Music and Vision homepage


Book review


Baroque Sound-Bites


CD Review

<< Continued from part 1

In the second complete example - the C major violin sonata from Corelli's opus 5 - we can detect the relationship of the music's public aspects to Italianate opera although, being published in 1685, it has more affinity with late Monteverdian opera than with Orfeo. Its sequence of slow-quick movements emulates operatic arioso and aria in the slow pieces, social dance in the quick; and the accompaniment of the singing solo violin by a continuo of harpsichord, archlute, and string bass parallels the continuo parts that, in baroque opera, literally produced the Temporal continuity in which we live, and conditioned the music's man-designed architectural proportions. The sonata opens with a noble aria extravagantly ornamented or 'graced' in styles derived from 'expressive' vocal cantillation. This private song is countered by the second movement: a three-voiced fugue in which the double-stopping violin often takes two of the three parts; the music is dominated by a single metrical motif that creates conformity rather than privately emotional self-aggrandizement. But in a sense the personal assumes dominance at the end of the movement, since the solo violin indulges in an unaccompanied cadenza, 'exhibiting' both technical skill and emotional panache. And the central slow movement, in the relative, A minor, is both a heart-felt operatic aria and a ceremonal dance in sarabande rhythm, exquisitely rarefied in its coruscating ornamention - originally improvised in the heat of the moment, though here taken from transcribed notation written down by a friend or pupil of Corelli. The two final quick movements return us to the 'everyday' world: if the first of them is a show-off in being a moto perpetuo for the soloist, its simple tonal structure is defined by the continuo in modulations from tonic to dominant, to relative, to dominant of relative, and back to the C major tonic. The ultimate allegro is a merrily social (or public) jig in binary form.

The next complete example, also instrumental, is not an Italian sonata but a French dance-suite designed in 1722 by François Couperin le Grand for the concerts royaux of the grandest of all monarchs, Louis XIV. Intended for listening to rather than dancing to, the work opens with a polyphonic prelude in E minor, hinting at the grave grace of the occasion: and performed here by two flutes and continuo, though Couperin's original ensemble alternated flutes with violins, oboes, and bassoon, generating sensuous affability.

The dances themselves, following the prelude, display a surprising range of mood and even of social class: for the allemande is precisely sérieux; there are two courantes, one French in witty rhythmic ambiguity between 6 8 and 3 4, the other Italian in 'running' lyrical grace; while the sarabande, in 'celestial' E major, with two intertwining melodic voices, is of seraphic tendresse. The rigaudon, in perky imitation, is politely nautical; the final forlane, in E minor, tempers a peasant-like Provençal virility with couplets (episodes in rondeau form) that suggest a wistfully Watteauesque romanticism. Although the music is always intimate, never in the slightest degree portentious, it hints, in its civilized precision, at what one might call a spiritual dimension.

Certainly the fourth and last of the complete examples, Bach's cantata Jesu, der du meine Seele, is simultaneously physical and metaphysical. Composed in 1724 for the fourth Sunday after Trinity, it is liturgically devotional music that nonetheless employs all the resources of opera seria: recitative, arioso, aria, chorus, instrumental ritornello, and exhuberantly sounded, if not physically enacted, binary form dance. That Bach was a Lutheran Protestant centres his music's passions (as well as Passion) on God-become-man-in-Christ, stressing creates potent operatic drama through expressive lyrical lines and strenuous harmonic tensions, while embracing these human qualities within, or at least in relation to, contrapuntal disciplines of a perfection we're apt to call 'god-like'. Thus the long opening movement, founded on a Lutheran chorale with some of the attributes of a folk song, is also a complex contrapuntal passacaglia on a chromatic ground that isn't confined to the bass, but appears, both ways up, throughout the parts, creating a sublime lament of and for Fallen Man. The succeeding duet-aria for treble and alto releases us, through its discretely marching rhythm, expressive arabesques on words like 'erfreulich', and its vivaciously dancing flute obbligato, into potential union with Christ the Saviour. Yet the succeeding tenor recitative, so wildly chromatic as to be almost atonal, sinks even lower in despair, from 'tragic' G minor, to 'dynamic' C minor, to 'infernal' F minor: until the aria that follows this literally abysmal intonation pours balm on wounds, with the help of a radiant flute obbligato. The same redemptive pattern is repeated in the bass recitative and aria, wherein we accept that Christ can and will save us. The cantata ends with a four-voiced hymn of gratitude: a chorale that involves us the people (or congregation), though it is not vocalized by us, except in silent empathy.

Continue >>

 Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, June 13th 1999

<< Music & Vision homepage      More book reviews >>      More CD reviews >>