Ancient Voices Program Notes
Bach: Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052
Joseph Bologne: String Quartet No. 3
Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite III
II. Arie di corte
Program notes by Claudia Jensen and Bradley Clem
“Ancient Voices” is a concert that asks us to listen through many interpretive lenses. The program, featuring Bach, Bologne, and Respighi, encompasses a wide chronological range, as do most present-day concert programs. But it is the lens of physical concert-going that seems particularly relevant now, as we approach the one-year mark of distanced concert attendance. Even if we happen to be listening to this performance at the same time as other ticket holders, we are nevertheless hearing the performance through different media of varying levels of quality and in different surroundings — this is not a communal experience in the traditional way, in which audience and performer share a physical space and a set of acoustics, reacting together in a shared allotment of time. Is it possible that our new concert experiences also change the ways we appreciate the deeper structure of the music?
Our program opens with the powerful harpsichord concerto by J. S. Bach (BWV 1052), an overwhelming opening under any circumstances, but one that may be particularly resonant in this COVID-age performance. Bach’s instrumental works always require multiple lenses in order to understand how they reflect his knowledge of other composers’ works and how they might be related to other instrumental works in Bach’s own output. This piece, for example, is generally believed to have been influenced by Vivaldi’s instrumental concerti and, like many of Bach’s works, it may originally have been conceived for a different instrumental configuration (as a concerto for violin or perhaps organ). The work survives in a partial version copied by one of the composer’s sons (Carl Philipp Emanuel) in 1734 and in a complete manuscript, copied by Bach himself, several years later. The opening unison octaves of the first movement (echoed by shorter unison passages opening the third movement) are generally seen as evidence of Bach’s engagement with Vivaldi’s concerti. Like other Baroque concerti, the work is architectural in conception, with the pillars of the large ensemble marking and supporting the melodic extensions undertaken, with increasing virtuosity, by the soloist.
Might this tension between the structural columns erected by the ensemble and the soloist’s increasingly complex and harmonically distant elaborations strike us with particular force in our pandemic shutdown? Can we appreciate even more the way the soloist, pushing against the formal pillars, at times seems to lift off into a blur of liberating sound? The same question might be posed for the second movement, which is based on a long and winding melodic statement, repeated in the low strings, that underpins the soloist’s melodic embroideries. This musical form, too, might resonate particularly strongly, as we follow the repetitions of the lower lines, growing more powerful with each iteration yet mitigated by the creative impulses of the solo harpsichord.
The second work, the precise and exquisite quartet No. 3 by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, allows us to contemplate a musical life through a different kind of lens. Bologne’s biography is fascinating, with all the attributes of a major career as a violinist, a conductor, and a composer, for all of which he was acknowledged in his own time. And this is after his first career, as a champion fencer, famous throughout Europe. There is even a third career, as a military officer, when he volunteered his services during the French Revolution.
Much of Bologne’s biography, particularly for his early years, is sketchy, but some incidents force us to reckon with his status, as the son of a French aristocrat and an enslaved Black woman, who met in the French colony of Guadeloupe and then returned (along with his father’s white family) to France, where Bologne received a brilliant education. As several writers have indicated, his life, in spite of his public and frequent successes, would have been shadowed by uncertainty and resistance. Even his title, as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, which was bestowed by King Louis XV in recognition of his fame as a fencer, held restrictions; he could not pass the title down to any heirs due to the restrictions imposed by France’s Code Noir.
The composition on our program, part of Bologne’s first set of quartets and among his earliest known works, were published in 1773 and probably written a year or two earlier. They were among the first quartets to be written in France and they were his first published works–sprightly, compact yet bursting with melodic ideas and with a clear sense of form and balance. It was just before this time, in 1769, that Bologne was asked to join the Concert des Amateurs, an important privately funded orchestra established by François-Joseph Gossec; throughout his career, in this ensemble and through his other performances and compositions, Bologne was involved intensively with the musical life of Paris. Even so, after ascending to the head of the Concert des Amateurs, his application to direct the Académie Royal de Musique was withdrawn after some of the performers stated their objections to “accepting orders from a mulatto.”
Many listening to the concert today have probably read the recent article by Marcos Balter, published in the New York Times (July 22, 2020), about Bologne and the impact of the term “Black Mozart” as it was and is applied to the composer. One of the important observations in Balter’s article is that Bologne’s music has drawn long and consistent interest among scholars and performers. This attention, as Balter emphasizes, is due to Bologne’s music: it survived because of its quality and its importance, its innovation and its style. As Balter says, “This [survival] is the ultimate proof that Bologne doesn’t need to be anyone’s second best — let alone anyone’s Black echo.”
The final work on today’s program, Ottorino Respighi’s third set of “Ancient Airs and Dances,” summarizes our concert’s multiple lensing, combining inspiration from previous “Ancient Voices” with twentieth-century interpretations, further reframed by our distanced concert: one era speaking to another via a third, all mediated by technological solutions engendered by a pandemic.
Music of past eras was a consistent touchstone throughout Respighi’s career. The suite on our program is the third and last in a series that he began in 1917 and continued to this final setting, from 1931. It is based mostly on lute works, some identified, some anonymous, arranged for strings in a series of four movements, each with a characteristic mood. The first two movements (labeled “Italiana” and “Arie di corte”) offer a stately opening for the set; the “Arie di corte” move through shifting moods and tempi, framed by the cantabile section, which opens and closes this long movement. The third movement is a siciliana, thus the lilting dotted rhythms, rising to perhaps unexpected power in forceful restatements. The final movement is a majestic passacaglia that explores the possibilities and ramifications of its thematic material through powerful contrapuntal and unison writing that seems to be straining at the boundaries of the form, recalling the tensions of Bach’s opening concerto.
So, is our listening changed by our pandemic concert life? Would the formal elements of this program have made a different impact if we had heard these works a year ago? And what might we bring with us if we hear these pieces again, in what we all fervently hope is a return to our normal, communal, interactive roles as audience members and performers?