"Why have all eminent men, whether philosophers, statesmen, poets or artists, so obviously been melancholics?"
This question forms the opening of a treatise attributed to Aristotle. The doctrine of the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic) associates the melancholic with the most varied phenomena: the planet Saturn, the autumn (also in the sense of the autumn of life), twilight, cold, avarice, but also genius, geometry, and brooding profundity of thought. Dürer condenses this multiplicity of motifs with extreme concentration in his celebrated and enigmatic engraving Melencolia I of 1514.
"Wherever you look, you see only vanity on earth." The opening lines of the well-known poem by Andreas Gryphius might serve as the motto for a specifically Baroque interpretation of the topic of melancholy. Vanitas pictures were among the favourite themes of painters: a radiant young woman, her head lowered, observes a smouldering candle (Georges de La Tour); another is sunk in meditation over a skull that she holds in her hands; her face lies in shadow, while in the background we perceive a ruined landscape (Domenico Fetti).
My programme is devoted to musical representations of Vanitas in seventeenth-century France and Germany. The tombeau (tomb) and the plainte (lament) are typical genres of French lute music which also found their way into the repertory of harpsichordists. The style brisé, the arpeggiated style of the lutenists, was transferred to the harpsichord by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières and Louis Couperin. The gently broken chords, the melody that pauses, hesitates, then disappears, were from the first closely related to the affect of the lamento. The stasis, the suspension of rhythmic continuity, of the pulse, already take this music close to the memento mori in its style of writing. Meditative spaces open up, symbolising silence, emptiness, or solitude; funeral bells toll. Conversely, regular movement often represents the passing of time, the flow and trickling away of water as of life, or the solemn tread of the pompe funèbre, the funeral cortege. The topos of twilight and darkness finds its musical equivalent in descending melodic lines (catabasis) or the predilection for low registers overcast by chromaticism. And finally, the ostinato conception of the frequent chaconnes and passacaglias may readily be understood as a symbol of ineluctable fatality. Even the sound of a single note on the harpsichord as it decays can remind one of the transience of all earthly things. This was what the Antwerp harpsichord builder Andreas Ruckers meant when he placed on several of his instruments the inscription Sic transit gloria mundi.
I would like to thank Laurent Soumagnac for placing his wonderful harpsichord at my disposal for this disc, and Markus Fischinger for maintaining the instrument during the recording sessions. My very special gratitude goes to my friend and colleague Skip Sempé. He took the time for many inspiring conversations about French music of the seventeenth century.
© Andreas Staier
Translation: Charles Johnston
‘In 1767 I was summoned to Hamburg as director of music in the place of the late Kapellmeister Telemann. After repeatedly presenting my request most humbly, I was given my discharge by the King, and the King’s sister, Her Highness Princess Amalia of Prussia, granted me the favour of naming me her Kapellmeister on my departure. Since I have been here [in Hamburg] I have again received several very advantageous propositions to go elsewhere, but have declined them on each occasion.’ 1)
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach must have been glad to see the back of Berlin. For almost thirty years he had served as harpsichordist at the court of Frederick the Great – and put up with a routine distinctly lacking in variety, what is more for a meagre salary. Again and again he had to accompany the same royal flute solos, while his own works scarcely got a look-in. To be sure, during this period he had risen to the undisputed position of north Germany’s most celebrated composer, but that only made it ever more obvious how hopelessly overtaxed the musically conservative king was by the compositional extravaganzas of his harpsichordist. With his ‘summons’ to the Free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, an opportunity at last arose for Bach to escape dependence on the dictates of courtly taste for the freedom of a civic artist’s existence. From now on he would be in charge of music at the five principal Hamburg churches. Although church music had until now been far from his preoccupations, this necessary evil was sweetened by considerably higher emoluments than he had received in Berlin. And in any case, times had changed: in the Age of Enlightenment, sacred music had become increasingly marginal. For his performances of cantatas and Passions he made liberal use of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and, to an even greater extent, Georg Philipp Telemann. Occasional complaints about this could be brushed off easily enough, because Bach was not contractually bound to furnish compositions of his own. Although he did write a few large-scale vocal works in his Hamburg years, he intended them first and foremost as music for an audience of burghers in the concert hall, thus emulating the example of Handel rather than his father. He added to his oratorio Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the desert), completed in 1769, the observation that it could be performed ‘not just on solemn occasions, but at any time, in or out of church’.2)
Irrespective of his new obligations, which he treated somewhat casually, Bach remained primarily a composer of instrumental music. Like his father, who at much the same age had printed at his own expense the four parts of his Clavirübung (from the six Partitas to the Goldberg Variations), in which he placed before the public the essence of his output for keyboard instruments, Philipp Emanuel Bach published in his Hamburg period cycles of works whose encyclopaedic ambition clearly suggests they should be regarded as a definitive treatise on their respective genres: the Sei Concerti in 1772, the four Orchestersinfonien mit zwölf obligaten Stimmen (Orchestral symphonies in twelve obbligato parts)in 1780, and the six sets of Clavier-Sonaten und freye Fantasien, nebst einigen Rondos für Kenner und Liebhaber (Keyboard sonatas and free fantasias, together with a number of rondos, for connoisseurs and amateurs)in 1779-86. In this sense, the Sei Concerti can be seen as the first work of C. P. E. Bach’s later period.
