At the beginning of May, we attended the Distinguished Artist Lecture at UWA – with Artistic Director of WA Opera, Brad Cohen.
One of the points raised by Brad in his lecture was the vagaries of historical fortune, or the fact that talent will not always rise.
Music historians of our time invariably describe the early 18th century as the era of Johann Sebastian Bach. But if one were to have asked German musicians living at the time, they might well have described it as the era of Georg Philipp Telemann. The distinguished music encyclopedia published by Johann Gottfried Walther – J.S. Bach’s cousin, as it happens – in 1732 devotes four times more space to the fashionable maestro of Hamburg than to the humble Thomaskantor. And there were many others who were considered greater masters than the parochial Bach.
Telemann entered university to read law in 1701, but in the very next year he founded a musical society or collegium musicum for students. The regular public concerts initiated by this society, which were aimed at the city’s bourgeoisie and where coffee was served too, laid the foundation for the concert institution as we know it today. Telemann and his fellow students turned Leipzig’s conservative musical scene upside down within a few years. There was music everywhere, officially and unofficially. Johann Kuhnau, who as Thomaskantor was theoretically responsible for all official musical performances in the city, had to acknowledge that the situation was no longer under his control. A handful of law students had achieved what a senior civil servant with all the resources of the city at his command had not managed! It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Kuhnau’s copyist and amanuensis was also a law student. His studies were interrupted by a rather less than friendly excursion by a group of Swedes and Finns – not tourists, though equally destructive – led by King Charles XII in 1706. It was a military intervention intended to safeguard Protestants against Catholic oppression and as such did not directly threaten the general population; however, this budding barrister, who like many other law students in Leipzig later gave up law for music, considered it prudent to remove himself to Hamburg. He was Christoph Graupner, a close friend of Telemann’s and the future composer of ten operas, a hundred symphonies and over a thousand cantatas.
Christoph Graupner was born into a family of weavers and tailors in the tiny village of Hartmannsdorf bei Kirchberg in Saxony in 1683. His first musical mentors were the local church musician Michael Mylius and his uncle, organist Nikolaus Küster. Young Christoph followed his uncle to Reichenbach and then entered the Thomasschule in Leipzig in 1696.
In Leipzig, Graupner studied music with Thomaskantor Johann Schelle and his successor Johann Kuhnau. As mentioned above, when the Swedish Army marched into Saxony, he fled to Hamburg. He found employment as a harpsichord player under Richard Keiser at the Oper-am-Gänsemarkt and was inspired to compose operas himself. One of the young violinists in the orchestra at the time was one Georg Friedrich Händel. Graupner continued his pursuit of opera after finding employment with Landgraf Ernst Ludwig in Darmstadt in 1709. He was appointed Hofkapellmeister or Court Conductor in 1711, his principal duties being to produce secular instrumental music and sacred vocal music at the court.
The finances of the Darmstadt court declined notably in the 1710s, however. The opera house was closed down, and many court musicians’ salaries were in arrears (including Graupner’s). After many attempts to have his salary paid, and having several children and a wife to support, in 1722 Graupner applied for the Thomaskantor in Leipzig, competing for the position with five other candidates, including Telemann and J.S. Bach. Having heard the auditions, the selection committee recommended Telemann, Graupner and Bach for the post – in this order of preference.
Following Telemann’s withdrawal (after securing a salary increase in Hamburg), Graupner was invited to direct the Christmas music service in December of 1722. His Magnificat was composed specifically for this occasion, possibly the only Latin text-setting of his output. The composition is written in the Thomaskirche tradition, especially the works of the late Kuhnau, and ends with a massive doublefugue. Along with the Magnificat, Graupner presented two cantatas on January 17, 1723, to further support his application process; the two cantatas were Aus der Tieferufenwir, and Lobet den Herrnalle Heiden. These cantatas were scored for a larger number of instruments accompanying the chorale setting note-for-note, without altering the harmonic language. Musical expression was left to the virtuoso elements in the orchestral accompaniment, also found in the freely composed chorus movements of the cantatas. The Graupner’s Italian compositional style used in setting the audition cantatas must have impressed the Leipzig town council, as he was offered the position of Thomaskantor.
However Graupner’s patron (the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt) would not release him from his contract. Graupner’s past due salary was paid in full, his salary was increased; and he would be kept on staff even if his Kapelle was dismissed. With such favourable terms, Graupner remained in Darmstadt and declined the offer for the position of Thomaskantor.
After Telemann and Graupner both turned down the appointment, having been offered a tempting salary increase by their respective employers (plus which, of course, they would not have to teach Latin), the committee was obliged “to settle for the mediocre, as the best men turned out not to be available”, as the story goes. Like most good stories, this anecdote is only marginally accurate. What happened was that Bach also initially refused to teach Latin, and the committee was forced to consider someone even less remarkable than the top three. It was to this situation that the immortal words of Ratmann Platz referred.
