Quadro Melante: a programme of Bach, Telemann, and Rameau

If any musician can be said to have been the ‘French Bach,’ it would be Jean-Phillippe Rameau. Just as Sebastian Bach stayed true to the already outmoded models of his early training, Rameau, who spent the first fifty years of his life as a theorist and obscure provincial organist, stayed true to the traditions of French dramatic music as codified in the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) a generation earlier. And yet, as with Bach, the conservatism of this well-trained man enabled him to introduce changes and innovations in music that were unthinkable to the majority of French Baroque composers. In spite of his reputation as an armchair musician, Rameau succeeding in exploding onto the French musical scene at the relatively late age of fifty with the opera Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Written on a libretto based on Racine’s celebrated Phedre, Hippolyte et Aricie was of such a novel musical character that thirty years after the work’s premier, the Mercure de France, the literary standard-bearer of a culture not given to a ready interest in the artistic antiquarianism (for in the eighteenth century, even music thirty years old was thought to be ‘antique!’), wrote of it: ‘this opera was the time when the revolution took place in music in France and there was fresh progress. People were at first astonished by music much more laden and richer in images than they were wont to hear on the stage.’ It may be that French musical society was not ready to accept that any music from the pen of a theorist could be anything but dry, and Rameau, smarting from such prejudices, was certainly quick to defend himself on this point. In a letter to the poet La Motte, he wrote, perhaps a bit self-righteously: ‘I cannot deny that I am a musician; but at least I have more than others the knowledge of colours and shades of which they have but a confused feeling and which they use in due proportion only by chance. They have taste and imagination, but confined in the store of their sensations where the different things cluster in a little path of colours beyond which they perceive nothing.’

Rameau was able to bring his combination of a keen dramatic sense and cultivated musical technique to the realm of instrumental music. His achievements in keyboard music are well-known in our own age, the suites and various pieces for harpsichord appreciated by audiences for their entertaining virtuosity and the broad brush-strokes Rameau used to paint striking musical images. The 1741 Pieces de Clavecin en Concert (literally, ‘harpsichord pieces in concerto [form]’) are, like the solo keyboard pieces, infused with this gift for theatre; and, in the realm of technique and form, they are quite innovative. Prior to this point, the harpsichord in the context of French chamber music was generally confined to the role of the basse-continue, as the keyboardist provided his colleagues with improvised chordal accompaniments emanating from the harmonies implied by the movement of the bass. Rameau was the first French composer to give the keyboard a fully-written role, combining the virtuosic demands made by solo harpsichord music with accompanying and complementary parts for other solo instruments (in this case, the violin and viola de gambe). The normally subservient harpsichord trumps his dominant partners and thus the roles are reversed.

In keeping with the French Baroque convention of providing pieces of music with names of literary or social characters and images, the movements of the first concert from the collection of 1741 are named for fashionable, even ‘trendy’ contemporary items. The opening ‘La Coulicam’ is probably named for Thamas Kouli Khan, a quasi-fictitious character in the wildly popular History of the Revolutions of Persia by the Abbe du Cerceau. This could explain the tinge of exoticism that defines the piece’s otherwise ironic nature. The melancholy ‘La Livri’ is named for the Comte de Livry, a benefactor of Rameau’s who had just died before the publication of the trios. The concluding ‘Le Vezinet’ recalls a suburb of Paris which – alas, no longer – was a bucolic meadow. Thus, in the ascending scales which define this movement, perhaps we can hear an insouciante promenade in the countryside.

About the viola ad gamba and ‘cello virtuoso Anton Liedl very little – not even the date of his birth – is properly known. Liedl was fortunate enough to have spent a number of years at the Court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, the viola ad gamba and baryton-obsessed Hungarian aristocrat who is better known today for having been the devoted patron of Haydn, and his years at the Esterhazy Palace must certainly have encouraged his compositional interests focused mainly on those instruments. After being discharged from the Prince’s service in 1774, Liedl seems to have made his way to Amsterdam and Paris (where he published a few works for ‘cello), and eventually made his way to London. In the British capital, he must have made quite an impression as a performer; an anonymous reviewer in the Almanack (1782) remarked: ‘His performance united the most charming sweetness to German vigour, the most surprising syncopations with the most harmonious melody.’ Perhaps the same can be said of his D-Major Sonata for viola ad gamba. This sonata is a strange bird indeed – for one, the style of the Galant has been superimposed upon an instrument that by the mid-eighteenth century was already out of fashion. And yet, Liedl makes full use of the gamba’s gift for making full and rich chords and, in the second movement we find that perhaps the gamba is not so foreign to the Empfindsamer Stil (literally, the ‘sensitive style’) after all. Remarkably, the delicate voice of the gamba reminds us that, after all, late eighteenth-century novelists did have a penchant for consumptive lovers. But then, lest we follow young Werther to that same linden tree, we return to a bit of frivolity with the concluding rondeau, based on a contredanse that belies its composer’s Austrian origins.

