Wednesday, June 24, 2015

PROGRAM SCHEDULE  •  SUN 21  •  MON 22  •  WED 24  •  FRI 26  •  SUN 28

Sherman Library & Gardens, Central Patio Room, 8 p.m.

Music for Three Kings

Christopher Matthews, flute
Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin
Jolianne von Einem, violin
Andrew McIntosh, violin
Rob Diggins, viola
Gretchen Claassen, violoncello
Leif Woodward, violoncello
Ian Pritchard, harpsichord

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079

Ricercar a 3
for solo harpsichord

Various canons

Trio Sonata
for flute, violin, violoncello and harpsichord



François Couperin (1668-1733)
Concert Royale No. 1 in G major


Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c. 1620-1680)
Lamento Ferdinand III

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773)
from the Concerto for Flute, QV 5:173

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079

Ricercar a 6

 Reception in the Gardens

During the first half of tonight’s concert I will relate the events that provoked Bach into composing his Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer). I use the word “provoked” advisedly. While on a visit to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel at the court in Potsdam in 1747, Bach had a rather difficult encounter with his son’s employer, King Frederick the Great of Prussia, and we shall see how Bach responded.

The King was a difficult man on every front: egotistical, controlling, idealistic, abusive, sensitive, tortured and talented. His own father had been a brutal sadist, and the young prince had been a victim of his cruelty; when the 18-year-old Frederick formed a bond with another young man at court, his father had the lover decapitated before his son’s eyes. Forever after, powerfully conflicting impulses governed him, with his genuinely passionate and gifted artistic side always subjected to his need to exercise power over even his closest friends and most trusted employees.

Survival as an artist in Frederick’s court demanded the highest talents in both creativity and diplomacy. The King was lavish in his support of all the arts — and what artist would not wish to be able to draw on such resources? — but the high price was his domineering intrusion into artistic matters. Frederick controlled nearly every aspect of his artists’ creative process, as though jealously claiming ownership of it. BACK


The precocious François Couperin was appointed organiste du Roi at the Chapelle Royale by King Louis XIV at the age of 25, and was further elevated to harpsichordist at Versailles and court composer during the next two and a half decades. His four Concerts Royaux, composed for the King and published in 1722, would have been performed at Louis’s regular Sunday concert series.

Couperin was primarily a harpsichordist, and an extremely fine composer for that instrument. Indeed, the Concerts Royaux appear at first glance to be composed for keyboard. However, the common practice was for musicians, oboists, flutists, violinists, cellists, and violists da gamba to orchestrate such pieces as whim and taste suggested; we will do the same. In contrast to the accessible, generally extroverted Italian style, the French style is generally subtler, highly nuanced and sophisticated music for the few, for the connoisseurs and aristocrats. BACK


King Ferdinand III, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria, was another music-loving king, even a capable composer in his own right, who appears to have been a virtuous and effective ruler in all areas of his demanding life. When he died suddenly at age 49, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, who was employed at court, composed this Lamento Ferdinand III, presumably for some funerary ceremony following the King’s death.

The piece is rhetorically rich, opening with a doleful falling figure, immediately repeated for emphasis, then rising back to an elevated cadence, undoubtedly representing the King’s death and resurrection. Typical of the 17th-century style, the piece consists of successive contrasting sections, with no returning material. Very likely each section would have been recognizable in meaning to the listeners; still clear to us now are the passionate rush of grief following the opening statement and the evocation of funeral bells, solemn and static. An equivocal imitative section follows, succeeded in turn by a stately triple-meter dance that devolves into impetuous rising figures. The piece concludes with a brief, resigned Adagio. BACK


The life of Johann Joachim Quantz is a classic rags-to-riches story. His obvious musical talent lifted him from the relative poverty of the working class (his father was a blacksmith) all the way to Frederick’s Potsdam court. He was acknowledged to be the finest flutist in Europe, having studied with Buffardin, the preeminent virtuoso of the preceding generation. His impeccable manners served him well at court, and they informed his music as well, both as a composer and as a master flutist. It was part of his job to provide Frederick with flute concertos to perform; unerring instincts and consummate skill were needed to ensure that the monarch always came off well in performance. Indeed, one rather wishes he had penned a tell-all book about working for the King!

Quantz’s music, of which our flute concerto movement is a fine example, exhibits all the most polished and civilized virtues: vivacity without complication, charm without syrup, brilliance without craziness, and a sense of poised control throughout. Like the Brothers Graun, Quantz was a forerunner of the early Classical style. As his pieces were heard all over Europe, they helped to endow that as-yet-unborn style with its signature balance and proportion. BACK


We close our program with arguably the greatest single element of Bach’s Musical Offering, the six-part Ricercar. After Bach had, at Frederick’s command, improvised a ricercar in three parts based on Frederick’s “Royal Theme,” the king, as if angered by Bach’s skill, immediately demanded a second improvised ricercar in six parts. Presuming that such a thing was impossible, since it had never been done before, he must have been determined to force Bach to fail publicly. Bach merely replied that he regretted he could not produce the piece on the spot, and promised to send it to Frederick upon completion at home.

This he did. But he did not send just the six-part Ricercar; he sent the whole, incomprehensibly brilliant, clever, eloquent and mysterious Musical Offering — an ultimate demonstration of his worth and ability, far beyond Frederick’s reach. And Frederick never looked at it. BACK

Notes by Elizabeth Blumenstock


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