SCGO

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Programme Notes

Festival Finale – German Baroque Masters Concert 27th June 2015 8pm

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle in Saxony in 1685. In his twenties he emigrated to Britain, where he spent most of his adult life, becoming a British subject. He was a staunch supporter of the Hanoverian monarchy. 1745 was not a good year for Handel. His finances were precarious, with the prospect of bankruptcy being very real. In addition, the country had been rocked by a rebellion aimed at restoring the Stuarts to the throne. The rebellion, led by Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, began in the Highlands. It was initially successful, winning a major victory at Prestonpans. The royal army was hurriedly recalled from the Netherlands, but the Jacobite army reached as far south as Derby before being repelled. It suffered its final, bloody defeat at Culloden on April 16 1746 by government forces commanded by the king’s son, the Duke of Cumberland. Handel responded to the events with two major works. Judas Maccabaeus was written in 1746 following the return from Culloden of the Duke of Cumberland, and premiered in 1747. His more immediate response was The Occasional Oratorio, written while the rebellion was still under way, and very defiant in nature. Handel wrote the work to a libretto by Newburgh Hamilton in January and February 1746. It received its premiere on February 14. Handel borrowed extensively in the work, and was later to use music from it in other compositions. The splendid Overture is in four movements. The first two were probably written for the revival of Deborah in 1744. The allegro borrows a theme from Telemann’s Tafelmusik. The B minor third movement, featuring the oboe, was newly composed. The final movement brings the work to a stirring conclusion and sets the martial scene for the oratorio.

Among Handel’s earliest extant works is a set of six trios of two oboes and bass, written at the age of ten. He once remarked that he wrote like the Devil for the oboe when he was young. Handel wrote several concertos for the instrument. The Concerto in B flat, HWV 302a, may have been written for the Dutch oboist Jean Christian Kytch. Handel borrowed extensively from earlier works when writing it, particularly the Chandos Anthems O come, let us sing unto the Lord and I will magnify thee. It is in four movements.

Georg Philipp Telemann was a slightly older contemporary of both Handel and Bach, born in Magdeburg in 1681. He had friendships with both. He and Handel met when in their teens and corresponded extensively throughout their lives. Telemann was an amateur botanist, and on occasion Handel sent him botanical specimens. Handel was also a subscriber to Telemann’s Tafelmusik collection, from which he borrowed extensively. Telemann’s friendship with Bach was close enough for him to be godfather to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and for Bach to name his son after him. Carl Philipp was eventually to succeed him as the director of music for the city of Hamburg. In his lifetime he was much better known than J. S. Bach, and indeed was considered the better musician. He was offered the post of Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, but turned it down for the Hamburg job. The Leipzig post went to the second choice, J. S. Bach. His salary at Hamburg was nearly three times that of Bach in Leipzig.

Telemann was largely self-taught and was proficient on many instruments. As in the case of Handel, his parents wished him to study law, but the draw of music was too great. He was a very prolific composer. This was partly the result of his unhappy private life. His first wife died just a few months after their marriage. His second wife had a series of extramarital affairs and ran up huge gambling debts. Telemann was forced to compose a large volume of music to pay them off. She left him anyway. The concertos for four violins without basso continuo are an innovative form, and also well suited for home performance, increasing their potential sales. His concerto for three trumpets was written in 1716 and performed in the celebrations of the birth of Prince Leopold, heir to Emperor Charles VI. As well as the exciting writing for the trumpets, the work also features a beautiful arietta for solo oboe.

Johann Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg in 1653. He was a highly respected musician and prolific composer, most of whose work is now forgotten. He was a friend of the Bach family, who in 1694 asked him to provide music for the wedding of Johann Christoph Bach. If Pachelbel attended the wedding, he may have met Johann Christoph’s younger brother, the nine-year old Johann Sebastian Bach. His most famous work, the Canon, survived in only one manuscript copy. It was published in 1919, and later arranged by the German musicologist Max Seiffert. In 2002 Pete Waterman described it as “almost the godfather of pop music, because we’ve all used that in our own ways for the past thirty years.”

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach in 1685, and so was Handel’s exact contemporary. He is now regarded as one of the towering figures of Western music. He came from a family of professional musicians. After a number of appointments in princely courts, he became Kantor of the Leipzig Thomaskirche. There his duties required him to provide a huge amount of music for church services, direct the music and run the choir school. In his day he was little known outside the musical world and was largely forgotten after his death. The revival of Bach’s works began in earnest when Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy put on a performance of his St. Matthew Passion. Although much of Bach’s output was written for church performance, he also directed Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, a voluntary association of musicians and students. It gave weekly concerts, outdoors in summer and in a coffee house in winter. These concerts gave Bach the chance to turn away from sacred music and let his hair down a little. It is likely that the four orchestral suites were performed in these concerts. The most famous movement is the Air, known as the Air on the G String. This is just one of the many riches in the work and provides a gentle contrast to the drama of the high trumpets.

