Into spring with a jolly dance tune from master Fux

Light. © Charles Thibo

“The piece looks quite easy, but it’s misleading”, my piano teacher recently told me about a keyboard sonata written by Domenico Scarlatti, a work that I had studied for several weeks. “Quite a few hurdles for you”, he grinned, “but that’s what gives the sonata its lightness and elegance.” He spoke about the trills and other embellishments. He was right, of course, he always is, and the grace of Baroque music is what makes it attractive to me. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux left us a number of light and elegant works, little known and seldom performed – enough reasons to highlight them on this blog.

In 1701 Fux published a set with two sinfonia, four overtures and one serenade under the title “Concentus musico-instrumentalis”. I picked the Overture in F major (K. 354) for today’s post. It is the first work that Fux published a work and only one original copy survived the passing of time. Several pages are missing and some of the viola parts had to be reconstructed for the recording by the Neue Hofkapelle Graz.

Fux is better known as a music theorist and his remarkable work on composition and counterpoint*. The “Gradus at Parnassum” became a reference work for many composer generations. Fux was born around 1660 in the region of Graz (Styria). He studied at the University of Graz and later in Germany, in Ingolstadt. The breadth of Fux’s education at Graz and Ingolstadt was mediated through the agency of the Jesuit system of learning: he was a student of languages, logic, music and law, Thomas Hochradner and Harry White write in an article for “Oxford Music Online”.

Kapellmeister at the Vienna court

From 1696 on Fux worked as an organist in Vienna, in 1712 he was appointed Vizehofkapellmeister at the Imperial Court, three years later Hofkapellmeister. A glorious career as a musician and as a teacher; one of his pupils was Jan Dismas Zelenka, another Jesuit student, whom we have met in an earlier post. The dedicatee of the “Concentus musico-instrumentalis” was the son of Emperor Leopold I, the later Emperor Joseph I.

The set displays the influence of Italian and French masters (e.g. Lully). Fux scored the Overture in F major for two violins, viola and basso continuo; it has six movements of which five recall Baroque dances: Air, Minuet, Follie (a dance of Portuguese origin), Bourée and Gigue. All of them offer light, vivid, jolly dance tunes and if you close your eyes, it is quite easy to imagine noble ladies and gentleman engaged in gracious dancing in a ballroom.

The fourth movement “Follie” is a little special. “Folie” in French means madness or craziness. There is nothing foolish about the music however, and, curiously, it features embellishment by castanets. Did Fux put that in the score or has this touch been added by the Neue Hofkapelle Graz, inspired by the Portuguese origin of the dance? I wonder. The “Bourée” features percussions too; the dance is of French origin and is also called “French clog dance”. And again I wonder whether this is in the original score.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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