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Hamburg to Leipzig

Hamburg to Leipzig

Friday April 12 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$32

Program Notes

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the port city of Hamburg hosted one of the most dazzling musical scenes anywhere in Europe. Buoyed by rich commercial activity, the city featured a vibrant cosmopolitan population that filled its many churches, palaces, and (after 1678) opera houses. Handel spent three formative years here from 1703-1706 before journeying to Italy; 100 or so years later both Felix Mendelssohn and then Johannes Brahms would be born in Hamburg. But during the 18th century, the city’s most famous musician – one bordering on modern celebrity status – was Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). Telemann was born in Magdeburg and eventually educated in law at Leipzig University, where he helped to inaugurate a musical society, the Collegium Musicum, that would connect him directly with J. S. Bach. With over 3,000 works to his name, Telemann’s creative output was staggering, spanning an incredible range from cantatas to oratorios, operas, concertos, chamber pieces, keyboard music, and more. Much of this musical legacy originated from the period after Telemann was installed in Hamburg in 1721 as Kantor at the Johanneum Lateinschule.

In addition to serving as musical director for Hamburg’s principal churches, Telemann also received numerous secular commissions. European cities and even individual aristocrats were constantly involved in a game of “one-up-manship.” For instance, cooking competitions were held between neighboring palaces trying to outdo each other in splendor. And with sumptuous food, of course, came great music. “To supply diversionary music” was often a specific item in a composer’s contract, and Telemann was certainly not the first to publish such a collection when he brought out his Tafelmusik (Table-Music) in 1733. Telemann spent a great deal of energy publicizing it and ended up with a financial, as well as musical, success. Each Tafelmusik suite includes the same order of six multi-movement structures: overture, quartet, concerto, trio, sonata, and conclusion. The music beginning and ending tonight’s concert comes from the second collection of Tafelmusik.

The Overture in D Major contains five different movements, of which we hear only the first – also, rather confusingly, called Ouverture. The festive opening unfolds a conventional slow-fast-slow pattern. The outer sections are marked by dotted rhythms, sonic markers of a regal pomp, while the central section uses polyphonic imitation to generate its forward impulse. Oboe and trumpet frequently play in unison, resulting in an admirable contrast of color. The Ouverture breathes with spontaneity, frequent dialogs between winds and strings as well as solo episodes. The Conclusion, separated from the Ouverture by numerous pieces in other keys, brings back the confident character, dense polyphonic structure, syncopation and long phrases heard in the Ouverture. It contains three parts of contrasting tempo: a brilliant Allegro, dolorous Adagio, and a reprise of the Allegro. Telemann was not shy to extend the material through repetition for those who savored the meal placed before them.

Listeners may know that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) held posts in many cities during his life. Given changing circumstances, he was at times compelled to write more sacred vocal music, at other times organ music, and at other times secular chamber works. Bach’s legacy to all genres of musical composition, excepting opera, are profound. But it is a fact that he spent more waking hours writing sacred cantatas than anything else. He was charged to write such pieces in many of his earliest positions, but the culmination of these efforts bore fruit in the 100+ cantatas written almost weekly during his period in Leipzig, beginning in 1723 and lasting until his death.

The cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (You True God and David’s Son) was actually composed in Köthen, the Calvinist court where Bach lived from 1717 to 1723. In fact, Bach wrote the cantata most likely in the early days of 1723 and used it as an audition piece for a job at Leipzig’s famous Thomaskirche. The premiere occurred on February 7th. Bach was not the hiring committee’s first choice – that honor was given to Telemann. But after Telemann declined and the second choice did likewise, Bach was offered the job and arrived in Leipzig permanently that May.

Du wahrer Gott includes just four movements and was intended for performance on the final Sunday before Lent. The cantata opens with a duet for soprano and alto, complemented by the presence of two solo oboes. Some commentators find deeper symbolism in these pairings: hearing Christ’s duality in the double pairs of voices and winds, for instance, or a heavenly/earthly split between voices and instruments. Bach maintains a single dolorous affect for the entire work, though the oboes’ animated triplet rhythms provide nice contrast to the pleading vocal writing. He seems intent to focus on the “heartache and bodily pain” that God has taken on for all of humanity.

