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The Best of Baroque Music

The Best of Baroque Music


The first half of the eighteenth century saw the culmination of a musical synthesis between elements predominant in three major musical countries in Europe. From Italy came, above all, song, from France dance and from Germany the more academic procedures that could weld these into a whole. 

Instrumental music had developed notably in the seventeenth century, as forms that were to predominate were developed. The later part of the century brought the career of the South German organist Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), a prolific composer who had drawn much from his experience of Italian music. Pachelbel served as an organist in Erfurt, where he had connections with the Bach family and taught Johann Sebastian Bach’s elder brother, Johann Christoph, with whom the former lived after the early death of his parents. Pachelbel was able to spend his final years as organist at St Sebald’s in his native Nuremberg. While his other work may be known principally to organists, his Canon and Gigue, an ingenious composition originally for three violins and continuo, has enjoyed very wide popularity, appearing in a variety of arrangements [10].


The Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) spent his later life in Rome, where he established himself as a violinist and composer, serving there the Catholic Swedish Queen Christina, Cardinal Pamphili and Cardinal Ottoboni. Contemporaries and later composers were strongly influenced, in particular, by his Concerti grossi, orchestral compositions in which a small group of solo players (two violins and continuo in Corelli’s work) are contrasted with the full string orchestra. His so-called Christmas Concerto, designed for performance on Christmas Eve, includes a pastoral movement suggesting the shepherds at Bethlehem in a musical form that was much imitated [5].


Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had met Corelli in Rome during the earlier years of the eighteenth century. Born in Halle, he had worked first at the opera in Hamburg, before travelling to Italy. Recruited as director of music to the court at Hanover, he soon found a way to move to London, where he was at first primarily occupied in the provision of Italian opera. Handel’s melodic facility and the form his musical language took suggest a different balance in the developing baroque synthesis. Nevertheless Corelli, leading an orchestra for Handel in Italy, claimed he could not grasp the latter’s ‘French’ style.  While continuing an intermittent connection with Italian opera, by 1740 Handel had found a new musical compromise in a new form, that of English oratorio. The present collection is introduced by the familiar Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, an instrumental movement from the oratorio Solomon, first heard at Covent Garden in 1749 [1]. Equally familiar is the Largo from Handel’s 1738 opera Serse, originally an aria in which Xerxes is overheard expressing his admiration for the plant life around him [7].


With a contemporary reputation that rivalled that of Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was from 1721 until his death established in Hamburg as director of music for the five principal city churches. He wrote a vast quantity of church music, and an equal amount of secular music, much of it designed for amateur players. His compositions include a number of orchestral suites or overtures, including sets of dance movements, examples of the now fashionable ‘mixed taste’ of the period. His so-called Darmstadt Overtures belong to an early part of his career, when he was employed in Frankfurt am Main, and were written for the court at Darmstadt. Movement titles indicate the character of the music, as in the Harlequinade included here [12].  Another example of Telemann’s lightness of touch is heard in his Recorder Suite, with its characteristic French movements, of which two are here included [14] & [15].

Telemann had studied at Leipzig University, where he established the Collegium musicum. In later years the direction of this instrumental ensemble was taken over by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who had moved to Leipzig in 1723 as Cantor at the Choir-School of St Thomas. Bach had served as an organist, principally at Weimar, before becoming director of court music to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in 1717. After 1723 he remained in Leipzig until his death. Much of his instrumental music originated during his years at Cöthen, including the first and fourth of his four orchestral suites. French Bourrées from the Orchestral Suite No.4 are here included [8]. The second and third suites belong to Bach’s years in Leipzig. Orchestral Suite No.2, scored for solo flute and strings, has been dated to the late 1730s. Its best-known movement remains the playful Badinerie [3]. From Orchestral Suite No.3, dated approximately to 1729-1731, comes the Air, known popularly as Air on the G string, from an arrangement for that string of the violin by the German violinist August Wilhelmj [2].


Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos take their name from the composer’s 1721 dedication of them to the Margrave of Brandenburg, and were written principally at Cöthen, although the third and sixth have been conjecturally dated to the composer’s earlier years in Weimar.  Brandenburg Concerto No.2 is scored for solo trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin, with the strings and harpsichord of the orchestra. In the third movement the solo instruments enter one after the other, led by the trumpet 6. Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 is scored for solo violin and two recorders, with strings and harpsichord. In the opening Allegro, the recorders are heard first, one echoing the other, as the lively movement unwinds [17].


The Cöthen court musical establishment provided scope for the composition of instrumental music. From Bach’s time there are three violin concertos surviving in their original form, including the fine Concerto for two violins. The slow movement is one of particular beauty, the two solo violins in dialogue above the gently lilting rhythm of the bass-line in the orchestra [4]. In Leipzig Bach arranged a number of his earlier concertos as concertos for solo harpsichord or harpsichords. His Harpsichord Concerto in F minor derived its outer movements from an oboe concerto that is now lost and its slow movement, here included, from a church cantata. Accompanied by plucked strings, the solo harpsichord offers a fine melody, gently elaborated [13].


Bach owed much to Vivaldi and other composers in Venice, where the solo concerto had developed. He made his own solo harpsichord arrangement of the Oboe Concerto by Alessandro Marcello (1684-1750), a Venetian nobleman and dilettante. The slow movement of the Oboe Concerto is here included ^. Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) also made his prolific career as a composer in Venice. His compositions include a number of fine oboe concertos, from one of which an Adagio is included 9. His name is best known, however, for an Adagio attributed to him by its true composer Remo Giazotto, who offered it as an elaboration of a fragment by Albinoni [18].


The most important of the Venetian composers of the first half of the eighteenth century was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), priest, virtuoso violinist and opera director, who for much of his life was involved with one of the institutions in Venice for the education of orphaned or indigent girls, an establishment with the strongest musical traditions. It was principally for the Ospedale della Pietà that he wrote concerto after concerto, many of them for the violin, but including a number for other instruments. Although his Flautino Concertos have sometimes been played on other solo instruments, they were originally designed for the tiny sopranino recorder. The slow movements, as here, are generally in the form of an aria for the solo instrument [11].


Keith Anderson

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