The three composers on this program were all Italians who spent their professional lives elsewhere. Giuseppe Sammartini (1695-1750) and Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) went to England, and Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764) to Amsterdam.
Giuseppe Sammartini was born in Milan in 1695. He and his younger brother Giovanni Battista studied the oboe with their father, and both became oboists of the ducal theatre orchestra in Milan. He emigrated to London in 1729, and soon became oboist in the King’s Theatre and Music Master in the household of Frederick, Prince of Wales. He was considered the leading oboist of his time, and many of Handel’s works for the oboe were intended for him. As a composer, he composed mostly sonatas and concertos, and is best known for his 24 concerti grossi for two violins, cello, and orchestra of strings, to which the “Christmas” Concerto belongs.
In the history of program music, Christmas was certainly among the most popular occasions for which music was specifically composed. Sammartini’s “Christmas” Concerto shares a common trait with similar works by his contemporaries in having a pastorale movement (here the last movement) that evokes scenes of shepherds, integral to the story of the Nativity. The common musical devices used in such a movement are the dotted rhythm of the siciliana and the presence of the drone. The first two movements of this concerto both contain unusual features. The first movement, in the form of a French overture (usually a fast fugal section enclosed by two similar slow sections) has a closing section that is totally different in musical content and character from the introductory section. The second movement is a minuet in Rondo form, in which the final couplet is itself a theme with variations. Both movements are in the key of G minor, which makes the Pastorale in G major especially peaceful and soothing.
Pietro Locatelli was born in Bergamo in 1695, and went to Rome for his violin training in 1711. He became a frequent performer at distinguished musical events in Rome between 1716 and 1723. Thereafter, he sojourned in Mantua and Venice during 1723-1727, and concertized in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, Dresden, and other German cities in 1727-1728, before settling in Amsterdam in 1729.
Locatelli may well be considered the first virtuoso of modern violin playing. His 12 concertos for the violin introduced innovative technical demands that explored and broadened every aspect of violin playing of the time, many of which remain challenging for players today. In spite of his stature as a virtuoso violinist, he seldom performed during his 35 years in Amsterdam, preferring the life of a composer instead. His works were published by the well-known Dutch publisher Roger & Le Cène, and were widely circulated.
Locatelli’s “Arianna’s Lament” is a deeply moving and emotionally powerful work that depicts a specific dramatic scene from a legend, in this instance, Arianna’s sorrow and suffering after being abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. It is a concerto grosso with an unusual concertino that adds a viola to the usual solo group of two violins and cello, and an unusual formal structure of ten sections instead of the usual three or four movements. Although the composer gave no titles to each of the ten sections, I see this work as divided into three parts: the depiction of the Isle of Naxos, the Lament, and the depiction of Arianna’ agony and submission to fate. I hope that the imagined titles that I offer below will help both listeners and performers to appreciate the composer’s masterful tone painting in this sensitive work of pathos.
Part I, Naxos
Andante: Starkness of the Isle of Naxos
Allegro: Turbulance of the sea
Adagio: Arianna wailing
Andante: Starkness of the Isle of Naxos
Allegro: Turbulance of the sea
Part II, Lament
Part III, Arianna
Allegro: Arianna’s agony
Largo: Her submission to fate
Francesco Geminiani was born in Lucca in 1687, studied with Corelli in Rome, but lived mostly in England from 1714 until his death in 1762. In his lifetime, he was highly regarded not only as a composer, often considered as an equal of Handel and Corelli, but also as a virtuoso player, influential teacher, and author of musical treatises. As both a performer and composer, his propagation of Corelli’s musical styles in England was enthusiastically received. The King was said to be among those who heard Geminiani perform Italian violin sonatas accompanied by Handel.
Geminiani composed The Enchanted Forest for a stage production by the famous French Baroque theater director Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, based on selected events drawn from the thirteenth canto of Torquato Tasso’s heroic poem La Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), which took place on March 31, 1754, in the theater of the Tuileries Palace in Paris. This was neither an opera nor a ballet, but a pantomime. According to a review of the event, it was a spectacular show that made use of the best available stagecraft of the time.
Structurally, this composition is in two parts. The first part, beginning and ending in D minor, is divided into eight sections of different lengths; the second part, beginning and ending in D major, is divided into seven. The longer sections are complete movements in various forms, while the shorter ones are transitional in character. It is in style a concerto grosso, featuring a concertino of two violins, viola, and cello, with an orchestra consisting of strings, two flutes, two horns, trumpet, and basso continuo.
When the music was published in London in 1755, it was introduced as “The Inchanted Forrest, an instrumental composition expressive of the same ideas as the poem of Tasso of that title by F. Geminiani.” However, no programmatic notes were given for any part of this work to indicate the various events, scenic effects, or action of the mimes that the music was accompanying. Thus, it behooves performers of this music today to imagine the possible portrayal and action on stage in order to recapture the essence of each section of music in this lengthy work. The imagined titles that I provide below are drawn from those accounts in the canto of Tasso’s poem that deals with the struggles of the Crusaders who encamped near the ghostly forest of the demons and witches outside Jerusalem. I hope that my attempted matching of music to the narrative helps to enhance our enjoyment of this series of vignettes.
Andante: Crusaders’ encampment, stark but peaceful
Allegro moderato: Crusaders’ dance
Andante: Crusaders’ song
Allegro moderato: Appearance of belligerent demons
Andante: Demons’ threats
Adagio: Crusaders’ fear
Allegro moderato: Attempt to resume the dance
Andante spiritoso: Appearance of heroic leaders
Allegro: Battle between Crusaders and demons
Grave – Allegro: Demons’ defeat – Crusaders’ high spirits
Andante affetuoso: A love scene
[Allegro vivace]: Children at play
Allegro moderato: Fortification of the encampment
Andante: Moment of peace curtailed by the following inflictions imposed by the King of Demons
Allegro: noisy disturbance
Andante: ghostly visions
Allegro: raging fire
Allegro molto: drought
Andante: Suffering of the Crusaders and their prayer to God
Allegro: God’s answer symbolized by the appearance of rain
Affetuoso: Crusaders’ expression of gratitude
© 2008 John Hsu