Sunday, 29 November 2015

1717 Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Couperin, Telemann and Albinoni

Let’s start with Bach whose organ playing by now was famous throughout Germany and proof of this comes from Johan Mattheson of Hamburg  (remember him - he had tried to kill Handel in 1704 ….before becoming his best mate – see my 1700-1709 posting for details). Matheson's own career had focused less on being a musician and singer and more on becoming a very important writer of music theory and practice. Mattheson referred to Bach in his memoir of 1717 as the ‘famous organist of Weimar’. This famous organist of Weimar visited the court at Dresden in the autumn of 1717 and found himself the subject of an argument as to who was the greater improviser, himself or the most famous virtuoso organist in France Louis Marchland. It was decided they would have a contest to solve the argument (a bit like the Handel v Scarlatti keyboard duel in the last decade). Marchland sneaked in to listen to Bach practicing for the big event in the chapel the night before. The result was the onset of a sudden and questionable illness and a trip back in the middle of the night to France on the fastest coach available for Marchland! Bach was left to play the concert on his own and established himself as arguably the greatest organist in Europe.

For the passed few years Bach had been composing mainly religious cantatas and had to produce one every month for the Duke of Weimar. Bach was getting bored of this and was looking for a way out. He actually got scouted by another court. After his audition they locked him in a hotel room with food, tobacco and alcohol and told him not to come out until he had composed a cantata for them! He did and they loved it, and offered him the job. The Duke however responded by doubling Bach’s money, which persuaded the young composer not to accept and to stay on at Weimar.

Bach had got friendly with the Duke’s nephew Ernst August who presided over the nearby court at Rote Schloß. Ernst August was also in his twenties (just 3 years younger than Bach) and the two shared their passion for music. Ernst August was half the age of Bach’s employer and this court was much more lively and less stuffy than the court at Weimar. It was no surprise that Bach spent a lot of his free time there and it was here that he was introduced to the music of Vivaldi. Ernst August’s younger brother Johan Ernst had been studying in Amsterdam between 1711-13 and picked up the music for Vivaldi’s opus 3 (which was all the rage at the time), brought it back to Rote Schloß and gave it to Bach to transcribe to organ. A bit like in the early 1960s and late 1970s when everybody wanted to pick up a guitar and start a band, due to both the simplicity and excitement of the music, in the 1710s Vivaldi’s music got many amateur composers across Europe trying to emulate his style, including young Johan Ernst. 

Whereas Johan Ernst could only manage a pail imitation of Vivaldi’s concertos, as for Johan Sebastain Bach, in his book ‘Bach and the patterns of invention’ Lawrence Dreyfuss writes ‘Instead of copying a set of crude superficial formulas Bach discovered within Vivaldi a kind of harmonic laboratory providing insights into the nature of tonality, a kind of simulacrum of thoroughbass that could produce insights into the secrets of a god given art.’ Now I am not going to pretend I fully understand what this means but I get the jist that Vivaldi’s music was going to have a very positive impact on the music of Johan Sebastian Bach. 

This musical migration was extremely significant for the history of music rather like the American rock and roll records brought into Liverpool by sailors from across the Atlantic in the 1950s. The Beatles brought invention and melody into rock and roll and Bach had a similar influence on the Italian concerto style of Vivaldi. 

Now it was unfortunate for Bach that, due to a family feud, he was forbidden by the duke to continue to visit the court of the duke's young nephew, Ernst August  (Johan Ernst had sadly passed away in 1715 aged 19). As a result Bach got fed up with his boss and refused to compose any more cantatas. It may also have been possibly because he heard that the duke wanted to employ Telemann which might have annoyed him, or that Bach did not get a promotion he was expecting. Whatever the reason Bach wanted to leave the court of Weimar and the opportunity came when Ernst August married the sister of another music loving member of the aristocracy, Prince Leopold of Cothen. Bach, was asked to compose the music for their wedding, which was loved by the prince and got him a place in the prince’s court. The formidable duke of Weimar refused to let Bach go however. Bach insisted and the duke’s reaction was to put him in prison! Locked up for the second time in a year and this time with nothing good to eat, drink or smoke, Bach used the time to compose 46 organ pieces.  Poor Johan Sebastian Bach was freed after a month and finally allowed to be dismissed from his post ‘without honour’ and move to his new position composing for Prince Leopold of Cothen. 

