Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was born in Eisenach to a family of musicians. He was well-educated in performance and composition, first by his father and after his father’s death, by his elder brother, who was a student of Pachelbel. Part of his education was copying the scores of other composers, which exposed him to a wide range of styles and works, and developed his encyclopedic interest in all types of music. Over his life, Bach served as organist at Arnstadt (1703-1707) and Mühlhausen (1707-1708), court organist and Concertmaster in Weimar (1708-1717), Music Director in Köthen (1717-1723), Cantor of the Thomas-Schule, and Music Director in Leipzig (1723-1750). During his lifetime he was recognized as an organ virtuoso and master of complex counterpoint but he never traveled outside Germany and consequently was not especially well-known in an age dominated by international musical celebrities. His music fell out of favor after his death but was studied and promoted in the 19th century by Felix Mendelssohn and others, leading to a permanent revival. With the exception of opera, which was not called for by his employers, Bach composed in all forms and styles of Baroque music—secular, sacred, solo, ensemble, vocal, instrumental—achieving comprehensive perfection. After Bach, music developed in another direction, moving into the Classical Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Scholars conventionally use the death of Bach to mark the end of the Baroque era and consider him one of the greatest composers of all time.
From his youth, Bach sought out notable musicians in an effort to expand his musical knowledge. For example, at 19 he famously undertook a 250-mile journey on foot to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck. He studied the music of Corelli and Vivaldi, created a fugue on a Corelli theme (BWV 579), and arranged several Vivaldi works as keyboard concertos. He tried (unsuccessfully) at least twice to meet Händel, and there is some speculation about whether the latter was equally enthusiastic for a meeting. In 1719 Bach travelled from Köthen to Halle (about 30 miles) in hopes of catching the maestro on one of his few visits to his native city, but Händel had left by the time Bach arrived. In 1729 he tried again, sending his son Wilhelm Friedemann to Halle with an invitation for Händel to visit Leipzig, about 20 miles distant. Händel apparently met with Friedemann but expressed himself unable to accept his father’s invitation, adding that he regretted it very much. The two were known as the pre-eminent keyboardists of their day, with the edge given perhaps to Händel for affecting performance and accessibility and to Bach for more profound compositions, especially fugues. C.P.E. Bach speculated that Händel wished to avoid direct comparisons with the elder Bach because of a sense of inferiority. Whatever the case, however, Bach revered the music of Handel greatly in his later years, and was disappointed by never making the acquaintance. In contrast, he and Telemann were close personal friends from an early date, with Telemann serving as namesake and godfather to C.P.E. Bach, aiding the family after his friend’s death in 1750, and shepherding his godson’s career.
The Harpsichord Concerto No. 5 in f minor, BWV 1056 was part of a set of six keyboard concertos that Bach prepared in 1738, the same year that Händel published his Op. 4 Organ Concertos. Händel’s work, the first of its kind to appear in print, was a brisk seller and perhaps motivated Bach to make his own collection. The first and third movements of BWV 1056 likely originated in an earlier concerto for violin in g minor, now lost. The second movement may have come originally from an oboe concerto in F Major, and Bach used it not only here but as the sinfonia in the Cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156 of 1729. The movement shares the first two and a half bars with a flute concerto by Telemann, suggesting that Bach may have intended the piece as a further working out of Telemann’s theme as a tribute to his friend.
The Concerto for Violin and Oboe, BWV 1060R was likely written during Bach’s years in Köthen, 1717-1723. As with so many works from that period, the original score was lost, but in 1736 Bach arranged the piece as a concerto for two harpsichords, providing an authoritative source for reconstructing the original version. The work is in the standard three movements—fast, slow, fast—and presents a particularly sophisticated dialogue between the solo parts.
