A Baroque composer had several available paths to success: the opera house, the church, or the courts of the wealthy and powerful. Of these, perhaps the most certain path to success and fame, if it was to be attained, was the one that led to the courts of the mighty. Among the many ruling families of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna were second to none in creating this milieu characterized by wealth and power. Most important for our purposes is the fact that the Habsburgs were very important patrons of the arts, especially music. The Habsburg dynasty, one of the great European ruling families, ruled Austria from 1262 until 1918. In 1452, Frederick III (1415–1493) was named Holy Roman Emperor, beginning a succession of Habsburg Emperors that lasted until the death of Charles VI in 1740.
Writing in 1949, H. V. F. Somerset pointed out that there were three major impacts that the Habsburgs had in furthering the development of music in Vienna: their expansion of the imperial chapel (the corps of court musicians), their patronage of foreign musicians, especially Italians, and their own participation as practicing musicians and composers. Ferdinand III (reigned 1637–1658), his son, Leopold I (reigned 1658–1705), and his grandsons, Joseph I (reigned 1705–1711) and Charles VI (reigned 1711–1740) were particularly devoted musicians. Of these, Leopold, who was an accomplished performer on harpsichord and recorder, was the most prolific composer; his extant output totaling eight operas, 108 balletti, and numerous sacred pieces. Joseph I was also well regarded as an able singer, dancer, and performer on harpsichord, and recorder, among other instruments, and his compositions show a mastery of the contemporary style as exemplified by the works of Alessandro Scarlatti.
Today’s program features music composed by Italian composers associated with the Habsburg court in Vienna in the early 18th century who benefited directly from the support of the Imperial Court. Badia, Bononcini, Caldara, and Porsile each held the title of Court Composer at one time or another. These composers, along with other Italians such as Ariosti, played an important part in introducing the more progressive Italian styles to the more conservative Viennese musical establishment. As such, they created a large and significant body of work that is well deserving of being heard today.
Although fairly unknown today, Carlo Agostino Badia was the favorite composer of Leopold I and, as such, was the first to hold the title of Court Composer when he was appointed to that position by Leopold I in July of 1694. Likely a native of Verona, Badia, along with Bononcini and others, was among that group of Northern Italian composers who introduced the progressive Italian styles to the more conservative Viennese court. Badia composed 24 operas and 36 large-scale sacred works for the court. He also composed 53 cantatas, including “La Fenice,” a cantata on today’s program that played an important part in re-establishing the popularity of the cantata form at court. This cantata, composed in 1699 and comprised of several arias, separated by recitative sections, was first performed in court by members of the aristocracy; the vocal part was sung by a Madame Sousin, a lady of the court, while the first recorder part was most likely played by Joseph, heir to the throne. This charming work uses exalted poetic language to first establish the rare and marvelous qualities of the legendary phoenix, and then to express how much more wonderful than the phoenix was the Emperor Leopold. The general avian atmosphere of this piece is reinforced by the presence of the recorders in the ensemble. This cantata is one of several by Badia that were published during the period.
Giovanni Bononcini, one of the most popular and prolific composers in the 18th century, was born into a renowned family of composers and string players. He published three collections of instrumental works at the age of 15. In 1691, he established himself in Rome. While in Rome, Bononcini composed and performed several operas and sacred works that were very well received, which provided the foundation of his international reputation. In 1697, Bononcini moved to Vienna and soon became the favorite composer of Joseph. From 1720 to 1732, Bononcini was in London, where his fame as an opera composer rivaled that of Handel. A plagiarism scandal forced Bononcini to leave London and move to France. He eventually returned to Italy where he died in poverty.
Bononcini’s Duetti da camera, Op. 8, first published in 1691 and dedicated to Leopold I were very popular throughout Europe and were reprinted in 1701. Charles Burney, the noted 18th century historian, stated that these were the first such works to be composed. These pieces consist of alternating arias and recitatives and show Bononcini’s impressive command of melodic invention and intricate counterpoint. The texts are typical of their time in that they present many common images of the uncertain nature of love and the dangers of a flirtatious glance. A cellist himself, Bononcini makes the instrumental bass an equal partner with the voices in many of these movements. These duets have been newly edited from a late 17th century manuscript for this concert by our artistic director.
Antonio Caldara, a Venetian singer and composer, was one of the most respected composers of the period. His association with the Habsburgs as a chamber composer to Charles VI began in 1705, while Charles was in Barcelona. After a spell in Rome writing operas, Caldara was named a Court Composer in Vienna in 1716 during the reign of Charles VI. Best known as a composer of chamber cantatas (around 300) and sacred music, Caldara is also among the last to compose madrigals. Probably as the result of a commission, Caldara composed a set of 13 madrigals to texts by Antonio Luccini, the Dresden Court librettist, in late 1731 and early 1732. We open today’s program with one of these madrigals and close with another. These pieces are noteworthy for their high quality of inventiveness, well-wrought counterpoint, and sophisticated harmonies. For our performance, we returned to Caldara’s original autograph manuscript as the basis of our edition. Both texts are of a moralizing nature with “Fugge di Lot la moglie,” drawing upon the story of Lot’s wife from the Bible and using it as a warning of the dangers of an unrepentant life, while “Fra pioggie, nevi e gelo” suggests that we should enjoy good things while we have them.
Another neglected musician we share with you today, Giuseppe Porsile was a Neapolitan composer and singing teacher. Trained in Naples, Porsile’s ability earned him a position in the Royal Court in Barcelona, serving Charles II and, later, Charles III, who became the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV in 1711. He was the singing teacher to Joseph’s wife, the dowager Empress Wilhelmina Amalia, and composed several birthday odes for her, which were performed by her daughters. Porsile’s music is typical of the Neapolitan style of the day, which was unusual in Vienna, where most of the Italians were from the North of Italy. The unique source for the cantata, “A piè d’ameno colle,” is found in a collection of cantatas by several composers, many of whom associated with the Imperial Court at Vienna, bound together in the State Library at Darmstadt. This collection is also one of the two known sources for the Ariosti cantata heard on today’s program. The existence of these manuscripts in Darmstadt is highly suggestive of the influence of these composers who were based in Vienna and of their works for their period. This cantata, set in the idyllic Arcadian past, tells of the unhappy young man, Eurillo, and his beloved Mitilde and their misunderstandings. It is not so much a narrative as it is a scenario within which typical emotions and poetic conceits are set to music. The image in the final aria of the soul compared to a small boat tossed on a stormy sea is one often encountered in the music of this period.
Attilio Ariosti was not an official member of the Viennese court establishment, although he often performed there and composed for court functions. A native of Bologna, Ariosti had a career as composer and organist that took him to many cities in Europe during the course of his lifetime, including Berlin and London. He is best remembered today as an early advocate for the viola d’amore, as well as the premier virtuoso on this instrument in the early 18th century. This remarkable instrument features 6 or 7 strings that are played upon directly, as well as a number of strings that would resonate sympathetically. The cantata we are performing, “Pur al fin, gentil Viola,” was most likely composed while Ariosti was in Berlin. This charming piece allows the viola d’amore full play to demonstrate its many virtues in concert with the lively vocal writing.
© Dr. Bruce Carvell, April 2014