Partita for Baroque Ensemble


The early music performance movement has produced some of the most exciting and adventurous music-making I've heard in recent years.  Though their work is rooted in the historical study of performance practice, early music players bring to their work a willingness to experiment and a sense of spontaneity and improvisational freedom that feels wonderfully fresh and healthy.  Like a number of other composers, I have felt the desire to write new music that draws upon the skills and sensibilities of such musicians.  Inevitably, perhaps, my inclination has been to find points of connection between the Baroque tradition and American popular music and jazz, with its own improvisational tradition.

Like many Baroque suites, this partita is based on French dance forms.   As I wrote the music, I studied models from Baroque masters, and their influence can be traced here.  But American dance rhythms are also felt, especially in the later movements.

The performance recorded here was the premiere, with Arthur Haas conducting the Stony Brook Baroque Ensemble, in Spring 2001.

I. Praeludium. Here the members of the band are introduced, at first in duets and then in recitative-like solos. The style was inspired by such 17th-century composers as Biber and Monteverdi.   The stately chords that frame the episodes will return at the end of the Chaconne, and are the thematic source for much of the rest of the work.

II. Sarabande Grave was the first movement I wrote, shortly after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  It has an elegaic tone.  The double, a variation for solo violin, is also a memorial to Mitchell Stern, the beloved teacher of all the violinists in the ensemble, who passed away unexpectedly in April 2001.

III. Gigue.  This mischievous movement begins with Stravinsky-like rhythmic games, but gathers momentum and sounds more and more like an Irish jig as it goes on.


IV. Courante  The sackbut intones a long-breathed melody in the stately 3/2 rhythm of a French court dance.  But in the repeats, the Gigue is superimposed as a Quodlibet, creating jazzy polyrhythms that act to subvert the dignity of the Courante.

V. Chaconne.  The final movement was inspired by the grand chaconnes of such French masters as Lully, Rameau, and Louis Couperin.  Like many French chaconnes, it is not based on a single ground bass but on a series of related bass patterns.  It begins as a Rondeau, with the initial phrase (which bears a resemblance to the beginning of the Sarabande Grave) returning as a refrain after each couplet.  But then the music breaks out of such formal confines, with frequent shifts of meter and tempo (suggested by the keyboard chaconnes and passacaglias of Frescobaldi).  The shifts become more frequent and disruptive, and the solo harpsichord begins to interject passages of intense chromaticism.  This provokes a frenzied outburst by the entire ensemble, which is suddenly cut short, leaving the solo viola all alone to repeat the bass-line, which gradually dissolves into a vague chord.  The flute, echoing its recitative from the first movement, helps the viola re-establish order, and soon the whole band joins in.  In the closing moments, the chords of the Praeludium form a broad, syncopated melody, a peroration which brings the music to an optimistic conclusion.

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