‘We are at last able to announce to connoisseurs and amateurs of music the complete edition of the six splendid Harpsichord Concertos by our renowned Herr Bach, to which they have long looked forward with impatient expectation. All six of them correspond to the idea we had conceived of these masterpieces by a keyboard player of this calibre, who is familiar with all the refinements of his instrument. Noble melody, accompanied by the choicest harmony, and brilliant passages, perfectly suited to the instrument, in which the player can display his own skill and the specific assets of his instrument; and yet with all of that, an ease which Herr Bach has carefully introduced for the benefit of amateurs . . . The amateur may play these concertos as solo pieces, since the principal melody of the other instruments is always fully notated. In some places the fingerings are also indicated . . . The cadenzas, too, are fully written out . . .’3)
At that time instrumental concertos were printed only in exceptional circumstances, as the costs for producing the instrumental parts of an orchestral work were high, and a virtuoso genre was not likely to enjoy wide sales among amateurs. Bach nevertheless took the risk of publishing six concertos at a stroke. Their publication history shows the vigour and commitment with which he pursued this project. As far back as 1770 he had made it known that he was engaged in the composition of ‘six easy harpsichord concertos’4) (he used the word ‘Flügel’, which in the terminology of the time specifically meant the Kielflügel, that is the harpsichord, rather than any other keyboard instrument). The work was originally intended to be issued in Berlin by his publisher George Ludwig Winter. But Winter died while it was in press, and Bach got involved in lengthy and disagreeable altercations with his widow. In the meantime he turned for help to the Leipzig firm of Breitkopf, only to have the concertos finally printed at his own expense.
A publication as ambitious and costly as this one had to be made palatable to the wider public by the indication that these concertos were ‘easy’ enough for the amateur market, and indeed specifically tailored to it. But this may fairly be described as selling them under false pretences. In my opinion the Sei Concerti make no lesser demands on playing technique than other concertos which Bach wrote for his own use, and the possibility he mentions of playing the works as solo harpsichord pieces from the keyboard reduction in any case represents a poor substitute. Johann Sebastian Bach had already recommended his Clavirübung ‘to amateurs . . . to refresh their spirits’, although that work (by no means just the Goldberg Variations) demands far too much of any mere amateur in its sovereign lack of consideration of such a player’s technical equipment. Even in Mozart’s time, printed editions of orchestral works represented an exception that required a special marketing strategy. Of all his piano concertos he had only three printed, K413-415. He too was aiming at the amateur when he untruthfully claimed that the wind parts were merely ad libitum, so that these works could also be played be smaller domestic forces as piano quintets. Just how problematic it is to take the specification ‘für Liebhaber’ uncritically, at face value, is demonstrated by a comparison of C. P. E. Bach’s Sei Concerti with the slightly later Six String Symphonies Wq 182 (1773). Johann Friedrich Reichardt tells us how these works were commissioned: ‘At this time Bach composed especially for Baron van Swieten of Vienna six grand orchestral symphonies in which, in accordance with Swieten’s wishes, he was to indulge himself as much as he wanted without paying any heed to the difficulties this might create in performance.’5) This might lead one to expect that the symphonies would be worked out in considerably more complex and difficult fashion than the ‘easy harpsichord concertos’, but such an assumption is not at all borne out by analysis. On the contrary, the two sets may be seen in many respects as sister works, with the Sei Concerti, insofar as their cyclic form is concerned, even presenting more extravagant solutions than the string symphonies. And yet the adjective ‘easy’ has led to these concertos generally being treated as poor relations in the relevant specialist literature.
As far as I can see, in no other collection did Bach work through a specific formal concept so consistently in all its facets as in the Sei Concerti. Here all the movements in all six concertos are linked to each other by means of transitions, which means that each concerto is to be played attacca throughout. To be sure, such transitions are also to be found in many other works by him, but they mostly affect only two of the three movements, and above all they have less far-reaching effects on the cyclic form. In the present opus, by contrast, one has the impression that Bach wanted to handle the dramatic, rhetorical and, most important, form-creating potential of such seamless connections in a series of six concertos which refer to and comment on each other in many and various ways. Their arrangement is not linear, but concentric. The two most lucid, most clearly articulated concertos are placed at the beginning and the end. On the one hand, such symmetry remains close to Baroque principles of articulation, while on the other Bach thereby shows an accommodating approach to amateur musicians, whom he would at least welcome and take leave of with more accessible fare.
Concerto no.6 in C major was obviously designed as a cheerful, unproblematic play-out to the whole collection. In the bridges between the movements Bach takes his listeners by the hand, as it were, and leads them gently from one character to the next: a transition in the true sense of the word. At the end of the Allegro di molto the harpsichord quotes for the last time the opening motif of the principal theme, but now in darker harmonies, preparing for the wintry grey of the Larghetto. It is touching to observe how, at the end of the latter, a delicate breath of harmonic spring brings a thaw, from which the galant concluding Allegro emerges – blossoms, one is tempted to say. Concerto no.1 in F major is similarly calculated not to set the amateur too many puzzles. And yet it already carries the virus which will cause so much intellectually stimulating confusion. Here Bach links the movements in two diametrically opposing ways. The first movement is shorn of its final bars, as the already frequently heard suspension motif G sharp-A suddenly remains rooted to the suspended note; the latter (a fact the listener has no means of guessing at this point) is then reinterpreted as A flat, which is at the same time the first note of the melody of the Andante in F minor: here is the negation of transition, abruptio. The time of which we are cheated here is doubly and trebly repaid by Bach in the recitative-like close of the Andante, which dies away amid chromaticisms. The start of the third movement is constantly delayed, and its Prestissimo tempo when it is finally unleashed suggests an impatient reaction to an overlong wait.
