Concert III: Lively Entertainments

The French, the Germans, the Greeks—and you can’t forget the Italians!

The first concert of the new year is just a few weeks away. (I can always tell because when I start my usual barrage of emails to all of the musicians performing in the concert.) Everyone is super excited for this program, especially because we have two really famous pieces on the docket: Bach’s Ouvertüre No. 1 and Handel’s incredibly dramatic, quasi-operatic cantata La terra è liberata (aka. Apollo e Dafne).

It’s a bit of a hodge-podge in all honesty, but the concert program is united by the concept of “entertainment” pieces—hence the title “Lively Entertainments.” Each of the program’s three pieces represents a different world of entertainment music from the Baroque period.

Bach’s Ouvertüre

The renowned Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, believes the Ouvertüre was written before 1725, which just barely makes it into Bach’s Leipzig period (1723-1750). The concert’s opener, Bach’s Ouvertüre, is almost assuredly linked to Bach’s concerts at Cafe Zimmermann (see Concert II: A Casual Concert for details about that). Bach’s Cafe concerts, of which there were weekly concerts, would have required a great deal of music to entertain their middle- and upper-class attendees. Music written by Bach, and his various associations, were great contenders for the concert programs, as you can read in our Concert II program book.

There are two important factors of the Ouvertüre which I’m attempting to highlight with this concert:

  1. that the Ouvertüre was intended for the entertainment of the “masses;” anyone could have attended these concerts and heard this music;
  2. it’s almost a guarantee that every person sitting in that Cafe for the first performance would have immediately recognized all of the dances and, most importantly, the French style of the piece.

Concerts at Cafes across the continent were, I would argue, the first “public concerts” not sponsored by some type of nobility—in this case by the owner of the Cafe.

Our performance of the Ouvertüre will seek to highlight the clear, heavy influence of the French style. Too often, French-style music written by non-French composers is not performed in a French style. We’re hoping to begin the process of correcting that problem with our performance in March.

Handel’s Sinfonia

Handel’s Sinfonia in B-flat, HWV 347 is the least familiar work on the concert. The sinfonia acted as a source of musical material for several other works by Handel. The outer movements were used for Handel’s organ concerto, Op. 7, No. 6. The middle movement was used for the opening of Handel’s oratorio Joshua. It’s actually doubtful that the version we’ll perform in March was ever even performed during Handel’s time. No instrumental parts of the piece exist except within the context of the organ concerto and the oratorio.

Apollo e Dafne does not have its on ouverture. It’s likely that when Handel eventually performed the cantata, around 1710, he used a previously composed piece as the cantata’s ouverture. The selection of this particular sinfonia is not without reason:

  1. it ends in the same key as Apollo’s first recitative
  2. it uses the same instrumentation that’s available for the concert
  3. it musically expresses three of Apollo’s moods: arrogant, dejected, tenacious

It’s only my hope that these three moods are clearly articulated during our performance.

Handel’s cantata

The piece that I’m most excited about is Handel’s cantata La terra è liberata (aka Apollo e Dafne). My knowledge of the cantata’s plot dates back to my time as an undergrad at Gustavus. I was enrolled in an upper level Latin course there and we translated and recited various poems by prominent ancient Roman poets. Several of the class’s poems were taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid’s telling of the Apollo and Dafne story was just one of many poems we studied. (If you’d like to read the original, translated into English, you can find that at the end of this post.)

Unlike the other poems from the collection, this story has always stuck with me. Ovid’s telling is so vivid that I often imagine seeing the whole story with my own eyes: from Apollo slaying the Python to Dafne transforming into the all-important laurel tree—an important symbol of heroes for the ancient Romans.

But, before I had even read the original poem, I was able to see an incredible Baroque sculpture of the story made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini sculpted for Catholic cardinals and made several important contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Bernini’s sculpture, now housed at the Borghese gallery in Rome, is designed to be viewed in 360°. Bernini seems to pause Apollo and Dafne right at the moment when Dafne begins to become the laurel tree. The sculpture shows so much movement and one can almost hear the cries coming from both of them, with their mouths agape. The details of the hair, tree bark, and the metamorphoses—notice Dafne’s toes are growing roots!—are incredible in the picture and even more so in person.

When I learned that Handel had written a cantata on the subject, I knew that I had to lead a performance of it at some point in my career. Handel began the cantata before 1710, while he was still in Italy, and his skills as a dramatist are apparent in the cantata. From the arrogant god that begins the cantata to the innocent nymph who wants to be nothing but free, Handel, with care and genius, uses musical motifs and the well crafted libretto to depict flying arrows, pastoral landscapes, derision, running feet, and Apollo’s unquenchable ardor for Dafne.

My favorite part of the cantata takes place before Apollo’s concluding aria. Fortissimo, percussive chords from the orchestra highlight Apollo’s shock after witnessing Dafne’s transformation. And then, after being supported by tutti ensemble, the orchestration suddenly becomes stark. Without accompaniment Apollo asks, “Dafne, where are you?” This moment, for me, is the most human Apollo is depicted within the cantata. Dafne, in contrast, is so beautifully human, an idealized version of what humanity could be—kind, loyal, and free.

