Monday, February 5, 2018

A Delayed Move into the Baroque Period

Yesterday afternoon at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, the San Francisco Early Music Society presented the San Francisco performance of a program prepared by Agave Baroque entitled Peace in our Time: Music of Love and Loss in the Shadow of the Thirty Years’ War. The program could also have been called The Baroque Comes to Germany. Claude V. Palisca’s “Baroque” entry for Grove Music Online sets the “rough boundaries” of the Baroque period as 1600 and 1750. However, between 1618 and 1648 most of Central Europe had to endure the Thirty Years’ War, which not only impeded any advancement in musical practices but also probably destroyed much of what any of those practices had achieved.

Agave’s program thus emerged as an engaging survey of the second half of the seventeenth century in Germany with, as leader and violinist Aaron Westman put it, only one familiar piece on the program. Perhaps by way of compensation, that piece was familiar with a vengeance, the canon and gigue in D major composed by Johann Pachelbel. While this music may no longer be played to death as vigorously as it had been during the last quarter of the twentieth century, it probably still elicits groans from those who have heard it too many times. (My own groans were probably cultivated by the fundraisers for Public Broadcasting.)

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that most of the “popular” treatments of this music give little account to the fact that this piece is a canon played over a ground bass. As might be expected, when the music is played by a large string ensemble whose practices are more at home in the nineteenth century, little, if any, regard for the intricate counterpoint rarely cuts through all the schmaltz. As a result, the real merits of this music only emerge when each of the voices is played by a solo instrument.

First page of the oldest surviving copy of Pachelbel’s canon (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This was the treatment given yesterday by Agave violinist Westman, Natalie Carducci, and Anna Washburn. The attentive listener could easily grasp how each phrase constructed above the ground bass would migrate from one instrument to another, allowing superposition to build up a thoroughly engaging and constantly changing contrapuntal fabric. Furthermore, canon performance is no mere mathematical exercise. Each two-bar “seed” may be repeated across three players, but each player still has his/her own discretion to guide the phrasing of that seed. Thus, when listening to a performance, one appreciates the individuality of each performer as well as the harmonies that emerge when those individualities are combined. One might almost say that this approach to canon is the honored and venerable ancestor of the jazz practice of trading fours.

As Westman observed, the remainder of the program involved encounters with the unfamiliar. Those included a branch of the Bach family tree that receives far less attention than Johann Sebastian and his sons. This is the branch headed by Sebastian’s great uncle Heinrich (1615–1692) and his son Johann Christoph (1642–1703). The program also included students of Heinrich Schütz, such as Matthias Weckmann and David Pohle. (Schütz took refuge in Venice during the Thirty Years’ War, studying and working with Claudio Monteverdi.)

From a musical point of view, one of the most intriguing signs of transition was a bold emergence of chromaticism. This included bold passages of descending semitones (what one of my teachers liked to call “slimy chromaticism”). It is important to recognize that these passages were written by composers who had not yet encountered the possibilities of equal temperament. As a result, their execution in counterpoint by string players demands very acute listening to make sure that every simultaneous interval is accorded its own proper sonority. It did not take long to appreciate that all of the Agave players are listeners of the highest order, allowing those chromatic passages to emerge boldly without ever sounding like “wrong notes.”

Roughly half of the program involved vocal selections sung by countertenor Reginald Mobley. Mobley has partnered with Agave for some time; and, when it comes to performance-as-listening, his voice consistently fits into the fabrics woven by Agave’s contrapuntal playing. Possibly in acknowledgement of the peace that finally concluded the Thirty Years’ War, Mobley sang texts in both German and Latin. However, there was an intense sense of personal feeling in his Latin accounts that was a far cry from Renaissance austerity. This was particularly evident in Johann Rosenmüller’s setting of “Christum ducem, qui per crucem,” whose trochaic tetrameter follows the sternly oppressive rhythms of the “Dies irae” and “Stabat mater” texts. Rosenmüller totally rejected the rhythm of the text, focusing only on the expressivity of the words; and Mobley knew exactly how to deliver that expressivity.

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