The Montréal-based baroque music quartet Arion has been delighting audiences since 1981 with its performances of 17th- and 18th-century chamber music. Since its founding, it has toured in Canada, Europe, [...]
They spoke about it
It is still perplexing to note that although German-speaking countries had been the birthplace of many great musicians and composers before 1700, only in the 18th century did Germany fully realize how important its role was on the musical stage and it is no small paradox that the new cultural nationalism, rather than fiercely opposing the presence of foreign elements, chose instead to embrace the two dominant musical styles of the times, Italian and French.
For over a century, Italians favored the voice and the violin. Sensitive and expressive vocal lines were the norm, as was an unbridled, and at times extravagant virtuosity. The French, who had perfected the flute and the oboe, offered a lively, tender and concise music driven by the characteristic and varied rhythmic patterns of the dance. In other European countries, composers espoused one style or the order according to taste of circumstance. Around 1710, however, the idea that these various styles could coexist within a single work became the core of a large-scale aesthetic project. The so-called “réunion des goûts” had long been dear to the heart of French composers such as Couperin, Bernier and Campra. The full realization of the project, however, was left to German composers, and it is well aware of this accomplishment that Quantz, in his 1752 treatise, wrote: “If one has the necessary discernment to choose the best from the styles of different countries, a mixed style results which, without overstepping the bounds of modesty, could well be called the German style, not only because the Germans came upon it first, but because it has already been established at different places in Germany for many years, flourishes still, and displeases in neither Italy or France, nor in other lands.”
German composers were therefore writing Italian sonatas and concertos, as well as dance suites in the French manner, which were preceded by an overture in the style of Lully, a form that features a majestic, dotted-rhythm introduction, followed by a swift fugato. In its infancy, the “mixed style” simply allowed its various elements to overlap. Soon, however, standard compositions began to integrate the more intrinsic features of the rival genres: the concerto borrowed from the suite and became more “symphonic,” while in the suite, solo instruments began to assert themselves with concerto-like authority. Inevitably, such a process affected formal development: as the French, for example, progressively discarded the overture, the Germans gave the genre new breadth and scope. Moreover, rhythmic and melodic elements borrowed from German and Polish folk music often added a much sought for—and appreciated—local color. Original models, in the end, lost their prestige, to such a degree that, in 1758, Wilhelm Hertel could state that “in our music, we have come to rely solely upon ourselves; and we know how to treat the beauties of French and Italian music in a more skillful and profound manner.”
Georg Philipp Telemann—who in one of his autobiographies expressed his gratitude for “having had the chance to meet many of the most renowned musicians of the different nations”—was one of the chief architects of the new aesthetic program. The greater part of his musical life, from 1721 to his death in 1767, was spent in Hamburg. There, his creative energy seemed limitless: he taught at the Johanneum, was director of the Opera and of musical activities in five of the town’s principal churches, composed for different venues, regularly sent music to the courts of Eisenach and Bayreuth, and engraved, advertised and sold himself most of the forty collections of work he published between 1725 and 1740. In 1732, the citizens of Hamburg could read in one of their newspapers: “Music lovers can expect in the following year a great instrumental work called Musique de table, penned by Telemann. (…) Subscriptions are accepted every quarter. An annex will list the names of all subscribers.”
Telemann’s Musique de table, supported by strong publicity and the composer’s contacts with booksellers and distributors from Berlin, Leipzig, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, London and Amsterdam, was immediately and immensely successful: nearly 250 subscribers responded, people from the bourgeoisie, magistrates, ministers, clergymen, kapellmeisters, professional and amateur musicians. Among the German subscribers were Georg Pisendel and Joachim Quantz—the latter ordering six copies. More than twenty subscribers came from Denmark, Norway, Spain, Holland and Switzerland (Italy was the sole absentee). From England, it listed “Mr Hendel, Doctor of music.” It was in France, however, that the greatest interest for the collection was shown: 33 names (among them that of flautist Michel Blavet) were listed in the first edition.
The work was presented in three “productions,” i.e., three volumes that shared the same design: an overture followed by a suite of dances and characteristic pieces, a quartet, a concerto, a trio, a solo (in fact a sonata with continuo) and a “conclusion.” This closing piece had the same instrumentation as the overture, and thus not only closed the suite, but also substantiated the cyclical aspect much desired by Telemann for each of his three productions. That Telemann, at a time when the convention was to publish by groups of six or twelve works belonging to the same genre, choose to break with tradition is only further testimony of his interest in the mixed style (Bach later voiced similar aesthetic beliefs when he devoted the second part of his Clavier-Übung to a Concerto nach Italianische Gusto and an Overture nach Französische Art).
The title Telemann gave his publication, “Table Music,” may lead us to believe that the work only served as pleasant background to various gastronomic activities. Apart from the fact that the music, as was often the case with chamber works, may have performed such a duty, a title such as Overtures, Concertos or Sonatas would have probably had less impact from a publicity point of view. Indeed, musical works written and published with a reference to the table had been legion since the beginning of the 17th century. The Taffel-Consort published by Thomas Simpson in Hamburg in 1621, the Partitas of Heinrich Biber’s Mensa sonora (1680) or the Simphonies pour les souper du Roy of Michel-Richard Delalande, among other examples, were all written in accordance with the idea, typical of Baroque aesthetics, that all human activities should coincide and that life’s delights should meet, but were also conceived with the aim elevating the arts to princely heights.
In Telemann’s Musique de Table we find the usual Baroque pedagogical intent: the work presents itself first and foremost as a school for instrumental performance where Telemann, as he states in one of his writings, lovingly chose a part “suited for each instrument,” so that every musician can find pleasure. Telemann, perhaps here more than in any other of his compositions, reaches great heights of invention: the melodic richness, the variety and the ingenuity are astonishing and transcend established forms. Of this first “production,” offered here by the Ensemble Arion—without the Quartet—many features should be praised: the free and generous dialogue between the two violins in the Trio-Sonata, the delicacy of the slow movements of the Flute Sonata, to name a few, are in themselves remarkable, but it is the extraordinary orchestral and motivic proprieties of the Concerto for flute, violin and cello—who, although not mentioned in the title, does perform a few solos—combined with a nearly-classical elegance, that make this one of the most beautiful concertos of its time.
A work of such quality no doubt contributed to the emergence of German artistic and intellectual pride, and surely helped Germans realize how great was their talent in musical matters. In a letter to a friend, Telemann wrote: “I do hope this work will one day contribute to my fame.” Considering its place in history and how often performed it is today, we can easily state that his wish has indeed been granted.
© François Filiatrault
Translation Alex Benjamin
1730-1760: never did a third of a century witness from a nation such a burst, such unearthing and bringing forth: a staggering tête-à-tête with all the spiritual possibilities of neighboring worlds, established, crowned, in full control of their being. (…) In less than twenty-five years, the German bourgeois became aware, through fundamental works, not only of his life, but also of his musical philosophy. He has cleared out his garden. He has taken his critical stance. Beyond faith or family-linked activities, music now enters the very script of his spiritual life. In the German philosophy of life that develops against the Welsche, the place of music is now precisely defined: at the foreground.”
—Marcel Beaufils, Comment l’Allemagne est devenue musicienne (1942), 1983.