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During his sojourn to Italy 1707-1710, George Frideric Handel learned much from Corelli's compositional style, including clear, forceful construction, juxtaposition of homophony and polyphony, contrast of movements, and use of dance forms. Handel did incorporate instrumental music, i.e. overtures, dances in operas and large vocal works, but throughout his compositional career, purely orchestral music is a minor part of Handel's body of works. He did publish several groups of concertos including two sets of concerti grossi, the twelve of Op. 6, and the six of Op. 3. The latter group was published in 1734 by John Walsh in London, most probably without input from Handel. The composer did undertake some revisions of the set, probably later in the year and again in 1741. Music historian John Hawkins reports that these concertos were written for the 1733 marriage festivities of the Princess Royal and the Prince of Orange. Very likely the pieces were performed at that occasion, but the concertos seem to have been pieced together from a variety of earlier works composed between 1712 and 1733. Some of the movements are reworked arias from the composer's operas, sections of anthems, and even harpsichord pieces. Opus 3 soon acquired the nickname of "Oboe Concertos" no doubt due to the novelty of the prominence of the oboes displayed in most of them.
While most of the concertos of the rest of the set owe part of their existence to other works, Opus 3, No. 1 is original. The key grouping (B-Flat Major; g minor, g minor) does beg the question: was there a mix-up in pages at the printer and should the last movement of the second concerto (also in B-flat, with similar instrumentation to the first concerto) have been printed with the first concerto, thus making both concertos 4-movements and ending it in the key of the first? Those that argue for performing it as printed point out that Handel did revise some portions of the set, but appears to have left the first concerto with three movements, ending it in the relative minor key, rather than returning to the opening key. The entire piece is scored for 2 oboes, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, solo violin, strings, and basso continuo. Various groups take the concertino (solo group of the concerto grosso) in the different movements.
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Musically, Bach's years as the C÷then court conductor were in many ways rewarding ones. The Prince had established a first-rate chamber orchestra and had acquired some fine instruments. In this position Bach had great artistic freedom to create a vast quantity of chamber, orchestral, and keyboard works. However, because of the Calvinist persuasion of the prince (church music was limited to the singing of the psalms) the composer did not have much opportunity to really fulfill his Calling: "to further well regulated church music to the Glory of God." Although it was a difficult move for his family, he did take the position of Cantor of Leipzig, and with that position returned more fully to church music. The church cantatas form the core of Bach's vocal output. He composed five complete cycles (around 300), many completed at the rate of one per week. The Lutheran cantata that had been developed in the 17th century was normally a work of several sections, generally setting poetic paraphrases of scripture to music. Cantatas became sermons in themselves and, in the Lutheran liturgy, usually preceded or even surrounded the spoken sermon. Most of Bach's church cantatas are set for choir and instruments with soloists used in some movements. The final movement is usually the four-part setting of a chorale (hymn). Marked for the 15th Sunday after Trinity or any occasion, Cantata 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, is one of Bach's few cantatas for solo voice and orchestra. It is an exceptional work in its virtuosic writing for singer and trumpet (in addition to difficult melismas, the range reaches a high "c"). Scholars wonder what singer capable of doing this work would have been available in Leipzig at the time. Women weren't allowed to perform in church, and Bach often complained of the lack of musical ability of the boys in his choirs. There is some speculation that Bach may have written this piece to demonstrate his abilities to the operatic community of Dresden. Although it is likely that this work, exceptional in its demands, did not receive many performances in Bach's lifetime, sopranos and audiences today can be grateful for its creation.
Cantata 51 is a wonderful example of the Baroque ornamental partnership between singer and instrumentalist, in this case the trumpet. The first aria is a jubilant paean of rejoicing, calling on all to praise God and bring an offering to the one who stands by them in their time of need. The soprano consorts boldly with the trumpet and other instruments. The strings accompany the opening of the second movement, the text of which is based on Psalm 138:2 and 26:8. The accompaniment changes to continuo only (organ and bass) when the "broken voice is only able to stammer in feeble praise of God's wonders." The gentle, pastorale-like third movement in 12/8 time, again accompanied by continuo, speaks to the living Father God rather than the Lord of Glory. The two-part final movement is an extended doxology. The first part takes the place of the usual 4-part chorale with the soprano intoning the chorale melody against the concerto-like interplay of the two violins. The trumpet and tutti strings join the soprano for the concluding alleluias to perfectly frame the theme of joy and praise.
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Antonio Vivaldi was known variously as the red priest; the teacher of orphan girls in the Venetian Pio Ospedale della PietÓ; a renowned violin virtuoso; and an innovator in the composition of concertos of various types. He composed over 500 of them, more than 230 for solo violin. His contributions to this genre included: regular use of ritornello form (tutti theme alternating with solo episodes) in the fast outer movements, new virtuosic standards for soloists, new strong effects, such as orchestral unison. These innovations became part of the expected language of the concerto. Composed some years earlier and published in 1725 as part of a larger set (Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione, Op. 8), Vivaldi's most popular work, The Four Seasons, paints a picture of the passing of a year in the Venetto with four concertos for solo violin, strings, and basso continuo. The published version was accompanied by sonnets (written by Vivaldi?), repeated in the score where the description applies.