A decade later Bach penned his monumental Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. The work contains six parts, each a self-contained cantata touching on a different aspect of the Christmas liturgy, from the birth of Jesus to the adoration of the Magi. The librettist’s identity is not known for certain, though Bach likely worked substantially with Picander (C. F. Henrici), who was involved in numerous cantata projects, as well as the St Matthew Passion. Bach compiled the oratorio for a performance in late 1734, but a fair amount of the music originates from earlier sources. BWV 248 thus demonstrates the principle of parody technique, in which music already existing is repurposed for a new context.

Consider the bass aria “Großer Herr, o starker König” (Great Lord, oh mighty King) that appears just before the final chorale of Part One. Bach originally wrote this music a year earlier in the bass aria “Kron und Preis,” part of a secular cantata honoring the birthday of Maria, wife of the Saxon Elector Augustus. In that other context, Bach’s music similarly underscores a celebratory message:

Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen, Crown and praise of crowned ladies,
Königin! mit deinem Namen Queen! with your name
Füll ich diesen Kreis der Welt. I shall fill the whole world.

In the Christmas Oratorio context, a festive tone is equally apt, and the music is correspondingly borrowed without alteration. D major provides a robust and brilliant color, ideally suited for the presence of trumpet. The vocal patterns mimic the instruments, relying generally on bold arpeggios and wide-ranging leaps. Both trumpet and powerful bass voice contribute strength and clarity to this summons, as effective for Maria’s birthday in 1733 as for the “ultimate” birth celebrated at Christmas in 1734.

Earlier we mentioned a connection between Bach and Telemann centering on one of Leipzig’s music groups. While a young law student in Leipzig in 1702, Telemann founded the Collegium Musicum, a mostly amateur music society that met regularly to give public concerts. Bach took over the reins of the Collegium sometime after his arrival in Leipzig. This ensemble became an important outlet for his continuing interest in secular, instrumental music that had blossomed in Köthen. One of the Collegium’s venues was Zimmermann’s Café, located just off Leipzig’s main market square, where Bach’s band would perform to the delight of friends and customers. He would compose or rework chamber sonatas, overtures, and numerous concertos for that setting, as well as a few secular cantatas.

Though assertions on chronology are often perilous, it seems fairly certain that Bach wrote his Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, around 1738 for use by the Collegium ensemble. BWV 1052 probably derives from a (now lost) violin concerto of unknown authorship. This means that certain passages may not come across on the keyboard as they would have on the violin. For instance, at the first solo cadenza in A minor, the use of a repeated pitch (A) surrounded by upper and lower neighboring notes is idiomatic for the violin; the repeated A would be played as an open string, enhancing its resonance against the neighboring “stopped” or fingered tones. On harpsichord the effect can be only approximated by use of separate manuals. On the other hand, there are times when Bach has substantially recomposed the accompanying lines to bolster the counterpoint, and this brings the keyboardist’s left hand fully into the action. Such richness of texture simply cannot be achieved on the violin (e.g., the thick chords which punctuate the finale’s second cadenza).

There is a corollary to this borrowing of source material, for Bach himself had already used the D-minor concerto material in two sacred cantatas, BWV 146 and 188, both written in 1728. For example, the first violin line from the concertos’ opening Allegro gets transposed down an octave and placed in the organ for Cantata 146, yielding a darker, weightier expression that suits the spiritual message: “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (We must pass through great sadness in order to enter God’s kingdom). The concerto’s slow movement also originates from BWV 146, where Bach had combined it with a new four-part chorus above! Finally, the concerto finale derives from the organ prelude to Cantata 188, “Ich habe meine Zuversicht” (I have my confidence). The upshot, of course, is that these cantata texts provide an indication of Bach’s feeling toward purely instrumental themes. Thus, although his motivation to pull this material back together for a keyboard concerto in the later 1730s was primarily practical – he needed works for the Collegium – we can get somewhat further along the lines of expressive interpretation by tracking the material’s previous incarnations.


