By Andrew Appel
The flavor of Italian music infused all Europe from the beginning of the 17th century. Italian bravura, drama, and sentiment—like an invasive, beautiful plant—took over the gardens of England, Holland, the German states, and Austria. Even Paris, that center of courtly taste, succumbed to Italian influence. Two Italians in particular, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, offered contrasting approaches to composition. While many composers followed the model of one or the other, several gifted German musicians—away from the Rome of Corelli, the Venice of Vivaldi, and the Paris of Jean-Baptiste Lully (a transplanted Italian whose works became synonymous with French style)—copied and integrated those characteristics they found most appealing. German music became a fusion cuisine and the starting point for an international style that would point the way to Mozart and Haydn. This evening’s program presents emblematic works of Corelli and Vivaldi along with works that strike out into new realms using these Italian composers as inspiration.
Born March 14, 1681, in Magdeburg; died June 25, 1767, in Hamburg.
Telemann was a professional, writing music for any occasion and for all abilities. Approaching his market in a developing Germany, he measured the needs of amateurs, college students and intellectuals, and court composers, as well as the most demanding and capable of players, and produced music that suited all needs perfectly.
The two concertos tonight show how he could coordinate and benefit from every modern trend. This concerto for strings, written around 1716, begins with an overture in the French style. There is grandeur and vitality, enriched by Telemann’s harmony. The Allegro plays with the ritornello form perfected by Vivaldi—where a memorable theme by the ensemble recurs throughout a concerto in varied form, alternating with solo passagework—but is complicated by an active viola part and has the texture of a quartet. The Andante owes its elegance to Corelli with what is known as a walking bass line while chords are suspended and melting above. This beautiful texture finds its way into everyone’s music in the late Baroque. The concerto ends, as do so many of Handel’s, with a minuet movement. Gallant, easy to understand, seductive.
Born February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany; died April 14, 1759, in London.
Handel the student shot like a rocket to Italy. With the popularity of Italian music in the north and criticisms that he was a weak melodist, Handel knew that he had to study in Rome and Venice. Soon he was working directly under the senior musical statesmen Arcangelo Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti. He lived alongside Antonio Caldara and Domenico Scarlatti. His patrons were art lions of Rome. In no time, Handel had become master of the Italian art of vocalism and melody. He was astonishing. In a few years he was acknowledged as the greatest composer of Italian music.
In his early London years, Handel the entrepreneur was Handel the Italian. He arrived from Italy bringing castrati and sopranos, the idols of their day. Handel as a melodist was now without equal. After an evening at the opera, audiences wanted to bring Handel’s gorgeous melodies home. They wanted his dance music, they wanted movements from the concertos that preceded the new oratorios Handel composed for the English.
Handel reworked his popular movements into other forms. An aria from the opera became a trio sonata, an allegro from a concerto grosso became a harpsichord solo. Meanwhile, John Walsh, a publisher of the day, printed renditions of favorite airs from the operas in every incarnation. Some were for solo harpsichord, some for violin or small ensembles. Tonight’s arrangement of the exquisite “Verdi prati” from the opera Alcina falls into this tradition. The newly arranged concerto that fills out the work likewise gets the best mileage from good work.
Handel’s tunes are not often Baroque arabesques. They are made of balanced phrases and, for the 18th-century ear, quite modern. They benefit from the simplicity of French dance (“Verdi prati” is a sarabande), and the tastes of an audience rejecting complexity inspired Handel to produce vocally gratifying and memorable tunes.
Born December 26, 1687, in Cadolzburg; died November 25, 1755, in Dresden.
This work, which exists in manuscript, underscores Pisendel’s powerful abilities. The sonata is a prelude and fugue, worthy of a German organist’s skills. The Adagio, Corellian, proceeds with beautiful harmonies over a solid bass line. Pisendel complicates the harmonic cream with chromatics that add more tragedy than we are used to hearing in his Italian model. The Allegro is an orchestral fugue, similar to movements of Corelli and Handel. You can almost hear an oratorio chorus, but Pisendel ups the energy with fleet Vivaldian string figures. The excitement and tension mount to explosive levels.
Now here is a subversive little concerto. No Italian allegro to open the work but a jaunty, elegant, delicious Polonaise! Telemann proves that he will not slavishly follow any imported model but gives us four movements of Italian vivacity mixed with French sophistication. Telemann, a master of entertainment, is able to offer his music lovers the latest in the modern galant style along with the excitement from Italy. This concerto is pure delight.
Born February 17, 1653, in Fusignano; died January 8, 1713, in Rome.
Baroque composers composed endlessly. Corelli is exceptional. His known works comprise only five books of sonatas and one of concertos. But, like Flaubert working on Madame Bovary, Corelli read and reread his compositions, correcting and refining in the hopes of creating exemplary works. Did he expect that his sonatas would be the model revered for almost a century throughout Europe?
