Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) presented a return visit by the historical instrument ensemble Quicksilver. Co-directed by violinists Robert Mealy and Julie Andrijeski, this group has taken a particularly diverse approach to instrumentation. Lower-register melodic work was taken by Greg Ingles on trombone, Dominic Teresi on dulcian, and David Morris on gamba, the latter also contributing to the continuo when necessary. That continuo was also taken by Avi Stein, doubling on both harpsichord and organ, and Charlie Weaver on both theorbo and lute.
Quicksilver is a group that appreciates the value of packaging when offering unfamiliar music. For their last SFEMS visit in March of 2014, they titled their program The Early Moderns, describing the works to be performed as “extravagant and inventive new music” from seventeenth-century Italy and Germany. This time the title of the program was The (very) First Viennese School, the intention being to mark the rise of Vienna as a major center for making music.
The notes for the program book by Andrijeski and Mealy mark the beginning of that rise as the year 1619, when Ferdinand II succeeded his childless cousin Matthias as Holy Roman Emperor and established his court to Vienna. Ferdinand wished to distinguish Vienna as a cosmopolitan city with a sophisticated taste for the arts; and, where music was concerned, this involved bringing in some of the finest talent from Italy. In 1622 he married Eleonora Gonzaga, who had known Claudio Monteverdi in Mantua; and in 1638 Monteverdi would dedicate his eight book of madrigals to Ferdinand.
If the Vienna of the first decades of the seventeenth century had a “school of thought” under Ferdinand’s support, that “school” was one on the interplay of virtuoso practices among multiple instruments. The term “sonata” refers simply to music that is played on instruments, rather than sung, the latter being named by the terms “cantata” and “canzona,” although the latter could be applied to instrumental music with song-like qualities. Thus, in 1615 Giovanni Gabrieli published a collection entitled Canzone e Sonate, whose compositions involved the rich interleaving of polyphonic voices.
Most of yesterday’s program also consisted of sonatas and canzonas, written for two, three, four, and five voices. The composers were both Italian and German, but their respective approaches all involved the elegant interplay of multiple voices. This tended to take the form of imitation enhanced with embellishment. While this music may have been written down prior to performance, the migration of thematic material from one instrument to another always had a spirit of spontaneity. As a result the practices of early sixteenth-century Vienna anticipate those later taken on by jazz improvisations involving the exchange of solos of pre-set length (known as “trading fours,” “trading eights,” or even “trading twos”).
However, not all of those early Viennese themes were patterns with even lengths of measures. These could play out to more extended durations, almost as if a statement by one instrument would serve as a taunting challenge to another. The lengths may never have exceeded those of John Coltrane’s wildly extensive free associations; but, to the attentive listener, they were more than adequate for building up feelings of suspense regarding what would happen next.
Because the names of the composers on yesterday’s program were, for the most part, unfamiliar, there is no real need to enumerate them. As is the case with jazz, it was the making of music by the performers that stands above whose music it originally was. This was an afternoon of lively and absorbing conversations through music, and the engagement was almost entirely through the skillful techniques of performance rather than the inventions of the composers that enabled those techniques.
Nevertheless, there was one “intruder” from outside of Ferdinand’s court that made an appearance yesterday afternoon. That “intruder” was Johann Sebastian Bach. Faced with the opportunity to play the pipe organ in St. Mark’s, whose design reflected in many ways the instruments that had been available to Bach (including the absence of any swell boxes to control the loudness of ranks of pipes), Stein could not resist the urge to depart from the positive organ on the altar and take the bench of the church’s own organ. There he performed the BWV 582 passacaglia in C minor, working through both the variations and the concluding fugue with that same spirit of almost improvisatory spontaneity that had distinguished all of the other works on the program, thus reminding listeners of the “founding traditions” from which Bach’s music emerged.