Baroque Lovers' Afternoon
Saturday August 19 at 3:00 pm
Central United Methodist Church | Free admission
Henry Purcell is the name that immediately jumps to mind when considering the composers of Restoration England (1660-1688), but John Blow (1649-1708) deserves similar name recognition. Born just ten years before Purcell, Blow paved the path for the younger composer in several ways, not only acting as a teacher and mentor, but also giving up his prominent position as organist at Westminster Abbey in 1679 so that Purcell could take the seat in his place. In addition, Blow’s only dramatic work, Venus and Adonis, exerted a hefty influence on Purcell’s masque/opera Dido and Aeneas in such areas as genre, structure, and tone. His church services and anthems provided inspirational models for the younger man’s works in the same genres. The two worked together often, both employed as organists at the Chapel Royal by 1682, and even collaborating at times in compositional endeavors following the Revolution of 1688.
When Purcell died in 1695, it was a shock to the entire musical community of England, not least for Blow. He had lost a pupil, colleague, and friend, and the poignancy of his Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell indicates the extent of such a loss in the most elegant of terms. Set to text by the poet John Dryden – who himself had collaborated with Purcell on several occasions – and published the year after Purcell’s death, Blow’s Ode opens with a light-hearted singing “contest” between a lark and a linnet to usher in the spring, suggested musically through the ascending strains of the two recorders. The birds then fall silent when the goddess-turned-bird Philomel enters and sings, enchanting all with the beauty of her song. Here Blow and Dryden shift to address the legacy of Purcell, specifically, comparing his own musical skill to that of Philomel, as it “struck dumb” all other musicians that might compete with him. In this long central section, the focus on the second voice indicates a similarly focused eulogy for one “too soon retir’d.” In the final section, the first voice is reintroduced and, with the aid of the three other interweaving melodic voices, Blow remembers Purcell as a musician singularly blessed by heaven itself.
The Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) hold an envied position among works in the genre. And with music so well-known, so often studied, it is refreshing when someone like Martin Davids brings a new perspective to a familiar treasure. As Davids notes, “I published [this fugue] early in 2016 in a collection called Bachfor2. It’s in volume 1 of this series, which contains the three fugues originally for 1 violin only. I’m hoping to publish subsequent volumes . . . The C major is actually dedicated to Aisslinn [Nosky], and this will be its premier performance. I worked on these arrangements in spare moments for years—during kids’ swim lessons and soccer practices – any free time I had when I couldn’t practice. My goal was to show the beauty of this music and also make some additions (bass lines, etc.) to keep the duet feeling.”
Born in Aix-en-Provence to Jean-François Campra and Louise Fabry in 1660, André Campra (1660-1744) was first introduced to music by his Italian father, a surgeon and violinist. By 1674, he was a choirboy at Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur of Aix-en-Provence, and his ecclesiastical studies began four years later. In 1681, Campra launched into a series of appointments as maître de musique at various cathedrals throughout France, finally landing the position at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the summer of 1694. While at Notre Dame, he was responsible for introducing some innovation into the conservative musical environment, namely the addition of violins in order to support the sound of the choir. His heart seemed to lie, however, with the theatre, and he left Note Dame just six years later in an effort to pursue further opportunities to write music for the stage. He received widespread recognition as a stage composer during the regency of Philip of Orléans from 1715-23, during which time Campra enjoyed a revival of some of his earlier successful tragédies-en-musique and opéras-ballets. During this period, he also wrote his first two books of cantates françoises, a genre very popular amongst his fellow countrymen throughout the first half of the 1700s.
The 18th-century cantate françoise, or French cantata, was a work intended for one or more voices with an instrumental accompaniment (the size of accompanying forces would grow from continuo to orchestra over the years), and outstripped both opera and oratorio in terms of its ubiquity in the repertory during this period. Largely intended for secular use, these cantatas almost exclusively drew their subject matter from mythology, just as Campra’s Silène references the mythological relationship between Silenus and Dionysus (Bacchus). Silenus is an elder woodland deity, a satyr, entrusted with the education and company of Dionysus, the renowned god of wine. It should be noted here that this piece is not really about Silenus at all, however; this cantata is primarily a celebration of all things dionysian. The text by poet and librettist Antoine Danchet opens with Silenus in a pleasantly drunken stupor, only to be surrounded by shepherds who imprison him by the very flowers that might otherwise form his crown. He then bargains for freedom, asking to be unchained in exchange for a song – a song about the freeing pleasures of wine, of course. “Bacchus is calling you, come drink with us!”
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed the six Brandenburg Concertos in 1721 during his tenure in Köthen, the Calvinist court where secular instrumental music took precedence over sacred music. Each concerto explores a different combination of solo instruments and varying degrees of coordination between the soloists and the full orchestra (the latter group also known as the ripieno or ritornello). Bach didn’t have many musicians at his disposal in Köthen. A further reduction in numbers after the arrival of Prince Leopold’s unmusical new bride was certainly a factor in Bach’s decision to leave his post. But during better times, those few musicians – whose ability clearly compensated for their scant numbers – helped inspire Bach’s fabulous and diverse concerto scorings.
Having surveyed the other five concertos in the past 24 hours, we close now with the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat Major. The autograph calls for two viole de braccio – the Baroque designation for what we consider the viola, played on the arm. This distinguishes it from the viola da gamba, played in the lap or between the legs like a cello. Both instruments, in fact, are called for in this concerto, pulling together all the members of the low string family: two violas, two gambas, cello, and violone. Scholars believe that the inclusion of gambas may connect to Leopold himself, an amateur player who desired opportunities to join Bach’s ensemble on occasion.
The first movement begins with endearing close imitation between the two violas in an extended duet, supported by the other players. Eventually the others do take turns with the main melodic idea, and the level of fluid counterpoint captivates the ear. Bach may have anticipated his patron would need a rest after these labors, for the gambas sit out the central movement. As such it becomes a tender duet for violas with continuo accompaniment. Compared to many of the Brandenburg middle movements, this is a fully developed work rather than an elaborated chord progression. In final position, as one might expect, Bach places a gracious dance (Gigue) in 12/8 meter. The ritornello (main) theme also has a pleasant syncopated feel that contributes to the dance aura. Much of the appeal lies in the brilliant fiddling poured forth from the two violas and the cello, who explore all manner of virtuosic techniques against the continuo’s harmonic ground.
© Jason Stell and Emily Masincup, 2023