Amsterdam at the turn of the eighteenth century was a bustling international center of commerce. The merchant class was on the rise, and after a hard days’ work these merchants were beginning to realize they had a bit of money to play with and recreation time on their hands. What better way to entertain themselves and their friends and family than with a musical evening?
Luckily for them, the Dutch were living in a music-publishing mecca. Not only did firms like that of Estienne Roger publish music by Dutch composers, but they also brought music by French, English, German, and particularly Italian composers to their presses and published them as well. Vivaldi’s music was especially dear to them; indeed, most of this famous composer’s music was first published not in his beloved city of Venice, but in Amsterdam.
The music of a slightly older Italian, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was equally popular in the Netherlands, and across Europe. His influence on other composers was unparalleled during this time, and demand for music in a Corellian style produced a surge of sonatas, concerti and concerti grossi à la Corelli. Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco (1675-1742), born in Verona, was among those who successfully captured Corelli’s musical essence. He was part of the Bavarian elector Maximilian II Emmanuel’s musical entourage and eventually became the concertmaster of Maximilian’s court orchestra. In the service of the elector, Dall’Abaco lived in various places dependent on who was in power where, including Brussels between 1704 and 1706. Perhaps he met Roger at that time, for a few years later Roger’s firm published Dall’Abaco’s first three collections of sonatas and concertos. His Concerto 10 from Op. 2 exhibits Corelli’s famous overlapping dissonances in the Largo and jaunty jig-like rhythms in the final movement; but Dall’Abaco shows his own ingenuity, particularly in the first movement, where he combines the two violin sections into one and surprises the listener with sudden changes of tempo.
Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764), born in Bergamo, studied violin and flourished in Rome under the patronage of Bishop (and later Cardinal) Camillo Cybo. Locatelli was one of the city’s leading virtuosi, dazzling his audiences with his technically demanding yet musical passagework. Legend has it that he and Jean-Marie LeClair once performed in a contest where it was declared LeClair played “like an angel” and Locatelli “like the devil.” Today, Locatelli is considered the father of modern violin technique, having composed a wickedly challenging set of concertos, complete with written-out cadenzas, entitled Arte del Violino. Eventually, Locatelli made his way to Amsterdam where he was impressed by the music-publishing businesses and general entrepreneurship of the Dutch. Largely because of this, Locatelli chose to stay in Amsterdam, first preparing his works for Roger and his colleague, Le Cène to publish and disseminate, and then establishing himself as his own publisher. The Concerto Op. 7 No. 6, Il pianto d’Ariana (“The lament of Ariana”) is an unusual concerto in that the solo violin plays the role of Ariana, lover of Theseus who has abandoned her on the Isle of Naxos. Through this amazing piece one can feel the myriad emotions Ariana goes through as she realizes her fate.
Slightly lighter fare awaits us as two flutists enter the scene to perform a work by a Dutchman, Willem De Fesch (1687-1761). De Fesch, yet another violin virtuoso, wrote many flamboyant, technically impressive sonatas and concertos while residing in Amsterdam (1710-25), but by the time he accepted a position as chapelmaster further south at the Antwerp Cathedral, a new, simpler and more lyrical style was in vogue. De Fesch’s Concerti Op. 5, published in Amsterdam in 1725, sits right at the cusp of this emerging style. His second Concerto in G minor has plenty of fire, particularly supplied by the basses in the final Tempo di Gavotta; yet the Arioso is a simply lyrical minuet-like movement. De Fesch eventually moved on to London where, toward the end of his life, he became George F. Handel’s concertmaster.
It is amazing to think that Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) music was virtually unknown from the time of his death (like Mozart, he was buried in a pauper’s grave outside Vienna’s city walls) until the early 20th century. Today, “Vivaldi” is a household name and, thanks to present-day violin virtuosi like Nigel Kennedy, his music can be found on bestseller lists worldwide. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, from his later collection La Cetra (1725), are perhaps most famous today. But a much earlier collection, L’Estro Armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration,” 1711), was instantly popular in its day. In fact, it has been said that Antonio Vivaldi’s collection of concertos for various numbers of violins and orchestra, is “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century.” That’s an amazing statement considering the amount of music and number of composers active during that century. Perhaps it’s true: J.S. Bach, for one, arranged no fewer than six of these twelve concerti for various numbers and types of keyboards. Opus 3 is especially important to the publishing house of Roger and Le Cène since it was the first of a long, lucrative line of Vivaldi’s publications to be printed there. The A minor Concerto heard on our concert has a special place in many violinists’ hearts since it is one of the first concertos included in the Suzuki method of violin playing. The first and last movements are full of verve and imagination; but it is the ethereal slow movement, a haunting melody over sustained harmonies played by the upper strings, that is true “harmonic inspiration.”