© 2015 Peter Jones

String Quartet Concert 7th March 2015 7.45pm

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) String Quartet in A major, Opus 18, No 5

Allegro. Menuetto. Andante cantabile. Allegro

Of Beethoven’s seventeen string quartets, the six published as Opus 18 in 1801 are his first essays in this, the most personal of all compositional forms. Despite showing the influence of Haydn and Mozart, they are mature, authentic Beethoven.

Opus 18, No 5 is delightfully lyrical. The first movement skips along playfully in jaunty triple time, and the harmony rarely leaves the major mode for any length of time. In this movement (but not only there) the first violin soars above the texture.

In the minuet the first theme is given out firstly by the two violins in duet then by the viola accompanied by the other instruments. The first section then unfolds in an easy, relaxed mood. In the middle section, which has the character of a peasant dance, the second theme is in the middle of the texture, played in octaves by the second violin and viola. Note the strong accent on the third beat of each bar. The first section returns to round out the movement.

The slow movement, in D major, uses a favourite device of Beethoven’s, the theme and variations. The theme is a simple, easily recognizable AABB pattern, the opening of which is announced in sixths by the two violins, then in thirds by the lower instruments. Five highly contrasting variations follow, in the last one of which the second violin and viola punch out the tune an octave apart, while the first violin trills and twitters above and the cello adds a steady bass line below. The liveliness is abruptly arrested and the music suddenly shifts into B flat. In the ensuing coda, the music, more sedate again, modulates through D and G back to D, where, slowing down, it finally comes to rest.

The last movement, a fast-paced allegro, is built entirely upon the contrast of its two main musical ideas, the first a busy theme with chattering figuration, the second given out in long notes harmonized like a chorale. The finale ends quietly.

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975) Elegy and Polka

Adagio. Allegretto

The fifteen string quartets composed by Shostakovich between 1938 and 1974 represent one of the greatest achievements in 20th-century chamber music. But these two short pieces pre-date this great corpus, having been composed in 1931. They are arrangements of music from two of his stage works. He wrote them out during a single evening as a gift to the Vuillaume Quartet,

The Elegy, an achingly beautiful, emotionally charged movement, is derived from the accompaniment to Katerina’s aria in Act 1, scene 3 of the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, on which Shostakovich was working at the time. In the opera, the principal character Katerina Izmailova bemoans her joyless life in a loveless marriage. The Elegy is in complete contrast to the Polka, a parody of Josef Strauss’ Pizzicato Polka taken from Shostakovich’s 1930 satirical ballet The Age of Gold, about a Soviet football team visiting the West. It contrasts the vigour of Soviet youth with Western decadence.

Franz Schubert (1797–1828) String Quartet No, 14 in D minor, D 810

Allegro. Andante con moto. Scherzo (Allegro molto). Presto

Schubert wrote his landmark “Death and the Maiden” Quartet in D minor, D 810, in March 1824 while recovering from a severe illness. It was the second of a set of three he planned to publish that year, but it did not see publication until 1831, three years after Schubert died. It received no public performance while he lived and was heard only once, at a private home in 1826.

The name “Death and the Maiden” comes from the fact that the slow movement is a set of variations on a theme taken from a song of that name, which Schubert wrote in 1817 to a text by Matthias Claudius (1740–1815). It is a short dialogue between a young girl and Death depicting both the terror and the comfort that can attend the end of life. There are some scholars who think that death stalks this entire Quartet.

The introduction to the first movement comprises a five-note fortissimo call to attention, incorporating a triplet motif that will come to dominate the whole work, and a pianissimo chorale-like phrase, indicative of the abrupt mood changes to be found in every movement. An energetic first subject, in which the triplets abound, and a smoother second subject, announced by the violins in thirds over a tripletized bass line, together with its frenetic transformation, form the exposition. The development focuses on the second subject, and the recapitulation briefly reprises the introduction and first and second themes before another chorale leads to the coda, The movement ends with the triplet figure dying away.

The slow movement opens with the statement of the “Death and the Maiden” theme in G minor, after which follow five diversely embellished variations. All but the third variation are relaxed or lyrical, with the theme easily discernible within the textures. The third variation is full of storm and stress, marked by a galloping figure over which the first violin plays a high-lying variant of the theme. The fourth variation is in G major, while the last leads naturally to a restatement of the original theme also in G major, bringing the movement to a tranquil close.

The scherzo contains two iterations of dramatic music in D minor, fast-paced, demonic and full of syncopations and abrupt dynamic contrasts, framing a central trio in D major, which is an island of repose amid the stormy seas of the outer sections. Here the tempo is slower and the theme a typically Schubertian melody.

The final movement is a frenzied tarantella in rondo-sonata form. The main section abounds in dotted figures, triplets and dramatic changes in dynamics. It alternates with a sort of chorale but played pesante with no change of pace and soon joined by accompanying triplets, and a third section full of swirls of triplets and other rhythmic complexities. The call to attention from the first movement’s introduction also reappears. Eventually, in a final prestissimo section Schubert ramps up the pace, and after a flurry of triplets punctuated by dotted figures, the quartet ends with great force.

© 2015 William Gould