Just a Little Something Old School: Bach, Vivaldi, and All That

As it is Friday, perhaps it will be acceptable for the violoncellist and part-time-musicologist to run the ship for a few hours.  If you’re in the Seattle area, I sincerely hope you will be able to make it to the Bach festival on February 28.  Some of my program notes for the occasion follow:

VIVALDI: Concerto for Two Flutes in C major, RV 533

Every so often, an encounter with something pristine, a crescent of divinity, can shock us into wondering if, in the process of shouldering our way forward into the pixelated heat of modernity, we haven’t all become Philistines.  For students of music history, the feeling must arrive with greater frequency.  Chained to the intellectual totalitarianism of the academic quarter system and, often, its demonic familiar, Donald J. Grout’s History of Western Music, the university music student simply must wonder where we went wrong.  The vitality and intellectual largess of past masters is frozen in amber, like an insect whose only object remains to be dissected; the matrix thus maintains its equilibrium.  What tragedy!  Vivaldi’s music, his concerti, his life force should arrive as a kind of shock, much like the thousand-page cosmos of erudition and style that is Paul Henry Lang’s 1941 Music in Western Civilization, a book which, like Rabalais’ Gargantua, is simply too rich and capacious for our presently limited and half-tongued tastes.  Of Vivaldi’s concerti, Lang says everything that really needs to be said:

“…while his famous contemporary [Corelli] blazed new trails in the miniature world of the clavier, Vivaldi’s flaming imagination drove him to the bountiful domain of ensemble music, and under his hands the concerto become a passionate fresco of dramatic contrasts.  Yet this revolutionary artist, dramatically animated in his first movements and ardently sweeping in his finales, proved to be a lyric poet of pastoral tenderness in his dreamy sicilianos and other intimate slow movements, while a number of program concertos reveal a romanticist captivated by the sorcery of sonority and color.  His daring temper forced him occasionally into extreme ventures, but his innate Italian sense of form stood guard over his fancy, safeguarding form and structure, which always remained essentially artistic and judicious.”

J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV1067

Paul Henry Lang: “No matter from what angle we approach Bach, tremendous obstacles block our way. The music lover is awe-struck when entering the great palaces of his works, the plan and design of which he can barely divine. He feels himself lost, because while he admires the geometric marvels of the severe architecture, he finds his whole being invaded by a tender poetry which emanates from the meticulously elaborated ornaments of the towering structures. But when he turns his attention to the source of this poetry he sees the walls and columns of an architecture whose order and logic seem to be unalterably constant. The critic is humbled by the unlimited resources and knowledge of the metier and searches feverishly for the outlets through which pour the broad stream of faith, longing, and exaltation….” As a measure of Bach’s total output, Lang’s transcendental description of the composer’s works fits. By the same token, however, when hearing the Orchestral Suites, their dance movements confined to taut and mobile forms, one is equally struck by what pleasant and good music it is. Bach was a man firmly attached to earthly pleasures (his twenty-one children were not divinely conceived, after all) and occasionally it may be sufficient to step away from the altar of worship that has been built up around the composer and simply enjoy his music.

Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite probably dates from the years 1738-39 in Leipzig, and the renewal of interest in the same works was brought about by Felix Mendelssohn, who revived the pieces nearly one hundred years later at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Bach’s imaginative and virtuosic writing for flute soloist makes this suite particularly strong, and it has remained a staple of the orchestral repertoire since its “re-discovery” by the young master of counterpoint and orchestration. The Suite opens with a series of dotted and grandiose flourishes, from which then unfurl a long contrapuntus; the overture is then followed by seven short and quite varied dance movements, further testimony both to Bach’s versatility and the cult of stylized rhythms and related courtly dances that reached such remarkable heights during the Baroque era.

HANDEL: Music for the Royal Fireworks

If his Water Music of 1715-16 inaugurated Handel’s stunningly successful association with the city of London, the Music for the Royal Fireworks confirmed forever the dominance of the German-born composer over the late Baroque period in Great Britain.  Always a smooth political operator, Handel and his Fireworks scores aided in 1749 in the celebration of an unpopular peace treaty, a celebration which ended up burning down an elaborately-constructed wooden building brought on by the Ozymandian collapse of the king’s bas-relief amid the soundings of the trumpet.  Fireworks lit up the Thames, and the European powers were entering a brief period of peace, to be broken but six years later with the emergence of the Seven Years War.  Handel, in the meantime, would live until 1757, proud to be the master of the politics of spectacle of which Bach could only dream.

BACH: Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043

J.S. Bach seemed to reserve his most majestic violin writing for the tonality of D minor.  His affinity for this key was evidenced most famously in his Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin, the multi-movement dance suite crowned by the famous Chaconne.  The Concerto for Two Violins is more fleet, and is not particularly innovative in form or even genre — but its melodic inventiveness and spiritual candor elevate it into an immortal class of Bach’s already classic works.  The charging and propulsive rhythms of the first movement lead into a aria of compound meter, and conclude with a rhythmic finale, written as a kind of Gesellschaftsmusik in which virtuosity is also demanded of the ensemble.

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