Baroque Inside-Out

Baroque Inside-Out

August 20 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) earns pride of place on tonight’s program. We start with the opening chorale-fantasia from the cantata fittingly listed first in the complete edition of Bach’s music: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1. But since the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis catalog is organized by genre, this position of BWV 1 says nothing about chronology. Indeed, it was composed in 1725, roughly 20 years after Bach’s earliest efforts in the cantata. Yet it deserves a position of honor by virtue of its inherent quality and its liturgical function for the Feast of the Annunciation. The cantata’s opening movement exemplifies Bach’s command of vocal and orchestral realms. The chorale tune can be clearly heard in the soprano’s sustained tones, below which the other voices freely counterpoint against related motives. A festive ambiance derives from the triple meter, quick rhythmic patterns, and use of instrumentation; brass instruments were generally reserved for special occasions in the liturgical year. In addition, two concertante violins inject notes of commentary, going into virtuosic forays between statements of the text. Their glittering timbre is thought to be symbolic of the morning star referenced in the text (from Revelation 22:16 – “I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star”). By virtue of such clear textural separations, Bach constructs a massive choral/instrumental edifice. Clarity of text expression is never compromised by Bach’s equally strong desire to create an invigorating instrumental backdrop to the unfolding spiritual revelation.

The following works take us into more intimate, secular realms. Two madrigals by the Italian composer Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) are featured, each preceded by a toccata for lute/theorbo and keyboard. In general, toccatas provide ideal prelude to vocal music, for their primary purpose was to introduce the key and sample various “touches” in keyboard/lute music. The Toccata in G Minor is by Giovanni Kapsberger (ca. 1580-1651), one of the most important lutenists of the Italian Baroque. By virtue of his prodigious abilities as performer and composer, Kapsberger gained access to prominent individuals in Venice and Rome. He gradually became a fixture at the Roman “academies.” In these domestic gatherings, taking their inspiration from Platonic symposia, early experiments in opera and dramatic song took place. Enter Caccini, a generation older than Kapsberger and today credited with inventing the monodic art form: solo vocal melody with instrumental accompaniment as a means to recreate ancient Greek dramatic expression. Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella” demonstrates monody at its best: texture is clean and pure, melody and accompaniment move in tight unison, and the voice sparingly uses ornaments to highlight the occasional cadence or key word. Everything is restrained in order to highlight the poetry. A threefold repetition of “Amarilli,” each sequentially higher in pitch, is the extent of Caccini’s overt gesture toward musical effects.
His “Udite, udite amanti” is a strophic song (using the same music for multiple stanzas of text) and is thus more emotionally flat from start to finish. The entire work revels in clear, stepwise melodic patterns and benefits from its lively triple meter. It is preceded tonight by a C major toccata from Michelangelo Rossi (ca. 1602-1656), a composer enamored of instrumental counterpoint and quicksilver, chromatic changes. Not much is known about Rossi’s life and works. Born in Genoa, he rose quickly to hold posts in Rome, at the d’Este court in Ferrara, and under Pope Innocent X. He wrote dozens of instrumental works influenced by his contact with Frescobaldi and Froberger. The Toccata in C Major is highly sectional and breaks into and out of canonic imitation quite freely. Like his contemporaries, Rossi wrote keyboard music as if it were virtuosic string music, though sadly none of his original violin pieces survive.

A century after Caccini’s experiments, George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) had come to Italy from central Germany to learn the art of opera and instrumental virtuosity. And while Handel would go on to enjoy unrivaled success with staged works in London, that success was certainly prepared by his mastery of Italian models. Often these theatrical evenings would be interspersed with instrumental music (during intermissions or scene changes), which brought Handel’s organ concerti and concerti grossi to wider exposure. Tonight, two movements from the Concerto Grosso in B-flat serve to introduce a highlight from Handel’s opera Orlando. This masterful Italian opera premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1733. The plot centers on the love and mania of Orlando, the titular Christian knight hopelessly besotted with a pagan princess, Angelica, herself in love with another man. Unable to accept the situation, Orlando delivers the brilliant aria “Fammi combattere,” expressing a ready intent to challenge any and all—including wild beasts—who doubt his devotion to Angelica. Orlando did not do well with the public, being shelved after only a dozen performances and not revived for another 200 years.

