How we got from there to here in a slightly ill-informed, biased account
Life-long New Yorker. Graduate of Duke University and Georgetown Law. Solicitor of England and Wales. Recognized by Chambers & Partners, The Legal 500, Global Competition Review, Super Lawyers and others as one of the leading antitrust litigators in the United States. Former Chairman and current Board member of Gingold Theatrical Group. Former Young Patron Board member at the Met Opera.
Handel and Telemann kept up a robust correspondence and, not surprisingly, Telemann’s friendship and correspondence resulted in numerous Conversations between the two composers. And perhaps uniquely, this was a true two-way Conversation, with each man influencing the other. Here is an example of how Telemann influenced Handel. Handel, a subscriber to Telemann’s Tafelmusik publication, took the basic theme from the opening to the Violin Concerto in F major (1740) and expanded upon it for his famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1749), one of the most famous works of the entire Baroque Period. I stumbled on this Conversation as a kid, playing the Telemann and knowing that I had heard that theme somewhere before. With no Google or streaming music services, my curiosity had to wait several months before figuring it out at a concert.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Tafelmusik, Violin Concerto in F Major:
George Frideric Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba:
Telemann’s contributions to the development of the modern orchestra should be noted. He wrote a ton of “overtures”—not necessarily for operas, but rather as proto-symphonies. These multi-movement works are the bridge from the concerto grosso form to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Overture in B Minor:
Telemann’s favorite instrument may have been the trumpet. The great Maurice Andre regularly played Telemann’s trumpet concertos in concert and are among the first works of music I fell in love with. Here is is performing the adagio that opens the first trumpet concerto in D major, which is one of the great melodic lines in music history. And, then, the opening allegro of the Concerto in F minor.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Trumpet Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Adagio:
Georg Philipp Telemann, Trumpet Concerto in F Minor, Allegro:
On this day in 1980, John Lennon was killed outside of his home at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. That the great poet of love would meet his end in such violent fashion remains one of the cruelst ironies of life. Like those composers before him who died prematurely, Lennon left behind a vast catalogue of songs that will endure. From 1974, a song without meaning for a meaningless, tragic event.
Telemann’s operas have fallen largely out of favor: I cannot recall one being given a major production in my lifetime in NYC. That is unfortunate, as he and Handel were responsible for essentially creating the Germanic opera tradition. Here is a selection from his best-known opera, Der geduldige Socrates. Rodisette’s Aria, which is occasionally selected by one of the student competitors in the Met’s annual National Council competition. In it, I hear quite a lot of Monteverdi with just a hint of what is to come with Mozart. It’s a brilliant song.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Der geduldige Socrates, “Rodisette’s Aria”:
Telemann also wrote singspiel (a form of light opera with lots of spoken dialogue, the best known of which is Mozart’s Magic Flute). This one is based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Here is an instrumental passage that accompanies the Don’s attack on the windmills: It’s my favorite part of the book and a great example of how Telemann borrowed liberally from Vivaldi and the Italian traditions. A minor Conversation for sure.
Georg Philipp Telemann, Don Quixote, Suite for The Attack on the Windmills:
Away from the operatic stage, the prolific Telemann also composed many lieder (secular songs)—Telemann was one of the first serious composers to take on this popular form, one that Schubert successive German composers through Richard Strauss would take to new heights. In these Telemann lieder, you can hear a wide variety of influences, from both the French and Italian schools. At times, they seem to anticipate Rossini. This recording, by the great German baritone and lieder specialist, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is worth listening to in its entirety.
If you grew up playing classical music, I’d wager that you played something by Georg Philipp Telemann. The odds would be in my favor—he composed about 3000 works over his lifetime (more than Bach and Handel, combined). Granted, he had a very long career to do so, having been a child prodigy on several instruments and going on to live a very long and productive life. Vivaldi turned out a huge number of compositions, but Telemann truly worked like an incredible machine (for you, Gert).
Interestingly, Telemann’s parents were set against his having any career in music, notwithstanding his obvious gifts—Telemann was an accomplished musician on several instruments by the age of 10 and had even composed an opera by 13. No music for you! His parents sent him to Leipzig to study law instead. But greatness has a way of sneaking out and one of his compositions was performed locally, was a hit, and he was off and running in what was decidedly the antithesis of a legal career.
Teleman’s music was wildly popular during his lifetime and he was considered the superior composer to J.S. Bach. Why? I don’t think that’s much of a mystery. Bach was, outside of a few major choral works, an instrumentalist. In contrast, Telemann composed over 100 operas and opera was the ticket to fame and fortune as a composer in the 18th century. Perhaps given the speed of their composition, Telemann’s tunes tend to be friendly to the ear, with their simple melodies and basic rhythms, while Bach’s best works are so complex that musicologists have not fully plumbed their depths some 200 years later. Just look at the Billboard Top 10 for all of the 1970s—nearly entirely prog rock free. Complex music is great, but not for the masses. As a critic back in Telemann’s day remarked:
“In particular I hear people praise Mr. Telemann because he knows how to suit the taste of all amateurs. He sometimes uses the Italian, sometimes the French, and very often also a mixture of styles when setting his pieces. He avoids all excessive difficulties which could please masters only, and he always prefers tunes of the pleasant variety to far-fetched ones, even if those are more artistic. And what could be more sensible?