In Concerto no.2 in D major unexpected features set in early. The fiery opening tutti of the first movement ends up turning into a swirling maelstrom which races up to and then breaks off on a dissonant seventh, whereupon the harpsichord soothingly and tenderly – now Andante instead of Allegro di molto – enters with an airy garland in the high register. Are we already in the second movement here? Was the first really so short? But very soon the Allegro di molto returns as if nothing untoward had happened – until a similar slow episode is interpolated at the corresponding point in the reprise (4:42). Even the final tutti of this movement is not granted closure. In much the same way as has already occurred twice before, it gets carried away, overexcited, and lands on a painful suspension. Another Andante starts up, in E minor and with an entirely new character: an oppressive, sultry cantilena played by the whole orchestra. Only now does the second movement really begin, and we listeners think we recognise in the two previous Andante sections whimsical incrustations within an otherwise regular concerto allegro. The slow orchestral cantilena dies away after only two melancholy, questioning phrases, on an imperfect cadence. Apparently coming from somewhere completely different, in the distant key of E major, the harpsichord replies with a graceful dolce passage (0:44). The longer this solo is spun out, the clearer the reminiscences of the Andante episodes inserted in the first movement become. Once again we must correct our view of the form, of the whole edifice: in the end, Allegro di molto and Andante blend into one large double movement, developing its fast and slow characters in parallel. In Concerto no.5 in G major too the simple question of how many movements the piece contains leads us right to the heart of Bach’s compositional laboratory. It begins, most unusually for a concerto, with a gentle, idyllic orchestral Adagio, directly followed by a Presto stated by the harpsichord. At the end of this movement the tutti rushes up to the fifth and then pauses. At this precise spot lies the key to understanding the whole. Because what follows is once again the calm Adagio of the opening, but now expanded into a fully-fledged slow movement in which the soloist now intervenes as well. So are we not dealing at all with a Presto preceded by a slow introduction, but perhaps with a sort of overture form, slow-fast-slow? But that would be asymmetrical, because the second Adagio is much more extended than the first. According to the way what has been heard up to now is classified and interpreted, it would be equally legitimate to regard the whole concerto as having two, three or four movements.
This is not mere hair-splitting, because in every work of art the relationship between detail and the whole is of crucial significance for aesthetic structure and perception. It is as if, in these concertos, Bach wanted to set a series of musical puzzles which constantly force us to reflect on our listening. Musical form has analogies with architectural form, but is not intelligible to us from the start; on the contrary, it reveals its meaning and proportions only through progression in time. It is necessary to recognise the implications of what is already past, has already been heard, and deduce from this expectations of what might develop from it in the future. The transparency with which Bach here creates disorder that will finally be brought to order once more, the forthrightness and accessibility with which this music explains and analyses itself, make these concertos exceptionally felicitous examples of a ‘rationalistic’ art of composition. This is precisely the point of Johann Friedrich Reichardt’s telling characterisation of Bach as a ‘serious humorist’.6)
Bach saves what are perhaps his most daring conceptions for the two central concertos. In Concerto no.3 in E flat major something happens for which I can see no parallels in the whole of musical history. The second movement, Larghetto, is in a radiant C major and seems to embody a bright alternative world to the dark, warm E flat major of the Allegro. But already after the first harpsichord solo something astonishing occurs: the tutti replies with the opening motif of the first movement. The exponents of musical Sturm und Drang, closely related in this respect to the early Romantics, made use from time to time of quotation to refer back, in the middle of one movement, to one heard earlier. This can be associated with the most diverse connotations: nostalgic memories, threatening portents, or diaphanous reverie. Whenever this is the case the composer takes a considerable risk, because he jeopardises the unity and logic of the movement’s flow; the device must therefore remain a highly significant exception. However, here Bach is far from remaining content with a single quotation. He sets in motion – and this is what is so unprecedented – a process of erosion in which the entire stock of motifs of the second movement is gradually replaced by material from the first.7) What should we call the result – a Larghetto that dreams of the Allegro? A movement infiltrated by another? In fact, are we really dealing with two separate movements? At the beginning of the Larghetto, yes; at the end, no. Just at the moment when this has completely evaporated, the Presto storms in with a theme which always obstinately starts in the ‘wrong’ key. Its very first appearance is an example of the calm precision with which Bach incorporates his most glaring contrasts into a larger context, for the apparently ‘wrong’ opening chord turns out to be a logical continuation of the sequence that concludes the Larghetto. The ultimate in cyclic consolidation is finally attained with Concerto no.4 in C minor. A large-scale, dramatic Allegro assai, situated somewhere between J. S. Bach’s more emotional organ music and Beethoven’s heroic style in mood and gesture, is cut in two more or less in the middle to make room for two longer episodes – or are they movements? After a fortissimo climax in F minor, an A major chord (seven accidentals away!) ushers in a wonderfully pale Poco adagio which seems to have wafted over from the hidden side of the moon. This rapt moment is followed by a very down-to-earth one, a boisterous, amusing minuet. When this draws to a close, one may wonder how the incoherence of these three characters can ever be welded into any sort of unity. At that moment the Allegro assai now takes up again exactly where it was interrupted by the Poco adagio. This leads into what is doubtless the most interesting cadenza in any of Bach’s harpsichord concertos (2:55). It reviews once more the three different tempos and characters of the concerto and in so doing seems to be asking itself the very question that preoccupies us too: is this work in one movement or in four? The most accurate way to describe it is probably as a fantasia for soloist and orchestra. Mozart’s famous Fantasia K475, also in C minor, is similarly constructed. It is clear that a fantasia for solo keyboard is the most appropriate framework for out-of-the-ordinary experiments. But the very fact that Bach dares to give an orchestral work an improvisatory format of this kind is one more indication of how far he departs from the level of the amateur musician in this collection. One would have to search for a long time to find comparable cyclic conceptions; at most, Schubert’s Wandererfantasie or Liszt’s B minor Sonata, composed many generations later, might be taken into consideration.
