Program notes: Re-Gifting with Royalty

Re-Gifting with Royalty

Friday, September 21, 2018, 7:30 pm
Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

Program Notes

Three hundred years ago re-gifting wasn’t just something one did with unwanted baubles or bottles. Plenty of musical works were recycled for new occasions, sometimes with changes and sometimes not. Even royal patrons seemed not to mind, provided the proffered item was sufficiently pleasing. For a musical manuscript or edition, proper etiquette meant adding a flowery title page or dedication—words that flattered somehow. The music itself could be effusive or elusive; the actual contents hardly mattered.

Many musical gifts from this era remained unopened, awaiting posterity’s thanks and judgement. Sebastian Bach’s most beloved concertos met just such a fate. In 1721 he sent “Six Concertos for Several Instruments” in a sumptuous manuscript bearing this title as a gift to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg. With such unusually scored concertos, each requiring a different combination of instruments, Bach hoped to make a lasting impression on an important musical patron. He may in fact have intended this extraordinary set as an application for a position at the margrave’s court, though an offer was apparently not forthcoming. 

Like other collections Bach assembled for either presentation or publication, the so-called “Brandenburg” Concertos illustrate, in musical terms, the age-old ideal of “unity in diversity.” Groups of six works in the same genre were common in volumes of Baroque instrumental music especially. Bach probably did not compose afresh most of the individual movements in the “Brandenburg” Concertos but instead put them together from an ever-growing store of sinfonias and concerto movements. This was common practice among composers of his age, and not only for multi-movement instrumental works.  

Concerto No. 5 appears, at first sight, to be a triple concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord with accompanying strings. Its imposing opening movement, the longest in the collection, begins with a vigorous ritornello(a plastic thematic idea played by all) that is elaborated with galant-style figuration. By the third solo episode, it becomes apparent that this movement is all about the harpsichord: its solo turns are much more elaborate than those Bach gives to the flute or solo violin. The extraordinary and highly disruptive harpsichord cadenza—before which the other instruments gradually disappear—must have astonished those who first heard it.

The second movement Affetuoso, which requires just the three soloists, also uses ritornello procedure but within the context of a languid trio movement. The gigue-like finale begins as a fugue, with one instrument at a time playing identical material. This movement’s overall shape is determined less by typical fugal procedures, however, than by Bach’s own inimitable way of embedding concerto procedures within da capoform (in which the ending recapitulates the opening). As in the first movement, the harpsichord figuration is extravagant. 

Why such a lot of notes for an instrument that previously provided only continuo (harmonic) support in concerted music? In 1719 Bach traveled to Berlin to examine and supervise transport of a new Mietke harpsichord for the Cöthen court. This large and beautiful instrument may well have been Bach’s inspiration for what is effectively his first harpsichord concerto.

The sixth concerto in the set features lower-pitched members of the violin and viol families, with two violas and one cello arrayed against two violas da gamba and one violone. Though his era still prized virtuosity on the venerable viol, Bach gives the lion’s share of activity in this concerto’s outer movements to the upstart viola; the middle movement dispenses entirely with the older pair of instruments. This deliberate subversion of expectations—keeping in mind that Bach also wrote three highly ambitious sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord—must have raised a few eyebrows. If indeed he performed this concerto in Cöthen, its resident viola da gamba virtuoso Christian Ferdinand Abel wouldn’t have needed much rehearsal. 

*     *     *

Though François Couperin is remembered mostly for his keyboard and instrumental chamber music, he also composed a handful of sacred works and at least twelve secular songs. Nine of the latter found their way into Pierre Ballard’s monthlyRecueils d’airs sérieux et à boire, which sated a seemingly unquenchable thirst for both tender and jolly solo and part songs during the long reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715). Few of the gems in Ballard’s popular collections were composed afresh for these volumes; instead, these are compilations of “greatest hits” from Parisian salons and noble chambers.  

