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Borealis Beat

A glimpse into the mind of our Artistic Director as she shares her knowledge and expertise on our music selections, the composers, artists, concerts, and more

The Age of Elegance: A Feast for Flute and Harpsichord

We are thrilled to be embarking on our 45th Anniversary Concert Season this Fall, and wish to share our tremendous excitement with you! You will find several deliberate references to years past, as we seek to relive some of those earlier moments of joy. As usual, we have crafted seven varied concerts for you, presenting both old favourites and new discoveries.

We welcome you to our first concert of the season, as we serve up a feast of elegant Baroque music from Germany and France for you! For many years it was a tradition that Doris Dungan and I open our series with a programme for flute and harpsichord. Since it’s our 45th anniversary season, and we’re Consortium’s longest-serving musicians, we’ve selected our favourite pieces from those occasions, going back to concerts of the 1980’s. Our current stunning French two-manual harpsichord is a true concert instrument with a ravishing sound, a suitable partner to the flute’s silver sounds. 

Since this is an anniversary year, it is of interest to look briefly at the beginnings of Consortium Aurora Borealis. Our concert series was launched in Fall 1979 at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, with its very fine Baroque-style, mechanical-action pipe organ, of which we made great use. Our mission was, and remains, to educate while entertaining, which is why we like to programme historically and to give enlightening insights into the music when possible. We focussed on Mediaeval, Renaissance, and Baroque repertoire, complementing the music history course which I was teaching at Lakehead University and bringing live examples of those periods to light.

After six seasons it became apparent that we had outgrown the 150-seat church. Happily, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, or Thunder Bay National Exhibition Centre and Centre for Indian Art as it was called in those days, was able to accommodate our performances, seating up to 200. It remained our main venue from the mid-1980’s right up until the start of 2000, when we moved into St. Paul’s United Church, our present home.

We were excited beyond measure when our lovely two-manual Flemish harpsichord (now retired), built by David Jensen of Winnipeg, arrived in October 1985, after a mere year of earnest fundraising! We had just celebrated the 300th anniversaries of the births of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti, and decided it was most appropriate to engage virtuoso harpsichordist Eric Lussier to initiate our new instrument with a concert of music by those three Baroque masters of the keyboard. It was a big success! Lussier returned the following fall for a second solo concert, but then it was up to us to shine the spotlight on our stunning new harpsichord.

It was at that point that Doris Dungan and I decided to work as a team alongside this new instrument, and from September 26, 1987, it was our flute-harpsichord duo which heralded the start of each season. We continue that tradition with our present concert of music by Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Michel Blavet, Johanne Adolph Hasse, Jean-Marie Leclair, and Georg Philipp Telemann. Each piece was performed by us in those earlier years. Doris has continued appearing regularly with Consortium in the years that followed our Thunder Bay Art Gallery Days, performing music of many genres, from Baroque to the present day. I now invite Doris, this evening’s soloist, to share a few of her thoughts and insights:

My long association with Consortium Aurora Borealis, almost since its inception, has given me opportunity to perform a large selection of Baroque works, collaborating with harpsichord as the keyboard continuo instrument. What a delight and honour to play with accompaniment as it was originally heard! At this point I happily reminisce over many such occasions where I was surrounded by the lovely warm acoustic of St. Paul’s church and the welcoming Consortium audience, and look forward to another such experience.

My favourite unaccompanied solo work of the mid-18th century is the CPE Bach Sonata in A minor. The work begins with the mournful sound of solo flute in a minor key, which is beautiful and quite fitting. From the slow first movement the work moves on to two lively movements, a structure often employed by CPE Bach but rather uncommon otherwise. Throughout the work there are frequent leaps as the flute accompanies itself, and the listener will hear some unexpected changes of character and harmony as the piece progresses. 

