Christmas Concerto Program Notes

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048

The six Brandenburg Concerti stand at the crossroads in musical history, where chamber music and orchestral music went their separate ways. These Concerts á plusieurs instruments (Concerti for various instruments) as Bach named them, were dedicated to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, who employed a modest orchestra that was in all probability too small and inexpert to play all the Concertos. The Dedication Score, including an obsequious cover letter by Bach, has been preserved and is now in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. The mint condition of the manuscript indicates that in all probability the Margrave’s orchestra seldom if ever performed them.

Bach composed the Concertos between 1718 and 1721, although parts may have been written as early as 1708. They were not composed as an independent group, but rather assembled from various orchestral works Bach had already written over the years as courtly entertainment music on the highest level.

These same Concertos were probably common fare at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Bach’s employer. Letters and records indicate that the personnel in the Cöthen orchestra corresponded closely to the instrumental requirements of the Concertos. Four of them, Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5, are true concerti grossi, requiring a solo instrument or group of instruments, requirements that correspond closely to better players in the prince’s orchestra.

The Concerto No. 3 is a true ensemble work, as if composed for a group of friends spending a musical evening together. In its original form it interweaves three groups of strings, each one consisting of a violin, a viola and a cello, playing in turn the concertino (small group of instruments), and coming together to play the ripieno (all together). In other words, all nine musicians share in the solo parts equally. A harpsichord and a violone (a very large viola da gamba) or double bass fill out the continuo. In the last movement the violone joins the three cellos in unison throughout.

The most unusual aspect of this concerto is the absence of a slow, middle movement. In its place is a one-bar time signature and two eighth-note chords only. Some scholars think that Bach intended for one or two of the soloists to improvise the slow movement, ending with a cadence on the chords he specifically notated. The dedication score in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek gives no clue whatsoever as to Bach’s intentions.

The outer movements are essentially the spinning out and free variations on a single theme. The first movement opens with all the players in the ritornello in unison, a device Bach picked up from Vivaldi.  As we have come to expect, the episodes introduce new music interrupted by the ritornello until its final restatement of the ritornello at the end. Because of the significant amount of new music in the episodes, the movement roughly follows an ABA form.

The third movement is literally a grand chase, full of Bach’s characteristic canons, involving all the instruments. It certainly puts the lie to the stereotype that canons are stuffy.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218

There is some controversy among scholars whether Mozart himself actually gave the first performance of his five known violin concertos, but there is no question that he was a master violin player in his childhood. In fact, his father, Leopold – ever the “backstage mom” – was frequently after him to show off his skills by writing a virtuoso concerto for the instrument: “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin,” he wrote to his son. When Mozart finally did write concertos for the instrument in 1773-75, he wrote a bunch of them; his five concertos are only 12 Koechel numbers apart. At that time, Mozart was in Salzburg, under the employment of Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo for whom he both composed and served as violinist in the court orchestra. Mozart hated his employer who was a strict taskmaster and had no truck with his young musician, however talented. Although Mozart was more than seven years in the Archbishop’s employ, he spent nearly three of them on furlough, performing around Europe and none too diplomatically looking for another job. In 1781 when Mozart finally broke with the Archbishop – whose aide kicked Mozart down the stairs – he left for Vienna for good. The Archbishop commented “Mag er geh’n, Ich brauch’ Ihn nicht!” (“Let him go, I don’t need him!”).

Already by 1774, Mozart was apparently quite negligent about his violin playing and possibly wrote the concertos for one of his friends, the court violinist Antonio Brunetti, whose abilities were limited, or for Franz Kolb, another Salzburg violinist and family friend. After 1775 Mozart occasionally performed them himself.

These were relatively modest concertos by a youthful master, written at a time when the popularity of virtuoso violin concertos had gone into decline. After the flourishing of the Baroque violin concerto by such masters as Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini, the genre went into partial hibernation until Beethoven awakened it with a new kind of virtuosic writing that was to set the stage for the great romantic concertos of Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky, not to mention the great showman Niccolò Paganini. Mozart left no cadenzas for the concertos; most players either write their own or borrow one from the pen of any number of great violinists. In Mozart’s time a performer would certainly have been expected to improvise his own.

The Concerto No. 4 in D, dating from October, 1775, opens with a classic double exposition, the first theme a military rhythm answered directly with a much more graceful response. The second theme remains in D major. The exposition concludes with a third theme, whose elements the soloist will develop later in the movement. Upon entering, the soloist’s customary role is to decorate the main theme, but here he introduces a new secondary theme. After finally getting to the orchestra’s original second theme, the soloist begins the development section by spinning out a poignant theme in the minor based on one of the orchestra’s little closing motives.

The flowing slow movement opens with an orchestral introduction featuring the two oboes, the only winds scored in the work. Thee soloist ,however, dominates the rest of the movement, relegating the orchestra to the background. Instead of the customary ABA form, Mozart devises a complex theme that incorporates a string of melodies, repeating it with minor variations.

The Finale is a combination of a rondo and sonata form, with a curve ball thrown in. It opens with a dance-like phrase in 2/4 time – most likely a gavotte – followed by a completing phrase in fast 6/8 time. After the development section, a middle section contains an entirely new melody known as “Strassburger,” which is how Mozart and his father referred to this concerto in their correspondence. The “Strassburger” section is a complete little ABA form within the larger rondo, the B section beginning as follows.  After finishing with the “Strassburger” section, the movement continues with a reprise of the dual-tempo rondo with a spot for a cadenza.

This concerto is an example of how a modest piece conceived by a superior creative mind can delight by bending the rules of formal structure.

