March 12, 2017 Sunday @ 3pm
The Four Nations Ensemble
BACH AND THE ITALIANS
Do you remember the first time you saw Venice? St, Marks, the Rialto, Palace of the Doges, the Pietá? The limits of our happiest imaginations are surpassed by beauty, engineering, and the mixed smells of canal water, baking butter and sugar, and tomato sauce. Knowing Venice enlarges our definition of the world and of pleasure.
There was a similar enlightenment when Johann Sebastian Bach heard Venice through the music of Antonio Vivaldi. The dark metals of German contrapuntal skill and the deep velvets of sophisticated and detailed French harpsichord music were flooded and faded by golden Venetian light. Energy, virtuosity, compelling harmonic direction, and theatrical gesture transformed Bach. Vivaldi’s grasp never let up. Bach’s music in its expressive power and architecture owes much to him starting in his youthful Weimar days and continuing through his Leipzig maturity.
Bach was not unique in his love of Italian music. Handel, Muffat, and Heinrich Schutz traveled to Italy and returned enriched, transformed. Bach’s “grand tour” was only through scores, printed in Amsterdam and purchased by the Princes of Weimar for court performances. Holland had replaced Venice as the European center of music publication. French printers fleeing religious persecution set up shop in the Protestant Low Countries. At first they published poetic French suites, but the changing wind of taste blew in dynamic Italian sonatas and concertos. Corelli and Vivaldi replaced Le Roux and d’Anglebert. Though Vivaldi printed a few collections of sonatas in Venice, the concertos were printed in Holland and flooded Europe from north to south. Bach was charged to make parts for the Weimar court orchestra and prepare performances.
The Palace in Weimar where Bach led performances of Vivaldi's concertos.
Young Bach’s attraction to this music is apparent in his transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos for solo keyboard. We marvel at his mind as we compare his versions to Vivaldi’s originals. We see a touch of added counterpoint here, and a heavily ornamented solo line there. Bach’s inclination to constantly engage the mind and his personal style of lyricism has been seen as improvements by some musicologists. But in their Germanic centered view, they so often underplay Vivaldi’s unique genius and the transformative effect he had on Bach.
What are elements in Italian music that so engaged Bach? Let’s take a look at the Venetian concerto form. Simply put, the concerto is made up of two groups, the orchestra and the soloist. When they play together, we call this tutti. When the soloist (violin or cello or flute or any instrument of choice) plays alone, this is solo. And when the orchestra plays accompanying the soloist they are called the ripieno. A Vivaldi concerto opens with the tutti playing a section of music. The section is called the ritornello and it returns again and again. This music sets the mood and character of the entire movement. After the statement of the ritornello we hear a first episode of solo playing in which the soloist in flights of fantasy, virtuosity and poetry, is given free range to speak to the audience with his music. The ritornello then frames this solo section by returning and forming a kind of architectural element. The ripieno players alternate with solo episodes for the full movement and at the end, the ritornello is usually repeated to close the movement.
It would be clear but static if the ritornello was repeated exactly and in full each time it interrupted the soloist and so the composer repeats fragments of the ritornello, enough to make you realize what you are hearing but not slavishly repeating the full section that begins the concerto. It would be clear but static if the ritornello repeated itself in the same key each time it returned and so the composer transposes the music into different keys, moving from major to minor and from the home key to others. This gives a feeling of dynamism and voyage.
(By the way, this is a different form from a Corelli or Handel Concerto Grosso. Corelli’s concerto is an enlargement of a sonata, a chamber work enlarged with many instruments.)