Phoebus’s first love was Daphne, daughter of Peneus, and not through chance but because of Cupid’s fierce anger. Recently the Delian god, exulting at his victory over the serpent, had seen him bending his tightly strung bow and said ‘Impudent boy, what are you doing with a man’s weapons? That one is suited to my shoulders, since I can hit wild beasts of a certainty, and wound my enemies, and not long ago destroyed with countless arrows the swollen Python that covered many acres with its plague-ridden belly. You should be intent on stirring the concealed fires of love with your burning brand, not laying claim to my glories!’ Venus’s son replied ‘You may hit every other thing Phoebus, but my bow will strike you: to the degree that all living creatures are less than gods, by that degree is your glory less than mine.’ He spoke, and striking the air fiercely with beating wings, he landed on the shady peak of Parnassus, and took two arrows with opposite effects from his full quiver: one kindles love, the other dispels it. The one that kindles is golden with a sharp glistening point, the one that dispels is blunt with lead beneath its shaft. With the second he transfixed Peneus’s daughter, but with the first he wounded Apollo piercing him to the marrow of his bones.

Now the one loved, and the other fled from love’s name, taking delight in the depths of the woods, and the skins of the wild beasts she caught, emulating virgin Phoebe, a careless ribbon holding back her hair. Many courted her, but she, averse to being wooed, free from men and unable to endure them, roamed the pathless woods, careless of Hymen or Amor, or whatever marriage might be. Her father often said ‘Girl you owe me a son-in-law’, and again often  ‘Daughter, you owe me grandsons.’ But, hating the wedding torch as if it smacked of crime she would blush red with shame all over her beautiful face, and clinging to her father’s neck with coaxing arms, she would say ‘ Dearest father, let me be a virgin for ever! Diana’s father granted it to her.’ He yields to that plea, but your beauty itself, Daphne, prevents your wish, and your loveliness opposes your prayer.

Phoebus loves her at first sight, and desires to wed her, and hopes for what he desires, but his own oracular powers fail him. As the light stubble of an empty cornfield blazes; as sparks fire a hedge when a traveller, by mischance, lets them get too close, or forgets them in the morning; so the god was altered by the flames, and all his heart burned, feeding his useless desire with hope. He sees her disordered hair hanging about her neck and sighs ‘What if it were properly dressed?’ He gazes at her eyes sparkling with the brightness of starlight. He gazes on her lips, where mere gazing does not satisfy. He praises her wrists and hands and fingers, and her arms bare to the shoulder: whatever is hidden, he imagines more beautiful. But she flees swifter than the lightest breath of air, and resists his words calling her back again.

‘Wait nymph, daughter of Peneus, I beg you! I who am chasing you am not your enemy. Nymph, Wait! This is the way a sheep runs from the wolf, a deer from the mountain lion, and a dove with fluttering wings flies from the eagle: everything flies from its foes, but it is love that is driving me to follow you! Pity me! I am afraid you might fall headlong or thorns undeservedly scar your legs and I be a cause of grief to you! These are rough places you run through. Slow down, I ask you, check your flight, and I too will slow. At least enquire whom it is you have charmed. I am no mountain man, no shepherd, no rough guardian of the herds and flocks. Rash girl, you do not know, you cannot realise, who you run from, and so you run. Delphi’s lands are mine, Claros and Tenedos, and Patara acknowledges me king. Jupiter is my father. Through me what was, what is, and what will be, are revealed. Through me strings sound in harmony, to song. My aim is certain, but an arrow truer than mine, has wounded my free heart! The whole world calls me the bringer of aid; medicine is my invention; my power is in herbs. But love cannot be healed by any herb, nor can the arts that cure others cure their lord!’

He would have said more as timid Peneïs ran, still lovely to see, leaving him with his words unfinished. The winds bared her body, the opposing breezes in her way fluttered her clothes, and the light airs threw her streaming hair behind her, her beauty enhanced by flight. But the young god could no longer waste time on further blandishments, urged on by Amor, he ran on at full speed. Like a hound of Gaul starting a hare in an empty field, that heads for its prey, she for safety: he, seeming about to clutch her, thinks now, or now, he has her fast, grazing her heels with his outstretched jaws, while she uncertain whether she is already caught, escaping his bite, spurts from the muzzle touching her. So the virgin and the god: he driven by desire, she by fear. He ran faster, Amor giving him wings, and allowed her no rest, hung on her fleeing shoulders, breathed on the hair flying round her neck. Her strength was gone, she grew pale, overcome by the effort of her rapid flight, and seeing Peneus’s waters near cried out ‘Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!’ Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.

Even like this Phoebus loved her and, placing his hand against the trunk, he felt her heart still quivering under the new bark. He clasped the branches as if they were parts of human arms, and kissed the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses, and the god said ‘Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions. You will stand outside Augustus’s doorposts, a faithful guardian, and keep watch over the crown of oak between them. And just as my head with its uncropped hair is always young, so you also will wear the beauty of undying leaves.’ Paean had done: the laurel bowed her newly made branches, and seemed to shake her leafy crown like a head giving consent.

Ovid, “Book I” from Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.

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