Program Notes: Bach Oboe Concerto in F major

Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Lee Mills conducts the Seattle Symphony in music by Vivaldi, Bach and Grieg featuring Seattle Symphony Principal Oboe Mary Lynch, Principal Trumpet David Gordon and Associate Principal Trumpet Alexander White on Friday, January 22, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Concerto for Two Trumpets in C major, RV 537

BORN: March 4, 1678 in Venice, Italy
DIED: July 28, 1741 in Vienna, Austria

Antonio Vivaldi enjoyed much fame during his lifetime and is known today as the master of the Italian Baroque era. It is hard to imagine then that for a long time after his death, Vivaldi’s music was largely unknown to the public. Through the diligent work of researchers in the early twentieth century, troves of manuscripts were moved from the archives of a catholic boarding school where they were discovered and housed in the National Library of Turin. Subsequent publishing of these works led to a Vivaldi renaissance in Europe and abroad, which continues to this day.

The Concerto for Two Trumpets in C major was among the manuscripts discovered in the Turin collections, and first edited for publication in 1950. This popular work is unique in that it is the only concerto that Vivaldi wrote for brass instruments. The inherent limitations of the valveless baroque trumpet are most likely a factor here, as it did not lend itself to virtuosity in the manner of Vivaldi’s violin concerti, of which he wrote hundreds.

This piece is written in the typical three movement, fast-slow-fast, structure of an Italian Baroque concerto. The outer movements, both marked Allegro, feature trumpet fanfares above rigorous string accompaniment. The warmth of the solo trumpets also adds a rich tone and color to the strings in the tutti sections. The short Largo movement acts as a bridge between the Allegros and is played solely by the ensemble, giving the soloists a short respite. The final Allegro, in triple meter, is full of upbeat flourishes between the trumpets which are supported by a steady stream of chordal progressions, concluding this lively work.


Oboe Concerto in F major, BWV 1053R

BORN: March 31, 1685 in Eisenach, Germany
DIED: July 28, 1750 in Leipzig, Germany

The oboe features prominently in many of J.S. Bach’s cantatas, passions and oratorios, and was often his preferred obbligato instrument; it frequently accompanies arias about grief and repentance, as well as melodies of pastoral and heavenly joy. It may seem odd, then, that Bach did not compose any concertos for his beloved oboe. However, due to the labor of music historians, we now understand that many of Bach’s keyboard concertos were originally written for other instruments including several for the oboe.

The extensive demands of Bach’s employment as Music Director of several churches during his lifetime weighed on his musical output and creativity, often requiring him to compose one cantata every month. Because of this, Bach recycled material from time to time and the Oboe Concerto in F major is no exception.

To reconstruct this present-day Oboe Concerto, research turns to a harpsichord concerto and two cantatas as sources. The Harpsichord Concerto in E major (BWV1053), which was composed late in his career, is now considered to be a reworking of an earlier oboe concerto. In the interim of these two concerti, Bach used the same musical material in two separate cantatas, dating most likely from 1726.

The material in the first movement is used in the opening Sinfonia of Cantata 169, Gott soll allein (God alone shall have my heart), with the top line of the solo organ becoming the oboe line in the reconstructed concerto. The middle movement’s Siciliano draws on this same cantata and is idiomatic of the oboe’s lyrical nature that so closely resembles the human voice. For the final movement, we refer to Cantata 49, Ich geh’ und suche mit Verlangen (I go forth and seek with longing). The text of the Cantata’s finale sings of the happiness and joy of love, and it is no surprise that Bach revisited this material for his much-loved oboe. The soloist glides over the boisterous strings in an interplay of energy and joy, clearly reflecting the spirit of the cantata with which it shares DNA.


Holberg Suite, Op. 40
Gavotte and Musette

BORN: June 15, 1843 in Bergen, Norway
DIED: September 4, 1907 in Bergen, Norway

Its formal title, From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style, clearly conveys the intent of this work: an homage to the Baroque era and the works of composers such as Vivaldi and Bach. Composed in 1884 for the 200th anniversary of the birth of playwright Ludwig Holberg, with whom Grieg shared a hometown of Bergen, this work pays tribute to the dance suites made popular during Holberg’s lifetime. It was originally written for the piano and Grieg performed the premiere himself at the 1884 Holberg Festival in Bergen, soon after turning it into the orchestral suite that is most often heard today. This work is a vibrant early example of neoclassical music, a trend that grew among composers in the twentieth century of returning to an earlier aesthetic: one of order, clarity and emotional restraint, yet imbued with a fresh perspective and new soundscapes.

The first movement, Prelude, begins with a rush of rhythmic energy that quickly turns to a lyric melody in the violins. This material is then developed, as in a typical classical sonata form, before concluding in its original, joyous theme.

The Sarabande, a baroque-style dance, is a peaceful contrast to the opening movement and full of chorale-like phrasing and harmonies.

The Gavotte and Musette also derives from baroque dance forms, and again switches energy to a more lighthearted, playful tempo and mood. In the Musette, the interplay between cellos and violins as they pass the melody back and forth in a good-natured musical conversation is a highlight of this movement.

A mournful, song-like melody in a minor key dominates the beautiful fourth movement, Air. The emotional heart of the suite, the Air is weighty with nostalgia, and marked by pregnant pauses. The second half turns to a sweet and hopeful major key with soaring melodies before concluding with a soft murmur.

The raucous Rigaudon concludes the suite with an energy and intensity equal to the opening Prelude. The solo violin and viola recall the baroque concerto grosso style which Vivaldi championed. This is followed by a solemn and chorale-like interlude by the orchestra, now playing with a unified texture. The joyful and triumphant opening strains of the solo violin and viola then return, supported by the string orchestra, for a rousing finish.

© 2021 Catherine Case

Posted on January 21, 2021