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Program Notes: New Year’s Eve 2017

December 18, 2017

Brandenburg Concerto No. 1

The first of the Brandenburg Concertos has the thickest, most complex orchestral sound of any of the six.  Here, Bach calls for an orchestra divided into three choirs of instruments–strings, woodwinds and brass–and appoints solo instruments within each group.  The string section of the orchestra includes a solo violino piccolo, a small violin tuned a minor third higher than the normal violin.  Among the woodwind group–three oboes and a bassoon–the first oboe is often a soloist.  The third group comprises two horns, which together act much like a third soloist, along with the violino piccolo and oboe. 

For the first three movements, Bach creates a music of multiple layers, as the three instrumental choirs imitate and answer each other with their characteristic sonorities.  In the first movement, he does this for the most part without soloists.  The Adagio features the solo violin and oboe, answered by the bass instruments, and, in the third movement, a solo horn joins the violin and oboe.  However, in the fourth and final movement, the menuet with its trios, the choirs of instruments are treated differently.  For the four repetitions of the menuet itself, all the instruments are combined into a single orchestral sonority; each of the three middle sections, however, features a different instrumental group, the first trio the woodwinds alone, the polonaise the strings alone, and the last trio the horns (this last with an extraordinary accompaniment of oboes).  The polonaise (written poloinesse in Bach’s manuscript and altered to the Italian polacca in some later sources) is named for the moderately paced Polish dance. 

Bach’s use of horns in this concerto is remarkable.  As hunting instruments, they had been employed on special occasions to depict hunting scenes, but this concerto is one of the very earliest works to use horns as regular members of the orchestra.  (The first version of this piece is thought to predate Handel’s Water Music, another early work for orchestral horns.)  Despite their newcomer status, Bach calls for a full range of virtuoso technique from the horns.  Nonetheless, he reminds us of their origins at certain moments, such as at the very beginning of this concerto, where the horns play hunting calls.  As if to emphasize their presence, Bach superimposes the opening horn calls onto the more traditional concerto music played by the rest of the orchestra, using a cross rhythm (triplets against the sixteenths of the orchestra); and he uses the traditional horn calls unaltered, even though some notes conflict with the harmonies of the orchestra.  Bach’s instruments (and ours on this recording) were the natural (valveless) horns that developed directly from the hunting instrument. 

There is, as mentioned, an earlier version of this first concerto, which may date from around 1713, the year of the “Hunt” Cantata (BWV 208), another work in which Bach uses horns.  In 1726, five years after sending his concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Bach recycled this first concerto for use in two cantatas at Leipzig.  The entire first movement forms the opening sinfonia for his cantata, BWV 52.  Then, only a few weeks later, he made a more fanciful adaptation of the third movement for a celebratory secular cantata (BWV 207), using three trumpets and timpani, instead of horns, and adding a four-voice chorus.

Handel, Gloria

It was only in 2001 that Handel’s Gloria was rediscovered in a collection at the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London. The work was, in all likelihood, composed early in Handel’s career, either in Germany before he left for Italy in 1706 or in his first years in Italy.  It is a virtuosic piece for soprano with strings and continuo that sets the text of the Gloria section of the mass, which the composer has divided into eight short movements.

Hans Joachim Marx, the professor from the University of Hamburg who established the work as Handel’s, noted its virtuosity: “Perhaps not too many sopranos will be able to perform this piece.” The scholar Curtis Price described the music this way: “The music is fresh, exuberant and a little wild in places, but unmistakably Handel.”

Boston Baroque first performed the Gloria work in 2002, shortly after its rediscovery.

Handel, Water Music Suite in F

On the evening of July 17, 1717, according to a contemporary newspaper, “the King [George I] took to the water at Whitehall in an open barge. . . and went up the river towards Chelsea.  Many other barges with Persons of Quality attended.”  An orchestra accompanied the party on a separate barge, playing “the finest Symphonies, composed express for this Occasion, by Mr. Hendel; which his Majesty liked so well, that he caused it to be plaid over three times in going and returning.”

It is now generally accepted that the “Water Music” is actually a collection of three suites in different keys and for different combinations of instruments, some pieces of which may date from a different water party.  The F major suite, or “horn suite,” as it is sometimes called, may have been the first piece to introduce horns into the orchestra in England.  It is, along with Bach’s first Brandenburg Concerto, among the earliest pieces to use the horn as a regular member of the orchestra, rather than simply for hunting calls.  The horns in both works would have been the valveless (or “natural”) horns of the day, which were shaped much like hunting horns.

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