(Neo-)Baroque

(Neo-)Baroque

August 18 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Arguably the greatest composer born in all of Latin or South America, and certainly the region’s most prolific composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) came of age in early-20th-century Rio. It was a time of foment in world politics, and many South American countries looked to their arts to help express a newfound nationalist fervor. Villa-Lobos traveled widely in his youth, enough to absorb the major currents of European classical music. But the core of his craft, its brilliance and uniqueness, lay in his adherence to native Brazilian idioms. Initial cello lessons by his father enabled Villa-Lobos to participate in Rio’s vibrant popular music scene. That scene included the chorőes, a form of strolling serenade that Villa-Lobos was to incorporate years later into fourteen pieces for varying ensembles. At a time when the avant-garde held sway, Villa-Lobos did not shy away from traditionalism. Yet he delved more deeply into the Amazon’s folk music interior than any other musician of international stature. For bridging the gap between rainforest and concert stage, he will forever be a pivotal voice in modern music and a Brazilian national treasure.


The music of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) – abundant, significant, and original – was not widely known in the 20th century before the mid-1950s. At that time, scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick helped to create a thorough catalog of Scarlatti’s complete works, including the 555 keyboard sonatas for which he is best known. In addition, musical luminaries like Vladimir Horowitz began including Scarlatti sonatas on recital programs. These became the popular image of Baroque keyboard music, alongside Bach, for all but the more experienced aficionados, who may already have appreciated Scarlatti’s massive output of harpsichord works. These are, indeed, works conceived with the harpsichord in mind: an instrument only superficially similar to the piano, but which uses a plucked mechanism closer to the lute. This makes them also suitable for transcription on harp. Tonight’s program features two arrangements made by harpist Sivan Magen. The first, a Sonata in A Major K. 208, reveals the tender lyricism that Scarlatti could reveal in instrumental textures; the vocal inspiration is not hard to hear. The second sonata, more rhythmically vibrant, was a favorite for pianists like Emil Gilels and Michelangeli and presages what Haydn captured in his spirited keyboard Allegros.


Johann Sebastian Bach did not hide his esteem for another musician who merited attention, such as Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745). Born and educated near Prague, the Bohemian Zelenka eventually took positions in Dresden as string player and music director. He became an expert on the violone, Baroque cousin of the modern double-bass. At the time Dresden had the best instrumental ensemble in Europe, and Zelenka composed daring, virtuosic music for its performers. For many years he assisted J. D. Heinichen, the influential Kapellmeister at Dresden. And like Bach, he generally avoided secular vocal composition (i.e., opera) and focused instead on sacred and instrumental music. The brilliance and confidence in his instrumental writing have helped spark renewed interest in his life and works since the 1960s. In fact, the first stirrings of a resurgence may be credited to Smetana, who first programmed Zelenka’s music all the way back in 1863. Thus, once again Zelenka appears on concert programs as one of the brightest lights in the realm of European Baroque music.

As a bass string player himself, Zelenka is always attuned to the lowest parts. His continuo lines are intricate and dynamic, inspiring the treble parts to be even more brilliant. The well-known oboist Heinz Holliger has described Zelenka’s melodic writing as “utopian,” neatly capturing the sense of a man striving for a perfection and originality of sound not widely available at that time. At the same time, as shown in the Capriccio for two horns, two oboes, and strings, Zelenka also took opportunities to explore sheer timbre and tonal color. The static harmonic progressions force our attention to center on the palate of sounds created by natural horns and period oboes. The second movement fugue forces horns out of their comfort zone, as it were, calling upon them to deliver virtuosic displays in keeping with the fugue subject. Zelenka graciously excuses them from the following Allemande, but they return in full force for the Menuet and finale. Not to be outdone, Zelenka’s reliance on the oboes for both lyrical and virtuosic passages mean these instruments also find material of the highest quality in his chamber works.


With a composition commission award from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Chen Yi’s string quintet Fiddle Suite was originally written for the Kronos Quartet and Chinese fiddle (huqin) player Jiebing Chen. Chen Yi rewrote the piece for huqin and string orchestra for the performance by Xu Ke and the Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan on April 19, 1998, conducted by Toyama Yuzo.

