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Barsanti & Handel: Edinburgh 1742

Ensemble Marsyas, Peter Whelan (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: September 2016
North Leith Parish Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: August 2017
Total duration: 67 minutes 19 seconds

A recording centred on the thrusting activities of the eighteenth-century Edinburgh Musical Society, where composers—famous, infamous and obscure—could indulge the latest musical fashions.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The group is on ebullient form … brilliantly and effortlessly delivered … Ensemble Marsyas afford all due splendour' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

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This recording has one central focus—the Edinburgh Musical Society, which flourished in the city between its foundation in 1728 and dissolution in 1797—and five closely associated subsidiary themes: the still little-known Italian immigrant musician Francesco Barsanti, who spent eight years (1735-43) in its service and wrote some of his best music for its members; George Frideric Handel, whose music was unsurprisingly a mainstay of the society’s repertoire; the french horn, which enjoyed an extraordinary vogue (one might almost say a cult) in Britain during the eighteenth century; Scottish traditional music, which, on account of its enormous popularity among all classes both north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border following the Act of Union of 1707, made an important contribution to the ‘art music’ repertoire, both vocal and instrumental; the concerto genre, which in both its Roman (Corellian) and North Italian (Vivaldian) variants was the staple fare of theatre and opera orchestras, pleasure gardens, music societies, and public concerts alike.

To start by summarizing Barsanti’s career: born in Lucca c1690, he abandoned law studies at the University of Padua to become a musician, initially primarily an oboist. In 1717 he was briefly a candidate member of the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna before entering the service of the Duke of Massa and Carrara. He probably emigrated to London in 1723; he has been identified as the anonymous ‘Italian Master lately arriv’d from Italy’ who according to a press report performed a ‘Solo on the Hautboy’ on 4 April of that year. As a performer, Barsanti remained thereafter permanently in the background, never seeking the limelight. To make a living, he taught, made arrangements of music and, above all, worked as a music copyist, a profession that sometimes enabled him to smuggle his own compositions into whatever he was tasked with copying. In Britain he avoided serving a single employer, preferring to establish and where possible expand a geographically diverse support base of patrons (some, his pupils) for whom he could undertake remunerative work or who would subscribe to his publications. In 1725 Francesco Geminiani, the Italian violinist and composer, recruited him to join a Masonic lodge he had founded in London that specialized in musical recreation. This lodge was short-lived, but Barsanti seems to have maintained good relations with his fellow Lucchese, who later shared his keen interest in Scottish music.

Barsanti was briefly based at York around 1731-2. In June 1735 he accepted an invitation from the Edinburgh Musical Society to become a member of the small group of professional musicians guiding the activities of its members, who were all male and from the nobility and gentry residing permanently or seasonally in the city. As usual, he settled into the role of a factotum, even acquiring a set of timpani to play in the society’s orchestra, which boasted a large contingent of woodwind and brass players. He also renewed his Masonic activity (the Craft was strong among the society’s membership), joining the Canongate Kilwinning lodge. Before he returned to London in mid-1743, together with a Scottish wife, he had the opportunity to visit the Highlands and on one or two occasions also Ireland. His relations with the society remained amicable, and on occasion he acquired, copied or arranged music for it.

Barsanti’s second period in London was much like the first, except that he now played viola instead of oboe. At some point he briefly visited Holland, where he found new patrons and gained new musical inspiration. His lifelong interest in counterpoint and ‘ancient’ (or any kind of exotic) music drew him into like-minded circles in the Academy of Ancient Music and the Madrigal Society. He gradually became less active in the period preceding his death in 1775, but his actress daughter Jane (c1735-1795), to whom Charles Burney had earlier taught singing, had achieved sufficient success by that time to support him in his twilight years.

Barsanti left seven well-varied publications (discounting numerous arrangements of music by others): six recorder sonatas, Op. 1 (1724); six flute sonatas, Op. 2 (1728); a volume without opus number containing twenty-eight old scots tunes for unspecified treble instrument and bass; ten concerti grossi, Op. 3 (1743); nine overtures for four-part strings, Op. 4 (c1749); six motets (called antifone) for five or six voices with continuo, Op. 5 (c1760); and six trio sonatas for two violins and bass, Op. 6 (1769).

The publication entitled in full ‘A Collection of Old Scots Tunes with the bass for violoncello or harpsichord’ pointedly leaves the choice of treble instrument open. The compass fits violin, oboe, and (usually) Baroque flute equally well, and there is evidence that those who knew the words sometimes sang the tunes, perhaps self-accompanying at the keyboard. There is one respect in which the violin is ideal, however: the sensitive ornamentation, mostly trills and appoggiaturas, that Barsanti prescribes for the tunes can easily be made to resemble the kind of portamento or cantillation typical of vocal production in Scottish traditional music, and the violin has the edge over its competitors in this. Modern commentators have commended Barsanti’s settings for their fidelity to the folk melodies (where most contemporary arrangers of the same airs tended to iron out any features at variance with standard harmony and tonality). In fact, Barsanti, with his antiquarian leanings, which are given voice in his preface to the collection, valued the tunes precisely for their deviance from the norm. His basses are equally tasteful, being unfussy but sometimes attractively unusual in their harmonic implications. Whereas for other composers, even including Scottish ones such as James Oswald and William McGibbon (a violinist who served the Edinburgh Musical Society alongside Barsanti), one always senses that the national melodies are in the final analysis only malleable ‘raw material’, for the Italian they remain the inviolable centre of attention.

The four tunes selected for this recording, all in slow tempo, include two in the major (Lochaber, Busk ye) and two in the minor (Logan Water, The birks of Invermay). Each one illustrates the Scottish melos to perfection, employing a wide compass, an imaginative mixture of leaps and steps, capriciously diverse rhythms and many touches of pentatonicism.

The Concerti grossi, published in Edinburgh soon after the Old Scots Tunes, were an altogether grander affair. Barsanti secured 139 subscribers for them, mostly from the cream of Edinburgh society but including other patrons from Yorkshire and London. They were the first concertos ever published in Scotland, and the first published anywhere to include parts for timpani. The ten concertos subdivide into five scored for two horns, timpani, and strings, and five scored for trumpet, two oboes, and strings.

Concertos employing a pair of french horns (plus, usually, oboes) were a distinctively British subgenre combining the heritage of the German concertante suite with horns, for which movements 3-5 of the F major suite and 1-2 of the D major suite contained in Handel’s Water Music (1717) became the main reference point in succeeding decades, and that of the Italian concerto with obbligato wind instruments, as exemplified by Vivaldi’s many concerti con molti istrumenti. French horns, unlike the straight ‘English’ horns that preceded them, possessed a deep social resonance. In the eighteenth century they graduated, so to speak, from the forest to the house, the street, and the waterway. A pair of horn-playing servants was a desirable accoutrement for any nobleman or rich merchant. These would announce arrivals and departures, lead processions along the streets, provide music for banquets or ceremonies, and supply ‘water music’ for aquatic outings. Among these horn-players of the servant class (some of whom played alongside, or even themselves became, professionals), black musicians, many of them former house-slaves in America or the Caribbean, were especially prominent and widely esteemed for their expertise in this domain. But so great was the public’s fondness for the evocative sound of the horn that many amateurs of all classes (including members of the Edinburgh Musical Society) took up the instrument. Reminiscences of the humble horn duet, as heard in functional and recreational music, occur frequently in the episodic sections of Handel’s Water Music and its descendants: they constitute, in fact, a deliberate nod towards very familiar ambient sounds.

Barsanti’s five concertos with horns start with two in F major and end with three in D major, the horns being crooked accordingly. The co-option of timpani may surprise those who associate drums with trumpets alone, but during the eighteenth century the french horn enriched its existing melodic repertoire (which included, of course, hunting calls or figures resembling them) with many trumpet-like gestures. Indeed, these occur automatically whenever horns double trumpets an octave lower. So the addition of timpani, though fairly rare, would not have been thought incongruous.

