Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Sonata à 4 in B minor, Z. 802 (likely written 1678-1684, published 1697)
Henry Purcell was one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era and, with the possible exception of Benjamin Britten, the greatest composer to ever come from England. He is also among the Baroque composers who had a direct effect on modern rock and roll. According to Pete Townsend of The Who, Purcell particularly influenced the opening bars of “Pinball Wizard.” His music was altered and arranged for use in A Clockwork Orange, and various pop artists have recorded the “Cold Song” from Purcell’s King Arthur. Purcell composed instrumental, vocal, sacred and secular music with equal ease, and examples of each type of composition remain popular in the modern repertory. Early in his career, Purcell served as the composer for the court violin band (the “Twenty-Four Violins”). His post gave him the opportunity to try out and perfect new techniques and expressive devices.
After studying the Italian trio sonatas then in vogue, Purcell developed a great interest in polyphonic music—music with “many voices,” i.e. many independent melodic lines. He wrote that the Italian sonata was …the chiefest Instrumental Musick now in request; [in sonatas] you will find Double and Treble Fuges also reverted and augmented in their Canzona’s, with a good deal of Art mixed with good Air, which is the Perfection of a Master.
Between 1678 and 1684, Purcell wrote two collections of trio sonatas, twelve Sonatas in Three Parts (published in London, 1683), and ten Sonatas in Four Parts (published posthumously in London, 1697). In these works, Purcell “faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters.”
These words sound quite innocuous to us today. However, Charlotte Gardner, a commentator for BBC Online, notes that…it seems almost impossible now to imagine a time when the word ‘sonata’ meant a racy, new-fangled Italian invention or when the idea of a violin playing solo rather than within an instrumental consort was close to indecent. Well, welcome to the London of Henry Purcell…. London musical life in the 1680s had a whiff of controversy around it. While at court, French-style instrumental ensembles reigned supreme, elsewhere the traditional English consort style was in vogue. Meanwhile, various Italian violinists were also arriving in London, introducing the idea of the solo virtuoso violinist…. Opinion was polarized.... Purcell, therefore, was stuck in the middle of a musical diplomatic conundrum; did he want to be a racy Italian, a courtly Frenchman, or a traditional Englishman? His decision was to plump for all three.
Purcell’s sonatas draw from all three national traditions; he forged in his music a truly international language that bears his own distinctive stamp. This is clear in the extraordinarily beautiful Sonata no. 1 in B minor, a work that is clearly indebted to the Italian sonata da chiesa (“church sonata”) tradition. Like most Italian “church sonatas,” this work starts with an expressive slow movement that leads directly to a fast movement, then has another slow movement leading to another fast movement, returning to slow music at the very end of the work.
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
Sonata No. 3 in D Major for flute, violin & basso continuo (1695)
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was one of the very few well-known female composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Born into a family of musicians, she was a child prodigy on the harpsichord who had the good fortune to perform before King Louis XIV. She was accepted into the French court, tutored by the king’s mistress herself, and she stayed with the court until it moved to Versailles in 1682. After this she taught, composed, and performed in Paris to great acclaim. She composed in a wide variety of genres—from solo harpsichord pieces, to instrumental sonatas, to cantatas, to opera—and her opera Céphale et Procris of 1694 was the first opera written by a woman to be produced in France.
Her trio sonatas are among the earliest French examples of the sonata, alongside those of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and François Couperin. She enjoyed the patronage of Louis XIV throughout her life, and dedicated a collection of trio sonatas to the king, stating:
Such happiness for me, Sire, if my latest work may receive as glorious a reception from Your Majesty as I have enjoyed almost from the cradle, for, Sire, if I may remind you, you never spurned my youthful offerings. You took pleasure in seeing the birth of the talent that I have devoted to you; and you honoured me even then with your commendations, the value of which I had no understanding at the time. My slender talents have since grown. I have striven even harder, Sire, to deserve your approbation, which has always meant everything to me....
The Sonata in D Major for flute, violin, and continuo, like most French sonatas of the time, contains many short movements, alternating between slow and fast. It was likely written around 1695.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in G Major, BWV 1027
(arr. for cello & harpsichord) (1741)
Johann Sebastian Bach accepted the job of Cantor at St. Thomas’ Church, one of the most important musical positions in the German lands, in 1723. When he moved his family to Leipzig to begin his post, he found himself burdened with a workload we can scarcely imagine today. His duties included composing, copying, rehearsing, and performing at least one new cantata a week; performing for weddings, funerals, and special events; and supervising the music in the other churches of Leipzig. Although as many as half of Bach’s works have been lost, we know that he completed at least three complete year-long cycles of cantatas, not to mention such magnificent (and long) works like the St. John and St Matthew Passions. Despite this grueling workload, he still found time to accept a further musical engagement: in 1729 he took over the leadership of Leipzig’s most prominent Collegium Musicum—a loosely-knit ensemble of gifted amateur student performers—and with it took on responsibility for weekly public concerts in addition to his church duties.
