Finding a Voice: Music from the Streets of Venice to the Courts of France
A lively concert of violin sonatas by 17th-century Italian and French composers, showcasing the distinct regional styles and historically-accurate violin bows used to perform them. Dazzling virtuosity of decorated melodies gives way to flowing lyricism, the height of French baroque music under the Sun King, Louis XIV. Sylvia Schwartz, baroque violin, and John Ott, viola da gamba.
We are very happy to be bringing this concert back to Brunswick! We performed the program in the first snowstorm of 2017. The snow kept many away (understandably), and we’re so grateful that Flight Deck Brewing will be hosting us to bring you this great music again. Our 2017 concert was a fundraiser toward purchase of the historically-informed violin on generous loan to Sylvia by maker Douglas Cox of Brattleboro, Vermont. The fundraiser is still going on. If you would like to contribute, we warmly invite you to click here!
More about the Music
Our concert begins on the streets of Venice, around 1620. The city is prosperous and happy, fed by the riches that come in via the Silk Road, or by sea. Aside from the nobility, there is a rapidly-growing class of wealthy, educated craftsmen and specialists pursuing independent careers. The music is vibrant and virtuosic, and it is everywhere. It echoes from the Basilica de San Marco, where the great Claudio Monteverdi presides over as great an orchestra as has ever existed before. It resounds from the halls of the Ducal Palace, and from the churches, and from the companies of piffari (marching bands of wind and brass instruments) parading down the streets. Even more so, it spills to the streets from the homes of amateur and aspiring musicians, who now have access to this music through publishing.
Though many published editions of vocal works, especially madrigals, had been printed for generations, collections of instrumental music were comparatively rare. But Venice suddenly had a wealth of great musicians plying their trade, and it was lucrative to compose a collection of music and sell it to a publisher. Many of these collections continued to be printed and distributed throughout Europe long after their composers’ death. These printed works laid out the foundation for many instrumental music forms, including the solo violin sonata.
In 1617, Biagio Marini, one of the lead violinists of San Marco, published his first collection of instrumental works, which featured La Gardana, the first piece ever published for violin and continuo. In 1621 the itinerant wind player Dario Castello, also a musician at San Marco, published the first of two collections of instrumental music, which feature the first solo sonatas for treble instrument and continuo. By the 1640s Venetian publishers also printed music from composers outside Venice, like the violinists Giovanni Battista Fontana from Brescia and Marco Uccellini from Modena, who pushed the violin sonata to higher levels of virtuosity.
Life in Italy was often rife with intrigue, and sometimes that spilled over into music. In the 1660s, Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli had to flee justice after killing a famous singer in a duel, finally taking his career to France and Spain. His collection of violin sonatas published in 1660 became his last. Another frequent fugitive from justice was Alessandro Stradella. After establishing himself as a composer in Rome in 1676, he had to flee to Venice after becoming involved in a scheme to marry off an “ugly old” noblewoman for money. He later eloped to Turin with a young woman he was supposed to be teaching, the mistress of the Duke of Venice. The Duke caught up with him in Turin, and after ordering him to marry the girl, had him stabbed and left for dead. He recovered, composing music all the while, and finished his career in Genoa, where after writing a few successful operas, he was finally assassinated in 1682. During his short career, he left behind many works, including collections of sinfonias for one or two violins and continuo.
One composer whose life was free of scandal was Isabella Leonarda, “la Musa novarese” (the muse from Novara). She joined a convent at age 16 and spent her whole life there, writing and performing music. Her compositions gained her notoriety enough that she was one of the first women to ever be published, and the first woman ever to publish sonatas.
The influence of the Italians extended to Vienna, where the Hapsburg courts sought the best musicians of Europe, such as the great violinist Antonio Bertali, originally from Verona, who arrived in 1631. He shared the Italian style of sonata writing with his pupils, including the native Austrian, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. Both of them experimented freely with common ostinato (repeating) bass lines, writing elaborate flourishes, variations and divisions over these unchanging note patterns in the bass.
At the turn of the 18th century we arrive in France, in the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Italianate sonatas have arrived in France, and a new generation of French composers are exploring how to fit them into the delicate, refined and ornamented French style. Key among these composers are Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, once a child prodigy adopted by the court, and now a successful composer, one of a select few granted the Royal privilege to publish music, and Marin Marais, master of the viola da gamba and protege of the great Jean Baptiste Lully, the founder of the French Opera.
Biagio Marini (1594-1663) was born in Brescia to a musical family. In 1615, he gained a position as a violinist in the orchestra at the Basilica San Marco in Venice, under Claudio Monteverdi. Soon after his acclaim as a violinist and composer gained him court appointments all over Italy and as far north as Düsseldorf. During all this time he composed many volumes of vocal and instrumental music, which were published in Venice. His instrumental music is particularly noteworthy, as his work helped form the solo and trio sonata genres that would pervade the Baroque period.
