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Pamela Thorby - recorders
Rachel Podger - violin
Joanne Levine - cello
William Carter - theorbo, archlute, guitar
The Winged Lion
At the beginning of the seventeenth century Venice was past her political zenith, yet some of her greatest artistic achievements still lay ahead. It seems that as her economic and military splendour waned, the citizens of the republic gave themselves over increasingly to the more fugitive pleasures of the carnival, the theatre and music.
Venice always stood apart from the other great Italian cities in that her economic ties to the east were as strong, or even stronger than many of her ties to the Italian mainland. Perhaps we can hear this eastern influence in her music through its exotic scorings and its intense emotionalism and theatricality (Venetian composers were cultivating a fanciful array of wind and plucked instruments, long after the rest of Italy had gone ‘violin mad'). It is easy to imagine expressions of polite disapproval on the faces of Bolgnese or Roman composers in reaction to the barely controlled hysteria of a Castello sonata or a Vivaldi violin concerto. However, there is another side to this coin, a specifically Venetian gravity which finds its voice in the elegiac works of Cavalli and Turini featured here. It is this duality, like an enigmatic face behind a festive carnival mask that gives so much Venetian art its special atmosphere of tension and mystery.
Venice's liberal asylum laws helped to create colonies of German printers and instrument makers in the sixteenth century, and these continued to flourish throughout the Baroque period. Our programme reflects this diversity of musical life, by including works by Buonamente and Uccellini which were printed in Venice, and Spanish guitar music played on a copy of a Venetian guitar. The guitar seems to have been very popular in Venice (judging by anecdotal evidence and the many surviving instruments) but sadly, little music remains.
It is worth commenting briefly on the form of the seventeenth century sonata which is so different from its later counterpart. A single, extended movement contains a series of sections designed for maximum dramatic contrast. When well managed, this allows a wide range of expression and reminds us how much can be said in a short time. The master of this style is Dario Castello, whose frequent abrupt halts and changes of mood made his music some of the most challenging of the seventeenth century. The original players must also have found them difficult; there is a sarcastic remark in the preface of his second book to the effect that some rehearsal will not rob the music of its spirit!
In the seventeenth century, the form of the high baroque suite had not yet been established and so we have fashioned our own sequences of arias and dances. Although the works to the three popular songs by Uccellini unfortunately no longer survive, we are given a small clue in the first aria; the words ‘Caporal Simon' are underplayed in each player's part at the seven points where his jauntly refrain occurs; the title of the third translates roughly as: ‘You've broken my needle box and now you have to pay for it'. Pieces like these give us a tantalizing glimpse of the vanished world of seventeenth-century popular music.
More could be said, but the best introduction is really the music itself, and so it only remains to conclude with the words which close the prefaces to so many Venetian music publications.