In the advertisement for the publication of the Sei Concerti quoted above it is specifically pointed out that – again to accommodate the amateur player – ‘all the cadenzas . . . are fully written out’. For concertos 1-5 this is certainly correct, but in the first movement of the sixth concerto I harbour certain doubts. After seventeen bars of a fully notated harpsichord solo (5:28) Bach once again alights on a six-four chord (5:57), with which cadenzas usually begin, so that I have a creeping suspicion that Bach may have been signifying to the ‘connoisseur’ with a wink that anyone who felt like it could introduce his or her own little improvisation here. Prompted by Bach’s retrospective cadenza in the fourth concerto, I have compiled a little bouquet of quotations from the five preceding concertos, which may remind the listener in sonic terms, and I hope not over-didactically, of how closely these Sei Concerti are interconnected.8) Two movements, the Allegretto in the second concerto and the minuet in the fourth, call for repeats of both sections. I have provided these with ‘modified repetitions’in the style of Bach’s celebrated set of six sonatas ‘mit veränderten Reprisen’ (Wq 50) of 1760.
The printed edition contains an instructive list of advance subscribers. Twelve copies went to Johann Friedrich Hartknoch, publisher of Immanuel Kant, in Riga, and six to the famous musical diarist Charles Burney in London. Otherwise, virtually all the important composers in north Germany were among those receiving copies: Bach’s younger brother Johann Christoph Friedrich in Bückeburg, Johann Friedrich Agricola, Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch, Johann Philipp Kirnberger in Berlin, Johann Gottfried Müthel in Riga. All the big cities of northern and eastern Europe, as far afield as Copenhagen, Warsaw and St Petersburg, are represented by several subscribers. The Catholic south, by contrast, mustered just three orders: one each from ‘Baron v. Dittmer in Vienna’, ‘Kantor Gebauer in Landshut’,and ‘Daniel Stockfleet in Cadiz’. Dittmer was an aristocrat from Mecklenburg who after a long period in the service of the ducal court at Schwerin was sent to Vienna as ambassador. Stockfleet came from a Hamburg merchant family whose business relationships extended as far as Cadiz9) – and the organist, Kantor and music teacher Gebauer from Landshut (near Munich) was also a Protestant.10) Hence this list is an astonishing demonstration of how closely religious confession and musical tastes were related. The writer and critic Friedrich Nicolai reported from the Austrian capital: ‘Among the leading connoisseurs of music in the ranks of the amateurs is Imperial Counsellor von Braun. He has an especial esteem for the compositions of the great Philipp Emanuel Bach. Of course, this means that he has the greater part of the Viennese public ranged against him. I myself have heard many an otherwise zealous and shrewd lover of music in Vienna speaking of Bach not merely with indifference, but even with thoroughgoing animosity.’11) Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart enumerates the reasons for this aversion: ‘The reproaches levelled at his pieces concern their wilful taste, often bizarreness, deliberately courted difficulty, the wayward music engraving . . . and their unwillingness to bend to fashion.’12) Bach’s experimental music found a sympathetic ear in Vienna only with Haydn and Beethoven – as both men always freely acknowledged. Haydn’s works from between 1760 and 1780, especially, show an intensive engagement with Bach on every page. Mozart comes close to Bach’s compositional style much more rarely. Aside from the aforementioned C minor Fantasia one may recall in particular the extravagances of the ‘Jeunehomme/Jenamy’ Concerto K271. Beethoven, on the other hand, had already been introduced to the north German Sturm und Drang idiom by Christian Gottlob Neefe in his early years. Surprisingly enough, it is in his late works, with modified stylistic premisses, that he returns to rhetorically motivated forms similar to those of Bach. The stark opposition of two radically contrasting characters in the first movement of his E major Sonata op.109 is a concept that can easily be traced back to Bach.
‘And this was probably what Father Haydn meant when he said he regarded him [C. P. E. Bach] as in a sense his teacher: in short – along with the emancipation of the mind from everything that was rigid mannerism in earlier music – the sovereignty, or at least the civic rights accorded to the individual particularities and changing moods of the master, if not in all his art, at least in his instrumental playing and his compositions for instruments.’13)
I am touched and delighted that Petra Müllejans and the Freiburger Barockorchester not only declared their willingness to go along with this extraordinary project, but also let my enthusiasm rub off on them. My hearty thanks to all involved! I would also like to say a big thank-you to a donor who prefers to remain anonymous for the financial support she gave to our costly recording. Contact with the lady in question was facilitated by Michael Ladenburg of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, to whom I also express my heartfelt thanks, and not only on that account.