CPE Bach spent 30 years as the lowest paid musician in flutist King Frederick the Great’s employ, constantly seeking but not finding work elsewhere. This is one of many works that CPE wrote for flute, although CPE’s role at the court was officially as accompanist. I just read that Frederick the Great was so invested in his music, he had a foldable or collapsible harpsichord designed to take with him on military campaigns. That’s dedication! Baroque music is notable in part for its ornamentation. We find that the French ornamentation of the period is somewhat different than the German, and both will be represented in this concert.  Most interesting in this regard are Telemann’s Methodical Sonatas, of which we will be playing one in C minor. In this set of works, Telemann provides both unornamented and ornamented melody versions for one slow movement of each sonata. It is a historical document truly worthy of comparison and study

The extremely prolific Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), godfather to Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, composed over 3,000 works. CPE Bach, like Telemann, spent time in Hamburg, eventually succeeding his godfather as music director of church music. Interestingly, his father Johann Sebastian had applied for this very position years before but had been rejected, ending up in Leipzig instead! CPE’s “Hamburger” sonata, with which we open our current concert, is the first that Doris and I ever performed together. I remember smiling at the sonata’s name at that time. The occasion was that of our costumed “Music at the Court of Frederick the Great” concert of February 20, 1982, held at our original home of Lakeview Presbyterian Church. It is very fitting that we begin tonight’s concert in this way.

CPE, born in 1714, was a progressive, even at times somewhat quirky composer, moving away from Baroque grandeur to a lighter, more experimental, early Classical style. It was after leaving the court of the conservative King Frederick the Great that he could become his own person artistically. He espoused the new “style galant”, which sought to please. His motto was to “touch the heart…awaken the passions” through his music. His compositions for flute are next in importance only to his keyboard works. His “Hamburger” flute sonata was written in 1786, two years before his death. The fact that it is in two movements (separated only by a very brief bridge), points to its later date.

Right at the outset we notice that the accompaniment is lighter, simpler harmonically, as it supports the melody. The use of repeated chords in the harpsichord, with fewer, much slower chord changes, is closer to the ideals of Classicism. The melodies are tastefully embellished, and soloist and accompaniment have more clearly-defined roles. We hear a filagree of rapid notes, with ornamental flourishes. Quick virtuosic passages in the uppermost region of the instrument reach a bit higher in range than in his previous flute sonatas. Great agility is required on the part of the soloist. All in all, this is a thoroughly charming, inventive work. It closes with a short, light-hearted, graceful rondo, whose rather four-square tune is rendered bouncy by acrobatic leaps by the flute.

CPE Bach was greatly admired by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, among others. In fact, Mozart famously said of him “Bach is the father, we are the children.” Brahms edited some of CPE’s music in the next century. CPE’s obituary, published in Hamburg in December 1788, said of him: “His compositions are masterpieces and will remain outstanding long after the modern rubbish has been forgotten. In him the art of music has lost one of its greatest adornments and the name of Carl Philiip Emanual will always be venerated.” Ironically, he was quickly forgotten, to be rediscovered in the twentieth century.

We move on to CPE’s illustrious father, who comes next on our programme. Over the years, Doris and I have performed five of the six flute sonatas composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach. We selected two movements from his gorgeous Sonata in E minor, BWV 1034, one of our favourites. This is the earliest piece on our programme chronologically; it was composed in 1724 when Bach was 39. We will play its two slow movements, numbers one and three.

The opening Adagio ma non tanto is harmonically rich and highly expressive, with long, flowing lines and drooping, sighing motives throughout. This melodic pattern continues without a break, and the flute player has barely an opportunity to draw breath. The key of E minor conveys a feeling of sorrow and grief, enhanced by the falling thirds which pervade in the melody. The bass line participates in this motif at times. The slow, but not too slow, tempo also contributes to the overall mood. It is a very gentle movement.

The third movement is a calm 56-bar Andante resolutely set in triple metre and is in the more hopeful key of G major. After a five-bar intro by the harpsichord, the flute enters with a languid, songlike melody. This moves calmly over a walking bass part of continuous, moderately-paced eighth notes, played by the harpsichord’s left hand. After a short cadenza, the flute returns briefly to the opening melody, but in a somewhat ornamented version. The lovely, liquid tone of the flute is shown to great advantage in this movement.

Michel Blavet’s Opus 2, consisting of six flute sonatas, was published in Paris in 1732, eight years after J.S Bach’s flute sonata on our programme. The volume carried an aristocratic dedication to “Madame La Duchesse de Bouillon”, born Princess of Lorraine. “L’Henriette” is the first in the set. Most of the sonatas include movements with fanciful French titles, as was common in French musical miniatures. Hence, we find “The Invincible, “The Elf”, “Tender Badinages”, and “The Regrets”. As well, many movements are specifically designated as dances: Allemanda, Sarabanda, Gavotta, etc.

A novel element is that Blavet, himself a virtuosic flute player, actually indicated in the score the places where breaths should be taken by the soloist. Ornaments are indicated by symbols throughout, as was customary. As to “L’Henriette”, the pattern of the four movements is slow-fast-slow-fast. The first and last movements are marked by an abundance of triplets, both in the flute part and in the left hand of the keyboard.

