Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 | Pa-a-a-Pa-Pa-Pa! — the opening notes of G. F. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Sing them to yourself. They are the four most famous notes in music.
You’ve heard that piece and Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” many times, ringing on cell phones and spiffing up a recent Fox6 News radio commercial. In London and New York, transit authorities pipe this music into the underground and bus terminals to soothe savage commuter breasts.
“All you have to say is ‘Hallelujah’ and you know Baroque music,” said Christopher Beach, the president of the La Jolla Music Society. LJMS is just one of the groups offering eight concerts devoted to Baroque music over the next eight weeks.
The composers who wrote the dozens of works on these concert programs range from famous names like J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Henry Purcell and G. P. Telemann, as well as less familiar ones like Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, Manuel de Sumaya, Johann Rosenmuller and Pietro Nardini .
It’s a Baroque bonanza, with visiting superstars, talented resident artists, orchestras, and smaller ensembles. Composed between 1600 and 1750, Baroque has legions of passionate fans, and deservedly so. As Beach put it, “Bach, Handel and Vivaldi are three of the greatest composers who have ever lived on the planet.”
Understanding its context illuminates Baroque’s continuing popularity. “Baroque music is both the film and the film music — storytelling on a grand scale,” said Jung-Ho Pak, the artistic director for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra.
The music’s prolific and luscious playlist constitutes a score for the dynamic times that spawned it. Europe consisted of a commercial and cultural archipelago; some nations, like Italy, were simply collections of city-states. The explorations of the New World ushered in true globalization. Commercial and royal patrons bankrolled expeditions to mine the New World’s riches, grab territory, establish colonies — and conduct the slave trade.
People flocked from rural areas into towns and cities, as trade shifted to the Atlantic sea lanes, and Venice lost much its vaunted trading power to the Dutch and English. The pace slowed during times of plague, thirty years of war in Germany, and stifling Puritanism in England.
Still, nothing could halt the forward motion. You might have run across these Baroque-era luminaries in college: Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Linneaus, Donne, Milton, Locke, Cervantes, Moliere, Caravaggio, Rubens and Rembrandt. Across the Atlantic, Harvard University was established, and Ben Franklin started a circulating library. (Hey, this is a short list.)
Around 1700, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a Florentine performer and instrument maker, replaced the quills that plucked a harpsichord’s strings with hammers that struck them. A note could be made loud or soft, and when a pedal was depressed, the tone continued to sound. The piano was born and changed keyboard music forever.
Composers turned out music for their church, aristocratic and new-rich clients relentlessly. Vivaldi produced about 600 works and Bach more than 1,000. Generalizing about an enormous amount and variety of music is dangerous, yet Baroque has some characteristics that still attract what Beach called “deeply passionate fans.”
“Baroque music is constantly in motion,” said Ruben Valenzuela, the director of the Bach Collegium, which will perform two of the eight concerts. Post-Renaissance people were consumed with idea of continuous movement. The idea appears in the music’s continuo, a bass line that sounds continuously, sometimes imperceptibly, as the harmonic skeleton of a piece, carrying melody and counterpoint dancing around it. Usually played by a harpsichord, organ or lute, the continuo is as much a Baroque signature as particular beats are for salsa or hard rock.
Performers and composers were also in motion, fanning out across Europe in a fluid network. Vivaldi, shucking off his priestly vows, traveled with his “housekeeper” and spent time in the Netherlands; Domenico Scarlatti moved to Spain; Handel left Germany to settle in England. Francesco Barsanti left Italy to work in Scotland and England. Johann Rosenmuller, jailed in Leipzig for homosexual activities, escaped to Venice to teach and compose in the church where Vivaldi would later work. The most stationary was Bach, who barely ventured more than 50 miles from his birthplace.
Baroque music reflects the lustiness of its times. The most mundane subject was fit for music; Pak noted that French composer Marin Marais wrote a short piece about surgery for the removal of a bladder stone. Bach wrote a comedic cantata about coffee, a novelty from the New World, that was first presented in a Leipzig coffee house. Nature was a favorite subject, and its musical apotheosis is “The Four Seasons,” which includes sounds of barking dogs and birds.
