By Andrew McIntosh | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Curiosity has always been my guiding light as a musician. I find repeatedly that the musical situations I enjoy the most occur serendipitously after simply following a thread of curiosity, often as a result of looking for repertoire that falls a bit off the beaten path. An example of this is a delightful little sonata from around 1660 by Ruberto Sabbatini that I reconstructed from the damaged manuscript. I then gave the United States premiere of Sabbatini’s work and recently finished making a video recording.
Andrew McIntosh is a Los Angeles–based violinist, violist, Baroque violinist, and composer who serves on the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts and performs frequently as a recitalist, recording artist, and chamber musician, focusing on early and modern repertoire. Recent commissions include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Industry Opera Company, Calder Quartet, and Yarn/Wire.
Title of Work Being Studied: Violin Sonata
Composer: Ruberto Sabbatini
Date Composed: c. 1660
Name of Edition Studied: McIntosh’s own, available at septimalcomma.com
Eleven years ago I decided to go back to school to learn Baroque violin, despite already having a graduate degree in violin and composition, because of my love for the late 17th-century Austrian composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, who wrote dozens of fantastically inventive violin pieces. Ever since then I’ve had a personal mission to find violin repertoire from Biber’s colleagues and predecessors, since his music, although unique, was a product of its time and place and did not just occur in isolation. One source of this repertoire is the Codex Rost, a handwritten collection of 157 chamber works, many of them Austrian and many of them anonymous, compiled by the copyist Franz Rost from approximately 1660 to 1688.
A work from the collection that particularly caught my attention was this little sonata in C for violin and continuo by Ruberto Sabbatini. I had never heard of Sabbatini, so I did some research, and it turns out that he is the dedicatee of a lovely violin sonata by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli (his Sonata Op. 3, No. 6, “La Sabbatina”), whose works I also love. They were possibly friends and certainly colleagues at the musical court in Innsbruck in the 1650s, and the sonata in the Rost Codex is Sabbatini’s only surviving composition.
However, the manuscript, which has only parts and no score, has quite a bit of damage due to the aging of the ink and paper, as well as other damage, possibly from water, and parts of it are impossible to read. Additionally, it seems that the copyist made quite a few mistakes. I wanted to know what the piece sounded like, but I had to assemble the missing pieces of the puzzle first.
In reconstructing the piece, I felt a like a detective, looking for hidden clues for how to recreate material in measures that were unreadable and how to resolve problems that were definite mistakes in the original. For instance, some of the chord figures made no sense with the written bass notes against the melody, forcing me to decide whether it was the bass note that was wrong or the figure that was wrong. There were also sections where the measures in the bass didn’t add up with the measures in the violin, and I had to decide which notes were the extra ones, or if missing material needed to be added in the shorter part. Often it was easy to see that a sequence was mid-process when the ink became illegible, so I could assume that the sequence continued. Also, the violin part was generally damaged in different places than the bass, so if I didn’t have the melody, I at least had the bass notes and the harmony; if the bass was missing then I had the melody and could guess at its harmonization.
In some ways, the piece is a fairly straightforward little 17th-century solo sonata, representative of the inventive early-Baroque stylus fantasticus. However, it has quite a few quirks that make it rather lovely and unexpected. For instance, in the opening few bars, it quickly dives into eccentric harmonic territory. The chord in the first measure is C major, but it abruptly switches to C minor on the second chord of the piece, then lands on a bizarre flat-nine chord in the third measure before sneaking its way back to C major for a very dramatic opening! Like many early-Baroque sonatas, it is constructed in small contrasting sections. My favorite is the ending section, which consists of nothing but echoes, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes in groups of three. It becomes a constant game of invention to keep the music in a perpetual state of change, so that there is something for the ear to follow through all the repeated phrases.
For anyone learning it, my advice is to play the music with the same commitment and dedication that you would if it were written by a revered, famous composer—it will offer up its particular joys and idiosyncrasies. However, don’t be too literal about the notes on the page, as ornamentation and improvisation were standard practice at the time. The score would never have been intended to be a written description of the final sound of the piece, but merely a starting point for performance and invention. Also, don’t try to smooth over the little moments of oddity or it will become awkward. Instead, lean into them and celebrate them, and the piece will come to life!