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Program Notes: Baroque Fireworks

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, December 6, 2019, at 10:30AM

Saturday, December 7, 2019, at 8:00PM

Sunday, December 8, 2019, at 3:00PM

Richard Egarr, director & harpsichord

Angie Smart, violin

HANDEL Water Music Suite

HANDEL Sonata à 5, HWV 288

HANDEL Music for the Royal Fireworks

BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

BACH Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068


Bach and Handel: At Home and Abroad

Handel shares a birth year with Bach, but you couldn’t imagine two more different composing personalities. In his lifetime, J.S. Bach was renowned primarily as an organist. His professional appointments took him to Arnstadt, Weimar, Cöthen, and Leipzig, but he never left Germany, although famously he made a 200-mile journey as a young man—on foot—to hear the great organist-composer Dietrich Buxtehude.

Handel, by contrast, traveled widely and was the more celebrated musical figure. He spent four years in Italy—home of opera, oratorio, the concerto, and the sonata—before bringing his cosmopolitan style to the hub of the 18th-century musical world, London. And there he stayed—a force to be reckoned with in the realm of opera and oratorio. Meanwhile, his orchestral works represented that elegant and lively hybrid of the French and Italian styles that German composers had claimed for their own.

It would be wrong, though, to think that Bach had no exposure in the range of international musical styles simply because he stayed at home. Without stepping foot in Italy, Bach became acquainted with the concertos of Vivaldi and he adopted a time-honored strategy for analyzing and absorbing their characteristics: arranging them for new instrumental combinations. He then proceeded to make the concerto genre his own. Nor did he have to travel to France to discover the secrets of the French style and the orchestral suite.

George Frideric Handel


Born February 23, 1685, Halle, Germany

Died April 14, 1759, London, England

Handel in London: An English “Accent”

In 1710, Handel was appointed court director of music to the Elector of Hanover, which he promptly deferred with an eight-month leave of absence in London. A year later, Handel was again given permission to visit England, this time with the injunction to return “within reasonable time.” In the end, Handel outstayed his leave but not his welcome. He was still in England in 1714 when his former employer assumed the throne as George I.

Although Handel was never truly out of favor with the king, the performance of his Water Music during the royal river party on the Thames in 1717 may have been a public gesture of reconciliation. Regardless, such events had become common in an attempt to make the new Hanoverian dynasty visible and popular.

George I disliked “pageantry and splendor,” but found the water party the least irksome form of royal progress. This was 18th-century public relations in action.

Handel’s Water Music has parallels in the outdoor music of the French court at Versailles and the music is French in externals—especially in its dance movements. But the musical language, as opposed to the form, is typical of Handel—a blend of German and Italian musical elements, which has acquired an English “accent.”

Account of a River Excursion on the Thames, featuring music by Handel…
Friedrich Bonet, Brandenburg’s diplomatic resident in London, writes of the river excursion on 17 July 1717:
About eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge…Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number, who played on all kinds of instruments, to wit trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoons, German flutes, French flutes, violins, and basses; but there were no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty’s principal Court Composer. His Majesty’s approval of it was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour. The evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, Madame de Kilmanseck had arranged a choice supper at the late Lord Ranelagh’s villa on the river at Chelsea, where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St. James’ about half past four. The concert cost Baron Kilmanseck £150 for the musicians alone.

Water Music Suite

No definitive score of Handel’s Water Music survives and it’s impossible to know exactly which movements the King heard, or in which sequence. Although it’s now believed the musical numbers were mixed together, the Water Music has long been grouped into three suites based on the featured instruments: the horn suite (in F major), the trumpet suite (in D major), and the flute suite (in G major). For this performance, Richard Egarr has chosen from the trumpet and horn suites and added a part for timpani.

The Allegro from the trumpet suite is ceremonious and splendid: pairs of horns and trumpets expand on fanfares in dialogue, each pair accompanied by its own “camp”—oboes, violins, and violas siding with the trumpets; bassoon and basso continuo instruments with the horns. A noisy truce then leads to a few bars of slow music that leave the music poised for the Alla Hornpipe (“in the manner of a hornpipe”)—possibly the most famous Water Music movement.

Following this brilliant beginning are two movements from the horn suite. Handel was credited with introducing the horn to England at a time when its use was still relatively new in Europe, but in the Allegro moderato it’s the oboes who take the lead. They’re eventually joined by the horns, playing high in their range, in the Air. The remaining movements return to the trumpet suite with three dances: the stately Minuet, a gently lilting Lentement, and the Bourrée, a joyous number recycled from Handel’s Rome oratorio La Resurrezione.