Sacred music was central to Baroque, yet it is hardly austere. The San Diego Symphony will perform Bach’s Cantata No. 4. The composer set to music each of the seven stanzas of Martin Luther’s Easter hymn from 1524, which describes Christ’s triumph over death. Within a strict mathematical structure, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”/”Christ lay in Death’s dark prison” is ravishing.
People of the period loved decoration. Simply playing a note was not enough; performers were expected to do turns and trills around single notes and, like jazz musicians, to improvise. The term “baroque” comes from the Portuguese word for a deformed pearl and connotes “vulgar” or “over the top.” In 1919, a German musicologist first applied the term “baroque” to music, although that use was disputed as late as the 1960s.
Few today consider Baroque music over the top, though it is not only decorated but also rich with folk elements and national styles. The Italians led the way. They invented opera in the early 1600s, and their Baroque music emulates songs. Pak explained that its long melodic lines and repetition — in the “ooh, baby, baby” sense — help listeners follow along.
Also invented in Italy, ballet developed as an art form in France. Its Baroque music is so firmly grounded in dance that many works have French dance names such as courante, gigue, and allemande (same as the square-dance step). French Baroque is also extremely ornamented, as is much English music. German Baroque is simpler, with rigor and structure that keeps mathematicians happy.
After 1750, Baroque declined; moviegoers might recall a scene from “Amadeus,” in which Mozart parodies Bach. Mozart, however, increasingly turned to Bach’s
compositional genius, and Beethoven considered Handel to be the greatest composer. About 200 years after Baroque’s heyday, when it had nearly disappeared Felix Mendelssohn presented Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” at a concert, and Baroque began a slow return.
The Baroque bonanza attests to the music’s revival in the twentieth century. Modern composers and performers, including jazz musicians, have transcribed Baroque music, which is in keeping with its tradition, because Baroque composers constantly rewrote their music for different instrumental combinations. The San Diego Symphony will play an arrangement done by the Anton Webern in 1935 of part of Bach’s “Musical Offering,” a collection of secular pieces.
Then, in mid-century, the early music movement gave Baroque a huge boost with “authentic” performances in small ensembles and on original or meticulous reproductions of early instruments. England’s Academy of St. Martins in the Fields was established as a Baroque ensemble in 1958, for instance. More recently, young groups like Il Giardino Armonico, arriving here from Milan, have injected the energy of a rock band into their music.
San Diego music lovers can range over the upcoming Baroque bonanza. They can hear music from the period — for church and for pure entertainment — in diverse permutations. Some programs aim for “authenticity,” with original scores, on ancient instruments, and in intimate environments, from a gallery to a small concert hall. Others will perform on modern instruments, in modern orchestrations, and in big-band surroundings. Here’s the list, with links.
- Mar. 3: The Bach Collegium, directed by Ruben Valenzuela, will perform Bach’s Cantatas No. 106 and 158 and Motet No. 18. Valenzuela established the Collegium in 2003 as a resident ensemble devoted entirely to historic performances of Baroque music, similar to groups like Los Angeles’ Musica Angelica and the Boston Camerata. At 8 p.m., Founders Chapel, Founders Hall, University of San Diego. Tickets only at the door.
- Mar. 18: The Collegium will present three works that were written in the New World by Manuel de Sumaya and Francesco Capillas. Baroque music crossed the Atlantic through the Spanish missions, and it differed little from that on the continent. It was always several decades behind the times, however, and well into the nineteenth century, Mexican composers were still writing in the Baroque style, because they had not absorbed the new Classical forms. Also, Valenzuela said that indigenous peoples might have played the music on organs they built under the direction of the friars. Rounding out the program are works by Handel and Bach. At 7 p.m., St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
- Mar. 12, 13, 16: The San Diego Chamber Orchestra and Jung-Ho Pak will perform works by Francois Couperin and his twentieth-century admirers, Maurice Ravel and Darius Milhaud, who wrote works in his honor.