His op.1 collection Affetti Musicali, published in 1617, contains music written for various instruments and continuo, including the first pieces for one violin and continuo, La Ponte, La Gardana and La Orlandina. They are called Sinfonias by Marini but they set the groundwork for the genre of solo sonatas. La Gardana (the Garden), though it has only one section, shows off the violin’s ability to play fast notes and divisions.
Dario Castello (fl. 1621-1629) is only known from two volumes of instrumental music, Sonate Concertate books 1 and 2, published in Venice in 1621 and 1629, and from the little information on the title pages of the original and 1641 reprint of these collections. According to the title pages, he played a wind instrument, led a company of piffari, the Venetian equivalent of a marching band, and by 1641 played at San Marco. There is no record of his employment at San Marco, so that may be hyperbole on the part of the publisher. Despite his current obscurity, his two collections of music sold very well, and were widely distributed throughout Europe. Castello did not publish any music after 1629, and it is speculated that he may have perished in the black plague outbreak in 1630-31.
Sonate Concertate book 1 contains the first two datable solo instrumental sonatas ever published. Written for unspecified solo instrument, these sonatas feature multiple sections with changing tempo and meter, shaping the way Italianate sonatas would be composed for a century. Tonight’s program features the first of the two, Sonata Prima, in A minor.
Giovanni Battista Fontana (1589-1630) is only known from a few documents and a 1641 posthumous publication of his music, Sonate a 1. 2. 3. per il violino, o cornetto, fagotto chitarone, violoncino o simile altro instromento. From this we know he was born in Brescia, and worked as a violinist in Venice, Rome and Padua. Unfortunately, he died in the black plague outbreak of 1630-31.
His published collection is made up largely of solo violin sonatas, one of the first such collections. Tonight’s program features the third such sonata. It opens with the canzona rhythm, a rhythm pattern common at the beginning of many vocal and instrumental works dating back to the Renaissance. The violin writing is very virtuosic, exploring the violin’s ability to play divisions, runs of very fast notes connecting the notes of a melody.
Marco Uccellini (1603-1680) studied in Assisi, likely with Giovanni Battista Buonamente, one of the great violin masters of the time. In 1641 he was employed by the Este court in Modena, where he became a close confidant of the d’Este family. He stayed there until 1665, when he gained a similar position in the court in Padua. While there he composed several operas, ballets and vocal works, but they are all lost to history. His collections of instrumental music survive, as they were published and distributed widely.
His violin sonatas were very innovative, stretching the range of the violin to the upper positions and featuring rapid passagios. Another development is that each new section finishes before the next begins, creating the feel of a multi-movement work. Tonight’s program features the fourth sonata of his op. 4 collection Sonate, Arie, Correnti. This sonata is subtitled detta Hortensia virtuosa, possibly referring to the skilled Roman orator from the first century B.C., who passionately argued that women should not be taxed if they are not allowed to hold public office.
Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (fl. 1660-1669) was a Tuscan violinist employed by Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in the 1660’s, where he published at least three collections of instrumental music. Since the first two are labeled Opera 3 and 4, if can be assumed that at least two prior collections were published. However, his career in Vienna came to an end when he murdered a singer, Giovanni Marquett, during an argument. He fled to Spain, and all subsequent record of him is lost.
La Stella (the star) is the first sonata in his op. 3 collection from 1660, the oldest that survives. Similar to Uccellini’s, his sonata utilizes the higher positions and greater virtuosity that was developing in the violinists of Italy.
Alessandro Stradella (1639-1682) was born to a noble family, and his father was a member of a chivalric order, the Cavalieri di San Stefano. After his father’s death he moved to Rome and served as a page in the Lante palace in Rome, where he also started composing. His music was popular and well-received, but legal troubles led him to flee Rome for Venice in 1677. He quickly became mixed up in scandal again, leaving Venice with the mistress of his powerful patron, Alvise Contarini. He survived one assassination attempt by Contarini’s henchmen, then left for Genoa, where he continued both to compose and to become involved in scandal. In 1682 he was stabbed to death, though the cause is unclear.
Stradella’s music is primarily vocal, including several operas and oratorios, sacred and secular cantatas and smaller works, but he did compose 12 Sinfonie for Violin and Basso Continuo, never published but preserved in manuscript, many of which have obbligato basso parts written for a cello or other bowed bass. Tonight’s program features the third of this collection, in e minor.
Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) was born in Novara, where she spent her whole life. At age 16 she entered the Collegio de S Ursola, a convent. By 1658 she was the music teacher and composer, and her works were popular enough that they began to be published in 1665. By 1676 she was mother superior, and by 1693 she became madre vicara for the order. During her lifetime, over 200 of her musical works were published. Most were motets and sacred vocal works, but in 1693 she published a collection of sonatas, which were in fact the first sonatas published by a woman.
