In the history of art, Baroque was a period characterized by unprecedented flowering of architecture, painting, literature, and music. Spanning over fifteen decades, from the early 1600s to the mid-eighteenth century, Baroque epoch passed under the sign of rich ornamentation and fanciful designs which were the part and parcel of many a work of art of the time.
Musical Baroque proclaimed itself in the genres of concerto, suite, and sinfonia, dramatically expanding the repertoire, as well as employing new performing techniques and instruments.
The present report focuses on the works of two pillars of Baroque music: first, Brandenburg Concerto D Major No. 5 (ca. 1721) by Johann Sebastian Bach, and then The Four Seasons (ca. 1723) by Antonio Vivaldi will be considered in terms of Baroque instrumental concerto. The first piece is performed by Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, and the solo part of the second cycle is presented by an English violinist Nigel Kennedy.
The tradition of instrumental concerto originated in Italy and further on spread to the rest of Europe where it “became one of the defining forms of Baroque music attracting composers and audiences of all nationalities” (Buelow 524).
The German genius of Johan Sebastian Bach was ultimately intrigued by Italian music, and developed the genre of instrumental concerto in his own works, one of the most notable being a series of Brandenburg Concertos. The uniqueness of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is that, being originally scored for violin, flute, harpsichord, and strings, it is the only of the six concertos that contains solo material for harpsichord.
Traditionally participating in the ensemble as accompanying basso continuo that fills in harmonies, in the first Allegro movement of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the harpsichord bursts in a virtuosic cadenza filled with breathtaking passages and sequences that embody the Baroque principle of improvisation and technical mastery.
This sudden monologue is the more amazing as the harpsichord seems to break loose from the tight musical material woven by the instruments which in their struggle reflect the guiding principle of concerto: competition of orchestral tutti against soloists. Bach prepares yet another surprise for the audience: the ritornello, normally ascribed to the tutti group, is in this Allegro stolen away by the soloists. Such competitiveness of instruments for the functional parts of the movement cannot but thrill the listener.
The second and the third parts of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, Affettuoso h minor and Allegro D Major by their genre characteristics remind of the traditional dances constituting Baroque suites. The grave tread of the Affettuoso melody including multiple dotted notes reminds of the sarabanda dance, though the piece does not preserve the normal triple metre.
The violin is subsequently joined by flute in its doleful lamentations — their expressive duo is supported by harpsichord which later joins in the conversation and takes up the theme in a series of polyphonic imitations. The final Allegro pours out a lively stream of triplets taken over in turns and in sequences by the solo violin, flute, and harpsichord against the harmonic background of the strings.
This clearly points to the genre characteristics of gigue and, together with rich fugal counterpoint, presents a whole range of technical challenges for the performers. On the whole, the melodic and polyphonic richness of musical texture and the thematic variety of Brandenburg Concerto No 5 cannot but amaze the audience at Bach’s genius that makes itself obvious in his every creation.
Another Baroque genius, whose works served as inspiration for Bach’s experiments in the realm of instrumental concerto, Antonio Vivaldi is probably best known among the general public for his set of four violin concerts The Four Seasons.
As Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos reflect the general European tendency to stylize instrumental concerts according to standards set by Italian composers, so does Vivaldi’s cycle embody another trend of the time: the fashion for the so-called program music. Utilized for the pleasure of the aristocratic crème de la crème of the time, program music presupposed illustration of a certain story, with pastoral episodes or scenes from nature being among of the most widespread subjects of composers’ attention.
Vivaldi chose to organize the cycle of The Four Seasons around the natural alternation of times of the year, dedicating three movements to each of them. Thus is celebrated the traditional structure of instrumental concerto, with two lively movements on the borders and a slow lyrical middle part.
As for the descriptive part of the concerts, a set of four sonnets about times of year provides the program basis for music. The name of their author still remains a mystery, though sometimes Vivaldi is thought to be the one to have composed them (Everett 70). However it may be, the contents and the mood of the sonnets are rendered miraculously though expressive musical means. The opening part of the first concerto, Spring, features the singing of birds and the soft murmur of streams on a bright and fresh summer day.
This atmosphere is rendered through the trills, glissandos and staccato repetitions in the solo part and the clear-cut energetic rhythms of the tutti fragments. The following Largo movement, through an expressive melodic monologue of the violin supported by harmonic accompaniment of the strings, illustrates peaceful sleep of a shepherd, interrupted only by his dog’s barking. Stylized in the rhythms of Italian tarantella, the final movement brings about a scene of folk fest celebrating the return of spring after a long cold winter.
Summer opens as if reluctantly moving through the extreme heat: the musical phrases of the solo violin seem to be separate and unsystematic. This tranquility is interrupted several times by abruptly collapsing tutti passages that stand for the strong gusts of wind and foreshadow the dramatic events of the next movements.
The violin’s melodic lamento of the second movement is as well interrupted by imitations of thunder in the unison of the orchestra. At last, the thematic material, heralded in the two preceding parts, breaks through in the final Presto pouring down streams of breathtaking gammas and arpeggios that in their sharp harmonization with frequent tritone moves remind the torrents of the summer rainstorm that wash away everything in their way.
The melodic arrangement opening Autumn reminds of the thematic material of Spring: and indeed, here the folk fest takes place again, giving thanks to nature for a good harvest. The autumn atmosphere is emphasized by tinting the old thematic material into colors of minor, symbolizing the withering of the nature.
Following the feast, Adagio molto depicts the quiet scene of peasants asleep after their excessive libation, with only few revelers breaking into the general peace and repeating the lively theme of the first movement. The final part obviously illustrates the scene of hunt, imitating horn calls and chase by means of the traditional Italian caccia.
Winter sets in with its repetitive ostinato rhythms in the orchestra and violin’s chaotic passages and thrills rendering an image of a person desperately trying to shake off the severe cold that sets teeth chattering.
The improvised cadences opening the middle movement leave the last snowstorms outside and introduce the listener into the atmosphere of a warm and cozy room with the calm and peaceful melody of violin carefully supported by the pizzicato of the orchestra.
But the cautious tread and obsessive rhythmic ostinato of the final part concludes the cycle with statement of impossibility to escape the frosty blizzards of winter. Being a conclusive part of the whole tale of the four seasons, Allegro excellently sums up both the lyric moments and the dramatic ones, restoring the key themes of the previous parts in a series of final reminiscences.
Buelow, George J. A History of Baroque Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004. Print.
Everett, Paul. Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, and Other Concertos, Op. 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.