Naturally, he looked through music he had already written to see what might be revised for performance in this new venue. The Sonata in G Major for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027, written for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, is one such revised work. It originated as the Trio Sonata in G Major for two flutes and continuo, BWV 1039, a work likely written while Bach was the Kappellmeister for Prince Leopold of Cöthen. In revising the work for the viola da gamba and harpsichord, Bach took one of the original flute parts and rewrote it for gamba; the other flute part he rewrote for the right hand of the harpsichordist, leaving the original bass line to the left hand. When Bach reworked this composition, the viola da gamba had already started falling out of fashion. Today, this work is usually played on the cello or viola. The work follows the four-movement structure of the typical Italian sonata da chiesa (“church sonata”), with alternating slow and fast movements.
Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello and sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin are quite unique and justly famous. Sometimes their fame overshadows the equally incredible beauties of Bach’s accompanied sonatas—the six sonatas for violin and harpsichord and the three sonatas for gamba and harpsichord.
François Couperin (1668-1733)
from Les Nations, 2nd Ordre “L’Espagnole”
François Couperin, known as “le Grand” or “the great,” was born into an extraordinary musical family. His father was a prominent organist in Paris, and his uncle Louis was a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer. François surpassed them all in fame, and today he is counted as one of the most important composers of the Baroque. Much of his career was centered around the court of Louis XIV. His compositions include a remarkable series of short character pieces for the harpsichord, organ music, instrumental chamber music, and sacred and secular vocal music.
Couperin is often credited with introducing the Italian sonata to France. At the time, composers in France mostly wrote suites of dances. The great Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli, however, had pioneered and standardized a new form called the sonata da chiesa or “church sonata.” Couperin introduced that new form to France, seeking to “reconcile” the French and Italian tastes in music. In fact, one of Couperin’s most famous sonatas is entitled “The Apotheosis of Corelli,” a work in which he brilliantly combines Italian and French styles.
Couperin’s four trio sonatas and suites entitled Les Nations were published in 1726. These sonatas and suites explore and reconcile the different musical nationalities, primarily French and Italian. Each “nation” is presented in an “ordre” or “succession” of movements. In each case, the ordre begins with an Italian-style trio sonata (spelled “sonade” to sound more French), and then is followed by a French-style dance suite. Even though the work on today’s program is “L’espagnole,” one would be hard pressed to find much that’s Spanish about the music. It displays Couperin’s thoroughly French poise and gracefulness.
Dominc Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Sonata in D Major, K. 491 • Sonata in D Minor, K. 32
Sonata in F Major, K. 525 for solo piano
Domenico Scarlatti was the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, one of the most important Italian Baroque composers of opera. Domenico first studied music under his father and quickly progressed to becoming an eminent harpsichordist, one of the few to ever rival Bach and Handel. Scarlatti is remembered mainly for approximately 550 harpsichord sonatas he wrote while working in Portugal and Spain. These sonatas, incredible in their diversity of style and expression, are important landmarks in the transition from Baroque style to classical style and chronicle the early development of sonata form. They are also notable for their use of astonishing dissonances, their harmonic audacity, and their unconventional modulations to remote keys.
While in Spain and Portugal, Scarlatti immersed himself in the folk music and dance rhythms of his new country, and the result can be seen in the Moorish and gypsy inflections that appear in his harpsichord sonatas. While this might not seem to be a remarkable thing today, it was quite extraordinary for the time, and Scarlatti acknowledged as much. According to a very early biographer, Charles Burney, Scarlatti was “sensible he had broke through all rules of composition in his lessons [his keyboard sonatas]; but asked if his deviations from these rules offended the ear? [sic] and, upon being answered in the negative, he said, that he thought there was scarce any other rule, worth the attention of a man of genius, than that of not displeasing the only sense of which music is the object.”
It is difficult to date Scarlatti’s sonatas with precision. The three sonatas performed here were collected in manuscripts between 1742 and 1749, but it is highly likely that they were composed well before that time. The Sonata in D Major is notable for its virtuosic runs in thirds. The Sonata in D minor is one of Scarlatti’s most simple yet profound works. And the Sonata in F Major, a favorite of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz, contrasts light running passages with surprise loud chords.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Trio Sonata in A Minor, TWV 42:a1 for flute, violin & basso continuo
Telemann was one of the most important composers of the German Baroque, and one of the most prolific composers in history (at least in terms of works that survive). He was a good friend of Johann Sebastian Bach—he was the godfather of Bach’s second son Carl Philipp Emanuel—as well as George Frideric Handel. He was a musical polyglot, incorporating several different national styles (German, Italian, French, and even Polish) into his music, and he served as an important link between the late Baroque and the early Classical styles.
