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Quicksilver: Stile Moderno

The seventeenth century is often called the “early modern period” by historians, a useful term that reminds us what a transformative moment this was in Western cultural history. This was the moment when Europe became modern. New technologies were emerging, our modern economic system was developing, and the earth was no longer at the center of the universe. Among these cultural revolutions was one in music, as composers began to invent a nuove musiche or stile moderno. This self-consciously “modern” music delighted in dramatic oppositions and vivid emotional statements, in striking contrast to the smooth tapestry of Renaissance polyphony.

Tonight’s concert is an examination of this modern music, as it was invented by virtuoso instrumental composers first in Italy and then in Germany. It is also an exploration of their new invention, the sonata: a pure instrumental work, a piece simply meant to be “sounded,” with no agenda but the imagination of the composer—and no standard formal shape except the passionate give-and-take of friends in conversation.

Our concert is framed by works from one remarkable figure who wrote some of the most striking flights of seventeenth-century musical imagination. Apart from his music, we know absolutely nothing about Dario Castello. There are no records that someone with that name even existed in Venice during the early decades of the century, or that (as he claims on the title pages of his two books of sonatas) he ever worked at San Marco. Judging by some musical details they share, it’s clear that he was a close colleague of Monteverdi. But all that we know of Castello today is through his sonatas, which (unusually for the time) were reprinted—proof that his contemporaries thought they were something special.

This kind of highly sectionalized work, with abrupt transitions, passionate harmonies, and groovy dance rhythms, is the heart of the seventeenth-century sonata. Italian composers brought this style across the Alps to the Holy Roman Empire, where several virtuoso violinists sought refuge from the wars and plagues of mid-century Italy. One of these migrants was Antonio Bertali, who arrived in Vienna around 1624 and became Kapellmeister to the Emperor in 1649. His Sonata à 4 was included in an anthology prepared by the Gotha musician Johann Ludwig as a present for the highly intellectual Duke Anton Ulrich of Braunschweig.

Along with the high arts of the sonata, the musicians of the courts also offered their audiences some less refined pleasures. Johann Heinrich Schmeltzer, the first German Kapellmeister to the Imperial court in Vienna, spent much of his career providing entertainments for the music-loving Leopold I, who was fond of musical bizarrie. Schmeltzer’s wonderfully vivid portrait of Polish bagpipers knits together a number of folk tunes, interspersed with more courtly material. Its ending is particularly eccentric: a tune fragment played in unison that just peters out to nothing.

We next move to the far northern reaches of Germany. Matthias Weckmann studied with Heinrich Schütz in Dresden, from whom he received training in the latest Italian styles. He later became the director of music at the Jacobikirche in Hamburg, where he organized a series of weekly concerts with distinguished musicians who performed “the best things from Venice, Rome, Vienna, Munich, and Dresden, etc.” Doubtless, his own fiercely dramatic ensemble sonatas were heard among these foreign pieces. His Sonata No. 2 is full of quirky gestures, with a quite wonderful sequence of visionary sonorities at its close.

Our first half closes with an inventive canzona by another student of Schütz, Johann Vierdanck, who spent most of his career in Denmark and Friesland. One of the earliest pieces on our program, Canzon No. 21 in C major uses the syncopated dance rhythms of the Renaissance to create a festive atmosphere.

One of Castello’s more outrageous sonatas is his Sonata decima from his second book of sonatas “in the modern style.” Its form actually follows the classical structure of a public speech, with an introduction, a statement which is then elaborated, a discussion of opposing ideas, and a final closing speech. Castello puts this discourse in vivid musical figures, full of virtuosic passagework and declamatory solos, finally closing with a disconcerting trill in parallel fourths. (In his preface, Castello recommends trying these pieces out once or twice before performing them, “since nothing is hard to those who love it.”)

Johann Kaspar Kerll’s expansive Sonata à 3 brings together the Italian taste for extravagant solos with excellent German craftsmanship in his imitative passages. Kerll learned the Italian style firsthand: he studied with Valentini, one of the first Italians to become court Kapellmeister in Vienna, and later traveled to Rome to work with Carissimi. Kerll began his career at the court in Munich, but after a violent dispute with the Italian opera singers there, he moved to Vienna, where he became organist to the Emperor.

With Johann Rosenmüller, we come to a major composer whose unexpected life events led to some interesting musical developments. Rosenmüller was the leading musical figure in Leipzig in his day. He was about to take over as Thomaskantor (the same job Bach had thirty years later) when he was arrested for homosexuality. He managed to escape from prison and flee to Venice. This dramatic trajectory transformed his musical style as well as his career. In his Leipzig days, his instrumental music was largely dance suites for the university students, but once he got to Venice, he discovered the power of operatic melody and theatrical gesture. His late set of sonatas published in 1682 combine heartbreaking adagios with beautifully well-wrought fugues.

Kerll’s Sonata à 2 appears in a huge manuscript anthology of 157 trio sonatas assembled by a cleric, Franz Rost, probably for the use of the Margrave of Baden-Baden. In this sonata, Kerll explores the extravagance of the Italian sonata, with extended solos for both violins, but places all this virtuosity in a context of characteristically South German lyric melancholy.

We close our program with one last piece by Castello, his striking Sonata decimaquarta, from the second book of sonatas. It closes with a spectacular coda that features a brilliant series of duets that recall the grand spaces of San Marco where it was first heard.

Artist note provided by Quicksilver