Arcangelo Corelli

Arcangelo Corelli
Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, Christmas Concerto

Mystery and controversy surround much of the life of Arcangelo Corelli. Born of a wealthy landowning family, he studied music at the cathedral of San Petronio in Bologna, a site with an illustrious pedigree of musicians and composers. Corelli is thought to have traveled extensively in Europe during his youth but exactly where and when is by no means clear.

In 1687, famous as violinist and composer, he settled in Rome as the protégé of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, and later of the 22-year-old Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, in whose palace he spent the rest of his life. Corelli became teacher and mentor to an entire generation of violinists and composers and the Monday night musical soirées he led in the Cardinal’s palace became known throughout Europe. He was a great friend of the most famous painters of the day and accumulated a large art collection, mostly gifts. Handel, during his sojourn in Italy, befriended him and admired him greatly but commented that Corelli liked nothing better than to save money and look at pictures he had not paid for. He died rich and famous, beloved by all for his mild disposition and friendly attitude despite his wealth and position.

The Baroque period was a particularly fluid time in the development of musical styles and genres. Preceding Vivaldi, Bach and Handel by only a generation, Corelli was in the forefront of developing the concerto as a genre. There were no set number of movements or prescribed relationship between soloists and accompaniment, as is reflected in this work. In large part because of the boom in music publishing, Corelli’s music was disseminated throughout Europe and his works served as models for the following generation.

Except for a few works, most of them spurious, Corelli published all his compositions in six volumes of 12 works each. The first five sets were violin and trio sonatas; Opus 6 is a set of twelve concerti grossi, in which he set two violins and a viola (or cello) against a larger string ensemble.

The Concerto No. 8 is the best known of the set. Written for the mass in celebration of the nativity, it is subtitled Fatto per la notte di Natale, but this has not restricted its performance to Christmas Eve. The Concerto has no true movements per se, rather sections of new music that flow together with brief transitional passages instead of pauses:

1.Allegro – Grave: An appropriately solemn introduction for the occasion. 

2. Allegro: The expected lively follow-up to a slow introduction, common in the Baroque opera overture.

3. Adagio – Allegro – Adagio: The grouping is almost like a mini-concerto, consisting of two slow sections, surrounding an agitated middle. & &

4. Vivace: Not a tempo marking one normally associates with the stately minuet, but these too were hardly standardized.

5. Allegro: Another sprightly section featuring an echo dialogue between the two violins.

6. Pastorale: Largo: Corelli marked it “ad libitum,” (optional), meaning that this lovely movement could be omitted. It is doubtful that anyone ever does. The Pastorale alludes to the shepherds who gathered at the manger, long notes in the accompaniment imitating the drone of bagpipes.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525 (Serenade in G major)

During the last four years of Mozart’s life, he was continually short of money. In spite of years of effort, he was unable to obtain a court appointment to the kind of prestigious musical position he considered appropriate for his talents. He was forced, therefore, to become one of the first of music history’s great freelancers. His operas, so revered after his death, saw indifferent success, and there was a steady decline in commissions, in part the result of a general economic downturn in Vienna, in part reflecting changing musical tastes.

The musical form known as the serenade underwent many transformations between the end of the sixteenth century and Mozart’s time. The term was first applied to nocturnal “musical greetings” and certain Italian madrigals but by the mid-eighteenth century it had evolved into a multi-movement instrumental composition. The term was used interchangeably with “divertimento” and sometimes even as the title of a single movement. Usually performed outdoors as background music, serenades were often scored for winds – in Mozart’s Vienna, particularly the wind octet (or Harmoniemusik). The structure of the movements, however, was similar to that of other multi-movement chamber and orchestral pieces (the string quartet and the symphony), although generally lighter in mood and complexity. That being said, in one instance, Mozart transcribed note-for-note his Serenade in C minor for wind octet, K. 388 as the String Quintet, K. 406. This serenade and the Serenade in B-flat, K. 361 “Gran Partita” for thirteen wind instruments, are major works of great musical depth.

With his serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Mozart brought the form back indoors, since it was scored for two violins, a viola, a cello and a double bass – or multiples thereof – and would be hard put to compete with outdoor noise. According to the autograph, Mozart composed it in Vienna in August 1787, at the same time that he was working on his opera Don Giovanni. In the personal catalogue of his compositions, Mozart listed it as Eine Kleine Nacht-Musick (although the surviving manuscript has no title). Originally it was a five-movement work, but the second movement, a minuet and trio, was either removed by the composer or was lost sometime before 1800. The occasion or commission for which he composed it is unknown, but one theory states that it was for one of his closest friends at the time, Gottfried von Jacquin, for whom he had already composed a number of other works. The four-movement version was first printed in 1826/27 with the title “Serenade.”

Eine kleine Nachtmusik represents a marked contrast in mood and musical complexity in comparison to Mozart’s other works written around this period such as the G minor Quintet, K. 516 or Don Giovanni. It harks back to the simpler style of the divertimenti and serenades of his Salzburg period.

The first movement is in paradigmatic sonata allegro form and is frequently used as a model for music appreciation classes. Starting off with a fanfare-like motive, the first theme is a composite of four distinct melodies, a common Mozart practice.  Mozart uses the supporting second theme, however, for the most of the development.

The Romance is a song without words beginning with a refrain that separates two verses. The refrain itself, however, is constructed like a da capo aria with a contrasting middle section Each verse of the Romance is set to completely new music & The Minuet and Trio contrast detached and legato articulation.

In the final Rondo, Mozart tinkers with the form so that a piece of the refrain forms a part of the two episodes & and the coda that concludes the piece.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016