The piece starts with a nicely ornamented Adagio. Long-breathed lyrical phrases are embroidered with successions of triplets, with the harpsichord participating in the rhythmic action. A lively second movement, again with an active harpsichord part, moves on to the next movement, which gives this sonata its name.

This third movement is in rondeau form, with a recurring refrain, and consists of two Arias, the first a gracious dance. The second, in a minor key, presents a contrasting mood, with a more active second strain. We then return to the first with its major key. Once again, the harpsichord part is very active in spots. The jaunty final movement burbles along breathlessly in a virtuosic stream of quick triplets.

Michel Blavet, the most celebrated flute player of the first half of the eighteenth century, was praised for his virtuosity, beauty of tone, and impeccable intonation. He also specialized in the bassoon, and was self-taught. He held his flute to the left instead of to the right. His brilliant style of playing raised the popularity of the flute in France; previously, the instrument had been played in a more languorous manner, befitting a pastoral style of music. He espoused virtuosity and elegance.

Blavet, who lived from 1700 to 1768, was connected with the court of King Louis XV, and was principal flautist of the Paris Opera, where he played dramatic works by the great French composers Lully and Rameau. He was extremely popular, and was the most frequent soloist at Paris’s Concert Spirituel series. Telemann (with whom he played quartets), Quantz, and the French philosopher Voltaire all praised him. He turned down a prestigious appointment at the Prussian court of King Frederick the Great, preferring to remain in Paris. The position was subsequently accepted by Quantz, another virtuoso flautist. A contemporary wrote that Blavet’s flute playing was characterized by “a fresh burst of sparking light”, and so may we speak of Doris Dungan’s!

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was both a composer and a well-travelled virtuoso violinist, and founder of the French violin school. His brilliant performance style was characterized by precision and refinement. Looking at Leclair’s background beyond things musical, we are surprised to discover that he excelled at lacemaking; his father was a master lacemaker. He was also highly skilled at dancing, becoming principal dancer and ballet master at the Teatro Regio of Turin, Italy at the age of 25.

Leclair composed violin music almost exclusively, with a mere handful of theatrical works. He designated some of his violin sonatas as playable on the transverse flute, and Doris will accordingly perform sonata Opus 2, No. 5 on that instrument. This four-movement work from 1728 begins with a pleasantly paced, lyrical Andante. Next comes an Allegro with a continuous stream of triplets in both the solo line and the left hand of the keyboard. But there is constant alternating, so that the flute has the action in one half of the bar and the harpsichord in the other half, spelling each other off. A gracious Gavotta follows, and a light, dance-like movement in a quick triple time finishes off the sonata.

After the sweetness and light of Jean-Marie Leclair’s compositions and the glory of his performance style, it is a terrible shock to learn that he was violently and tragically murdered in the dead of night, stabbed to death in his ramshackle house, located in a dangerous quarter of Paris. He was sixty-seven years old. His body was discovered by his gardener in the morning. Suspicion rested on two family members, his nephew and his estranged wife, presumably for financial gain, but nothing was ever proved, and the murder forever remains an unsolved mystery!

This calls to mind the murder of an earlier Baroque composer in 1682. Alessandro Stradella was stabbed to death at the age of 38 in a piazza in Genoa by three paid assassins, whose sister he was presumed to have seduced. There had been a previous unsuccessful attempt on his life. Stradella had been a successful, influential composer, but had fallen into a dissolute life of embezzlement and seduction. Again, it was a matter of suspicions without proof.

We round off the evening with Telemann’s Methodical Sonata in C minor, of which Doris spoke earlier. Its final Allegro romps to a jolly conclusion! The eighteenth century saw the rise of the flauto traverso, or transverse, side-blown flute, otherwise sometimes known as the German flute. With its extended range and stronger, more forthright tone it supplanted the flauto dolce, as the recorder was called. Early flutes were wooden, usually of boxwood, ebony, or grenadilla, an exotic African wood, but could also be of porcelain, decorated with flowers, made by Meissen, Germany’s top manufacturer of that material. Modern flutes are usually made of silver, although other precious metals may sometimes be used (for example, Irish virtuoso fluteplayer Sir James Galway plays a golden, as well as a platinum flute). It is the transverse flute which we celebrate in our concert, as Doris Dungan enchants us with its magic!


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