Program Notes: Bach & Britten, Nov. 19th, 8pm at Dallas City Performance Hall

 In News, Program Notes

For tickets, click here. Or, call the box office at (214) 449-1294.

Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G, BWV 1048

Johann Sebastian Bach
Born 21 March, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany
Died 28 July, 1750 in Leipzig, Germany

The town of Cöthen is approximately 60 miles north of Weimar and west of Leipzig.  During the early 18th century, it was the political center of the wealthy house of Anhalt-Cöthen (pronounced AHN-halt KUR-ten).  Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1694-1728) was a great music lover who played viola da gamba, violin, and harpsichord; he also sang bass.  Upon reaching his maturity in 1715, he set about building up his court orchestra.  When Johann Sebastian Bach joined Leopold’s musical staff as Kapellmeister in late 1717, the young prince employed 18 musicians.  That may sound modest to us, but Cöthen’s orchestra was then one of the largest and finest in northern Europe.

Early in 1719, the prince sent Bach to Berlin, probably to negotiate the purchase of a new harpsichord.  Scholars believe that Bach encountered Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg on that journey.  The Margrave, uncle to the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm I, evidently collected concertos, for there were nearly 200 in his private library at his death.  After hearing Bach play, he asked him to compose some concertos.

At this early stage in his career, Bach was known primarily as a performer.  He had, thus far, composed almost exclusively for solo instruments and for small ensembles.  The six concertos he sent to Christian Ludwig in 1721 may have been his first orchestral works.

Having little prior experience writing such compositions as the Margrave requested, Bach wrote for his court orchestra at Cöthen.  Unfortunately, the Margrave’s instrumental resources were more modest than those of Prince Leopold.  Although Christian Ludwig earned himself a measure of immortality through Bach’s dedication, he never had the works performed in his own court.

The letters “BWV” stand for Bach Werke Verzeichnis, or “Catalogue of Bach’s Works,” by Wolfgang Schmieder (1901-1990), a German music librarian who first undertook an exhaustive bibliographical study of Bach’s compositions and compiled a comprehensive thematic catalogue identifying every known work. Each of the Brandenburg Concertos has a different BWV number. Sometimes these numbers are referred to as a “Schmieder listing,” after the catalogue’s author.

The third concerto is for strings alone, plus harpsichord continuo. Bach specified three players each on violin, viola, and cello. These three groups of three allow for fascinating visual as well as musical counterpoint. Sometimes Bach has each section play in unison, other times in three-part harmony. Consequently, the possibility exists at any given moment from one to nine individual parts to sound simultaneously. In performance one can actually see the musical material being passed from one group to the next. More a concerto grosso than a solo concerto, the Third Brandenburg has no soloists–or rather, every player is a soloist. Even the harpsichord has a central role, although its function is background rather than foreground. By reinforcing the bass with chords and sometimes other improvised figuration, the harpsichord ‘anchors’ the string ensemble, providing both harmonic and rhythmic continuity.

With its consistent anapest rhythm [short-short-long], the familiar first movement maintains a motoric consistency throughout. Despite the almost unrelieved density of its texture, it is melodic and sometimes even vocal. Structurally, it bears a resemblance to the Baroque da capo aria. Bach uses a considerable amount of unison writing.

The most unusual and controversial aspect of the third Brandenburg is the two chords that separates its outer movement. Were they intended to be music’s briefest slow movement? Or was Bach encouraging an opportunity for the first violinist (or another soloist) to improvise a florid cadenza? Modern performance practice has favored the latter approach, providing a transition to the whirlwind roller-coaster ride in 12/8 meter that closes the concerto. The spirited vigor of Bach’s music still pleases. As beloved and familiar as an old friend, this music is as fresh today as it was nearly 300 years ago.

– Laurie Shulman ©2013

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Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31 (1943)

Benjamin Britten
Born 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England
Died 1976 in Aldeburgh, England

How could a French horn concerto have texts by six different poets?  Hornist Dennis Brain must have asked himself that question in 1943 when he proposed that his friend Benjamin Britten write a work for him, and Britten came back to him with this Serenade.  Only recently returned from his brief sojourn in the United States during the early years of the war, Britten was immersed in vocal works, particularly settings of English texts.  All of them served as a sort of warmup for his first major tragic opera, Peter Grimes (1945).

In writing the Serenade, Britten assembled an eclectic group of his favorite poems. They include verse by the Romantic masters Tennyson and Keats as well as earlier poets:  the Restoration’s Charles Cotton, the Elizabethan-Jacobean Ben Jonson, the mystic 18th-century poet William Blake, and an anonymous 15th-century dirge. Though diverse both chronologically and stylistically, the texts he chose share common literary themes.  All the poems are concerned with evening, and many of them with sleep, which is sometimes a metaphor for death.

Brain need not have questioned Britten’s creative direction.  Faithful to the spirit of a concerto, Britten wrote his horn part obbligato [obligatory; i.e. an accompanying part of essential importance that must not be omitted], making the brass instrument a virtual co-star with the tenor soloist.  Solo French horn both opens and closes the work, with a Prologue and Epilogue, played on natural harmonics, that serve as an eloquent frame for the poetry. The horn plays the Epilogue offstage. Much of the tenor’s material derives from the music of this introduction and postlude. With infinite subtlety and skill, Britten explores the varied rhythmic and melodic implications of the horn Prologue, adjusting for the shifting moods of the poems he selected.

The Serenade was written not only for Dennis Brain but also for Peter Pears, the tenor who was to create most of the principal tenor roles in Britten’s operas.  It is the first work in which the artistic partnership between Britten and Pears blossomed.  Brain’s phenomenal technique as surely influenced the demanding obbligato part, which is particularly prominent in the Blake Elegy and the scherzo-like “Hymn.”  Britten’s virtuosic runs for tenor and horn in the “Hymn” bespeak an admirable partnership of music-making and technique, as does the splendid text-painting on “Blow, bugle, blow” in the Tennyson “Nocturne.”

– Laurie Shulman ©2013

For tickets, click here. Or, call the box office at (214) 449-1294.

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