Classical I: A Baroque Beginning

A Baroque Beginning—Suites, concertos, and opera overtures were the predecessors to the modern symphony. We begin our Journey Through Time with a program of important contributions to the symphony’s development from some of the greatest Baroque composers.

George Frideric Handel
(February 23/March 5, 1685-April 14, 1759)
“Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon, HWV 67

Born in Germany, Handel received training and achieved early success in Halle, Hamburg, and Italy as a composer of vocal music. He was also a fine organist. He was invited to England for a series of performances of his music in 1710, and the resulting attention and success led him to settle permanently in London in 1712. His combination of Italian lyricism and German counterpoint gave his compositions an appeal that was shared by critics and the general public, making him almost as famous as his contemporary, J. S. Bach, in Europe at the time. His shift from Italian-styled opera to oratorio was key to his success in England, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1727. By the end of his life, he was seen as one of the great composers of the preceding era.

Solomon is an oratorio in English based on the biblical stories of King Solomon. The music was composed between May 5 and June 13, 1748, and the first performance took place on March 17, 1749, at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. The “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” is a short and celebratory piece for two oboes and strings in Act Three, where the Queen of the ancient kingdom of Sheba arrives at Solomon’s court for a state visit. The piece has become famous on its own, featured in many different settings, including the London Olympics in 2012.

Christoph Willibald Gluck
(July 2, 1714-November 15, 1787)
“Dance of the Furies” and “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” from Orfeo ed Euridice

Born in the Upper Palatinate (now part of Germany) and raised in Bohemia, Gluck is generally considered to be a transitional composer of Italian and French opera between the Baroque and Classical periods. With several new works in the 1760s, among them Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste, he changed the course of opera by taking the best of French, German, and Italian styles and presenting them with “Beautiful Simplicity.” One of the obvious “simplifications” is the lack of virtuosic display which not only helped the music to integrate better with the plot, but also presented fewer distractions for the audience.

Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice) tells the story of Orpheus of Greek mythology, the famous poet and singer who could charm wild animals with his music. When his wife Eurydice dies he follows her to Hades and wins her back by his art with the condition that he should not look at her until he reaches the world again. In some versions, he does turn around and lose her, but other plot twists occasionally find ways to reunite the lovers. It was first performed in Vienna in October of 1762, and it is the most popular of Gluck’s works.

In Act Two, Orpheus descends into the Underworld, arriving the gates of Hell. The music depicting the gates themselves, the Dance of the Furies, vividly depicts the leaping flames and billowing smoke with agitated rhythms, flashing melodic figures, and dramatic dynamic contrasts. Once through the gates, he arrives at the Elysian Fields, a beautiful, almost heaven-like place, where he sees Eurydice, and we hear the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. This is one of the Gluck’s best known and best loved pieces of music. Composed for solo flute and string orchestra, the first theme is pastoral and serene in mood, and magical in its beauty. The middle section is more intense, the perfect foil for the utter beauty of the opening section. The return of the opening seems even more beautiful because of where we have been. Beautiful simplicity, indeed.

The simplicity and clarity of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits have drawn audiences to the work since its premiere, and its popularity as a stand-alone piece was almost inevitable. But as with all great operatic music, its true dramatic power is felt when heard within the opera itself, or at least paired with the Dance of the Furies.

Johann Sebastian Bach
(March 21/31, 1685-July 28, 1750)
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
(ca. 1730)

Orchestral suites were very popular in the mid-18th century and are important predecessors to the symphony. These suites generally consisted of several movements that are stylized dances, with additional instrumental numbers, like overtures and airs, and using larger orchestral forces for outdoor or large-scale events. Of Bach’s four orchestral suites, the third appears to have been composed around 1730, and the conjecture is that he wrote it for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a community musical group that performed throughout the city at various concert and ceremonial functions. The third is also the best known, largely due to the fame of the second movement, the famous “Air on the G string.” Three out of the five movements are based on dance forms—two bold Gavottes combined into one, a spritely Bourrée, and an energetic Gigue. The famous Air is structured in two sections but composed much like a vocal aria. The suite begins, however, with a French overture—slow, majestic beginning, a fast imitative section, and a brief return to the opening material. All movements except for the Air are scored for three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings, and continuo. The oboes rarely play independently of the violins in this work. Typical of the time, the trumpets and drums are used for color and emphasis.

Antonio Vivaldi
(March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741)
The Four Seasons, from Il Cimento dell’ armonia e dell’ inventione, op. 8

This popular set of four concertos is part of a larger collection of twelve, entitled “The Contest between Harmony and Invention.” Harmony, in this case, is the rational side of music, and Invention is the imagination, and this “battle” was a key aesthetic issue for many composers in the transition from Baroque to Classical music in the 18th century. Viewed as one of the earliest examples of true “program” music, there is an added twist to this collection of “seasonal” concertos which is highlighted in this performance. Vivaldi wrote sonnets to go with each of these pieces: the Spring poem speaks of birds, streams, flowers, grass, and eventually shepherds (with faithful dog barking from the viola section in the second movement) and shepherdesses dancing to the sound of bagpipes. Summer’s hot sun is the next focus, quickly giving way to late summer winds and storms. Autumn is filled with sounds of harvest and hunting, while Winter is dark and cold, with slippery ice and chilling winds.