Program Notes for Classics 3: The Three Violins of Rachel Barton Pine1617-rb-pine-rec

PIETRO ANTONIO LOCATELLI
Violin concerto in D Major, op. 3, no. 12, The Harmonic Labyrinth

Background

Pietro Antonio Locatelli was born in Bergamo on September 3, 1695, and died in Amsterdam on March 30, 1764. His Opus 3 volume of 12 violin concertos was published in Amsterdam in 1733. The score calls for a solo violin accompanied by string orchestra with continuo. Duration is about 18 minutes.

Pietro Locatelli was among the most distinguished of the many Italian violinists who spread over the continent of Europe during the 18th century in the hopes of emulating the success of Corelli and later of Vivaldi. Born in the north Italian city of Bergamo, Locatelli was clearly already a violinist to be reckoned with at the age of 16, when he applied for leave from his post in a local church to go study in Rome. The leave was granted, and he arrived in Rome in the last year of Corelli’s life (it has sometimes been claimed that he was Corelli’s pupil, but the older master was ill at the time and it is not clear if there was in fact a connection). Locatelli stayed in and around Rome for a number of years. In 1725 he received a title in Mantua, which marked the first of a series of moves northward. In 1727 and 1728 he went to Munich and Berlin, and finally in 1729 he settled in Amsterdam, where he remained for the rest of his life.

One of the main reasons for establishing himself in Amsterdam was that it was one of the major music-publishing centers of the day, with access to markets in England and the north as well as central Europe and the south. In fact, Locatelli acted as his own publisher for his chamber works. He brought out his Opus 5 sonatas in 1736; this was a collection of six trio sonatas—a form that was rapidly becoming old-fashioned, though Locatelli's contributions to the genre are, nonetheless, full of grace and a nice sense of instrumental effect. His last surviving work was a set of 10 trio sonatas published as Opus 8 in 1744 (he apparently issued an Opus 9, but no copies are known today).

Locatelli’s works reflect his own abilities as a violinist—and in that respect he was one of the major virtuosos of his time, extending almost every aspect of instrumental technique. While many works of Corelli, for example, can be played entirely in low hand positions on the fingerboard, some of Locatelli’s more demanding pieces are far higher (one sonata calls for a high b in the 22nd position!) He systematically pursued advanced left-hand techniques like multiple stops (playing chords with three or four strings simultaneously), trills, double trills and polyphony (two melodies at the same time). Even today his virtuoso showpieces remain a challenge.

As a performer, Locatelli was certainly in the advance guard of a new generation of violin virtuosi. While his concerti grossi are on the conservative side, reflecting an older tradition, his solo sonatas are more modern and often quite daring. His Opus 3 was a set of 12 solo violin concertos and 24 caprices for unaccompanied violin, published in 1733 under the bold title, The Art of the Violin. So astonishing were their technical demands that 19th century violinists dubbed him “The Paganini of the 18th Century.”

About the Music

The final concerto of the set, in D Major, bears the heading “The Harmonic Labyrinth” with a motto in Latin: “Easy to get into, hard to get out of.” The opening Allegro starts with simple scales and double-stops with repeated notes, while the Largo that follows suggests minor key elements with chromatic touches. Then comes the driven Allegro filled with arpeggios and runs, leaving an opportunity for an improvised cadenza before racing to its breathless finish.

ANTONIO VIVALDI
Concerto in D minor for viola d’amore and strings, RV395

Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice on March 4, 1678, and died in Vienna in July (buried on the 28th) 1741. The dates of composition and first performance of the D-minor concerto, RV395, are unknown. In addition to the soloist, the score calls for an orchestra of strings and continuo. Duration is about 11 minutes.

Background

For a time in the 18th century Antonio Vivaldi was the most famous and influential Venetian composer of the day, largely on the strength of his many hundreds of concertos, which established a style and a flexible form that other composers imitated for decades. But by the time of his death even the concertos were beginning to fall into an oblivion from which they emerged as a by-product of Bach’s research in the 19th century. The discovery that J.S. Bach had taken Vivaldi seriously enough to copy out entire works and to rework some of his violin concertos for keyboard and orchestra caused a generation of late 19th-century scholars to view Vivaldi in a more respectful light.

Vivaldi was fortunate to grow up in the Italian city with the richest musical tradition of his day. His father was a violinist, though he had apparently started life following his father’s trade as a baker. But by the time Antonio was born, music was the father’s full-time profession. He had been hired as a violinist at St. Mark’s under the surname Rossi (“Red”), which suggests that the nickname later given to his son, “Il prete rosso” (“The red priest”), came from the hair color, so striking in northern Italy, that was genetically dominant in the family. From childhood he suffered from a “tightness of the chest” which has been variously interpreted as asthma or angina pectoris. The fragility of his health required an entourage devoted to his care, but it did not prevent him from undertaking extensive tours during the years of his greatest fame under traveling conditions that we would find daunting.

