Toronto-based Tafelmusik is one of the world’s leading period performance ensembles, renowned internationally for its distinct, exhilarating, and soulful performances. Founded in 1979 by Kenneth [...]
They spoke about it
The musical term “concerto” has its roots in the word concertare, which in Latin means “to contend, dispute, debate,” and in Italian means “to agree, arrange, get together.” In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the Italian definition prevailed, and the words concerto and concertante were used to describe music written for ensembles of voices and/or instruments. Gradually the word came to be associated primarily with instrumental music, and the Latin notion of contention crept in. The early concerti grossi were based on the popular chamber form of the trio sonata for two violins and continuo, to which were added four-part orchestral interjections. When the concertino trio played in alternation with the orchestra, a sort of contest or dialogue was created. Although composers such as Stradella had experimented with the idea of a concerto grosso as early as 1675, it is Arcangelo Corelli who both formalized and popularized the form in his landmark 1714 publication of twelve concerti grossi, Opus 6. Among his many imitators were Locatelli and Handel.
Pietro Antonio Locatelli was born in Bergamo and studied in Rome. His first publication, the concerti grossi Opus 1, were published in Rome in 1721. Although officially dedicated to his patron, Camillo Cybo, it is clear from the music that Locatelli has written these works in homage to Corelli. The format is the same: eight concerti da chiesa (concertos for the church) followed by four concerti da camera (concertos for the chamber). The style and choice of movements is similar, although Locatelli’s music is clearly a generation younger than Corelli’s. They are beautifully crafted works, and J.S. Bach is known to have performed them with his orchestra in Leipzig.
Although Corelli’s Opus 6 were renowned throughout Europe, they were nowhere more popular than in England. The eighteenth-century music historian Sir John Hawkins recounted the following anecdote of their arrival:
There lived at that time opposite Southampton Street, in the Strand, Mr. Prevost, a bookseller, who dealt largely to Holland. It happed that one day he had received a large consignment of books from Amsterdam, and among them the concertos of Corelli, which had just then been published; upon looking at them he thought of Mr. Needler [a distinguished violinist], and immediately went with them to his house […] but being informed that Mr. Needler was then at the concert at Mr. Loeillet’s, he went with them thither. Mr. Needler was transported with the sight of such a treasure; the books were immediately laid out, and he and the rest of the performers played the whole twelve concertos through, without rising from their seats.
In the late 1730’s, George Frideric Handel began to enjoy considerable success with his productions of English oratorios in the London theatres. No oratorio performance was complete without the addition of several concertos and, to this end, Handel sat down to compile a set of twelve concerti grossi, or “Grand Concertos,” modeled after the still popular Corelli Opus 6. All twelve were completed within a month in the fall of 1739, and were issued by Handel’s publisher, John Walsh, as Opus 6. The structure of Handel’s works is less clearly defined than that of Corelli’s, as is the distinction between the concertino and ripieno groups, with the orchestra often playing with the concertino in both expressive and virtuosic passages.
While Stradella and Corelli worked on the development of the concerto grosso in Rome, Torelli in Bologna and Vivaldi in Venice busied themselves with the genre we more commonly associate with the word concerto: a three-movement model in which a slow movement is framed by two fast movements, all showcasing the virtuosity of one or more soloists. The movements are written in ritornello form, the orchestra repeating the opening theme, in whole or in part and in various keys, in alternation with free, often virtuoso, solo passages. A sort of friendly rivalry is established between the soloist and the orchestra, perhaps a perfect synthesis of the contrasting notions of contention and agreement implicit in the origins of the word “concerto.”
Antonio Vivaldi wrote some 500 concertos, and although the majority are for solo instrument(s) and orchestra, he also experimented with other possibilities, among them the ripieno concerto, in which the orchestra performs without any soloist or concertino group, and the chamber concerto, in which a small group of soloists are accompanied solely by continuo, joining forces to create the “orchestral” ritornelli. The Vivaldi concertos on this recording are both hybrids of various concerto models. The Concerto in A Minor, RV. 536, scored for 2 oboes and strings, is written in standard concerto form, but in style and sound is akin to a concerto grosso, with the two oboes and the string orchestra in a dialogue of equals, rather than of soloists with accompaniment. The Concerto for four violins in E Minor is one of four such works included by Vivaldi in his first publication of instrumental concertos, printed in 1711 with the title L’estro armonico (Harmonic Fancy). A sort of expanded chamber concerto, the four soloists are accompanied by a violist, cellist, bass and continuo. The concertos for four violins were undoubtedly inspired by the abundance of talented violin players, both students and teachers, at the Pietà, where Vivaldi was employed from 1704. L’estro armonico was an enormously successful publication, and established Vivaldi’s reputation as one of the most popular composers of his generation.
The Fasch Bassoon Concerto in C Minor is also a sort of hybrid concerto. Johann Friedrich Fasch was Capellmeister at the Anhalt court in Zerbst from 1722 until his death in 1758. A prolific composer of orchestral music, Fasch had a particular penchant for wind instruments. This work combines elements of the solo concerto, concerto grosso and chamber concerto. The solo bassoonist is accompanied by an orchestra which includes strings and oboes, the oboes often taking on a concertino role, and joining the continuo in many of the solo bassoon sections to create an accompanying trio.
As a young man, Johann Sebastian Bach undertook careful study of concertos by Vivaldi, Marcello, Albinoni and others, transcribing several of them for solo keyboard. When later composing his own concertos for solo instrument and orchestra, he often turned once again to the technique of transcription, though in most cases with his own works as models. Several of the harpsichord concertos, for example, are transcriptions of cantata sinfonias originally scored for organ and orchestra. Although Bach frequently featured wind instruments in solo roles in cantatas, passions, and in the famed Brandenburg Concertos, there are no extant solo wind concertos in his worklist. Jeanne Lamon has turned to Bach’s cantatas to create a “new” concerto for oboe d’amore, transcribing the solo vocal lines of three arias with string and continuo accompaniment. The first and third arias were originally scored for solo bass voice, from Cantatas 100 and 30 respectively. Both are settings of uplifting texts: “Was Got tut, das ist wohlgetan, er ist mein Licht, mein Leben” (What God does is rightly done, he is my light, my life); and “Gelobet sei Gott, gelobet sein Name, der treulich gehalten Verspechen und Eid!” (Praise be to God, praise to his name’s sake, who faithfully keeps his promise and vow!). The middle movement is drawn from the opening aria of Cantata 170 for solo alto, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” (Contented rest, beloved inner joy). In each movement, oboist John Abberger has adapted the solo vocal lines for the oboe d’amore, embellishing them with idiomatic articulation, figuration and ornamentation.
Although the role of the violoncello in the baroque solo concerto was usually as a member of the accompanying continuo section, a few composers allowed the cellist to take centre stage, among them Vivaldi and Leo. Leonardo Leo was one of the leading Neapolitan composers of his day. Born near Brindisi in 1694, he went to Naples in 1709 to study at the Conservatorio S. Maria della Pietà dei Turchini. He remained in Naples until his death, holding several positions in churches and conservatories, and composing a steady stream of operas, cantatas, oratorios and sacred works. He composed but a handful of instrumental music: six cello concertos, a concerto for four violins and continuo, and various pieces for solo harpsichord. Most notable are the cello concertos, dedicated to Domenico Marzio Caraffa, the Duke of Maddaloni from 1716 to 1770 and a keen amateur of the cello. Leo’s writing for the cello is almost vocal in approach, exploiting the instrument’s natural lyricism and expressive capabilities.
© Charlotte Nediger