Monday, December 31, 2012

Program Notes (V)

The next installment of my program notes series.  For this one, a chamber music concert in 1999, I had to rework an earlier program note I had written for a Handel concerto grosso.

Handel: Concerto Grosso in G major, Op. 6, No. 1

The concerto grosso was one of several archetypal Baroque instrumental 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.  Originally the word “concerto” merely indicated a type of composition where a voice would sing “in concert” with a bass instrument for accompaniment, in contrast to most earlier types of vocal composition, which were unaccompanied by instruments.  Eventually this idea was applied to strictly instrumental compositions, with the voice replaced by a treble instrument.  When more treble instruments were added, it became a “concerto grosso” (literally, “large concerto”).  In Corelli’s scheme, a concerto grosso had four movements, in the pattern slow-fast-slow-fast.

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, and rather clumsily done.  The Opus 6 set was Handel’s answer; he apparently wished to have an authentic set of his concertos before the public.  The first of the series, in G major, does not follow the traditional Corellian scheme outlined above; it is in five movements, only one of which is slow.  It is a fittingly vigorous introduction to a splendid set of works, which, collectively, contain some of Handel’s finest instrumental writing.

Mozart: String Quartet in G major, K. 156

Few composers can have had such a cosmopolitan upbringing as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  From the time his phenomenal gifts were discovered as a boy of seven, through his teenage years, he toured all of Western Europe with his family, entertaining kings, queens, princes and even a Pope.  He visited Italy no less than three times while in his teens.  The first journey was lengthy, and designed, like all his prior trips, to showcase his talents; but the second and third trips were shorter, and designed to fulfill specific commisions - for operas, in Milan.  For his father and manager, Leopold Mozart, knew that time was running out; his son wasn’t going to stay a child prodigy forever, and parading him thus would soon cease to be lucrative.  On the other hand, to establish him as a major operatic composer might (and indeed, did, for a while) pay dividends.

So in the fall of 1772 we find the sixteen-year-old Mozart in Milan with his father, writing his opera “Lucia Silla” for the carnival season of 1773.  But “to while away the time,” as Leopold put it in a letter back home, on the journey itself, Mozart wrote his first set of six string quartets.  (Not his first actual quartet, however; he wrote a single one, K. 80, in 1770.)  That he planned them as a set is evident in their sequence of keys - D major, G major, C major, F major, B-Flat major, and E-Flat major, each successive quartet’s key a fifth lower - and in the fast-slow-fast three-movement pattern used for each quartet.  Two of the quartets (including the second one, performed here) finish with a minuet.  Mozart took as his models the quartets of Giovanni Battista Sammartini, the most esteemed composer in Milan at the time.  The works do not aim for the depth and profundity characteristic of the later quartets of Mozart and Haydn; they aim to entertain, and do so admirably.

Debussy: "Golliwog's Cakewalk"

In 1908, Claude Debussy published his suite for piano, “Children’s Corner,” inspired by and dedicated to his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Chouchou, “with fond apologies from her father for what follows.”  The suite’s title, and the titles of its individual movements, are in English, possibly representing a tip of the hat to the English governess from whom Debussy’s tiny daughter was picking up English mannerisms!  The last piece of the set is the famous “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk.”

The music doesn’t require much explanation - it’s a delightful romp influenced by the rhythms of ragtime, which was just being discovered in Europe at the time - but perhaps the title does.  Golliwogs were fashionable children’s toys, the Beanie Babies of their time, originating as an African-American doll in the highly successful children’s stories of the American-born illustrator Florence Upton.  Chouchou owned a Golliwog, and in the piece one can imagine the Debussy daughter’s doll stumbling to the strains of the American dance - the cakewalk, another name for ragtime.

Kreisler: "Schön Rosmarin" and "Tambourin Chinois"

Fritz Kreisler was possibly the most beloved violinist of the earlier half of this century - in an age that encompassed the careers of many legendary violinists, from Eugène Ysaÿe to Heifetz and the young Yehudi Menuhin.  He pioneered in the use of vibrato as a constant coloring, giving an unparalleled sweetness to the tone (most violinists before Kreisler used vibrato only sparingly).  He was the first “celebrity” instrumentalist to record extensively; beginning in 1910, he cut hundreds of discs, bringing the elegance and charm of his performances into living rooms across the world.  His discography (all of which is currently available on CD) includes concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Mozart and Paganini, which have long been highly prized by collectors; and he was the first to record the complete Beethoven violin sonatas, in the 1930s.

All this largess notwithstanding, Kreisler is best remembered today (as he was best loved in his own time) for the many short salon pieces which he wrote to enhance his repertoire (for recording as well as concerts, since they fit nicely within the four-minute time limitation of a 78-rpm record!) - such as “Liebesleid” (Love’s Sorrow), “Liebesfreud” (Love’s Joy), and “Caprice viennois” - pieces which perfectly capture the essence of his native Vienna, with its laid-back easy grace.  Many of them feature lilting waltz rhythms, including “Schön Rosmarin” (Fair Rosemary), performed here.  And “Tambourin Chinois” might be described as an Oriental trinket seen in a Viennese shop-window.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks again! Greetz and best wishes & health & lots of music in 2013!
    Satyr / Rolf