So why isn’t Telemann more popular today? One critic summed it up nicely:
Telemann’s limitations are apparent when he is juxtaposed with Handel, who could dramatically really take the roof off and who could also find the inner essence of the human voice, and Bach who, like Shakespeare, through a near alchemy of sound and meaning could consistently define and further what it means to be human.
His contemporaries, however, strongly disagreed: Both Bach and Handel admired Telemann’s music. Telemann was godfather to Bach’s second son C.P.E. Bach (a noted proto-Classical or Rococo composer in his own right) and kept up a running correspondence with Handel, who incorporated many of Telemann’s tunes into his own compositions. Handel not only remarked on his friend’s gift for melody, but the facility of his compositions—he once remarked that Telemann could compose a work in the time an ordinary man could write a letter.
So, who is right, the modern critic or Telemann’s contemporaries? Let’s begin to answer that with Die Donner-Ode, written when Telemann was 75 and, late in life, had turned to oratorio as his preferred musical form. This work was written to commemorate the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, which reportedly killed some 60,000 people. Commemorating a contemporaneous tragic event would lead to some of the greatest works in musical history—for example, Shostakovich’s Stalingrad and Babi Yar symphonies, Britten’s War Requiem and Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (all to come in due time). While I am not sure if this is the case, I believe that tradition began here with Telemann. If that is right, he is, in my view, deserving of a place among the very greatest composers of all time. Regardless, the music speaks for itself.
As we gather with our families and friends to give thanks this November 25th, my mind drifted, relatedly, to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day coincides this year with our Thanksgiving Day. St. Catherine’s story is literally one of legend. Converted to Christianity at 14, she protested against the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Maxentius. The Emperor sought to dissuade the girl of her heresy. In brief, the emperor summoned a host of pagan orators to debate her; Catherine won, converting the orators. The emperor threw Catherine in prison, where she was visited by the Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximillia, and many others; they too all converted to Christianity. Maxentius had Catherine tortured, starved and beaten; she would not yield and her body remained undamaged. The Emperor proposed to marry Catherine, but she refused, pledging her chastity to Christ. Faced with such stubborn resistance, the condemned Catherine to death in the most horrific way possible. Strapped between two spiked wheels, Catherine’s body was literally to be torn to shreds. But the wheels shattered when they touched her body, leaving her unharmed. So, as is so often the case with saints, he chopped off her head. End of story.
St. Catherine became one of the most important saints during the medieval age, retaining her popularity right through to the Renaissance, during which time the English composer John Dunstable, who was featured early on in this blog, wrote several motets in her honor. This one, likely composed to celebrate the marriage of Edward V of England to Catherine of Valois in 1420, is a thanksgiving in its own right, celebrating the political unity of England and France after many years of bloody war.
John Dunstable, Salve scema sanctitatis:
Salve scema sanctitatis Christi Katherina, sponsa speciosa satis castitate cristalina; cuius caro columbina reges refusa, casti celi cacumina rotis revinxit reclusa, ruptis rotulis recusa, plangens plebs precipitatur rixa rectorum retusa pira pestilens paratur.
Poli princeps postulator; Christo cremantur credentes, piis palio prestatur, celum constantium cluentes claudunt carcere cluentes votis virginem urentem; clatris confluunt clementes, vitam vitant vix volentem. Virgo virtute vegentem proscit plebem prosperari, vitam vincens et virentem polo poscit premiari.
Much like my wife’s bacon stuffing at Thanksgiving, this list would not be complete without Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, easily the most famous work of the Baroque Era, despite first entering the modern repertoire in the 1950s. It is an endlessly fun piece to play. First, let’s start with a very historically accurate performance. By all means, listen to the whole thing, but here’s a good example of the Winter concerto on period instruments
Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Concerto No. 4, Winter:
Again, demonstrating how Vivaldi is timeless, here is the violinist Janine Janson throwing out the Baroque sensibility in one of the more dramatic readings of the piece. The entire thing is great fun, but I’ll note that the Winter concerto starts at 32:05. Janson recorded this with some of her friends in what is one of the most fun classical albums of the last 20 years. Worth seeking out.
Antonio Vivaldi, The Four Seasons:
Transcriptions are the most formal sort of Conversation—the transcription of an earlier work for a new instrument or set of instruments by a later composer. Bach did tons of these and so we can trace which composers influenced him at certain periods of his life. The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (we will come to him later) was also fond of transcriptions. Few composers opt to fully recompose the original while retaining so much of it. Here is one unique offering: The Four Seasons transcribed by Max Richter and recomposed over 200 years later. The first movement of Winter is particularly inspiring:
Max Richter, Four Seasons Recomposed (After Vivaldi):
Another way to have approached this blog would have been by works, rather than by composers. Had I done so, Francois Couperin’s Les Barricades Mysterieuses would have featured prominently. This two-page composition, not even three minutes in duration, was a sonic boom that has reverberated throughout the centuries since its was composed in 1717. It is, in essence, a distillation of what this blog is all about–the Conversation between composers that links us, at least artistically, across the vastness of time.
