Musical Evolution explores the language of Baroque music from its wild beginnings through the development of more formal structures still in use today. The wild improvisatory violin sonatas of the 1660’s used richly colorful and dissonant harmonies and an unrestricted form, which allowed for an extremely wide range of expressive possibilities and experimentation that sounds strange to our ears today. Throughout the 1700’s, the sonata gradually morphed and crystallized into the symmetrical form exemplified by Handel, Corelli and Vivaldi, who created the first harmonic and structural expectations which still govern our responses today.
The early violin sonata is exemplified by a 1660 work by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi. Pandolfi worked at the Innsbruck court of Archduke Ferdinand Karl, an avid music patron, and dedicated most of his sonatas to his Italian musical colleagues there. The most striking aspect of Pandolfi’s violin sonatas is the extraordinary harmonic and chromatic language, including use of the forbidden tritone. Like most fantastic style works, this piece is a single multi-sectioned movement with contrasting tempi and characters, which challenges both the musical and instrumental limits of the time.
This Italian style of masters like Marini, Uccellini and Pandolfi fostered a similar virtuoso violin school of composition which flourished in Austria and Bohemia in the late 1600’s, exemplified by Johann Heinrich von Schmelzer and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. During a time when Italians dominated the musical scene across Europe, both were famous violin virtuosi, honored with nobility by the addition of “von” to their names. Schmelzer was born in 1620 in Austria, the son of baker. A violinist and cornettist, he worked in the Viennese imperial court orchestra and became the first non-Italian Kapellmeister in Vienna. His violin sonatas of 1664 were the first to be published by a non-Italian. Biber, born in 1644 in Bohemia, was deeply influenced by Schmelzer and may have studied violin with him. He worked as a court musician for a Moravian Count, then left without permission in 1670 for the Salzburg Kapelle, becoming Kapellmeister in 1684 and remaining there until his death in 1704.
Georg Muffat, born in 1653 in Savoy, was of Scottish descent. He enjoyed a cosmopolitan education, studying the French style in Paris with Lully and the Italian style in Rome with Corelli, the two monoliths of their day. Muffat strove to harmoniously blend the two styles in his composition. He studied law for a while in Bavaria, then moved to Vienna to work as musician and may have known Schmelzer there. He next went to Prague, where he wrote his violin sonata in 1677, in the German style of Schmelzer. He left Prague just three years before the plague killed 83,000 there, including Schmelzer, who ironically had fled there with the Viennese court to avoid the epidemic. Muffat then went to Salzburg as cathedral organist (1678-80) and fellow chamber musician with Biber at the Archbishop’s court.
Domenico Gabrielli, a virtuoso cellist and composer active in Bologna, contributed seven ricercares for solo cello and two sonatas for cello and continuo. At this time, the cello was just beginning to come out of its traditional basso continuo role and into the limelight where violinists and trumpet players displayed their technical facility. Inspired by the increasing virtuosity of the Bolognese concerto style, Gabrielli's G major Sonata reflects his awareness of the instrument's sonority and virtuosic capabilities through the use of chords, florid scale passages and active string crossings throughout the sonata's four soulful and energetic movements.
In many ways, the modern sonata was born in the hands of Arcangelo Corelli, who had a staggering and far-reaching influence in his day. He created some of the first expectations regarding the number and order of movements, and the symmetry of form, which evolved yet further into the high Baroque sonatas of Georg Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach.
What a long road the sonata has traveled from its early fantasia-like freedom to these formalized works, rigid with expectations to be either predictably followed or surprisingly thwarted! These established expectations must be either broken or played upon by today’s composers. They form a musical heritage that can’t be ignored, but must be copied, built upon, used as a point of departure, or rebelled against. We are constantly looking at them from a new perspective over the continuum of history.