WSO Nov 08

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra
November 16, 2008

Baroque Favorites:  Corelli, Bach, Handel

The composers featured this afternoon are Baroque “favorites” in every sense of the word.  Each composer achieved great success during his lifetime, and each exerted profound influence on future musical developments.  Together they remain among the most performed, recorded, and studied worldwide.  Today we invite you to step out of the comfort zone of familiarity and to experience these timeless works with fresh ears.  Enjoy the concert!

In early seventeenth-century Europe, the transition from Renaissance to Baroque ways of thought ushered in an age of science and secularism.  A rising middle class questioned the tenets of absolute monarchy and the age-old dominance of the Catholic Church.  This new cultural climate allowed instrumental music to mount its first serious challenge to the primacy of vocal music.  Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) devoted himself exclusively to the composition of instrumental music. Corelli spent his formative years studying composition and violin in Bologna, Italy, moving to Rome in the early 1670s.  Rome and Corelli were an easy fit from the start; the city’s strict regulation of opera allowed for extensive cultivation of instrumental genres, and Corelli’s mild-mannered temperament and extraordinary talents helped him successfully court the favor of Rome’s rich patrons.  As a virtuoso violinist living in the era of the great Italian violin makers (most notably, Stradivarius), Corelli developed a unique understanding of the instrument’s capabilities, and his advances in violin technique presaged those of his most famous student, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). As an orchestra director, Corelli held his musicians to exacting standards, placing equal emphasis on technique and artistry, and he became one of the first directors to demand uniform bowing of his string players.

Corelli’s twelve concerti grossi were published posthumously as his Opus 6 in 1714, but the majority were likely composed much earlier. These concerti lack the overriding principle of contrast between solo instruments (the concertino) and larger group (the ripieno) that would drive the formal plans of the later concerto grosso. The op. 6 concerti vary considerably in their number of movements and tempo patterns. Tonight’s Concerto in G Minor (“The Christmas Concerto”) is the eighth of the set and by far the most famous.  Scored for two solo violins, solo cello, strings, and basso continuo, it shares numerous stylistic traits with Corelli’s own trio sonatas.  The first five movements are characteristically brief and move quickly through numerous tempo and key changes.  The last movement, Pastorale, holds the most direct link to the Christmas season. Its gently lilting 12/8 meter and charming presentation of parallel thirds in the violins evoke the Italian shepherd tradition of playing bagpipes in front of nativity scenes on Christmas Eve.  The Pastoral Symphony of Handel’s Messiah, which we will hear today in the concert’s second half, is another well-known interpretation of this tradition.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) spent his entire life and career in Germany, yet his music reveals a far from insular engagement with contemporary European forms and styles. His early work at the Weimar court and, later, at Cöthen, exposed him to the music of composers as diverse as Palestrina, Vivaldi, and Pergolesi, whose works he rigorously studied, copied, and arranged. In 1723 Bach was appointed cantor and music director at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.  While the St. Thomas position was one of the most prestigious and highly sought after in all of Germany, it was also among the most challenging.  Bach’s duties included the composition of music for Leipzig’s four Lutheran churches, maintenance of the instruments, and the education and rehearsal of the choirboys and musicians.

Bach’s appointment necessitated a turn to sacred musical genres. During his first few years in Leipzig Bach wrote three complete yearly cycles of sacred cantatas for the Lutheran service. At this time Bach would also produce several large-scale sacred works that rank among his greatest, including the Magnificat (1723) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727).

The Gloria Patri (BWV 191) and the Sanctus share close connections with Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  Bach’s Mass is a puzzling amalgam of newly composed music and re-workings of much older material, which the composer compiled into a massive, multi-movement work in the last years of his life. Close study of eighteenth-century sources has allowed scholars to piece together the mass’s compositional history, and we now know that the Sanctus was the first movement of the Mass to be composed. It was also the first to be performed, premiering as a self-contained piece in Leipzig on Christmas Day in 1724. The use of the Sanctus in a Lutheran service was not at all exceptional, since the Lutheran Church had not officially proscribed Latin music from liturgical use.

Scored for six voices (SSAATB) and a modest orchestra of trumpets, oboes, strings, timpani, and basso continuo, the Sanctus opens with striking textural contrasts that evoke the concertino-ripieno forces of the concerto. Fully-voiced declamations of the Sanctus text alternate with florid trios that spin out in parallel thirds and sixths, and descending stepwise sequences of octaves in the bass voice provide a solid harmonic foundation.  Bach’s only major disruption of this pattern occurs in the first section’s final measures, where the bass takes over the ornate melody for the first time to effect a seamless transition to the “Pleni sunt coeli” fugue. The opening motive of the fugal melody is clearly inspired by the text:  an ascending sixth to “coeli” (heaven) followed by a descending fifth on “terra” (earth).  Hemiola figures inject the melody with an exciting rhythmic twist, contradicting the fugue’s prevailing 3/8 meter.

