A HOLIDAY SERENADE
Christmas Concerto, Op.6 No.8
Vivace – Grave
Adagio – Allegro – Adagio
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Violin Concerto No.3 in G major, K216 (Strassburger)
Joan Kwuon, violin
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G, BWV1048
[A fast movement with no tempo marking]
Serenade for strings, Op.22
Tempo di Valse
Finale (Allegro vivace)
Concerto grosso in G minor, Op.6 No.8
For most modern listeners this music is the Christmas Concerto. What this hides is the fact that whole swathes of Christmas concertos were composed
during the baroque era – it was a genre in its own right. But Corelli’s has come down to us as the most famous one of all.
It’s a concerto grosso – a concerto with more than one soloist, unlike the Mozart violin concerto we’ll hear next. In this case, two violins and
a cello make up the solo group, which plays with and ‘against’ the full ensemble. The concerto belongs to a set of 12, possibly written as early as
1690 for concerts in the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni and published in 1714 as Corelli’s Opus 6.
Of the dozen concertos, this is the only one with a subtitle: Fatto per la notte di natale (Made for Christmas night). But even without
this clue, Corelli’s original listeners would have recognized it as a Christmas concerto from its final movement. Throughout the concerto
Corelli has alternated mood and tempo – back and forth between the lively and the serious. But then, instead of bringing the concerto to a fast
conclusion, Corelli gives us a slow pastorale, featuring the lilting rhythms associated with the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks.
Violin Concerto No.3 in G major, K216
Imagine hearing Mozart-the-violinist: once after he’d performed this concerto he said it had gone as “smoothly as oil,” and everyone
had praised his “beautiful, pure tone.” Mozart must have had a “singing” style, and it’s no surprise that the very beginning of this
concerto was borrowed almost note for note from music for the voice: an opera he’d recently written called Il re pastore (The Shepherd King).
It’s possible to listen to the whole concerto as an opera for the violin. The music is full of vivid characterizations, as if there
are scenes for lovers, for peasants, a clown… In the third movement you can hear various changes of mood or ‘costume.’ The music
that anchors all this – like the chorus in a song – is the recurring rondo theme, introduced at the beginning of the movement and
played between each contrasting musical episode.
But the third episode offers a surprise: Mozart breaks off with three big chords from the orchestra and the music becomes slower and
more stately – it’s a court dance known as a gavotte. But before he has even finished, Mozart interrupts himself again, this time
with a lusty peasant dance, the ‘Strassburger’ tune.
The finale is great fun, but the most exquisite music in the concerto is in the Adagio (slow) movement, the only movement where we
hear the flutes. Their sound is complemented by the violins and violas playing with mutes and the cellos and basses plucking their
notes instead of bowing them. And above this gentle accompaniment the soloist spins one of Mozart’s gorgeous melodies.
CONCERTO FOR STRINGS
Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G, BWV1048
Both halves of this concert begin with the same type of music: a baroque concerto grosso. This one belongs to the famous set of
Brandenburg concertos – six concertos “with various instruments” composed at various times between 1718 and 1721. During this period
Bach was working in the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, and if these concertos are any guide, the musicians in his orchestra there were very fine players indeed.
One way to think of the Brandenburg Concertos is as an artist’s portfolio in which Bach reveals the extent of his virtuosity and
imagination as a composer. They were assembled in 1721 in a handsome presentation manuscript addressed to the Margrave of Brandenburg
(hence the nickname) and each one is for a different (and, for the time, unusual) ensemble of instruments.
The third concerto is striking in that it calls for string orchestra with a keyboard playing a continuo role (the baroque equivalent
of a jazz rhythm section). The strings are arranged in three groups of equal strength and virtuosity, making it the most democratic and in
some ways the most symphonic of the Brandenburg concertos. In turn, each of those groups has three parts, which to an 18th-century listener
would have prompted thought of the holy Trinity.
The concerto also follows a three-part structure: two fast (Allegro) movements separated by the tiniest of slow (Adagio) movements – just two chords!
But Bach would have expected more of his performers here: the chords an invitation for the musicians, or the leader at least, to improvise a transition
between the two outer movements.
A MUSICAL DIVERSION
Serenade for strings, Op.22
Dvořák’s Serenade for strings is a relatively early creation, written when he was 34 and before he was established as a composer to be reckoned with.
It shows a young man looking backwards to his heritage and the result is music that Mozart would have recognized. As a serenade, it belongs to an
18th-century tradition of cheerful music written for casual settings, intended as background for socializing.
Composing in 1875, Dvořák intended his serenade for concert performance and he would have expected us to listen to it, not chat, but the music still
reveals a genial spirit, a charming simplicity, and an appealing variety of moods over the course of its five movements. It’s a Classical serenade at heart.
Dvořák’s personal voice emerges in the flowing, folk-like theme of the first movement, his instinct for dance music (the second movement is an elegant
waltz), and his energizing use of rhythm – again, influenced by folk traditions. The Larghetto (slow) movement brings a mood of tranquility and reflection
to the serenade before the fiery and restless music of the finale.
Yvonne Frindle © 2011
Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2011
Corelli was one of the first great violin virtuosos. He was also a renowned composer and teacher (Vivaldi was one of his students), and
his influence was so extensive that composers such as Bach, and later Rachmaninoff, borrowed his musical ideas. As was common in the 17th and 18th
centuries, Corelli’s livelihood as a musician depended on patronage: in Rome he worked for Queen Christine of Sweden after her abdication and later
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart spent the first part of his career in Salzburg as a servant-musician in the court of the Prince-Archbishop. His duties included composition
and performing, and in addition to being a virtuoso at the keyboard, he was a very accomplished violinist, capable of playing concertos such as this
one. His father assured him if he kept practicing he could be one of the finest violinists in Europe. But Mozart had other plans…
Johann Sebastian Bach is for many musicians today the most revered of all composers, yet in his own lifetime he was mainly known as a virtuoso
organist and for his skill as an improviser. His creations include many cantatas and choral works written for church performance, a set of keyboard
pieces called The Well-Tempered Clavier, and concertos of all types.
Dvořák was born near Prague and died in that city. This made him a Bohemian composer at a time when the region was under the thumb of the Austrian empire.
He lived through an era when nationalistic feeling dominated, and folk traditions, previously dismissed, were nurtured as a source of identity. His big
reak came in 1878 with the publication of his Slavonic Dances. Yet some of his best-known music was stimulated not by the sounds of Bohemia but by his years
in America: the New World Symphony and the Cello Concerto in B minor.
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