Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Suite in C major: Hamburger Ebb’ und Flut, TMV 55:c3
Of the three great Baroque composers (Bach, Handel & Telemann), Telemann is the one we tend to hear the least. In some ways he was the most adventurous of the three, always trying to ‘push the envelope’ of musical fashion to keep his patrons in Hamburg entertained. But ‘fashions’ wane and Telemann seems to have got stranded in the transition from the Baroque to Classical periods, or possibly he simply wrote too much – over a thousand church cantatas, many Passions and operas, and bundles of instrumental music. Then, having been counted as the most famous composer in Germany during his life-time, by the nineteenth century he was being accused of producing quantity rather than quality in his music. However, the rise of period instrument performances in the latter part of the twentieth century has also meant a restoration of Telemann’s fortunes.
The origin of the orchestral suite comes from loosely connected French dances extracted from the operas of Lully, though it was the Germans who really ran with the concept. Bach wrote four, Handel made his name with the Water Music and Royal Fireworks suites, and Telemann wrote them for all sorts of occasions, great and small.
Telemann’s orchestral suite Hamburger Ebb’ und Flut (Water Music) was written in 1723 for the festivities marking the 100th anniversary of the Hamburg admiralty, an important entity in such a major Baltic sea-port. Telemann’s music was presented at the grand and festive dinner for the local sea captains, merchants and councillors.
Telemann, taking his ‘water’ theme to heart, creates a series of dance movements to show off mythological figures associated with the sea. Being a suite, all the movements are in the key of C major, but Telemann ensures variety by changing his orchestration between movements. The suite begins with a majestic Ouverture – with double-dotted rhythms in the slow sections (with the oboes front and centre) alternating with bubbly fast sections – as in the French style. Then we are introduced to Thetis slumbering (a gracious Sarabande with the recorders to the fore) followed by the awakened Thetis (a brilliant, spirited Bourrée with the violins leading the charge). The elegant Loure describes Neptune in love and the short Gavotte exploits the lower registers of the strings and winds to describe the Naiads at sport. ‘Playful Triton’ is labelled as a Harlequinade. It is appropriately flashy, even arrogant in mood. Then comes the essential storm scene (Stormy Aeolus) with much bustling from the strings as they dash scales back and forth. This is followed by gentler winds in the guise of an elegant Menuet (Pleasant Zephyr) where the flutes are featured. The vibrant, lively Gigue takes care of the inevitable ebb and flow in a great port (Ebb’ und Flut) with great dynamic contrasts as the violins scurry around, alternating between pianissimo and fortissimo. The last movement is an amusing and rousing Canarie where the jolly boatmen enjoy a boisterous clog-dance on the wharves.
© David Gardner
Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729)
Sonata in F major for two horns and strings, Sei. 255 (c. 1715)
Heinichen’s name may not be familiar to us today, but this is largely thanks to his historical misfortune: his most direct contemporary was Johann Sebastian Bach. In his day, Heinichen was well-respected as both a composer and a theorist, with an extensive catalogue of music ranging from songs and masses to concertos and symphonies, but posterity has overlooked him in favour of his more famous counterpart. Until recently, much of Heinichen’s music was all but forgotten and the effects of the Second World War mean that, sadly, much of it is lost forever. But following the efforts of scholar/conductor Reinhard Goebel in the 1990s, his music is now enjoying a much-deserved resurgence.
Heinichen studied music at the Thomasschule in Leipzig – whose long list of distinguished former students includes JS Bach, his sons and, later, Richard Wagner – but upon finishing he went on to study law at the University of Leipzig. Just a few years into a successful career as an advocate, Heinichen found himself drawn back to the world of composition and he was soon being asked to write music for the Weissenfels court, before returning to Leipzig at the request of the manager of the opera house. Although Heinichen enjoyed a successful career in Leipzig, in 1710 he left to spend time in Venice, where he hoped to immerse himself in Italian opera and learn at first hand from composers such as Antonio Vivaldi. This formative musical sabbatical lasted some seven years, and he did not return to Germany until 1717 when he was appointed Kapellmeister to the court at Dresden, a post which he held until his premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 46.