The Venetian concerto of Antonio Vivaldi is a transformation of an operatic aria. The soloist takes the role of a singer, and a super human one who can work magic on the instrument at hand. The soloist, like the Diva, owns the stage while the ripieno ensemble acts as the theater pit orchestra, or, at times as “back up girls”. Sometimes the ripieno is respectful, supplying necessary and comforting harmonic accompaniment. Sometimes they are cheeky and respond to the soloist like stock characters in the commedia del arte mugging reactions to a flamboyant clown. “WHAT are you saying???,” they seem to say. There is boundless energy and humor. And so we have the familiarity and stability from repeated themes in the ritornello and the fantasy and freedom of the soloist’s episodes. There is solid architecture offered by the orchestra and surprise after surprise from the soloist. The outer movements of this three movement concerto form are composed in this format, the second movement usually being a simple but beautiful melody with accompaniment. Balance and Drama, Heart and Mind, Classical and Romantic! What a remarkable form. A genius like Bach saw the potential and benefits of this formula for his own music.
Vivaldi’s C minor concerto for cello and strings and Bach’s D minor concert for harpsichord and strings are Venetian solo concertos. Both are dark works, the Vivaldi melancholy, the Bach, with an aggressive energy that is both invigorated and frightening!
The Diva Faustina Bordoni who served as muse for Bach's Cantata #51
But the concerto was not the only irresistible Italian export. Bel Canto and the Italian Opera Seria engaged the imaginations of courts, cities, and countries. England, most of the Germanic States, Spain, and Austria gave up all interest in a vernacular opera for the works of Scarlatti, Caldara, Porpora, and other Italians who moved to claim the directorships of theaters north of the Alps.
Bel Canto, or the art of beautiful singing, something natural to Italians from Landini to Puccini, flourishes in the scores of Allesandro Scarlatti. His cantatas and operas inspired Handel and Hasse. The lament from Su le Sponde del Tebro is a model of this vocal beauty. The aria also maintains a specific form, called “da capo” aria. It is an ABA form. There is a section of music followed by a second, somewhat contrasting section and then the first section repeated. Now the B section can be of a piece with the A section creating continuity. But as often the B section can be contrasting music. Repeating the A section allows further elaboration by the singer enlivening the meaning of the text and offering vocal magic. In several 18th century dictionaries of music we see examples of the great singers elaborations on famous arias. They are spellbinding and make us understand the fame and fortune given to opera stars that worked with Handel and Hasse.
In all of this repertory, vocal beauty seems to be the highest value and composers wrote music that was as luxurious in sound as it was natural in execution. The mature Handel was a master of Bel Canto composition but added to it a psychological acuity that brings a profundity unique to the 18th century opera stage. Faustina Bordoni, the most celebrated soprano of her generation, married Hasse, complained that Handel’s cantelena was “rude” and maintained a friendship with the Bach family. She sang in some of Bach’s collegium concerts in Leipzig and was probably the muse for his Cantata BWV 51. (To hear our Diva, Pascale Beaudin sing the "rude" cantelena of Handel as well as Scarlatti--CLICK HERE.)
However, Bach seems to have been basically unconcerned with natural, easy, flowing vocalism. He is obsessed with expressing the text. Bach adopts the Da Capo form in most of his arias, yet he tends to allow the meaning of a text to abuse the cords of the singer! He disables his vocalist when the text suggests discomfort or pain, If ecstasy or unbridled joy is called for, as in Cantata 51, the singer might as well become a violin in a Venetian concerto. In fact, the opening aria for voice and trumpet of Jauchzett Gott could be the 5th Brandenburg turned on its head! Bach demands transcendence. No gratuitous virtuosity here, but music at the service of the meaning of the text. This is an early Baroque ideal of Monteverdi as it is of late Baroque Bach.
Bach was not slavish in his incorporating foreign elements into his own musical canvases. The spirit of the concerto invigorates his preludes and fugues. His larger preludes from the English suites incorporate the concept of the concerto soloist against a ripieno, all on the keyboard, and in the most astounding way, best seen in his famous violin concerto in E major, the first movement is a full Venetian concerto and then a B section in contrasting key is added and at the end of this, the opening concerto repeats itself. This is a hybrid of Venetian concerto and a da capo aria, a monumental ABA. No wonder, and yet again we can imagine the contemporary critics, wanting simple solutions, scratching their heads and exclaiming, “What are you saying?” to old Bach.
Four Nations concerts and programs are made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Click here to join our mailing list and receive our e-mail newsletter!