Program and Notes – Jan. 22, 2017 concert

The Echoes of Love – Jan. 22, 2017 – 3pm, Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, NC

Florence Peacock & Penelope Jensen, sopranos; William Thauer, baroque oboe, oboe da caccia & recorder; Christopher Nunnally, baroque cello: Beverly Biggs, harpsichord


Handel – Venus & Adonis; recitatives & arias from secular cantatas; sonata for cello & cembalo; sonata for recorder & basso continuo

Bach – arias from various cantatas


The cantata Venus and Adonis may be Handel’s first English-language composition, but although the surviving manuscript is in Handel’s own hand, the cantata was never completed.  What survives is the text by poet John Hughes, the vocal and incomplete bass lines for the two arias, and sketches for the obbligato instrument. The remainder, including the music for both recitatives, was composed or completed by harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi, who has generously provided his unpublished score for today’s performance. The story of Venus and Adonis is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and would have been familiar to London audiences from Shakespeare’s narrative poem, as well as musical settings that include an important 1683 opera by John Blow. Hughes’ setting opens just after the death of Adonis, and uses the grief of Venus to expound on the joys and cruelties of romantic love. 

Handel composed roughly 100 secular cantatas with Italian texts, mostly during his youthful years in Italy (1706-12). They are generally on a small scale; a few recitatives and arias for one voice and basso continuo. Roughly a fifth include another instrument or instruments, and a few are major multi-movement dramatic works with multiple voices and orchestra.  The texts, often provided by one of Handel’s patrons, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, focus chiefly on the bittersweet nature of love, or reflections on nature (including everything from butterflies to sea monsters). Several texts are thought to reference specific members of Handel’s privileged audience.  We have selected a recitative and aria each from two of over fifty cantatas for soprano voice and basso continuo.  Solitudini Care was most likely written while Handel was in Italy, while Il Gelsomino was composed in the late 1720s, long after Handel had settled in London.       

Nearly all Baroque chamber and orchestral works include a harpsichord or organ as part of a basso continuo group in which the keyboardist plays a composed bass line in the left hand–usually doubled by a cello, viola da gamba and/or bassoon–while “realizing” an improvised right hand part from chord symbols often provided by the composer. There are exceptions, most notably Bach’s sonatas for violin and concertante harpsichord, BWV 1014-1019, and for viola da gamba and harpsichord, BWV 1027-1029. In these works, the keyboard right hand is fully composed and a full partner to the solo instrument. The present sonata, originally for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is another example of this form, but little is known of its origin. It may be a youthful work of Handel, or of Johann Matthias Leffloth. A similar sonata for oboe and harpsichord is attributed both to Handel and to C.F. Graun.

The oboe da caccia (lit. “oboe of the hunt”) featured in the arias from Bach’s cantatas BWV nos. 1 and 74, is an odd hybrid of woodwind and brass instruments that Bach first encountered upon moving to Leipzig in 1723, and featured in his sacred vocal works for the remainder of his life.  The curved wooden body is leather-wrapped in the manner of a cornetto, and the brass bell and “side-saddle” performance style evoke the hunting horn or corno da caccia, though performance on horseback is highly improbable. Those familiar with the instrument in Bach’s Passions–in which its ethereal nature is featured to great, solemn effect–may be surprised by the cheerier character of these arias.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, is actually comprised of six separate cantatas, first performed between Christmas Day of 1734 and Epiphany (January 6) of 1735.  The fourth cantata, in which Flösst, mein Heiland is found, premiered on New Year’s Day (The Feast of the Circumcision).  This cantata borrows heavily from a secular Dramma per Musica entitled Hercules am Scheidewege (Hercules at the Crossroads), composed a year earlier to celebrate the 11th birthday of a Saxon Prince.  In its original form, a third lower, the aria is sung by Hercules, an alto, with oboe d’amore.  It uses the echo device popular in early Italian opera to underscore the hero’s indecision between a life of ease and a life of virtue. Although Bach’s frequent collaborator C.F. Henrici (also known as “Picander”) wrote the libretti for both works, the echo device seems a better fit for the original Hercules text. 

Handel’s sonatas for solo woodwind instrument and basso continuo were immensely popular in his day, appearing in multiple printings, collections, keys, and variant versions.   Though not as virtuosic as many Italian and German recorder sonatas, Handel’s sonatas are full of elegant details, and feature the continuo group more prominently than in the typical Continental sonata. The D minor sonata that closes today’s program exists in at least three forms, each with a slightly different set of movements.  We have selected four of the original seven movements.     – Notes by William Thauer