Enhanced Program Notes – Celebrations in Sound

Alessandro Scarlatti, portrait by an unknown artist

1698 sketch of Bethlehem by Cornelius de Bruijin

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, by Gerard van Honthorst

Corelli from the title page of his Twelve Concerti grossi op. 6

Engraving of Vivaldi by François Morellon de La Cave, from Michel-Charles Le Cène’s edition of Vivaldi’s Op. 8, 1725

Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco

JS Bach portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Georg Philipp Telemann, hand-colored aquatint by Valentin Daniel Preisler, after a lost painting by Louis Michael Schneider, 1750

Darmstadt in 1626

There is a feeling of adventure in the instrumental and vocal genres of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The high quality of instrument making—Antonio Stradivari is just one example—is only part of the story; composers were also experimenting with the expressive possibilities of counterpoint (multiple, distinct melodies played simultaneously) as well as instrumental combinations, including the polarity of a rich bassline blended with instruments in higher ranges.

Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) was one of the most prolific solo cantata composers, writing at least 600 such works over the course of his career. This dramatic multi-movement genre takes advantage of the convention of complementing recitatives (syllabic text settings with minimal accompaniment) with arias (ornate text settings with instrumental accompaniment). In his Cantata pastorale per la Natività di nostro Signore Gesu Christo for soprano, strings, and continuo Scarlatti sets a text that does not tell a continuous story, but follows a series of images. The first recitative addresses the town of Bethlehem directly; it connects with the subsequent aria through imagery centering on the heavens and the Star of Bethlehem. The text of the second recitative-aria pair relates the “icy rigors” of winter to humankind’s “harsh and bitter fate” before juxtaposing that image with the child lying in the manger. In the final recitative-aria pair, the text addresses the shepherds. To introduce the aria, Scarlatti writes a gentle pastorale for strings, featuring a beautifully flowing melody, a slow-moving bassline, and gently swaying rhythms. When the voice enters, it shares the melodic line with the violins in a seamless blending of voice and instruments that is a hallmark of Scarlatti’s writing.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) also concludes his Concerto Grosso in G minor, op. 6, no. 8, “fatto per la notte di natale,” (made for the night of Christmas) with a pastorale movement. The other movements of this concerto alternate tempos and playing techniques as the soloists emerge from and blend back into the rest of the ensemble. This concerto, part of a collection of 12 concertos grosso published a year after Corelli’s death, demonstrates the composer’s gift for balancing melodic ideas with harmonic progressions.

Some 75 years after their publication these concertos were still being played, with one commentator describing them as “so majestic, solemn and sublime, that they preclude all criticism, and make us forget that there is any other Music of the same kind existing.”

Today, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) is remembered primarily as the composer who shaped the solo concerto, a piece which alternates passages for soloist with those for a larger ensemble, and his concertos collectively titled The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are an integral part of that legacy. For these four concertos Vivaldi also supplied a descriptive title and poem, such as “L’inverno” (Winter) for the Concerto in F minor, the lines of which he relates to specific passages in the music.

[Allegro non molto]
Aggiacciato tremar tra nevi algenti
Al severo spirar d’orrido vento,
Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento;
E pel soverchio gel batter i denti;
Passar al foco i di quieti e contenti
Mentre la pioggia fuor bagna ben cento;
Caminar sopra ‘l giaccio e a passo lento
Per timor di cader girsene intenti;
Gir forte, sdrucciolar, cader a terra;
Di nuove ir sopra ‘l giaccio e correr forte
Sin ch’ il giaccio si rompe, e si disserra;
Sentir uscir dalle ferrate porte
Sirocco, Borea, e tutti i venti in Guerra:
Quest’ é ‘l verno, ma tal che gioia apporte.
To tremble from cold in the icy snow,
in the harsh breath of a horrid wind;
to run, stamping one’s feet every moment, our teeth chattering in the extreme cold;
Before the fire to pass peaceful, contented days while the rain outside pours down.
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling. Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up. We feel the chill north winds course through the home despite the locked and bolted doors. This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

The first line of the poem reflects the repeated notes and the slowly changing harmony of the opening of the first movement.

