Apr 9 at 12:00
As a university student in Leipzig, studying law, Georg Philipp Telemann made a lasting impact on the city’s musical scene. In 1702 he founded the Collegium Musicum, a mostly amateur music society that met regularly to give concerts. Such societies were quite common in German cities, and Leipzig had a similar group headed by Johann Kuhnau two decades earlier. Kuhnau and Telemann actually conflicted during their overlapping eras in Leipzig, one reason being that Telemann co-opted Kuhnau’s pupils to help solidify his own projects, including the revised Collegium. Telemann himself directed other collegia in Hamburg and Frankfurt, though the Leipzig chapter continued to thrive under subsequent musicians, including Johann Friedrich Fasch and Johann Sebastian Bach.
A few years after his arrival in Leipzig in 1723, Bach took over the reins of the Collegium. This ensemble became an important forum for his interest in secular, primarily instrumental music—and not just his own music. Beginning in 1720, the Collegium’s main venue was Zimmermann’s coffee shop, located just off Leipzig’s main market square. Every week the band would perform to the delight of friends and customers (let’s hope the cappuccino machines were quieter then!). Typical fare included sonatas, trios, and even modest-sized concertos, not to mention songs, secular cantatas, and whatever spontaneous chamber music might have sprung up. Collegium concerts at Zimmermann’s cafe signaled the emergence of a secular, civic tradition of public music events - no longer held in courts or palaces alone, no longer the exclusive purview of the aristocracy. Today’s program features works and composers who appeared on Collegium programs from Telemann to Bach and beyond.
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) is one of the giants of Baroque music. Born a generation before Bach and Handel, Pachelbel spent his early years in Nuremberg, where he also died. By most accounts he was gifted both musically and intellectually. He benefited from having excellent teachers, in particular Kaspar Prentz. After filling several assistant organist positions, Pachelbel landed a prestigious post in Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire and cultural locus for southern Germany and northern Italy. In Vienna, he would witness the rise of violin sonatas and concertos coming north across the Alps, while continuing to respect the central German style upon which he had been reared.
Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is the most recorded and widely recognized piece of classical music. Indeed, for many people it is the calling card of classical music. But like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, it is so familiar that we tend to overlook its real merits. In the case of Pachelbel’s Canon, two structural principles are at work: chaconne, or the use of an exactly recurring harmonic progression and bass melody; and, of course, canon, which describes imitation of a motive by successive voices at a fixed interval of time. Pachelbel sets the canon at the unison, and the entries are separated by two measures. Canon offers a kind of compositional puzzle since the trick is to write a single continuous line that will harmonize against itself at various points. Some canons break off in mid-course, but not this one. Pachelbel maintains the imitation all the way to the final cadence. The quality of his variations above a static bassline holds our interest throughout.
And let us not forget the companion Gigue, a piece too often left out of consideration when the Canon is heard as processional or background music. This movement, though quite short in comparison, also features contrapuntal imitation between the three violin parts. Here the imitation follows the basic outlines of a fugue (which is like canon, but now the entries each start either a fifth above or a fourth below the previous voice). The binary-form movement modulates to A major at the midpoint, after which the fugal entries are reversed in order to restore D as the home key. In terms of simplicity and grace, the Gigue yields nothing to its famous partner, and its lilting subject is equally infectious.
Bach’s contemporaries included Johann Friedrich Fasch and Johann Georg Pisendel. Fasch (1688-1758) was a student at St. Thomas’s School in pre-Bach Leipzig, though he was largely self-taught as an instrumentalist. He eventually produced his own suites, which were played by Telemann’s Collegium. In 1708, while studying law at Leipzig University, Fasch actually formed the “second ordinary Collegium musicum.” The fortunes of instrumental music in Leipzig were clearly on the rise, and music like Fasch’s Quartet in B-flat (NB 91) would become increasingly coveted for a variety of settings. Scored for oboe, recorder, violin, and continuo, the work begins with an idyllic Largo before proceeding to a contrapuntal Allegro. The latter makes excellent use of the contrasting timbres between winds and strings. A curiously punctuated Grave changes the mood dramatically, and Fasch pointedly invites introspective musings in the hypnotic tick-tock effect. All this reverie is swept away by the vigorous finale, marked by passages of close counterpoint between the three solo players.
