Edward McCue (EM) Zachary, how are Rick Erickson and you interpreting this year’s Boulder Bach Festival theme, “Bach, the Passionate?”
Zachary Carrettin (ZC) As a theme, “Bach, the Passionate” manages to embrace both of the largest programs of our new season. The Chamber Concerts this month will feature Italian-influenced concertos and how Bach adapted the passionate Italian style of writing and playing, especially in the case of the violin as a virtuoso instrument. In contrast, “Bach, the Passionate” also celebrates our Festival Week performances of his St. John Passion (BWV 245). In that great work we will hear Bach’s religious fervor relating the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. These two very different kinds of passion will result in dramatically different listening experiences that both reveal Bach at his very best.
When considering Bach’s concertos, I think that it’s important to understand that he recognized clear distinctions between French tastes and Italian tastes, the two prevailing national styles of instrumental writing of the time, and that the Germans, by and large, were known as being expert at both styles of playing. Major orchestras, such as the one at the Electoral Court in Dresden, featured principal players who had studied with the great masters in Italy and France. At least one contemporary critic claimed that the Dresden orchestra played French music better than the French and Italian music better than the Italians
I think that the degree of difference between the stylistic approaches of the French and Italians can be best understood by examining what a Frenchman wrote after traveling to Venice to hear Vivaldi and his orchestra: “Vivaldi wretched with passion in a disgusting display of indiscipline,” and it was in fact this “disgusting display of indiscipline” that was eventually exported throughout Europe. Today we might characterize this emotional style as being “unabashed Romanticism.”
We use many different terms in our attempt to describe the French and Italian styles during the Baroque period. In an interview that Christopher Hogwood, the music director of the Academy of Ancient Music in London, held with Baroque violinist and historian Jaap Schröder, Schröder demonstrated how a violinist would bow a French minuet as opposed to bowing an Italian minuet.
Schröder noted that, in the French minuet, there are repeated lifts and retakes of the bow. The note is played, and then the bow is lifted in the air, resulting in a mannered performance that emphasizes the strong beat versus the weak beat.
Schröder’s example of playing an Italian minuet leaves the bow on the string and simply bows down-up down-up as it comes. With this sort of bowing, the strong beat often occurs on the up bow stroke, which violates what the French were going for, that is, an emphasis on the strong beat brought about by gravity. By simply playing through the line without lifting the bow, the Italians, especially in the north, adopted a less mannered, more sustained approach to playing that was much like singing.
Thus, to a French musician, it might have seemed that the Italians were not very proficient in the art of bowing, but, to the initiate, it was obvious that the Italians were going for a longer line and a more legato, more fluid, more cantilena approach to bowing.
Now, with this explanation of some aspects of the Italian style, we can begin to consider the details of Vivaldi’s world. An ordained Catholic priest, Vivaldi was a composer of sacred music and a music educator at the orphanage attached to the Church of the Pietà in Venice. A true showman, Vivaldi was fond of flipping around his red curls and really playing in a virtuoso style. Thus, a severely intellectual or refined performance of a Vivaldi concerto cannot accurately portray his ethos.
However, in spite of their cultural differences, Vivaldi’s concertos influenced the Lutheran Bach more than any other concerto composer, more than Handel, more than Corelli, and certainly more than the countless other Italians, such as Albinoni. Bach was greatly influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos even though there is no evidence that Bach ever met Vivaldi or heard him play. Vivaldi’s reputation somehow succeeded in making its way to Bach, as did those aspects of his performance style that demanded that a concerto to be played in a very dramatic and spontaneous manner.
If you look at Vivaldi’s compositions, as compared to Bach’s, Vivaldi’s are indeed more simple, and I’ve encountered a number of theory professors who have disregarded him as a composer, claiming that “he wrote the same concerto five hundred times.” I think, though, that those particular theorists are missing out on the important fact that it’s the performer who brings Vivaldi’s concertos to life. Vivaldi wrote his concertos in such a way that they are quite extraordinary when placed the hands of gifted interpreters. With Vivaldi, we very much have a marriage of the performer and composer. In Vivaldi’s case, the composer invites the performer to say as much in the performance as the composer did in the writing of the piece.
EM So how does understanding Vivaldi change the way that we approach the works of Bach?
ZC Bach was a different composer, a more complete composer than Vivaldi. One can really disrupt the genius of Bach if one adds too much of oneself to Bach. On the other hand, I think that there is still adequate room for a lot of flair and extroversion in Bach’s concerto writing.
You can see that, especially in slow movements, for example, in the Concerto for Violin in A minor (BWV 1041), but also in the Brandenburg Concertos. Think of Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in B flat Major (BWV 1050), where the violin, flute and harpsichord are featured as solo instruments. The middle movement, entitled affettuoso, is a gorgeous cantabile in a minor key that is totally heart-felt; however Bach assigns fragments of each phrase to each of the three instruments, never allowing a single instrument to play a complete statement. By doing so he almost forces to the musicians be a little bit more reserved and coherent, as opposed to the andante of the Concerto for Violin in A minor. There Bach has fluid, floridly ornamented lines cascading and spanning the entire range of the instrument’s extensive tessitura. This example of Bach’s creative genius is very much like the singing of an aria and, in that respect, is very much like Vivaldi’s writing for the violin.
