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Early Keyboard Extravaganza

Early Keyboard Extravaganza

Tuesday August 15 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35

Program Notes

Each summer Staunton Music Festival presents a program devoted to works that feature keyboards – both in solo and accompanying roles – from before 1850. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to showcase these marvelous instruments, long forgotten and supplanted by the modern grand piano. The modern piano has its role, of course, and there is no denying its incredible power and lyricism, especially when heard against a full symphony orchestra or in the largest concert halls. But in more intimate spaces and paired with period strings and winds, tonight’s special collection of harpsichords, fortepianos, and continuo organs encourage us to hear familiar works with new ears – closer, perhaps, to the way these works sounded at the time they were written.
Prior to 1750 the harpsichord reigned supreme in nearly all keyboard music except organ works performed in a sacred setting. The harpsichord was the requisite instrument for performances at court, in the salon, and the collegium; it formed the heart of the Baroque continuo section and could be heard during the recitatives of every opera. In sound and origin, the harpsichord stands closer to the lute and theorbo than the piano. As most listeners are aware, modern pianos – as well as the 18th and 19th century fortepianos – are a percussion instrument. The piano’s sound arises as the end result of a series of actions: a key is pressed, activating a lever attached to a small hammer (covered in leather or felt), and the hammer strikes the string. By contrast, the harpsichord operates by a plucked mechanism involving key, lever arm, and vertical jack with an attached plectrum made of quill or (today) plastic. Importantly, the harpsichord’s sound fades more quickly than a piano’s, and there is no direct means to influence the volume of sound by plucking the string more or less forcefully – as one can do with a piano. Instead, elements of dynamic and sustain are produced by thick or thin textures, giving rise to a whole field of ornamental decorations that highlight moments in the melody.

The French can legitimately claim to have brought the harpsichord tradition to its fullest flowering, particularly in the generation active just after 1700. Paramount among harpsichordists is François Couperin, court musician to Louis XIV at Versailles and an important pedagogue and publisher. Two generations younger than Couperin, Jacques Duphly (1715-1789) was one of the most significant harpsichordists of his era. This was a time of momentous changes, both in music history and, of course, in France generally. Duphly died the day after the Bastille was stormed in Paris. The harpsichord’s role as solo instrument was in decline, though Duphly strove to pass the treasured literature and techniques of performance to a new generation of players. His original compositions are relatively few (about 50), for he spent far more time teaching than composing. However, pieces like the tender Rondeau from his Second Suite in C Major and Médée – a virtuosic and brilliant work from Book III of Pièces de clavecin – amply show that Duphly could translate theory and pedagogy into practice. Tonight’s performance involves Carsten Schmidt’s arrangement of these works for three harpsichords.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries the concerto came to be a form of musical drama, pitting a single soloist against the orchestra in a battle for control of the tonal unfolding. Baroque ensemble concertos or concerti grossi, which set a group of soloists apart from the larger ensemble, were essentially a thing of the past by the time Mozart died. But for Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), composing concertos between roughly 1720 and 1740, all options were still on the table. In total he wrote thirteen concertos for one or more harpsichords, in addition to several violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos that feature prominently at the festival later this week.
BWV 1065, a Concerto in A Minor for four harpsichords and string orchestra, represents his largest undertaking in the genre. It also shows his facility with Italian instrumental concerto style. I must note at the outset that this piece is an arrangement of a concerto for four violins written in 1712 by Antonio Vivaldi. The three-movement form, clear tonal structure, effective balance between solo and tutti groups, and memorable themes are all Vivaldi’s. Bach’s task – much like a co-author or translator – was to adapt idiomatic string writing to the keyboard and infuse it with what mattered most to him: polyphony and motivic elaboration. Years earlier he made a series of solo keyboard arrangements of Italian concertos, so this was not new territory for him.
The opening Allegro starts in the solo group (Vivaldi’s novel idea), then alternates between full ensemble and one or two harpsichordists. At no point do all four keyboards play together without the strings; not, that is, until the curious slow movement. That Largo opens with rhetorical flourishes before reveling in an extended harpsichord improvisation à 4. In the finale the solo episodes are brief, to say the least. Instead Bach sustains a full texture that, despite substantial doubling of lines, could rival even the largest string band of the day.

