Hidden Treasures of the Baroque

Performed on Sunday, May 31, 2020

An Artistic Collaboration between Collegium Musicum NJ and the Highland Park Recorder Society.

Program:

  1. Marco Uccellini. “Sinfonie Boscarecie.” Opus VIII, No. 17: “Arcadicha” and No. 28 “A Suavissima.” Published in Venice, 1660
  2. William Babell. “Concerto No. 6, Opus 3 in F for Two Recorders”
  3. Ignaz Franz Biber. “Battalia à 10”
  4. Polotsk Notebook — A suite of dances from the 16th- and 17th-century collection of Belarusian Baroque music

On Marco Uccellini (1603 or 1610-1680).

Marco Uccellini was an Italian Baroque violinist and composer. The details of his life are not well known. Born at Forlimpopuli, Forli, he studied in the seminary at Assisi. He served as the musical director (Capo degl’ instrumentisti) of the Este court in Modena from 1641 to 1662, and was the musical director (Maestro di cappella) of the Modena cathedral from 1647 to 1665. Afterwards he served as Maestro di cappella at the Farnese court in Parma until his death. At the Farnese court, he composed operas and ballets, but none of this music survives. Thus, he is mainly known today for his instrumental music.

Uccellini was one of a long line of distinguished Italian violinist-composers in the first half of the 17th century. His sonatas for violin and continuo contributed to the development of an idiomatic style of writing for the violin, which included virtuosic runs, leaps and forays into high positions. Thus, he expanded the instrument’s technical capabilities and range of expression. Like other 17th-century Italian sonatas, Uccellini’s consist of short contrasting sections (frequently dances) that flow into one another. His innovations influenced a generation of Austro-German violinist-composers including Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, and Johann Jakob Walther.

On Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704)

Heinrich Biber was born in Prague and later spent 24 years in Salzburg serving as Kapellmeister for the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Biber was described by the noted violinmaker Jacob Stainer as “the outstanding virtuoso Herr Biber.” Recognized as a talented violinist, he became best known as a composer of works for the violin, many of which employ scordatura: unconventional tunings of the violin strings. His “Rosary Sonatas,” consisting of 16 sonatas, had each movement with a different tuning of the open strings. Biber’s music used many canonic devices and diverse harmonic ideas, which predate the later Baroque works of Pachelbel and J.S. Bach. Some of these compositional ideas included polytonality and col legno, bouncing the wooden stick of the bow on the strings instead of bowing in the usual manner.

“Battalia à 10” was written in 1673 during the Baroque era. Some historians have considered this work as expressing Biber’s feelings about the Thirty-Years War, a religious war fought from 1618-1648. Beginning as a conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the war spread throughout most of Europe. The opposing sides often used mercenary armies, and the war brought with it famine and disease that devastated many countries. This war killed almost half of the male population of German-speaking lands and over a third of the Czech people. “Battalia” seems to be a statement about the social and historical impact of war and its toll on humanity.

“Battalia” is often translated as “a body of troops” or simply as “battle.” The piece is dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, vegetation, and the theater, which immediately suggests notions of absurdity to both player and listener. In it Biber uses many non-traditional musical techniques, including striking the bow on the instrument, weaving paper through the strings, and Ives-like polytonality. The piece is divided into eight short movements with the following titles:

  1. Sonata
  2. The Lusty Society of Common Humor
  3. Allegro
  4. Mars
  5. Presto
  6. Aria
  7. The Battle
  8. The Lament of the Wounded Musketeers

The opening movement, “Sonata,” is a lively flurry of activity employing pizzicati, and col legno (using the wooden rather than the hair side of the bow), in what is perhaps the first use of the technique. These techniques were used to imitate the soldiers’ footsteps, and the contrasts between soft and loud passages. In the second movement, “The Lusty Society of Common Humor,” the troops have gathered in their separate camps. No fewer than eight different songs—in Czech, German, Slovak, Italian, and other languages—are heard, in seven different keys, all at once and each starting at a different time. Biber gets his point across by remarking in one of the string parts that “Hic dissonant ubique nam ebrii sic diversis Cantilenis calamari solent” (“Here it is dissonant everywhere, for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs”). This short, bizarre movement anticipates, by over two hundred years, similar juxtapositions by Charles Ives of unrelated types of music.