His concertos are not like Vivaldi’s. They are not operatic confections for soloists accompanied by a group of backup musicians. A Corelli concerto grosso is a sonata for three instruments reinforced by a large band of strings. We have a group—usually a trio sonata of two violins, cello, and harpsichord—enforced by a large number of violins playing the same notes, but joining in from time to time, often allowing the trio to play alone. There is no section of music specific to the orchestra contrasting with music for the soloist. Instead, this is a homogenized soup of sound. Unlike the Venetian concerto, in which one expects a three-movement work, the Corellian concerto is flexible, often with rhapsodic sections moving quickly from one texture or tempo to another. This is more akin to chamber music than to opera. Handel, having worked with Corelli, followed his concerto mold, and much of this concerto will remind you of Handel, from the orchestral fugue of the fourth movement to the dance-inspired final one. There is an elegance to Corelli that does not exist in Vivaldi’s exciting work. Musical conservatives in London held Corelli up as an ideal and wrote that Vivaldi’s music sounded like the barking of dogs and the ravings of mad people in Bedlam.
Born March 4, 1678, in Venice; died July 27/28, 1741, in Vienna.
This concerto follows the Venetian concerto mold—no surprise, since Vivaldi himself perfected the form. It is in three movements, and the cellist is presented as a singer on the opera stage, while the orchestra is a pit band. The first and third movements begin with memorable material, a ritornello. The first movement has fluttering strings over the basses leaping in octaves. The cello solo enters with the continuo section (harpsichord, basses, and cellos) alone. In each solo interlude, the accompanying strings vary in makeup but always serve as backup musicians to the soloist, always breaking into an appearance of that ritornello, each time slightly varied. At the end of the movement, the ritornello returns in its full form. This clear and simple architecture showcases the soloist in a theatrical way.
Listen to the serpentine melody of the Largo. It is an arabesque for the ear and might serve to define Baroque melody. For the Baroque composer, melody was not a balanced, symmetrical tune, but a meandering stream of sound—a swirling, supple ribbon.
The magic of Antonio Vivaldi is not always fully appreciated today. Bach, however, recognized a vitality and clarity in this art. His contact with Vivaldi’s music ignited a metamorphosis affecting not only concertos and sonatas, but vocal music as well. Modern recognition of Vivaldi started with the Four Seasons and L’Estro Armonico and has slowly expanded to include operas and religious choral works. Vivaldi, a versatile genius, lived beyond his popularity (like the painter Fragonard) and died in Vienna, painfully ignored. Ironically, his posthumous influence has been enormous. How many young people today have been led into great music through Spring or Summer? And how many of us continue to be surprised by Vivaldi’s unfailing sensitivity to the character of an instrument, allowing him to write such dark and melancholy music for the cello?
Born March 21, 1685, in Eisenach, Germany; died July 28, 1750, in Leipzig, Germany.
Bach did not travel widely. Within a radius of 250 miles, he studied the world, incorporating and transforming everything that came under his eye. In the beginning, it was the art of the German organist (a Renaissance art) and the French orchestral musician. Protestants fleeing Paris set up shop in Germany and allowed the young Bach to hear the rich, effervescent music of Versailles. From these influences, Bach molded his early works, profoundly beautiful cantatas and keyboard pieces. But in Weimar his references changed. The prince, off at university in Amsterdam, sent back boxes of books, of Vivaldi. Bach copied the concertos, making scores and parts for performance. At the same time, in order to understand the new compositions completely, Bach made keyboard transcriptions of a great many of the works. In this way, he internalized all the shimmer and excitement that met his eye during his introduction to the Venetian concerto.
This concerto only exists in manuscript for two harpsichords and strings. But Bach was in the habit of taking his earlier concertos for various instruments, written in Cöthen, where he served as court composer in an entirely secular capacity, and reworking them for harpsichords in Leipzig, the place of his last professional position. Employed as a church musician, Bach was able to remain an active secular musician through his directorship of the Collegium, a group of college student musicians meeting at a coffeehouse to perform all modern music. Often with his virtuoso sons, Bach would fill the space with the fizz of harpsichords. These keyboard concertos were transcriptions. This particular concerto works brilliantly with solo violin and oboe, a version of the work that is popular and beloved.
The concerto follows Vivaldi’s model of alternating sections of ritornello with solo interludes for the violin and oboe in both outer movements. But simplicity was not Johann Sebastian’s forte, and Bach demands that the concerto format allows for enriching counterpoint. The interplay between oboe and violin is beguiling and only possible because Johann Sebastian is able to fuse his German organist abilities with those of a concerto master.
In the second movement, exquisite swirls of melody, similar to Vivaldi’s, are made all the more beautiful by imitation and counterpoint between the solo instruments. This is music that, as the poet Nicholas Brady put it (in words set by Henry Purcell), “charms the Sense and captivates the Mind.”
Harpsichordist and fortepianist Andrew Appel has written program notes and articles for presenters around the country.
Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation
© 2001–2007 Carnegie Hall Corporation