Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Although music history tends to focus on the Baroque composers who devoted their lives to music as a profession, such as Antonio Vivaldi or Johann Sebastian Bach, the era also produced many amateur musicians who were nevertheless skilled at writing music. One such composer is Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739). A member of a noble family in Venice, Marcello studied the law and served in the Venetian government before becoming the Provveditore of Pola, a city in modern-day Croatia that was then under Venetian rule. His interest in music was more than a hobby, however; he studied composition with Francesco Gasparini, one of the leading Italian composers of the day. Marcello was prolific, composing music both sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental, for solos and ensembles. He also penned a satirical pamphlet Il teatro alla moda (“The Fashionable Theater”), poking fun at what he perceived to be ridiculous trends in opera culture. Though his observations are rooted in his own era, much Marcello’s biting sarcasm transcends time and translation. For example: “In the first place, the modern Poet should not have read and should never read the ancient Authors, Latin or Greek. And this is because the ancient Greeks or Latins have never read the moderns.”
As is often the case for amateur (and even some professional) musicians of the time, documentation of Marcello’s compositions is sloppy. His collection of Six Sonatas for Violoncello and Basso Continuo was published in Amsterdam in 1732 as opus 1, implying that it was the first work that he had published. However, a set of twelve concertos was also published as his opus 1 back in 1708. Further confusing matters, the same six sonatas were published in London, also in 1732, but as Marcello’s opus 2. In any case, the second sonata in this collection is his Cello Sonata in E minor. Although originally composed for cello and continuo—that is, an accompanying keyboard instrument such as the harpsichord, coupled with a low instrument like a bassoon to reinforce the bass line—the flexibility of performance practice in the Baroque era makes this arrangement for viola and piano well in the spirit of the composer’s day. Being from Venice, Marcello’s music has much in common with his more famous contemporary, Vivaldi, with long lines built from sequences, or a short, repeated phrase with each succession starting on a different pitch.
The four movements of the sonata follow the pattern of a traditional sonata da chiesa, or “church sonata,” alternating slow-fast-slow-fast. Despite the name, by this point church sonatas were no longer limited to use in worship services and were often performed as entertainment. The Adagio is a plodding processional, with dotted rhythms (that is, a pattern of “long-short”) conveying a sense of unhurried regality. The ensuing Allegro is nimble, with wide leaps and several fiddling techniques such as rapid string crossings. Unlike the other movements of the sonata, which are in E minor, the Largo is in G major, creating a hopeful mood as the melody slowly unfolds through a rolling triple meter. Finally, the Allegretto dashes off a feisty dance called a gigue. Even after the phrases arrive at their cadences, the music continues for several measures, as though it has to burn off excess energy..