“The Four Seasons” concerti of Vivaldi are among his most popular works. Though a great deal of his output was written for his own ensemble, the famous girls’ orchestra of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was employed as a violin teacher and maestro dei concerti on and off from 1703-1718, the quattro stagioni were part of a larger publication entitled Il Cimento dell, Armonia e dell, Inventione. When Vivaldi published this collection in 1725, he dedicated them to the Bohemian Count Wenzeslaus von Morzin, claiming to be the count’s maestro in Italia. Each of the concerti is preceded by a sonnet describing the season to be depicted, thereby serving as a kind of poetic springboard for the composition. Within the score itself are letters corresponding to each line of the poem which mark the programmatic intent of each section. By paying close attention, the listener can hear each musical picture. In addition to the pictorialism, the listener can also follow the organizational form of the fast movements, all of which are in ritornello form. In ritornello form, varied restatements, in different keys, of a ritornello (refrain) usually scored for the full ensemble, alternate with the modulatory “episodes” of a more free thematic character which feature the solo violin. The refrain is usually a basic thematic statement. For example, in “Spring”, the orchestra ritornello heralds the return of Spring. In some movements the ideas overlap. Again in “Spring,” the second movement has three layers, the rustling leaves (violins), the barking dog (violas) and the sleeping shepherd (solo violin).

The sons of J. S. Bach were far more famous in their lifetime than their father. For instance, when the young Mozart traveled to London, he studied with Johann Christian Bach, who had become established as the most influential composer of the city and was also reported to have been the first person to perform a solo on piano in public. J. C. Bach’s style was quite different from his father’s and he refined the easily understood salon style more truly than any other composer of the 18th century. The music in the Sextet reflects this “galant” style, one that was in fashion during the second half of the 18th century. Its scoring is unique but the piece was popular enough for his brother in Bückeburg, Johann Christoph Friedrich, to have copied it, causing some confusion as to authorship. The basic quartet of oboe, violin, cello and keyboard provides the primary musical material and the horns enrich the texture in the outer two movements. The first movement is a reworking of a sonata for harp, violin and cello which Bach wrote for the Welsh harpist, Edward Jones, around 1774. The rippling keyboard accompaniment is a vestige of that original harp part. The second movement is really an operatic aria for the oboe where the violin, cello and piano serve as the accompanying orchestra. The last movement is a vivacious Rondo finale.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, J. C.’s older half brother, was the most famous and most prolific of Bach’s sons. Holding positions in Hamburg and Berlin (with Frederick the Great), he was widely esteemed not only as a composer, but also a keyboard player and theorist. He stands as the chief representative of the north German empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style), a style whose sudden contrasts are almost the direct opposite of J. C.’s more mellifluous “galant” style. The double concerto for harpsichord and fortepiano, written in 1788, reflects his keyboard focus. At this point in music history, the pianoforte was already supplanting the older harpsichord as the “keyboard of choice.” However, C.P.E. was also the master of the harpsichord and clavichord and this concerto might carry a little nostalgia for older times. Nevertheless, the combination carries certain problems. The strengths of the two instruments are quite different and Bach solves this in a colorful and ingenious way. In a usual concerto, the contrast is between the orchestra and solo. In this concerto there is also a great deal of contrast between the two keyboard instruments. The harpsichord, with its easy facility, has more to say in the quick first movement, while in the second the piano is given a chance to display its more melodious nature. The last movement is given more to the piano. In a sense, the three movements are a “summary” of the history of the strengths and popularity of these two instruments, whose fortunes were moving in opposite directions at the mid-point of the 18th century, in the transition from Baroque to Classic. The cantilena of the Larghetto with its finely-chiseled ornamentation is almost Baroque, while the abrupt dynamic contrasts and harmonic changes, as well as the free and colorful treatment of the winds in the outer movements, reflect the style of the later 18th century.

Copyright © 1998, Lyle Nordstrom