In the 17th and 18th centuries, those composers fortunate enough to find employment as court composers fulfilled a variety of roles beyond composing new repertoire. This usually involved managing all aspects of their noble patron’s secular and sacred musical requirements. They were also often expected to give musical instruction to improve the well-rounded education of their patron and their patron’s family. Musical interest and ability within the European nobility varied greatly, but if a patron proved proficient and was keen to invest in music, it could result in a worthwhile partnership. Key pedagogical sources demonstrate the master-pupil relationship between composer and nobility. Usually instructional in purpose, works might also stand alone as courtly performance works intended for private entertainment. Further study in this topic might explore how composers compensated for their employers’ lack of musical experience or technical aptitude whilst ensuring a musically cohesive and convincing work of entertainment.
The programme presented by Luisa Morales and Carole Cerasi in December’s concert explored the relationship between several composers and the Naples-born Infante Gabriel of Borbon, son of Charles III of Spain. Alongside other academic pursuits, Prince Gabriel had a keen interest in music and was a proficient keyboard player, owning seven harpsichords within a vast collection of musical instruments. This passion resulted in several dedications and patronages of Spanish composers, most notably within the works of Antonio Soler and Félix Máximo López.
A main feature of the performance explored duets for either two harpsichords or one keyboard-four hands. The former of these, represented by Soler’s Concertos No 1 and 3, directly pairs two instruments against each other. It might be expected that the principal part would have been played by the Prince with Soler on the “orchestral” accompaniment. The instruments selected for this did prove a good match, as the accompanying instrument, the Goerman-Taskin, has a considerably beefier sound to its bass providing a depth of sound, evoking a tutti orchestral texture. Throughout both concertos, although not greatly virtuosic, more daring risks could have been taken to bring out the dramatic character of the solo and orchestral conversations, especially in faster movements.
Due to unfortunately wintery conditions in Edinburgh, the performers had to compromise on their choice of instrument. They had intended on using two 18th-century harpsichords built in London by Robert Falkener and Burkat Shudi, but these were unfortunately proving temperamental in rehearsal. Instead two staples of the University of Edinburgh’s museum collection were used: a green-cased 1769 Taskin harpsichord and the Goerman-Taskin Harpsichord 1764/83-84 with exotic red, gold and black oriental-styled casing.
Alongside these duets, both performers took solo repertoire on the 1769 Taskin. Manuel Blasco de Nebra’s Pastorela VI in E minor was a fleeting insight into a lesser-known composer with much harmonic expression in the Adagio opening and allowing for Cerasi to employ a lute stop on the Taskin harpsichord for the minuet. In contrast, Soler’s solo works might have varied in musical interest for a listening audience but only highlight how certain sonatas were crafted for the performer to enjoy alone as the intended sole recipient. Morales performed sonatas in F-sharp minor and G major. These works had a Mediterranean flavour with hints of tarantellas and similar Italian folk dances, no doubt reminiscent of Prince Gabriel’s Neapolitan roots.
The concert concluded with Morales’s double harpsichord transcription of Boccherini’s Fandango from the D major Guitar Quartet, G448. Originally composed for string quartet augmented by a solo guitar, this arrangement really did add much needed spice to the overall programme. Although relatively simple in composition, the work is a set of variation over a static harmony, like a chaconne. This allows for a real study in rhythmic interplay with dramatic scalic gestures and snappy riffs, imitative of ratting castanets. This transcription worked well for harpsichords, again bringing out the real power of the resonant lower compass, and proved an uplifting, hypnotic conclusion to the evening.
This performance also marked a welcome return to The Georgian Concert Society’s spiritual home of St. Cecilia’s Hall. Built in 1762, it is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall and provides an authentic acoustic for historical performances. Reopening after a major refurbishment and restoration project, it houses the University of Edinburgh’s Museum of Musical Instruments, incorporating the Russell and Mirrey Collections of Early Keyboard Instruments. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm.
The third performance of the Georgian Concert Society 2017 – 18 season took place on 9th December at St. Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh.