Baroque & Beyond

Donna Conaty, oboe
Ellen Connors, bassoon
Victoria Moreira, violin
John Pellegrino, bass
Aya Hamada, harpsichord


The composers featured on this afternoon’s program offer up a generous and attractive swath of the musical Baroque era, the name historians have ascribed to the years 1600-1750. It was during this time that instrumental music truly came into its own; (the prior “Renaissance” era was largely dominated by vocal music and instrumental compositions, more often than not, sprang from vocal influences).

Among the most pioneering of the era’s instrumental composers was Arcangelo Corelli, an Italian violin virtuoso who, despite a somewhat limited compositional output, actually exercised an unparalleled influence on generations of violinists and composers who followed. Born in the vicinity of Bologna, Corelli made his first formal appearance in 1675, when he appeared in Rome as a violinist hired for a church oratorio performance. The fact suggests that Corelli, whose ability would soon thrust him to the forefront of the day’s concert violinists, was a relative newcomer to Rome and still under the radar. Corelli went on to spend the bulk of his professional violin career performing with various church orchestras (where work was probably most steady) until 1687, when he signed on as music master for Cardinal Ottoboni (later Pope Alexander VIII) and in whose palace he later lived. Around 1708 the violinist retired from public view and dedicated himself to composition.

Corelli’s is remembered both for his pioneering contributions to violin writing—the instrument was just coming into its own during Corelli’s lifetime—and his series of church and chamber sonatas (along with his larger-scaled chamber orchestra concerti). For Corelli, though his chamber works were abstract instrumental compositions, a distinction existed between the two settings, at least in theory: those sonatas intended for the chamber, or “Camera,” tended to be lighter in style and included dance types of the day (gigues, allemandes, and so on) while those compositions composed for the church, or “Chiesa,” such as the D minor trio heard on this program, were somewhat more serious in nature, tended to revolve around slow movements and typically involved contrapuntal writing (the art of setting independent voices against one another and a hallmark of the Baroque). As time went on, however, the church and chamber styles become less individual and more blended. Regardless, Corelli’s sonatas, such as today’s work which was scored originally for two violins and accompaniment, were among the first instrumental classics; they were reprinted often and so frequently imitated that Corelli’s originals came to be thought of as almost flat and stale. Today we hear and understand Corelli’s masterpieces quite differently: the Italian’s violins sparkle with unmistakable Italian grace and flair and his scores provide a window into the world of virtuoso violin writing that Corelli did so much to propel forward.

The music of Frenchman Joseph Bodin de Boismortier represents, along with J.S. Bach and Fasch, the musical high Baroque. Also a music publisher, Boismortier composed primarily for amateur performers, no doubt an attempt to find a wider audience for his considerable output. Though transverse flute was among the composer’s favorites, Boismortier wrote for nearly every instrument of the day, be it cello (as with the sonatas heard here), bassoon or even hurdy-gurdy, and his diverse portfolio includes great quantities of chamber music, concerti, stage works and vocal cantatas. As will be plainly evident, his melodies were attractive and his style deeply influenced by the Italians (think back to Corelli’s influence) and always designed to please to his listeners. This is not to suggest his music lacks merit, however. To the contrary, as one of his fellow French composers put it, “anyone who will take the trouble to excavate this abandoned mine might find enough gold dust there to make up an ingot.”

Though a figure long overshadowed by J.S. Bach (an almost exact contemporary), Weimar-born Johann Friedrich Fasch was nevertheless among the most significant composers of his day. Fasch had no regular instruction in composition, yet his talent was recognized early on and quickly earned him commissions from royal patrons. Fasch eventually held positions as a court violinist in Bayreuth and later as a Kapellmeister, or music director, in Prague, though he ultimately ended up in the provincial town of Zerbst, where he spent the remaining thirty-six years of his life. Though he earned his living composing church cantatas and festival music, none of his music was actually published during his lifetime. Yet by trading music with established composers elsewhere, his reputation spread far beyond his adopted city.

Fasch’s style reflects a composer moving from the high Baroque to the early Classical style. As to the former, Fasch made liberal use of Italian Baroque structures and he could write fugues with the best of them, save perhaps J.S. Bach, whose abilities seemed to surpass the mortal. Yet we also note, for example, Fasch’s balanced phrasing (one musical idea seems to answer that which came before), so typical of the encroaching Classical era. If the slow-fast-slow-fast outlines of his F major Sonata (originally scored for two oboes) and his predictable harmonies reflect Fasch’s conservative approach, the charm of his melodic lines will appeal to many who may regard Bach’s music as overly serious. Here again we note the Italian influence on this all-but-forgotten German composer, whose musical vocabulary signaled the coming age of Haydn and Mozart.

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach represents both the high Baroque and a high water mark in western music. Like the sculptures of Michelangelo or the stage works of Shakespeare, Bach raised his art to unprecedented heights and his brilliant counterpoint, the ingenuity of his solo instrumental works and the depth of expression achieved in his religious works were never to be surpassed. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that during his lifetime Bach was known almost entirely as an organist (albeit a brilliant one); it wasn’t until after his death that the power and extent of his compositions were truly understood and appreciated. Bach’s D major keyboard Toccata provides a brilliant summation of his musical vocabulary and approach. As with Toccatas in general, this one is built of several unrelated sections. The work opens in a fluid, improvisatory style—one can almost hear Bach at the harpsichord warming to his task—before giving way to a jaunty, lyrical Allegro. An extended, reflective Adagio follows, itself comprised of several sections: the first, characterized by its dotted rhythms; the second, a chromatically dense and harmonically daring fugue in F sharp minor; and a concluding section characterized by rapid flourishes that Bach could have improvised on the spot. Without pause, Bach then launches into a concluding fugue, an almost quaint, 6/8 dance that whisks this well-known Toccata to its uplifting final bars.

Today’s program concludes with music by a friend of Bach, the immensely talented Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. Actually a double bass player by training, Zelenka left a position with the royal orchestra of Dresden to study composition in Vienna and Venice. After returning to Vienna and gathering up a collection of music by great composers, he returned to Dresden, where he lived out his life. Matters did not end happily for the gifted composer, for he was passed over for a significant post, which went to the well-known composer J.A. Hasse, and Zelenka spent his final years regretting his lack of recognition. Among those who admired the composer’s work, however, were both Bach and Telemann, particularly on account of Zelenka’s contrapuntal mastery—which, given Bach’s abilities in this domain, speaks volumes—and harmonic inventiveness. As his Trio for oboe, violin and bassoon (and continuo accompaniment) bears out, Zelenka struck an ideal balance between all the aspects of Baroque composition—charming melodies, engaging rhythms, pleasing counterpoint and expressive harmonies. And although not a name often associated with “the greats” of the Baroque, in truth Zelenka’s scores masterly incorporated many of the era’s most significant aspects, and did so at the highest level. More the pity, then, that the composer died lonely, believing that his contributions would be forgotten.

© Marc Moskovitz