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London Playhouse

London Playhouse

Event is Past

Event is Past

Program Notes

During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, England derived a great deal of its musical culture from continental Europe. Composers and performers crossed paths traveling in both directions: Italian violinists and harpsichordists, for example, often made a brief stop in London while touring France, the Low Countries and the German lands; on the other hand, English lutenists were eager to ensconce themselves in the latest developments in instrumental virtuosity practiced in Catholic regions. One of the most popular forms taken over from Italy was the madrigal, traditionally a texted, contrapuntal work for four to six voices. A group of English composers emerged as practitioners in this new medium, led by Thomas Weelkes, Thomas Morley, and others. A few generations later Henry Purcell accomplished another translation from Italy to England – opera. Purcell laid the groundwork for original opera in English that would be developed to such heights by the great Handel a generation or two later.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Morley (1557-1602) was a highly-regarded singer, composer, and music publisher. In the translation of Italian madrigal style to English texts, Morley may be the most important figure. He worked in and around St. Paul’s Cathedral for most of his life, and he had the good fortune to study for a time with the great William Byrd. Morley is also remembered today as a music theorist. His Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) was of seminal importance in translating continental music theory into the hands of English readers. He composed short pieces for Plaine and Easie Introduction in order to demonstrate many of his points. The following passage comes from his description of how to write a madrigal in the Italian manner:

If therefore you will compose in this kind you must possess yourself with an amorous humour . . . so that you must in your music be wavering like the wind, sometime wanton, sometime drooping, sometime grave and staid, otherwhile effeminate . . . The more variety you show the better you shall please.

Morley’s “Arise, Awake” appears in a collection titled The Triumphs of Oriana. The collection, compiled and published by Morley himself in 1601, contains twenty-five madrigals by various English composers. As Oriana has long been regarded as a reference to Queen Elizabeth, it is believed the collection was created in tribute to her during her later years. “Arise, Awake” is scored for five voices (SSATB) and lasts barely two minutes. The simple text becomes the frame over which Morley’s lively vocal flourishes unfold. Echo effects abound, and the constant contrast between held longer notes and rapid, bubbling vocal runs provide much of the work’s charm.

Following Morley, we hear one of the many sonatas composed by Gottfried Finger (ca. 1660-1730). Hardly a household name, Finger was born in Moravia. In the year of Handel’s birth, 1685, Finger emigrated to England where he took a post under James II and – like Handel in years to come – attempted to establish himself as a composer of stage works. These efforts did not succeed, and he returned to Germany after 1700 to take positions at various courts. Though he clearly strove to succeed in the theater, Finger’s numerous instrumental and chamber compositions are perhaps his most significant legacy.

Around 1695 Finger produced a set of six violin sonatas dedicated to the Earl of Manchester, and these remain among his most frequently performed works. He also composed sonatas for other instruments, of course, and at the time expectations in regard to instrumentation were certainly less defined. The Sonata in C Major for trumpet and oboe with continuo pairs two bright wind instruments. Some of the aesthetic pleasure derived in listening to Finger’s sonata centers on the interplay between the nasal quality of the oboe’s vibrating double reeds and the brass trumpet’s sharper profile. The opening Andante provides a forum for the two soloists to echo one another continually. The next movements are given to solo oboe and then trumpet, in turn, before the entire group reunites during the Grave and Finale. Finger’s style is ultra-clear and measured, though it clearly lacks the polyphonic interest of what contemporary composers were able to achieve (compare the Purcell to come).

The name of John Dowland (1563-1626) continues to enchant as the representative voice of a significant era in cultural history (Elizabethan England), and his hundreds of delightful solo lute works are perhaps his signature efforts. His reputation blossomed in the early music movement of the mid-20th century, and recent recordings by Sting have made Dowland’s name a buzzword even in non-classical circles. The lute was his own best instrument, and after working for many lucrative years in Denmark, this Catholic musician returned to take a post as court lutenist under James I in 1612. Dowland also wrote songs, usually with lute accompaniment, that drew inspiration both from the exceptional poetry of his contemporaries as well as the prevailing aesthetic mood known as “melancholy.” Most of his songs, including the two performed today, exist in versions for both solo voice and as part-songs scored for three or four voices.

Dowland produced his first book of Ayres in 1597, basically publishing a collection of songs many of which were already well-known. In a general sense, one can position these ayres in the European vogue for expressive madrigals based on powerful, or at least symbolically rich, poetry. At the same time Dowland uses the supporting texture of multiple voices to add rhythmic complexity and interest – aspects not as developed in the solo voice versions. In addition the texts often trend toward lighter topics, as in “Fine Knacks for Ladies” and “It was a time.” Both use a formulaic ABB design and are strophic. “Fine Knacks” is the more lively of the two, “It was a time” more thoughtful despite the seeming banality of the opening words:

It was a time when silly bees could speak,
And in that time I was a silly bee . . .

We may not be certain about where and when William Byrd was born: Lincoln or London? 1534 or 1543? We do know that his musical talents emerged early. He sang in London’s Royal Chapel under Thomas Tallis, one of the premier English composers of the day, when elaborate sacred music in Latin flourished (the so-called Tudor period of “Bloody Mary”). After taking his first official position as organist at Lincoln Cathedral, Byrd eventually returned to London and worked as a kind of composer-in-residence for Queen Elizabeth. But as with many public figures of that time, he suffered the fluctuations between Catholic and Protestant control of the throne. Even for a man who had achieved such prestige – composing for the highest circle of patrons, having a patent from the Queen herself to publish music – changing religious circumstances meant that not all of Byrd’s music could be openly performed.