The name Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) usually calls to mind two interrelated facts. First, he was the chief figure in the North German tradition of organist-composers active around 1700. He produced dozens of spectacular organ works (toccatas, preludes, fantasias, chorale settings) that not only make great listening but were very influential on the next generation of composers. That, of course, brings to mind the second fact that listeners may know about Buxtehude. It was to hear him perform that, late in 1706, young Johann Sebastian Bach apparently walked 400 kilometers from Arnstadt to Lübeck, where Buxtehude spent the majority of his career.
Like Bach, Buxtehude earned his bread as a church musician, required to produce mainly vocal music for weekly services and festive occasions. One of the most sacred works he composed, Jubilate Domino probably dates from around 1690. The Latin text derives from the modern Psalm 98 (“Sing unto the Lord”) and features musical references throughout. Buxtehude’s version is remarkable for its novel scoring: countertenor (or alto), viola da gamba, and continuo. The style suggests a sacred concerto, moving between different sections of contrasting tempi and texture. Jubilate Domino opens with an extensive accompanied solo for viola da gamba. After a full cadence, the countertenor picks up the thread, answered in turn by gamba. The piece’s overall mood, in clear agreement with the message of the text, is celebratory and joyful. By the third section we are able to relish a brief duet between the two soloists, which are otherwise handled separately. We don’t know the exact occasion for which the work was composed, though it certainly could have been programmed on one of the Abendmusik concerts that Bach heard back in 1706.

Jubilate Domino, omnis terra;
cantate et exsultate, et psallite.
Psallite Domino cithara;
in cithara et voce psalmi;
In buccinis et voce tubae,
Jubilate in conspectu regis Domini

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Sing unto the LORD with the harp;
with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
With bells and trumpets make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed the Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F Major in 1816. It is a virtuosic display piece with a heavy emphasis on the keyboard part. The idea to create such a work – the closest thing Schubert wrote to a piano concerto – may have come from Heinrich Grob. Grob was an excellent pianist and certainly up to the work’s technical demands. Schubert relished this opportunity to flatter Grob’s skills, for the latter was also brother to Therese Grob, with whom Schubert was deeply in love at the time. In addition to Therese, Schubert was also infatuated – to judge by the musical evidence – with earlier works from the Classical era. For instance, his concurrent Symphonies No. 4 and 5 take no notice of Beethoven’s grander symphonic conceptions. Likewise, the Adagio and Rondo Concertante has its closest parallels in Mozart’s concertos from 1782. Evidence from a diary entry written in June 1816 leaves us in little doubt. After hearing a performance of Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor (which you, too, can hear this Sunday morning), Schubert wrote:

As from afar the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me . . . Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. In the darkness of this life, they show us a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence. O Mozart, immortal Mozart – how many, oh how endlessly many such comforting perceptions of a brighter and better life hast thou brought to our souls!

In 1816 Schubert was a struggling school teacher just turned nineteen. He was a very capable pianist, albeit no virtuoso. Thus he took the opportunity to flatter Therese’s brother with this mini-concerto. The level of thematic development is not as strong as we might like, but everywhere there is foreshadowing of the beloved “Trout” Piano Quintet (1819). The Adagio section is brief but colorful; the Rondo – more exactly it is a sonata-form Allegro lacking a development section – spends its energy in piano pyrotechnics. The string players may be forgiven for feeling marginalized at times. In Schubert’s conception of the work, it was never going to be about anything other than the piano. On modern piano the strings seem even more sonically covered over. Tonight, performed on an 1830s fortepiano more in harmony with Schubert’s own instrument, a better balance can be achieved. It is a vibrant, lyrical, and passionate work, fitting testimony to a composer in love with both a woman and a musical idol from his past.

