Biber (Battalia) – Locke (The Tempest)

Biber (Battalia) - Locke (The Tempest)Theatrical Music and Music for the Theatre

“They [the German composers of instrumental music in the 17th century] thought more highly of difficult pieces than of easy ones, and sought to excite admiration rather than to please. They were more intent upon recreating the songs of birds, for example, those of the cuckoo, the nightingale, the hen, the quail, etc., than upon imitating the human voice.”

Johann Joachim QUANTZ
Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (Berlin 1752) (On Playing the Flute, trans. by Edward Reilly)


This rather negative opinion voiced by Quantz at the threshold of the Classical era underlines two fundamental aspects of 17th-century musical aesthetics: the effect as a means of stunning and “touching” the listener, and the partial neglect of the ideal that had been cultivated since the Renaissance, the ideal of the human voice as that which is most worthy of imitation in instrumental music. The quest for artistic devices to heighten the dramatic effect, both in the composition as well as in the execution, has its roots in the vocal music of Monteverdi, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (in whose music the “affective effect” is pursued almost obsessively) and of the other great “modem” composers at the turn of the 17th century.


In the realm of instrumental music, this quest soon found its expression in the works of Biagio Marini, Dario Castello, Giovan Battista Fontana, Carlo Farina and others, who sought to create a purely instrumental idiom on the one hand, and to codify the expressive conquests of the new vocal music into an instrumental vocabulary on the other. It was above all through Marini and Farina that the Italian school of violin playing spread through the German and Austrian lands. This occurred at a time in which the search for new expressive resources for the violin was well underway through the use of such artistic devices as double stops, overtones, retunings of strings, the imitation of bird songs, etc. We already find such devices albeit without any genuine inner cohesion, in Farina’s Capriccio stravagante of 1627, the archetype of Biber’s Battalia of 1673. In Biber’s piece, however, the striving for effects is contained within a dramatic concept. Highly original musical devices are used to divide the piece into little musical scenes which are linked together through a narrative plot.


The Battalia does not end with the lieto fine or happy end customary for the Baroque, but with a lament and the death of the wounded musketeers (which we have depicted by introducing a lirone in the basso continuo, the instrument associated with the “affectus doloris”). In a sense, this enhances the descriptive intent which places death and not victory as the inevitable outcome of war. For this reason, as well as to amplify the dramatic scene depicted in the Battelle, we decided to begin our recording with a cavalry fanfare as a symbol of military pride and swagger. We have also added a passacaglia (for lute solo), a form traditionally associated with sorrow and death in the 17th century.


The Sonata representative is formally organized through the alternation of imitative sections and short, abstract passages culminating in the “Musketeer Mars” (closely related to the march in the Battelle), which assumes a clearly ironic significance in this context. Preceding the sonata is a very short “Tune for the Woodlark” from a little English collection of 1717 that contains various “tunes” to be taught to birds with the aid of a flageolet or recorder. In this case, it is man who teaches the “artifice” of human music to birds!


A brief improvisation for lute and viola da gamba is followed by the Partita for two viole d’amore and basso continuo. With respect to its extreme virtuosity as well as to its musical concentration (it has absolutely nothing of the playful character of the two preceding pieces), this piece is one of the most important works for viola d’amore. The basso continuo was enriched with a tenor chalumeau (a predecessor of the clarinet) which doubles the bass line at the octave – a practice later found in two of Vivaldi’s works – in the Prelude, the Allemande and the Arietta variata.


The Tempest was written at about the same time as the Battelle and first performed in London in 1674. It is a semi-opera with pieces by various composers in addition to spoken dialogues.


