Chamber Music on Lopez Island: From Bach to Beethoven
Sunday, August 15 at 3:00 PM
- J.S. Bach (1685–1750)
- Harpsichord by Hill & Tyre Opus 184 (1982), after H.A. Hass (1710 Hamburg ), on generous loan from Roger Sherman.
- Johan Halvorsen (1864–1935)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
- Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 for winds and strings
- Adagio – Allegro con brio
- Adagio cantabile
- Tempo di Menuetto
- Tema con Variazioni: Andante
- Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
- Andante con molto alla Marcia – Presto
- Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 for winds and strings
David and Amy Fulton
THIS AFTERNOON’S SPONSOR
The Driftwood Fund
2021 Program Notes Chamber Music on Lopez Island: From Bach to Beethoven
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) – Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052 for keyboard and strings
Bach left us seven concertos for keyboard and strings, but two of these are arrangements of his own violin concertos and one is an arrangement of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto. It is now widely believed that several – if not all of the others – were also arrangements of violin concertos by Bach, which have now been lost. (This has led to a whole “reconstruction” industry, yielding numerous recordings of these “virtual” violin concertos by Bach.)
The three movements of this concerto are in a fairly standard format for Baroque concertos, although Bach “works out” his thematic material at some length, making the concerto a little longer than usual for the era. The first movement is essentially monothematic, but Bach seems to be having great fun coming up with new kinds of figuration and passagework for the soloist. Much of this figuration is of a style which at least seems to suggest violin-writing, providing some evidence to support the theory that this was originally a violin concerto. The second movement continues in a serious mood. A short introduction for the strings alone leads to the aria-like entry of the soloist, whose part becomes increasingly florid as the movement proceeds. The final movement is still in D minor, but has a dance-like quality which – the minor key notwithstanding – provides a real sense of rhythmic buoyancy and joy in the music.
As eminent a musician and scholar as Albert Schweitzer thought that these keyboard concerto arrangements (assuming that is what they are) were made with incredible “haste and carelessness,” but their strong themes, lively rhythms, and even opportunities for virtuosic display have endeared them to musicians and audiences. The D minor concerto is, in fact, the earliest solo keyboard concerto to have a won a permanent place in the standard repertoire.
Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) – Sarabande con Variazioni, for Violin and Viola
It’s not Edvard Grieg’s fault that most Norwegian composers after him have had to live more or less in his shadow. Although some of these composers and their music are well-known in Scandinavia, orchestras and recording companies elsewhere still have a lot of exploring to do. In Johan Halvorsen’s case, he is inextricably linked to Grieg. The latter – 20 years Halvorsen’s senior – was a friend and mentor, and Halvorsen married Grieg’s niece. Halvorsen had a long and successful career. Before the age of 30, he variously worked as a concertmaster in Bergen and Aberdeen, played in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, taught music in Helsinki, and continued his own musical studies in St. Petersburg, Leipzig, Berlin, and Liège. Much of his later career was as a conductor, particularly with the Oslo (then known as “Kristiania”) Philharmonic.
In the Sarabande con Variazioni, Halvorsen uses the sarabande (a slow dance in triple-meter) from one of Handel’s keyboard suites. The variations pursue the usual course of gradual intensification of rhythm and tempo. At the center of the whole piece lies a variation in the form of a very leisurely, sentimental waltz. After this the process of intensification begins again, culminating in the final sequence of variations, which elevate the music to a level of quasi-orchestral brilliance and sonority.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) – Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 for winds and strings
The Septet is written on a grand symphonic scale. Mozart had written chamber pieces for mixed winds and strings, but they usually received the name Divertimento or Serenade and were essentially used as background music (some background!) at social functions. Beethoven was loath for his music to be anyone’s aural wallpaper. He intended this as concert music.
The 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th movements of the septet function as the four movements of a classical symphony. This “virtual symphony” (i.e., just those four movements) is a little longer than Beethoven’s own First Symphony, suggesting the importance he attached to this composition. Nevertheless, the Septet finds Beethoven in very good humor. The 3rd movement is an old friend of many an amateur pianist: a reworking of the modest minuet from Beethoven’s G Major piano sonata, Op. 49 no. 2. Minor key passages occur in some movements, but episodically or in the course of modulation. The sole exception to this is the minor-key fourth variation in the 4th movement. This theme and variations entertains more and philosophizes less than usual for Beethoven, but that fourth variation hovers on the edge of a shadowy and slightly terrifying world. The Scherzo restores not only Beethoven’s good humor, but is full of his special kind of musical laughter – the tone set by the jolly hunting calls passed between horn and bassoon at the outset.
All the instruments except the double bass have their moments in the foreground, but the clarinet and violin carry the bulk of the thematic presentation, with a virtuosic cadenza for the latter, before the recapitulation of the finale. While exploring instrumental color was never Beethoven’s primary interest, he was too good a composer not to have used the instrumentation to create the many rich sonorities which this combination of instruments is capable of. From its premiere in 1801 (on a concert that included the contemporaneous First Symphony), the Septet has remained one of Beethoven’s most endearing and enduring works – a fact which rather irked the composer during his lifetime – he thought he had done much better work after he had written it.