Vivaldi was tonsured at age 15 and ordained a priest in March 1703, but for some reason—his ill health and complete absorption with music have both been suggested—he ceased saying Mass almost immediately and had little or no experience in a pastoral capacity. His musical training and interest were distinctly secular. In September of 1703 he joined the staff of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà as violin teacher and later as concert director. The institution was one of four charitable, state-run orphanages in Venice. Boys were taught practical skills like carpentry and horseshoeing, which could lead to a trade. The girls were given special training in music, and their frequent concerts were a high point in the Venetian social and artistic season. (Of course, the emphasis on musical training at these orphanages was not brought about solely from artistic motives on the part of the government, but rather to assure that the girls, when they came of age, could attract a husband who might support them and take them off the public rolls, or take orders as a nun and remain a musician in the convent. Nonetheless at least some of them became professional musicians in their own right. It was for the remarkably talented girls in this institution that Vivaldi composed most of his sonatas and concertos.

Vivaldi wrote hundreds of concertos for violin, dozens for cello, a substantial number for flute or bassoon—and just six for the Viola d’amore. The name of the instrument means “love viol,” which refers to the sounds produced by sympathetic strings placed underneath the keyboard to resonate in sympathetic vibration to the strings actually played by the performer.

About the Music

Four of the viola d’amore concertos are in the key of D minor (the other two are in the closely related key of A minor). This concerto has the typical three-movement layout of fast –slow—fast. The first is vigorous and march like in character, with elaborate decorations in the solo passages. The slow movement is largely chamber music for the soloist and continuo players, unfolding lyrically with a kind of shy, hesitating melody. The closing movement suggests the lively tread of a joyous dance.

CAMILLE SAINT SAËNS
Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, op. 28

Background

Camille Saint Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers on December 16, 1921. He composed the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in 1863 for the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 10 minutes.

Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is the work of a young man, not yet 30. It attained an early and lasting success as a showcase for virtuoso violinists. The 19th century was filled with examples of compositions made difficult simply for the sake of difficulty; a few of these offer, in addition, a colorful imagination that moves beyond virtuosity for its own sake to new expressive possibilities. Saint-Saëns highlights the solo violin from beginning to end in writing of fantastic virtuosity employing the idiomatic Spanish rhythms so beloved of French romantic composers.

In this case the Spanish rhythms were obviously called for because the piece was written for Pablo de Sarasate, the Spanish violinist who was a wonder of the age. Sarasate had called on Saint-Saëns in 1859, when the acclaimed virtuoso was still only 15 years old, to request a violin concert from him. The result was Saint-Saëns’s First Violin Concerto, Opus 20. Thus began a period in which his friendship with Sarasate became a major stimulus for the composition of works for the violin. Four years after the first concerto, he composed the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, which Sarasate at once popularized and which has remained a favorite with virtuosos to this day.

About the Music

The structure, a two-movement form that begins slow and ends fast, comes from contemporary opera, with the violin soloist acting as a replacement for the diva in the standard two-movement aria developed decades before by the young Saint-Saëns’s elderly friend Rossini. Both in the opera house and on the concert stage there is a fundamental logic to this favored genre for virtuoso performers: The first section allows the performer to display every aspect of expressive performance in the lyrical mode—sustained singing lines, cadential sighs, and elegant legatos. The fast section that followed showed off the brilliance and celerity with which the performer could toss off runs, trills, turns, and other special effects designed to delight an audience inclined to regard music as an athletic event with passages requiring consummate skill for their execution. The natural form for such an exhibition is the rondo, in which the main tune would come around several times, only to be presented in a guise more brilliant than before.

TRACY SILVERMAN
Anthem 25
, for electric violin and orchestra

Background

Tracy Silverman was born in New York and raised in Beloit, Wisconsin. His Anthem 25 was composed for the 25th anniversary season of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and was premiered at the closing concert of the season, with the composer as soloist and Andrew Sewell conducting. Duration is about 6 minutes.

Though he was born in New York, Tracy Silverman was raised in Beloit, Wisconsin, and entered the Chicago Musical College in his teens. He studied the classical repertoire at Juilliard (from which he graduated in 1980), but he is primarily known for work in the realms of jazz, contemporary classical, and rock. His instrument is the 6-string electric violin, which he created soon after graduating from Juilliard, and with which he can produce sonorities apt for any of his musical worlds. The new instrument was legitimized when John Adams wrote a concerto for it, The Dharma at Big Sur in 2003.

About the Music

Regarding Anthem 25 the composer writes:

After a rousing brass fanfare, the electric violin states the clarion-like principle melodic motif. A contrasting lyrical theme leads to a quieter rhythmic groove, driven by the “strumming” of the electric violin. This groove soon leads back to the main melodic motif and then impulsively bursts into a faster closing section in which the orchestral layers pile up over the driving rhythm of the violin, which is playing a rhythmic variation of the motif, in a full throttled crescendo. I wanted to create a sense of celebration within the orchestra itself, so I have incorporated a good deal of dialogue between various instrument sections and also within the percussion section itself, with timpani and bass drums placed on either side of the stage. My goal was for each section of the orchestra to do what they do best in a sort of self-congratulatory party for themselves.