Bach likely wrote and performed each of the orchestral works that later became the Brandenburg Concerti, BWV 1046-1051 during his time in Köthen when he had a professional orchestra at his disposal. The original compositional circumstances are unclear, but in 1721 he personally recopied the scores and presented them as a set to the Margrave of Brandenburg in Berlin to satisfy a commission from 1718. The difference in capability between the orchestras in Köthen and Berlin make it almost certain that the six concerti were never performed by the Margrave’s musicians, and the manuscripts sat in the Brandenburg library until their re-discovery in 1849. The manuscripts were nearly destroyed during World War II, when the librarian transporting them for safekeeping escaped from a train under aerial bombardment, carrying them under his coat. As a group the works are now among the most iconic pieces of the Baroque era, and perhaps the best-loved of all of Bach’s orchestral compositions.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, BWV 1049, is in the form of an Italian concerto grosso, with the concertino (soloists) including violin and two recorders (originally fiauto d’echo). What Bach intended by fiauto d’echo has been the subject of debate—whether he meant a specific instrument such as the English “echo flute” or flageolet as proposed by Thurston Dart and others, or recorders in G vs F as advocated by recorderist and former Berkshire Bach Society Chair, Bernard Krainis. Today the wind parts are typically performed by alto recorder or transverse flute.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047, is also in the form of an Italian concerto grosso, with the concertino scored for clarino, recorder, oboe, and violin set against a string orchestra. The clarino, a natural trumpet with no valves and a brilliant high range, plays in the first and third movements, sitting out the Andante in d minor because it cannot play the accidentals required. Clarino playing as a skill was lost in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and with it the ability to perform much of the Baroque trumpet repertoire. The clarino part of Brandenburg No. 4 is considered one of the most difficult in the entire Baroque repertoire, and until the rise of the historically-informed performance movement in the 20th century, was typically played on a modern valve trumpet. The tone of the clarino is more mellow than that of the modern trumpet, with a burnished quality that blends well with strings and woodwinds.
Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) was born in Fusignano in Ferrara to a prosperous family. Not much is known about his early life and musical education, but in 1666 he moved to Bologna, a major center for musical culture in Italy, especially violin playing, and began to establish a performance career as a violinist and conductor. Known for the purity and beauty of his violin tone rather than brilliant technique, he toured France and Germany before moving to Rome by 1675. As a leading musician, he likely taught at the German Institute in Rome, possibly the venue for his meeting with a young G.F. Händel in 1707. Händel, 22 at the time, would remain a Corelli devotee throughout his life, though the feeling was not returned when he offended Corelli during a rehearsal by playing one note higher on the violin than Corelli vowed was the highest possible. After a stare-down, Corelli reportedly stalked out of the rehearsal, and the two never spoke again.
As a composer, Corelli was a giant of the 17th century, an important contributor to the development of the sonata and concerto forms and the establishment of functional harmony that defines the Baroque and Common Practice eras. His style was widely considered the standard for violin performance, and he passed on his approach to his students, a set of prominent violinist-composers in their own rights—Geminiani, Locatelli, Castrucci, Gasparini, and others. Henry Purcell, Bach, and Händel all valued Corelli’s music highly, studying the scores and incorporating techniques into their own works. Bach’s organ fugue BWV 579 is based explicitly on Corelli’s Op. 3, No. 4 and Händel published a set of concerti grossi that are based on the models in Corelli’s seminal Op. 6. Corelli was overshadowed by Vivaldi in the generations after his death, but he has enjoyed popularity over a long period and today remains among the most beloved early Baroque composers. Corelli is buried in the Pantheon in Rome.
The Concerto grosso in g minor, Op. 6, No. 8, better known as the Christmas Concerto, was commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni with whom Corelli lived for a period in 1708. Written most likely around 1690, the work was published posthumously in 1714 as part of Corelli’s Twelve concerti grossi, Op. 6. It bears the inscription Fatto per la notte di Natale (Made for the night of Christmas) and has the standard five movements that Corelli preferred in his concerti grossi. The scoring includes concertino (solo) parts for two violins and cello, plus ripieno (orchestral) strings and continuo.
Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) was born in Halle (Saale) in Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, in the same year as J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. With his father’s reluctant approval, he studied music with W.F. Zachow (d. 1712), the organist at the Halle parish church, and was instructed in the works of old and new masters. Handel later attended the University of Halle, matriculating in 1702, moving to Hamburg, and becoming friendly with G.P. Telemann before touring Italy at the invitation of the Medici family. In 1710 he became Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover, later George I of Great Britain and Ireland, relocated to London in 1712, and became a naturalized English citizen in 1727. His career in England saw the creation of three opera companies, patronage by prominent aristocrats and the Crown, and the creation of an astonishing amount of music of the highest order. In his later years he was plagued by failing eyesight and in 1751 sought relief through an operation for cataracts by Chevalier John Taylor, the flamboyant ophthalmologist who also operated on J.S. Bach. As in Bach’s case, the operation failed and Handel was totally blind by 1752. He lived another seven years, dying in London in 1759 at age 74. He never married. His funeral at Westminster Abbey with full state honors was attended by more than 3,000 mourners. He is buried in the south transept of the Abbey.
