MONTHLY MUSICAL OFFERINGS FROM OUR ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Jonathan Darbourne plays on a copy of a single-manual Delin harpsichord by Oliver Moor (2000)
P. Bustijn - Suite no.1 in D minor: Sarabanda - Giga
PIETER BUSTIJN, baptised July (probably…) 1649
G. Muffat - Partita in D minor: Prelude
GEORG MUFFAT, born 1 June 1653
Surely a strong contender for ‘Best in: Baroque Hair/Wig’, Georg Muffat (1653-1704) is best known for his two collections – or ‘Bouquets’ – of string pieces. Though containing brilliant pieces in their own right, the detailed performance directions he included – about tempo, how to use the bow, and how to play well in an ensemble – offer us as present-day musicians insight into how this sort of music would have sounded. Indeed, the very fact that Muffat felt the need to write these instructions tells us more: that there was at that time no ‘one style’ across Europe, something musicians playing ‘Baroque’ music today must contemplate when approaching pieces in different genres and styles, and from various places of composition.
The piece I play here is, like the Bach from our March birthday, a ‘Prelude’ from a Partita, the role of which is to explore a key (here D minor) on the instrument in an semi-improvisatory way. One feature I have explored is the ‘spreading’ of chords (which on the page are in vertical blocks), thus softening the ends of musical statements and bringing out the harp-like sonority of the harpsichord.
A. Scarlatti - Corrente from Six little pieces
ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI, born 2 May 1660
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), born in Palermo, was first and foremost a composer of vocal works, writing over fifty operas (with some wonderful titles like The Enemy of Himself, Happy Deceptions, and Fickle Love and The Cheer) and more than 500 solo cantatas. Prolific is the word. This work-hard mentality was clearly in the genes – his son, Domenico, famously composed 555 keyboard sonatas (the harpsichordist Scott Ross has recorded them all…).
This piece here – a ‘Corrente’, or ‘Courante’ in French – is, I think, intended to mean ‘in the running style’ and not the dance form, which is always in triple time. Indeed, the music theorist Johann Matheson wrote in 1739 that a corrente is ‘clearly music on which hopes are built.’ This definitely ticks that box, with smiley gusto and an optimistic gung-ho attitude. Just what the doctor ordered.
J. P. Sweelinck - More palatino (Variations 1 and 4)
JAN PIETERSZOON SWEELINCK, born April (probably…) 1562
J.S. Bach - Partita no. 1 in B flat major: Praeludium
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH, born 31 March 1685
Whatever stars align in March they are baroque ones that’s for sure. We were spoilt for choice this month, with J. S. Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi in with a shout. It may not surprise you that I went for Bach, who is one of the most prolific writers for the keyboard in his time or any other. With literally hundreds of pieces, from huge bombastic organ works to microcosmic studies for students (and his children), where to start? Well, as we are celebrating Johann’s birthday, I thought at the very beginning – the first piece in his first publication, the ‘Praeludium’ of the Partita no.1 in Bb major. And it is actually a birthday piece: a few months after he had published the Partita in 1726, Bach copied it out and presented it to the new-born Prince Emanuel Ludwig of Anhalt-Kothen. Not a bad gift, that..
John Blow - Chacone in G minor
JOHN BLOW, baptised 23 February 1649
John Blow (1649-1708) will always be viewed in the shadow of Henry Purcell – the more famous man and the better composer – but he sits at the high table of the English choral tradition, having been teacher to the choristers at Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Chapel Royal. If you think this pandemic could be bad for musical education, spare a thought for those who lived through or were born during Cromwell’s dictatorship. We must be serious in our gratitude to him as a teacher to Purcell and inspiration for his compositional style.
After the golden era of Elizabethan and Jacobean virginalist composers (see the Gibbons recording from December), Blow’s writing for keyboard, with dance forms and idiomatic writing borrowed from the continent, feels completely new. The Chacone I play here is an example of a harmonic ‘ground’, where a basic four-bar pattern in the bass is repeated, offering the composer a foundation upon which they can build up their ‘fantasy’.
Johann Friedrich Agricola - Sonata per il cembalo solo: Allegro Assai
JOHANN FRIEDRICH AGRICOLA, born 4 January 1720
Born in Thuringia in 1720, Agricola had the fortune of studying under Johann Sebastian Bach whilst a student in Leipzig, and indeed later with Johann Joachim Quantz (right place, right time…). By all accounts he had a successful career, becoming director of Frederick the Great’s Königliche Oper and writing extensively as a musical commentator and theorist. He co-authored Bach’s obituary along with C. P. E. Bach, and copied out Bach’s great keyboard collection, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which we still have today. Agricola is, therefore, an important touchpoint for this period in music history. This sonata movement I play here is, however, very much driven by what we would call a ‘classical’ instinct – we step forward out of the ‘Baroque’ with Agricola to embrace a new vogue. Of course, one doesn’t have to agree with that analysis, but I felt it somehow as I learnt and played it – a sort of fond (almost sad) waving-goodbye to the musical world of his teacher and the ‘High Baroque’.
Orlando Gibbons - A keyboard Fantasia
ORLANDO GIBBONS, baptised Christmas Day 1583
Gibbons was an English composer of impressive versatility who developed what we would now label a Baroque style, especially in his sacred and (most especially) secular choral music. In around the year 1621, GIbbons, alongside William Byrd and John Bull, had various pieces published in Parthenia, subtitled The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the virginals. At that time, ‘virginals’ was a word in England that referred to any plucked keyboard instrument, so I beg minor forgiveness for playing this Fantasia on a copy of an 18th-century Flemish harpsichord.