Seeing Double

Seeing Double

August 21 at 12:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church

Program Notes

The composer of the sonata that opens today’s program, Dario Castello (1602-1631), had the great fortune of living in Venice, one of the liveliest European musical cities of the early 17th century. Musicians enjoyed performance opportunities at Venice’s numerous courts, theaters, and chapels, particularly the famous Cathedral of St. Mark, where Castello worked from 1624 as violin player. Venice was also a major center of musical innovation for a new genre of instrumental music: the sonata. Castello was one of the earlier instrumentalist-composers to publish sonatas, issuing two books before his untimely death in the great plague that swept through Venice in 1630. The work on today’s program comes from the second book of his Sonate concertate in stil moderno [Concerted Sonatas in Modern Style], published in 1629. In today’s lingo, it might be called a trio sonata, as it was written for two violins (or other treble instruments) and bassoon with basso continuo. Like many early sonatas, it consists of a single movement in which the listener is treated to a wonder-inspiring, sometimes surprising series of contrasting sections of rhapsodic lyricism, lively dance-inspired music, complex imitative polyphony, and virtuosic passagework.

Roberto Sierra is a Puerto Rican composer who studied in Europe with György Ligeti, among others, and is currently professor of composition at Cornell University. He has received commissions from numerous major orchestras and his works have been performed all over the world. His Mano a Mano (1987) is written for two percussionists who play different collections of instruments that include maracas, congas, bongos, and claves (wooden sticks). The composer describes his Mano a Mano thus:

In the Latin culture, the term “mano a mano” is used mainly for the type of sport where two contestants confront each other directly. My idea was two wrestlers with their hands on each other's shoulders, starting with similar motions and gradually separating in their moves while staying together. In Mano a mano the two percussionists start at the same tempo, gradually moving to different speeds. Like the wrestlers, they play together, but their movements (musical gestures) will be different, separated by their different speeds.

Giovanni da Palestrina (1525-1594) worked for most of his life at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the epicenter of the late Renaissance Counter Reformation. He largely devoted himself to sacred music, composing many masses, motets, and other works for the Catholic liturgy. His Magnificat, written in the 1580s for the papal choir, would have been sung in the evening service of Vespers. Like most of Palestrina’s works, the Magnificat reflects the reforms dictated by the Council of Trent, which specified that the texts set to multi-part polyphony be comprehensible to the listener. Although Palestrina usually composed for fairly large groups of voices (in the Magnificat, the scoring is an unusual combination of two choirs of four voices), his works are written in a way that makes the texts understandable, often having all the voices sing the same syllable at the same time. Nevertheless, Palestrina’s mastery of counterpoint allowed him to create a wide variety of texture and scoring—often, as in the Magnificat, by having different groupings of singers respond to one another—fulfilling the Council’s direction that, through music, “the hearts of the listeners be drawn to the desire of heavenly harmonies, in the contemplation of the joys of the blessed.”

Vincent d’Indy (1851-1931) was a musician with a multifaceted career: educator, editor, conductor, and composer. A student of César Franck, d’Indy went against the anti-German sentiment that prevailed in France after the war of 1871 and found inspiration in the works of Beethoven and Wagner. He also had a serious interest in the music of the past, famously editing works by Monteverdi and Rameau. He also used earlier music as the basis for a curriculum he developed at Paris’s Schola Cantorum, which he helped found. His Sextet, for two violins, two violas, and two cellos, was written in his old age in 1927. The first of the work’s three movements, titled “Entrée en sonate,” is in fact composed in—what was for that time—an antique form: the “sonata form,” in which the neatly chiseled opening theme gives way to others in less stable tonalities, only to return triumphantly at the end, in an almost Beethovenian heroic guise. The second movement, “Divertissement,” is a lively scherzo with a surprising interlude whose ethereal string harmonics gradually combine with the opening music. The final movement, “Thème, variations et finale” is another classically inspired movement. Its theme (a little binary dance, like those found in Haydn’s string quartets) serves as the basis for several variations, including a six-part imitative fugato and a quodlibet of different melodies in “march tempo… alla Schumann,” and ends with a serene coda.

© Don Fader, 2021