Handel was an international music celebrity both as a composer and a performer, and helped establish the Italian style as pre-eminent in the late Baroque era. Mixing the idiom of Corelli with the contrapuntal techniques of the north German school, he created an international style that is at once elegant, sophisticated, and accessible. In all he created 42 operas, 29 oratorios, at least 120 cantatas, many trio sonatas, concerti grossi, orchestral suites, other chamber works, arias, odes, anthems, and 16 concerti for organ, including some of the most iconic pieces of the late Baroque era.
Our concert opens with The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Act III of the oratorio Solomon, HWV 67. Technically an instrumental sinfonia, it is the best-known piece from the oratorio and describes the Queen’s procession as she arrives to test the wisdom and knowledge of King Solomon. Händel wrote the oratorio in 1748, late in his professional career, and debuted the work at Covent Garden in March 1749. The large musical forces required apparently caused him some financial difficulty, but the work was generally recognized as a masterpiece then as it is now, and was performed twice more shortly after its premiere and revived again at the end of Händel’s life. The story is taken from the Hebrew Bible and recounts episodes from Solomon’s reign—the celebration of the great temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s happy marriage to one wife (a change from the Biblical story), his wisdom in identifying the true mother of a child claimed by two women, and the famous state visit by the Queen of Sheba—in a general celebration of a golden age of peace and prosperity. Contemporary commentators generally recognized the work as a tribute to King George II and the happy state of England during his reign. The title, The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, is thought to have been introduced in the 20th century by the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham.
The Suite for Trumpet and Orchestra in D Major, HWV 341, also known as Mr. Händel’s Celebrated Water Piece, is a curiosity from 1733 most likely assembled by the London publisher John Wright to cash in on Händel’s popular suites for a royal entertainment on the River Thames, written c. 1717. Händel may have had nothing to do with the appearance of HWV 341 at all. He was notoriously relaxed about the publication of his own works and an inveterate self-borrower who had an exclusive publishing contract with John Walsh at the time. Regardless of its provenance, however, the work presents a charming group of five pieces mostly written by Händel that showcase the beauty of the valve-less Baroque trumpet. The first two movements are taken from the Overture and Gigue to the Suite in D Major, HWV 349; the third is a Menuet; the fourth is a Bourée; the fifth is an interpolation from the popular opera Partenope that Händel wrote in 1730.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was born in Magdeburg, in Saxony-Anhalt, not far from the birthplace of Händel. He received his first music lessons from a local organist when he was ten and, despite the objections of his family, avidly embraced both performance and composition as a course of study. After enrolling at the University of Leipzig to pursue law, he turned away to become a professional musician, possibly encouraged by Händel, whom he had met as he began his studies. Over the course of his career he held prestigious posts in Eisenach (the birthplace of J.S. Bach), Frankfurt, and Hamburg, progressively increasing his income and artistic standing through publications of his work and experimentation with different musical forms. Within a year of his appointment in Hamburg, his employers increased his compensation to discourage him from assuming the newly-vacant post of Kantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, originally promised to him years earlier. After another candidate also declined the position, it was filled, famously, by Telemann’s friend, J.S. Bach.
Telemann was one of the most prolific composers in history and a savvy businessman dedicated to expanding audiences beyond the aristocracy, cultivating the public by encouraging amateur musicianship, and establishing the first popular periodical devoted to music, Der Getreue Musik-Meister (The Constant Music-Master). He retained control over the publication of his own works and was significantly better known than J.S. Bach outside Germany, enjoying a reputation as a master of all musical styles. His music is innovative and consistently sophisticated from a contrapuntal and harmonic standpoint, yet it remains accessible to most listeners. Telemann was a close personal friend of J.S. Bach, godfather and namesake of Bach’s son C.P.E., and a close advisor to the family. He outlived his old friend by 17 years and stands with his friend Händel as the embodiment of an international music celebrity.
