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Early Music

On Stradella’s Sinfonia #12 for Violin

What does it mean to have a basso ostinato pattern of thirteen whole note measures? How are the measures grouped? Is there ambiguity that lends interest? How do the cellist and harpsichord gain so much pleasure, in fact, receive ineffably profound emotions in playing the same thirteen whole notes 26 times? (Once for the “theme” and then again, for 25 variations.)

The first four measures consist of a “stock” cadential pattern. The word cadence comes from the Latin word for “falling”. In speech, the cadence is the falling inflection of the voice, as at the end of a sentence. In music, very often there is some subtle slowing up at the cadence. Without the subtle changes in tempo occasioned by expressiveness and meaning, music sounds like a click-track on a pop recording.

This is one of the places where baroque music (performed by real humans, and not synthesizers), breathes with life.

What seems to be made up of fixed patterns, gets burnished and shines with inner light when performed with sensitivity. Baroque, after all, means not the same way each time. Ornaments are not just little trills (or thrills, if you will). Meter and breathing meter can be ornaments, as well as the spaces between the notes, which can (and should) vary endlessly.

In this piece, you will hear microscopic changes in tempos and falling-away cadences and differences as great as microbes seen under microscopes in well-performed baroque music.

This first pattern is quite strong — primal, perhaps, as it consists of the root note (tonic) its dominant (a relationship like sun and earth, or rather earth’s attraction but repulsion from the sun), then the dominant’s dominant (like the earth and moon), and back to the dominant. This is not the original “key”. A new key has been set. We have been moved, literally and figuratively.

The next pattern is bars 4 through 7, or 4 through 9. Why 4? Because 4 is the end of a cadential pattern, and the beginning of a step-wise exploration of bass line, whose travel is unknown, unguessable, surprising, but ending, in measure 9, at the same note (the dominant) that the pattern started on.

In measure 10 something amazing happens. A new note, a new chord, in C even, a majestic noble key. It is related to the original note, but on top of it a chord is constructed in quite a different universe as the tonic first note. This note starts the conclusory cadential chord progression of 4 notes. It seems a big truncated — it seems to want to be more measures — this gives the ending of the pattern a sense of ambiguity, even though it is clearly a cadential formula.

It is the measure 4 though measure 9 adventure/investigation that has to much experience or wisdom to express to us, and gives the piece its depth. The challenge of ostinatos or ground basses for the composer is to overlay originality and unexpectedness on the ground. Grounded yet not grounded, you might say.

In the violin part, listen for those little details in the variations – figurative notes going down rather than up within measures that give it the meaning that comes with experience.

Or the relationship of notes between the end of a measure to the beginning of the next which further create instability, vibrancy, and poignancy. Through these little details come hugely experienced and intense emotional meaning.

The expressing of musical ambiguities, and thereby, the moving of the human heart is the work of a composer and of ourselves as human beings. Doing it with the grace, subtlety and impact with very small changes as Alessandro Stradella does in in this Sinfonia is why Stradella has given us a gift for the ages.

— Laurie Israel
July 6, 2003


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