Classic Mornings

With and Without Words


They heard me!  And so they quickly produced and released a new recording!

Well, maybe not. There’ve been times when I’ve wished for that. So it made the coincidence that much more fun!.

Recently I’ve spent a bit of time talking and blogging about those sonatas that the 12-year old Rossini wrote for 2 violins, cello and double bass. Usually we hear them in string orchestra versions, which is how they’re most often recorded.

The new CD includes 3 of the sonatas with the original instrumentation. And that’s not all. There are 2 works by Rossini’s elder contemporary, Franz Anton Hoffmeister. It turns out that he wrote several works for almost the same instruments.  But his are more like quartets for double bass and strings, with the double bass taking on a solo role.

Instead of 2 violins, cello and double bass, Hoffmeister turned to the traditional string quartet lineup (2 violins, viola & cello) and substituted the double bass for one of the violins. That’s what composers of his time like Mozart were doing when they wrote piano quartets, flute quartets or oboe quartets. Dutch-born Niek De Groot is featured on the double bass, joined by 3 players from Finland including violinists Minna Pensola and Antti Tikkanen. Tikkanen plays 2nd violin in the Rossini pieces and viola in the Hoffmeister quartets. Tuomas Lehto is the cellist. (Bis 1248)

If those were unusual works in their time, so were concertos for viola d’amore in the time of Vivaldi. That’s according to Ottavio Dantone, artistic director of the ensemble Accademia Bizantina, which is based in Ravenna, Italy. The viola d’amore (literally the “oboe of love”) has 12 strings. Only 6 of them are bowed.  The others are sympathetic strings. That means they vibrate when the corresponding bowed strings are sounded.

Antonio Vivaldi supposedly was the first to write concertos for the instrument. Though he was a violinist, he also played the viola d’amore. So did one of the girls at the Ospedale della Pieta where Vivaldi taught string instruments and composed music. Anna Maria was her name. She is said to have been quite a player. Her name appears on the manuscripts as the dedicatee of two of the concertos. Accademia Bizantina’s concertmaster Alessandro Tampieri is the viola d’amore soloist on the new recording (Naïve 30570).

The guitar is a familiar instrument. But when the guitar becomes the solo istrument in a famous work that traditionally has been a cellist’s, it can capture your attention almost like an exotic instrument. That’s what happened 20 years ago during the month of May, when we first had the chance to hear guitarist John Williams featured in the arrangement that he and composer Christopher Gunning had made of a sonata by Franz Schubert.

The so-called “ArpeggioneSonata, was written for a bowed, fretted, cello-like instrument known as an arpeggione. That instrument became obsolete not long after the sonata was written. The sonata is heard most often as a work for cello and piano, though there have been arrangements for viola and piano as well as flute and piano.

Williams and Gunning turned the work into a concerto of sorts for guitar and string orchestra. It’s a very different way of listening to the sonata, and a most enjoyable one at that.  Williams performs on the recording with the Australian Chamber Orchestra led by Richard Tognetti (Sony 63385). 

Schubert, the composer of hundreds of songs, was a master of writing tunes. And the tunes in the “Arpeggione” Sonata are memorable. I checked just to see if anybody had added lyrics to them – not yet. So in the meantime, they remain “songs without words,” like so many other tunes in the instrumental works of Schubert.

I often use the phrase “songs without words” to refer to song-like tunes. It actually was coined by Felix Mendelssohn. Songs Wtihout Words is the term he gave to his lyrical piano miniatures. And I understand that he became upset if someone actually tried to add words to any of the pieces.

Nevertheless, some of them have acquired the words of titles or nicknames over the years. That includes the most famous of them all, which has come to be known as “Spring Song.” The only words Mendelssohn assigned to it are: Allegretto grazioso – which means it’s to be played moderately fast and gracefully. So if you want to make Mendelssohn happy, call it the Song Without Words in A major, op. 62 no. 6 - Allegretto grazioso.  Somehow “Spring Song” has a nicer ring to it.

When you tune in to Classic Mornings, feel free to describe in as many words as you’d like and in great detail each day’s program. But if you told me you simply had a classic morning, that would be fine too!  Join me Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 or online at