Bach became friendly with the prince who was a talented musician himself and even broke court etiquette to play along side Johan Sebastian and his other court musicians. In fact the prince’s mother got fed up with the band practicing at home and made the prince and other musicians go and practice at Bach’s house! They would then go on tour playing at other courts in the region.

Prince Leopold’s court was a relaxed and happy place and although both the prince and Bach were very religious it must have been refreshing for Bach to be able to compose so much secular chamber music having been mostly composing church organ music and religious cantatas for church choirs up until now for the fearsome Duke of Weimar.

So this was our man's best year to date with 11 pieces that make it to my Greatest Hitstory.  Of particular note are Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069 – Bourrée which to me sounds quite jazzy in a 1920s-30s sort of way. The Prelude in C Major, BWV 933 and Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934 are just so good and like a lot of his music give you the feeling that Bach was completely unlimited in his ability as a composer, conveying so much feeling whilst also taking the melody to unexpected places, and not just the first time you hear it, but over again – a strange trick and I cannot work out how he does it! 

Finally we have the sublime Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068: II. Air. This is one of the most famous pieces of all time and quite simply it is impossible to make better music than this. These Bach pieces well and truly put him at the top of the pile for me and it becomes quite clear that he is a better composer than even Vivaldi whose music I absolutely love.

As for Vivaldi he was busy writing his 7th opus but I will come to this in 1721 when it was finally published. From Vivaldi I do pick the obligatory allegro Concerto In Mi Minore RV 275: III. Allegro. Vivaldi hints at his future masterpiece (it comes after opus 7) with a little bit of program music in his piece ‘the cuckoo’.  Remember Biber had also imitated the sound of a cuckoo on his violin back in the 1660s. I have also, for once, chosen a slow piece from Vivaldi, being the very appealing Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 7/ii, No. 5, RV 208a: II. Grave and there is another allegro but this time for full orchestra I Concerti Di Dresda, RV 569: I. Allegro.

Albinoni too chips in with another allegro Sinfonia a 4 in G Minor, Si 7: I. Allegro as does Telemann who contributes Overture in B-Flat Major, TWV 55:B8: I. Ouverture. These two sad little pieces are among my favourites of the whole decade.

Couperin is back with another sprinkling of harpsichord music with the second of his four books and again shows his gift for naming a good tune with among a couple of other pieces I have picked, such composition titles which translate as ‘the midge’ and ‘the scintillating one’. I never thought I would enjoy harpsichord music so much. Couperin is my favorite composer for the instrument so far and his less formal and playful style can be grouped in with the rococo style originating in Paris that had begun in architecture and found it’s way to the paintings of Watteau and came about probably because Louis XIV had died in 1715 having been on the throne for 72 years. As a result France withdrew from its imperial aspirations, court life and private morals became more relaxed and Couperin’s music fitted the mood perfectly.

Meanwhile in London, it is on an aquatic theme that we come back to Handel who composes one of the most famous of all his works, which we know as ‘the Water Music’ and without question is his best music to date. Of this collection the most well known is Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major: No. 12 Alla Hornpipe. Now this ‘suite’ Handel was asked to compose by the aging King George who wanted to remind London he still existed for his son was always throwing big parties and had become the talk of the town. King George wanted a bit of limelight back. The music was to be played on boats carried by the rising tide up the River Thames from Whitehall palace to Chelsea. The flotilla left at 8pm on 17th July and covered the whole river with boats and barges, including the royal barge and another of which contained the 50 musicians. This all certainly made quite a spectacle and the king loved the music so much when embarking on the return trip at 11pm he had it played twice more.