Other images from the next three lines—a blast of wind, running, and the chattering of one’s teeth—highlight particular virtuosic techniques within each solo passage. In the second movement, the perspective of being indoors looking out at the cold winter rain reflects the complexity of the music. Each part of the ensemble has a vital role in this movement, from the individual lines for solo cello and solo violin and the long-held notes of the viola to the steady pulse of the basso continuo and the pizzicato (plucked) lines in the violins.

The remainder of the poem plays out in the final movement, which begins with the solo violin accompanied by a sustained note in the basso continuo. Like the first movement, we are once again outdoors and specific images are linked to the virtuoso passages: from stepping cautiously to running and falling on the ice.

Like Corelli, the violinist and composer Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco (1675-1742) wrote only instrumental music, publishing six sets of sonatas and other chamber music. Born in Verona, Dall’Abaco performed in Modena before accepting a position at the Bavarian court in 1704. When the Elector, Maximilian, was defeated in a battle, the entire court fled to Brussels for some 11 years. After returning to Munich in 1715, Dall’Abaco was named concertmaster of the court ensemble. His Sinfonia in D major, op. 6, no. 12, one of his last publications, opens with a sparkling Allegro. The more jagged rhythmic patterns of the Grave section set it apart from the outer movements; however, the last chord of the Grave demands a satisfying harmonic conclusion, which is provided by the downbeat of the next movement. In this final Allegro the rhythmic drive is balanced with an elegantly embellished melodic line.

Like Scarlatti’s cantata, Cantata 51 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is a work for solo soprano; however, Bach’s demanding vocal part is matched by a virtuosic trumpet part. This cantata was sung as part of the Leipzig service on September 17, 1730. Each of the five movements is exquisitely crafted for continuity and contrast. The opening movement

is a jubilant celebration followed by a recitative begins with gently pulsing strings. This gives way to a florid line for soprano that is completed by the basso continuo, an instrumentation that carries into the subsequent aria that features a gently swaying rhythm.

In the next movement, the soprano sings a chorale melody while the first and second violin lines weave in and around one another;

the trumpet then rejoins the ensemble for the final “Alleluja!”

In 1723, Bach became cantor of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig as well as director of music, overseeing church music and civic celebrations in the city. The selection committee chose Bach after two other candidates, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and Christoph Graupner (1683-1760), were offered, but declined, the position.

In his early autobiography Telemann said he went to the University of Leipzig to study law in 1701 in order to please his mother. Soon, however, his musical interests overshadowed everything else. First, a performance of his music at St. Thomas’s led to a commission to write more church music. Soon after, Telemann founded the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a group later led by Bach, and was named music director of Leipzig’s opera house. In 1705, Telemann left Leipzig. He held a series of other posts until 1721 when he became cantor of the Johanneum Lateinschule and director of music in Hamburg, a position he held for the rest of his life.

With his Ouverture-Suite in D major, TWV 55:18, Telemann re-imagines a genre that originated in France as a collection of dance movements extracted from an opera. No longer associated with a vocal work, Telemann features a pair of trumpets in his Ouverture and Passacaille movements, contrasting these with a graceful Air-Lentement for strings alone.

Moreover, he opens his composition with a fanfare,

reserving the lilting rhythms traditionally associated with an overture to begin the Passacaille.

Christoph Graupner’s natural abilities in music took him to Leipzig where he studied at St. Thomas’s; he became friends with Telemann when they were both at the university. In 1709, Graupner became the vice-Kapellmeister (assistant director of music) and later Kapellmeister in Darmstadt where he composed numerous operas and other works, including over 1,400 church cantatas. Graupner’s Overture in D major, GWV 424, probably gained the nickname “Weihnachts” (Christmas) because its premiere was on December 26, 1726. The overture—the first movement of a larger work composed to celebrate the birthday of Graupner’s patron, Ernst Ludwig von Hessen-Darmstadt—follows the popular form now known as the French overture: a stately section characterized by a lilting rhythmic pattern framing a central spirited section that features quick, imitative passagework.

Telemann wrote that the composer must discover the sound possibilities inherent in each piece. No matter if originally written for Christmas or another celebration, each work on today’s concert embodies the wonder of discovery that is so much a part of the holiday season.

Teresa M. Neff