© Andreas Staier
Translation: Charles Johnston
1) C. P. E. Bach, ‘Selbstbiographie’, in Carl Burney’s der Musik Doctors Tagebuch seiner Musikalischen Reisen (Hamburg: 1773), vol. 3, p. 200. [This autobiography was requested by the publisher of the German translation of Burney’s The Present State of Music in Germany (London: 1773) and does not appear in the English original, where Burney relates Bach’s life in the third person. (Translator’s note)]
2)Staats- und Gelehrte Zeitung des Hamburgischen unpartheyischen Correspondenten, issue dated 14.09.1774.
7) Three examples of this: (CD1) track 8 at 0:58 refers back to the beginning of track 7; track 8/2:04 refers to track 7/0:17. Even apparently free, non-thematic figurations are taken over from the first movement: compare track 8/1:19 with track 7/0:24.
10) Cf. Bayerisches Musiker-Lexikon Online, ed. Josef Focht, http://www.bmlo.lmu.de/g0134 (version of 30 September 2007).
A few months ago I completed the course of theory up to the canon . . . Otherwise, Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is my grammar book, and anyhow it is the best there is. I have dissected the fugues one by one down to their smallest ramification; they are most beneficial, and they have the effect of morally strengthening one’s whole being, for Bach was a man through and through; in him there are no half-measures, nothing sickly, everything is as if written for eternity. (1832)
One evening I went to the Leipzig cemetery to seek the resting place of a great man: I searched for hours, all over the place – but found no ‘J. S. Bach’. And when I asked the gravedigger about it, he shook his head over the obscurity of the man, as if to say: there were many Bachs. On the way home, I said to myself: ‘How poetic are the workings of chance! Lest we think of ephemeral dust, lest any image of the death that is our common fate should occur to us, chance has dispersed his ashes to the four winds, and so I will forever think of him sitting upright at his organ, in his finest array, with his works booming away below him, the congregation looking piously up, and perhaps also the angels looking down.’ (1836)
I often hear in my current compositions a host of things that I can scarcely interpret; in particular, it is strange how I conceive almost everything canonically, and it is only afterwards that I discover countermelodies, often also in inversions or inverted rhythms . . . (1838)
But most of Bach’s fugues are character pieces of the highest sort, some of them truly poetic creations, each of them demanding its own expression, its special nuances of light and shade. (1838)
But another way of progressing and enriching oneself with a view to creating something new is to study other great personalities. To be sure, one can present Mozart as a rebuttal of this view and say that a genius does not need to do so, indeed that he needs nothing at all; but who can tell us what Mozart would have produced if, for example, he had known Sebastian Bach in his full greatness? (1839 )
. . . however, the profoundly combinatory, poetic and fanciful [humoristisch] aspects of recent music mostly [have their] roots in Bach. (1840)
We know of course that Bach and other artists with a highly developed combinatory sense have produced quite marvellously structured pieces based on a few bars, or even notes, in which those initial motifs go through countless convolutions. These are artists whose inner ear created things so admirably delicate that the outer ear becomes aware of their skill only with the aid of the eyes. (1842)
Those whom you regard as musicians of the future, I regard as musicians of the present, and those whom you regard as musicians of the past (Bach, Handel, Beethoven) seem to me to be the finest musicians of the future. I can never consider spiritual beauty in its most perfect form as an ‘outmoded attitude’. (1854)
All his life, Bach was for Robert Schumann the supreme authority. The self-taught young man defined his conception of compositional mastery according to the criteria he found in Bach. Right from the start, there was more to this than a technique of polyphonic writing: ‘fugues are character pieces of the highest sort’, and therefore also, in their succinct portrayal of affects, a model for Schumann’s Romantic piano pieces. The mature composer sought refuge in Bach during his periodically recurring psychological crises: he set himself contrapuntal studies and analyses in the hope of regaining inspiration and mental stability. Hence Schumann’s lifelong preoccupation with Bach has little to do with historicism. Mozart and Beethoven were venerable geniuses of the past for him, but Bach increasingly became an omnipresent eminence, a challenge, an elixir of life.
Schumann showed his reverence for Bach in the most diverse ways. The Kinderszenen (Scenes from childhood) op.15(1838) are framed by two pieces whose titles hardly seem appropriate for the theme of ‘childhood’: Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign lands and people) at the start, Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks) at the end. The early Schumann loves hidden allusions, and here a detour seems to lead us to one of his favourite writers, E. T. A. Hoffmann.1) In the latter’s Kreisleriana appears an ‘unknown, burly man’, ‘oddly built and dressed’, who tells of ‘many unknown lands and peculiar people’. At another juncture it is implied that this stranger represents J. S. Bach, the mythical forefather, the ‘powerful authority from a distant, fabulous time’. Thus the Kinderszenen do not do not simply depict a day from childhood, but also revolve around the central theme of Hoffmann’s Kindermärchen (Children’s tales): recollection of childhood as the age when intuition and imagination were still unspoiled. Going hand in hand with this idea, the music’s recollection of the already distant era of the Baroque suggests that this could be a means to musical purification, and in the end offer a prospect for aesthetic progress. Schumann drops discreet hints of this programme – for example, right at the beginning of the first piece, Von fremden Ländern . . ., he places the B-A-C-H motif (B flat-A-C-B natural) in the tenor. At the end of the cycle ‘the poet’ strikes up a chorale – the Bachian genre par excellence –but then interrupts it with a recitative: he no longer sings, he ‘speaks’, and even then only hesitantly. This could be seen as a self-portrait of Schumann, of whom it was said: ‘He generally spoke little or not at all, even when he was asked something, or else only in disjointed remarks, which nonetheless betrayed his mental activity on a subject that interested him . . . In his manner of speaking he most often seemed to be muttering to himself, especially as he used his voice only in a weak and toneless way.’ The last melodic motif of the ‘poet’, G sharp-A-F sharp-G, turns out to be a transposed retrograde of B-A-C-H. The fragmentary nature of these short pieces is underlined by their multiple references to ‘the exterior’, the non-closed character of their content. Schumann evidently plays on these hidden meanings with the aim of confusing us: how are we to know whether we are still far from ferreting out the essential message – or are already guilty of boundless over-interpretation?
