Peter Whelan on Music From Dublin Castle

Music From Dublin Castle

Peter Whelan

Peter Whelan, Guest Director

FRI NOV 17 & SAT NOV 18 7:30PM
SUN NOV 19 3:00PM

2017 marks a double anniversary: the 275th anniversary of Messiah in Ireland and the 350th of the birth of Jonathan Swift. Swift might not have appreciated that coincidence. “I would not give a farthing for all the music in the universe,” he once remarked. But his acerbic commentary on the latest in musical fashions has inspired us to explore the broader social context of the musical performance in Ireland under the Georges and to seek answers to questions that have intrigued me since I was a child and learned the now-familiar fact that Messiah received its first performance in Fishamble Street, Dublin, in 1742. What did Handel find when he arrived in Ireland? Who were the Irish musicians who so pleased Handel? What was the soundtrack to eighteenth century Ireland?

Music played an important role in eighteenth century Dublin life, in both the public and private spheres. In addition to numerous exponents of popular music, including Irish fiddlers and harpists, “art” music could be heard in a range of venues across the city. The city of Dublin kept its own group of instrumentalists, known as the City Musick, while a further band served the Lord Lieutenant at Dublin Castle.

The latter ensemble – the Irish State Musick – was a key component in the vice-regal court’s efforts to display its power and wealth, providing music for balls, banquets, state church services, and official ceremonies. The number of musicians in the group fluctuated over the course of the century; in 1713, for example, the Lord Lieutenant employed six state musicians, six state trumpeters, and one kettledrummer, each of whom – in addition to receiving a salary – was entitled to eat at the duke’s expense after performing (although only “after the Gentry had Din’d”). This band included many great violinists, with special mention of a virtuoso cellist and bassoonist.

Johann Sigismund Cousser (1660–1727) was a Hungarian-born composer and music director, who trained with Lully at the court of Versailles and worked professionally at numerous German courts before moving to Dublin in 1707. Once in Ireland, Cousser soon became associated with the musical establishment at Dublin Castle, becoming its Chief-Composer and Music Master in 1716. Here he introduced the sophisticated French style of Louis XIV to the Irish Court with works such as Festin des Muses, with its elegant procession of dance movements.

By the early 1730s, public concert life in the city began to gather pace, drawing increasing numbers of touring musicians to the Irish capital. These included the celebrated violin virtuoso (and art dealer) Francesco Geminiani, who spent a number of periods living in the Irish capital from the 1730s until his death there in 1762, and George Frideric Handel, whose two highly successful series of subscription concerts in 1741-42 were followed by the premiere of his oratorio Messiah. Geminiani was a star student of Corelli, and his arrangements of his master’s works, including the Concerto Grosso after La folia, were hugely popular with Irish audiences.

The English violinist Matthew Dubourg (1703-67) was a student of Geminiani and had joined the service of the Irish State Musick in the 1720s. Dubourg was a strong advocate of Vivaldi, frequently performing his violin concertos in theatres in Dublin at a time when Corelli was far more popular in London. Several works by Vivaldi also appear in Cousser’s library, contributing to a vogue for the Red Priest’s music in Dublin as evidenced by newspaper reports from the time.

Vivaldi’s works for string instruments are well known, but in recent years his prowess as an opera composer has been reassessed. For our program with PBO we have chosen two extravert overtures from Vivaldi’s operas, L’Olimpiade and Griselda.

Also under reassessment are Vivaldi’s works for solo bassoon. Vivaldi composed 39 concertos for bassoon, two of which are incomplete. After the violin, to which the composer dedicated some 230 concertos, the bassoon is the instrument for which he wrote the most. That Vivaldi composed such a large number of concertos for the bassoon is surprising, since by 1650 this instrument had entered a long decline. Moreover, the instrument had never been used in Venice as a solo instrument.

For whom did Vivaldi compose his concertos? For Giuseppe (Gioseppino) Biancardi a bassoonist to whom the concerto RV 502 was dedicated? Unfortunately, we know nothing about Biancardi other than that he was a member in 1727 of the Arte de’Sonadori (Guild of Instrumentalists) of Venice. For the court of Count von Morzin, to whom he dedicated the concerto RV 496? (Count Morzin was also the dedicatee of Opus 8, which contains The Four Seasons.) Or did Vivaldi compose his bassoon concertos for an instrumentalist at the Pietà?

Despite the testimony of certain visitors who listed the bassoon among the instruments that they heard, the archives of the institution do not record a bassoon teacher, or the purchase of any instrument or reeds. While the debate continues, one thing is clear: given their technical demands and the quality of the musical writing, Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos were written for an accomplished virtuoso. The writing displays a profound understanding of the technical capacity of the instrument as well as its expressive potential, which Vivaldi exploits in both the bass and tenor registers. In all of the concertos, Vivaldi does not hesitate to assign to the bassoon compositional idioms normally reserved for string instruments, such as arpeggios, rapid scales, and register leaps.

Vivaldi wrote many concerti for pairs of matching wind instruments (pairs of oboes, chalumeaux, horns, trumpets, etc.) but nothing for two bassoons. To celebrate the meeting with PBO’s star bassoonist, Nate Helgeson, we have decided to conduct a social experiment, “borrowing” Vivaldi’s concerto for two ‘cellos to see how it works with two bassoons!

Pierre Van Maldere (1729-1768) was a violinist and composer from Brussels. His works were known by Mozart, Haydn, and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who notes him as one of the most important virtuosos of the time. He traveled to Dublin in September 1751, where he was appointed director of the Philharmonick Concerts. There he stayed until 1753, publishing “Six trios for two fiddles” and appearing in public on no fewer than nine occasions performing violin concertos and works of his own composition. Van Maldere composed more than 40 symphonies in his lifetime, and according to William Van Rompaey, his earliest symphonies, “VI Sinfonie,” were written during his stay in Dublin, making them the first recorded Irish symphonies. These symphonies, possibly the first examples of the new Viennese classic model of writing to reach Ireland, must have sounded revolutionary at the time.

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