Learn More: Program Notes for November’s “Blazing Strings”
—Carla Moore, guest director and violinist
Welcome to Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Blazing Strings. Our concert takes us on a journey through Italy spanning the 17th century, ending in Germany in 1721. All of the pieces on our program either are written by Italians or are Italianate in composition. And while they may differ in form or style, they are all a type of concerto.
When we think of the term “concerto,” we often think of the fabulous Romantic piano or violin concertos—by Mendelssohn, maybe, or by Brahms. Or if we are Baroque music fans, we may think of Bach’s harpsichord or Vivaldi’s violin concertos. The word “concerto,” however, has had multiple meanings over the ages. The program you are about to hear traces the development of the concerto during the Baroque era, beginning with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzons and ending with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. This span of approximately 124 years, while relatively short in musical history, was a period of exploration and evolution, and led to the solo concerto we know today.
Grove Music Online traces the term “concerto” to the Latin word concertare. Concertare has two meanings: “to debate or dispute” and “to work together with someone.” One might find these two meanings at odds with one another, but actually the concerto has exemplified both of these definitions in the idea of contrasting forces playing together. The term concerto was commonly used in the early 17th century to describe works for both voices and instruments in which the instruments have independent parts. Before this time instruments doubled the voice parts.
Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon XVI à 12 (scored for twelve instruments) and Canzon Duodecimi Toni à 10 (scored for ten instruments) are engaging examples of works for instruments alone that employ the concept of contrasting forces. Both are part of a collection of Gabrieli’s works in two immense volumes titled Sacrae symphoniae, published in 1597 and 1615. Canzon XVI à 12 is a true polychoral work with three choirs of four instruments (two violins, viola, cello) in each. In Canzon Duodecimi Toni à 10, the same melodic figures are shared equally among all ten parts. One can imagine both ideas of “working together” and “debating” as you listen to the individual instrumental choirs in this music. Gabrieli worked as the organist and principal composer of ceremonial music at San Marco Basilica in Venice, Italy. He often used large forces, each with an independent part, arranged spatially around this spectacular building. Students of Gabrieli as well as visitors who heard his music, most notably the German Heinrich Schütz, helped disseminate this new style.
Francesco Cavalli followed after Giovanni Gabrieli at San Marco, first as a chorister, then as organist, and finally as choirmaster. He is perhaps best-known for his many operas, but he also composed beautiful instrumental music. Sonata à 6, published about fifty years after the Canzons of Gabrieli, continued Gabrieli’s principle of contrasting instrumental textures, while using smaller forces than Gabrieli’s earlier canzonas.
Toward the end of the 17th century, the meaning of the term concerto expanded and began to develop into two somewhat-formalized styles. In Rome, Arcangelo Corelli, a very influential violinist, developed the concerto grosso. The concerto grosso contrasts a small group of soloists called the concertino (usually two violins, cello and continuo) with a larger string group called the ripieno (or “reinforcing” group). When the ripieno plays, it has the effect of turning up the volume. In 1714, the year after his death, Corelli’s collection of Concerti Grossi Opus 6 was published. It was to remain an international sensation for much of the 18th century. Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op. 6, No. 11 is a “chamber concerto” made up of a series of dances, as opposed to a “church concerto” with several non-dance movements alternating slow and fast. Corelli’s students included the violinist-composers Francesco Geminiani and Pietro Locatelli, and the influence of his Opus 6 concertos can be seen in the music of Bach and Handel.
In contrast to those in Rome, composers in Northern Italy favored a concerto style that featured a solo instrument playing against a string orchestra. This style of concerto typically employed what is called ritornello form, in which the soloist and orchestra play a recurring refrain (the ritornello, or main theme) while the soloist interjects episodes of new, and usually virtuosic, solo music. The movements of the solo concerto were also becoming standardized with three movements: fast/slow/fast. This was a major break from the style of Corelli, whose concerti grossi had many movements and never employed ritornello form.
Venetian Antonio Vivaldi composed concertos (over five hundred!) both for solo as well as for multiple instruments. Many of these concertos were written for the famous orchestra at the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for orphaned young women. Vivaldi further stretched the technical demands made on the soloist with all types of bowings, articulations, and exploration of the upper reaches of the fingerboard. In the Concerto in D Major for Two Violins and Two Violoncellos you will hear the ritornello form, as well as the basic elements of agreement and debate that were apparent in the Gabrieli Canzons. Sometimes the cello and violin soloists are two choirs, conversing with each other. At other times Vivaldi switches, and they join together as one against the backdrop of the orchestra. The solo violin concerto, Concerto in A Minor, Op. 9, No. 5 from the collection titled “La Cetra” (“The Lyre”) of 1727, is filled with drive and vitality. Full of uneven phrase lengths, you will hear the ritornello form in the outer movements. Enjoy the unexpected and contemplative bridge between the first and second movements.
Pietro Locatelli’s Concerto in F Major for Four Violins, Opus 4, No. 12 is another example of the solo concerto for multiple instruments that employs ritornello form. The four violin soloists have a conversation with each other; sometimes playing as a unit, sometimes in pairs or by themselves. In 1711 Locatelli traveled from Bergamo to Rome and studied for a short time with Corelli. From 1729 his final residence, after traveling through Italy and Germany, was Amsterdam. You can hear the technical progress that violin writing had made in the twenty years between Corelli’s concerti grossi of 1714 and this concerto from 1735. The solo violinists are again asked to explore the upper reaches of the violin fingerboard, as well as to employ a special effect called bariolage, which involves crossing the strings in rapid alternation.
We end our program with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, presented by Bach to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. The gift included five other concertos and was never formally acknowledged—it is unknown whether the music was ever performed! Bach knew some of Corelli’s works and he was highly influenced by Vivaldi’s Opus 3 concerti, transcribing some of them for harpsichord. In his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Bach took elements from both the Roman and the Venetian concerto styles and ingeniously configured them into his own form with interesting counterpoint, rhythm, and harmonic color. For example, he used the fast/slow/fast model, yet shortened the slow movement to only one measure, enigmatically consisting of two plain chords! Furthermore, his instrumentation for three violins, three violas, and three cellos plus basso continuo is unique. The instrumentalists perform both as soloists and as an ensemble. Bach’s genius pulls all of these elements together into a splendid work that is not only delightful to listen to, but also extremely fun to perform.