From frogs to fencing: Introducing the music of Armonico Tributo

Later this month we will be travelling across Scotland and the north-west of England with Armonico Tributo. Taking its title from a collection published by Georg Muffat, a Franco-German composer with Scottish ancestry, this intimate instrumental programme explores some of the most compelling string repertoire from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Not sure what to expect? We’ve made a playlist by way of introduction to this extraordinary music — by turns richly-scored, astoundingly virtuosic and even laugh-out-loud funny.

So, who’s who?

With the exception of Francesco Navara, of whom very little is known, all of the composers are united by having travelled abroad to pursue their studies and in search of employment. This resulted in them each developing innovative artistic voices, bringing together new styles and techniques from different regional and national musical traditions across Europe.

Georg Muffat

Mainly known as an organist, Georg Muffat (1653-1704) was born in Savoy and studied successively in Alsace and Paris with, among others, Jean-Baptiste Lully — one of the central musical figures at the court of Louis XIV, and one of the protagonists in the development of French Baroque Opera. From Paris, Muffat found employment variously in Vienna, Prague and Salzburg, travelling to Rome in the 1680s for a period of further study.

The Armonico tributo, which Muffat published in 1682, is made up of examples of the concerto grosso — that is to say, pieces that are based on the alternation of different solo groups, as opposed to a single soloist. This diverse range of influences resulted in Muffat’s style being extremely cosmopolitan for the time, successfully fusing French dances with the flair of the Italian school and the discipline of the German forms.

Heinrich Biber

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was born in Bohemia, and also ended up in Salzburg. He was the leading violinist of the seventeenth century and his music explores extended techniques aimed at finding new forms of expression on the instrument. His Sonata Representativa incorporates bird and animal sounds to conjure up rich pictorial music. Listen out for his croaking frogs, squawking hens and bumbling quails…

One of Biber’s most significant influences must have been the violinist composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (c.1620-1683), whose works formed the foundations for the Austro-German violin school in the later seventeenth century. The son of a career soldier in the the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III’s army, Schmelzer eventually became Kapellmeister (Director of Music) at the imperial court.

Fencing in the 17th century

Surely one of the most unusual programmatic works of the seventeenth century, Schmelzer’s Fechtschule  or ‘Fencing School’— renders in music the range of movements in the sport of fencing, one of the main physical activities practised by men in European courts at that time. Schmelzer renders the sword strokes with remarkable ingenuity, creating music that is more graceful than violent, before all the participants eventually come together for the Bader aria, or ‘bathing aria’.

Intrigued? Join us in Kendal (17 October), Edinburgh (19 October), Aberdeen (20 October) or Glasgow (21 October) to hear — and see — for yourself how these composers produced some of the most thrilling instrumental music of the European Baroque.