About a decade later, during the final period of his short life, Schubert created two masterpieces for piano duet. These works also took partial inspiration from a romantic affair. Karoline Esterházy, one of Schubert’s private piano students, was the unattainable love of his later years, which were marked by illness and depression. Here was a real-life fairy tale: the sickly composer, a former schoolteacher of humble background, pining in silent devotion for the beautiful young countess he could never attain. Schubert sketched a Fantasie in F Minor (D. 940) during January 1828 and worked on it through the early summer. It was published the following spring – a few months after the composer’s death – with a dedication to Karoline. But during the same time as the F-minor Fantasie took shape, Schubert also composed a staggering sonata-form movement in A minor. This Allegro may have been intended to start a traditional multi-movement work for four-hand piano, but only a related Rondo exists to suggest a larger purpose was in Schubert’s mind. The Allegro was not published until 1840, when an overeager Anton Diabelli applied the rhapsodic subtitle “Lebensstürme” (Storms of Life).
The duet or four-hand genre was an incredibly popular type of domestic music-making. In ways certainly relevant to Schubert himself, the four-hand situation allowed unmarried men and women to interact when societal norms otherwise kept them apart. It is hard to imagine that Schubert would not have relished the opportunities to try out his new Allegro with the talented Karoline at his elbow, hands crossing and constantly touching, always in the service of music of course! The movement opens with furious abandon and is replete with elements that appear in the preceding Fantasie: use of abrupt silences to heighten the shift from one theme to another; striking harmonic color, particularly the favored Neapolitan (flat-II) chord; and a development section rich with contrapuntal intensity. The second theme, a delightful hymn in A-flat major, steals upon the scene with little warning. It provides the perfect counterpoise to the first theme’s bravado. At twelve minutes, even without the exposition repeat being taken, Schubert is working on a large scale. Fans of the Fantasie will find much to cherish in this lesser-known companion.

It is fair to say that George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) never wrote his organ concertos with a traditional concert performance in mind, at least in the way we experience concerts today. And while he is generally given credit for inventing the organ concerto as a genre, most of these pieces emerged as “incidental music” during his oratorios of the 1730s. Handel’s organ skills are never in question: he was only outdone by J. S. Bach among his contemporaries and once, so the story goes, won a famous organ contest against Domenico Scarlatti (though Scarlatti got the better of him at the harpsichord).
Dates of composition for the concertos vary; we know better when they were first published. In this case, the F-major Concerto, Op. 4 No. 5, was published in London in 1738 though its origins clearly go back earlier. And Handel certainly never felt misgivings about taking material from other sources - both his own and others’ - to be recast in his concertos. Here the ancestor is a recorder sonata (Op. 1 No. 11) Handel penned in 1712, not long after arriving in London. The F-major concerto was completed sometime in 1735 and premiered that March during a revival performance of his oratorio Deborah.
Onto the basic fast-slow-fast framework of the Italian concerto form, Handel imposes elements of the four-movement church sonata, which requires an additional slow movement to begin. The opening Larghetto proceeds at a leisurely pace, and the simple interactions between organ and orchestra make a gracious impression. Closing with a half-cadence, the harmony allows us to move seamlessly into the following Allegro. Here the connections to an Italian ritornello concerto are most evident. Only rarely does Handel opt for intricacies in voice leading or harmonic surprises, and never do such details derail the “perpetual motion’ aesthetic that characterizes so many Baroque concerto first movements. Handel’s music here bears direct comparison to Vivaldi, in particular the fairly autonomous roles played by tutti (ensemble) and solo, abundant use of harmonic sequence, limited tonal exploration, and reliance on a single theme.
A contrasting mood arises with the Siciliano movement, which is however too brief to make a deep impression. Lasting just over a minute, it provides a kind of transition between the faster movements. In final position, the fourth movement returns to the buoyant energy of the earlier Allegro. These concertos would have included a fair amount of improvisation, and it is probably true that the published version only generally reflects what Handel would have played during the solo episodes. As such, they continue to offer performers a chance to engage with the music, up close, looking for clues and opportunities to embellish the basic structure Handel has bequeathed.

© Jason Stell, 2023

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