The next selection, Concerto Armonico No. 1, has quite a history behind it. For years, this and five other “Concertini” that make up a set of Concerti Armonici written between 1725 and 1740 were thought to have been by Carlo Ricciotti. Later manuscript copies attributed them to others including Handel and, in particular, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Such were they known in the early 20th century when Igor Stravinsky stumbled upon them and adopted movements of them for his ballet Pulcinella and later Suite Italienne. Would Stravinsky have been as impressed with these pieces had he known they weren’t by a relatively known Italian, but by a Dutchman virtually unknown as a composer? Perhaps.
At any rate, recent research has proved beyond a doubt that these Concertini were composed by a talented yet humble amateur, better known to the world as a powerful nobleman and diplomat. Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766) did not think it proper to take credit for his works. Nor did he think they were worthy of printing: he describes them variously as “passable, mediocre, and bad.” In fact, they are all gems, and it is a pity that van Wassenaer did not find the time or inclination to compose more in this rich vein. Van Wassenaer is not alone in his circle of talented composer-noblemen. Several men of his stature would have been encouraged to pursue musical studies on the side (although not as a “serious” career; law degrees like that earned by van Wassenaer at the University of Leiden were much more suitable for them then as now). Successful noblemen such as van Wassenaer were also destined to embark upon a European “Grand Tour” (hence the name of our season) whereupon they were exposed to music as well as literature, politics, philosophy, and the like. Van Wassenaer’s tour was made over two years (1717-18) and included the musically rich cities of Rome, Venice, Naples, and Paris, among many others.
Giuseppe Valentini (1681-1753), born in Florence, quickly made his way to Rome. He is known to have been employed there as early as 1697, at the age of 11. Known as “Straccioncino” (“Little Ragamuffin”) Valentini until only recently has been largely overlooked. Like many of his contemporaries, he composed mostly in a Corelli-like fashion, with overlapping harmonies, imitative upper lines, sequential harmonies, and concertino (a soloist or small group of soloists) vs. ripieno (a larger group of players) sections. He succeeded Corelli at San Luigi del Francesi in 1710 as director of the concertino and worked at no fewer than eight churches, most simultaneously, over the next forty-plus years. Valentini was well respected and eventually gained a place in the prestigious Arcadian Academy. He may have been Locatelli’s teacher upon the composer’s arrival in 1711; certainly they knew each other’s music. Valentini may also have influenced Vivaldi through the former’s Concerti a Quattro Violini, published in Bologna in 1710, one year before Vivaldi’s famous L’Estro Armonico (and two years before the Concerti were reprinted in Amsterdam). In particular, Valentini’s Concerto Op. 7 No. 11, played here, departs from Corelli’s concertino/ripieno structure by giving each player equal billing. The four violinists, the violist, and cellist all take their solo turns much like they would later in Vivaldi’s Op. 3, and in van Wassenaer’s subsequent Concerti Armonici. Valentini always strove to push the conventional limits; of Op.7, he states that he “tried to write them in a new style, thinking that novelties do not usually displease.”
Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos, RV 531 celebrates the relatively new-found popularity of the violoncello as a solo instrument. Their rise rested largely on the invention of low strings wound in metal, which were thinner and produced a more pleasing sound. Vivaldi seems to revel in the low bass sounds at the very opening of this concerto and contrasts them favorably in the soulful melodies of the slow movement that sit in a higher tessitura.
Amsterdam’s rich heritage as a multi-cultural melting pot in the eighteenth century served to produce, preserve, and disseminate much of the finest music from all of Europe. Much survives today, and can be freely downloaded from the Internet and performed. It is thanks in no small part to the publishing houses of Amsterdam, and the insatiable musical appetites of its European public, that we can discover and enjoy so much of their music today.