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Handel: Concerto No. 5 (“St. Cecilia Concerto”)

Handel’s Concerto No. 5 in D major is sometimes known as the “St. Cecilia Concerto” because the first two movements and the last use thematic material in modified form from the overture to the Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739). The introduction is in the style of Lully’s overtures and is followed by an extensive fugue. The Minuet at the end of the concerto (the three central movements are omitted in tonight’s performance) with its two variations provides an elegant conclusion.

Arcangelo Corelli was the most famous violinist of his age. Active in Rome from about 1675, his published output comprises four sets of trio sonatas, one of solo sonatas and the concerti grossi published posthumously (Amsterdam 1714). Corelli’s music is elegant and perfectly balanced. Innovations include the use of modulation within movements to closely related keys (e.g., dominant and the relative minor), the use of modulatory sequences moving up or down by step—the ideal framework for virtuoso passage-work—and dissonance used to propel the music forward. The sonata on tonight’s program is a suite of dances.

Handel’s first stay in Rome in 1707 was a triumphant success, and he soon found himself taken up the by the elite of Roman society. As one diarist noted “A Saxon has arrived here in Rome, an excellent harpsichordist and composer. Today he showed his skill by playing the organ at the church of St John Lateran to universal admiration.” It was through one of hte most influential of his patrons, Cardinal Carlo Colonna, that the 22 year-old German Protestant composer found himself in the position of providing music for a very Catholic occasion, the festival of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, celebrated each year of 16 July in Santa Maria di Montesanto (i.e. Mount Carmel), the Roman church of the Carmelite order located in the Piazza del Popolo. The music was on the most lavish scale, and was financed by Colonna, who had close connections with the order. Dixit Dominus, completed in April (autograph: Roma, 6 d’aprile 1707), may possibly have been used on this occasion. It is the opening Vespers psalm on most feast days, and Handel follows custom in setting it on the grandest scale with much use of the psalm tone. It is divided into a number of short movements, each of which treats a small portion of the text. The scoring changes from section to section as large-scale contrapuntal choruses contrast with aria-like solos. In this Handel respects the Roman musical tradition while bringing to it a breadth and vigor all his own.

The Estonian composer Avro Part Da pacem Domine  was written to fulfill a commission from the Catalan early music specialist, Jordi Savall. He began work on it shortly after the Madrid terrorist bombing on 11 March 2004. Paul Hillier notes that “it is an eloquent example of Part at his most characteristic: a simple texture (four parts throughout), a slow straightforward pattern with almost no rhythmic variation, and near harmonic stasis in which each pitch is carefully placed in positions like stones in a Zen garden.” A prayer for peace, and the composer’s personal tribute to the victims of the Madrid bombings, it has lost nothing of its immediacy.

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