The short piece Thema from the Album für die Jugend (Album for the young) op.68(1848) represents another labyrinth. The title leads one to expect a distinctly conceived sonata or fugue theme, yet any clear-cut design is consciously avoided. Within a pseudo-polyphonic four-part texture, short motifs appear and then disappear, different each time; everything remains in flux. However, beneath the surface hide almost uninterrupted allusions to the B-A-C-H motif, although this is transposed and permuted; only once, in the very last bar, does it appear in its ‘original’ form – highlighted by the marking Nach und nach langsamer (Growing gradually slower), but again concealed by its division between soprano and alto registers: should this ‘theme’ be seen as the theme of Schumann’s own life?
Other pieces from the Album für die Jugend refer to Bach with pedagogical explicitness. The Protestant chorale Freue dich, o meine Seele is presented in simple and figured versions. And the middle section of the piece in F major, whose only marking is a cryptic ‘***’, should certainly be assimilated to a chorale too. Schumann’s youngest daughter Eugenie recounts: ‘When I asked my mother what the three little asterisks . . . could mean, she replied with a loving glance, “Perhaps they are parents’ thoughts about their children.”’ The Kleine Studie (Little study) refers back to the first prelude of The Well-Tempered Clavier, while the Kanonisches Liedchen (Little canonic song) shares with many other works the task of harnessing strict polyphony to serve Schumann’s personal idiom. It is no coincidence that the number that follows on directly from it is dedicated to the memory of Mendelssohn, who revived the St Matthew Passion and many other works by Bach. The subtitle of Erinnerung (Recollection), namely ‘4 November 1847’, is a reference to the date of Mendelssohn’s death.
Even in its title, the Scherzo, Gigue, Romanze und Fughette op.32(1838/9) already postulates the proximity between Baroque movement types and the Romantic character piece. The irony lies in the fact that the Gigue is a stricter fugue than the impressionistic Fughetta. The titles of the Waldszenen (Forest scenes), on the other hand, tend to make one forget the Baroque provenance of some of the movements: Verrufene Stelle (Haunted spot) and Vogel als Prophet (The prophet bird) undoubtedly derive from the dotted French overture.
The Sieben Clavierstücke in Fughettenform (Seven piano pieces in fughetta form) op.126 of 1853 represent the composer’s final encounter with the fugue. Once again the title suggests that ‘piano piece’ and fugue blend into a single entity for Schumann. It is doubtless for this reason also that the five slow pieces, nos. 1-3, 5 and 7, are based on markedly cantabile melodies, which seem to deny their function as fugue subjects. Although Schumann weaves a dense contrapuntal texture, he is careful never to allow this to rise to the surface, so as not to disturb the impression of quiet melancholy. He repeatedly interrupts the regular flow of complementary rhythms by coming to a standstill. These moments of loss of energy, of hesitation, these resigned pauses are arresting in their effect. The two fughettas in a lively tempo, nos. 4 and 6, on the other hand, although they begin almost as replicas of the Baroque style, subsequently diverge all the more emphatically from their origins: no.4 turns into a march, no.6 into an exaggerated study in unprepared dissonances. This op.126 has been repeatedly adduced as evidence of a falling off in Schumann’s creative powers. I find, on the contrary, that the work constitutes one of the rare felicitous instances in the nineteenth century in which polyphony is handled without any hint of pedantry! Here too the inevitable reference to B-A-C-H turns up: in the third fughetta the name motif appears at the precise moment when, after a soft opening, a thrusting crescendo begins.
I decided right from the start to respect Schumann’s much-discussed metronome marks2) – which exist for all the works presented here, with the exception of nos. 4, 14, 27, 28, 30, and 42 from the Album für die Jugend. The confusion over Schumann’s tempi set in early. Already in 1855, when Robert was still alive, Clara published a statement in Signale für die musikalische Welt in which she asserted that his metronome had been faulty, and therefore all his metronome marks were ‘much faster than the composer intended’. Nine years later, however, in the same periodical, she ate her words – yet went on to change certain metronome marks in her editions of her husband’s works, sometimes to a considerable extent! But the possibility of a defective metronome can never explain certain peculiarities of tempo, when sometimes within a single work – the Kinderszenen is the best example – many movements have an extremely quick metronome mark while in others the marked figure is astonishingly slow.
