Cornucopia CD

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Program Notes

by Frank Nowell, Artistic Director

One factor contributing to the rich variety and abundance of music in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was the lively exchange that occurred between different European musical centers. These centers became associated with distinct national styles, and music was invigorated by an ongoing process of borrowing and blending these styles, encouraged by travel and a natural curiosity about what others were “up to.”

The five composers represented on this recording can all be considered international and cosmopolitan in their musical and intellectual pursuits. Georg Muffat was a German composer of French birth and Scottish ancestry whose studies in both Rome and Paris had a profound influence on the music he created at the courts of Vienna and Salzburg. Another German composer, George Frideric Handel, spent a seminal period in Italy that influenced his long career in London. The English writer and composer Charles Avison studied with Francesco Geminiani and carried on the tradition of Arcangelo Corelli. The prolific Georg Philipp Telemann promoted both the French overture and Italian concerto styles in Germany, occasionally integrating folk elements from Eastern Europe as well. The French violinist Jean-Marie Leclair was a frequent traveler whose conscious aim was (as with Muffat earlier) to combine the Italian style with French musical tastes.

Another common thread among these composers is their interest in the instrumental concerto, especially the concerto grosso and its variants. The concerto grosso style featured a musical dialogue between a small ensemble and a larger one, providing intriguing possibilities for both the performers’ virtuosity and a composer’s ingenuity. Muffat’s sonatas from Armonico Tributo (1682) display early aspects of the principle (in fact, the composer later recast some of them explicitly as concerti grossi in a 1701 collection). It was such a popular genre during the mid to late Baroque period that composers often transformed existing sonatas or other material into larger-scale works along the concerto grosso model.

Handel and Avison were among the composers in England meeting the demand for new concertos in England, where Corelli’s influence was long-lasting. Some of Avison’s most creative work was to arrange keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti in 1744 as individual movements of twelve different orchestral concertos. Avison may have been tapping into the English fascination with the harpsichordist and his fiery Spanish sonatas; there was even a self-styled “Scarlatti Cult” in London! Handel, who created twelve “grand concertos” in the Corelli tradition, may have also adapted his trio sonata in G major (opus 5 no. 4) as a concerto; the existence of a viola part supports this possibility. In any case, the work has remained durable in a number of incarnations, and the substantial and appealing passacaille has taken on a life of its own.

Through his publishing and writing activities as well as composing, Telemann was directly responsible for making music accessible to an expanding circle of audiences and amateur musicians in Germany. He also experimented with instrumental colors and novel combinations, and with new possibilities for old forms. His three concertos for four violins without bass provide an alluring example. Here the composer takes away the middle and low strings (and keyboard) completely, leaving the entire concerto to the texture of four solo violins. The effect in the concerto in G major is striking, alternating between delicately voiced chords and shimmering passagework. A similar texture is found in Leclair’s sonata for two violins without bass (from a collection of six) — a surprisingly large work within the scope of a small and intimate performing force.

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