The results of Heinichen’s stay in Italy colour his works in every sphere. Less overtly contrapuntal than much music of the North German Baroque style, his music borrows from the drama and virtuosity of the Italian concerto style, exploring new textural combinations and sonorities, while revelling in the grand instrumental forces that were available to him within the Dresden orchestra. Among his many works for orchestra and small ensemble, the Sonata in F major for two ‘Corno da Caccia’ and strings is a wonderful example of the exuberance and vigour that characterises Heinichen’s works. The ‘Corno da caccia’ (or ‘hunting horn’) is simply the name by which the orchestral horn was known in 18th-century Italy, but its use outside a full orchestral palette, as it is heard here, is altogether unusual. The result approaches a chamber concerto for two horns, and Heinichen mimics this with ritornello-like alternation between the horns and strings. At the work’s centre is a cantabile slow movement in C minor, in which the horns take centre stage with a lyrical duet. This melancholic movement, with sighing appoggiaturas in the horns and hushed string accompaniment, is soon swept away by the exuberant finale – whose virtuosic passagework and running semiquavers pays homage to the likes of Albinoni and Vivaldi.
© Jo Kirkbride
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Harpsichord Concerto in D minor, BWV1052 (c.1739)
Though traditionally hailed as the fountainhead of all keyboard concertos, Bach’s dark-toned masterpiece in D minor was originally written, or so it is believed, for violin. It’s not a fact we should feel specially surprised to learn, any more than that the original was somehow lost. Bach, at ease with both instruments, knew all about transcription. Moreover, among great baroque composers, he was famously resourceful, possessing a sleight of hand that enabled him to transform one work into its opposite - a secular cantata into a sacred one, a shimmering violin toccata into a resonant organ one - with not only total conviction but apparently the minimum of effort. It was simply one aspect of a lavish inspiration which, if he had used it in a superficial way, would have made him seem a superficial composer, but which, since he used it with all the genius at his command, was just one more manifestation of his greatness.
Yet what music could sound spikier, or more harpsichord-like, than the bare, keen-edged main theme of the first movement of this D minor concerto, its angular outline recurrent enough to make the entire movement seem constructed out of this and little else? Or, for that matter, what music could now be said to sound more piano-like? The theme, in all its progressions and diversions, seems a vivid manifestation of the timbres of either of these instruments. But on the other hand, what could be more violin-like than the same movement’s fast-moving repetitions of a single note on what sounds like a violin’s open string? Stravinsky’s gloss on the same sort of sonority can be heard in his Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.
When a harpsichord plays these repeated notes you may find yourself thinking of them simply as harpsichord music, or perhaps as violin music in disguise, or else as potential piano music, with a pianist as subtle as Edwin Fischer or, nowadays, Angela Hewitt as its performer. The music, for all its edginess, is multi-faceted, as Bach was bound to be aware when he wrote it and revised it and recognised how malleable it actually was.
Edinburgh’s distinguished essayist, Donald Francis Tovey, chose quite specifically to identify this harpsichord concerto as the greatest and most difficult violin concerto before the time of Beethoven. Was Bach therefore confounding future listeners by making the harpsichord his chosen instrument - and further confusing the issue by employing some of the same material in two of his church cantatas, Nos 146 and 188? The transformation of the sombrely trudging music of the concerto’s central adagio in G minor into the opening chorus of Cantata 146, entitled We Must Pass Through Much Tribulation to Enter the Kingdom of God, is certainly striking. But even if (as seems probable) the cantata was written first, the concerto version - where the theme is played, for thirteen bars, by the orchestra in unison, before the soloist breaks in with an eloquent, wide-spanning instrumental aria - is no less inspired.
Thereafter, with brilliant scales and arpeggios, the finale reinforces the vitality of the concerto’s opening movement.
© Conrad Wilson
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto in G minor ‘di Dresda’ RV 577 (c. 1716)
Although Vivaldi composed over 500 concertos over the course of his lifetime, and remains one of the most prolific composers of his generation, it was not until long after his death that he became a well-known musical figure. He published just a fraction of his works during his lifetime, most of which went largely unnoticed by musicians outside his own circle. Amazingly, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century, almost 200 years after his death, that the public interest in Vivaldi was revived – largely thanks to the work of a French scholar, Marc Pincherle, who instigated the rediscovery of Vivaldi's original manuscripts.
Despite the wealth of concertos within Vivaldi's ouevre, and their superficial similarities, in fact his music is extremely innovative, often breaking with traditional forms and repeatedly looking for harmonic contrasts, new melodic ideas and inventive formal digressions. The diversity and inventiveness of his works is due in no small part to the musicians for whom Vivaldi was writing. Vivaldi was fortunate to have a talented group of musicians at his disposal in the form of the Ospedale della Pietô in Venice, where he worked as master of the violin from 1703-1740. The Ospedale acted as an orphanage to provide abandoned or unwanted children with shelter and education, giving the boys a trade to leave with at 15 and providing musical training for the girls, the most talented of whom stayed on to become part of the orphanage’s renowned choir and orchestra. This promising group of young players allowed Vivaldi to write challenging works tailored to their specific abilities, and they proved to be the inspiration behind many of his well-known concertos.
