Musical history quiz: What ensemble gave the American premiere of Handel’s Messiah? And of Haydn’s The Creation? And Verdi’s Requiem?
Surprisingly, the answer to all three of these questions is the same — the Boston-based Handel and Haydn Society. Founded in 1815, it is widely considered America’s oldest continuously performing arts organization.
In 1986, its then-music director, Christopher Hogwood, decided to capitalize on that history by turning the ensemble into a period-instrument orchestra. While it sometimes ventures outside its comfort zone by collaborating with jazz greats, H&H specializes in playing music composed during its first decades of existence — and doing so in a manner the composers would understand and appreciate.
Recently, I discussed the group’s mission with concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. The British Columbia native will lead the ensemble when it makes its Santa Barbara debut in a concert presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The program features music of the Italian baroque, including Vivaldi’s well-known The Four Seasons.
Do you feel the weight of tradition when you perform with this group? Yes, and it’s a great one. This organization is part of an unbroken tradition of music from the baroque era. There’s a feeling among all the players in the group that we are part of something that’s very special.
One reason the group’s founders called it “Handel and Haydn” was to indicate they would present music by old masters like Handel and by young, unproven whippersnappers like Haydn. I love the idea that Haydn’s music was considered a newfangled thing. In that tradition, we approach the music that we play as if it were just composed. We try to dive inside it and bring it to life as though the ink were still wet on the page. We use instruments from the time period of the composer that we’re working on. We play on either original instruments from the 18th century or on modern copies. My violin was made in 1746 in Barcelona.
How does your violin differ from a modern one? There are actually several small differences that add up to giving the instrument a fairly different tone color when it’s played. The body of the instrument — that distinctive violin shape — is not at all different. The materials used — like for the strings, which, in the 18th century, were made from sheep intestines — those are different. Since the Industrial Revolution, violin strings have been made from various types of metal. The bridge is a completely different shape than on a modern violin. It’s higher and thinner. The tailpiece is also different.
In Bach’s time, the bow was shorter and lighter, and it had an outward curve — much more like the bow of a bow and arrow. With a lighter bow, it’s easier to play fast notes, and it’s easy to make certain kinds of very emphatic articulation. It’s not easy to hold very long notes, but baroque composers didn’t write notes you hold forever. So the machinery we’re using is definitely connected to the sound world that the composers were working in.
That explains why period-instrument performances tend to be faster and crisper. Do you believe that’s the sound the composers were aiming for? I wish I knew. All I’m able to do is make educated guesses. I try to educate myself by doing a lot of research — looking at paintings from the time, learning about the culture, reading musical criticism of the time, and studying the entire output of a composer in an attempt to get inside their head.
Vivaldi gave you some clues to his thinking in The Four Seasons, didn’t he? Nice clues! The four concertos come with four poems, one for each season. There’s some debate about who wrote them; possibly it was Vivaldi himself. He definitely wrote descriptive phrases he inserted above the music. For example, at one place he writes that this music is supposed to depict a thunderstorm. That’s very unusual for the time.
Is that connection to the natural world one reason this piece is so popular? Oh, yes. It’s so dramatic. The cycle of the seasons is something that transcends cultural boundaries. But the fact these concertos are so well loved is really because of Vivaldi’s skill as a composer. We take these pieces for granted; I can’t go shopping without hearing them! But with this familiarity, it’s easy to lose sight of the extraordinary creativity that went into them. If they weren’t unbelievably catchy, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents the Handel and Haydn Society on Wednesday, May 1, at 8 p.m. in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Tickets are $35 general or $19 for students. For more information, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.