EM We know that Bach heard an orchestra playing in the French style while he was living in Lüneburg, but did Bach ever come into contact with an entire orchestra of Italians?
ZC I don’t know about the personnel in Bach’s orchestras, yet I doubt that he had many Italian musicians working for him. I do know that Bach was limited in his resources and that not all of Bach’s musicians had mastered their instruments at the highest level. He often had to deal with disparities in technical levels and experience, which is probably why the instrumentation of the cantatas vary so greatly from week to week. When he had the good fortune to meet extraordinary talents, such as when a couple of excellent oboists visited Leipzig, he took the opportunity to feature those forces in the church service on the next available Sunday or feast day.
In Vivaldi’s case, however, the composer had a consistent group of accomplished musicians available to him at all times. I think Vivaldi wrote something like thirty-nine bassoon concertos, evidence that he had more than a couple of good violinists readily at his disposal. Vivaldi really had such a strong base of musicians in his conservatory that he was encouraged to write many concertos for two, three and even four solo instruments. In contrast, while in Leipzig, Bach had to write concertos for himself and settle for an orchestra of town musicians and students who were, for the most part, unqualified to perform as soloists in their own right.
EM During Bach’s lifetime, Handel, in London, was deeply immersed in the world of Italian opera. Is that why, when we hear Handel, we know we’re not hearing Bach?
ZC When we hear any of Handel’s solo lines for an instrument, we are struck by the fact that that gorgeous melody could just as well have been sung by a great operatic soprano. That’s not at all the case for Bach. Bach was not an opera composer, and one wonders if Bach’s music could have survived if he had somehow managed to land a position with a major opera company.
I say this because even Bach’s vocal writing is so highly contrapuntal, with multiple, coexisting melodic lines, rather than simply lyrical. Within Bach’s counterpoint, a melodic line, such as a chorale melody, will appear and disappear and reappear while primary and secondary obligato voices weaving a complex texture over a bass line. This style of writing is really distinct from the kind of composition that Handel was undertaking, yet Handel’s writing, while more straightforward, is not simple. While it is every bit as harmonically complex as Bach’s, Handel’s writing is more accessible. Handel’s melodic lines start and finish with the same instrument, while Bach’s melodic lines are constantly shared among the participating instruments.
I remember reading a quotation that great counterpoint is like a great democracy, that each individual line or each individual person willingly sacrifices some freedom for the betterment of the whole organization. I think that that is what is really happening all the time in Bach’s music.
I guess that this is very similar to Mahler’s symphonies. Mahler can be compared to Bach in that Mahler rarely allows a melody to started on one instrument and completed by that same instrument. Working in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Mahler was fascinated with tone colors and sonorities and would first have part of a melody doubled by the trumpet and clarinet and then replace the clarinet with and oboe and then ask the trumpet to drop out and go with a flute instead. Thus Mahler’s melodies are spun out with multiple timbres one hundred and fifty years after Bach, and that’s what Mahler did differently from Brahms and what Bach did differently from Handel.
EM The upcoming Chamber Concerts also include a work by Corelli. Wasn’t Corelli sort of the old man among this group of composers being featured?
ZC Indeed, Corelli was already quite popular in Rome in 1680, while Bach was not born until 1685. Corelli was the “grandfather of the concerto,” or at least he gets that credit today. Corelli was writing in the concerto grosso genre where there are two dueling forces: the ripieno, which is the tutti or the whole orchestra, and the concertino, which is the soloist or group of soloists.
Often in Corelli you’ll have two violin soloists, a first violin and a second violin, along with a cello soloist. Generally, there will be a four measure phrase that is first played by a soloist and that is then is repeated in imitation by the whole orchestra. As a result, a conversation takes place between the leaders of the sections and the rest of the instrumentalists. While parts of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are very much reminiscent of this older concerto grosso style, the concertos for solo instruments by Vivaldi or Bach have evolved into something else.
The Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043) that Nurit Pacht and I will be playing is a good example of a greatly evolved concerto grosso. The two solo violins are always playing solo materials even though at least half the time they are joined by the other violins in the section. What I mean by that is that the two violinists can play the double concerto without additional accompaniment because the two solo parts make musical sense on their own. Yet, when you hear the concerto performed live with the orchestra, you realize that the concertino versus ripieno is very much what’s happening, in the outer movements especially, and nowhere more obviously than in the first movement.
EM In conclusion, is there anything else you want to say about what makes Vivaldi Vivaldi and Bach Bach?
ZC While I have strongly experienced Northern Italian culture, as an outsider, as an American, in spite of the fact that people around the globe are becoming more similar as the result of the various forces of globalization, I would have to say that Italians still seem to thrive on a lack of predictability while many Germans really do get along extremely well with a lot of organization. And nowhere better can these cultural distinctions be seen and heard than in Vivaldi’s and Bach’s music.
Still, while Bach’s counterpoint is highly organized, Bach is never lacking in surprise and in absolute beauty. While Vivaldi is really into shocking the listener, I would never say that he is more passionate or emotional than Bach. Both Bach and Vivaldi strived to accurately document the psychology of his own world and his own time. I think that’s why, after the passage of three hundred years, so many of us are so fascinated with the music and the musicians of the Baroque era.