Schumann’s music seems, of its own accord and through its basic structure, to enjoy an unstable relationship with tempo. The music of the Baroque and Classical periods possessed tempi ordinari or giusti, that is to say movement types which experienced musicians could recognise at first glance and classify on the tempo scale. Even for Mendelssohn this is still true almost without qualification. But Schumann is perhaps the first composer whose pieces frequently do not reveal their inherent tempo, their pulse. During his tenure as director of music in Düsseldorf the musicians criticised him above all for his unreliability in matters of tempo. This is generally seen today as a symptom of his illness, but I wonder if this vagueness is not a deeply ingrained constitutive element of his music
What is more, Schumann’s sense of tempo changed significantly in the course of his creative life. The generally extremely quick works up to around 1840 contrast with the very measured late compositions from 1851 onwards – as can easily be observed in the present recording. For opp.32, 68 and 82 my conceptions were in any case very close to Schumann’s indications. The Kinderszenen set me the interesting and instructive task of throwing overboard all my listening habits in this almost over-familiar work. Now the original metronome markings make perfect sense to me; they are much better suited to the fragmentary, ‘speaking’ nature of these short sketches than our traditional, sentimentally drawn-out way of playing the work – let my listeners judge for themselves. But the Fughettas op.126, all of them indicated at extremely slow speeds, were a much bigger headache for me. In several cases my spontaneous choice of tempo lay far above Schumann’s marking – though admittedly I do consider myself a fairly impatient player . . . For a whole year I took up these pieces again and again in order to try to fathom their slowness. In the end I opted here to play the sixth fughetta about 12% faster than Schumann specifies; in the other fughettas I started off at the marked tempo for the exposition of the subject, and took a slightly more flowing speed after that.
Although virtually no other musician has left us such an enormous body of diaries and correspondence as the Schumanns, surprisingly little information is to be found on their instrumentarium. In 1838 Schumann praised the Viennese piano maker Conrad Graf, who presented Clara and Robert with a grand piano on their marriage in 1840. But later on his preferences seem to have changed. In 1853 he gave his wife a piano by the Düsseldorf firm of Klems, whose action and body closely parallel the construction of Érard instruments. Moreover, it is well documented that Clara Schumann repeatedly played Érards on concert tours. This is why I finally chose an Érard piano made in Paris in 1837. I express my warmest thanks to Edwin Beunk for placing this piano from his collection at my disposal for the recording, transporting and looking after it.
© Andreas Staier
Translation: Charles Johnston
1) I give here a rudimentary outline of Thomas Koenig’s argument in his essay Robert Schumanns Kinderszenen op.15 (Musik-Konzepte, special number Robert Schumann II, ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn– Munich: 1982)
Hieronymus Albrecht Hass is perhaps the most extravagant of all harpsichord builders – certainly the only one who could actually cause a scandal more than two hundred years after his death. He lived from 1689 to 1752, and it was in 1734, in Hamburg, that he built the harpsichord which prompted me to make this recording. Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal of Paris have produced a copy of the original (which is now in the Musée Instrumental in Brussels), and its completion is the happy event celebrated by this programme. No-one went further than Hass in striving to give the harpsichord a breadth and variety comparable to the organ. His instruments are the biggest and most richly equipped with registers of any built before the twentieth century. They show certain similarities in disposition with an anonymous and much revised and altered harpsichord now in Berlin, which was long incorrectly thought to be the instrument of J. S. Bach. This supposed ‘Bach harpsichord’ naturally enjoyed iconic status, and right up to the 1970s served as the model for all those oak-veneered monstrosities on which attempts were made to ferret out the aesthetic of the harpsichord by using the techniques and recipes of modern piano-building. A vain endeavour, as we have finally come to realise. For just as a figure like Stradivari was a master of his craft, there is little reason to suppose that the builders of keyboard instruments of his time were still all living in Neanderthal times, and were in urgent need of being brought up to date and ‘improved’. Thus, from around 1960, people gradually began to ponder the question of ‘original instruments’ and how to copy them as closely as possible. At the same time, musicians prescribed themselves a radical slimming diet: there was no further call for the overloaded and in any case doubtful ‘Bach harpsichords’, but rather for the simplicity and power of the single-manual Italian instrument or the subtlety and elegance of its French counterpart. Unfortunately, Hass became a victim of guilt by association: his creations were now seen as ‘the grotesque result of the barbarous imposition of tonal concepts appropriate to the organ’ (Frank Hubbard, 1965). Our approach to history generally moves in zigzags: today the time seems ripe once again to delight the world– or at least myself! – with a faithful copy of an instrument by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass. Listen for yourself . . . Musical instruments are made where music is played. Hamburg, the north German organ and harpsichord metropolis, was one of the most important musical centres in Germany – albeit almost unwillingly. The city was proud above all of its great port, ‘Germany’s gateway to the world’. This had long since brought its burghers such great prosperity that they did not mind spending a little on culture on the side. Thus it was in this stronghold of Protestantism that Germany’s first opera house was opened; and just as London drew musicians from all over Europe, so rich, liberal Hamburg was attractive to many of their German colleagues who were seeking an escape route from their frequently degrading duties at court or the narrow-mindedness of the provinces. It was not by chance that J. S. Bach’s first trip away from home took him northwards, and one can easily imagine how gladly, in later life, he would have exchanged the confines of Leipzig for the cosmopolitan Hanseatic free city. The purpose of young Bach’s journey was to hear the celebrated north German organists. Their output is too splendid and stirring for me to overlook it here – especially as this programme presents a harpsichord inspired by the organ. I have therefore permitted myself some digressions: back to the seventeenth century (Scheidemann, Weckmann), and outwards to the neighbouring towns of Lübeck (Buxtehude) and Lüneburg (Böhm). The magnet that drew Handel to Hamburg for some years was of course, in the first instance, the city’s opera. But he was also no mean keyboard virtuoso, as the opening Chaconne demonstrates. The earliest drafts of this piece date back to his time in Hamburg, though he only published it much later, in London, in 1721. Handel’s friend, the important writer on music and underrated composer Johann Mattheson, is represented here by two thoroughbass exercises which I have realised. Finally, this programme is a declaration of love to Georg Philipp Telemann, perhaps the wittiest, most charming and most cheerful composer Germany has ever produced. Indeed, his good humour has earned him almost greater disapproval from posterity (Adorno!) than the outrageous ease with which he composed . . . The only reproach I could level at him would be the fact that his enormous oeuvre contains so few keyboard works. This prompted me to arrange for harpsichord some movements from two of his orchestral suites which make programmatic references to Hamburg. In the process, my enthusiasm now and then went beyond what my own ten fingers could achieve. Ten more – and even more good ideas! – were contributed by Christine Schornsheim, my favourite colleague, who once again helped me to enrich a ‘solo’ recording. I am particularly delighted that the French composer Brice Pauset agreed to write an Entrée specially tailored for this newcomer among harpsichords. Like myself, he is a good friend of both the builders. The title and context of the little piece should explain clearly enough the choice of the cantus firmi on which it is based . . . Dear Anthony, dear Frédéric, dear Christine, dear Brice: I thank you with all my heart!