Byrd helped to build a body of English keyboard works, many of which went into the Fitzwilliam Virginal compiled around 1612. In addition to anonymous works, the volume contains hundreds of pieces by named composers, none better represented than Byrd. The Pavane and Galliard performed today typify two favorite dances of the 16th century in England. The pavane was often slow and more gestural; the galliard was lively and involved skipping or jumping. Both dances probably originated in Italy, but they became beloved of Queen Elizabeth and thus frequently demanded for social occasions.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) lived a very short life; his thirty-six years are akin to the brief span of Mozart’s existence on earth. But like Mozart, Purcell’s story, too, is one of prodigious accomplishments at an early age. Following training as a chorister in the Royal Chapel, Henry was appointed resident composer at age seventeen and became head organist at Westminster Abbey just two years later. It was at this time – around 1680 – that Purcell’s earliest extant compositions, mostly violin sonatas and fantasias, were written. Later appointments at court and chapel continued until his death and called forth a vast array of ceremonial odes, songs, and liturgical settings. But in his lifetime and ever since Purcell has been loved best for his dramatic scores: King Arthur (1691), The Fairy Queen (1692), and above all, Dido & Aeneas (1689).

The Fantasia No. 5 in D Minor, dated 22 June 1680 and included in Purcell’s first volume of such works, pays homage to the intricate polyphonic style that Purcell inherited from Byrd, Tallis, and other masters. With words it would work perfectly as a four-voice motet or mass movement. Without, it turns into a proto-string quartet meditation on close counterpoint. The phrases are full of life and flow easily; cadences occur rarely, and at times the dissonance seems to call out from a century earlier. Near the close Purcell injects a more animated second fugue, but the final phrase – returning to a slow tempo – will sound to most modern listeners as an incomplete cadence in need of further resolution. It is a modal gesture quite familiar to any fans of the Renaissance vocal tradition, a style Purcell knew intimately from years of sacred music making.

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) was perhaps the most famous musician across Europe in the mid-18th century. Born in Halle in central Germany, young Handel received only modest compositional lessons. This was very much the era of “on-the-job training,” especially for church musicians, and Handel would continue to self-instruct as he came into contact with more diverse styles in Rome and Venice. Even after he crossed north over the Alps in early 1710, Handel continued to think and create in the Italian style. He took a post at Hanover in Germany, but left for his first visit to London before the end of the year. He received permission from the Elector of Hanover for a second English tour – and never went back to Germany. As fate would have it, his old employer in Hanover eventually became King George I of England in 1714. Handel smoothed the day of reckoning by writing the dazzling Water Music at the king’s request. They would reconcile, and a decade later in one of his last official acts, the king would bestow English citizenship upon the “dear Saxon.”

Handel thought of himself primarily as a composer for the theater. Opera could be big business; changing fashions meant that Handel was continually at the mercy of box office receipts. At one time, Italian opera thrived and Handel composed accordingly. Later, London audiences cooled to such tempestuous foreign imports and coveted dramatic music sung in English. Handel obliged, creating a body of oratorios on sacred subjects. In both cases, these theatrical evenings would be interspersed with instrumental music (during intermissions or scene changes), which brought Handel’s concerti grossi and organ concerti to wider exposure. The latter also highlighted Handel’s acclaimed skill as performer and improviser.

For the 1739 season he created a set of twelve Concerti Grossi, all written within a few weeks that autumn and eventually published as his Opus 6. Most of the material was new; some was borrowed from existing works and reimagined for the current context. The A-Major Concerto, No. 11 in the set, is a direct arrangement of an organ concerto Handel had recently completed, HWV 296. Based on the date of the manuscript, it was the last of the twelve concerti to be written and was not performed until spring 1740. It contains five movements and adheres to the older, ensemble concerto design though touches of recent Italian flare can be observed. The solo group features two violins, supported by strings and continuo.
Handel opens with a grand concerto form. The recurring theme, utilizing the French Overture, dotted-rhythm figure, alternates with various solo episodes. These frequently showcase a chromatically-rising violin line in increasingly fast rhythms in the best Vivaldian manner. The movement is expansive and curiously juxtaposes the regal French Overture style with occasional flashes of Italian fire. The conventional fugue that forms the middle of a French Overture actually becomes an independent second movement here. Its brilliance and brevity leave the listener wanting more. A short Largo functions as a lead-in to the lilting Andante. Handel’s combination of triple meter and triplet rhythms amplifies the effervescent charm of this movement. More than previous movements, this one is dominated by the solo first violin. By contrast, the final movement passes its motives around freely from the top to the bottom of the whole ensemble; every player gets involved. The minor-mode B section makes it sound like an instrumental Italian opera aria, complete with da capo rounded form and brilliant technical feats. The insertion of Italianate devices and forms is clearly intentional. Judging from this Concerto Grosso alone, no one could claim the 55-year-old Handel was out of step with the latest trends.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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