Born into a family of renowned Québécois musicians, Geneviève Soly was eight years old when she realised that she was going to be a performer. This revelation came while she was listening to an LP [...]
They spoke about it
“His penetrating understanding of all aspects of musical science and in particular his abilities in sacred music, a field in which he knows no rivals, assure him of an imperishable reputation, as the great qualities of his heart assure that all who have known him will never forget him.”
Hamburger Relations-Courier (Hamburg newspaper), May 29, 1760; chronicle of Graupner’s death.
According to Alberto Manguel, in his remarkable book A History of Reading (Vintage Canada, 1998), every reader—and, I infer, every listener as well—needs information concerning the creation of a text—or musical work—its historical context, its particular idioms, and that mysterious thing Saint Thomas called quem auctor intendit: the intentions of the author—or composer. Every listener can obviously find meaning to music without this kind of prior knowledge. However, I think it useful here, in order to better understand Graupner’s Christmas cantatas, to outline several important aspects of his cultural environment in Darmstadt, where bustling musical activity reached its peak during the years he worked at court there (1707-1753).
Graupner’s Sacred Music
Graupner’s sacred music represents 75 per cent of his total output, that is to say a colossal collection of 1418 cantatas. Contrary to the secular music performed at the Darmstadt court, only the music written by the Kapellmeister and the Vice-Kapellmeister were heard in the court church on Sundays and feast days. It was therefore necessary to compose and perform a new cantata for each of these occasions, which is what Graupner did uninterruptedly from 1709 till 1753.
Graupner was an exception among Lutheran Baroque composers. Cantors regularly performed their own works several times over or chose to play those of other composers. However, from the time of his appointment in 1709, Graupner fulfilled this duty in rotation with the current Kapellmeister Wolfgang Carl Briegel until his death in 1712, and then with Gottfried Grünewald, his friend and old colleague from Leipzig and Hamburg, who was Vice-Kapellmeister at the Darmstadt court from 1713 until his death in 1739. Graupner then solely took over court sacred music until he went blind in 1753.
From this exceptional workload stemmed an equally exceptional body of work, the autograph scores of which are still kept at the Darmstadt palace library. Of these, 55 relate to Christmastide.
Johann Conrad Lichtenberg (1689-1751): Graupner’s Librettist
Lichtenberg was a theologian, pastor, architect, and prolific writer who excelled in cantata texts. He also showed great interest in mathematics, philosophy, and especially astronomy. He studied at the University of Leipzig, and in 1711 attended the University of Halle, birthplace and stronghold of pietism. Pietism was a Lutheran theological movement that dominated Germany in the middle of the 18th century.
It sought to oppose hedonism with introspection and subjectivity and had a marked disdain for theatrical music. Graupner, like J.S. Bach, was attracted to the devotional qualities of the movement. Kant, Schiller, and Goethe were all brought up in the pietistic tradition.
In the course of his functions as poet at the Darmstadt court, Lichtenberg wrote 35 cantata cycles, meaning over 1500 texts. He sometimes wrote up to 12 in a single day (a productiveness rivalling Graupner’s own…). Graupner’s friend, Lichtenberg was also his brother-in-law: their wives were sisters. Both men worked fruitfully together from 1719 to 1743. Lichtenberg’s religious literary style was similar to that of the famous pastor Erdmann Neumeister, who wrote volumes of sacred cantatas published as of 1704 and who established a form that became widespread in 18th-century Germany, known as the “mixed madrigalian style” (see below). Lichtenberg was also drawn to Biblical thought and Symbolism.
Just as Graupner’s style was to prove transitional between the Baroque and Pre-Classicism, Lichtenberg was part of the late-Baroque literary tradition that was to usher in budding Romanticism.
Lutheranism: Religious Themes and Texts
Martin Luther’s musical reform raised the cantata to the status of a musical sermon. Composers who wished to attain the ideal of the Reformation adhered, as did the pastors, to rhetorical figures that emphasized key words. Apart from the texts directly related to the Nativity and to the coming of the Saviour (Nun freut euch No. 3), there are few jubilant texts for Christmas. The emphasis is mostly on the representation of the world as a test of faith, and so the texts express a mix of joy and penance. Formulas that showed the soul adrift in life’s perilous waters or described a faith that is rock-solid against the assaults of Satan were dear both to the Baroque spirit and to pietism. Lichtenberg put them to much use (Gedenket an den, recitative No. 4, but also No. 2, as well as the arias Nos. 3 and 6) and they gave Graupner, always mindful of word-painting, ample substance for his musical creations.
This is particularly evident in the Aria No. 6 of Gedenket an den (bars 17 to 26) on the word bewegt (Mein Glaube ist auf Gott gegründet trutz dem, der diesen Grund bewegt; My faith is founded upon God, despite he who attacks this foundation). Graupner depicts the world’s attempts at shaking faith in a long ascending and descending melisma sung by the tenor, accompanied by a violin playing repeated notes during the tenor’s rests, as if to insist on Satan’s assaults.
Form in the Mixed Madrigalian Cantata
“Madrigalian verses” were incorporated into the German Lutheran cantata by Neumeister in 1704. The recitatives were no longer rhymed, contrary to the arias and recitatives of German opera. Neumeister added biblical verses as well as the chorale, a staple of the old German cantata. This almost entirely poetic formal scheme was used by Lichtenberg and constituted the final developmental stage of the cantata, composed of six or seven pieces: an introduction borrowed from a biblical passage; two da capo arias; one chorale (with one or two verses); and the requisite number of recitatives. The first piece, whose text is related to the day’s Gospel or Epistle reading, usually announces the theme of the cantata and is often called Dictum by Graupner. The dictum is generally composed in the manner of an accompanied recitative and is sung by the tenor. The recitatives and chorales are narrative exegeses of biblical passages and profess eternal truths, formulated in the third person.
The arias are personal reactions to the decreed truths, and are in the first person. With the grouping of the recitative and aria, it befalls the singer to assume the double responsibility of proclaiming the message (recitative) and offering a moral reaction to it (aria). This was Lichtenberg’s preferred method, which he used in the recitative and aria of Nun freut euch (Nos. 2 and 3). The chorales are of the utmost importance to Graupner. As he explained in his Choralbuch (1728), it is primordial that the chorale melody be clearly heard. To achieve this, he harmonizes the melody homophonically for 3 voices (Gedenket an den) or for 4 voices (Machet die Tore weit and Wie schön), or yet again simply assigns it to the solo voice (Nun freut euch). An independent instrumental part, almost always one or more violins, completes the texture. This is the structure in which Graupner is at his most conventional, yet he still seems bold enough occasionally to develop a modern, even galant voice, which he saves for the instrumental accompaniment. Such is the case in the opening chorale of Nun freut euch.
A Note on the Performance and the Choice of Works
I chose to open this recording with the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, taken from a cantata written for Pentecost, in order to reinforce the Christmas spirit, since this chorale melody is traditionally associated with the feast of the Nativity. According to historical performance practice, the reinforcement of the chorale melody by a doubling wind instrument was common.
You will therefore hear the cornet stop of the organ in Wie schön and a recorder in the chorale from the cantata Machet die Tore weit. Although it was never played at Christmas in Darmstadt, the Overture for recorder is presented here because the sound of this instrument is typically associated with Christmas.
© Geneviève Soly, March 2004.
Translation: Jacques-André Houle