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Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714)

VI Sonate

Rodolfo Richter (violin)
Download only
Recording details: November 2001
St Michael's Church, Highgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: November 2005
Total duration: 70 minutes 44 seconds

Here is the debut solo album from Rodolfo Richter, who, having first been trained as a modern violinist with Klaus Wusthoff and Pinchas Zuckermann, has then turned to the baroque violin, getting to perform with most of Britain's leading period ensembles. He is accompanied by the award-winning ensemble, Palladians and versatile cellist Alison McGillivray.


'Richter plays them with virtuosity and expressive warmth' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'This is an excellent recording of some truly delightful music' (Early Music Review)» More

'As you would expect of these musicians, the performances are virtuosic, carefully crafted interpretations with a fine sense of ensemble and period style. Such accomplished musicianship effortlessly evokes the spirit and allure of this consistently captivating music. Entirely enchanting' (Sunday Herald, Scotland)» More

The story of Baroque music is filled with tragedies, might-have-beens and fable-like tales of lost masterpieces. Philip Heinrich Erlebach (1657-1714) became an example of the latter variety, when in 1735 most of his compositions were destroyed in a fire at the court library in Rudolstadt—leaving only 70 of his 1000 or so original works. Despite this tragedy, his surviving music attests to his greatness and wide-ranging talents.

Born into a well-connected family in 1657 in the East Friesland town of Esenz, Erlebach obtained his first post in Thuringia in 1678 and quickly rose to the position of Kapellmeister at the court of Count Albert Anton von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt—a post he retained for 33 years. During this time he made valuable contributions to almost every popular genre of the time—especially oratorios, of which none survive. Not only did Erlebach have a tremendous reputation as a composer, but he was also very highly regarded as a teacher and his works were often held up as models to be followed. One of J. S. Bach’s pupils, Johann Casper Volger, was only one of many musicians to learn the rudiments of composition from Erlebach.

The bulk of his musical output was sacred cantatas, follwed by secular vocal works, operas and instrumental works. As was typical of a provincial Kapellmeister, most of Erlebach‘s music remained in manuscript. However, he did manage to publish several important collections: a collection of cantatas Gott-geheiligte Singe-Stunde (Rudolstadt, 1704), a collection of arias Harmonische Freude musicalischer Freunde (Nuremburg 1697, R/1710), as well as two collections of instrumental works, six overtures and six trio sonatas (Nuremburg) in 1693 and 1694 respectively.

Despite his emphasis on vocal music he did compose around 120 instrumental works, of these only six suites, a single march, and the six sonatas recorded here survive. Printed in Nürnberg in 1694, the original title-page reads:

VI. / SONATE / à / Violino e Viola da Gamba col suo Basso Continuo, / che si possono pratticar anche a due Violini, /essendovi à tal fine aggiunta la Parte / del Violino secondo. / Di / FILIPPO HENRICO ERLEBACH, Maestro di Capella della Sa. Eza. il Signore Conte di Schwartzburg / à Rudelstadt. / Stampate in Noriberga / Alle Spese di Guolfgango Maurizio Endter. / MDC XCIV.

While these sonatas were clearly intended for violin, viola da gamba and continuo, the title page states that the gamba can be replaced by a second violin and a separate part was originally included, complete with alterations to accommodate the violin. In earlier examples of music for violin, viola da gamba and continuo (such as Merula and even Frescobaldi) the gamba part is often a by-product of the continuo part. Such examples (and there are many more) lend weight to the notion that sonatas for this combination grew out of the two-part texture of violin and continuo with a gamba doubling the continuo part; and over time the gamba part gained more and more independence. Even contemporaries of Erlebach, such as J. P. Krieger on his 12 Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and continuo (1693) and Buxtehude on his 7 Sonatas for violin, viola da gamba and continuo (1694), still only composed semi-independent gamba parts. In the case of Erlebach, however, the three parts are truly independent and the gamba part is indispensable.

Not every sonata in this collection is for violin, gamba and continuo per se; sonatas Terza, Quarta and Sesta each have an additional feature on the violin part, and each of these features has something of interest. In sonatas Terza and Quarta, Erlebach employs something called scordatura, that is, a deliberate mistuning of the instrument. Most commonly, the instrument is re-tuned so that the open strings sound the primary notes of the tonic key. There are many reasons for using scordatura. One reason is to add a particular kind of bright resonance that comes from using open strings, but yet another reason is to add a puzzling layer of obscurity to further contribute to the element of mystery surrounding the arts of composing and performing. Sonata Sesta utilises the violino piccolo, which, as the name implies, is a little violin that sounds an octave higher than notated.

The combination of violin, viola da gamba and continuo was extremely popular in the second half of the seventeenth century, in part because those two solo instruments were among the most popular choices for both virtuosi and amateurs of the age. Although called ‘sonatas’, many might recognise these pieces more as suites—an introductory movement (or two) followed by short pieces adhering to binary dance forms. This type became known by the name sonata da camera to distinguish it from the type more often associated with the church (da chiesa)—although any distinctions in terms of performance location became somewhat blurred. The sonata da camera form was particularly prevalent in Germany and central Europe, with Schmeltzer, Biber, D. Becker and J. Schenk among its better-known proponents, but still owing something to earlier Italian pioneers such as Legrenzi, Vitali and Corelli.

Already during the late seventeenth century, German composers sought to integrate Italian and French elements and ‘improve’ them with the German knack for counterpoint and balance. The absence of a single dominant national characteristic in these pieces makes them particularly attractive. The opening movements of sonatas Prima and Seconda being perhaps the most ‘German’, with their tightly-wrought imitative counterpoint unfolding a short theme; or in some cases, the opening adagio subsequently dissolves into a faster imitative section with sturdy themes featuring regular rhythmic patterns and even some rather flamboyant Italianate passagework (such as sonatas Terza, Quinta and the second movement of Sonata Prima). On the whole, the dance movements are less French in style than in similar works by some of Erlebach’s contemporaries, but they still retain key characteristics. The Allemande movements, unlike the opening movements, lack much genuine imitative counterpoint, but rather the two solo parts exchange interdependent rhythmic motifs over the slower moving basso continuo, helping to achieve the equivalent of detailed decoration on a broad façade. One of the principle characteristics of the French Courante is retained; the feeling of the metre changing between triple and duple. Erlebach also uses the chordal capabilities of the gamba in the Courante movements to punctuate these perceived changes (particularly sonatas Prima and Terza). Several of the Sarabandes have a folk-like quality, with a single melodic subject often harmonised in parallel thirds; this device draws attention to the theme itself, making subsequent variations all the more engaging. The compositional device of imitation (so prevalent in the opening movements) returns again the final Gigue sections and this time even the basso continuo takes part.

Erlebach was well-aware of this conflagration of national styles, encouraging readers of his VI Ouvertures (1693) to seek out and incorporates styles ‘of foreign peoples…by diligently perusing, hearing, practising and considering the things they communicate to us in respect of each art’, adding that the goal ought to be to ‘penetrate their strange manners and take note of their artifices and thereby justify ourselves of the same afterwards’. Nonetheless, Erlebach, like most composers of his day, put Italian art first. He even went so far as to apologise for the use of the German language in the VI Sonatas (1694), lamenting that ‘the publisher presumably had to hurry the work through the press and my score, from which everything was to be corrected with precision, had arrived somewhat late in Nuremburg, some mistakes contrary to the Italian dialect slipped into the titles in which, instead of Allemande, Courante, Saraband, Variatio and Gigue, should have appeared Allamanda, Corrente, Sarabanda e Variata and Giga’.

Robert Rawson 2005

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