GEORGE FRIDERIC HAENDEL
Alla Hornpipe from Water Music, Suite No. 2 in D major
Water Music is a large-scale orchestral suite that Handel specially wrote to accompany King George I and his entourage as they were conveyed on a barge on the Thames River, from Whitehall to Chelsea and back. The trip, which took place on July 17, 1717, was one of several publicity stunts to make the king appear more visible to his people at a time when he and his son, the Prince of Wales, were on rocky terms. In fulfilling the commission, Handel was demonstrating his support of the King.
Handel had the privilege of being in direct contact with the monarch, who granted him opportunities to write for royal ceremonial occasions. Naturally, the composer took advantage of the considerable orchestral (and when required, choral) forces the court had to offer, and Water Music is no exception. It is significant for being the first orchestral work composed in England to include horns, which are on full display in the Alla Hornpipe that opens this concert. In dialogue with the trumpets, they imbue this movement’s outer sections with a cheerful opulence. The hornpipe tune’s repeated notes are developed in the contrasting middle section, moving through several keys and varying textures between the woodwinds (oboes and bassoon) and strings.
Overture, Air, and Hornpipe from King Arthur
While Henry Purcell may be best known today for his opera Dido and Aeneas, it is in fact an exception within his output. All-sung opera was not fashionable in late 17th-century London so most of Purcell’s dramatic music was for spoken plays, and a genre called “semi-opera”—a combination of spoken word with extensive musical episodes featuring singing and dancing.
King Arthur, with a libretto by John Dryden, was the second semi-opera Purcell composed. Completed in 1691, it features elaborate passages of music, and is notable for two main character roles that require singing and speaking. The opening overture of the opera combines a stately curtain raiser with a lively contrapuntal section. It’s then followed by an air (a song-like instrumental composition) with a lilting melody. In Act 2, Scene 2, Emmeline (daughter of Conon, Duke of Cornwall) and her maid Matilda await news of battle. To help them pass the time, a group of “Kentish lads and lasses” entertain them with a medley of songs and dances that include a short hornpipe, a type of energetic folk dance.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Polonaise, Menuet, and Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Originally developed in 17th-century France, the Baroque suite is an instrumental form containing an overture and a series of dances (that is, movements inspired by dance rhythms and other characteristics but not for dancing to). It was later enthusiastically taken up by German composers such as Telemann, J.S. Bach, and Handel, who advanced the creative possibilities of the genre, in suites for solo instruments, for various combinations of instruments, and for large ensemble.
Though published as No. 2 among his orchestral suites, the suite in B minor was likely Bach’s last orchestral work. It was probably composed during his time in Leipzig, around 1739, for concerts of the Collegium Musicum. Scored for flute, strings, and basso continuo (keyboard with bass stringed instrument), this suite combines concerto elements within the suite form, as evident in its last three movements, which include virtuosic passages for the flute. In the Polonaise, the flute initially outlines the main melody with the first violins, but then provides a showy elaboration of it over the bass for the ensuing Double. It rejoins the violin part for the elegant Menuet. For the final Badinerie (“banter”), the flute assumes a soloistic role once more, intoning a playful melody over spirited strings.
Allegro (Mvt 1) from Concerto in G minor for Strings and Continuo, RV 157
Vivaldi was the undisputed master of the Baroque concerto, writing over 500 of them during his lifetime. Over two-thirds of these are for a single solo instrument (mostly violin) and strings; there are also nearly 100 double concertos and concertos for multiple solo instruments combined. About 60 are “ripieno concertos” or concerto a quattro, that is, string concertos without a soloist, of which RV 157 is one. Stylistically, they are similar to the sinfonias (or overtures) that preceded Italian operas, but are “pure music” in conception, that is, not illustrating text or evoking an opera’s mood or drama. In them, Vivaldi experimented with orchestral colour effects and various types of textures, in particular fugal counterpoint.
RV 157, probably composed in the 1720s or 1730s, was the first of a set of 12 concertos that were copied out by Vivaldi’s father, Giovanni Battista, possibly at the request of a patron, and now kept at the Paris Conservatoire. The opening Allegro is a dynamic movement, built on a descending chromatic bass line that is repeated throughout. Overtop, the two violin sections engage in inventively varied dialogue, with violas alternately contributing support and additional counterpoint.
