Ignazio Sieber’s Recorder Sonatas

While excavating a section of my sheet music filing cabinet the other day, I came across the sonatas of Ignazio Sieber (c.1680-c.1757). His six sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo were published, probably in 1722, together with an equal number by Johann Ernest Galliard. Since Galliard’s name appears first on the frontispiece, I dutifully filed them under ‘G.’ No wonder I lost track of them for a while.

Sieber certainly isn’t a household name but his sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo are worth a look. We have very little biographical information on him, but see from the the publication’s title page that he was living in Rome (‘demeurant à Rome’) around the time his sonatas appeared in print. Not surprisingly, his writing for the recorder reflects the typical early 18th-century Italian taste for not extending higher than an E’’ and for hovering lower than that most of the time. Sieber hangs around in the high register more than Bononcini, Bigaglia, or Bellinzani for example, but he still doesn’t ask a player to spend a long time up where the air is thin. Italian recorders from the time have a beefy low register and a weedier high register than their German counterparts, for example, which would likely have affected how musicians composed for the instrument.

Certainly more interesting and demanding than the Galliard sonatas that precede them, Sieber’s sonatas are in C major (two), a minor, and g minor (three!), all key choices which echo Händel’s opus 1 recorder sonatas (also thought to have been written in Italy). The music is well written for the instrument, lies comfortably, it’s reasonably challenging, and he has a witty way with passagework. The slow movements include some examples of notated ornamentation but there’s much additional scope for a player to experiment with phrasing, articulation, pacing, and further elaboration. The continuo parts similarly offer a lot of opportunity for creative experimentation.

As with many lesser-known Baroque sonatas, the writing isn’t dazzling or brilliant throughout but then, let’s admit it, neither is Vivaldi’s. Plus, Sieber’s music provides considerable opportunity to add your own thoughtful two-cents-worth well beyond a few ornaments. You can team up with him to create something extra, an interpretation which you might call even more ‘your own’ than your versions of Telemann or Vivaldi. I’ve heard similarly unfamiliar pieces dismissed as not worth working on, but I wonder if such judgement is passed either because the recorder part has too few fast sixteenth note passages, and/or because the player lacks imagination. As we all know the components of a good piece and a good performance are many and varied; and if you do really want more fast arpeggios, you can almost always add some…

Plus, if you’re looking to create a program of music from a certain city or region, in a certain style or by a particular group of composers, having repertoire like this is a real boon.

A link to the facsimile at IMSLP (don’t be fooled by the initial title – Sieber’s sonatas are here!):

http://imslp.org/wiki/6_Flute_Sonatas,_Op.1_%28Galliard,_Johann_Ernst%29

This morning’s lesson…

A student arrived for a lesson this morning with the last movement of Hans Ulrich Staeps’s Virtuose Suite (1961) on her agenda. Recorder players will know this composer’s name – at least, I hope they will – but very few other musicians will have heard of him. On the teaching faculty at the Vienna Conservatory for much of his life, Staeps wrote a lot of good music for the recorder, usually in a neo-baroque style with a liberal dash of neo-impressionism – sounding like a good Austrian who holidayed just enough in Paris. He wrote solos, duets, trios and works for larger ensembles of recorders, as well as a fair bit of chamber music incorporating keyboard, guitar and other instruments. I first encountered his music during my earliest experiences of consort playing at age ten or eleven, and more recently included a couple of his works on a recording of mid-twentieth-century repertoire, Fruit of a Different Vine. His Reihe kleiner Duette (A Series of Little Duets) is a particular delight, a bit like Kandinsky for the ears.

Many of Staeps’s pieces are dedicated to his students, and in the case of the Virtuose Suite each of its four solo movements are dedicated to a different person. This morning my student was valiantly tackling the final and most challenging movement, Presto Possible, a blistering two-page exercise in double tonguing. It does contain a few less frenetic moments but the main point is to dazzle and amaze without self-combusting, following in the ‘grand finale’ tradition. This particular movement was dedicated to Linde Höffer von Winterfeld (1919-1993), she of the elegant, nobility-tinged name who went on to write method books, studies and articles on recorder literature, and to edit a lot of music. She was another devoted pedagogue, though perhaps she went just a tad too far when she provided us all with 199 Thumb Exercises. Call me lazy or undisciplined, but wouldn’t forty have been enough?

When I was twelve I met Hans Ulrich Staeps at a music education conference in Toronto. Upon our introduction he said something nice to me and patted my head, a gesture I could have done without because it made me feel half my age, but I really loved his little Triludi trios so I more or less forgave him. He was also the first Fancy Recorder Person (FRP) I ever met. I was at the conference to play in some sort of student performance for my recorder teacher Isabel Smaller, a devoted educator who spent her working life driving around the city to teach at one or two different schools every day of the week. I have vivid memories of random plastic recorders, instrument cases and sheet music strewn across the back seat of her white Volkswagen beetle. More on Isabel later.

That last movement of the Virtuose Suite was on my program for a Canada Council audition at one of the critical moments of my nascent career, and I think it was that movement that convinced the jury on my behalf; but that’s another story too.

The Virtuose Suite is available from your favourite music publisher.

Here’s a movement from Staep’s Sonata in E-flat for alto recorder and piano, played by yours truly with Alayne Hall, piano.

Sonata in E-flat: mvmt. 4, Sehr schnell