Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso Opus 28 Camille Saint-Saens Download 'Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso Opus 28' on iTunes
Katherine introduces the three undisputed giants of the Baroque era - and the music that everyone should have in their collection.
For a first foray into the world of Baroque music, you can do no better than Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Written between 1708-1721 for the Margrave of Brandenburg, Bach composed them in the Italian concerto grosso style. They weren't known as the 'Brandenburg' Concertos until 150 years later. ‘J.S. Bach is a musical giant by any stretch of the imagination,’ says Katherine. ‘He was an incredible composer, a skilled organist, a violinist, a harpsichordist – you name it, he could do it. He even found time to father some 20 children, many of whom themselves went on to be significant composers and performers‘.
Count Kaiserling, who suffered from insomnia, made his court musician Johann Goldberg play in the adjacent room to send him to sleep. When Bach heard of the plight of Goldberg’s boss, he penned this work which was a huge success. ‘Bach could turn his hand to music of every kind of style and on every scale, creating pieces that are spiritual, that are intellectually deep, technically breathtaking and, well, just plain beautiful,’ says Katherine.
Bach was best known during his lifetime as an organist but also as a composer of organ works. Many will be familiar with this piece’s three dramatic opening flourishes followed by the low, growling pedal note underneath a huge, rolling chord. The Toccata is like an improvisation and has many features that are unusual for an organ work of its time. ‘I have a hunch that many organists till this very day like nothing better than to wrap their fingers – and their feet - around Bach’s compositions,’ says Katherine.
Bach wrote something like 200 cantatas that range from the religious to the plain mundane – including one that makes fun of 18th century German society’s addiction to coffee! ‘But from all Bach’s Cantatas, I think you might recognize this one,’ says Katherine. ‘It’s the tenth and last movement of a cantata called Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben – Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life. More commonly we know this enchanting piece as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.’ Originally destined for the last Sunday of advent, the reworked version became a setting for May’s Feast of the Visitation.
Among the most frequently performed of J.S. Bach’s compositions are the Six Suites for unaccompanied cello. These were most likely composed between 1717 and 1723. ‘Today, no one can consider themself a serious cellist without getting to grips with these fabulous pieces,’ says Katherine. Picture: Mark Millington
Bach’s last major work, the Mass in B minor, was completed in 1749, the year before his death. In it, he set the complete Latin Mass which is very unusual for its time because Bach worked mainly in the Lutheran tradition. The Mass in B minor was not performed very much at all until a few performances in the 19th century triggered more interest. ‘Today it’s considered one of the greatest musical compositions ever,’ says Katherine.
Antonio Vivaldi was without a doubt one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, influencing other composers and performers all over Europe. The Four Seasons remains his best known composition. The music is accompanied by beautiful Italian sonnets, written - possibly - by Vivaldi himself, after he was inspired by painter Marco Ricci's paintings of the seasons. It's even customary in some concerts that a narrator reads the poems before the performance, to bring the musical story to life.
Vivaldi wrote more than 40 operas and a host of sacred choral works, many of them for the female music ensemble at the home for abandoned children where he worked. It was there that he wrote his best known setting of the Gloria. What makes the Gloria in D shine out is its sheer exuberance and sense of the unique. ‘It really is a work full of character, which, from its opening rush, never stops,’ says Katherine.
Katherine’s third giant from the baroque era, Georg Frederic Handel, was born in Germany in 1685, but trained in Italy before settling in London and becoming British in 1727. His influences were the great composers of the Italian baroque and he started three commercial opera companies to bring Italian opera to the nobility. But after success with an English choral work, Handel changed direction and by the time Messiah was premiered in 1742, Handel never again worked with Italian opera.
‘Another huge Handel favourite of mine is a set of pieces that were first heard in July 1717 when King George I called for a concert on the River Thames,’ says Katherine. Handel’s Water Music was performed by 50 musicians who were set up on a barge that was sailing alongside the royal party. The King was said to have enjoyed the suites so much that he made the musicians play them three times during the course of the outing.
Xerxes, or Serse, to give it the Italian title, may have been a flop at its conception, but its enduring Largo aria, 'Ombra mai fu' has touched many hearts since it was first performed in 1738. It's a beautiful plaintive melody and one of opera's more unusual love songs, performed by Xerxes as he admires the shade of a plane tree. It's known as Handel's Largo , despite being marked larghetto in the score.
Handel composed his four coronation anthems between September and October 1727 for King George II, producing some of the most spine-tingling choral music of the Baroque period. Zadok the Priest, Let Thy Hand Be Strengthened, The King Shall Rejoice, and My Heart Is Inditing were written as four separate pieces, but are now often published as a collection. Zadok the Priest is by far the most popular of the four. Its adrenaline rush of an introduction, with its teasing promise of release only to start again, is only a warm-up for what is to come.