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Harmonia Early Music

Something Borrowed, Something New

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Bach's grave

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The grave of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most famous borrowers of all time.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  This hour on Harmonia, we’ll explore composers who borrow – from each other and themselves – to create something brilliantly new and yet familiar.  We’ll cut across the ages, exploring the Faenza Codex,  Handel oratorio, and perhaps the most accomplished borrower of all time – Johann Sebastian Bach.

In our final segment, we’ll sample a recently released recording by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants that features emerging vocalists in works of Handel, Stradella, Vivaldi, Haydn, and more.


From ensemble Le Tendre Amour, that was their own arrangement of “John Come Kiss Me Now” on the album All in a Garden Green.  Their clever arrangement borrows versions of this tune from The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and The Division Violin and includes lyrics added to the tune in the 16th century – quite the baroque mash-up!


Back Before Copyright

The medieval period is full of examples of musical borrowing.  Perhaps the most prevalent technique was using fragments of chant, slowed down and transformed into the tenor line of a polyphonic vocal work.  This technique is also found in the entirely instrumental Faenza Codex.  In the piece we’re about to hear, the Kyrie chant becomes the tenor for an elaborate and virtuosic instrumental work most likely intended to be played on organ.  This inventive recording allows us to hear the chant alone, and then both sung and played below the busy treble line.  There are even some rich harmonies added by the singers that really bring this Kyrie to life.  The recording is Faventina: Liturgical Music of Codex Faenza 117 by Mala Punica and Pedro Memelsdorff.

You’ve just heard the “Kyrie: Cunctipotens genitor Deus” from the Faenza Codex, performed by Mala Punica and Pedro Memelsdorff.

We continue now with more music from the Faenza Codex.  As with many works from this collection, we’ll witness a polyphonic vocal work transformed into an instrumental tour de force.  In this case, the tenor line of Jacopo da Balogna’s Aquila altera, a three-voice madrigal, is borrowed and unchanged, set underneath a very florid version of the top melodic line.  We’ll now hear Ensemble Project Ars Nova perform both the madrigal and the instrumental version.

You’ve just heard two versions of “Aquila altera” by Ensemble Project Ars Nova from their recording Jacopo Da Bologna: Italian Madrigals of the 14th Century.


Bach, by Vivaldi

We now turn to perhaps one of the most famous instances of musical borrowing, J.S. Bach’s Concerto for 4 Harpsichords in A Minor, BWV 1065.  It is transcribed and adapted directly from Vivaldi’s Concerto for 4 Violins in B Minor – and it’s one of at least seven such transcriptions by Bach of Vivaldi’s concerti.  He was clearly a fan!  To understand why Bach would adapt this work for the unusual combination of four harpsichords, it’s helpful to remember that Bach was most likely looking to promote his talented keyboard-playing sons.  Let’s hear all three movements of Bach’s stunning transcription in this 2010 recording, Vivaldi and Friends: La Folia and Other Concertos by Apollo’s Fire, led by Jeannette Sorrell.

We’ve just heard J.S. Bach’s Concerto for 4 Harpsichords in A Minor, BWV 1065 with Apollo’s Fire and harpsichord soloists Jeannette Sorrell, Michael Sponseller, Janina Ceaser, and Paul Jenkins.


Bach, by Bach

As brilliant as Bach was at borrowing from other composers, he was perhaps even more talented at borrowing from himself!  To keep up with the enormous demands of his posts at various courts and churches, Bach would cleverly repurpose works, changing instrumentation and texts to suit the occasion.  Perhaps one of his most surprising transformations is a reworking of the first movement of his entirely instrumental Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major into a choral cantata movement that opens BWV 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens.”  The chorus and soloists perform vocal gymnastics to execute virtuosic instrumental lines.  Next, we’ll hear this cantata movement performed by Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, under the direction of Ton Koopman, from Volume 15 of their complete cantata collection.  For a bit of context, we’ll also hear what would come next if this was the instrumental version from the Orchestral Suite – Bourree I and II, performed by Bach Collegium Japan.

We’ve just heard the opening movement of J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 110, “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens,” modeled after the first movement of his Orchestral Suite No. 4.  This was followed by Bourree I and II from Orchestral Suite No. 4.  The cantata was performed by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir; the orchestral suite was led by Masaaki Suzuki with Bach Collegium Japan.


Un jardin à l’italienne

Our featured recording for today’s broadcast is from William Christie and Les Arts Florissant, Un jardin à l’italienne – Airs, Cantatas and Madrigals.  This collection of Italian song spans the entire 17th and 18th centuries and features young emerging vocal artists.

We’ll first hear “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa,” an aria from Handel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.  It will be familiar to many in its borrowed form, “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from Handel’s later opera Rinaldo.  It’s fascinating to note that both sets of text work well set to the same music even though they are quite different in affect.  The original version we are about to hear offers sage advice: “leave the thorn and pluck the rose.”  The later version, which we will not hear, is a much more direct plea for mercy: “Let me weep over my cruel fate, and let me sigh for liberty.”

We’ll now hear soprano Lucía Martín-Cartón and Les Arts Florissants led by William Christie performing Handel’s “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa.”

That was “Lascia la spina, cogli la rosa” from Handel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.  Lucía Martín-Cartón was the soprano soloist, accompanied by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.

Next up, we’ll hear from the same recording and composer, this time from his opera Orlando.  Counter-tenor Carlo Vistoli is the soloist in the aria “Ah Stigie larve! Ah scelerati spettri.”

That was “Ah Stigie larve! Ah scelerati spettri” from Handel’s opera Orlando, performed here by Carlo Vistoli and Les Arts Florissants under the direction of William Christie.  This track is from our featured recording, Un jardin à l’italienne – Airs, Cantatas and Madrigals.


Break and theme music

:30,  All in a Garden Green, Le Tendre Amour, Brilliant 2012, Tr. 5 Ciaconna in F Major 

:60, All in a Garden Green, Le Tendre Amour, Brilliant 2012, Tr. 11 Ground in C Minor

:30, All in a Garden Green, Le Tendre Amour, Brilliant 2012, Tr. 24 A Division on a Ground 

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writers for this edition of Harmonia was David McCormick.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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David McCormick

Early music specialist David McCormick performs regularly on both violin and vielle, and is in demand as an educator and arts leader. He is Artistic Director of Charlottesville-based baroque ensemble Three Notch’d Road, and founding member of Alkemie, a medieval ensemble based in New York City. This season, he begins his role as Executive Director of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, where he will also appear as featured violin soloist for the opening concert of the 25th Anniversary Season. David maintains an active private violin and viola studio and serves as President of the Charlottesville Music Teachers Association. His degrees in music education and performance from Shenandoah University and Case Western Reserve University include specialized training in chamber music and historical performance.

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