Monday, December 27, 2010

Notes for "Musical Resolutions" -- New Year's Eve 2010

For those who like to read these in advance, here are my notes for "Musical Resolutions," Ars Lyrica's New Year's Eve 2010 program. Looking forward to seeing many of you this coming Friday night at the Hobby Center, to ring in the new year!

Tonight’s program offers “musical resolutions” of various sorts: the integration of various national styles in the Bach and Telemann works, plus the firmly resolved (though famously frustrated) love of Apollo for Daphne. The latter work also continues our current season’s exploration of the Baroque teatro mundi, with a gorgeous if sobering mythological drama.

Italian cantatas like Apollo e Dafne allowed music-loving Romans of Handel’s day to have their cake and eat it, too—by conjuring the gods, goddesses and sound world of Baroque opera but on a smaller scale and without the distractions of (and papal prohibitions against) the opera house. Such works mine the theater of our interior imagination, as they seduce, distract, and entertain us with the ravishing sounds of voices and instruments. In contrast, the Bach and Telemann selections deliver less explicit stories but equally alluring soundscapes.

Bach’s so-called “Orchestral Suites” are in fact suites for a fairly small ensemble, consisting perhaps of just single or a few players per part. Long assumed to have been written during Bach’s service at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, certain movements may predate his time there (1717-1723) while others may reflect the larger instrumental resources available to him in Leipzig after 1723. In any case, these four works, among the most familiar in Bach’s output, reflect the widespread popularity of French dance movements during his lifetime and likely represent just the tip of the iceberg: Bach surely composed other such Ouvertures (as he called them) that are lost to posterity. Among the cleverest assimilations of the two dominant instrumental genres of Bach’s day, these works resolve the inherent tension between binary-form dances and ritornello-based concerto writing in movements that incorporate soloistic display within the predictable formal schemes of Baroque dance movements.

The German ensemble suite typically begins with its most imposing movement: an overture modeled on those of Jean-Baptiste Lully, with a majestic opening section and a faster, imitative second section. The dances that follow mimic the flow of a classic divertissement in French Baroque opera. In the C-major Suite, Bach includes a number of paired dances whose unconventional scoring creates some surprising effects: note the odd inversion of the violin’s typical lead role in the second gavotte, for example.

Like Bach, Telemann assimilated Italian and French styles in his music but on a scale that dwarfed his now more famous contemporary. This most prolific composer of the late Baroque (and perhaps of all time) produced dozens of concertos in the Italian style, including several that feature multiple wind soloists. Better perhaps than anyone else, Telemann grasped the peculiarities of Baroque wind color and how to write for such instruments. His E-minor Concerto cleverly pits the old (the archaic recorder) against the new (the fashionable transverse flute), in four movements whose joyful thumping and tender expressiveness make it one of his most popular works.

Apollo e Dafne is one of the richest sources of Handelian compositional “leftovers”: he re-used all but one of its arias and duets in later operas or oratorios, some multiple times. Its poignant lesson—of the inevitable choice between love and duty, passion and reason—has always been popular with opera composers: in addition to the well-known setting by Richard Strauss, both Jacopo Peri and Heinrich Schütz wrote Daphne operas in the 17th century. Handel began his cantata in 1706 or 1707 and finished it several years later, perhaps after his departure from Italy. Long admired for its creative orchestration, the work is a masterpiece of well-calibrated emotional expression: from Apollo’s proud vanity in the opening scene to his plaintive final promise, or from Daphne’s initial childlike innocence to her ultimate embrace of destiny.

The story, in brief, goes as follows. As described in Ovid, Cupid has decreed that the god Apollo shall fall for the beautiful nymph Daphne, but his love cannot be returned since she is bound by her devotion to the goddess Diana and can love no man. When Apollo’s attempts at seduction backfire, Daphne escapes by returning to nature: Mother Earth turns her into a tree. Fashioning a fragrant wreath from its laurel leaves, Apollo consoles himself and vows never to forget her. © Matthew Dirst

No comments: