Missing Music? the Baroque Concerto in Bohemia

By Kapsa, Vaclav | Czech Music, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Missing Music? the Baroque Concerto in Bohemia


Kapsa, Vaclav, Czech Music


From the very beginning of the "invention" of the history of Baroque music in Bohemia, instrumental music proved a particularly thorny problem for its chroniclers. The basic problem was a lack of sources: for the period of the first third of the 18th century especially, not only was the music itself missing, but even mere reports of it in period inventories or other written records. Yet this was a time when new court Kapellen were formed and not long afterwards musicians and composers emigrating from the Bohemian Lands were to become famous in almost all the important musical centres of Europe, often precisely for their symphonies and concertos. Today more sources have come to light, but there is still a problem with their relevance, because while the work of composers coming from Bohemia but working abroad may be held to belong to the history of Czech music, in many cases it does not tell us much about the situation in the Bohemian Lands themselves. On the other hand, some light can be thrown on that situation by sources surviving only abroad that at first sight have little to do with the Bohemian Lands.

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Despite the lack of sources, the first Czech music historians generally believed that instrumental music had been abundantly played and composed in the Bohemian Lands, but later authors tended more to the view that at the least in the particularly obscure first third of the 18th century the conditions were not favourable for the independent development of instrumental music there. This was a period dominated by the concerto, which overflowed like a great flood from its native Italy and inundated all Europe. The new musical genre found immediate responses especially in the work of German composers. Yet what was the specific effect in the case of their Bohemian colleagues? And which works actually fall into this as yet unwritten chapter of the history of Baroque music in Bohemia? This article is an attempt to pose these questions and to sketch out answers.

Over the Alps to the North--the Ways by which the Venetian Solo Concerto Spread

It is no accident that the cradle of the solo concerto was Venice, which abounded with opera companies, and that the two men who were the most important of the many godfathers at the birth of the concerto were at the same time successful operatic composers. This was because the ritornello structure of the fast movements typical for the Italian concerto developed throughout the 17th century in parallel in instrumental music and in the aria. The solo concerto gradually emerged from a whole range of sources to crystallise around 1700 in the music of Tommaso Albinoni, among others. The form was then refined by his Venetian colleague Antonio Vivaldi, and through Vivaldi's works it spread to the countries north of the Alps at the turn of the first two decades of the 18th century, not just becoming fashionable, but for a time seizing first place in the perceived hierarchy of forms of instrumental music--a place from which it was only to be dislodged by the symphony around the mid 18th century.

Concertos initially spread directly from Italy through hand written copies, but soon Amsterdam and later Paris and London became important as centres for the production of printed music and trade in it. In this context, Vivaldi's collection L'estro armonico op. 3 published in Amsterdam in 1711, is usually considered to have played a major role in the dissemination of the basic principles of the new form of the instrumental concerto. The collection won widespread popularity immediately after publication, but it is clear that Vivaldi's compositions were known and performed in Germany before that date. Travelling musicians and music-loving travellers were also very important for the dissemination of printed and transcribed music. For example, the Prince of Weimar Johann Ernst, an enthusiastic admirer of modern concertante music who had himself composed solo concertos at a young age, brought many of these pieces from the Netherlands. …

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