Before returning to Bach to close the program, we stop briefly in France. In addition to Italian and German traditions, France offered a third significant thread in the tapestry of European music. French composers prided themselves on nurturing a humane, natural expressive style that did not need the excessive displays cultivated in Italy. The recognized master of French songs or “airs” during Louis XIV’s reign was Michel Lambert (1610-1696), who worked alongside Lully at Versailles for many years. (Incidentally, Lully became Lambert’s son-in-law in 1662.) Lambert was a gifted singer and would often accompany himself on theorbo, offering a clear French analog to Caccini in Italy. Though several generations younger than Caccini, Lambert similarly sparked interest in a distinctive, national operatic art—the so-called tragédie lyrique—whose works deal with classical myth and in which lyricism takes center stage.

It should be pointed out that today’s distinction between chamber and orchestral music—mainly separated by the number of performers involved—was not significant in Bach’s day. Rather, the primary distinction was based on venue or function, and chamber music embraced all that was not destined for the theater or the church. Even this classification meant relatively little in musical terms, for material originally used in a sacred cantata might one day be recycled as the opening of a brilliant violin concerto, or vice versa.
Bach’s four Orchestral Suites thus provide a minor mystery. We can think of them as “orchestral” in the same way that a concerto is orchestral simply because multiple instrumental families are involved. At the same time, these suites were definitely intended for a chamber music setting. All evidence suggests that two (Nos. 1 and 4) stem from Bach’s years at the Pietist court in Cöthen (where he composed very little sacred music) and two (Nos. 2 and 3) from Leipzig, when he needed works for the secular Collegium Musicum. To further confuse matters, Bach referred to these suites as “ouvertures.” Thus the most substantial part of the work—the opening French overture movement—becomes synonymous with the entire creation.
Moving beyond these terminological sidebars, the genre of the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C has a long pedigree. It is a dance suite headed by a three-part overture. Apart from the scale and polyphonic complexity of the opening movement, all of the movements would have been familiar to listeners in generations previous to Bach. The most characteristic aspects of the opening movement are gestural dotted rhythms and sweeping violin runs inherited from the French overture. Bach also explores oppositions between small and large ensembles (borrowed from the concerto) and, as noted above, by including a lengthy fugue in the middle of the overture. The fugue is so long, in fact, that even the most historically-minded performer might question Bach’s indication to repeat the fugue in its entirety. To play the fugue twice threatens to overwhelm the work’s dance nature and undercut the “galant” manner with too much of the learned style.
Bach maintains a fairly rigid harmonic structure among the dances. The dances are all in two-part (binary) form, where the A section covers a move from the tonic to the dominant key—in this case, from C to G major—and the B section touches on related minor keys on its way back to tonic. The pacing and manner in which these tonal moves are undertaken remains reassuringly consistent from one dance to the next. Repetition, written into all the dances, works better here than in the opening movement’s fugue since it allows the listener to discover subtleties of voice leading. Of course, it also allows the performer to vary volume, timbre, articulation, and ornamentation. Apart from the Courante and Forlane, each dance is written as a da capo pair, such that the first dance is heard both before and after the second dance (e.g., Minuet 1, then Minuet 2, followed by Minuet 1 again without its repeats taken). Of particular note is the Forlane, a traditional dance from the region around Venice, but which eventually became a favored dance among French aristocrats. Everything from the spelling of the title (ouverture) to the inclusion of a Forlane to the exclusion of the traditional German Allemande reveals a decidedly French flavor for this suite. Circling back, then, it probably matters little whether we regard this suite as orchestral or chamber music. Recognizing Bach’s desire to infuse cosmopolitan stylistic traits seems more significant; transcending the Germanic seems more germane.

© Jason Stell, 2021