First performance: July 17, 1717, at the request of King George I for a concert on the River Thames

First SLSO performance: Of this edition, this weekend’s concerts. Of another edition, January 8, 1932, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: Of another edition, March 26, 2011, Nicholas McGegan conducting

Scoring: 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, strings

Performance time: Approximately 19 minutes

Sonata à 5, HWV 288

Handel in Italy

The quarry for much of Handel’s later music was in ideas that came to him during his years in Italy as a young man. There Handel had perfected his mastery of opera, at its source. While in Rome, for music-loving clerical nobles, Handel composed brilliant chamber cantatas as well as church music. He reputedly took part in a keyboard contest with his exact contemporary Domenico Scarlatti (1685 was a very good year), and in the salons of the nobility he made music with the already famous Arcangelo Corelli.

Sonata for Five—Or is it a concerto?

Almost certainly this “sonata for five” was created in that context, in Rome in 1707. Richard Egarr enthuses: “It is a fantastic and hugely under-exposed masterpiece from the 22-year-old genius, fired by his time spent in that amazing musical playground.”

Handel liked the ideas in this piece so much that he returned to them repeatedly for years, adapting them for sonatas, concertos, and anthems. This, the original version of the music, begins with the solo violin playing as though to begin a sonata, but echoed immediately by all the instruments, as in a concerto. From there on the solo violin rarely plays on its own, except in the last movement, which is more like the violin concertos by Vivaldi.

In Handel’s first movement (Andante), the conversation is close and quite intricate. There are five string parts, as the title indicates, with continuo. (Handel, perhaps later, indicated that the non-solo violin parts are doubled by oboes.) The slow movement (Adagio) is only a series of chords forming a cadence—most likely a pretext for improvisation, as in the third of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. According to a contemporary report, Corelli found Handel’s music difficult to interpret. The Sonata à 5 presages Handel’s concerti grossi—novel and at least equal in mastery to Corelli’s own.

First performance: 1707, in Rome

First SLSO performance: October 13, 1984, Raymond Leppard conducting with Jacques Israelievitch as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: June 16, 1989, Joseph Silverstein conductor and soloist

Scoring: solo violin, 2 oboes, harpsichord, strings

Performance time: Approximately 10 minutes

Music for the Royal Fireworks

A London Traffic Jam

Composed three decades later for George II, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks celebrated the Treaty of Aachen, which ended the War of Austrian Succession in 1748. The first performance took place on April 27, 1749, and so many Londoners thronged to the Vauxhall Gardens for the public rehearsal that traffic on London Bridge was halted for three hours. The actual performance was something of a fizzer: some of the fireworks failed to ignite, a pavilion caught fire mid-show, and the stage designer drew his sword on the Comptroller of the Fireworks.

The ensemble for this outdoor music was more military band than symphony orchestra, with more than 50 woodwind and brass instruments, but the following month the music was performed at the Foundling Hospital with Handel’s preferred formation: a smaller ensemble and including strings.

Music for the Royal Fireworks

Like the Water Music, this suite is modeled on the outdoor music of Versailles and takes the form of a grand overture in the French style followed by a suite of dances. Expanding on the usual French overture pattern with its alternations between slow, majestic music (Adagio) and faster sections (Allegro), Handel took the opening material, which he’d used before, and harmonized it in three different ways. The faster section in triple time, apparently designed to fit the limitations of natural trumpets and horns, provides opportunities for question-and-answer dialogue between the wind instruments.

The dances begin with a short Bourrée, followed by a slow Siciliana entitled “Peace,” with prominent horn parts. The next dance, “Rejoicing,” is not really a dance, but a genre piece, directed to be played three times—by trumpets, woodwinds, and strings; by horns and woodwinds; and by everyone together. The first of the Menuets is an elegantly swinging number in D minor featuring oboes and strings, the second, returning to D major, brings in trumpets, drums, and horns for a magnificent finale.

First performance: April 27, 1749, in London, England

First SLSO performance: January 10, 1981, Raymond Leppard conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 21, 2012, Nicholas McGegan conducting

Scoring: 3 oboes, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, strings

Performance time: Approximately 19 minutes

Johann Sebastian Bach


Born March 31, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

The Brandenburg Concertos

When Bach became music director for the Calvinist court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen he was, for a brief period, relieved of responsibility for church music. He also took charge of an established orchestra of 18 players, and it was during the years 1717–1723 that he composed the majority of his orchestral works, including the six “Brandenburg” concertos.

