Travel abroad became an increasingly important part of a young gentleman’s education in 18th-century Europe. The Grand Tour provided exposure to neighboring cultures, languages and fashions, and was often touted as proper preparation for an ambitious young aristocrat or upwardly mobile commoner to a life of high class leisure, and perhaps a career in international trade, law, philosophy, diplomacy, or the military. England sent a fair share of these travelers to the Continent, but the Continent also came to England.
Musicians too traveled, following commissions, employment and performance opportunities, and many found themselves drawn to the British Isles–often after working in Italy. England’s deep-seated musical culture held the promise of work, especially for highly skilled musicians trained in the current continental musical fashions.
Travel in the eighteenth century could easily become an extravagant proposition whether by land or by sea, and visits planned for a brief period often extended for months or years. Many prominent musicians from elsewhere went to England looking for work and ended up settling in for good. George Frideric Handel takes the prize as the most famous of these, but he shares good company with Johann Christian Bach and Francesco Geminiani, among many others. Our program today celebrates these composers who adopted the “Fairest Isle” as their musical home, as well as a couple of the island’s native geniuses.
It is irresistible to include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in our celebration, particularly in light of his 250th birthday anniversary this year. Unlike the other “sojourners” featured today, Mozart’s visit to England with his family lasted less than 18 months–from April 1764 to July 1765–but it proved a significant visit for the young composer and performer. In London he took in the city’s active concert life (J.C. Bach and Carl Abel would launch their famous public concert series during the Mozarts’ stay.) The eight-year-old musician also composed his first symphonies there, and met his early mentor, J.C, Bach, whose influence on Mozart’s compositional style proved profound and lasting .
We open today’s program with a symphony by William Boyce. Published in 1760 as one of eight included in his Opus 2 collection, the Symphony I in Bb provides a pivotal link between the high baroque style of Handel’s Concerti Grossi and the early classical style as exemplified in the work of J. C. Bach and young Mozart. Boyce’s contemporary Charles Burney, himself a great advocate of the Grand Tour, and one of the first British music historians, wrote of Boyce, “There is an original and sterling merit in his productions that gives to all his works a peculiar stamp and character of his own for strength, clearness, and facility, without any mixture of styles.” The description certainly holds true for Symphony I. Both first and last movements present short bi-partite sonata-allegro forms, with the briefest of expositions and highly condensed development sections. In the middle movement Boyce trades the oboes for the dulcet sound of flutes in unison with violins, a strategy much used in the eighteenth century for providing contrast and sweetness between more extrovert movements.
J. C. Bach, the youngest son of the great Johann Sebastian, came to England in 1762 after spending several years in Italy. A noted composer of opera as well as symphonic, solo keyboard, and chamber music, Johann Christian also pioneered the “Symphonie Concertante,” which presented elements of both symphony and concerto, and typically featured multiple soloists playing “in concert,” with orchestral accompaniment. The Concertino in D resembles a Symphonie Concertante, but instead of the usual multiple movements, the Concertino has just two: a through-written, expansive Allegro assai, introducing two violins, cello, and a pair of flutes as soloists, followed by a brief, good-humored Minuet. Notable features of the first movement include particularly advanced solo work for the cello, and a written-out cadenza for the flutes.
For his earliest keyboard concertos the young Mozart had adapted and re-worked sonatas by J. C. Bach, pieces he had likely learned while in London. Mozart’s early symphonies, and his developing symphonic style, likewise owe a substantial debt to the work of his older colleague, and to the musical life of the British Isles. Mozart’s Symphony 14 in A Major, the first of eight composed in Salzburg in 1771 between his second and third trips to Italy, shows as much what he had integrated from J.C. Bach’s own peculiar Italianate style as what he had learned from the Italians. Scored for a pair of flutes (uncommon for Mozart in any period) and a pair of horns plus strings, the first movement bears the mark of J.C. Bach’s influence also in its extended, supple and syncopated opening theme, and in Mozart’s choice to begin the development section Concertante-style, with pairs of horns, flutes and violas trading variations on a 2-bar horn call that first appeared as a punctuation to the movement’s opening material. In the Andante, Mozart jokes by trading the flutes for a pair of oboes, reversing the usual 18th-century formula, and employs a pair of violas in dialog with the oboes. While this may strike a listener as unusual, other reversals of customary practice give the entire symphony a topsy-turvy quality: the second violins play a virtuoso comic-opera style accompaniment to the first violin line of static pathos (or mock-pathos) in the Trio, and the Finale opens in high-spirits, with a fanfare and a couple of rounds of the bergamesca chord progression, music associated with the upside-down traditions of German Carnival.