The music of the Gloria Patri originated as part of a Kyrie-Gloria pair that Bach submitted in 1733 to the Catholic court in Dresden. The Kyrie and Gloria would re-emerge years later as the opening movements of Bach’s Mass.  In 1745, however, Bach extracted sections of the Gloria and re-worked them into a sacred cantata to be performed on Christmas Day.  BWV 191 is scored for soprano and tenor soloists and five-part chorus (SSATB), and adds flutes to the Sanctus orchestra. While the vocal writing at times references the concerto-like contrasts of the Sanctus, the Gloria’s third movement in particular is far more fugally driven. Bach opens the first movement with the main melody presented in imitation in vocal pairs (first, in the alto and tenor; second, in the first and second sopranos), then absorbs them into a full five-voice texture.  Bach will reverse this pattern at the start of the “Et in terra pax”, where the largely syllabic presentation of the text announces an intricate five-part fugue.  In the second movement, for soprano and tenor soloists and reduced orchestra, Bach looks back to the Renaissance tradition of three-part symbolism for the Holy Trinity, ingeniously interweaving the two vocal lines with the flutes’ equally embellished melody.  The final movement, “Sicut erat,” begins with the voices declaiming the Doxology text in a full texture, culminating in the rapturous five-part fugue on “et nunc et semper” that concludes the work.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) enjoyed a cosmopolitan career that brought him widespread fame across Europe.  Born in Halle, Germany, Handel secured his first major position as a violinist and harpsichordist for the opera house in Hamburg.  Like most composers of the time, Handel showed great interest in Italian opera, and spent several years in Italy exploring the genre. After a brief return to Germany, Handel moved to England in 1712, where he set about the task of promoting the performance of Italian opera.  By the 1730s, however, the English audience’s fascination with opera had run its course; this, coupled with a series of economic downturns, impelled Handel to turn his attention to oratorio composition.

Intended for concert, rather than church, performance, the oratorio is often understood as a sacred opera, minus the staging, costumes, and scenery.  Handel’s early facility with Italian opera prepared him well for oratorio composition, for the genres share the same types of pieces, including recitatives, arias, and choruses.  Handel successfully transferred his keen understanding of the voice, his mastery of florid and declamatory text setting, and his dramatic use of textural contrast to the English-texted oratorio.  Handel’s greatest accomplishment in his oratorios, however, lies in the prominence and dramatic vitality of the choruses.  Handel drew his innovative choral writing both from the established English anthem tradition and from the Lutheran choral music that he had learned in Germany in his youth.

The circumstances of Messiah’s composition are well known.  In 1741 Handel received an invitation to conduct several oratorios in Dublin, Ireland during the Lenten season.  Inspired to write a new oratorio, Handel composed furiously, completing Messiah in a reported twenty-four days.  Messiah premiered in Dublin in the spring of 1742 as the last work in a series of concerts performed for charity.

If Messiah is Handel’s most famous work, it is also his most atypical. In lieu of specific characters and a plot, librettist Charles Jennens loosely organized the work into three parts that trace Christ’s coming, Christ’s death and sacrifice for mankind, and Christ’s resurrection.  The second half of today’s program features a performance of the Christmas section (Part I) of Messiah.  A stately overture in the traditional French style opens the work, leading directly into the first vocal number, an accompanied recitative for tenor soloist.  Despite the lack of a dramatic narrative, Handel achieves a perfectly balanced proportion and placement of solo and choral numbers.  Without exception, the arias draw their formal plans from the expressive content of the text.  Listen, for example, to the dissonant “walking” bass that underscores the bass aria (“The people that walked in darkness”), and to the alto’s invitation to the chorus to “arise, shine, for thy light is come” in “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.”  Similarly, Handel’s spectacular setting of “Rejoice greatly” for solo soprano completely transcends the traditional limitations of the da capo aria. Here, the transition from joy to solemn contemplation and back again highlights the significance of Christ’s impending arrival.

More than anything else, the choruses in Messiah are a study in the emotional power of textural contrast and insightful text setting.  The long, flowing melodies that Handel offers in paired imitative duos in most of the choral movements are admittedly catchy and impressive, yet they also serve precise dramatic purposes.  For example, Handel sets the opening measures of “For unto us a child is born” for sopranos alone, gradually ushering in the other voices as if to emphasize that Christ’s coming is for the good of all humankind.

No performance of Messiah is complete without the Hallelujah Chorus!  Legend has it that on the occasion of Messiah’s first London performance in 1743, King George II was so moved by the chorus that he stood throughout, inaugurating the tradition of standing that holds true today.  Following the first presentation of the famous melody, Handel builds momentum towards the chorus’s climax through the cumulative impact of textural contrast closely linked to text expression, rising vocal ranges, joyful trumpet fanfares, and the famous sequence at the piece’s end, where Handel drives sustained notes in the soprano increasingly higher over brief interjections of “Hallelujah” in the lower three voices.

Dr. Elizabeth Lorenzo

(November 2008)

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