So here they all are.....the best of 1717

(where I have not found the version I have purchased on iTunes I have included the album and artist of my preferred versions in brackets)

J.S. Bach 

Bach: Orchestral Suite #2 In B Minor, BWV 1067 - Badinerie (from Bach: Orchestral Suites [Disc 2] Marc Hantaï; Jordi Savall: Le Concert Des Nations)
Bach: Orchestral Suite #3 In D, BWV 1068 - Gavottes 1 & 2 (from Bach: Orchestral Suites [Disc 2] Marc Hantaï; Jordi Savall: Le Concert Des Nations)
Bach: Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069 - Bourrée (from Bach: Orchestral Suites [Disc 2] Marc Hantaï; Jordi Savall: Le Concert Des Nations)
Five Little Preludes: I. Prelude in C Major, BWV939 (from J.S. Bach: From the W.F. Bach Notebook by Wolfgang Rübsam)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068: II. Air (from 50 Classical Masterworks by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra)
Prelude in C Major, BWV 933 (from Bach, Inventions and Preludes by Esther Garcia)
Prelude in C Minor, BWV 934 (from Bach, Inventions and Preludes by Esther Garcia)
Sonata in A Major, BWV 1032: III. Allegro
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041: I. Allegro (from Bach by Joshua Bell & Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) 
Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041: III. Allegro assai (from Bach by Joshua Bell & Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) 
Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042: I. Allegro (from Bach by Joshua Bell & Academy of St. Martin in the Fields) 


Best version is from Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks & Water Music by Nicholas McGegan & Scottish Chamber Orchestra but listen to these you tube clips

Water Music Suite No. 1 in F Major: No. 3
Water Music Suite No. 1 in F Major: No. 5
Water Music Suite No. 1 in F Major: No. 7 Minuet
Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major: No. 11
Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major: No. 12 Alla Hornpipe
Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major: No. 13 Minuet
Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major: No. 15 Bourrée


Concerto In Mi Minore RV 275: III. Allegro (from 4.50 of this clip)(Vivaldi: Concerti per violino by Deuter Florian & Harmonie Universelle)
Violin Concerto in A Major, RV 335, "The Cuckow": I. Allegro
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 7/ii, No. 5, RV 208a: II. Grave
I Concerti Di Dresda, RV 569: I. Allegro 


Overture in B-Flat Major, TWV 55:B8: I. Ouverture (from Telemann: Complete Ouvertures, Vol. 2 by Collegium Instrumentale Brugense & Patrick Peire)


Sinfonia a 4 in G Minor, Si 7: I. Allegro (from Albinoni: Concerto per violino & Sinfonie a 4 by L'Orfeo Ensemble)


Second livre de pièces de clavecin, Ordre 6 : VIII Le moucheron
Second livre de pièces de clavecin, Ordre 7 : III La basque
Second livre de pièces de clavecin, Ordre 11 : II L'etincelante ou La bontems
Second livre de pièces de clavecin, Ordre 11 : III Les graces naturéles, Suite de la bontems


After many decades of not much enter Jean-Antoine Watteau and a new Rococo style to give the art critics something to talk about after a few uneventful decades on the trot.  Watteau was perhaps the greatest artist since the days of Rembrandt and Rubens in the first half of the last century.

He painted his masterpiece the Embarkation of Cythera in 1717 and in this he captures the fleeting nature of being in love symbolized by the fact that none of the couples want to leave Cythera, the island of love. Watteau’s own life was sadly cut short by a life long illness and perhaps that is why his paintings of dream like scenes have an intense feeling of melancholy about them and all the figures look so sad though in a very endearing way.


Alexander Pope was the great satirist of the day and in 1717 published his epic poem ‘the rape of the lock’ in which he wrote about the theft of a lady’s lock of hair as if it was an epic story comparable to the abduction of Helen of Troy making a mockery of the vanity of the upper classes during this period.

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