In contrast to the trios of Rameau or the sonata of Liedl, the origins of Bach’s Musical Offering (BWV 1079) are hardly shrouded in mystery. In fact, the events which led to the composition of this very unique work seem to have involved the most contemporary ‘media exposure’ that J.S. Bach ever received in his lifetime. In 1747, Bach travelled from Leipzig to see his son Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788), who was living in Berlin as court harpsichordist to Frederick the Great. The 11 May 1747 issue of the Spenersche Zeitung of Berlin reported:

From Potsdam comes the news that last Sunday [7 May] the famous Capellmeister from Leipzig, Herr Bach, arrived with the intention of hearing and enjoying the excellent royal music there. In the evening, at about the time when the customary chamber music in the royal apartments begins, His Majesty was informed that Capellmeister Bach had arrived in Potsdam, and that he was at that very moment in the king’s antechamber awaiting His Majesty’s permission to listen to the music. The king immediately ordered that he should be allowed to enter, and as he did so His Majesty went to the so-called forte and piano and condescended, in person and without any preparation, to play to Capellmeister Bach a theme on which to improvise a fugue. This the Capellmeister did so successfully that not only was His Majesty moved to express his most gracious satisfaction with it, but all those present were astonished. Herr Bach found the theme he was given of such unusual beauty that he intends to work it out on paper as a regular fugue and have it engraved on copper…in the evening His Majesty once again commanded him to execute a fugue in six parts, which he did, with the same skill as on the previous occasion, to the king’s satisfaction and the admiration of everyone.

Five months after this visit, Bach published a series of canons, two fugues, and a trio sonata (including a part for the flute, the King’s own instrument), all based on the ‘Royal Theme,’ and gave it the title of Das Musicalisches Opfer – in other words, an offering to the Prussian king. The collection is an incredible achievement when one consider the nature of the fugue subject. In short, it is not a very good theme for a fugue – it is, in fact, so ungainly that it would take an astute musical mind to be able to issue such a challenge. So, we may ask: did the king himself really write this theme? Having seen a few of the king’s compositions, I personally consider this quite unlikely. For one, what are the chances that an amateur composer such as Frederick would have been able to write a theme upon which it is extremely difficult to write a fugue (to say nothing of improvising it on the spot)? Nothing else in the royal compositional output suggests any interest on the monarch’s part in contrapuntal games. On the other hand, Carl Philipp Emanuel would have been the only one at the Berlin Court to have received a strong compositional training in counterpoint – after all, he was a Bach. And there is some evidence that prior to Bach’s visit in 1747, there had been some estrangement between father and son; J.S. Bach seems to have been a bit annoyed that C.P.E., after being sent to study the law at university, skipped school in order to become a composer. Furthermore, Sebastian Bach had always shown great preference for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784), in whose musical career he took great pride, perhaps at the expense of paying much attention to C.P.E. Could the scorned younger son have purposefully introduced a theme that his father would not, for once in his life, been able to improvise upon? The matter is certainly open to discussion. And Bach answered this challenge in true form, by writing in musical forms (the two fugues and sets of canons on the theme) that by 1747 were certainly thought to be outmoded.

As for the sonata itself, it is truly a compositional tour de force and makes extraordinary demands upon the performers. Throughout all four movements – most obviously in the second – Bach manages to state the ‘Royal Theme’ in at least one of the voices. Whereas in the second movement it simply appears as a secondary subject, the fourth movement makes use of it in decorated form as the principal theme. The slow movements, on the other hand, have something of the quality of a joke about them. Bach almost exaggerates his use of motifs of the Galant style (the modern style foreign to his own aesthetic but certainly that of his son, C.P.E.!) as if to make fun of modern music. Hardly a gesture or line goes by in the third movement without some melodic ‘sigh’ or harmonic false relation – this is Bach’s way of saying, perhaps: ‘My own style may be outdated, but I can master the new one better than the rest of you.’ An insult to the son, perhaps. After all, of C.P.E.’s music, old Sebastian was known to remark, ‘Prussian blue — it fades.’ And his flattery toward the king? There is no evidence that Frederick ever even acknowledge the gift.

