Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dietrich Becker: Sonata And Suite In A Major

Sometime between 1980 and 1990, in Houston, before Ars Lyrica, before Ensemble Mercury, there was the old Houston Baroque Ensemble. We never had a web site (a what?) but for our last three years we had a subscription season, and we had a lot of fun.

In those days, gambist Robert Wayne Moss still lived in Texas. Back in his student days at Oberlin Conservatory, Wayne had little money for purchasing printed music, but he could afford staff paper, and he had a reasonably legible music script, so he spent his spare time sifting through the conservatory library for old 17th/18th-century manuscripts or published music (literally centuries out of copyright) that he thought he might find opportunities to perform... and copying them out by hand.

Forward a couple of decades. Wayne turned up at an HBE rehearsal with parts for a Sonate-Suite by 17th-century German composer Dietrich Becker, of Hamburg. In those days as in these, a musician was likely to find a lot of work in a cultural and commercial center like Hamburg (the better-known Georg Philipp Telemann was there for part of his career). Becker was a master of at least two crafts, virtuoso violin-playing and composition, and apparently made his living in the service of the Hamburg city council. From the wiki:
Little is known about Becker's musical education. His first position was as organist at Ahrensberg. In his second position, in the service of the Chapelle Ducale (Ducal Chapel) of the Duke Christian-Ludwig at Celle, he mainly devoted himself to the violin. In 1662 he settled in Hamburg as a violinist in the service of the Conseil de la Ville (City Council) and in 1667 he was named Maître de Chapelle (Chapel Master).

In 1668 Becker dedicated a collection of pieces entitled Musikalischen Frühlingsfrüchte (Musical Spring Fruit) to the mayor and members of the City Council. This collection consisted of chamber sonatas and suites for 3 to 5 voices with basso continuo. In 1674, his Zweystimmigen Sonaten und Suiten (Sonatas and Suites for Two Voices) was published.
(Aside: "Chapel Master" is a dubious translation of "Maître de Chapelle". "Conductor" might be slightly closer; "band leader" is also pretty close. So is "choir director." Google Translate punts and offers "Kapellmeister" as the English translation. Well, yes, but...)

(Another aside: "Zweystimmigen Sonaten und Suiten" does not translate as "for two voices," because titles in those days often counted only melody voices... the basso continuo, comprising one, two, three or even more bass-melody and chordal instruments, was often not counted, and when it was counted, it was counted as just one part, however many instruments performed from that one part on a given day. Go figure. But it wreaks havoc with the given translation.)

Houston Baroque Ensemble was thrilled with one of the Sonate/Suites suited to our instrumentation: melody parts for a violinist and a gambist (player of viola da gamba), both with a lot of facility; it's rather sprightly music!, and the accompanying basso continuo was well within my more modest harpsichord skills. Somewhere in a closet I still have the copied parts, but I scarcely need them to hear the piece in my mind's ear.

I couldn't find the exact work on YouTube, but there's a ton of Dietrich Becker out there, and this Sonate‑Suite in A Major from "Erster Theil zweystimmiger Sonaten and Suiten" is very similar in character. The artists are Parnassi Musici; their web site is a bit incomplete in the English-language version, but they really play superbly. Enjoy!



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