The origins of the air sérieuxcan be found in the court song repertoire of the late sixteenth century, while drinking songs (airs à boire) have probably been around since humans harnessed fermentation. The simpleair de couror lute song became a thoroughly stylized genre during the ancien siècle, thanks to a cultural regime that set serious poetry to pliant melodies full of expressive devices. Many of these were called brunettesbecause of their pastoral verse; such airsare the musical equivalent of a Watteau garden scene. Couperin’s three surviving airs serieuxare all brunettes, though only Zéphire, modere en ces lieuxcarries this generic descriptor in its title. The most luxurious of the three, Zéphirecomprises five couplets, each of which is individually stylized with its own melodic embroidery. 

Surrounding the Couperin airson this program are excerpts from his Concerts royaux(1722), a collection of instrumental suites written for Louis XIV and published in homage a few years after the king’s death. These delectable miniatures, scored mostly for just a single treble line with basso continuo, can be performed in various ways: violin, flute, and/or oboe with continuo, or simply as harpsichord solos.

Unlike most of Couperin’s instrumental works, La Sultaneremained unpublished at his death in 1733, perhaps because of its unusually lavish scoring: this sumptuous sonata calls for two violins, two violas da gamba, and continuo. The lone quartet among Couperin’s chamber works, its dating remains uncertain. At any rate, La Sultanesurely found a welcome audience at court, where the rage for Turkish dress and decoration reached its apogee with the daughters of Louis XV.

Despite its title, this is a decidedly French sultan, not a Turkish harem-keeper. Formally, La Sutane resembles Couperin’s four trio sonatas in Les Nations(1727), though its individual sections are more substantial. A grandiose and solemn beginning leads to a faster fugue, whose primary theme is nearly identical to that of the opening. A tender air and sections in contrasting meters lighten the mood considerably toward the end, as all four melody instruments engage in concerto-like figuration. 

*     *     *

Non sa che sia doloreis one of two extant Bach cantatas in Italian. Its odd and grammatically challenged libretto, cobbled together from various sources including a Guarini madrigal and a Metastasio opera libretto, begins with a tender farewell for a traveling scholar returning to his homeland. The opening accompagnatoalso invokes Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, to bless his travels. The two arias summon patriotism and courage, among other things, and the work ends with an admonition to reject anxiety and embrace the future. 

Reference to the city of Ansbach in the central recitative may indicate that Bach wrote this cantata for his friend and eventual colleague Johann Matthias Gesner, who in 1729 took up duties as Rector of the Ansbach Gymnasium. (Gesner later served as Rector at the Leipzig Thomaschule, where he worked with Bach.) The work’s central metaphor, however, is that of a young man’s departure for military service at sea, suggesting multiple uses for this singular cantata, perhaps for similar circumstances but with different dedicatees. It is, in any case, entirely in keeping with Bach’s mature Leipzig style. Scored for soprano, flute, and strings, Non sa che sia dolorebegins with a free-standing introductory sinfonia featuring the flute, which also plays a prominent role in the two fully-scored da capoarias. 
© Matthew Dirst


“Brandenburg” Concerto V in D Major, BWV 1050       Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)




 Excerpts from the Concerts Royaux Airs serieux              François Couperin  (1668–1733)                                                                                                                  

      Prélude (3eConcert royaux)

      Doux liens de mon Coeur

      Courante à l’Italiène (4eConcert)

      Qu’on ne me disse plus

      Allemande (1erConcert)

      Brunette: Zéphire, modere en ces lieux

 La Sultane                                                                                          François Couperin


“Brandenburg” Concerto VI in B-flat Major, BWV 1051                        J. S. Bach


      Adagio ma non tanto


 Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209                                                                   J. S. Bach                                                                                                                                                


      Accompagnato: Non sa che sia dolore

      Aria: Parti pur

      Recitative: Tuo saver al tempo

      Aria:Ricetti gramezza e pavento

Artistic Personnel

Lauren Snouffer                  soprano

Colin St-Martin                   traverso

Elizabeth Blumenstock     violin

Oleg Sulyga                          violin

James Dunham                   viola

Erika Lawson                       viola

Mary Springfels                   viola da gamba

Eric Smith                             viola da gamba

Barrett Sills                          cello

Deborah Dunham               violone

Richard Savino                     theorbo & Baroque guitar

Matthew Dirst                    harpsichord & Artistic Director