Philharmonia Concertante with Arne, Zelenka, Heinichen, Tartini and Rameau
By Bruce Lamott
“Philharmonia concertante” is the theme of this multinational program of orchestral music from the theater, ballet, and chamber concert interwoven with solos, duets, and other small ensembles featuring our virtuoso players. These works in the Baroque period do not make the sharp distinction between soloist and orchestra in the manner of later style periods, but allow soloists to emerge from and return to the texture of the whole ensemble (tutti). Our program also showcases our woodwinds, used by composer to evoke extramusical images such as the hunt or forest.
When the impresario David Garrick asked Thomas Augustine Arne to collaborate on a revival of Dryden’s King Arthur with music by Henry Purcell, the composer was more eager to supply his own compositions than to adapt those of his illustrious predecessor. After writing a number of songs, Arne complained, “Several things that employed my utmost efforts were laid aside in favour of Purcell’s music, which (though excellent in its kind) was cathedral, and not to the taste of a modern theatrical audience.”
Though Purcell’s songs prevailed elsewhere in Dryden’s play, Arne did compose a wholly new Overture to King Arthur, and there is nothing “cathedral” about it. Following the audience-quieting unison fanfare, a sylvan setting is created by unison flutes playing the universal cuckoo-call of a descending major third (mi to do) amidst rustling violins. The flutes, now in parallel thirds, are joined by the horns, another signifier of the outdoors. After a dialogue of the flutes and strings, the strings launch into busy Italianate figuration of arpeggios and sequences, modulating to nearby keys. The Largo in G minor is a slow minuet with balanced question-and-answer phrasing. The snappy accented figure in the melody suggests a nod to the French-influenced style of Purcell. The overture concludes with a jolly march, bringing the paired flutes and horns to the fore once more, both suggesting the royal pastime of the hunt and the regal character of the title role.
The effect of music on human physiology was a major concern of Baroque composers. Physicians still held on to the antiquated concept of bodily fluids, or “humors”—blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile—controlling emotional and physical states, systematized by theorists into a “doctrine of affections.” It was believed that music stimulated these humors by manipulating keys, tempos, and rhetorical melodic figures (Figuren) to produce emotional responses, or affects. Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Hypocondrie, written in Prague in 1723, is a French overture that may have been the beginning of a suite. Then, as now, the pathology seems to be common, as Telemann, too, depicted hypochondria in a sarabande, and Molière devoted an entire play (The Imaginary Invalid) to the topic.
Unlike other programmatic instrumental works such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, however, Zelenka does not annotate the score with the specifics of what he is representing. Nonetheless, a listener can get the drift, if not the literal representation, by understanding the signals of Baroque affect. Hypocondrie begins conventionally enough with a bold statement in A major and the dotted rhythm of the French overture. Already by the third measure, however, a meltdown occurs in the descending melodic lines of the first violin and oboe and a downward scale in the bass in A minor. The major key is momentarily restored by the second oboe and violin, and the musical dichotomy is established: healthy major keys, ascending figures, and dotted rhythms contrast with ailing minor keys, descending figures, chromatic harmonies, suspensions, and sighing appoggiaturas.
The fugal Allegro begins with a stolid “wedge” subject of ever-widening intervals while the countersubject scuttles with nervous energy, followed by vivacious rising scales (tirate) throughout the parts. However, all comes to a sudden halt when Zelenka stalls the momentum and delivers an emphatic E minor after setting up an expected E major. This transient ischemic attack is followed by descending sigh figures until the oboes revive the subject with a return to the rising major scales. The rest of the movement is a contest between major and minor, interrupted by other surprisingly forceful episodes. The greatest surprise of all, however, is the startling plunge from A major to F major, about as remote a key as he could find, in the final slow movement. While French overtures typically conclude with a return to the opening slow tempo, this intensely chromatic conclusion has nothing to do with the optimistic opening, bringing to mind that famous epitaph, “I told you I was sick.”
Johann David Heinichen is known today primarily for his important treatise on continuo playing. In 1717 he became Kapellmesiter at the Dresden court, whose excellent orchestra by that time had become famous throughout Europe. The group had cultivated a variant of the Italian concerto grosso known as the concerto per molti strumenti, in which a variety of solo instruments took alternating prominence in the various movements that had no standard order or number.