Concerto 1 resembles J S Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 1 in appending, as a kind of envoi, a minuet pair to what would otherwise be an orthodox three-movement Vivaldian scheme. Its third movement imitates Handel by being in da capo (ABA) form. Concerto 2 varies the plan by opening with a moderately paced movement followed by a fugue; the third movement is an exquisite adagio, most of which is written as a canon ‘four in two’ (i.e., with canonic imitation of two separate lines). The closing movement is another minuet, the ‘trio’ to which features solo cello. Concerto 3 opens with a rhythmically intricate slow movement followed by a giga-like fast movement. A largo and a minuet pair bring up the rear. Exceptionally, concerto 4 adopts a three-movement design: it opens with a strikingly Vivaldi-like fast movement, continues with a slow movement and then moves immediately to the expected minuet pair. Concerto 5 starts with a moderately paced movement leading to a siciliana-like slow movement scored intimately for first horn and violins alone. The third movement, for strings in three parts, offers some tonal contrast, before a minuet—this time, with no alternate movement—ends the concerto and the first part of the collection in a blaze of martial glory.

The Handelian component in this recording comprises compositions employing a pair of horns in three different genres. The two-movement concerto in F major, HWV 331, is an arrangement by the composer of the concerto-like pair of movements opening the ‘second’ suite in D major of the Water Music. The change of key was clearly occasioned by the fact that in the Water Music the horns are junior partners to the trumpets, whereas in the new version the latter are absent. As usual, Handel was loath to recycle his material mechanically, and the alert listener will discover some attractive departures from the better-known version beyond the altered scoring and transposition. The date of HWV 331 is not yet definitively settled, but there is an emerging consensus that it was the ‘New Concerto for the French Horns’ performed at a public concert in March 1723.

French horns were among the ‘novelty’ instruments occasionally employed in an obbligato role in Italian opera from the early eighteenth century onwards, generally in connection with hunting imagery. Handel relished them, and there is in fact an apparently lost publication (listed as a possession by the Edinburgh Musical Society) of ‘Six French Horn Songs in 7 Parts’ by him published by John Walsh. His opera Alcina, premiered at Covent Garden in April 1735, contains in its third act an aria for Ruggiero, a role sung by the famous mezzo-soprano castrato Giovanni Carestini, in which a pair of horns in G are added to the strings. In this brilliant aria conveying the swift movement and exuberance of a hunt, the paladin confesses to Bradamante that he feels like a hunted tigress at a loss whether to emerge and fight or to stay by her threatened cubs (a metaphor for his betrothed).

The march for two horns, two oboes and bassoon, HWV 346, is written for a type of ensemble employing military bandsmen that the Hanoverians had brought to Britain from Germany, where it was extremely popular. This unpretentious movement is sometimes called the ‘March in Ptolemy’, having served as a conclusion to the overture of Handel’s opera Tolomeo (1729). The Edinburgh musicians very likely had access to it, since the record of their purchases shows that the collections of Handel overtures periodically brought out in London were especially sought-after items.

In London, Handel’s and Barsanti’s paths often crossed. The Italian copied out for his private archive a vast collection of chamber cantatas for soprano (today in Hamburg) that he could use to supply his customers, and several of these were by Handel. More significant is the two men’s collaboration in late 1743, shortly after Barsanti’s return from Scotland. Both men entered specially composed or arranged compositions into the same manuscript album of keyboard pieces and songs, today preserved in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana in Cologny-Geneva. It has been mooted that this album was hurriedly compiled for the musically very talented Princess Louisa, a former pupil of Handel, just before she left for Denmark to marry crown prince Frederik. Handel’s contribution was four short songs designed to show off the princess’s mastery of both singing and foreign languages (German, French, Italian, and Spanish), while Barsanti composed settings for voice and continuo of six racy French airs that form an interesting counterpart to the Old Scots Tunes, to which they may well have been conceived as a sequel. It appears that during the album’s compilation Barsanti may have had access to Handel’s extensive private library for the melody and texts of his airs as well as for a group of keyboard pieces by Rameau that he copied into it.

In contrast, however, the personalities of Handel and Barsanti were entirely different. Handel was always ruthlessly self-promoting, employing not only his supreme musical talent and versatility but also his privileged connection to the still largely German-speaking court to rise above his rivals, whereas Barsanti, described by his contemporaries as a timid man, was self-effacing to a fault. This recording gives listeners a chance to hear the two men side by side in a context where genre, instrumentation, and social function all overlap in various ways. Handel needs no special advocacy, but Barsanti will, I hope, win some new admirers as a result.

Michael Talbot © 2017

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