Fiddle Suite consists of three movements: “Singing”, “Reciting” and “Dancing.” Only the first and third movements are performed this evening. The erhu is featured in “Singing” with flowing melodic lines, while the string orchestra sounds like a group of Chinese percussion instruments. In the third movement, the jinghu, (one of the Beijing Opera major accompanying instruments, in a higher range compared with the erhu, the timbre is brighter as well) plays very fast moving notes. Its image came from the dancing ink on paper in Chinese calligraphy. Held in a vertical position on the lap, the erhu consists of a long, straight stem connected to a resonator which is covered on one side by a snakeskin or wooden sound board and open on the other (with decoration window). The lack of a fingerboard and a bow fixed between the two strings (near the bridge) are unique features of this instrument. The erhu family (generally called huqin) has rich timbres according to various types of local folk music and language, some unconventional performing style and technique are used in this work, to explore more possibilities on wider range of musical expressions.


From composer Zachary Wadsworth:

It isn’t often that I’m handed the keys to Bach’s orchestra and invited to go for a spin. So when, in 2019, the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia asked me to write a piece in response to Bach’s thrilling second Brandenburg Concerto, I leapt at the chance. My composition, Palaces of Memory, explores the way that the tunes and gestures of Bach’s music echo in the memory of contemporary audiences, performers, and composers. The piece starts dreamily before it attempts to conjure, simply from memory, strains of Bach’s music. First, it dreams up a boisterous fanfare. Then, in quick succession, it wafts through an imagined ‘cello suite and a straitlaced four-voice Andante. Finally, we hear a fraudulent-yet-virtuosic trumpet Allegro, the climax of which echoes smilingly in the bubbling strings.


J. S. Bach (1685-1750) is not usually considered among the avant-garde. History generally regards him more as a brilliant synthesizer than an innovator. By painting with such broad strokes, however, we miss those cases where Bach achieved something altogether new. For example, although he did not invent the concerto per se, Bach did create concerti that broke new ground. Among these are the Brandenburg Concertos, each with its own unique scoring for the solo group or concertino. Particularly innovative is Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, in which the concertino features four different timbres. Highest and brightest sits the trumpet (representing the brass family of instruments), followed by the equally resonant but nasal sound of the oboe (reed family). Softer tones come from the flute (non-reed winds), and the solo violin contributes string texture. Bach delights in all combinations of pairings. And there are many opportunities, for Bach alternates between soli and tutti with striking frequency.

The central movement (Andante) omits the trumpet and large ensemble altogether. Instead, he composes a three-voice canon for flute, oboe, and violin with continuo accompaniment. The D-minor tonality and defining motive, including the A to B-flat semitone, establish a doleful mood. Beneath the canonic imitation in treble lines, Bach grounds the harmonic structure on a “walking bass” in which the low strings move in continuous eighth notes. At the start of the finale, the solo trumpet strides forth from the word go, as if sitting out the slow movement was not altogether to its liking. A more serious game is afoot, however. For Bach, a recognized master of fugue, could not resist the opportunity to compose a four-voice fugue for his concertino. As such, this brilliant finale merges two of the most significant structural principles in Baroque music: rich counterpoint of fugue developed in central and northern Germany, combined with the sectional format and solo-tutti contrasts of the 17th-century Italian concerto.


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) welcomed his reputation as an enfant terrible who flaunted conventions and pushed boundaries at every occasion. Discovered by impresario Serge Diaghilev and commissioned to present several works abroad with the famous Ballets Russes, Stravinsky’s reputation exploded. But such was his personality and musical curiosity that he would not rest contentedly on his laurels. Diaghilev eagerly sought something fresh from his protégé and suggested a ballet based on 18th-century music. Stravinsky warmed quickly to the idea of a neoclassical, or more specifically neo-baroque project. As he put it:

Pulcinella (1920) was my discovery of the past, an epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course – the first of many love affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Stravinsky’s reimagining of the past changed the immediate future of the Ballets Russes and ultimately all of 20th-century music.