Among works that surely appeared at Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) contributed his comical “Coffee” Cantata from 1734. This cantata is one of very few secular vocal works Bach ever composed, and in style and subject matter it could not find a better venue than Zimmermann’s. Another work that shows Bach’s lighter side is the incomplete Quodlibet, also known as the Wedding Quodlibet, written in 1707. The Latin phrase may be rendered “as you like it,” and in musical terms it refers to a pastiche of different, usually popular melodies combined in counterpoint to produce a comic effect. (The use of the term for Goldberg Variation No. 30 simply refers to the popular nature of the quoted tune.) We do not know the occasion for which the 22-year-old Bach wrote the music, though his own nuptials with Maria Barbara in October 1707 seem as plausible as any other motivation. The text, perhaps not by Bach himself, nevertheless touches on various topical references of the day. Bach chose a simple SATB plus continuo scoring, greatly increasing its chances to be performed in almost any setting. The phrases pass continuously between voices/characters, and the musical styles sampled range from imitations of Renaissance sacred invocations (connected with passages of text in Latin) to thoroughly contemporary aria and duet textures. The only extant manuscript leaves off after the singers summarize the year’s news in fugue, including mention of two eclipses (which provides the only way to date the work) and an elderly woman’s porcine newborn.
Another member of the Collegium band under Fasch’s direction was Johann Georg Pisendel (1688-1755), an extremely talented violinist who had earlier played with Telemann’s group. Pisendel’s extant works are few, but each is striking in its quality and inventiveness. He trained first-hand with the Italian masters (including Torelli) and had become friends with both Telemann and Bach. Scholars speculate that Bach crafted his solo violin sonatas with Pisendel directly in mind. The Italian influence shows strongly in his impassioned and lyric sonatas, which typically follow the Corellian model of slow-fast-slow-fast “church sonata” structure. After declining a position in Leipzig, Pisendel took charge of the finest instrumental group in Europe at the court in Dresden.
Pisendel’s brilliant Sonata in A Minor demonstrates what made his music so compelling. Cast in three movements (though the last is in two large parts), the sonata dates from around 1717. It opens with an impassioned Largo, illuminated by violin writing of the highest order. The following Allegro may not offer Bach’s contrapuntal depth, but it more than compensates with satisfying flights across the full range, notable for their rhythmic variety. And the gigue that comes next can compare favorably with any written in the genre. The polyphonic touches are deft, always in service of Pisendel’s relentless forward melodic drive. Interestingly, Pisendel closes with an even more athletic variation on the gigue’s harmonic pattern. Though far shorter than Bach’s famous chaconne in D minor, it is perhaps reasonable to imagine Bach listening to this virtuosic finale from the back of Zimmermann’s cafe, musing over what he could do that would measure up.
As mentioned, the Collegium project in Leipzig really flourished with Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767). Telemann dominated German musical life between about 1720 and 1750. Everywhere you went this immensely prolific composer’s name was on people’s lips. He moved often, composing piles of instrumental works and sacred cantatas, and was sought out by nearly every major city or court. Somewhere along the way, in the annals of historiography, focus centered more on Bach, Telemann’s less famous contemporary. (And no, I will not argue their relative merits here.) From an 18th-century perspective the judgment was clear: one music encyclopedia from the day accorded Telemann four times as much space as Bach. Even more tellingly, Bach was third in line for the newly-vacant job at Leipzig and got the position only after the top choice (guess who?) declined.
In addition to works in nearly every genre, Telemann composed numerous concertos for one or more solo instruments and strings. These concerti contain Italian and French elements and typically are structured in four movements rather than three, as would be typical to Vivaldi’s concerti. Four-movement form with interchanging slow and fast movements is a derivation from the Baroque’s Sonata da Chiesa (church sonata) genre. Telemann does not always adhere to that tempo succession; indeed, he created some concertos that even begin to resemble the later symphonic pattern (allegro, adagio, dance/aria, and allegro). Telemann’s Concerto in D for trumpet, two oboes, and strings shows exactly this format. The opening movement flows easily and often between the solo parts and full ensemble. It is less harmonically and rhythmically driven than Vivaldi’s model, nor does it explore the level of polyphonic integration that signals mature Bach. There is instead a clarity and lightness, coupled with a thinness of texture, that approaches chamber music. The second movement offers a conventional bridge to the next, which is (surprisingly) an Aria scored just for oboes and continuo. It was conventional to give the trumpet a break during inner movements, but the absence of strings creates a far more intimate mood. Telemann rounds off the entire work with a return to the opening full scoring. This may not be a profound musical statement, and certainly Telemann created more adventurous works. But it is precisely the kind of fare - spirited, buoyant, including both orchestral and chamber textures - that would have been welcomed at Zimmermann’s cafe.
© Jason Stell, 2022