The Portuguese word ‘barroco’ means ‘oddly-shaped pearl’. From it came the word Baroque, a convenient catch-all for a particular period in history and the art – the music, the paintings and the architecture – it produced, In musical terms the period ran roughly from 1600 to the mid-18th century, and that period is pretty much covered in today’s programme. Choosing a dozen or so pieces wasn’t easy, and as ever I’ve mixed the well-known with some music you may not have heard before. I’ve used what you might call a scatter-gun approach to selection.
Not all the music you will hear is religious but the next piece most certainly is. This is from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
The St Matthew Passion was first performed in1736 and has to be regarded as one of the pillars of Western sacred music. You heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Georg Solti performing Wir setzen un smit Tranen nieder, ‘We sit down in tears, and call to thee in the tomb, Rest softly, softly rest’.
When possible, I like to feature music by female composers and this programme lends itself to that, thanks to Barbara Strozzi.
Born in Venice in 1619, she was a remarkable woman. She was the illegitimate daughter of a well-known poet and was brought up in what might be called a liberal environment. She was, apparently by choice, a single mum of three children – which was virtually unheard of at the time. She was also gifted lute player, much sought-after singer and prolific composer, with much of her work written for the female voice. Perhaps because of the very strong influence of her poet father, she took great care over her lyrics and of the relationship between the words and the music. Here’s an example, Che si può fare.
What can I do?
The stars have no pity and work against me;
If heaven will give me no gesture
Of peace for my pain,
What can I do?
What can I say?
The heavens are raining disasters on me;
If Love will not grant me a moment of breath,
to relieve all my suffering,
What can I say?
Before you hear it, consider this: it was written in 1664 yet I think it sounds remarkably modern. The singer is the German soprano Simone Kermes. I listened to half a dozen recordings of this piece and chose this one because of her voice. There is a slight percussion thing going on in it that Signora Strozzi might not have recognised but what the heck…
Now you are going to hear all three movements of a symphony by Giovanni Sammartini, his Symphony in D Major. I’m using this very short symphony – it lasts barely six minutes – for one reason: Sammartini, who lived from 1700 to 1775, is regarded as the originator of the classic symphonic form and is seen very much as a precursor to Haydn and Mozart. This is a good example of that, and it’s played by the Milan Classical Chamber Orchestra.
Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685. He is classified primarily as a Baroque composer, although his music influenced the development of the classical style and he was one of the few Baroque composers to transition into the classical period. Today he is known mainly for his 555 keyboard sonatas. Here is his Sonata in D, played by Maria Tipo.
Dietrich Buxtehude was a Danish-German organist and composer. Born in 1637, he’s been called “the father of German musicians” though when J.S. Bach came along his reputation was somewhat superseded. Anyway, this is his Fugue in C Major, played by the American Alan Feinberg.
Let’s have some more familiar music now. Nobody here will not recognise the opening movement of another of Bach’s great works, his Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Think of the Antique Roadshow. However, less well known are the concerto’s other two movements, so you are going to hear the entire work, which was written some time before 1721. This is Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Field.
Now let’s hear some Vivaldi and the Italian singer Cecilia Bartoli with the Ensemble Matheus singing something from Il Giustino, an opera he composed for the 1724 carnival season in Venice. The opera is often called Anastasio and this is aria is perhaps the best-known music from it. It’s called Vedro con mio diletto, I will see with joy.
I won't introduce the next piece. Just listen to this...
What you heard as we had coffee was Allegri’s Misereri. Gregorio Allegri was born in Rome in 1582. He was in his 40s or 50s and a singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir when that music, a piece that deserves a special place in the history of music. His Miserere – full title Miserere mei, Deus, ‘Have mercy on me, O God’ – is a setting of the 51st Psalm and was composed for use in the Sistine Chapel is part of particular services during the week before Easter.
At some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music, and it was allowed to be performed only at these particular services. The Pope wanted to keep its genius a secret — and so it remained for over 100 years. In 1770, Leopold Mozart visited Rome with his son Wolfgang, then aged 14. They visited the Sistine Chapel and took in a performance of the Miserere. Wolfgang was transfixed by both the Vatican and the music and just a couple of hours later, back at his lodgings, he transcribed the entire piece from memory – and the Vatican’s secret was out. The work was published the following year, over 120 years after it was written.
It’s said that after having transcribed the piece, Mozart went back to St Peter’s to hear the work again, probably the same week, to compare his score with the sung version. His score was spot-on. As for the music, it was written for two choirs, one of five and one of four voices. And it features a beautiful top C sung by a treble soloist.
The Misereri was performed by the UK-based choir The Sixteen, led by their founder, Harry Christophers.
Let’s hear some more singing now and Dame Joan Sutherland performing an aria, Tornami a vagheggiar, ‘Return to me to languish’, from Handel’s opera Alcina. The opera was premiered in London in 1735, staged again three years later and never again until 1928. The sorceress Alcina inhabits a world made up of the souls of her past lovers. Her kingdom is a lifeless place of no moral compass into which she lures her unsuspecting victims.
If I mention Johann Pachelbel you will no doubt think his Canon in D. Although it was composed at the end of the 17th century, it wasn’t actually published until the early 20th century. It would be tempting to ask if Pachelbel wrote anything else. He did – about 530 works have been attributed to him. This is the opening of his Keyboard Suite No. 28 in E Minor.
Now you are going to hear the Venice Baroque Orchestra play Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings. Marcello was a nobleman and composer and a contemporary of Albinoni and Vivaldi. His music is rarely performed today, and if it is, it’s invariably this piece.
There are a number of composers who really shouldn’t be omitted in a Baroque programme. Henry Purcell is one of them. He wrote the opera Dido and Aeneas in 1688. It tells the story of the widowed Queen of Carthage and her love for the Trojan hero, Aeneas. It was Purcell’s only true opera and only all-sung work.
This is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Elin Manahan Thomas who, I gather, sang at the last big royal wedding – an occasion I gladly missed. She is a specialist in the Baroque, The song is Dido’s Lament, When I am Laid in Earth.
More music by Bach now, and the second movement of his Concerto for Two Violins. In the Spotify recording it’s performed by Brecon Baroque and the ensemble’s founder, Rachel Podger.
Bach wrote that piece, the Bach Double, between 1717 and 1723.
I want to squeeze in as many pieces as I can, so here’s the first of a series of shorter selections. Georg Philipp Telemann was probably the most prolific composer in history. He wrote almost as much as Bach and Handel put together (and each of them wrote a perplexing amount), including 600 French overtures or orchestral suites, 200 concertos, 40 operas and more than 1000 pieces of church music.
This is the allegro from his Concerto for Recorder, Strings and Continuo in C major, written some time between 1725 and 1736.
Now another brief piece. Arcangelo Corelli, a violinist and composer born in 1653, deserves greater recognition in that his music was key to the development of the sonata and the concerto. This is the second movement of his Concerto Grosso.
Tarquinio Merula was one of the most progressive Italian composers of the early 17th century. Here is a piece from his Ciaccona.
Let’s finish the programme as we finished the first half, with Vivaldi. This is the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood and Emma Kirkby singing Nullo in mundo pax sincera, ‘In this world there is no honest peace’. The text tells us that the world is imperfect, full of evil and sin. I think the music may suggest otherwise.
Each Spotify track has been chosen specifically; however, the corresponding YouTube videos may be performed by different orchestras.