Telemann wrote over 3,000 works, from operas, Passions, cantatas, oratorios, orchestral works, concertos, to chamber music. More than half of his output has been lost. Happily, much of his chamber music survives, including the beautiful Trio Sonata in A minor for flute, violin, and continuo featured on tonight’s program. Although impossible to date precisely, this work was most likely composed around 1718. It is a typical “Italian” style sonata da chiesa in four movements. In a nod to the French style, Telemann casts the last movement of his sonata as a graceful polyphonic minuet. The trio of this minuet, perhaps recalling some of Couperin’s works, features the two solo instruments in a duet without the continuo, a remarkable feature for the time.
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)
Quintet in D Major, G. 448 for guitar & string quartet “Fandango” (1798)
It is said that one has to be at the right place at the right time to make history. The great music theorist and historian François-Joseph Fétis wrote in 1851 “there has never been a more original composer than Boccherini.” But despite this greatly deserved acclamation, Luigi Boccherini’s position in music history has always been marginal simply because he spent much of his life isolated in Spain, away from the great centers of European music of the time.
The son of an impoverished double-bass player, Boccherini began playing the cello at age five and was to develop into a great virtuoso. In 1768, he moved to Madrid, and shortly thereafter won a high-paid appointment as compositore e virtuoso di camera with the Infante Luis Antonio of Spain, the younger brother of King Charles III. All seemed to go in Boccherini’s favor until one day the king disapproved of a passage in a new trio and ordered Boccherini to change it. This did not sit well with the composer, and he doubled the passage instead, leading to his dismissal. Don Luis took Boccherini away from Madrid to his court in Arenas de San Pedro, and it was there he wrote many of his most famous works.
In the late 1790s, Boccherini received a commission from the Marquis de Benavente for several quintets for guitar and string quartet. According to Louis Picquot’s biography of Boccherini, The Marquis excelled on the guitar, an instrument dear to all good Spaniards. He asked Boccherini to provide a guitar part for his own use in those compositions which he liked, in exchange for one hundred francs for each quartet, quintet or symphony. Several other rich amateurs acted in a similar manner, which prompted Boccherini not to compose, as many believed, but to arrange with a guitar part a rather large number of chosen pieces from among his works.
Boccherini created the “Fandango” guitar quintet from the first two movements of his String Quintet, op. 12, no. 6, and two movements from the String Quintet op. 40, no. 2. The Fandango was a popular folk dance in moderately fast triple meter. In this work, Boccherini uses the Fandango as a brilliant closing movement, and dials the excitement up to eleven by calling for castanets and a tambourine.
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
from Histoire du Tango for flute & guitar
The great Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla was a child prodigy on the bandoneón, the traditional accordion used in tango bands. His family immigrated to New York in 1924, where Piazzolla became acquainted with Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), the master interpreter of tango, for whom he worked as an occasional performer. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1937 to give concerts and make tango arrangements. He also studied classical music with Ginastera. He won a scholarship that took him to Paris to study with master teacher Nadia Boulanger. Piazzolla described his first meeting with Boulanger:
When I met her, I showed her my kilos of symphonies and sonatas. She started to read them and suddenly came out with a horrible sentence: ‘It’s very well written.’ And stopped, with a big period, round like a soccer ball. After a long while, she said: “Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartók, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can’t find Piazzolla in this.” And she began to investigate my private life: what I did, what I did and did not play, if I was single, married, or living with someone, she was like an FBI agent! And I was very ashamed to tell her that I was a tango musician. Finally I said, “I play in a ‘night club.’” I didn’t want to say “cabaret.” And she answered, “Night club, mais oui, but that is a cabaret, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I answered, and thought, “I’ll hit this woman in the head with a radio....” It wasn’t easy to lie to her. She kept asking: “You say that you are not pianist. What instrument do you play, then?” And I didn’t want to tell her that I was a bandoneón player, because I thought, “Then she will throw me from the fourth floor.” Finally, I confessed and she asked me to play some bars of a tango of my own. She suddenly opened her eyes, took my hand and told me: “You idiot, that’s Piazzolla!” And I took all the music I composed, ten years of my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.
Piazzolla developed a distinctive brand of tango (called “tango nuevo”) that fused elements of the old popular song and dance forms together with classical elements such as fugue, extreme chromaticism, dissonance, elements of jazz, and expanded instrumentation. At first, his experiments were condemned by the old guard of Argentinean tango, but by the 1980’s, his music was widely accepted around the world, and he came to be seen as the savior of tango. In the late 1980s his music began to be played by classical performers, most notably the Kronos Quartet and the violinist Gidon Kremer. The work on tonight’s program, Nightclub 1960, is a movement from L’histoire du tango, a cycle of four movements exploring the changes in tango style over the twentieth century.