The immensely popular canon by Johann Pachelbel is known in orchestral and “new-age” arrangements from the late twentieth century. In its original version it is paired with a lively gigue and scored for three solo violins and continuo, following a 17th-century tradition of music for three equal high voices or instruments with bass continuo. This tradition dates back to the very beginning of the Baroque, when trios of virtuoso singers such as the “Three Ladies of Ferrara” became international stars. In Pachelbel’s canon each of the violins plays exactly the same music two bars apart, while the continuo instruments play a repeating two-bar ground. On this disc we present this famous work in the context of other chamber works by some of Pachelbel’s most important contemporaries, composers who were famous in the time of composers such as Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi.
This is an international program: Italy is represented by three important composers associated with Rome: the incomparable violinist Archangelo Corelli, the colorful Alessandro Stradella (perhaps better known for his murder than for his forward-looking music), and the outstanding operatic composer of the time, Alessandro Scarlatti (father of the more famous harpsichordist Domenico). France is here represented by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian expatriate who rose to the highest musical position at the court of Louis XIV and established a musical monopoly analogous to his patron’s absolute monarchy; and by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre who arrived at court as a child prodigy and went on to become one of the most independently successful musicians of the age. Henry Purcell stands alone as the greatest English composer of the late seventeenth century. His “Three Parts upon a Ground” is a wonderfully demented exploration of the same ground bass used in Pachelbel’s canon; in Purcell’s version the violins stray wildly from the harmonies implied by the bass, and even the viola da gamba has a chance at some variations on the bass. And finally we have three representatives of the German-speaking world: Johann Rosenmüller who fled persecution in Leipzig (where he preceded J. S. Bach by about 70 years) to Venice (where he worked at the Ospedale della Pieta made famous much later by Vivaldi); Heinrich Biber, a virtuoso violinist and often experimental composer based in Salzburg (nearly a century before Mozart’s time); and Georg Muffat, an organist who worked with Biber in Salzburg and was a student of both Lully and Corelli.
Besides the pieces for three violins and continuo by Pachelbel and Purcell, our program includes examples by Corelli and Jacquet de la Guerre of the most common form of Baroque chamber music—the trio-sonata for two violins and continuo with or without obbligato bass and also several larger ensemble works for various combinations of violins and violas with continuo. The examples by Lully, Biber, and Rosenmüller hearken back to the consort or string band music of the early Baroque, whereas Stradella’s sonata and first sinfonia anticipate the concerti grossi of the late Baroque. Stradella’s pieces feature a small “concertino” group of two violins and lute and/or harpsichord juxtaposed with a larger “ripieno” ensemble of violin, two violas, bass viol, and continuo. This particular sinfonia is unusual in that Stradella occasionally gives solo lines to both the lute and the harpsichord in addition to their continuo bass lines.