Musica Barocca

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Musica Barocca

Albinoni & Co. — Baroque masterpieces

1685 was a good year for music. Not only did it witness the births of both Handel and Bach, but this was also a time when a new generation of promising young composers was growing up in Venice, while in England a golden age of music had begun with Henry Purcell. But what else was happening in Europe at this time? A snapshot of 1685 produces a varied picture. In France freedom of worship was abolished, forcing hundreds of thousands of Huguenots to escape abroad, with many of them finding a new home in Brandenburg. Louis XIV was now ruling the country from his magnificent palace at Versailles, which had taken a good two decades to build. In England Charles II was succeeded by his Catholic brother James II, who three years later had to flee to France. Meanwhile Venice had joined forces with Austria and Poland to wage war on the Turks, who had laid siege to Vienna in 1683. Finally, the Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley was born in 1685. His ideas were to change the course of world history just as effectively as the Principia mathematica that the scientist Isaac Newton published in 1687.

The Republic of Venice had long since passed the peak of its power when Antonio Vivaldi was born in 1678. St Mark’s Basilica, the Doges’ Palace and the wonderful buildings of Andrea Palladio that today’s visitors to the city view with such astonishment were already ancient monuments by this date. But in music Venice continued to set the tone. Vivaldi’s concertos for the “flautino” must date from the years before 1726. Vivaldi was one of the leading violinists of his day, capable of feats of virtuosity that are said to have terrified contemporary listeners. These demands he transferred to other solo instruments, with the result that the present concerto for the “flautino” — a sopranino recorder— represents a hair-raising challenge for its soloist.

Vivaldi came from a relatively modest background, in which regard he differed from Tomaso Albinoni, whose family was well respected in Venice, having acquired its affluence by manufacturing playing cards. Albinoni went into the family business and it was only after his father’s death in 1709 that he devoted himself full-time to music. He continues to be popularly associated with the famous Adagio in G minor, although the piece in question is in fact the work of the Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, who researched the life and times of Albinoni in the 1940s and invented this piece. The good news is that Albinoni’s authentic Adagios — especially the one from the Oboe Concerto in D minor — reveal him as an outstanding composer fully worthy of taking his place alongside Vivaldi.

Like Albinoni, Alessandro Marcello had no need to earn his living through music. He held high office in Venice and it was only as a sideline that he took an interest in the arts, including drawing and painting, as well as studying philosophy and mathematics, writing poetry and composing music. He often organized concerts at his home at which he performed his own compositions, some of which he published under the name of Eterio Stinfalico. For a long time his Oboe Concerto was attributed to his younger brother Benedetto. It was published in Amsterdam in around 1717 and in Germany was transcribed for the keyboard by no less a composer than Johann Sebastian Bach.

North of the Alps the world looked totally different. The Thirty Years War that had ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 had reduced Germany’s population by half and the country had been fragmented into countless small sovereign states. Five years after the end of this terrible war Johann Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg. He was appointed court organist at Eisenach in 1677 but shortly afterwards left for Erfurt, later returning to his native Nuremberg. During his lifetime he was admired as a composer of organ works, whereas he is now remembered above all for his Canon and Gigue in D major for three violins and continuo. The canon is based on a repeated two-bar ostinato theme in the bass over which the violins unfold their contrapuntal textures.

Pachelbel must have been a welcome visitor to the home of Bach’s parents in Eisenach, as he was godfather to one of Johann Sebastian’s sisters, Johanna Juditha Bach. He also taught Bach’s elder brotherJohann Christoph —and it was Johann Christoph who in turn taught Johann Sebastian. Pachelbel’s works undoubtedly served as teaching material. Later, Bach’s career was divided between Church and court appointments. The Suite in D major BWV 1068 is believed to have been written in 1730/31, by which date Bach was Kantor at St Thomas’s in Leipzig. It is best described as a cosmopolitan piece that combines the various styles of the period: the introductory ‘Ouverture’ and Gavotte are in the French tradition, while the famous ‘Air’ recalls Vivaldi and Albinoni, two composers whose works Bach not only knew but transcribed.

It is believed that Bach also got to know Georg Philipp Telemann in Eisenach, where from 1708 Telemann held the post of Konzertmeister to Duke Johann Wilhelm of Saxe-Eisenach. These years witnessed the composition of several concertos and chamber works, although it is not known exactly when he wrote his Concerto for two flutes, strings and continuo, from which the present movement (marked “Grave”) is taken. It probably dates from the years between 1712 and 1721. (Even Telemann himself had difficulty maintaining an overview of his vast output: “How could I possibly remember all that I wrote for violin and wind?” he asked despairingly in one of his autobiographical writings.)

From Bach and Telemann it is only a small step to Georg Friedrich Handel, who was born a mere four weeks before Bach in Halle, not far from Bach’s own birthplace at Eisenach. But here the similarities end, for whereas Bach rarely ventured beyond the confines of Saxony and Thuringia, the young Handel was drawn to Italy. And whereas Bach never wrote any operas, Handel became famous as an opera composer, settling in London in 1712 and eventually changing his name to George Frideric Handel. The piece known as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” comes from his oratorio Solomon, which was written in 1748 and first performed the following year at Covent Garden. Its theme was lifted from an opera by Handel’s colleague Giovanni Porta, although it has to be admitted that Handel’s version is a considerable improvement on his source.

Handel’s monument in Westminster Abbey is even now an impressive symbol of the fame and respect that he has always enjoyed in England. In the history of English Baroque music there is really only one other composer who can stand comparison with him, Henry Purcell, whose Chaconne in G minor dates from around 1678. The previous year Purcell had been appointed composer-in-ordinary for the violins at court, and it seems likely that he wrote the present piece for this ensemble.

As a bonus we have the English folksong Greensleeves that dates from around 1580 and that must already have been a classic by Purcell’s day. Legion are the arrangements of this well-known and memorable tune, which is heard herein an improvised version for lute.

Christian Muller