Larghetto and Allegro from Concerto in A, “per eco in lontano”, RV 552
On March 21, 1740, the Crown Prince of Saxony-Poland, Friedrich Christian, visited the Pietà, the girls orphanage where Vivaldi was music director, and asked the composer to deliver and lead the performance of three concertos. RV 552 was one of these; subtitled, “per eco in lontano” or “to echo in the distance”, it features a solo violin on stage with the string orchestra and continuo, and three other violin soloists playing in the distance (usually in the balcony of the hall). It’s a remarkable example of Vivaldi’s ingenuity on a musical form he established.
In the poignant Larghetto, the on-stage strings (violins and violas only, no continuo) provide tip-toe accompaniment under a graceful melody in the solo violin, which is delicately echoed by the ensemble in the distance. More assertive gestures in the second section play up the echo effect—as if the on-stage violin is experimenting with its reverberation.
The final Allegro is in ritornello form, a structure Vivaldi instituted for the outer fast movements in the three-movement concerto, in which the ensemble plays a recurring section (the ritornello) that alternates with episodes highlighting the soloists. In the latter, the solo violins of the on-stage and distanced groups undertake virtuosic flights of fancy, including a dramatic echo dialogue, before the ritornello’s final return.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Adagio and Allegro from Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060(R)
Johann Sebastian Bach deeply admired Vivaldi’s concertos and used them as a model for his own. This concerto survives in a version he created for two harpsichords; however, based on the characteristics of the parts, scholars believe that it’s a transcription of a lost concerto for oboe and violin, which is how it’s now usually played. It was probably composed during Bach’s time in Leipzig, when he ran the Collegium Musicum’s weekly concerts.
The Adagio is a gorgeous duet between the oboe and violin, whose lyrical lines endlessly intertwine over gentle plucked accompaniment. About two-thirds through, the violins and violas change to bowed notes—their sustained tones undergird a more intense exchange between the solo instruments, after which they return to pizzicato and the original mood. The final cadence resolves in the ensuing Allegro, an exuberant dance in ritornello form. In the solo episodes, oboe and violin converse as equals, though in moments, the violin is given the opportunity to indulge in virtuosic display.
GEORGE FRIDERIC HAENDEL
Andante from Organ Concerto in G minor, Op. 4, No. 1
In 1732, Handel was offered two nights a week to put on opera at a new theatre in London’s Covent Garden. During the Lenten season, he replaced the operas with oratorios—dramatic works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, usually on a religious theme, but without staging, sets, and costumes. He combined this genre of his own invention with another new kind of composition he created: the organ concerto. Performed during the intervals of the oratorio, these concertos enabled Handel to show off his skills as a performer and composer.
His first organ concertos date from 1735; six were published as Op. 4 in 1738, including this one in G minor, considered to be one of the more sizeable and innovative works of the group. Scored for organ, two oboes, strings, and continuo, Op. 4, No. 1 was first performed at Covent Garden on February 19, 1736, with Alexander’s Feast, John Dryden’s ode for which Handel had composed a brilliant setting. The Andante finale is a vivid display for the organist’s musical skill. Unfolding in three “cycles”, the organ part is at first steady in the lower registers, then expands its range and becomes increasingly elaborate in the second, and finally finishes with even more dazzling flourishes.
Georg Philipp Telemann
Selections from Ouverture des Nations anciens et modernes, TWV55:G4
Les Allemands anciens et modernes
Les Danois anciens et modernes
Les vieilles femmes
Telemann was the leading German composer during the first half of the 18th century and was enormously prolific. Among his numerous works are around 125 orchestral suites, the French form of which he helped popularize in Germany—by 1707, many of his were already well known in Leipzig. Many aspects of the French-style suite, initially established by Italian-French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) influenced his own, in terms of style and structure (stately overtures with dotted—i.e., long-short-long—rhythms followed by a series of dance movements), as well as instrumentation. He also sometimes used descriptive titles for entire works or movements, which he applied to this “ouverture” (the original French word indicating “suite”) about “ancient and modern nations”.