La Primavera (Spring) I. Allegro: "Spring has come and with it gaiety, the birds salute it with joyous song," The opening tutti in E Major announces the joy of spring, returning between each subsequent picture; various bird trills are heard tossed back and forth between the solo and orchestral violins. "And the brooks, caressed by Zephyr's breath, flow meanwhile with sweet murmurings:" The soft running notes of the violins depict the gentle brooks. "The sky is covered with dark clouds, announced by lightning and thunder." Repeated 16th notes (dark clouds and thunder), scales rushing upwards (stormy wind), rapid triplets on the solo violin (lightning). "But when they are silenced, the little birds return to fill the air with their song:"
II. Largo e pianissimo sempre: "Then does the meadow, in full flower, ripple with its leafy plants. The goat-herd dozes, guarded by his faithful dog." The solo depicts the sleeping goat-herd, while the violins murmur flowers of the meadow, and the dog woof-woofs with the help of the violas.
III. Allegro: Danza pastorale: "Rejoicing in the pastoral bagpipes, Nymphs and Shepherds dance, in love, their faces glowing with springtime's brilliance." The 12/8 meter typical for rustic dances is used, with brilliant solos.
L'Estate (Summer) I. Allegro non molto: "Under the heavy season of a burning sun, man languishes, his herd wilts, the pine is parched" The stifling heat of August in the Venetto is breathless, each measure of the soft tutti without a downbeat and descending minor scales. "The cuckoo finds its voice, and chiming in with it the turtle-dove, the goldfinch." The soloists takes off in a blaze of heat, the cuckoo is heard in the bass, the tutti joins the brilliance of the solo; after a return to the stifling heat, the solo sings the turtle-dove and goldfinch. "Zephyr breathes gently but, contested, the North-wind appears nearby and suddenly:" The wind first comes gently with triplet pattern, but grows into a violent storm of 32nd notes. "The shepherd sobs because, uncertain, he fears the wild squall and its effects:" The stifling weather returns briefly and the soloist, accompanied with basso continuo alone sobs with the shepherd. His fears are realized and the tutti brings back the storm in all its fury.
II. Adagio: "His weary limbs have no repose, goaded by his fear of lightning and wild thunder; while gnats and flies in furious swarms surround him." The soloist represents the exhausted shepherd, while tutti gnats and flies bother him.
III. Presto: Tempo impetuoso d'Estate "Alas, his fears prove all too grounded, thunder and lightning split the Heavens, and hail-stones slice the top of the corn and other grain." Tutti and solo bring back the north wind to wreck destruction over the landscape.
L'Autunno (Autumn) I. Allegro: "The country-folk celebrate, with dance and song, the joy of gathering a bountiful harvest." A joyful celebration of harvest is in full swing with the violin solo fiddling the dance. "With Bacchus's liquor, quaffed liberally, their joy finishes in slumber." As more and more wine is consumed, the drunks begin falling down, hiccupping, while some try to continue their dance, others fall into slumber. Those who are not drunk, finish their dance.
II. Adagio: "Each one renounces dance and song. The mild air is pleasant and the season invites ever increasingly to savor a sweet slumber." The sleeping drunks are pictured through muted strings and Il cembalo arpeggia'-- lazy broken chords on the harpsichord.
III. Allegro: La caccia: "The hunters at dawn go the the hunt," Set in the key of F, the natural key of the horn, the orchestra, and later, the solo violin play hunting horn calls. "With horns and guns and dogs they sally forth, the beasts flee, their trail is followed:" The animals try to escape through the triplets in the solo violin, dogs bay with wildly repeated thirds.
"Already dismay'd and exhausted, from the great noise of guns and dogs, Threaten'd with wounds, they flee, languishing, and die, cowering." Interspersed between tutti statements of the hunt theme, the solo depicts the exhausted animals, the fleeing, the fear, the dying.
L'Inverno (Winter) I. Allegro non molto: "Frozen and trembling among the chilly snow," The orchestra enters slowly, one part at a time, painting a picture of the frozen landscape. Trembling is heard with trills on the violins. "Our breathing hampered by horrid winds, as we run, we stamp our feet continuously," Our teeth chatter with the frightful cold:" Running passages in the solo bring in the horrid winds; repeated notes, the feet stamping; soloist double stops, the teeth chattering.
II. Largo: "We move to the fire and contented peace, While the rain outside pours in sheets." The most beautiful of movements, the violin melody represents contentment in front of the fire while the pizzicato strings depict the rain outside.
III. Allegro: "Now we walk on the ice, with slow steps, attentive how we walk, for fear of falling;" The solo slithers along on thin ice with no supporting harmonies; tutti enters tentatively, afraid of falling. "If we move quickly, we slip and fall to earth, again walking heavily on the ice, until the ice breaks and dissolves;" Solo and tutti keep trying to stay upright, but keep falling with descending passages. "We hear from the closed doors Boreas and all the winds at war - This winter, but such as brings joy." A brief lento settles us in again cozily by the fire, and even though we hear the north winds roaring outside, we are joyful in the comforts of hearth and home.
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Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2001.
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