The Scarlatti Conversations

Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas seem curiously out of time. But did they influence subsequent composers? Although some are quick to dismiss Scarlatti as a historical aberration, the facts are quite to the contrary. A collection of the first 30 sonatas were compiled and published in London as Essercizi per gravicembalo. Handel, who Scarlatti had met when the composers were both living in Venice, was a decade plus into his time in London and surely would have been aware of their publication. But their influence on Handel is hard to discern. For example, some claim to hear Scarlatti in Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJLbRM9AtXE), noting that the opening is especially based on Scarlatti’s Sonata 23 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6Jus7VcKqQ). I do not. The timeline fits, but if there is an influence here, my ears do not hear it.

But who else might have might have have been influenced by Scarlatti? Here is an entirely hypothetical Conversation:

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K. 492:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 330, I. Allegro:

There is no evidence that Mozart studied Scarlatti’s music, but Scarlatti seems to anticipate Mozart, at the very least. We do, however, know that Frederic Chopin was a big Scarlatti fan, proclaiming that Scarlatti’s music would one day be regularly performed in the concert hall. Returning to Scarlatti’s K.466, here it is paired with Chopin’s first Nocturne. The influence, I think, is hard to deny.

Domenico Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonata, K.466:

Frederic Chopin, Nocturnes, Op. 9 No. 1:

But the real question, however, is Bach. In addition to being one of the greatest composers in history, Bach was also one of history’s most important musicologists. Bach’s library and his many transcriptions continue to inform much of what we understand about earlier periods of music. Yet Bach did not transcribe Scarlatti. And no Scarlatti scores are to be found in his collection. For such a voracious collector, Scarlatti’s omission seems strange. In the end, the Bach connection comes down to what might be simply coincidence: One year after Scarlatti published his 30 Essercizi, Bach published his own Goldberg Variations—also 30 works for solo keyboard. Coincidence? Maybe. And, maybe, the influence went in the other direction. Here is a Bach composition from 1720 that sounds a lot like Scarlatti.

J.S. Bach, Fantasy in C Minor, BVW 906:

Scarlatti remains a curious figure, a composer whose work was admired by many 19th century composers and which form an indelible part of the standard repertoire in the 20th century, but whose influence during his lifetime seems to be as fleeting is a wisp of smoke.   

Interlude: The Power of Great Art

Playwright, lyricist, theatre critic and all-round Renaissance guy David Cote asked his many followers the other day to identify “a work of art that had an actual, direct, political consequence . . . [a] work of art that led to political change.” Perhaps such a work exists, but the power of great art, in my opinion, lies in the power to change the individual. Exposing your soul to great art is risky–you can feel it in the anticipation, in the experience itself. The pulse quickens, the brain excites, and the world, for better or worse, will never be the same to you–the audience member–ever again. Such are the perils of engaging in The Conversation with a great artist. They change you. Truly great art–something that makes a profound connection with you–is both personal and rare. It was therefore purely by coincidence that days after reading David’s question, I found myself seated in the legendary Studio 54 for Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change.

More than a generation ago, and several blocks to the south, Kushner’s 7-hour, two episode, masterwork, Angels in America, had wrough an indelible mark on my person. It is safe to say that I never experienced the world quite the same way afterwards. But Caroline was something different–a musical. Could American musical theatre accomplish the same transformative effect? Could it rise to truly great art?

In a word: hell yes. I am not the only one to think so. TimeOut’s insightful critic, Adam Feldman, wrote in his review: “[Caroline] has affected the way I interact with people–in a positive way, on a daily basis–ever since.” And that might just be an understatement.

I don’t think that anything can truly prepare you for experiecing Caroline in person. I missed the original production back in 2003 when I was living abroad, but was determined not to miss this one. I barely made it: The production closes tonight. Two days later, I am still dealing with its after effects.

Much of the credit goes to Sharon D. Clarke, who gives a performance for the ages. Caroline is a harrowing role. A single mother raising three kids while working as a maid for a Jewish family in 1963’s Louisiana, beaten down by a broken heart, poverty, and the drudgery of her work. She is no Violetta or Mimi, who at least get to live, live, live, before they die at the end. Caroline never had a chance, but can she change with the times? Her friend and fellow maid Dotty is going back to college. Her eldest daughter has been swept up by the civil rights movement. Or is Caroline simply that proverbial rock, against which all change breaks?