The Concerto in G Major for Four Violins, TWV 40:201 is the first of four concertos Telemann wrote for four unaccompanied violins, likely after 1740, and follows our performance of the second concerto, TWV 40:202, in last year’s Bach @ New Year’s concert. The set is unusual in being written without basso continuo, which distinguishes it from 17th and 18th century Italian models by Torelli, Valentini, Locatelli, Vivaldi, and others, and from the typical Baroque concerto grosso that used different instruments in the solo (concertino) group to provide a varied musical range against the orchestral texture and keyboard continuo. In his concerto, Telemann stands squarely in the Baroque era by using imitative counterpoint for the thematic material, but simultaneously looks forward to the next generation of music in which harmony and musical structure were specifically composed rather than realized by a thorough-bass. Telemann wrote several other works without continuo, including various sonatas and fantasias for solo flute and solo violin.
Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was born in Venice, the capital city of the Venetian Republic, and was one of nine children. He received musical instruction in violin from his father, a professional musician, and studied composition with Giovanni Legrenzi (d.1690), one of the best-known Italian composers before Corelli. Ordained a priest in 1703—probably for the free education—he was appointed later that year as maestro di violino (violin master) at the Ospedale della Pietà, a home for orphans and illegitimate children in Venice. He may have suffered from asthma, which prevented him from mastering wind instruments but eventually helped him avoid the obligations of celebrating Mass and other priestly duties, though his commitment to the Church may also have been a factor. Known as the “Red Priest” because of the color of his hair, Vivaldi worked at the Ospedale for 30 years, with only brief interruptions. It was there that he wrote nearly all of his major works and developed the all-female orchestra into a group with renown beyond Venice. He first published in 1705, began writing successful operas in 1715, and wrote his most famous work, the four violin concerti known as Le quattro stagioni (The Four Seasons) during a brief sabbatical from the Ospedale around 1720. For much of his life Vivaldi’s music was popular and in demand, but it did not ultimately provide the financial security enjoyed by Corelli, Händel, and others. He died poor in 1741 in Vienna where he had followed Emperor Charles VI in hopes of obtaining a position. The Emperor’s sudden death left Vivaldi without a patron and few prospects, and he died a few months later.
As a composer Vivaldi was an innovator, particularly in his operas, and brought a fresh and playful approach to his writing that energized the music scene early in his career. He eclipsed the work of the previous generation with his masterly handling of tonality and melodic inventiveness, pushing Baroque musical forms and language in a way that influenced others. Bach studied Vivaldi’s music extensively, transcribing six keyboard concerti and incorporating his techniques into vocal passages in his St. John and St. Matthew Passions, among other works.
The four concerti of Le Quattro Stagioni were published in 1725 as Op. 8 along with four sonnets possibly written by Vivaldi himself that illustrate the nature of each season as described in the music. In this use of an accompanying narrative the works are an early form of program music more usually associated with the 19th century. The selection on our program, L’inverno (Winter). Op. 8, No. 4 (RV 297), has three movements, the first and third of which vividly portray the icy cold winds and slippery footing of winter landscapes. The middle movement contrasts the bitter weather outside with the peace and contentment of sitting before a fire
Sonnet to accompany L’inverno (Winter)
Allegro non molto Allegro non molto
Aggiacciato tremar trà nevi algenti Trembling from cold in the icy snow
Al Severo Spirar d’ orrido Vento, In the harsh breath of a horrid wind,
Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento, Running, stamping our feet every moment,
E pel Soverchio gel batter i denti. Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold.
Passar al foco i di quieti e contenti Before the fire we pass peaceful
Mentre la pioggia fuor bagna ben cento Contented days while the rain outside pours down
Caminar Sopra il giaccio, e à passo lento We tread the icy path carefully and slowly
Per timor di cader girsene intenti; For fear of tripping and falling;
Gir forte Sdruzziolar, cader à terra Then turn abruptly, slip, crash to the ground
Di nuove ir Sopra ‘l giaccio e correr And rising, hurry across the ice Forte lest it crack,
Sin ch’ il giaccio si rompe, e si disserra; We feel the chill north winds course through the house
Sentir uscir dalle ferrate porte Despite the locked and bolted doors…
Sirocco, Borea, e tutti i Venti in Guerra This is winter, which nonetheless
Quest’ é ‘l verno, mà tal, che gioja apporte. brings its own joys.
Program annotator T.A. McDade holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in musicology from Smith College and Yale University and a Master of Business Administration in Marketing and Information Technology Management from New York University. She is an alumna of the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, now part of the Columbia Journalism School, and an independent management consultant in the field of financial services. A pianist and avid dressage rider, she lives in Purchase (NY) and Mill River (MA) with her husband and two sons, and has been a Berkshire Bach Society Board Member since 2016.