This will be the only French Baroque music in this bonanza, which is dominated by Italian and German composers. This dearth does not reflect the heated seventeenth-century battles between French and Italian music lovers. Couperin even wrote a work about the dueling guns of the Italian Corelli and Lully, an Italian expat in France who even changed his name, by substituting “y” for the final vowel “i.” Simplifying the difference between the styles, one musicologist wrote, “the French danced and the Italians sang.” Concerts are respectively, in La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe and San Diego, at 7:30 p.m.
- Mar. 18: A down side of the Baroque bonanza is that three of the eight concerts are on this date. In addition to the Collegium’s concert, San Diego’s Early Music Society will present Harmonia Baroque Players, an Orange County group that performs in southern California. Its goals are similar to those of the Bach Collegium. While Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi are on the program, so are lesser-knowns like Francesco Barsanti and J.J. Quantz, at 2 p.m., San Diego Museum of Art.
Also on Mar. 18, the Solana Intimate Ensemble — three singers from the San Diego Opera, a pianist, and a cellist — will present a program titled “The Spiritual and Satirical Sides of J. S. Bach.” In addition to the Coffee Cantata, they will perform arias and duets from the Mass in B minor and other major works. The concert starts at 5, cocktails at 6:15, Galerie D’Art Internationale, Solana Beach.
- Mar. 23: In a concert of superlatives, superstar violinist Joshua Bell plays Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” on a 300-year-old Stradivarius, with the UK’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras. “Four Seasons” would probably rank at the top of some eternal, cross-genre top-ten chart. Bell might be the best-known violinist in the world, slipping back and forth between the concert hall and pop culture to appear on Letterman and Conan; People named him one of the 50 most beautiful people a few years ago. He played the sound tracks for “Music of the Heart,” “Ladies in Lavender,” and John Corigliano’s Oscar-winning score for “The Red Violin.”
The Bell-St. Martin partnership should make for an interesting interpretation. Bell has built his career on big Romantic pieces from Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn among others, and St. Martin has extended its reach beyond Baroque. The concert will be in Copley Symphony Hall. What will this combination — period instrument, Baroque orchestra, Big Band soloist and cavernous concert hall produce? Tune in. At 8 p.m., Copley Symphony Hall, www.lajollamusicsociety.org.
- Mar. 24: The San Diego Symphony’s Light Bulb Series will offer an all-Bach “Basically Brandenburg” program, with one sacred cantata, two of the Brandenburg concertos, in addition to Webern’s modern “Musical Offering.” The full forces of the symphony will be pared down to a small Baroque-like chamber orchestra, joined by the La Jolla Symphony Chorus.
Written purely as an entertainment for minor nobility, the Brandenburgs are among Bach’s most beloved works, made for dancin’. Webern was the quintessential spare modern composer, yet his Bach transcription is rich with tonal color. Guest conductor Murry Sidlin will be at the podium. Sidlin’s major work has been with large orchestras: the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center, the Baltimore Symphony, and the New Haven Symphony. At 8 p.m., Copley Symphony Hall.
- Apr. 28: The stylish and hip Il Giardino Armonico will close LJMS’s chamber music series. Since its founding in 1985, the group has lobbed Baroque music out of courtly, almost effete, performances to far more dynamic and creative presentations, with close attention to the original score. In 2001, they were the back-up band for Cecilia Bartoli’s Grammy-winning Vivaldi album. That year “The New Yorker’s” Alex Ross praised Giardino for revealing Vivaldi as a composer with plenty of tricks up his sleeve: “the harnessing of melody to primal rhythm; the painterly use of the orchestra; the celebration of plain chords, with wild harmonic adventures ensuing; the sense of ‘Checkmate!’ at the end, as everything falls beautifully in place.” Besides music by Vivaldi, the program will include works by Guerrieri, Purcell, Rosenmuller, Telemann, Nardini, and Goldberg, 8 p.m., at Sherwood Auditorium, Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, www.lajollamusicsociety.org.
Cathy Robbins’ book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)” will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is a freelance writer in San Diego. Send a letter to the editor here.