The Baroque Era, 1600 – 1750 — between the Renaissance and Classical periods — was characterized by ornate detail in art, architecture, and literature. At this time in Europe, the bubonic plague (Black Death) still raged and Europe was under siege from the Ottoman Turks who reached as far as Vienna. But it was also a time of great scientific, political and social advances and a changing sense of man’s place in the cosmos. Gravity and the existence of microbes were discovered; the slide rule, microscope and steam engine were invented; the English Parliament passed a Bill of Rights guaranteeing free elections and freedom of speech; and the first female university professor was appointed. European nations grew more involved with foreign trade and colonization, forging direct contact with previously unfamiliar parts of the globe.
This concert features Baroque music with the work of the most influential composers of the era: Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), best known for “The Four Seasons”; Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), whose Mass in B Minor has been described as the "greatest art work of all times and nations” ; and Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759), composer of the “Messiah.” Many of the works are concertos, in which a soloist (or soloists) bounce musical ideas off a larger group (the orchestra). The concerto has continued as a popular form to the present featuring instruments never dreamed of in the 18th century such as saxophone, harmonica, theramin, electric guitar, and synthesizer.
Although he was considered the most influential composer of the period, Vivaldi was particularly renowned as a virtuoso violinist. Born in Venice, he wrote over 500 concertos as well as other instrumental and vocal works including 40 operas and many sacred choral works. Both the Concerto in B minor for four violins and the Concerto in D Minor for two violins and cello are from his L’Estro Armonico ("the harmonic inspiration”), his 12-concerto collection published in Amsterdam in 1711. Although he enjoyed an illustrious career, Vivaldi died in poverty in Vienna at the relatively ripe old age of 63 (the average male life expectancy at that time was under 40).
While Bach’s compositions were always highly respected by fellow musicians, during his lifetime he was known primarily as a brilliant organist and improviser and not recognized as a composer by the general public until the the 19th century when Mendelssohn led a Bach revival, rescuing his works from obscurity. Born in what is now central Germany, he was referred to as “Old Bach” during the 1800’s so as not to be confused with his better-known sons, Willhelm Friedrich, Johannn Christian, and Karl Phillip Emmanuel, all respected composers in their own right. The final movement of the A Minor violin concerto has been described as "perhaps Bach's most animated and carefree movement in the minor mode.” The well-known “Air on a G String,” is actually the second movement of an orchestral suite arranged in the 19th Century by German violinist August Wilhelmj who stipulated that the melody be played entirely on the G-string, the violin’s lowest string. The piece featured tonight was in turn arranged from that second version by the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, star of Disney’s “Fantastia.” Bach died in Leipzig at the age of 65 of complications from unsuccessful eye surgery.
Handel, born the same year as Bach and only a few miles away, worked in Germany and Italy before being enticed to move to England by the voracious musical public in Britain in 1712. His primary concentration was operas, oratorios, and secular cantatas and most of the concertos he composed were used as entr'actes, or musical bridges, between vocal works. Tonight’s Concerto Grosso (“large concerto” in Italian) is number 10 of a set of 12 composed in less than two months between September and October 1739. Handel - who coincidentally also suffered as a result of botched cataract surgery at the hands of “Chevalier” John Taylor, the same self-promoting medical charlatan who performed Bach’s unsuccessful procedures and, by his own confession, blinded “hundreds” of patients – died at the age of 74 and was buried with full state honors in Westminster Abbey.
Program notes by Gage Cogswell