Fast forward a decade and Stravinsky still found resonance in such retrospective projects. Generally called his Neoclassical period, this time saw the creation of a grand symphony with chorus, the Symphony of Psalms. Written in 1930, this work had been fomenting in the composer’s mind for some time before he was approached by Serge Koussevitzky. The latter, director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, sought a new piece to celebrate 50 years of the BSO (though the premiere ended up falling to a Swiss ensemble). Stravinsky was eager to point out that he was not composing a “symphony with added Psalm singing,” but rather a spiritual elevation of selected Psalm texts with added orchestral support. He scored Symphony of Psalms for full chorus with a rather atypical instrumental backing: massive winds and brass, 2 pianos plus harp, percussion, and only low strings (cello and bass). That choice helps explain the work’s characteristically dark, earthy timbre.

Symphony of Psalms unfolds over three connected movements. Stravinsky purposely selected three of the best-known Psalms from the Latin Vulgate Bible, including portions of Psalms 38, 39, and 150. The opening movement makes extensive use of progressions outside the realm of conventional major-minor tonality. These are not new with Stravinsky, of course, but he leans heavily on older modal traditions to help ground this piece in a kind of Baroque past. At the same time, there are gestures redolent of his most avant-garde style. For instance, the use of rhythmic patterns (ostinatos) interrupted by powerful block chords may remind listeners of the chaotic opening to The Rite of Spring. Against orchestral figures that outline arpeggiated chords, the chorus fixates on a half-step motive, traditionally interpreted as the musical version of a sigh. The limited vocal range and incessant rhythms in the orchestra generate a hypnotic, trance-like atmosphere of ancient religion, no doubt influential on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1936). Stravinsky set two verses from Psalm 38 (numbered as Ps. 39 in the KJV: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue”) in this movement. Tonally, it progresses from an E minor opening to a G major conclusion; that last harmony functions as an entry (i.e., dominant chord) into the second movement’s C minor key.

The second movement, treating Psalm 39 of the Latin Bible (Ps. 40 in the KJV: “I waited patiently for the LORD”), opens with a searching chromatic melody in solo oboe. Answered by the flute, we hear the beginnings of a grand fugue – one of the signature compositional techniques or forms of the Baroque era. Many composers of the modern era have delved into fugue as a means of both honoring a significant past tradition as well as finding new sources of inspiration for their works (to wit, Ravel in his Tombeau de Couperin from 1917). Stravinsky ratchets up the complexity by composing a double fugue: following the initial instrumental fugue, we hear a second theme treated contrapuntally in the chorus, overlaid above the original fugue continuing in low strings. Bach himself, composer of brilliant double fugues, would heartily applaud the effort, though it is hard to know what he would have made of Stravinsky’s angular, chromatic themes and massive blocks of sound.

As the first two movements together constitute only half the time of performance, the finale clearly provides a center of gravity for Symphony of Psalms. And whereas the previous movements only used portions of their respective Psalm texts, here Stravinsky indulges in the complete Psalm 150 (“Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary”), the final Psalm in the Hebrew and Western Christian tradition. Again Stravinsky opts for a spare vocal manner, pulling together motivic elements from the preceding movements, including the half-step figure from the first movement. The slow tempo contributes a dirge-like feel, perhaps not what one would expect for the phrase “Praise ye the Lord.” For the subsequent Psalm passages Stravinsky recaptures some of his primitivist style of The Rite of Spring, signaled by rhythmic ostinatos and skipwise motives. But true to his intent – that this work by a singing of Psalms with instrumental accompaniment – the choral passages retain their intense lyricism and gradually rein in the percussive orchestral gestures. Ironically, it is percussion (the timpani) that provides a critical impulse to the entire final section, lasting about four minutes. With vocal lines descending and rising in measured fashion, the timpani provide an undercurrent of tolling bells. It is probably not wrong to suggest a connection to Russian bells, which loom so large in that culture and which thereby provide one more strand of Stravinsky’s past that comes to bear in Symphony of Psalms.

© Jason Stell, 2022