Caroline shares top billing with Change, which is as much an omnipresent force in the play as the titular character. Change at first references the loose change left in an 8-year old boy’s (Noah’s) pockets. That pocket change is the representation of Noah’s rejection of the material world, having recently lost his mother to lung cancer. For his new stepmother, it is also a rejection of her–Noah prefers Caroline as a substitute mother, drawn naturally to her spiritual and physical strength. She will not abandon him as his mother did; she is his rock. The stepmother instructs Caroline to keep the change–a dollar here, a dollar there would be meaningful to someone she pays only $30 a week. Yet Caroline struggles with that instruction even as she struggles to accept the change that is winding its way through 1963 American society. Money, that corosive element of capitalism, begins to erode the social fabric of the Gellman home.

Naturally, the plan backfires at first: Noah sees this as an opportunity for him to initiate change in Caroline’s family. He starts purposefully leaving more change in his pocket, once he realizes that Caroline is taking it home to her kids. But while he imagines himself to be a hero to Caroline’s family, the truth is that they barely acknowledge his existence or that he is the source of the extra money.

The boiling point comes when Noah’s grandfather, a good Marxist from the Upper West Side, comes down to Louisana for Hahnukkah. During the dinner, he presents Noah with gelt: A twenty dollar bill.

What means this money, Noah Boychick?

You won’t learn this in artithmetic!

Money follows certain law,

It’s worth how much its worth becuase

Somewhere, something’s valued less;

It’s how our blessings come, I guess.

Golden, shiny, but never pure.

Think from whence your riches stem.

Think of someone who is poor.

And know you stole this gold from them.

Especially here in the Devil’s South!

You rip your gold from a starving man’s mouth!

Mr. Stopnick

Noah fails the appreciate the message and, predictably, he accidentally leaves the money in his pocket. Realizing this in school, he panics: Caroline will find the money and keep it. Change is one thing, but this is twenty dollars! He runs home, but it is too late. Caroline has found the money and taken in. A fight ensues and both say unforgivable things to the other. Money and class have risen their ugly heads, dividing Noah from his mother of choice.

Caroline faces a crisis of conscience:

Sixteen feet below sea level.

Caught tween the Devil and the muddy brown sea.

That money . . .

That money . . .

That money reach in and spin me about.

My hate rise up, rip my insides out.

My madness rise up in a fury so wild and I let myself go.

Spoke my hate to a child.

Pennies done that. Pennies done that

Pocket change . . .

Caroline

Which leads to this, one of the great arias in the history of musical theatre.

Caroline may not change. She changes you.

For those interested, here is the Spotify link to the cast recording.

Interlude: A bit of fun

Several weeks ago, I linked to a great album from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, which contrasts the music of Rameau with Debussy. That Conversation is well-known, since Debussy composed a work entitled Hommage a Rameau. It is an ironic Conversation, since Debussy, more than any other composer, was responsible for undermining Rameau’s theory of harmony (which will be covered next week here).

On a much, much lighter note, the Turkish pianist Aysedeniz Gokcin has been exploring the Conversation across several albums, as well as her pandemic virtual concerts. One of her many 2020 albums, Hey World, looks at the sprawling influence of Debussy and other classical composers on popular music of our era. It’s a bit of fun, whcih reminds me of a NYC piano bar or The Professor’s own piano jams, for which he is rightly renowned among our band of brothers.

A bit of fun for this grey December day:

A Gertus History of Christmas Music

I love Christmas music; for me, it is the best thing about the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, composers love Christmas music too and have been churning out carols, oratorios, motets, quartets, and nearly every other form of music to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In that spirit, I have compiled a playlist, starting (as this blog did) with the 11th century composer Hildegard von Bingen and closes with contemporary composer Arvo Part, with plenty of the familiar and unfamiliar along the way (with one cheat to be discussed in Saturday’s entry). All tracks are presented in chronological order. Each one a masterpiece, but I cannot help be struck by Arnold Schoenberg’s contribution to this list. Stripped away is the severe image of the composer most credited with destroying “classical” music through his slavish adherence to unpopular atonal compositions: In the soft light of Christmas, Schoenberg finds in his heart, not to mention some modidcum of classical tonality, as he riffs on the classic carol Silent Night. Truly the magical season.

Here is a full track list:

Hildegard von Bingen, O nobilissima viriditas

Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria

Thomas Tallis, Gloria (from his Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est)

William Byrd, O magnum mysterium

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Noels sur Les Instruments (excerpt)

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 8 in G “fatto per la notte di natale” (excerpt)

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in E Major, RV 270 “Il Riposo . . . per il natale” I. Allegro.

