The Trio Sonata: Program Notes

The Jewish violinist Salomone Rossi lived primarily in Mantua, where he served at the court of the prosperous and powerful Gonzaga family. Mantua was musically on the decline during Rossi’s tenure there, mostly due to the departure of Claudio Monteverdi in 1612. Rossi’s earliest trio sonatas appeared in 1607. The Sonata dialogo detta la viena comes from book three of the four volumes of instrumental music (mostly in the trio medium) that Rossi composed between 1607 and 1622.

The piece unfolds as a conversation, with the two parts taking turns. The work clearly reveals the degree to which this genre relied on vocal music. The sense of “musical conversation” is not just a clever idea, but a model for how to write music. The bass line is mostly harmonic. The work conveys freedom in several aspects. For one, there is no pulse: the two solo instruments play at will, seemingly completely improvised. Relatedly, they do not share themes, but play independent parts. They play at different times, creating the sense of “dialogue” (hence the title).

Lelio Colista was an employee of the Vatican throughout most of his life and his instruments of choice included the lute and guitar. From his position in one of the cultural centers of Europe, Calista made a significant impact on the history of music, impressing the theorist Athanasius Kircher, directly influencing the compositions of Arcangelo Corelli, and siring several distinctive musicians through his marriage to Margarita Petrignani. This sonata, which only survives in a Turin manuscript, is written “‘a tre” and begins mostly homophonically. Beginning with the first Allegro, imitative polyphony becomes increasingly prominent, over an interactive continuo part.

Corelli-trio-sonataArcangelo Corelli, originally from Fusignano, came to Rome via Bologna in 1675. The Eternal City became his principal residence. Corelli is the composer most associated with the trio sonata genre in the modern mind, and with good reason. He not only synthesized developments in the style of his own music, his contributions to the genre–as well as the solo sonata and the concerto–became models for subsequent generations. His first four publications, Opp. 1-4, each consisted of 12 “Sonatas ‘a tre’”, specifically for two violins and various continuo arrangements. The op. 2, no. 12, published in 1685, consists solely of this Ciaconna. This variation form, called “chaconne” in English, is built on a repeated harmonic progression. Corelli occasionally detours from the pattern. The writing–i.e., texture, form, treatment of the instruments–does not merely borrow from the past; Corelli injects it with his own brand of vibrancy.

Antonio Caldara also had contact with Rome: his father was from there, and he moved there several times over the course of his very productive life. On his second stay in Rome, beginning in March, 1709, he found employment as maestro di cappella to Prince Francesco Maria Ruspoli, succeeding George Frederic Handel. He continued to write for Ruspoli for many years, though Caldara eventually ended up in the court of Emperor Charles VI.

The Sonata “‘a tre” is by Pietro Locatelli, who is mostly known today for his phenomenal violin technique, a reputation based on the difficulty of a small number of his compositions. In his trio sonatas, Locatelli normally relies on a homophonic texture, but this particular sonata points towards the genre’s roots with some canonic writing in the “Vivace”.

The “English Orpheus” Henry Purcell excelled in every available genre. The Pavan, Z. 751, in four parts is for two violins and a bass, a combination that was then popular on the continent, but new to the English repertoire. With the Pavan, Purcell looked back to an early 17th-century model that was considered archaic in his day. It is in three contrasted strains, each based on a different idea. In the third section, a single melodic line is presented simultaneously with its inversion.

Purcell’s sonata, Z.795 appeared in a collection of 12 “Sonnata’s of III Parts”, published in 1683, and were likely composed shortly before publication. The frontispiece of this publication, in fact, provides a portrait of Purcell, saying that he is 24 years old—one of only two pieces of evidence that help to determine his year of birth. He had just been admitted as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, and his prospects were ascending. Returning to the music: The preface to this set of sonatas says that Purcell, “faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters” in these works. One of these masters is thought to be Lelio Colista, though that is not necessarily the case. However, it is clear that Purcell is not looking at the works of his contemporary, Corelli, given the manner in which the Englishman handles his material. In particular the Canzona is derived from models more akin to Colista rather than to near contemporaries like Corelli and G.B. Bassani. The “a tre” score, with the vital bass line, suggests more archaic thinking.

The second half of the concert opens with a geographic and chronological shift. We briefly turn our attention to France in the early 18th century, also lurching forward into what is often called the High Baroque. Jean-Marie Leclair came from a very musical family—four of his five siblings also had careers in music. While little is known about his background, in 1722 he traveled to Turin and studied with the great Italian violin pedagogue, Giovanni-Battista Somis, a former pupil of Corelli, and a teacher of several important French and Italian violinists. It is immediately evident that instrumental music has achieved a new level of, may I say, “confidence”. The second movement of this sonata dazzles in its expression and effects. The final movement embodies an example of what has been identified as a kind of mixed style, in which the suave violin writing emanating from Italy with the energetic dance rhythms of the Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Lully. And, as you will also observe, this is not easy music to play, but quite demanding technically. Not surprisingly, the composer now has the reputation of being the founder of the French school of violin playing.

Alex Burtzos writes the following about his new work, Sonata/sonare: The word “sonata” is based on the Latin sonare, which simply means “to sound.”  Before the term acquired any specific orchestrational or formal connotations, it was just a way to describe the structuring of sound integral to a composition of any kind. Sonata/Sonare explores the relationship between the older and more modern understandings of “sonata.”  The three movements – “Finding,” “Losing,” and “Searching” – trace a trajectory away from our contemporary use of the word, and towards a new means of organization.

For Handel, the years 1720-33 were dominated by his work for the Royal Academy of Music in London, formally chartered by King George I in 1719. The primary business of the Academy was opera, but also “other Entertainments of Musick within this our kingdom of Great Britain”. In some ways the arrangement was ideal for Handel, giving him a certain amount of control over the presentation of his operas. But it provided numerous headaches as well. The ego of the Baroque singing artist could be a monstrous thing with which to negotiate. While his work at the Academy remained his primary responsibility, numerous other compositions date from these years, among them the nine German arias and several sonatas.

Handel’s works for solo instrument and thorough bass are often considered as a group. The number of these works is unsettled, ranging from 17 to 24. One of the main reasons for the numeric uncertainty is that the manuscripts are sometimes not clear as to whether the top line is a solo part, or is to be played by the right hand of the keyboardist. Instruments are often not indicated.

Handel’s op. 2 trio sonatas were published around the same time as Leclair’s op. 3, in the early 1730s, and probably written over the previous seven years and for various purposes. The third movement, in particular, is strongly reminiscent of Handel the master opera composer. One can easily imagine a moment of joyful, quiet reflection while listening to this music.

~ Joseph Orchard ©2016

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