Bach’s b-minor sonata for flute and obbligato harpsichord (BWV 1030) was probably written some twenty-odd years before the Musical Offering, during Bach’s years at the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Coethen. This sonata is certainly the masterpiece among Bach’s works for the flute. The charming principal theme of the first movement at first resembles the sort of insouciance that we would expect from a Baroque flute sonata, but Bach’s use of exaggerated chromaticism throughout – which overwhelms whatever melodic material there is – is almost out of place for a piece of chamber music. Indeed, this is the level of expression that one is generally used to finding in the master’s sacred music, with their texts typically exploring the Lutheran fascination with salvation, sin, and death. The peaceful middle movement features the sort of florid harpsichord accompaniment that Bach was said to have improvised. So wrote his student J.C. Kittel:

One of his most capable pupils always had to accompany on the harpsichord. It will easily be guessed that no one dared to put forward a meagre accompaniment. Nevertheless, one always had to be prepared to have Bach’s hands and fingers intervene among the hands and fingers of the player, and, without getting in the way of the latter, furnish the accompaniment with masses of harmonies which made an even greater impression than the unsuspected close proximity of the teacher.

The final movement is divided into sections. The introductory Presto introduces an angular theme (with a counterpoint in the left hand of the harpsichord) whose melodic consequent is simply the same theme turned upside down! The countersubject to this theme features running quavers which pass through all sorts of harmonies, thus recalling the madness of the first movement. Following a half cadence, we come to the second part of the final movement, an Allegro in 12/16 based on a rhythmic permutation of the principal theme of the Presto. As is heard in the trio from the Musical Offering, Bach’s motivic development is masterful as he manipulates and modifies a theme to serve his purpose in creating a truly unified and yet varied structure.

With the publication of the Nouveaux Suites en Quatuors (1738) of Georg-Philipp Telemann, the Baroque combination of flute, violin, stringed bass, and harpsichord truly reached its compositional peak. In September or early October 1737 Telemann – regarded in his own day as Germany’s leading composer (certainly more so than the under-appreciated J.S. Bach) – accepted an invitation from his French colleagues to visit Paris, where we stayed until the summer of 1738. Upon his arrival in the French capital, Telemann received great acclaim for a performance of his setting of Psalm LXXII (Deus judicium tuum) at the fashionable Concerts Spirituels, and presented six quartets – now popularly known as the ‘Paris Quartets’ – which were performed to the enthusiastic response of French high society. We are informed by contemporary reports that the first performances of these quartets were played in Paris by ‘Messrs. [Michel] Blavet, [Jean] Guignon, [and] [Jean-Baptiste] Forqueray,’ all three of them the foremost French virtuosi of the day. And, indeed, these quartets show a composer who was finally able to compose for professionals, as opposed to the sort of music Telemann was publishing back in Hamburg for amateur consumption. And we may see that professionals reciprocated Telemann’s interest in their skills – interestingly, in the subscribers list published by Telemann himself, we find a ‘Mr. Bach, de Leipzig.’ Just as we tend to punish Baroque composers whose only crime was that they weren’t Bach, we are often quick to judge Telemann as nothing more than a populist composer. But if Bach respected him (and named one of this sons after him), then surely we too must take a closer look.

The final quartet from the collection of 1738, in e-minor, shows Telemann at his best in what was called the ‘mixed style’ combining various national compositional characteristics. The opening Prelude is in the form of a French ouverture, the second section of which features violin writing in the Italian manner. The fourth movement presents a French gigue and an Italian giga in alternation. The penultimate ‘Distrait’ is typical of French pieces de caractere, and the last movement is written as a chaconne, the sort of monumental dance that closed a theatrical ballet or a tragic French opera. Telemann’s gift for the dramatic – not dissimilar to that of Rameau, though perhaps in a less demonstratively innovative vein – abounds in this music, so much so that one can imagine words being sung to some of the melodies, or the instruments akin to actors in a dialogue. But is this sort of writing really so strange for instrumental music, whether that of Telemann or Bach or Rameau or any genius who can touch hearts without the benefit of text? After all, the ancient rhetorician Quintilian, known well to many a musician of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, remarked:

Unlike music, oratory has no interest in the variation of arrangement and sound to suit the demands of the case. But eloquence does vary both tone and rhythm, expressing sublime thoughts with elevation, pleasing thoughts with sweetness, and ordinary with gentle utterance, and in every expression of its art is in sympathy with the emotions of which it [music] is the mouthpiece…For, as we know, different emotions are roused even by the various musical instruments, which are incapable of reproducing speech.

© Mahan Esfahani
Oxford, October 2010.