Thursday, June 16, 2011

my favorite piece of classical music

I forget about it, often for years at a time. I first heard it on one of the college radio stations around Oakland, and I thought it was modern; but no, it's from the 1600s. Most music from the 1600s is recognizably Baroque: even Bach, for all his world-turning genius, was a solidly Baroque composer and didn't go too wildly off that track. I listen to Telemann, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Handel, and appreciate their talents, but I perceive them as lesser masters of Bach's art.

This thing just kills me, though. Antonio Bertali should be one of those generic Baroque composers, but his Ciaccona for Treble Instrument and Continuo is just something...other. The violin just dances and skips off the continuo underneath. First it's just fun, but then come the rhythm changes, and then the key changes, and then a bunch of stuff that sounds almost like jazz, with lots of accidentals (notes not in the main key of the piece). If you're not a musician, you can just tell that it doesn't sound 400 years old. But we never hear about it.

It turns out the chacone was a popular form--Bach did one, quite striking in his Bach-like way, but not leaping ahead to modernity like Bertali's. To confirm that Bertali's Ciaconna really is that much of an outlier, I went and listened to a bunch of Ciaconnas by other contemporary composers, all using the same basic themes and melody.

If you're impatient, here's the Bertali, in all its awesomeness.

Here's the ensemble L'Arpeggiata doing Cazzati's Ciaccona, with the same rhythm/bass/melody.

Here's L'Arpeggiata again, performing the Bertali. Notice how much less comfortable they look--maybe they didn't rehearse it as strongly, but it's also a much trickier piece to play.

Here is Tarquinio Merula's Ciaccona.

A bit jumpier and more off-beat than we usually think of for Baroque music, but still not quite as off the beaten trail as Bertali's.

Here's Kapsberger's (don't worry, I hadn't heard of him either). Same rhythm, bass, and melody, all a bit more buried.

Nope, it really is that awesome. Just for fun, here's L'Arpeggiata again, with the original lyrics:

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