Having been fortunate to explore and perfect his concerto writing at the Ospedale, Vivaldi soon attracted the attention of orchestras beyond the local area. In the spring of 1716, the lead violinist and later concertmaster of the Dresden court orchestra, Johann Georg Pisendel, arrived in Venice and spent some time meeting with Vivaldi and exchanging musical ideas – it is thought Pisendel even received violin lessons from the master. Pisendel was so impressed with Vivaldi’s music that he returned to the court with at least forty of Vivaldi’s manuscripts, and with plans to commission and perform a number of new works. From the manuscripts that survive, it appears that Vivaldi delivered some ninety instrumental concertos to Dresden – almost all of which are for one or more solo violins, suggesting that they were written specifically with Pisendel in mind. And since the Dresden court orchestra comprised the very best virtuoso musicians in Europe at that time, who were particularly receptive to challenging, modern repertoire, so too are the ‘Dresden concertos’ among some of Vivaldi’s most daring. The Concerto in G minor, RV 577 is one of around twenty concertos Vivaldi wrote for ‘molti Istrumenti’ (works with more than one principle solo instrument), and employs two recorders and two oboes as well as the violin as its soloists. But the virtuosic writing is not limited to the solo instruments – apparently conscious of the uncommon ability of his orchestra, Vivaldi also included soloistic writing for other instruments, including the bassoon, whose intricate melodies would not be out of place in a chamber concerto of its own.
© Jo Kirkbride
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Orchestral Suite (Ouverture) No 4 in D major for oboes, bassoon, trumpets, timpani, and strings, BWV1069 (1717-23)
Bourree 1 & 2
Menuet 1 & 2
Bach’s four orchestral suites, or ouvertures as he chose to call them, are big demonstrative compositions which a number of great conductors - none of them greater at one time than Wilhelm Furtwangler - still consider to lie within the stylistic range of big symphony orchestras. But this is merely wishful thinking. Bach never intended them to be works of such a kind, for the simple reason that symphony orchestras had not been invented when he wrote them.
Yet there is something about them that lends itself to large-scale treatment in a way that the Brandenburg Concertos, which employ similarly imaginative instrumental colouring, do not. As entertainment music for a wide public, rather than court music for a select few, Bach’s suites have their own role to fill in his output, and (like Handel’s Water Music and Fireworks Music, to which they bear a certain resemblance) they can fill it in various guises.
There is no clear evidence, however, that they were written for some special reason or ceremonial occasion, that they date from one particular time or particular place, or that they were intended to form some sort of entity in the manner of the Brandenburgs. The long-held assumption that they belong to Bach’s Cothen period, when he was composing secular music for instruments rather than sacred music for voices, now seems at best only partly true. Two of them, Nos 1 and 4, are still considered to have Cothen connections and to have been written for performance when he was master-of-music to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen. But the Second and Third suites (misleadingly numbered) seem both to have been composed later, probably for Collegium Musicum events in Leipzig, which Bach - by then cantor of St Thomas’s - ran as a sort of secular sideline to his other duties.
Certainly, with their scintillating orchestration, these two works (one with a ravishing flute part, the other with its so-called Air on the G string) have won easier acclaim than the lesser-known first and fourth suites, though these, too, are splendid pieces. All four works open with substantial Ouvertures, thus spelt perhaps to indicate that Bach wrote them in a French rather than German manner, and it is these movements that give all the suites their formal name. Not only are they the biggest and grandest movements in each work but they are also the most elaborate, with an imposing slow introduction, incorporating (in Suite No 4) jerky baroque rhythms and scales along with sonorous trumpet intrusions. By the time the fast section is reached the effect is full of splendour, the pace exhilarating.
Thereafter come a series of French dances, a pair of bourrees, a pattering gavotte, two minuets, and a final rejouissance, a title associated more with Handel than with Bach (the celebratory Fireworks Music contains such a movement). Spiky rhythms, perky melodies with striking syncopations, bring good cheer to these lighter pieces, where orchestral weight seems beside the point, but where wit and delicacy of touch are entirely appropriate.
© Conrad Wilson
The musical riches of three great German cities in a single evening: Hamburg, Dresden and Leipzig each had distinct characters and attracted the greatest composers of the age from across Germany and further afield. This is an evening of splendour and flamboyance directed by the man who has been called ‘The Leonard Bernstein of Early Music’.