For much of the 20th century, Antonio Vivaldi was scorned as an overly-prolific composer of shallow “sewing-machine music”; Igor Stravinsky dismissed him as having written the same concerto 500 times over. However, no less a composer than J. S. Bach thought of Vivaldi to adopt him as a model, even after he was himself a mature and successful composer. Bach went so far as to copy (by hand) all twelve of Vivaldi’s Opus 3 concertos, and to make arrangements for solo organ or harpsichord of several of them — that being his way of learning and absorbing the style and technique. One of those concertos that he arranged for organ was, in fact, the one known as “Il grosso Mogul,” which is on tonight’s program.
In some respects, Vivaldi may even be understood as the most progressive and innovative composer of his time, pointing the was forward to the Classical style of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. His concertos are almost completely devoid of contrapuntal and fugal writing. Instead, his musical structures are based on thematic development and harmonic organization (this is precisely what Bach found attractive in his music). His fast movements are all based on a opening orchestral “ritornello” that presents a series of distinct and easily recognizable thematic ideas. For example, the concerto “Il grosso Mogul” (which name was probably not given by Vivaldi) starts out with these very simple but compelling ideas: repeating the tonic note six times, then rapidly ascending scales, a simple chord-progression which may be recognized for having been used years later by Handel in his chorus “Hallelujah” in Messiah, then more scale- fragments, followed by descending outlined chords, a brief excursion into the minor mode with descending steps, and a final restatement of the ascending scale-fragments. Each element is very simple, even unremarkable by itself, but adding up to a compelling whole, and they provide the material for all of the rest of the movement. The other innovation that is easily overlooked is the length of phrases: they are frequently of unexpected lengths. For example, the last movement of the violin-and-cello concerto has many phrases that are five or six measures long, when one is expecting the more normal four-measure length. The concerto “Il grosso Mogul” is also noteworthy for two features. One is that each of the fast movements contains, nears its end, a very long, highly virtuosic solo passage for the violinist without the support of the orchestra. The other is that the central, slow movement is modeled not after the operatic aria, as are most of Vivaldi’s slow movements, including that in the violin-and-cello concerto, but instead after the operatic recitative. The violin delivers a part that is more speaking than singing, punctuated by chords from the continuo section.
Heinrich Biber’s “The Battle” seems at first glance to be in the tradition of battle-music that was often used at Easter to depict the struggle between good and evil culminating in the Resurrection. Upon looking at its subtitle — “The disorderly (or dissolute) Society of Musketeers, Mars, the Battle, and Lament for the Wounded, with songs imitated and to Bacchus dedicated” — one discerns that it instead belongs to the tradition which includes Mozart’s “Musical Joke,’ poking fun at the ignorant but pretentious. The dedication to Bacchus clearly signals that the “battle” took place not in the fields of war but in a tavern, the “Mars” not the God of War but an overly self-important officer heavily fortified with wine, and the wounded laid low not by gun-fire but by inebriated fisticuffs and by their own imbibing. In the second movement, the “disorderly” character is depicted by the first violin playing in a different time than the rest. Mars, accompanied only by the sound of a drum, sounds none to steady on his feet; and the closing lament, with its descending chromatics (usually reserved for expression of profound grief) suggests the end of an evening that has gone on too long, and which will be paid for the following morning.
The art of improvising and composing variations over a set of harmonies, known in England as a ground, goes back to the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Initially, this practice lay mostly in the domain of the lute, keyboard and viol players, but towards the second half of the 17th century, several foreign violin virtuosi began to visit England and they adopted this English tradition. All of the virtuosi-composers of the divisions on this program, Johann Schop, Thomas Baltzar and Nicola Matteis were from the Continent, but their divisions are on English themes. Baltzar’s “John come kiss me now” is the English version of the old Italian pazzamezzo moderno, while Schop’s “Lachrimæ” is based on Dowland’s famous song from several decades before, “Flow my Tears.” The “Scotch Humor” obviously has connections with the British Isles, but the exact derivation of the ground is unknown. All three give some insight into the improvising virtuosi of the 17th century violinists, in some ways more akin to jazz than Bach.
The story is well-known of Bach submitting in 1721 to the Margrave of Brandenburg, a music-loving prince based in a suburb of Berlin, a beautifully-copied score and parts for “Six diverse Concertos,” presumably in hopes of being appointed Kapellmeister or Court Composer. If so, Bach was disappointed; but the score, being unused at the Margrave’s court, survived virtually intact, to our great benefit. However, Bach did not compose these anew for the Margrave, but selected what he thought most suitable from among existing works and, in making the so-called “Dedication Copy,” modified and improved them. Nevertheless, the original versions also survive, partly in a copy made by one of Bach’s students, presumably working from the same autograph manuscript from which Bach worked: therefore the student’s copy does not contain the “improvements.” In the case of the second concerto, there is almost nothing different except that one of the four solo-parts, instead of being for the trumpet, carries the heading “tromba ovverro corno” — trumpet or preferably horn. The horn seems more likely to have been in Bach’s original conception because of the instrument being pitched in F, a key that was most common for horns but exceedingly uncommon for trumpets, which were almost always pitched in C or D. The change of instrument gives the piece a less brilliant, but more intimate feel.