These concertos—each written for a different and distinctive instrumental combination—offer a sampler of the possibilities represented by the concerto grosso genre, some old-fashioned, others forward-looking. The fifth concerto is effectively a concerto for harpsichord in the fashionable galant style.

In 1724 Bach sent a presentation score of the six concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg with the obligatory ingratiating dedication. There’s no evidence Bach was paid or thanked and the score remained untouched in the Margrave’s library until after his death. We owe the survival of the music to the Margrave’s apparent indifference, while the Margrave owes his immortality to the 19th-century Bach scholar who first referred to the concertos by his name.

Bach at the Harpsichord

Bach himself almost certainly played the enterprising harpsichord solo in the fifth concerto, taking his seat at Prince Leopold’s newly acquired instrument from Berlin. The presence of the flute in the solo concertino group is a gesture to the modern, its flexibility and expressive range exceeding that of the recorder and suiting it to the fashionable galant style. Meanwhile, the harpsichord, released from its usual supporting role, is placed at the center of attention.

The key of the concerto, D major, was described by Johann Mattheson in 1713 as “best suited to noisy, joyful, warlike, and rousing things” and the first Allegro exploits brilliant scales and arpeggios for the harpsichord, preparing the way for a long written-out solo cadenza (in itself an innovation).

The Affettuoso is an essay in the north German “expressive” style, the key

(B minor) suggesting a bizarre but touching melancholy. The reduced ensemble (the concertino group alone) is like a trio sonata and at first the keyboard accompanies the flute and violin as they echo each other’s melodies.

In the final Allegro Bach combines gigue rhythms and a hunting horn motif, both of which were to become fashionable in the finales of late 18th-century symphonies. The movement unfolds “in fugal fashion,” but this serious counterpoint cannot disguise the music’s exuberant dance quality.

First performance: Unknown

First SLSO performance: January 6, 1922, Rudolph Ganz conducting with Alexander Siloti as harpsichord soloist (flute and violin soloists unknown)

Most recent SLSO performance: January 13, 2008, Nicholas McGegan conducting with Mark Sparks as flute soloist, David Halen as violin soloist, and Maryse Carlin as harpsichord soloist

Scoring: Solo flute, solo violin, solo harpsichord, strings

Performance time: Approximately 21 minutes

Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Orchestral Ouvertures

It’s thought that Bach’s four orchestral suites or ouvertures were composed, or at least substantially revised, during his last post, in Leipzig, where he had access to the many excellent instrumentalists of the Collegium Musicum. The suites use different ensembles (the second features a solo flute) and the surviving parts of the third suite show that it was conceived for a double orchestra: one group comprising three trumpets and kettledrums, the other two violins, viola, and basso continuo. The two oboes play in unison with the violins throughout—as with the oboes in Handel’s Sonata à 5 they may have been an afterthought, intended to give the strings more bite.

The name “ouverture” is a form of shorthand, then common in Germany, referring to a French-style Ouverture followed by a suite of dances. Bach is true to his model, writing a slow, majestic introduction followed by a fast section with intricate imitation between the instruments and a return of the slow introduction. Again, the brilliant key of D major brings a festive spirit as well as being especially congenial for trumpets and drums.

Air on the G String and Other Dances

The Ouverture is followed by a measured Air that has become excessively famous in a lush Romantic arrangement for violin and piano by August Wilhelmj: the “Air on the G String.” In Bach’s original conception, for strings alone, it is a far more beautiful piece, with much interest in the interplay of the parts.

The remaining dances have their origins in the ballroom, but Bach’s expression and ideas go far beyond the requirements of dance music as he exploits their emotional and musical contrasts. The pair of Gavottes adopt the characteristic feature of beginning each phrase in the middle of the bar and the double orchestra formation is presented in high relief. The Bourrée is more vigorous, almost earthy in character, while the closing Gigue with its distinctive skipping rhythms take from the Celtic jig, makes for a vibrant and lively finale.

First performance: Unknown

First SLSO performance: February 18, 1910, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 5, 2017, Bernard Labadie conducting

Scoring: 2 oboes, bassoon, 3 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, strings

Performance time: Approximately 20 minutes


Notes by Yvonne Frindle and David Garrett.


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