After a short “Allegro” recalling the opening music comes “Mars,” in which a drum-like rattle from the low strings, produced by having the bass players place a piece of paper in between the strings, accompanies a wild passage for solo violin that suggests a military fife. The ensuing “Presto” features a melody with a galloping rhythm and a hunting-horn quality, and the “Aria”—perhaps a prayer by the soldiers before the battle—is a sweet, song-like interlude.

Then comes the actual “Battle,” which is short but aggressive. To imitate the firing of cannon, Biber employs what in later days came to be known as the “Bartók pizzicato,” where the string is plucked forcefully enough to snap against the finger board. “Battalia” concludes not with a song of victory but rather with the “Lament of the Wounded Musketeers,” a funereal song of genuine pathos with some biting dissonances.

The Story of the “Polotsk Notebook”

In 1956, the library of Jagiellonian University in the city of Krakow, Poland, obtained a copy of the Belarusian Uniat Sermon Book. The Belarusian historian, linguist, and researcher ADAM MALDIS was the first person to authenticate the Sermon Book.

A musical manuscript was discovered inside the thick book’s leather cover. It contains a valuable record of Polish and Belarusian musical culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The manuscript is written in the form of a two-line lute and voice tablature and includes more than 200 secular vocal and instrumental dance pieces.

The manuscript has no date and mentions no sources, but the Sermon Book itself, which dates to the seventeenth century, has a number of inscriptions that indicate the date and place of origin of the pieces. This material came to the attention of a Polish musical researcher named Jerzy Golas, who made the analysis and transcriptions of it. He began the process of converting the manuscript from the lute tablature to the modern notation system.

At first Jerzy Golas thought the manuscript came from the old Belarusian city of Polotsk, which was a center of cultural and religious life, and so it was called “The Polotsk Notebook,” but a number of Polish-language notes on the pages show that the hand-written book came from the village of Ostrometchevo, in the Brest region of today’s Belarus. However, the original title, “The Polotsk Notebook,” is the name by which the collection is known now.

The Belarusian-American composer and scholar Sergey Khvoshchinsky has told us a very interesting story about his involvement with the “Polotsk Notebook.” Around thirty years ago, when he was musical director of the famous Belarusian Dance Company “HOROSHKI,” the artistic director of the company had the idea of putting together a program dedicated to the olden days in Belarus. She was inspired by listening to the Belarusian professional chamber ensemble Cantabile. This group was the first to perform music from the “Polotsk Notebook.”

Sergey was amazed when he heard the music, so he and the artistic director of the dance company started to work on the new program. The first part of the program contained about fifty minutes of music and was a great success in Belarus. His arrangements of the music were broadcast by National Radio every week, and sometimes twice a week. Sometimes a full program was broadcast. Five documentary films have used his arrangements, and the Belarusian Dance Company performed this program in almost all the countries of Europe, and also in Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

When Sergey began to arrange the music, in the 1990s, his knowledge of the text was limited, so he traveled to the thousand-year-old town of Polotsk. There, in the library of the Orthodox Church from that time, he worked with photocopies of the original pages of music. He deciphered the notation and started to use it for his arrangements.

Years later he started his own Ensemble of Medieval and Sacred Music, including some pieces from the Polotsk Manuscript in the Ensemble’s first program. Alexei Yavtuhovich, Artistic Director of Collegium Musicum, was the concertmaster of the Ensemble that played this first program, and it is he who invited Sergey Khvoshchinsky to work again on this music. The music of the “Polotsk Notebook” is truly a Hidden Treasure of the Baroque!

Most interesting is the dance music, which is richly represented in the manuscript. An analysis of its rhythmic structure shows that it is based on the dance rhythms that were widely popular at the time in Western Europe, as well as in Poland and Belarus.