Much ink has been spilled trying to unravel the meaning of Couperin’s title. I could care less. Whether a wry comment on harmonics or something decidedly more salacious, it is the music itself that we are here for. Technically speaking, the work is composed in style brise, which was common enough in the Baroque Period and which features irregular arpeggiation, that is where one note is held and left unresolved until a new harmony is started in the bass line. This technique creates thick textures in the music and the coloration emblematic of the Baroque Period. Alternatively described as “shimmering” or as a “kaleidoscope of sound,” Couperin’s magical composition continues to weave its spell well into the 21st century.
Let’s begin our journey with how the work was originally intended to be performed, on harpsichord:
Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses: (begins at 11:44, accessible via the links in the description)
The immediacy of this work, in no small part aided by the playing of the remarkable Blandine Verlet, seems to anticipate Chopin, if not Ravel and Debussy. The contemporary composer Thomas Ades opined that this brief work was a better lesson in composition than he had received from any of his teachers on how to produce melody from harmony. To explain, Ades transcribed the work for double bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, viola and cello. Is that a hint of Joplin I hear?
Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses (arr. Thomas Ades):
Couperin builds his harmony from multiple voices, which gives the work greater depth of texture. In Ades’ transcription, we can clearly hear how one note of a chord is sustained and resolves into the succeeding harmony following the bass line. While so-called “supension” generally resolves down, Couperin also presents dissonances that resolve up. Not knowing which way the music will move leads, perhaps, to the mystery alluded to in the title. The layering of voices to create a contrapuntal harmony becomes apparent when the work is performed on a modern piano.
Francois Couperin, Second livre de pieces de clavecin, Ordre sixieme: No. 5, Les Barricades Mysterieuses:
At once sounding old and yet fresh as something composed yesterday, it is no surprise that Les Barricades Mysterieuses has been featured in many films, including, memorably, Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life.
Les Barricades Mysterieuses has inspired dozens of compositions by direct attribution and many more indirectly–at least 10 works by direct attribution since 2000 alone, across multiple genres. For example, Andy Summers, best known for his work with The Police, released the album Mysterious Barricades in 1988. And if there was any doubt as to his inspiration, the titular track lays that all to rest:
Andy Summers, Mysterious Barricades:
Summers knows a good riff when he hears one. He’s not alone: The band Vampire Weekend borrowed heavily from Couperin for this infectious track, off of their 2019 album Father of the Bride. Pardon the pun, but it is a great track to roll into the weekend with.
The Bach-Vivaldi Conversations are particularly interesting as they span a wide swathe of Bach’s career. First up, Bach’s transcription of Concerto No. 11 in D Minor for Organ.
Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 11 in D Minor:
J.S. Bach, Organ Concerto in D Minor (After Vivaldi):
This is more or less a straight transcription. It is thought among some musicologists that Bach was commissioned to transcribe these for a patron; hence, the lack of invention. Or they were simply how Bach studied music—no one knows for sure either way. But here is a more mature Bach, in his Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor, which is based on Vivaldi’s No. 10 for 4 violins in B minor. This is a true Conversation (seemingly composed for Gert with four harpsichords)—Bach takes a brilliant Vivaldi original to new heights, adding additional textures and harmonies. When Gert first asked for a list of great harpsichord works, this was the first piece I thought of.
Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto Op. 3, No. 10 in B Minor:
J.S. Bach, Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A Minor:
The grand Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, was dedicated by Pope Eugenius IV on March 25, 1436. An architectural marvel, the Duomo is crowned by a great dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, which remains (despite later inteventions by Michelangelo) the enduring symbol of the city, at once instantly recognizable. Brunelleschi’s achievement has not dimmed with time: More than 500 years later, Brunelleschi’s Dome remains the largest masonry dome in the world and the mystery of how it was constructed has not been fully solved (although a PBS special sought to answer that question: https://www.archdaily.com/477161/video-solving-the-mysteries-of-brunelleschi-s-dome).
To celebrate the 1436 dedication, the Papal choir, the Schola Cantorum, performed a motet by composer Guillaume Dufay. Nuper Rosarum Flores holds a special place in music history, as appears to be, in part, based not on current musical theory but rather informed by the architecture of the great dome itself. That observation has been deduced by modern musicologists from some anomalous compositional choices by Dufay. First, unlike typical motets of the period, the duration of the four sections of the work are divided into unequal ratios. Seecond, the vocal aned instrumental lines are related, although not mere duplicates. These features replicate in music the many sides of Brunelleschi’s Dome. Finally, and perhaps more tellingly, the unusual doubling of the cantus firmus replicates Brunelleschi’s design of a dome within a dome.
There is a tendency to overanalyze art, seeking a deeper meaning where none was intended. Certainly, those who attended the dedication of the cathedral made no such observations. Their reactions were decidedly more religious in nature, suggesting that Dufay’s music might bring about the salvation of mankind. But, on balance, I think musicologists have it right. The clue comes from Dufay’s choice of the text for the cantus firmus itself: Terribilis est locus iste (Magnificent is this place).