Notes on the Program
We think today of the sonata as being that expansive musical architecture perfected by Mozart and Beethoven, but in fact it began life as something very different. The sonata first emerges around the same time as the violin came into its own as a solo instrument, right around the turn of the seventeenth century. This was a time of self-consciously “new music,” and the early sonata is very much an experimental form, full of radical contrasts and surprising swerves of tempo and mood.
Our concert is a journey through the rich and strange world of the seventeenth century sonata, from its birth in Venice around 1620 to its elaboration in the hands of German composers in the 1690s. It is also a celebration of the aesthetic delights of this early modern period, when the quirky, the unexpected, the sumptuous were all things to be savored: in the spirit of the time, this program is a “cabinet of curiosities,” full of wonders and astonishments.
One of the most impressive pioneers of this new genre is the splendidly-named Dario Castello. Despite the popularity of his sonatas at the time, we have no records of his birth, his death, or even of his professional career, except that (according to the title page) he was “head of the wind band at San Marco.” His Sonata quarta is full of unexpected juxtapositions of elaborate solo turns, jazzy dance rhythms, and passionate adagios. (In his preface, Castello recommends trying out these virtuoso pieces once or twice before performing them, “for nothing is hard to those who love it.”)
A close colleague of Castello’s, G.B. Fontana was a celebrated violinist and composer who worked not only in Venice but in Brescia and Padua as well. According to his posthumous collection of sonatas, he was a victim of the “voracity of the pestilence” that swept through northern Italy in the early 1630’s. His Sonata ottava is characteristic for its almost visionary sweetness, as well as the playful, quirky turns of its musical rhetoric.
We then move southwards, to Naples. Today we think of this city as firmly Italian, but (like most of Southern Italy) it was actually part of the Spanish empire until well into the eighteenth century. The works of the Neapolitan composer Andrea Falconieri are full of the influence of Spanish dance: sometimes directly, in his Follia, other times less overtly, like in his wonderful Sonata L’Eroica, which after a brisk opening suddenly segues into a wonderfully groovy chiaconna.
In between the two Falconieri works we hear a little bit of the true Spain with the Jácaras of Santiago de Murcia, a distinguished guitarist who spent his career in Madrid. Murcia’s three anthologies contain some of the finest music for the Baroque guitar. One of these collections was sent to Mexico, and includes his take on the rowdy and rambunctious jácaras. This was a popular genre of 17c Spain, usually involving lurid tales of criminal low-lives set to catchy triple-time rhythms.
We journey across the Alps to discover how this new art was transformed in the Germanic lands. In the Holy Roman Empire, Italian sonatas were esteemed as highly as Italian architecture. The organist for the Viennese imperial court, J.K. Kerll, composed a few choice chamber pieces. His spectacular Sonata a 2 combines the Italian taste for extravagant violin writing with a wonderfully lyric melancholy. This work is taken from the huge anthology assembled by Franz Rost, whose manuscript of 157 trio sonatas remains in the Bibliothèque Nationale today. J.K. Kerll made his own pilgrimage to Italy to study with Carissimi, where he absorbed the Roman composer’s highly affective harmonic language.
Johann Schmeltzer, the first native-born Kapellmeister at the Imperial court of Vienna, spent much of his career providing party pieces for his music-loving employer, Emperor Leopold I. Schmeltzer’s wonderfully vivid portrait of Polish bagpipers combines a number of folk tunes with more courtly material. Its ending is particularly eccentric: a tune fragment played in unison that just peters out to nothing.
The great organist Dieterich Buxtehude is one of the few figures from this time to be a familiar name today, thanks to the virtuosic demands of his keyboard writing and a compositional style that combines strict German counterpoint with Italianate flights of fancy. His Prelude in G minor is firmly in the form of the stylus fantasticus, with its abrupt discontinuities and unexpected turns of phrase.
One of the more unexpected musical visitors to Venice in the seventeenth century was the remarkable German composer Johann Rosenmüller. A citizen of Leipzig, Rosenmüller had been in line to take over as Thomaskantor there when he was arrested in 1655 with some of his students on suspicion of homosexuality, and jailed. Forced to flee, he ended up in Venice where he worked as a trombonist at San Marco and taught at the Pietà, doing the same work as Vivaldi did fifty years later.
This dramatic trajectory transformed Rosenmüller’s musical style as well as his career. His early instrumental music from Leipzig was mostly in the form of dance suites, but once he got to Venice, he discovered the power of operatic melody and theatrical gesture. His late set of sonatas published in 1682 (some of which were preserved in Bach’s personal library) combine heartbreaking adagios with dramatic, precipitous allegros.
The Bolognese composer Maurizio Cazzati spent much of his career transforming the musical establishment of the enormous church of San Petronio in his native town. During Cazzati’s time there, he created a regular ensemble of some thirty-five players, and published a good deal of imaginative and inventive chamber music for them to play, among them the witty sonata heard in our program.
Giovanni Legrenzi’s third sonata from his 1673 collection La Cetra is an excellent example of how the sonata was changing by mid-century, influenced by the lyricism of Venetian opera composers like Cavalli and Cesti. The overlapping dissonances heard in the opening of this sonata were later to become a staple in the works of Arcangelo Corelli. Legrenzi dedicated this publication to Emperor Leopold I, perhaps hoping to land a job at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, but to no avail.
We close with one last example of German trio writing, this one by the deeply expressive composer Philipp Heinrich Erlebach, who spent much of his career at a small court in Thuringia. We know little of his music today, because almost all of it was tragically destroyed in a library fire, which consumed a large number of operas and over 120 sonatas. One of the few instrumental works to survive are six wonderful trios published in 1694. His A minor sonata closes with a gorgeous and comforting Chaconne, with a florid “Finale” where the strings play a “tremblement adagissime,” an intensely slow and passionate bowed vibrato.
— Robert Mealy