After hearing that Bach was appointed Thomaskantor, on 4 May 1723 Graupner graciously wrote to the city council in Leipzig assuring them that Bach “is a musician just as strong on the organ as he is expert in church works and capelle pieces” and a man who “will honestly and properly perform the functions entrusted to him.”
So it came to pass that Graupner, officially verified as a composer better than Bach, remained in Darmstadt until his death in 1760. He went blind in 1754, but not before creating a distinguished career spanning nearly half a century at one single court. Operas gave way to cantatas, orchestral works, chamber music and keyboard music. A significant part of his orchestral output consists of concertos and suites with diverse, sometimes very curious instruments in the solo ensembles.
Graupner’s total surviving output comprises some 2,000 separate works, including 85 orchestral suites and 44 concertos. The bulk of Graupner’s output consists of more than 1,400 cantatas, an astonishing number. Nearly all of Graupner’s cantatas were conceived as chamber music, that is, for few performers in the excellent acoustics of the Court chapel and were composed for the Sunday afternoon services. His gigantic output also includes some 60 chamber music works, most of them titled Sonatas or Trios. The trio sonata was the principal genre of chamber music in the Baroque era, and the ensemble represented the essence of the musical style of the time.
The term ‘trio’ refers to three independent voices, in this case two melody instruments and an accompaniment that usually requires both melody instruments and harmony instruments to produce. In fact, ‘accompaniment’ is not really an appropriate description; the continuo has more in common with the drums-and-bass (plus guitar) rhythm section of a jazz or rock band. The continuo carries the movement of the music just like a rhythm section. The harmonies are produced by the musician playing the harpsichord, organ or lute, improvised on the basis of numbers over the bass line indicating the harmony or, as in Graupner’s case, on the basis of the bass part alone. This required a great deal of knowledge, skill and experience.
As the term ‘trio’ specified the number of voices involved, not the number of instruments, a Baroque trio ensemble might be anything from one musician (as in the organ trios by French organists or J.S. Bach) or two musicians (as in Bach’s Sonatas for obbligato violin or flute and harpsichord) to just about any number of musicians – someone like Monteverdi or Corelli might have a continuo group that included an organ, a harpsichord, a harp, a cello, a violone, and so on. Graupner specified only the harpsichord as the continuo instrument in his trios.
Among the rarer solo instruments he favoured were the flûte d’amour, a flute pitched a third lower than the normal transverse flute, and the viola d’amore, an instrument roughly the same size and shape as a viola but with resonating free strings in addition to the (usually) seven strings played with the bow. Bach also used the viola d’amore in some of his vocal works, most notably the St John Passion.
Combining the traverso and hunting horn in the same concerto, or the viola d’amore and the chalumeau, was extremely exceptional for the period. One of the rare comparisons is Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, where the solo ensemble consists of trumpet, recorder, oboe and violin.
The chalumeau was the predecessor of the clarinet, and Graupner is probably the most prominent composer to have written for the instrument. Other composers had a nodding acquaintance with it, such as Telemann, Vivaldi and Fux. The clarinet displaced the rather narrow-ranged chalumeau around the middle of the 18th century, although Christoph Willibald Gluck did give the instrument an important role in the first version of his opera Orfeo ed Euridice, written in Vienna in 1762.
What is significant in Graupner’s music is his exceptional command of melody and harmony, which are individual and unique. Perhaps it is because he spent fifty years cooped up in the same court and wrote a huge amount of music that his music somehow seems detached from its time and the surrounding world. His eccentric choices of instruments were probably dictated by availability, as with the pigments available to great visual artists. But what is significant in his music is his exceptional command of melody and harmony (brushstrokes and composition, if you will), which do not really resemble those of any of his contemporaries.
The form and texture of Graupner’s compositions tend toward the classic style of Haydn and Mozart, rather than continuing baroque forms and trends. He was well informed regarding newer techniques, including the influence of Johann Stamitz at the Court of Mannheim. Clearly he was actively a part of the bridge between baroque and the Viennese Classic, including the concern for the “Edle Einfalt” (Noble Simplicity).
His life’s work was inaccessible for a long time because of a dispute between the rulers of Hesse-Darmstadt and the Graupner estate. The estate lost the court case and was prohibited access to Graupner’s manuscripts. Graupner was largely forgotten. What is fortunate, however, is that virtually all of his works have been preserved in one place at the library of the University of Darmstadt, unlike the works of J.S. Bach, which were dispersed among his children. While some of his children lost some / many of J.S. Bach’s works, they also tirelessly advocated for him, resulting in the current belief of J.S. Bach as the father of music.
Graupner’s reputation as a noteworthy composer has come to light only in the last few years. Through the recent world premiere recording of such ensembles as the Montréal based Les Idées heureuses, and research by its leader Geneviève Soly, Graupner has become a more central figure in the already well-established canon of Baroque composers.
We have selected two recordings by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra.
Back to Brad’s lecture, little bears enjoyed it beary much 🙂