© Andreas Staier, July 2005
Translation: Charles Johnston
Mozart repeatedly protested against arbitrary ornamentation of his music. Anyway, who would believe himself capable of adding something more to the creations of a genius? Does not ‘classical’ stand for perfection, for the precision of a definitive formulation? But at second glance the question is a little more complicated than it seems at first. The context of Mozart’s remarks reveals musical practices of a kind we can scarcely imagine today. The fêted divas of opera, in particular, would stop at nothing. They poured their ever-ready all-purpose mixture of favourite clichés over defenceless and supposedly insignificant arias like so much ketchup. Who cared if contour, character and rhetoric were levelled down in the process, as long as the golden throat got its due? Instrumentalists, too, enjoyed treating the score like do-it-yourself enthusiasts, often with disastrous consequences.
For better or for worse, eighteenth-century music cannot be imagined without ad libitum ornamentation, and Mozart’s is no exception to the rule. Its closeness to improvisation is attested not least by the numerous works that exist in several versions, most of which differ from one another scarcely at all in the basic ideas, but much more so in the style and degree of decoration they feature. The slow movement of the F-major sonata played here appears in the autograph in a simple version, while the first printed edition adds breathtaking fioriture of which we cannot even be certain that they originate with the composer himself. On this matter I go along with the dominant opinion: who else but Mozart would have had such elegance and refinement at his disposal? Philologically, that is a weak argument, and we will have to say goodbye, and not only for this Adagio, to the utopia of the final and definitive, ‘classical’ (that word again) version. The playful first movement of the C-major sonata seems almost a parody of the notion that everything in classical music is set in stone, ‘this way and no other’. One cannot even say what its thematic kernel is, for as early as the third bar the opening motive has ironic note repetitions added to it, and at the recapitulation it sounds slightly different again – but really only slightly: anyone who doesn’t catch it misses nothing; but anyone who does notice it will take pleasure in a little touch of wit.
Excessive tinkering annoyed Mozart; that much we know. But it does not necessarily follow from this that that our fastidiousness nowadays in insisting on the printed text, the ‘Urtext’, serves his music any better. Perhaps he would find our playing pedestrian and boring. But perhaps, also, he was not as prissy and inflexible as all that, and what he was defending was not the sacred inviolability of each note, but the integrity of his conception. We are too far removed from the performance practice of the eighteenth century to be able to judge what ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ ornamentation might have meant for Mozart. In no circumstances can we rely on our own ‘spontaneous’ aesthetic sensorium, which is always much more strongly marked by the Neue Sachlichkeit of the twentieth century (‘ornament is crime’) than we admit to ourselves.
If the attempt to answer these questions founders on our ignorance, there are still others beyond them that are in principle unanswerable. The ‘musical work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility’ presents us with insoluble problems in this very field of ornamentation. Ornamental variations are mostly performed in repeats. But their meaning underwent a fundamental change with the retrievability of a work on a recorded sound carrier. While in earlier times the listener was grateful for every repeat, especially in demanding symphonic music, because in the case of certain works he only had the chance to hear them performed once in his life, the necessity for this has lapsed today. Independently of this reason, many repeats are indispensable for the proportions of a piece – but which of them are, when we get down to specific cases, is a question on which performers’ views are widely divergent.
The charm of any decoration lies precisely in the fact that each time it could have been something different. But if one fixes an embellishment on a CD, it is by that very fact reduced to nonsense. The listener is expected to repeat the same version again and again. Yet is that an argument in favour of complete abstinence? And what is one to do with a movement like the ‘Rondo alla turca’? It is well-nigh omnipresent, from Acapulco to Tokyo, and we can no longer say whether we really like it or not. We know it so much better than we would like to, and associate it with dreary hotel lobbies or check-in queues. Mozart would probably have been as shocked by the triumphal progress around the world of his little ethnic showpiece as he would have been flattered. How would he have reacted to that in his playing? I have allowed myself a personal comment . . .
© Andreas Staier
Translation: Charles Johnston