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EXPLORING MUSIC :The Doctor is In, or: "Musical Cookery"

The MHS Review 387 Vol. 11 No.9, 1987

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Frank Cooper


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The great Charles Burney, MusD (therefore known as "Dr. Burney"), studied under Thomas Arne (known as "Dr. Arne") and composed, among other things in his life of 88 years, an anthem so fine that C.P.E. Bach (not a "Dr.") was to conduct it himself in far-­off Germany. Moreover, Dr. Burney played both the organ and harpsichord professionally, had two wives (suc­cessively, of course), lived in Sir Isaac Newton's former house, and (coinciden­tally) died on his own birthday, April 12. But we remember him for other reasons.

Sometime in the 1750s Dr. Burney had a whopping idea: to write a General History of Music, nothing of the kind having been done in English. He did it, in four big books published between 1776 (when the Americans were in fer­ment) and 1789 (when the French were in ferment). Face-to-face interviews with the most distinguished musicians of the age in seven countries provided materials galore for his high-styled ac­counts and lively opinions. Samuel Johnson ("Dr." Johnson to you, me, and everybody else) called Burney, admir­ingly, "a clever dog."

Writing about Francesco's Gemi­niani's Concerti Grossi, op. 3 (which ap­peared in 1733), Dr. Burney said that they established their composer's character "and placed him at the head of all masters then living." Burney was no man's fool. He knew an original talent when he met one.

The Englishman found the Italian's music to be a trifle "wild" (it does move from key to key quite freely). He notic­ed, too, how Geminiani based his con­certi on earlier works, often elaborating a simpler original through a process the Doctor adroitly termed "musical cookery.'' (These tantalizing tidbits are unusually full-textured, often intricate­ly contrapuntal, and harmonically rich.) Burney thought they showed their com­poser's "skill in diversifying his parts." Diverse they surely are!

Concerto no. 2 features a four-part fugue, no. 3 a canonic finale, no. 4 a dramatic Adagio, no. 5 a whirlwind se­quence of modulating cadences--to make our ears perk up. Every movement of each concerto has individual touches of quirky inspiration that announce their maker's uniqueness. Surprises abound. Nothing humdrum here!

Kate Eckersley, who wrote the album notes, observes: "The relentless pace and twisting harmonic movement of these pieces sometimes receive addi­tional impetus from the emphatic repeti­tion of a motive, in the manner of Domenico Scarlatti.'' She also tells us that Charles Avison (who was not a "Dr.") regarded Geminiani as "a model of perfection." That is no wonder, since Avison (who studied with Geminiani) was the clever dog who concocted his concerti grossi from the Scarlatti harp­sichord sonatas! Avison's pieces are lots of fun. Six of them can be heard on an excellent earlier release (MHC 673 lX/MHS 4731 W). Together with Geminiani's concerti they make happy companions at the turntable.

Since Geminiani was a superb violinist he wrote very well for the strings. Only the best players could do him justice--­and that still holds true today. The Society offers this music to its members through the quicksilver finesse of an unbeatable team, violinist Jaap Schroder and harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood, with the Academy of Ancient Music. Hear the release and you will know just how right the good Dr. Burney was.

Review of Francesco Geminiani The Six Concerti Grossi OP. 3 pg 9

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