About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

August 29, 2016


Notes for our concert on September 4

Of tonight’s composers, four French and two Italian, the oldest (Lully) was born in 1632 and the youngest (Leclair) died in 1764, about fourteen years after Bach and Handel. Those 132 years fit into the period labeled by later generations as the “Baroque.” 

The word “baroque” is rooted in the Portuguese word, barroco (“misshapen pearl”) but was transformed into an adjective meaning of “over the top” in degree of florid embellishment when first applied to art. The critic who probably used the word in music for the first time, attached it to Rameau’s first opera, Hyppolite et Arcie. He didn't intend to compliment, but rather to accuse the composer of hubris in daring to try to surpass a predecessor (Lully) in advanced harmony and orchestration, exuberance and dramatic emotional expression (a response similar perhaps to my first reaction to “Chicago the Musical”) and inadvertently named an entire period in music history. 

Another way to think of tonight’s music is that it comes from the “period of the basso continuo.” That concept, according to Richard Taruskin, “focuses on harmony, . . . culminating in the full elaboration of major-minor tonality as a governor—and generator — of musical form.”  That culmination led to the rise of instrumental music in the second half of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century instrumental and vocal music “vied for dominance" going into the following “Classical” period (Haydn and Mozart and Vienna). Basso continuo music tended more to instruct (in religion, for example), impress, and express feelings; music in the Classical period aimed more to please and entertain. Music from the Romantic period in the 19th century, “often seems to want to share—even impose—feelings.” (Kerman)

Basso continuo composers often wrote only two lines, the bass line and the treble, leaving to the performers to fill in the harmony (chords) and also to embellish the melody line that on paper could be starkly simple, thus improvising and ornamenting as jazz players do. The bass line could be played on any low instrument, often a viola d gamba, bass lute or theorbo, later on a cello or even a bassoon. A keyboard instrument, usually a harpsichord, provided the chords. 

Tonight’s composers generally wrote the music they played -- and played the music they wrote, in contrast to the Romantic period that elevated composers to godlike or genius status, their music to be played by “mere practitioners of music” (a term I first heard from a Dean of Music at Yale [referring to other schools] in his welcoming speech to an entering class of music grad students). 

The same 132 years we we are talking about saw the origin of the public concert, demanded in part by larger ensembles required for symphonies and concertos. These years also overlapped a movement called The Enlightenment. Thinkers (or ‘philosophes' whom we might call today public intellectuals), like Voltaire and Rousseau, veered away from the great scientific discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and Leibniz toward the social sphere. They were less intent on controlling natural forces by science than on turning these forces to human problems, like public morality, education, and politics. If that sounds familiar, it’s because two ‘products’ of the Enlightenment were our Declaration of Independence and Federalist Papers, and especially the idea of “the pursuit of happiness,” through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of them probably heard, and in Jefferson’s case, may have even played, some of the music we will hear tonight.

The term “authentic” to describe performance of music like tonight’s has been largely abandoned partly because using replicas of ‘olde’ instruments alone does not necessarily ensure an effective performance. Now we speak of “historically-informed performance” (HIP) that attempts — based on scholarship but obviously not recordings —  to closely reproduce what the composers and their audiences expected to hear. Nevertheless, though we certainly would play the music of Lully and Leclair differently from that of Liszt or Ligeti, our contemporary listeners, conditioned by the “canon” that now includes several more centuries of music, bring different musical experiences and expectations that performers in our time must also take into account. Music is after all, the language to communicate what these composers still have to ‘say’ to us in the 21st century.

Jean-Baptiste Lully: “…a Florentine boy who had been brought over (to France) in 1646, aged thirteen, to serve as garçon de chambre to Mme. de Montpensier, a Parisian lady who wanted to practice her Italian.” He eventually “found work as a servant to Louis XIV’s cousin, Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orleans (known as the “Grande Mademoiselle”), and as a dancer and mime at the royal court, where he danced alongside, and made friends with, the teenaged king. Upon the death of his violin teacher the next year, Lully assumed the man’s position as court composer of ballroom music.  His rise to supreme power was steady and unstoppable, for Lully was an Italian-born French political manipulator of genius. Shortly after the founding in 1669 of the Académie Royale de Musique, Louis XIV’s opera establishment, Lully managed to finagle the rights to manage it.  From then on he was a musical Sun King, the absolute autocrat of French music, which he re-created in his own image. His works would dominate the repertory for half a century after his death [from gangrene after stabbing his foot with his conducting staff].  His style did not merely define an art form, it defined a national identity. La musique, he might well have said, c’est moi.” (Taruskin)

Attilio Ariosti: Born into the Italian middle class, he became a monk in 1688 at age 22 but soon left the order and become a composer in the court of the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato. He became a deacon in 1692, the same year he achieved the post of organist at Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna. In 1697, he went to Berlin at the request of Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the first Queen of Prussia, an enlightened patroness of the arts with a keen interest in music, like King Frederick ‘The Great’ a half century later. After enjoying the favor of the Queen, Ariosti wrote and collaborated in the writing of a number of stage works performed for the court in Berlin. He resided in Berlin as the court composer until 1703.

François Couperin: Called le Grande to distinguish him from his brother, François Couperin has also been called “Bach’s greatest keyboard contemporary.”  At age 18 he officially inherited his father’s position as organist at St. Gervais in Paris. Later he became harpsichordist at Versailles. He amassed a large quantity of harpsichord pieces in elegantly engraved editions, published books about the ways he would have his works performed, and also established a reputation as a writer of single character pieces of which each of these short pieces is an example. Couperin was the “poet musician par excellence,” who “believed in Music to express itself in sa prose et sed versa (prose and poetry). He believed that if we enter into the poetry of music, we discover that it is belle due la beauté (more beautiful than beauty itself).” (Jordi Savall) Couperin’s music directly influenced not only Bach but also Brahms (who edited some of his works), Ravel (Le Tombeau de Couperin) and Richard Strauss (Dance Suite and Don Quixote).

Jean-Philippe Rameau replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin. Little is known about Rameau's early years, and it was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career upon which his reputation chiefly rests today.  “The Rameau style was the Lully style advanced—in no way challenged, but intensified: richer in harmony, more sumptuous in sonority more laden in texture, more heroic in rhythm and rhetoric, more impressively masterminded than ever” (Taruskin), err, more baroque?

Jean-Marie Leclair is the only composer on tonight’s program who was murdered, stabbed perhaps by an ex-wife thus making problematic the ending of tonight’s theme of love music. He was born in Lyon, but left to study dance and the violin in Turin. In 1716, he married Marie-Rose Casthanie, a dancer, who died about 1728. Leclair returned to Paris in 1723, where he played at the Concert Spirituel, the main semi-public music series. In 1730, he married for the second time. His new wife was the engraver Louise Roussel, who prepared for printing all his works from Opus 2 onward. Named ordinaire de la musique by Louis XV in 1733, Leclair resigned in 1737 after a clash over control of the musique du Roy. Leclair was then engaged by the Princess of Orange – a harpsichordist and former student of Handel – and from 1738 until 1743, served three months annually at her court in Leeuwarden, working in The Hague as a private maestro di cappella for the remainder of the year. He returned to Paris in 1743 and lived there for 21 years before his tragic death. The Sonata in G Major is one of about 60 he wrote for one violin—among many others for two violins.