They spoke about it
Born in Kirchberg, Saxony, on January 13, 1683, Christoph Graupner was one of the most important composers of his time; acknowledged as such by his contemporaries, he was regarded with as much esteem as Handel or Telemann. The composers Heinichen, Mattheson, Grünewald, and also Fasch (who was a student of his) counted among Graupner’s friends and admirers.
After studying in Leipzig with Kuhnau—J.S. Bach’s predecessor at the Thomaskirche—Graupner left the city in 1704 to assume the function of harpsichordist in the Hamburg Opera Orchestra, directed by Reinhard Keiser. Handel, then 21, was a violinist in the same orchestra. During that period, Graupner composed several operas that met with much public acclaim.
After hearing the works performed upon his visits to Hamburg, the landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, an avid music lover and occasional composer, decided he must have Graupner in his service. In 1709, Graupner was thus offered a post at the court of Hesse-Darmstadt, where he became Hofkapellmeister in 1712. His duties—which consisted in composing both sacred and secular court music, copying it, having it rehearsed and conducting it, as well as playing the harpsichord part—kept him so busy that he worked day and night with no time off, and of this he discreetly complained. He barely even had the time to write a letter.
On May 4, 1722, at the request of the landgrave, he regretfully turned down the prestigious position that had been offered him: Cantor at St. Thomas’s in Leipzig. This allowed Johann Sebastian Bach to be officially granted the post on May 5. A prolific and untiring composer, Graupner was also renowned for his talent in writing fugues, for the genius of his church music, for his virtuosity on the harpsichord (which declined as time went by), as well as for the excellent calligraphy of his autographs and of the copies he made of works by his contemporaries.
Unusually for the time, Graupner himself engraved (directly on the copper plates, according to the traditional German technique) the four sets he published: the three collections of harpsichord music and the erstwhile-celebrated book of chorales (1728). Struck with total blindness in 1753, he stopped composing altogether. He remained at the Darmstadt court until his death on May 10, 1760.
He had always refused to have his portrait painted. Apart for his harpsichord music, his output includes some ten operas (several of which are lost), 1,418 sacred and 24 secular cantatas, 44 concertos for one, two, three, or four instruments, 86 orchestral overture–suites, and 37 sonatas (trio, a quattro, and a sei). Like J.S. Bach, and in accordance with the social status of composers in the 18th-century, Graupner worked at his many duties humbly and without respite, with no concern for his place in history.
II. The Partitas (or Suites) for Harpsichord
There are two reasons why Graupner’s harpsichord music occupies a special place in his output. First, unlike the other works of his immense body of work, it was not composed out of obligation, but rather for the sheer pleasure of it and as the expression of his own particular skills. Secondly, 21 of the 41 partitas that have come down to us were issued in three volumes he engraved himself. This is unique in Graupner’s musical output. These original editions are documents of inestimable value, prepared with the utmost care and precision, and which the composer believed to be worthy of publication.
1. Partien auf das Clavier [Partitas for Harpsichord] (Darmstadt, 1718)
2. Monatliche Clavir Früchte [Monthly Fruits for Harpsichord] (Darmstadt, 1722)
3. Vier Partien auf das Clavier unter der Benennung der vier Jahreszeiten [Four Partitas for Harpsichord Bearing the Names of the Four Seasons] (Darmstadt, 1733)
The remaining harpsichord works of Graupner have come down to us as manuscript copies or autograph scores. They consist of a group of 17 partitas copied by Samuel Endler, found in the Darmstadt Harpsichord Book (which also includes partitas by Telemann and by Handel), as well as three unclassified partitas and three isolated pieces (of which the Aria and Gigue recorded here).
After becoming well acquainted with this exceptional corpus, I do not hesitate now to assert that Graupner is one of the major composers for the harpsichord, not only for the quantity and quality of his compositions, but also for his inventiveness on both the technical and stylistic levels. Examples of this are his use of hands in alternation for the execution of passagi—frequent in his pieces—and the use of hand crossing.