To hear the music of Purcell after these forays into the late 18th century may tickle the ears a bit. But 18th-century English ears had opportunity for just this sort of tickling: King Arthur, one of several Purcell-Dryden collaborations of the 1690’s, saw multiple revivals in the English theater, often with additions and interpolations by Arne and others: in 1736 (contemporaneous with Handel’s opera work in England,) in 1770 (contemporaneous with J. C. Bach’s English residence,) in1781, 1784, 1789, 1803 (contemporaneous with Haydn’s sojourn in England!), again in 1819, and on into the 19th century!
Purcell here shows himself as masterful a composer for orchestra as for voices. The texts that Purcell set function, masque-like, as entertainments within the body of the play proper. Dryden’s text presents the legendary hero as an embodiment of the English national spirit, and of the transformation of a warrior culture into one in which familial sentiment–both romantic and brotherly love–and rational law form the twin axes around which civil society revolves. The music we have selected from the show traces but one of the several themes developed by its musical entertainments in parallel with the plot: that of the beauties and bounteousness of the mythic England, that Fairest Isle, where supernatural spirits aid in battle, where food and love grow ever more plentiful, where the richness of the land leads to contentment and sensual aliveness among its inhabitants, and where even being a shepherd, as in Arcadia, has its aesthetic rewards.
Purcell and Dryden thus set the stage for some of the Enlightenment’s most highly held ideals: that reason and sentiment, duty and pleasure, might unite in harmony, that passions could transform themselves through sublimation into the material basis of a just society, that human beings might find happiness through virtue, and indeed, that happiness could emerge, in the words of Alexander Pope, as “our being’s end aim.”
England in fact led the continent in this large-scale transformation of values, and this may provide some clues about the appeal of England to some of the eighteenth century’s greatest musical imaginations. And because music by its very nature appeals to the senses and amply rewards the seeker of virtuous pleasure and contentment, music became the perfect metaphor for the ideals of social harmony that became so important to the Enlightenment.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that a musician of the stature of Handel, or a violinist as famous as Geminiani should gravitate to England and find a comfortable and welcoming musical home there, even forsaking the southern appeals of Italy. Geminiani, born in Lucca, modeled himself after his even more famous teacher, Arcangelo Corelli. He came to England in 1714, bringing Corelli’s style and taste for the Concerto Grosso with him. Geminiani quickly adopted his new country, writing many pedagogical and aesthetic works in English for an English audience, as well as composing original instrumental works and making adaptations (to the Italian taste) of Scottish and Irish tunes, and arrangements of many of Corelli’s chamber works for larger ensemble. Our Concerto Grosso comes from his own third collection published by Walsh in London, and gives the unusual option of including flutes in the string texture.
In 1711 Handel came from Italy to London to work in the Italian Opera theater there, as J. C. Bach would do 50 years later. Prolific in every genre, he wrote cantatas and odes, oratorios and anthems, chamber music, solo sonatas, organ concerti, and orchestral music that shows his debt to Purcell and includes the famous collections known as the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks, as well as two superlative sets of Concerti Grossi. The Opus 6 set calls for the usual instrumentation of strings and continuo and includes 12 Concerti, each more finely wrought than the rest. But the Opus 3 Concerti highlight Handel’s genius for orchestration and his phenomenal sense of texture, color and possibilities for expressive combinations within the baroque instrumentarium. Each movement of the Opus 3, No. 2 Concerto that we perform to close our concert employs a different strategy for presenting the multiple voices and sound possibilities contained within a group of string instruments with the addition of a couple of oboes and a bassoon, ending with a magnificent set of variations on a gavotte tune.
©2006 Dana Maiben