WOLFGANG MOZART
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550

Background

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756 and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. His last three symphonies, K. 543, 550, and 551, were all composed during the summer of 1788, probably for a series of subscription concerts that seem not to have taken place. Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, was completed on July 25, 1788. The score originally called for flute, two each of oboes, bassoons, and horns, plus strings. Later Mozart rewrote the two oboe parts for two each of oboes and clarinets, and it is the version with clarinets that will be heard at this performance. Duration is about 35 minutes.

One of the greatest miracles in the history of music is Mozart’s achievement in the summer of 1788, composing his last three symphonies all in the space of six weeks. The sheer speed is daunting; even more impressive is the striking variety between the three works, each of which has a character and mood all its own. The middle work, in G minor, was completed on July 25; we have no record that any of these symphonies was ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime, though he is unlikely to have composed something as elaborate as a symphony (much less three of them) purely “on spec,” and he must have anticipated some concert series on which they would be heard.

By June 1788 Mozart’s fortunes had entered on the long decline that culminated in his death, at age 35, three-and-a-half years later. He was the kind of man who could never stop spending money faster than he earned it, and when the Viennese public found other novelties for amusement, Mozart’s star began to fall. By early June 1788, only weeks after the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart was forced to write to his friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, requesting the loan of 100 gulden. Again on June 17 he needed money to pay his landlord and asked Puchberg for a few hundred gulden “until tomorrow.” Yet again on the 27th he wrote to thank Puchberg for the money so freely lent him, but also to report that he needed still more and did not know where to turn for it.

Clearly Mozart was in serious financial difficulty. During the summer he composed some educational pieces, which could serve students well, and some easy pieces that might be expected to have a good sale when published—practical ways of earning money. Yet he also composed three whole symphonies, an unlikely solution to his money problems, unless he had some plan of using them in a practical way. His first letter to Puchberg referred to “concerts in the Casino” from which he hoped to obtain subscription money in order to repay his debts. It seems, then, that he wrote all three of the symphonies with the aim of introducing them at his own concerts. But as far as we know, the concerts never took place, and Mozart probably never heard these three great contributions to the symphonic repertory.

About the Music

The symphony conventionally numbered 40 (Mozart never numbered any of them) was destined to become his most famous. It was one of the few Mozart symphonies to remain in the repertory throughout the Romantic era, thanks largely to its “romantic” use of the minor mode, though no less perceptive a critic than Robert Schumann failed to find in it the pathos that seems so striking to us; Schumann regarded the symphony merely as a work of grace and charm. His view strikingly illustrates the way stylistic change—in particular the extremes of romantic expression—made the great achievements of the preceding generation seem emotionally limited. Only the last half century has come fully to appreciate the expressive variety, ambiguity, and power in a musical language that is so polished and precise. Yet that polish conceals an element of the demonic, not least in the fact that this symphony remains in the minor through the last movement, when virtually all other minor-key symphonies of the day would relent and offer a cheerful last movement in the major.

The opening is nearly unique among classical symphonies—a hushed rustling, growing out of silence. A symphony is a public event, and in Mozart’s day it was customary to begin with a loud chord played with a downbow in all the strings, to get things off to a solid start (the performances were conductorless), to establish the home key in no uncertain terms and possibly to shush the audience. Even in those Mozart symphonies in which the allegro starts softly, it is always preceded by a slow introduction that begins forte.

But in Symphony No. 40 we are instantly in the middle of things before we realize it. The theme emphasizes an expressive falling semi-tone, an age-old expression of yearning; the melody and accompaniment raise questions about where the beat really falls in the phrase. Modulation begins already after the first emphatic cadence, and we soon reach the second theme in the relative major. Here we have to give Schumann full points: even if the passion of the symphony was lost on him, no one can dispute the grace of the new theme, with its passing chromatic tones, which prove to have consequences later. The ambiguity of phrasing so important in this movement is splendidly illustrated in the return to the main theme at the recapitulation, where the violins are already playing the long upbeat to the opening phrase during the last two measures of the development, while the winds are winding down to the cadence. The continued power of the minor mode over the expressive forces of the symphony becomes clear in the recapitulation when the second theme, instead of returning in the major, now arrives in the minor, further darkening the mood.

The slow movement is in the related major key of E-flat, but it is filled with passing chromatic figures and melodic sighs, linking it to the expressive world of the first movement. Moreover, it is cast as a full sonata-form movement, which lends it greater weight. The development section remains tense in its harmonic adventures before returning to the home key for the recapitulation. The Menuetto, ostensibly a dance genre, is much too severe to suggest dancing at all; only the contrasting Trio, in the major mode, offers a brief respite from the prevailing chromatic character.

The last movement, like the first, remains in G minor at the close, a very rare case in the 18th century, in which the minor was regarded as unstable and generally “softened” at the very end of works. Even with finales that begin in the minor, the sun almost always emerges in the coda. But Mozart reiterates the minor mode throughout, building the development almost entirely out of the movement’s opening figure (which arpeggiates the minor triad), leading still further into daring harmonic realms before whirling home to the recapitulation. Here, as in the first movement, the second theme appears in the major during the exposition, but its return at the recapitulation—now in G minor—signals that there is no respite. Grace and charm (as Schumann noted) are indeed present, but Mozart offers obsessive energy and passion, too.

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

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