George Frideric Handel, Messiah, 12. For Unto Us a Child Is Born

Johan Sebastian Bach, Gloria in exelsis Deo, BWV 191, (excerpt)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Three German Dances K. 605, No. 3 in C Major “Die Schlittenfahrt

Franz Schubert, Ave Maria

Felix Mendelssohn, Festgesang, No. 2

Hector Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25: L’adieu des Bergers a la Sainte Famille

Camille Saint-Saens, Oratorio de Noel, Op. 12 (excerpt)

Franz Liszt, Weihnactsbaum, S. 185a: No. 3, Die Hirten an der Krippe

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Op. 71, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Gustav Holst, In The Bleak Mid Winter

Arnold Schoenberg, Weihnactsmusik (excerpt)

Sergei Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije, Op. 60: Troika

Benjamin Britten, A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28: Wolcum Yole!

Francis Poulenc, Quatre motets pourle temps de Noel, IV. Hodie Chrisus natus est

Arvo Part, Bogoroditse Devo

Telemann and Handel

Handel and Telemann kept up a robust correspondence and, not surprisingly, Telemann’s friendship and correspondence resulted in numerous Conversations between the two composers.  And perhaps uniquely, this was a true two-way Conversation, with each man influencing the other.  Here is an example of how Telemann influenced Handel.  Handel, a subscriber to Telemann’s Tafelmusik publication, took the basic theme from the opening to the Violin Concerto in F major (1740) and expanded upon it for his famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1749), one of the most famous works of the entire Baroque Period. I stumbled on this Conversation as a kid, playing the Telemann and knowing that I had heard that theme somewhere before. With no Google or streaming music services, my curiosity had to wait several months before figuring it out at a concert.

Georg Philipp Telemann, Tafelmusik, Violin Concerto in F Major:

George Frideric Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:

Thanksgiving Treat: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

Much like my wife’s bacon stuffing at Thanksgiving, this list would not be complete without Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, easily the most famous work of the Baroque Era, despite first entering the modern repertoire in the 1950s. It is an endlessly fun piece to play. First, let’s start with a very historically accurate performance. By all means, listen to the whole thing, but here’s a good example of the Winter concerto on period instruments

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4, Winter

Again, demonstrating how Vivaldi is timeless, here is the violinist Janine Janson throwing out the Baroque sensibility in one of the more dramatic readings of the piece.  The entire thing is great fun, but I’ll note that the Winter concerto starts at 32:05. Janson recorded this with some of her friends in what is one of the most fun classical albums of the last 20 years.  Worth seeking out.

Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Transcriptions are the most formal sort of Conversation—the transcription of an earlier work for a new instrument or set of instruments by a later composer.  Bach did tons of these and so we can trace which composers influenced him at certain periods of his life.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (we will come to him later) was also fond of transcriptions.  Few composers opt to fully recompose the original while retaining so much of it.  Here is one unique offering:  The Four Seasons transcribed by Max Richter and recomposed over 200 years later.  The first movement of Winter is particularly inspiring:

Max Richter, Four Seasons Recomposed (After Vivaldi): 

Interlude: Mysterious Barricades

Another way to have approached this blog would have been by works, rather than by composers. Had I done so, Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses would have featured prominently. This two-page composition, not even three minutes in duration, was a sonic boom that has reverberated throughout the centuries since its was composed in 1717. It is, in essence, a distillation of what this blog is all about–the Conversation between composers that links us, at least artistically, across the vastness of time.

Much ink has been spilled trying to unravel the meaning of Couperin’s title. I could care less. Whether a wry comment on harmonics or something decidedly more salacious, it is the music itself that we are here for. Technically speaking, the work is composed in style brise, which was common enough in the Baroque Period and which features irregular arpeggiation, that is where one note is held and left unresolved until a new harmony is started in the bass line. This technique creates thick textures in the music and the coloration emblematic of the Baroque Period. Alternatively described as “shimmering” or as a “kaleidoscope of sound,” Couperin’s magical composition continues to weave its spell well into the 21st century.

Let’s begin our journey with how the work was originally intended to be performed, on harpsichord:

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: (begins at 11:44, accessible via the links in the description)

The immediacy of this work, in no small part aided by the playing of the remarkable Blandine Verlet, seems to anticipate Chopin, if not Ravel and Debussy. The contemporary composer Thomas Ades opined that this brief work was a better lesson in composition than he had received from any of his teachers on how to produce melody from harmony. To explain, Ades transcribed the work for double bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola and cello. Is that a hint of Joplin I hear?