Locke wrote only the instrumental pieces: the “First” and “Second Musick” (to be played in front of the closed curtain), the extraordinary “Curtain Tune” (the first musical piece, at least in England, with agogic and expressive indications such as “violent” used to depict the forces of nature raging in a storm), the four “Act Tunes” and a double canon at the end, in which Locke demonstrates his compositional skills. To open the section dedicated to Locke on this recording, we have chosen another double canon written twenty years before The Tempest. It not only reflects the transition from the lush, sensual sounds of Biber’s Partita to the considerably more refined aesthetics typical of English music, but also shows us – by coming full circle, as it were – how a work of such skillfulness and dramatic power could be derived from the rigorously imitative Renaissance form of the double canon. The dances of the Tempest Suite present clearly affective allusions in two cases. In the “Rustick Air” pedals in the bass and a few harsh harmonies underscore the rustic, country character; and in the “Martial Jigge” we have highlighted the war-like aspect of the piece through the use of flautini and oboes. The responsorial character of the “Minoit” with its consistent alternation between duple and triple accents gave us the idea of confronting the orchestral “tutti” with a flautino and a lute.


In general, “artistic devices” and “affect” in Locke’s music result chiefly from a strictly compositional endeavor (harmony, rhythm, etc.). Consequently, a descriptive piece such as the “Curtain Tune”, for example, betrays a certain degree of abstraction far removed from the naturalistic effects which a composer and virtuoso such as Biber could ever have found in the sensual resources of his instrument and in a Mediterranean-influenced culture.


Giovanni Antonini
Translation: Roger Clement



Speaking to the modern listener
II Giardino Armonico on Biber and Locke


How did you come to choose an English composition and why Matthew Locke. in particular?

Luca Pianca: One of the essential elements as far as choosing our repertoire is concerned is that the music must be compatible with the characteristics of the group. It’s not a problem for us to play music which has a programmatic, dramatic and theatrical nature. In actual fact, the Battelle and The Tempest are part of this repertoire with a representative, dramatic nature.


The Tempest and Battalia can be considered program music. What are the characteristics of both pieces?

Enrico Onofri: The “Curtain Tune” in Locke’s Tempest is certainly an instrumental piece which uses typical rhetorical imitation elements inserted into a formal context which is not strictly programmatic; whilst, in Biber’s Battalia, the rhetorical elements are much more codified and are used in a much clearer way, as would subsequently then be done in Italy by composers such as Vivaldi and others.

Giovanni Antonini: Yes, but Biber’s Battalia is dramatic; it’s a story, whereas Locke’s Tempest, as Enrico has just said, is restricted to reproducing the aspects of the tempest in the overture, whilst the other pieces are, on the other hand, dance movements.


What are the technical means used in the recording to achieve the original sounds of the battle and the tempest?

Luca Pianca: We tried to be as faithful as possible to this program of the battle. In the Battalia, there is a march which imitates the marching of soldiers led by a fife accompanied by drums. So we recorded this piece by moving the musicians on a mobile trolley from one side of the recording studio to the other so as to get the effect of a military march that was coming towards us and then moving off into the distance. In the Sonata representative for solo violin, we tried to make the environment sound as it would be for each animal in Nature. I think these ideas fit very well with the Baroque spirit, which is always trying to surprise and contrast one element with another. I would say that our key to interpretation is essentially based on this naturalistic reproduction of the various aspects.

Giovanni Antonini: Even the sound effects are prescribed by Biber himself in quite a precise manner; the pizzicati of the double bass and the cellos, which today we would call “Bartók pizzicati,” where the string must snap back against the fingerboard of the instrument and create a sound, are expressly called for by Biber.


What is your idea behind the compilation of this CD?

Giovanni Antonini: What we sought to do was not simply to position various pieces without any arrangement of continuity, particularly with Biber, but to create a dramatic approach among the various pieces. Zelenka’s cavalry fanfare provides the almost atavistic sound model for what is later the sound performed on bowed instruments, just as the Sonata representative is preceded by a snatch of birdsong by an English composer. Here, I wanted, in some sense, to exemplify what man could teach the birds and what, on the other hand, men could learn from the animals.

Luca Rance: One could even go further and say that the Battelle opens with this fanfare, which is somewhat representative of the pride of war. This war takes place during the Battalia. Biber himself ends it with a lament for the wounded soldiers. Following on this lament we have added a passacaglia, which is a genre often understood as an abstract meditation on the theme of death. The overall framework of the composition is, therefore, extended by introducing these two reflections before and after war. I think this can be considered a modern attempt to speak to today’s listeners. At any rate, the central ideal of II Giardino Armonico is not to reconstruct a past way, but to present one capable of speaking directly to the modern listener.