WSO Nov 07

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra

November 18, 2007

Between 1774 and 1779 the orchestral compositions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) consisted of cassations, serenades, and divertimentos but not a single symphony; the Serenata Notturna of 1776 was one of these party pieces. The appellation Notturna generally indicated an outdoor performance that took place around 11:00 p. m., and was likely played as background music at one or more Viennese high-society summer entertainments.

The Serenata Notturna is not only beautiful but also a milestone in form; with one stylistic foot in pre 1720 convention (mimicking old Bach and the Baroque), and one foot post 1780 (a prototype for Mozart’s later work Eine kleine Nachtmusik). The piece is structured like a dance suite, the courtly entertainment of the early 1700s, with a march, entrée, minuet and trio, and other alternating fast and slow dances. Notice that the players are divided into a group of four soloists versus the rest of the orchestra, another Baroque technique of contrast called concerto grosso. Listen for the many types of stunning comparisons and exciting opposites Mozart creates using this old-fashioned (for his time) grouping. Most of the Baroque ornaments and complexities are missing, as is any hint of polyphony or spinning out of themes. Instead, Mozart uses newly invented techniques of symmetrical repetitions and development of themes foreshadowing Sonata form. The last movement is a Rondo. This was, in Mozart’s time, a most modern technique. One simple theme returns again and again amid contrasting episodes; one carefree theme that generates humor with each repetition – definitely not one of the ideals of the Baroque period. The middle section of this movement surprises the listener with the sudden insertion of a slow minuet texture, followed by a lively allegro (not the way a Rondo work is supposed to work – maybe a pseudo-sonata?) before the happy rondo theme reappears for a pleasant conclusion.

While the exact date of composition is unknown, current scholarship places the Suite No. 2 in B Minor during 1738-1739, making it last of the four orchestral suites Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed. Ostensibly set as a dance suite, this de facto flute concerto offers a superb example of Bach’s mastery of the dance forms so popular during the Baroque period. Observing the desire to have high relief contrast, the dances proceed from the slow procession Ouverture to sprite Rondeau, then regal Sarabande, followed by quick stepping Bourrée, a staccato Polonaise and Double, the stately Minuet, and end with the Badinerie, one of the most attractive and exciting points in the 18th century literature for flute.

Notice how Bach’s Suite differs from Mozart’s Seranata. The harpsichord adds vertical power and structure for Bach, while Mozart makes use of the timpani. Counterpoint in two or three voices excites Bach’s work while Mozart relies on simple harmonic changes and repetition to energize the sections. Bach lets his melodies spin out the variations horizontally while Mozart develops the themes in repeating sections.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was flamboyant and shockingly vain, earning the sobriquet il Prete Rosso (the red priest). He was a prodigious composer of more than 750 works and likely the most famous violinist of his time. Vivaldi redefined the solo concerto and liberated orchestral melody from the constraints of a single-octave ambitus. His violin sonatas were closely studied by several Bach generations, and Mozart copied his inventive use of chorus with orchestra.

Vivaldi was born in Venice, the son of a violinist in the orchestra of St. Mark’s Basilica. He was ordained in 1703 but stopped celebrating Mass after 1705 due to a health complaint. The ailment did not, however, prevent him from playing the violin. His first job as a violin teacher was at the Ospedale della Pietà girls orphanage in Venice, founded in 1346 and known for its music. The orphans formed the choir and played in the orchestra, giving concerts from behind screened galleries above the audience. It was for these concerts that Vivaldi composed Gloria sometime before 1711. The occasion of the first performance is unknown, and there is no firm evidence as to whether men or girls sang the tenor and bass parts.

The first movement is in D major, a tonality that was thought to be especially brilliant in timbre and best suited for trumpet. This movement is formed like a concerto with a full orchestral ritornello. The chorus enters where the soloist would start, singing the glorious angelic hymn. The harmonic progressions reflect the joy and pathos of a humble birth while the cadenza is replaced by a grand pause of silence before ending with a restatement of glory.

The second movement is set in the relative minor key to D major, serving as a somewhat tragic foil to the brilliance of the first movement. The text begins “Et in terra…” where earth seems darkened by a lack of trumpet and oboe. The choral lines swell like rising and setting suns, a Baroque metaphor for East and West. This movement is one of Vivaldi’s boldest tonal designs, passing through 8 key centers.

“Laudamus te” suggests a bourrée, a merry dance which came to Italy from France by 1681. This duet can be imagined as a contest between sopranos, a popular entertainment in Vivaldi’s time. The next chorus switches to minor key and the statement “Gratias agimus tibi” is converted into a musical question by stopping on a half-cadence. The musical answer is quite scholarly: a fugue on “Propter magnam gloriam tuam.” The Gloria continues with the “Domine Deus, Rex caelestis” in the key of C major. Next, a single soprano joins the oboe in a duet over continuo, the thinnest instrumentation of the entire Gloria. This movement is set as a Siciliano, a pastoral dance associated in the early eighteenth-century with shepherds and idyllic country life, projecting the image of the Good Shepherd.

The mood and tempo revive in “Domine Fili Unigenite.” The saccadé rhythmic formula drives the piece in contrast with the legato, triadic lines of both vocal and instrumental forces. For the next movement the exuberance changes into an emotionally charged quietude for the contralto soloist. She asks the Lamb of God for mercy and is joined by the chorus in begging. This movement is an allemande, a heavy dance that started a dance suite or was used as a lady’s dance of introduction.

The allemande was always followed by the corrente, a quick Italian dance in triple time, but first Vivaldi interposes 20 bars of connective material so he can modulate from D minor to the relatively remote tonality of B minor. The strings and chorus move in a chromatic linear fashion, asking repeatedly for God’s receipt of the prayers of the world, simultaneously leaping harmonically in a chain of shifting key centers to arrive at the penultimate climax. This sets the tonal stage for “Qui sedes.” The contralto speaks for all humanity in a plea for mercy. The string orchestra has full ritornelli at beginning and end with a sharply defined melody that reuses material from the opening movement as well as the movement following.

The opening octave theme now returns with the oboe and trumpet in “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus.” This reused material creates a columnar musical architecture framing the entire work, holding it together with symmetry, tonality, texture, rhythm, and orchestration.

The final movement is a customary fugal doxology. Vivaldi was not fond of working in strict counterpoint, so he borrowed a fugue that G.M. Ruggieri composed in 1708. Vivaldi first used the Ruggieri fugue in his Gloria RV 588, reworking the orchestration and chorus. Then for this Gloria he reset the text and expanded the role of the orchestra to create a fitting conclusion. – all rights reserved to Richard Gard 2007