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses (arr. Thomas Ades):

Couperin builds his harmony from multiple voices, which gives the work greater depth of texture. In Ades’ transcription, we can clearly hear how one note of a chord is sustained and resolves into the succeeding harmony following the bass line. While so-called “supension” generally resolves down, Couperin also presents dissonances that resolve up. Not knowing which way the music will move leads, perhaps, to the mystery alluded to in the title. The layering of voices to create a contrapuntal harmony becomes apparent when the work is performed on a modern piano.

Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses:

At once sounding old and yet fresh as something composed yesterday, it is no surprise that Les Barricades Mysterieuses has been featured in many films, including, memorably, Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life.

Les Barricades Mysterieuses has inspired dozens of compositions by direct attribution and many more indirectly–at least 10 works by direct attribution since 2000 alone, across multiple genres. For example, Andy Summers, best known for his work with The Police, released the album Mysterious Barricades in 1988. And if there was any doubt as to his inspiration, the titular track lays that all to rest:

Andy Summers, Mysterious Barricades:

Summers knows a good riff when he hears one. He’s not alone: The band Vampire Weekend borrowed heavily from Couperin for this infectious track, off of their 2019 album Father of the Bride. Pardon the pun, but it is a great track to roll into the weekend with.

Vampire Weekend, Bambina:

Baroque pop indeed.

Vivaldi and Bach

The Bach-Vivaldi Conversations are particularly interesting as they span a wide swathe of Bach’s career.  First up, Bach’s transcription of Concerto No. 11 in D Minor for Organ.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 11 in D Minor

J.S. Bach, Organ Concerto in D Minor (After Vivaldi): 

This is more or less a straight transcription.  It is thought among some musicologists that Bach was commissioned to transcribe these for a patron; hence, the lack of invention.  Or they were simply how Bach studied music—no one knows for sure either way.  But here is a more mature Bach, in his Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor, which is based on Vivaldi’s No. 10 for 4 violins in B minor. This is a true Conversation (seemingly composed for Gert with four harpsichords)—Bach takes a brilliant Vivaldi original to new heights, adding additional textures and harmonies.  When Gert first asked for a list of great harpsichord works, this was the first piece I thought of.

Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 10 in B Minor

J.S. Bach, Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor

Corelli and The Birth of the Orchestra

Corelli’s Opus 6 concerti grossi are his most significant achievement.  Although he did not invent the concerto grosso form, Corelli certainly popularized it, paving the way for Vivaldi (The Four Seasons) and Bach (Brandenburg Concertos), two of the high points of Baroque music and among the best-known examples of the concerto grosso form.  The Opus 6 concerti grossi are exemplars of the mid-Baroque Period.  In Corelli’s hands, these concerti grossi, built around two contrastingly sized groups of instruments, are nothing less than proto-symphonies. Corelli scored his compositions for what we now recognize as a string orchestra, which supported a small group of soloists—Corelli was partial to a trio of two violins and a cello, but this group was not a fixed constant.

Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert recorded what is, in my view, the definitive version of the Opus 6 Concerti Grossi.  This recording is in regular rotation in my home.  One high point of note, the sixth movement of the first concerto grosso, which can be accessed in the links in the YouTube description, taking you to the 7:59 mark.

Arcangelo Corelli, Concerto Grosso in D, Op. 6, No. 1, VI. Allegro:  

Corelli’s influence on the composers who followed him was immense. For example, J.S. Bach studied Corelli’s scores in detail, transcribing several of them.  Here is a Bach organ fugue (BWV 579), which is based on the second movement of Corelli’s Op. 3, No. 4—this required no great research, as Bach cited directly to Corelli in the title (which, sadly, isn’t always the case—yes, Led Zeppelin, I’m looking at you). 

First, here’s the original Corelli theme.  Skip to 2:30 in this:

Arcangelo Corelli, Sonate da Chiesa a Tre, II. Vivace:

Now, Bach’s recomposition as a fugue.  This link has a good video, as well as some more background on the relationship between the two pieces:

J.S. Bach, Organ Fugue in B Minor (on a theme by Corelli): https://www.bachvereniging.nl/en/bwv/bwv-579/

Corelli’s innovations would reach perfection in the compositions of Vivaldi, Handel and Bach, paving the way for what we recognize as the core canon of classical music. Next time you visit the Pantheon in Rome, join the legions of violinists who have paid their respects to one of the most important figures in music history.