Heinichen’s four-movement Concerto in F Major also has no consistent instrumentation. The first movement is a vigorous pas de deux for oboe and violin. First trading roles as solo and accompanist, each plays a solo accompanied by unison violins and violas. In between are orchestral ritornellos of Vivaldian “animated homophony, ” the rapid reiteration of slow-moving harmonies. While such a passage is idiomatic for the up-and-down bowstrokes of the strings, Heinichen also gives it to the oboe, where rapid-fire tonguing is required; perhaps fatigued, the oboe appears no further in the concerto. An entirely different tone color is created by the pastoral second movement. Parallel transverse flutes play a lilting siciliana rhythm over a gently rocking line of violins and violas without continuo. The following Presto is a galloping gigue for two hunting horns playing in parallel (and perilous) stepwise motion. The delicate movement which follows highlights the coexistence in the Baroque period of two types of flute: the flauto dolce (recorder) and the flauto traversiere (transverse flute), both heard in this movement. Both types play in parallel thirds, doubling the plucked (pizzicato) violins and basses, accompanying a solitary traversiere. The syncopated rhythm and unusual scoring lead to the possibility that J.S. Bach—a frequent Dresden visitor—was inspired to use a similar setting in the Esurientes movement of his Magnificat (1723). The horns return for the exuberant finale, this time playing more idiomatic horn calls while the strings bustle once more with animation à la Vivaldi.
Giuseppe Tartini was as well-known as a pedagogue as he was a composer and virtuoso violinist. His violin school in Padua, known as “the school of nations,” attracted students from all over Europe, and his published speculations on acoustics and music theory created a stir among musicians and mathematicians alike. It is nearly impossible to date his works with a certainty, as he deliberately neglected to date his autographs, revising them for years after their composition. A generation younger than Vivaldi, Tartini’s Violin Concerto in D Major, D. 28, follows the three movement, fast-slow-fast outer form of the elder composer, but the musical content reflects the changing taste towards the melodious galant style instead of the overt virtuosity of the Baroque. This is not to say that the music is easy, technically speaking, but the overall effect is one of grace and elegance, not bravura. The first movement juxtaposes two rhythmic ideas, the first a stately repeated-note fanfare (just one eighth-note shy of the rhythm characteristic of a polonaise) underscored by two horns, who give it a martial tone. The second idea is a skittish semicircular figure of three stepwise triplets in the first violins. The solo violin does not contribute new, more “soloistic” material, but rather elaborates the original ideas with further ornamentation and double-stops (two-note chords).
Tartini was said to assert, “I have been asked to write for the opera houses of Venice, but I always refused, knowing only too well that a human throat is not a violin fingerboard.” Nonetheless, the second movement of this concerto sings very well, an instrumental “song without words.” It is cast along the Vivaldi model: the tutti strings play a florid melody at the beginning, middle, and end, and otherwise provide a pulsing accompaniment of repeated chords under the lyrical cantilena of the solo violin. The key of B minor lends an air of gracious melancholy, but the undulating triplets without dissonant leaps steer clear of serious pathos. Typical of the period, the concerto concludes with a sunny minuet, with the solo violin continuing to elaborate the melody of the introductory ritornello.
The opéra-ballet Les fêtes de l’Hymen et de l”Amour was composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau for the marriage of the French Dauphin, son of Louis XV, to Maria Josepha of Saxony. It was performed at La Grande Écurie, the magnificent riding arena built by Louis XIV at Versailles. In addition to its staff for equestrian maintenance, it included five different musical ensembles and was equipped with elaborate stage machinery. This exotic tale, set on the banks of the Nile, brings together the unlikely combination of the Egyptian god Osiris with Orthésie, queen of the “Amazon savages.” Throw in for good measure Cupid, the god of love, Hymen, the god of marriage, a few Graces, Virtues, and other allegories, and a chariot pulled by crocodiles, and you have a recipe for an opulent spectacle. In its surprising Ouverture, however, Rameau breaks with the grandiosity of the conventional “French overture;” the opening is gentle, without the characteristically pompous dotted rhythms, and the fugue which follows quickly loses track of fugal form in a flurry of oscillating figuration. The diverse groups of characters are assigned dances appropriate to their roles, allowing the composer to exercise his gift for colorful orchestration. The variegated rhythms and tempos and French court dance, the five-part string texture of first and second violins (often doubled by the oboes) divided violas, and cello/bass continuo, and the use of concertante solo instruments give us only sampling of the delights to be found in a complete Rameau theatrical work, perhaps even fully-staged. We can always hope.[A word about titles and catalog numbers. Opus numbers in the Baroque period are quite unreliable, so compositions are identified by their place a composer’s thematic catalog. Thematic catalogs compiled by musicologists are either abbreviated with the name of the composer and the German word for catalog (as in Zelenka Werkverzeichnis, or ZWV) or by the catalog’s author (Minos Dounias (D.) for Tartini, and Gustav Siebel (S.) for Heinichen). This numbering is convenient for distinguishing between pieces in the same key (such as Tartini violin concertos), but because many catalogues (including Tartini, Bach, and Handel) are organized by genre and not date of composition, a higher number does not indicate a later composition, as it does with the more familiar Köchel (K.) numbers for Mozart.]