Monday, December 3, 2012

Program Notes (II)

Continuing my series of program note writing, above is shown the second Georgia Sinfonia concert for which I provided these.  Michael Kurth, who since 1994 has been a member of the Atlanta Symphony bass section, wrote his own program note for his piece, which I do not feel authorized to reproduce here, but here
are my notes for the other three works on the program:

Handel: Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op. 3, No. 5

The concerto grosso was the most highly developed of Baroque orchestral forms.  Originated in Italy during the seventeenth century, and perfected by Arcangelo Corelli, the supreme example of the form is Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos.  It is based on the principle of contrast - alternating the use of a large group of instruments, the concerto grosso (literally, “large ensemble”), with a smaller group, the concertino.  The later Classical concerto, pitting a solo instrument against the orchestra, was the logical successor to the concerto grosso.

There are two sets of concerti grossi (which, typically, were published in sets of six or twelve) bearing Handel’s name: the six of Opus 3, and the twelve of Opus 6, in addition to several independent ones.  Of the two sets, the Opus 6 concertos are far better known, being on a somewhat grander scale, and closer to traditional Italian models, scored for strings only.  Most of them were also newly-composed for the purpose.  It was an accepted practice of the time for a composer to reuse music conceived in another medium, and a few of the Opus 6 concertos do indeed borrow from earlier compositions.  The Opus 3 set, however, consists entirely of borrowings; moreover, they were compiled and arranged not by Handel himself but by his publisher, John Walsh (though with Handel’s approval).  It is a testament to Handel’s genius that the freshness of his invention shines through Walsh’s sometimes clumsy handling of the scores.

The Opus 3 concertos came to be known as the “Oboe Concertos” because the scoring adds oboes and bassoons to the strings of the Italian concerto grosso.  The fifth of them is atypical of the concerto grosso form, having no solo passages.  It is closer in style to an overture; in fact, the first movement was lifted verbatim from the overture to Handel’s second Chandos Anthem, “In the Lord I Put My Trust.”   Many years later, Sir Edward Elgar made a transcription of this overture for full symphony orchestra.

Holst: Brook Green Suite, for string orchestra

The name of Gustav Holst is so inextricably associated in the public’s mind with that of his most famous composition, the orchestral suite The Planets, that both the man and his many other accomplishments have become overshadowed.  A person of wide-ranging interests, from Eastern philosophy and astrology (the impetus behind The Planets) to English folk song (in which his friend, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, undertook pioneering research), Holst believed passionately in music as a form of human communication.  This belief led him to greatly enrich the repertoire of music for amateurs, both vocal and instrumental.  Imogen Holst, the composer’s daughter, has said that “it is characteristic of my father that the pieces he wrote for amateurs should sound equally at home when played by learners in a school-room as by professionals in a concert hall.”

Holst found his calling as a schoolteacher; from 1905 until his death he was the music director at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Brook Green, London.  For the string orchestra at this school, he wrote the St. Paul’s Suite in 1913, and its lesser-known companion, the Brook Green Suite, in 1933.  Imogen Holst (herself a St. Paul’s alumnus) has described the latter work thus: “The short Prelude is founded on the descending scale of C major.  In the slow Air the flowing lines of melody are a link between the language of English folk song and the enharmonic counterpoint of my father’s last works.  The Dance, a cheerful jig, borrows a puppet show’s tune that he once heard during a holiday in Sicily.”

(I should credit my source here for Imogen Holst's comments, as I did not on the original program note: they come from the liner note to the Lyrita LP of her conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in this and four other of her father's works, SRCS 34).

Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551, “Jupiter”

Mozart’s last three, and finest, symphonies - No. 39 in E-Flat, K. 543, No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, and No. 41 in C, K. 551 - were all written during the summer of 1788, as were two piano trios, a piano sonata, and a violin sonata!  The reason for this burst of productivity seems, surmises Maynard Solomon in his wonderful recent (1995) biography of the composer, to stem from Mozart’s pressing financial needs.  From 1782 to 1786 his income came largely from a series of subscription concerts he gave, performing his own piano concertos (he wrote no less than fifteen during this period), then he turned his hand to opera with The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and Don Giovanni in 1787.  But these operatic ventures, while reasonably successful in their own right, did not bring the commissions for more operas as he had hoped.  So in the summer of 1788 he scheduled a series of subscription concerts, about which little is known, since no documentary evidence about them has survived.  But it seems likely that the new symphonies, and perhaps the trios, were intended for them.  It is also known that Mozart tentatively planned a London tour which did not materialize; perhaps, like Haydn a few years later, he hoped to capitalize on the popularity of his symphonies there.

London, in fact, was the origin of the nickname “Jupiter” given to the Symphony in C, K. 551; apparently the sobriquet was coined by Haydn’s sponsor, the violinist and conductor Johann Peter Salomon, and the nickname appeared on British concert programs from 1819 on.  Certainly the pomp and circumstance reflected in the first movement, with its use of martial rhythms, trumpets and drums, evoke images of nobility, even of Olympian grandeur.  Truly awe-inspiring is the finale, in which five separate themes can be discerned, all brought together and sounded simultaneously during the amazing fugue that forms the final coda.

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