a composer, theorist, and musical antiquarian who left his job at the Prussian court for political reasons, settling permanently in London towards the end of the 17 th century. After working for several years in theater and opera, he was appointed music director at Cannons, the estate of Handel’s patron James Brydges, Duke of Chandos. Among the compositions that Pepusch dedicated to Brydges is a volume of “Six English Cantatas” for solo voice and continuo; four of these, including our selection, also feature a solo recorder. The cantatas follow the Italian model of alternating recitatives and arias (Pepusch’s preface, rightly or wrongly, credits Barbara Strozzi with the invention of the form), but are set to English texts. Pepusch further notes that, in setting poetry of his adopted language within an Italianate musical form, he is following the example of French composers, “but altho’ the English Tongue is not so Harmonious as the Italian, I think it has the Advantage [over] the French!” The cantata on our program, When Love’s Soft Passion, is an engaging and tuneful setting of some rather conventional unrequited-love poetry.

The German-born Pepusch appears to have set only English texts to music; similarly, Handel all but abandoned German texts after leaving his native Hamburg. Following a four-year sojourn in Italy and a brief stint at the court of Hanover, he settled in London, where he composed stage works, oratorios, odes, church music, and more; his numerous Italian operas and English oratorios are among his finest works. As mentioned above, he set almost no German poetry during this period, with two outstanding exceptions: a Passion setting and a set of nine German songs, both on texts by Handel’s friend Barthold Heinrich Brockes. The song lyrics express Brockes’ Pietist bent as well as a love of nature, and their overarching theme is the beauty of earthly creation as evidence of the divine. Handel’s music for “Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken” beautifully combines sensuality and reverence, and a bit of text-painting in the middle section juxtaposes the dropping of petals with the soul’s ascent to heaven. The more lighthearted “Flammende Rose” expresses unaffected joy in nature’s beauty; the middle section, for voice and continuo alone, turns more contemplative.

While vocal music, in all genres, comprises the bulk of Handel’s output, he won renown early on as a brilliant keyboardist and likely had numerous harpsichord pieces to his credit before leaving Germany in 1706. He incorporated a few of these early pieces into his first published volume of harpsichord suites, which appeared in London in 1720. All of the eight suites in this collection bespeak the genre’s French origins, transmitted through the 17 th-century German composers whose works Handel had studied. Our selection, in A major, opens with an improvisatory prelude that recalls the unmeasured preludes of, for example, Louis Couperin: written-out passagework alternates with half- or whole-note chords on which the performer is instructed to improvise. The prelude is followed by three of the four dance types that made up the core of the classic suite; only a sarabande is lacking.

Handel’s published trio sonatas, like the keyboard suites, are gathered into collections spanning the years from youth to maturity. Absent any hard evidence in the form of surviving autographs, their dates of composition can be difficult to pin down, and the B-minor trio from opus 2 poses the added challenge of teasing out the composer’s intentions regarding instrumentation. Originally in C minor, then transposed down a semitone by Handel’s London publisher, this trio is variously performed with violin, flute, or oboe on the upper treble part (the double stops in the second treble definitively assign that line to the violin). Current consensus seems to favor the flute, but it’s also quite possible that the C-minor version, at least, was intended for the oboe. Whatever the scoring, there’s little doubt that this assured and profound work dates from Handel’s maturity.

Translations of the Handel songs

Süsser Blumen Ambraflocken

Amber petals of sweet flowers, your sheen shall attract me to Him who, to His glory, made you. As you drop, I shall soar heavenwards, and sing of Him who brought the world into being.

Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden

Blazing rose, Earth’s pride, bewitching glory of gorgeous gardens! Eyes which observe your excellence, in amazement at such loveliness, must confess that a divine finger made you.

--B.H. Brockes, tr. Anthony Hicks

 

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