Peter Whelan

Ensemble Dagda at East Cork Early Music Online

Presented in partnership with West Cork Chamber Music Festival.

Thanks to the generosity of West Cork Music, we have a second chance to bring you a concert that an abbreviated Ensemble Dagda performed in Triskel Arts Centre for West Cork Chamber Music’s online programme. During lockdown we put together a programme of very moving music from Corelli, Merula, Castello, Leonarda, & Jacquet de la Guerre. It’s somehow comforting to know that people have had the same feelings throughout time, and we’re alway struck by parallels. Our Italian composers were around through some of Italy’s worst pandemic times of Black Plague in the 17th century, and we found an empathy with the intense emotions of their ‘stylus phantasticus’ in the feelings of the last months. And while we’ve retreated to making music behind screens in this period, we also found ourselves identifying with our nun-composers, who always sang and played from behind their choir screens, cloistered, unable to interact with the outside world – we might say ‘cocooned’ in 2020. The music of these composers can express and evoke such an array of intense emotions and atmospheres – from complex and intense pain to dancing joy – an experience just as valuable now as it was in hundreds of years gone by. Some things change, and some things stay the same. 

Presented in partnership with West Cork Music.

Caitríona O’Mahony, Marja Gaynor – baroque violins
Kieran Finnegan – harpsichord

This concert is no longer available. 

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Programme Notes

Tarquinio Merulo (1594-1665)
Ciaccona Op. 12 No. 20

One of our favourite genres of baroque music comes from elaborations over a repeated pattern in the bass line. The terms chaconne and passacaglia are often confused or used interchangeably, but while the eighteenth century chaconne as in J.S. Bach’s d minor partita for solo violin is based on four notes descending by step in a minor key, this more Italian seventeenth-century chaconne is a springy dance in a major tonality. An Italian composer of the early Baroque era, Merula was key in developing some of the quintessential forms of the Baroque. Following the lead of Claudio Monteverdi, he was also noted for being progressive and applying new techniques to the writing especially of sacred music. This ciacconna is a perfect example of the form, with virtuosic violin variations over a repeating ground bass.

Dario Castello (1590-c.1658)
Sonata seconda a sopran solo from Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno Libro II

Very little survives about the life of Dario Castello, except that he was a wind player (cornetto and/or dulcian) in St. Mark’s in Venice, during the tenure of Monteverdi. The connection is unsurprising in listening to his music, which embodies the stylus fantasticus, also influenced by the organ music of Claudio Merulo, who played in St. Mark’s at the time.

First published in 1621, Castello’s Sonate Concertate in Stil Moderno are a benchmark in the development of the sonata from the instrumental canzona, and clearly bear the influence of their writing in the world centre of opera. Castello’s sonata almost gives the effect of a miniature opera-without-words, with freely expressive recitative-like sections over pedals in the bass giving way to dance-like sections. A kaleidoscope of emotions is contained within a very short space of time, turning on a hair from violent outbursts to sweet singing passages, melancholy laments to lively dances. 

Castello notably makes excellent use of the interplay between bass and treble to give a humourous theatricality to some sections, with the treble line’s irregular phrases causing the bass to trip over its own feet and crash-land in the ‘wrong’ place. In this early model of the sonata, structure is subservient to invention, harmony can be secondary to the importance of rhetoric and invention, and a modal flavour is still quite audible in places.

Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704)
Trio Sonata Op. 16 No. 10

In 1636 16-year-old Isabella Leonarda entered the Convent of Saint Ursula in Novara, where she would remain for the rest of her life, eventually ascending to the role of Mother Superior. The talented musicians of the upper classes who did not marry often made their way into the particularly musical convents. Here, if ever heard by the public, they were disembodied voices behind screens on high holidays, and much of their music fell into the firing line of the Vatican’s investigations into abuses and scandals.  A set of works unlikely to have been much heard by the people of Novara at mass was Isabella Leonarda’s trio sonatas. While at certain points in the seventeenth-century sinfonias were permitted at mass, violin-playing nuns even behind their screens would have bene unlikely by the time the Vatican finished with their investigation. These might have been more often used for private purposes, teaching younger members of the convent to play in ensemble, or simply for pleasure. Leonarda’s continuous use of dancing melodies would also have surely been scandalous, when dance tunes were restricted to chamber sonatas, she can even use military-sounding music, reminiscent of the fashionable programmatic ‘battalia’.

Sonata duodecima a violino solo Op. 16 No. 12

Leonarda is one of only two Italian women in this century to publish purely instrumental music; although there are a significant number of female composers writing for voices and combinations of voices and instruments. This sonata was published as the only solo sonata in a collection of chamber music in 1693, only a very few years before Corelli’s Op. 5, but it evokes an entirely different era. While Corelli’s sonatas are established in very clear movements, with a slow-fast-slow-fast structure which became almost ubiquitous in instrumental sonatas in the eighteenth century;  Leonarda’s writing harks back to an earlier style of sonata writing, with shorter sections of varying tempi (often linked by an overarching tactus) running together to form an exciting and varied whole.

Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
Violin Sonata No. 6 in A Major (1707)
i. Allemande ii. Presto iii. Adagio iv. Aria v. Adagio vi. Presto-Adagio vii. Aria

Born into a musical family, Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet is notable as the first French woman to write an opera and to publish harpsichord sonatas. Her elegant trio sonatas are amongst the first French examples of the genre, and similarly to Francois Couperin, reflect quite an assimilation of Italian elements within a French style of writing. With Louis XIV as her patron from  a young age, her career at court was acclaimed; she was educated at Versailles and lived there from her teenage years until her marriage to organist Marin de la Guerre. Although widowed early, and suffering the death of her ten-year-old son, de la Guerre continued to play, teach and compose, publishing a second set of harpsichord works in 1707, together with the set of violin sonatas from which this work comes. At this time, de la Guerre had also taken to giving highly popular concerts in her home, which might have been a platform for these violin sonatas. These later works of hers still carry a dedication to the King, written with fervent thanks for his support and recognition of her talent throughout her life, a paragraph which somehow reads as unusually sincere compared to similar dedications amongst her contemporaries.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)
Sonata for two violins and continuo Op. 2 No. 12 ‘Ciaccona’ 

Corelli is often credited with consolidating the form of the sonata as it would exist through eighteenth century. With his notably small published output, trio sonatas by far dominate Corelli’s works. His Op. 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all sets of trio sonatas, with the remaining two works of his output being his famous violin sonatas and concerti grossi. While the Op. 5 violin sonatas are split into two halves, of sonate da chiesa (suitable for church) and da camera (composed of dance movements, and for secular use). The Op. 3 and 1 are entirely sonate da chiesa, Op. 2 and 4 being the corresponding da camera. He closes Op. 2 with a ciaccona, and sets a trend in publishing for the next 60 odd years years – a wide range of composers including Vivaldi, Geminiani and Castrucci followed his lead and finished their sets of sonatas with ground bass variations.  

With a somewhat more courtly style, particularly in the opening, Corelli’s idiomatic writing gives the violins opportunities for wonderful dialogues, in true trio sonata style, not forgetting the moments where the bass reclaim the melody and force the violins to take over the steady ostinato.

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