Leonarda’s opus 16, Sonate a 1, 2, 3 e 4 Istromenti (1693), is a collection of sonatas, mostly for two violins, violone and continuo. The 12th and final sonata, however, is a solo sonata, and is perhaps the most interesting harmonically. Though published after Corelli’s op.5 violin sonatas, this sonata does not use the sonata da chiesa form made popular by Corelli’s collection. Instead it closely follows the older sonata form used by the previous generation.
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680) was born in Scheibbs, Lower Austria. He spent his life working for the Hapsburg courts in Vienna and Prague, as a violinist and composer under the tutelage of Antonio Bertali. He attained a close relationship with Emperor Leopold I, who gave him a title and the position of Kapellmeister in 1679. Schmelzer was the first native Austrian to attain this position. Unfortunately he died the following year in an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
Schmelzer was a significant composer of instrumental music in Austria. His compositions developed both the Suite and the Sonata forms of 17th-century German and Austrian music. Though he is mostly known for trio sonatas, he wrote six Sonatae unarum fidium in 1664 for violin and continuo. Tonight’s program includes the fourth sonata from this set, in D major. Typical of the 17th-century sonata, it features a number of contrasting sections. Several different dance forms and a freer fantasia section are united by a repeating stepwise ground bass line.
Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) was born in Verona, where he was trained in violin from Stefano Bernardi. In 1622 he was granted a position as a violinist in the Hapsburg court in Vienna, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Besides playing the violin, he was frequently called on to compose, and in 1649 became maestro di cappella. During his time there he oversaw the next generation of developing violinists in Austria, including Johann Heinrich Schmelzer.
Though he is most famous for his vocal music, which served as a model for later composers, Bertali composed one undated Ciaccona for solo violin and basso continuo. Using the popular ground bass pattern of the chaconne, he wrote a set of variations exploring different rhythms, technique, ranges, and even cross-relations between major and minor keys. As the original is quite long, tonight’s performance will feature an edited version.
Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) was born to the Jacquet family, a famous family of musicians. By the age of 5 she was adopted into the household of Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s most famous mistress, and sang and played harpsichord for the court until 1684, when she left the court to marry the organist Marin de la Guerre. She was given the Royal Privilege to compose and publish music, a rare honor in France, and was the first French woman to compose operas. She also published two volumes of cantatas, two volumes of keyboard music and a book of trio sonatas. Her works are revolutionary and forward-thinking, combining the Italian styles of her teachers with the tastes of the French high Baroque.
Her six violin sonatas were published along with her second volume of keyboard pieces, in 1707. They are some of the earliest and most celebrated French violin sonatas. They are composed in the Italian style, with many movements strung together with contrasting tempo, rather than in the French suite of dances that was popular at the time. Sonata 1 is in D minor, though it freely changes from minor to major between movements.
Marin Marais (1656-1728) was a gifted virtuoso on the viola da gamba, and one of the most important composers of the French Baroque era. He studied viola da gamba with Jean de Sainte-Colombe, and by age 19 he was playing with the Opera orchestra in Paris under Jean-Baptiste Lully. He soon started composing, under the tutelage of Lully, and was appointed as a royal chamber musician to Louis XIV. By 1690 he also conducted and composed for the Opera, a post he inherited after the premature death of Lully. Marais had a great reputation as a teacher, and many of the next generation of viol players, such as Charles Dollé, Louis de Caix-d’Hervelois, Jacques Morel, and Marais’s son Roland are believed to have studied with him.
Sonate à la Marlesienne comes from the collection La Gamme et Autres Morceaux de Symphonie, for violin, viol and harpsichord, published in 1723. It is written as a suite of dances and character pieces, alternating between slow and fast movements.
About Historically-Informed Performance Practice
Part of the mission of Guts is to bring the music of the Baroque era to vivid life, recreating the distinct sound of the time in which it was composed. In tonight’s program, Sylvia will be playing a baroque violin, constructed in 2016 by Douglas Cox to replicate a Guarneri violin of the early 1700’s, with a short baroque bow made by David Hawthorne and a long baroque bow made by Louis Bégin. John will play a viola da gamba constructed by Marco Ternovec to the size of early 18th century instruments, with a baroque bow made by Chris English. Both instruments are strung with pure-gut strings, the way they would have been in the 18th century. Gut strings sound warmer, though quieter, than their modern metal equivalents, and baroque instruments are under less tension, so they sound more open, though not as projecting. Like most Baroque music, all of the music on tonight’s program has a basso continuo line forming the foundation of the ensemble, shared by the cello or gamba and the keyboard, usually a harpsichord or organ. We are presenting these works without a keyboard instrument for this concert.
As performers, we will be adding ornaments such as trills and turns to the music as we play. The practice of decorating music was unique to the performer, and helped each musician put their own stamp on a piece of music. Decorating this way both adds to the expressiveness of the music and allows us to share our personalities as performers with our audience. Also, since the music is imitating sung text, even though the music we are playing has no specific text we will be shaping our phrases and melodies as if they were sung with words.
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