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Program Notes

Johann Michael Nicolai: Sonatas from 17th Century Germany

On the cutting edge of music in the 17th century was the new Baroque style that began and was flourishing in Italy. In order to bring the new Baroque style to their courts, the nobility of 17th century Germany had to employ Italian musicians. German-speaking lands became saturated with Italian music and Italian musicians, spreading the new Baroque style of music throughout central Europe. German musicians would also visit Italy in order to study with Italian masters. By the mid-17th century, German and Austrian composers had absorbed the new style and adapted it to their own culture.

The 17th century also saw the rise and growth of the royal courts in Europe. Primarily due to the new developments in the art of war, a centralized authority could only afford the required large armies. As royal monarchs increased their power and reach, lesser nobles were drawn to the increasingly larger royal courts to manage the nation. These new roles for the nobility required greater education, and that, in turn, led to a greater appreciation of the arts and the desire to be at the forefront of culture.

Finally, the end of this massive conflict known as the Thirty Years' War in 1648 freed the royal courts from the monetary constraints of war, and this new financial freedom allowed a renewed dedication to arts. Almost all of the composers on this disc came to musical maturity around the end of the Thirty Years' War and enjoyed the post-war largesse of the German courts.

Johann Michael Nicolai, from 1655 until his death, played the violone ('cello) in the Stuttgart court orchestra. Before 1655 he was a member of the court orchestra of the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg, whose musicians were often invited to play for the Margrave of Brandenburg, and he dedicated his Erster Theil Instrumentalishcer Sachen of 1675 to Margrave Christian Ernst. All of the 12 trio sonatas of Erster Theil Instrumentalishcer Sachen are for two violins, a solo bass instrument and basso continuo. In all of the sonatas, the bass instrument not only participates as part of the basso continuo but frequently break away to perform as an independent third voice equal to the soprano instruments. The first four sonatas of the collection feature the viola da gamba as the solo bass, while the remaining eight require the dulcian. All 12 sonatas open with a moderately fast section that is connected by a short adagio to an even faster third section. All sonatas conclude in typical 17th century style with a short, but grand, final adagio. The opening theme of every first section provides the melodic basis for each entire sonata. The theme is presented in different rhythms in each section of the sonatas, even in the connecting adagios, where it is often a direct quote of the opening melody cleverly augmented.

Antonio Bertali, born and trained in Verona, spent most of his career at the Imperial Court in Vienna. First employed as a court violinist, he assumed the position of Kapellmeister in 1649. Although his sonatas demonstrate the new importance of the violin, Bertali is traditionally recognized as the first composer to produce Italian operas for non-Italian audiences. He was the last of long line of Italian Kapellmeisters to lead the Imperial Court musicians under Ferdinand II and III before a native German, J. H. Schmelzer, proved to be sufficiently versed in the new Italian style to be appointed Kapellmeister in Vienna.

Although known as a violin virtuoso, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer began his career as a cornettist in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Due to his extraordinary ability as a violinist, he was taken into the Hofkapelle in Vienna in 1649, the same year Bertali became Kapellmeister. Schmelzer succeeded Bertali as Kapellmeister in 1679. The first non-Italian to hold this post in many decades, Schmelzer's tenure was to be brief; he died from the plague in 1680 in Prague, where the court had ironically fled to escape the pestilence. Schmelzer was the leading Austrian composer of instrumental music in his day, making an influential contribution to the development of the sonata and suite. Most of his instrumental sonatas rely strongly on the variation principle, often consist of a number of short sections in contrasting meters and tempos, and usually allow a great display of virtuoso technique.

Biagio Marini, born in Brescia, was likely the most famous violinist of his day. His name first appears in records at St. Mark's in Venice when he was only 15 years of age. After returning to Brescia in 1620, he traveled to work at various courts; first Parma, then Neuburg, Germany, and finally Milan, before he returned to Venice in 1653. His Opus 8, one of the largest instrumental collections of its time, is dedicated to Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria, whom he had met on a visit to Brussels in 1624. Marini's Pass'emezzo concertato is a set of 10 variations over a passamezzo antico ground bass. Each variation offers a different affect, from fiery virtuosity to wistful melancholy, all meant to demonstrate Marini's ability on the violin.

Matthias Weckmann was a major figure of German musical life in the 17th century. Born in Thuringia, he first worked in Dresden, then the Danish Court, then Lübeck, and ended his career as organist in the Jakobikirche in Hamburg. Weckmann's compositional output is principally for keyboard, but he also wrote a number of instrumental sonatas. His Italian-styled Sonata à 4 detta la Carolietta is of modest length yet excitingly bold.

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