These two elements of 18th-century harpsichord technique are described in the preface to the 1724 edition of Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin, where they are called respectively roulement and batterie. The roulement (hands in alternation) as described by Rameau is explained by Graupner in the preface to his 1718 edition—the only difference being that instead of using the letters D for right (droite) and G for left (gauche), Graupner uses R for rechts and L for links. As for the batterie (hand crossing), Graupner makes use of it in the Aria composed around 1722, although Rameau states in this same preface that it is a practice exclusive to himself and that he was the first to use it! In 1726, Bach would also use hand crossing in the gigue of the first partita. Hand crossing in Scarlatti—with whom the technique is closely associated—was an integral part of his style between 1720 and 1755. Graupner also employs the imitation of hunting horns (in the first bars of the Aria’s refrain and in the second Air en Gavotte), a technique often associated with Scarlatti.
III. Partien auf das Clavier (Darmstadt, 1718)
This remarkable set most likely met with a certain amount of success at the time. There are four known extant copies of the original edition as well as three complete, non-autograph manuscripts. The set contains eight partitas, in C major, C minor, D major, D minor, E-flat major, E major, E minor, and F major. It is prefaced by the composer. The Partien auf das Clavier include several Rigoudons en Rondeaux (sic), a dance rarely used in harpsichord suites. It resembles the bourrée and the gavotte.
The rigaudon of Partita II in C minor is similar in character to those of Rameau (Suite in E, 1724), with its repeated notes and its way of recalling a sea shanty. Rameau’s second rigaudon in fact strangely resembles Graupner’s. Graupner had a knack for composing sarabandes with variations, like the airs and variations for harpsichord with which we associate Handel (Suites de pieces pour le clavecin, 1720).
It is impossible to say which of Handel’s or Graupner’s works were composed first, but there is an obvious relationship. Note the identical number of suites published in both collections: eight suites each—all the more striking that it is unusual (collections usually numbered six works). Graupner’s fertile imagination most notably manifests itself in the courantes. One finds in them a wholly original blend of the very different characteristics inherent to the French Courante and Italian Corrente. Graupner expresses himself freely in these pieces, letting his distinctive humorous side show through.
The two minuets from the Partita in F major also present a striking feature. They are not two alternating dances as it is customary to find paired in Galanterien (where Dance I is followed by Dance II and the reprise—ornamented by the performer—of Dance I, as is the case on this recording with the minuets, gavottes and airs en gavotte of the unclassified partitas). The first minuet of the partita in F major is in the 17th-century French style and should by played slowly. (It in fact recalls Lully’s famous minuet “Dans nos bois Silvandre s’écrit” arranged by D’Anglebert.) The second one is a galant minuet, in the fashionable style of the time.
The gigue that closes Partita II in C minor is a genuine fugue, in the best tradition as inherited from Kunhau. This is the kind of piece that prompted Marpurg (Abhandlung der Fuge, 1754) to cite Graupner as an example. Bach also uses this older type of gigue in his partitas in A minor and E minor (1725).
The Partien auf das Clavier show Graupner as a virtuoso harpsichordist truly fond of the keyboard, as a learned, gifted composer with many talents who expresses himself with spirit, delight, sensuality, melancholy, and emotion. His talent, skill, inventiveness, and knowledge are beguiling. Rarely has a composer for the harpsichord written with such assurance and shown such mastery at drawing so varied a palette of colours from the instrument (for example, the arpeggio of Variation IV from the Sarabande in F major). Above all, it is Graupner’s imagination and his capacity to unify the movements of a partita that allowed him to create such powerful and original works.
Instrument used in this recording: Hubbard Broekman 2002, Hamburg-style large double manual harpsichord after the designs practices of H. A. Hass, ca. 1730’s.
Range: 61 notes, five octaves, FF-f”’, transposing. Disposition (listed front to back): Upper manual: Lute (nasale), 1 x 8′ (dogleg); Lower manual: 1 x 4′, 1 x 8′ (buff stop), 1 x 16′. Lower manual slides to engage upper-manual (dogleg) jacks (the lute is not available from the lower manual).
The handstops are on the wrestplank and not convenient for quick changes. Dimensions: Length 2745 mm, (9′); width 1065 mm, (3′ 6″).
© Geneviève Soly, January 4, 2003