After intermission we will hear another concerto that exists in multiple guises. The Concerto in C Major, BWV 1060, typically scored for two harpsichords and string orchestra, may have been written as early as 1730, making it one of Bach’s first original keyboard concertos. Some scholars believe it stems from a lost double concerto, possibly involving violins or oboes as soloists, though no firm evidence is available to decide the matter. Tonight we present the work in a version featuring solo violin and oboe. In the end, instrumentation seems to matter little, for Bach’s melodic style is easily amenable to string, wind, or keyboard playing, supported as it is by rich chord structure underneath.

The opening Allegro comes on passionately. It is based on a tiny motif (beats 1 and 2) that Bach rhythmically ornaments on beats 3 and 4. Following a rising variant, the entire theme is sequentially repeated a whole tone lower. On first blush these subtleties matter little: the theme is wonderfully poised and offers contrast of rhythms. However, Bach will explore the spaces between these motivic parts later in the movement, inserting episodes within the theme that integrate solo oboe and violin fully into the fabric. By the latter portions of the movement, Bach’s polyphonic skill comes to the fore. Both soloists revel in rising and falling passages that take their cue from the ever-present ritornello theme.

The Adagio’s affective contrast against the previous movement and the ensuing finale is surely intentional. The main idea, featuring a sustained lyrical melody over arpeggiated accompaniment, unfolds in turn between oboe and violin. Bach sets them in an understated fugal arrangement above a steadily moving harmonic foundation provided by the string band. In the keyboard concerto version, Bach subtly thins the supporting texture by instructing strings to play pizzicato, but here they need not tread so lightly around the resonant voice of oboe and solo violin.

The brilliant finale features extensive doubling between the two soloists, who feature in fantastic dialogue across all episodes. The clear form reminds us constantly of Vivaldi, though it is true that Bach’s rhythmic nuance and active bass lines evolve beyond the Italianate idiom he inherited. In this finale we again hear confirmation that the violin/oboe version is almost certainly the original model, for these melodic instruments are more suited to the skipwise main theme than solo harpsichords.

Like Bach in Leipzig, Telemann in Hamburg also was called upon to produce cantatas weekly throughout the liturgical season. In both cases, the extant works are only a fraction of what each man originally composed. Telemann likely wrote over 1,000 sacred cantatas, about half of which exist today but are rarely performed. The cantata heard this evening, Du o schönes Weltgebäude (You, O beautiful building of the world), is one of many that are based entirely on Lutheran chorale melodies. Eight stanzas of text are part of the traditional version. In Telemann’s setting certain words have been changed to alter or heighten the expression. For example, where the original stanzas closed with various expressions, Telemann’s unknown librettist has decided to consistently use just a single expression: “allerschönstes Jesulein” (which we translate here as “Jesus, dearest of all to me”). Overall, the text centers on renouncing the world in favor of the promised reunion with Christ in Heaven.

Structurally, the chorale’s eight stanzas unfold across seven musical movements, with the final two verses given strophically over an unadorned four-part hymn. Telemann frames a series of solo verses between two lavish and lengthy contrapuntal displays (movements 1 and 6) that combine vocal and instrumental textures. The vigorous opening chorus is followed by a contrasting, poignant alto solo in A minor, whose tone is set by the sighing figures at “Müde, die der Arbeit Menge und der heiße Strahl beschwert” (The weary ones complain about the amount of work and the sun’s heat). Telemann stays within the generally pleading affect for the ensuing soprano aria, but the bass solo in movement 4 clearly depicts the raging elements of nature that are central to this portion of text. The tenor aria presents an interesting combination of operatic bravura with phrases that step back into the older cantus firmus, held-note tradition. The latter style becomes definitive in the following choral movement, “Komm, o Tod, du Schlafesbruder” (Come, Death, You Brother of Sleep).

Most movements are very short, lasting around two minutes, and may seem a bit truncated compared to similar passages in Bach. But the cantata tradition did not always feature fully developed arias and choruses. Indeed, as functional music for service (and perhaps with time constraints), composers – including Bach himself – often needed to stand content with getting the music written on time. We may focus almost exclusively on aesthetic satisfaction of the end product, but the composers of Telemann’s day rarely had that luxury.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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