Written in 1721, this suite for strings and continuo consists of movements characterizing three nationalities of Hamburg origin—the Germans and the Danes (which you’ll hear tonight), as well as the Swedes. Each is divided into two parts, the first depicting the “old” nations—with rather serious, restrained, and somewhat stolid music—followed by the much livelier and dynamic personas of the “modern” nations. The finale, also performed on this program, portrays the old women with their sighing complaints depicted by chromatic scales.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Overture from Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D major, BWV 1069
For the overtures to his instrumental suites, Johann Sebastian Bach, like Telemann, used as his model the structure established by Lully. The one at the beginning of the orchestral suite in D major, likely composed in the 1730s, abides by the format: an introductory section, with its characteristic dotted rhythms, followed by a fast section of fugal counterpoint, then a return to the majestic opening. It is scored for a substantial ensemble including three trumpets, three oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo, which gives the overture a grand flair. Significantly, the three oboes are treated as equals to the violins and violas, enriching the sonority and the texture of the music. In the galloping section, after the entries of all the instruments, listen for an extended section showcasing the three oboes in animated dialogue.
Selections from Suite from Dardanus
Menuet tendre en rondeau
Entrée des Songes
Rameau, France’s leading composer of the 18th century, did not create any operas until late in his already significant career as a music theorist and writer of keyboard works. However, from his first, Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733, he stirred up great controversy within the French operatic establishment, causing a divide between the “conservative” supporters of lullistes (after Lully) and the “progressive” ramoneurs. The dispute reached its peak in 1739 with his fifth opera, Dardanus. Critics took issue with the seemingly overly complicated, “Italianate” style of Rameau’s music, then “revolutionary” to their ears. One disparagingly noted that Dardanus was “so laden with music that for three whole hours the orchestral players do not even have time to sneeze.”
Today, Rameau’s orchestral writing for opera is appreciated for its remarkable power (often enlivening lacklustre plots) and its richness of colour and texture. (In his operas of the 1740s, he introduced orchestral horns and clarinets, instruments new to France, and experimented with techniques such as pizzicato and glissando, which had been rarely used at the Paris Opéra.) The instrumental selections from Dardanus you’ll hear tonight exhibit Rameau’s skill and originality in invigorating some of the standard dance forms in French opera.
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F major, BWV 1046
The six Brandenburg Concertos take their name from Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg to whom Bach had presented them as a gift on March 24, 1721, two years after he had played for him in Berlin. However, they were likely composed for Bach’s employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, who at his court maintained an ensemble of excellent instrumental musicians. For each concerto, Bach followed the fashionable Italian model established by Vivaldi, applying the ritornello form in the fast movements, though he expanded the solo episodes using thematic development and modulation to more keys.
The first Brandenburg Concerto uses the largest instrumentation of them, including three oboes, bassoon, two horns, a “violino piccolo” (a small violin tuned higher than the usual), strings, and basso continuo. In the autograph score, the horns are noted as “Corni di caccia”, or hunting horns, which are valveless. The ”violino piccolo” (tuned up a third from the standard) is the main star of the Allegro third movement. Amidst the robust orchestral dance, it takes a soloistic turn playing rapid flourishes and grand chords. Horn and oboe also take the spotlight. In a dramatic moment of reminiscence, a brief excerpt from the preceding slow movement appears, just before the final return of the main theme.
GEORGE FRIDERIC HAENDEL
Overture from Music for the Royal Fireworks
Tonight’s playlist concludes with the overture from one of Handel’s grandest works: the orchestral suite entitled Music for the Royal Fireworks. He had originally intended it to be played by a huge wind band (24 oboes, 9 horns, 9 trumpets, 12 bassoons, and three sets of timpani) but then, as he was completing the score, reduced the woodwinds’ numbers to doubles and added strings. The king apparently wanted only “martial musick”, without “fidles”, but Handel evidently managed to get his way. An open rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens on April 21, 1748, was attended by a massive crowd (of over 12,000, according to one report), with the official performance given six days later, after which the firework display was launched.
The opening overture is the crown jewel of the work. Composed using the French form, its first section features the signature stately dotted rhythms, which are then inventively incorporated into a hymn-like melody. The ensuing Allegro has a militaristic atmosphere, with alternating fanfares between the horns and the trumpets, after which the opening grandeur returns to round off the movement.
Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD