Program Notes: Handel, Bach, Copland

Oh, the joys of musicology!  Links are forthcoming, but this is my most recent prose of the day, to be printed for a weekend orchestra concert in Seattle:

G.F. Händel: Water Music


Like Haydn’s later symphonies, the Three Suites collectively entitled Water Music brought their composer stunning success in, and association with, the city of London.  They are also perfectly illustrative of the composer’s relationship to political power : in 1715-16, Handel was writing for King George I, the relatively liberal, territorially hungry, and German-speaking monarch with whom Handel had become connected in Hanover.   The Water Music suites were performed on barges in the Thames for the entertainment of the king and his expansive retinue, thus mingling the currents of British maritime imperialism (Handel invested some his profits from the Water Music into a company trafficking slaves to South America) with the politics of spectacle (in which George I and Handel could rival Louis XIV and his nimble court composer Jean Baptiste Lully).  One German edition of the Water Music  published in Leipzig in 1886 rather idiomatically described the setting of the piece’s performance as a “pomphafte Wasserfahrt,” or “a water-journey laden with pomp”.  Proximity to water, wealth, and fine musicians obviously intrigued Handel greatly, but, regrettably, he died before he could set eyes upon Medina or hear the virtuosic trumpet trills and horn fanfares of Water Music echo out over Lake Washington. 

Copland: Appalachian Spring

It is nothing short of miraculous that the past century – one which witnessed the brutal birth of fascism, Stalinism, multiple genocides, and the Second Viennese School – created Aaron Copland and yielded his score to Appalachian Spring.  This wondrous ballet was written for a combination of small but brilliant forces (including Merce Cunningham, the supple and intellectually feral male lead who had recently arrived in New York from Seattle and the Cornish School) and was premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944, with Martha Graham dancing the lead role.  Sets were designed for the performance by the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, founder of the oft-investigated Nisei Artists and Writers for Democracy, who arrived in the nation’s capitol via an internment camp in Poston, Arizona.  But the constellation of artistry that surrounded the inception of the ballet has proven to be merely a prelude: Since its premiere, the piece has become an unassailably relevant piece of the modern repertory and American life. 

Naturally, it contains a number of fertile contradictions or dualities. Written amid the clangor of 1940s New York City, the ballet praises the rural life; penned by a composer whose passion was male companionship, the piece eulogizes heterosexual love; conceived during a period of intense wartime mobilization, the score expresses an American identity that sidesteps militarism completely.  Offered here is a vision of an agrarian and egalitarian landscape in which happiness is to be found among communities of individuals united around the complex task of living simply.  And while simplicity lies at the philosophical core of the piece, its execution is anything but: Appalachian Spring is a tour de force of asymmetrical meters, canons and counterpoint, and a marvel of orchestration within an economy of means.     

J.S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4

In 1905, sociologist Max Weber published Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, a tome which, in spite of its subsequent fame, can be judged a failure on account of its omission of the Protestant Stakhanovite Johann Sebastian Bach.   Bach was, if nothing else, a protean composer, mathematically gifted, endowed with a work ethic and a productive drive which was yoked to his acute religious sensibility.  The Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 stands out in his oeuvre (or, rather, is illuminated from within the granite tonnage of his Bach Werkverzeichnis or BWV) because of its purely instrumental character and its apparent lack of a connection to a theological program.  

The Brandenburg Concertos were conceived for Bach’s players in the court at Köthen, where in six years (1717-1723), during an unfettered explosion of instrumental writing, Bach composed sets of six violin sonatas and partitas and six cello suites.  (He also fathered several children, none of whom received a BWV number.)  The Fourth concerto levies serious technical demands upon the soloists and governs their interplay with rhythmic counterpoint and also in halos of scales.  It is worth noting that the piece not only demands virtuosity, but displays it: The last movement is a rigorous fugue which brings the tripartite piece to an exultant close.

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