More often than not, decision-by-committee leads to rotten, belief-beggaring results. Just think of the Nobel committee granting last year’s Peace Prize to an American President, engaged in at least two wars.
In the annals of music history no committee’s decision has come in for more notoriety than that of the Leipzig Town Council, which, when in search of a new music director for the city, chose two candidates above J. S. Bach. History has since pushed Bach to the top spot in classical music, vaulting him past his competitors for the Leipzig gig and all composers since. The gold-plated disc that was bundled up with the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 allotted four of its twenty-five numbers to Bach, and even honored him with the opening track?the first movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto. (I don’t know how close that NASA music committee was to choosing the third movement of that same concerto, then the theme for William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, and lobbing it into the conservative cosmos.) Bach is number one on the heavenly jukebox.
Neither Georg Philipp Telemann nor Christoph Graupner made it beyond the biosphere. Telemann was the Leipzig committee’s first choice; he used the offer to sweeten his deal as director of music in Hamburg. Graupner, himself an alumnus of the school of St. Thomas where the Leipzig music director served as Cantor, could not secure release from his post atop the musical establishment of the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt. Bach was the best the committee thought it could get.
Itamar Moses’ intelligent and hilarious 2005 play Bach in Leipzig tells (with considerable license and few forgivable errors) the story of the Leipzig job search of 1723 from the self-serving viewpoints of all the candidates except Bach. Moses gives the Darmstadt Kapellmeister the following speech:
GRAUPNER: I’ve rejected the post! (Pause.) My purpose here was to defeat Telemann. Now I can accomplish only the opposite, affixing to my name, for all time, the moniker second choice. Instead, I shall return to Darmstadt and await my next chance to face him. And I shall not leave empty-handed. Before I left, I secured from my employers a promise that they would double my salary to keep me!
Another of the candidates archly informs Graupner that Telemann has done exactly the same thing. Beaten again, Graupner stalks off stage and out of the play.
Over the past couple of decades Telemann’s stock as a composer has been rising as more and more of the vast quantities of music he produced becomes available in good editions, and as convincing recordings proliferate. Now Graupner is getting at last some of his due. Those extra-terrestrial audiophiles would have dug Graupner, and one can understand why the Leipzig committee did too.
There are mountains of his music to dig?and to dig through. A composer of orchestral works, operas, keyboard suites for the edification and amusement of his employer, the musically talented Landgrave, Graupner left some 1400 cantatas. Over much of his half-century career at the Darmstadt court he composed a multi-movement sacred piece for instruments and voices every other Sunday and for feast days as well.
It is a something of a fluke that these stacks of manuscripts survive at all. Graupner wanted his entire oeuvre to be burned after his death, but instead his music became the object of legal wrangling between his heirs and the Landgrave, who claimed the manuscripts belonged to him since he’d paid for them. The court case was finally resolved some sixty years later, long after Graupner’s music had given up any and all claims to stylistic currency, or even relevance to the Darmstadt princes or anyone else. The result, however, was that the music survived its creator’s desire to erase himself from history.
Two centuries later the manuscripts again escaped a fiery death when they were removed from Darmstadt during World War II and were spared the destruction of Allied bombs. Languishing for so long on the edge of oblivion, the scores, housed in the University and State Library in the Darmstadt Palace, have been systematically digitized thanks to the Christoph Graupner Society and can be perused, downloaded, and admired for the flowing ease of the composer’s mind and pen, the visual beauty of his notated works, mirroring the elegant craft of his immense musical talent.
Rescued from the brink of extinction, that stack of scores comes bit-by-digital-bit back to life, and as the 250th anniversary year since Graupner’s death in 1760 expires, two fine recordings of his Christmas music have appeared in the last month. These follow up on a 2008 disc by the Rastatter Hofkapelle under the direction of J?rgen Ochs. This CD concludes in grand style with Graupner’s Magnificat performed on Christmas Eve 1722 in Leipzig, even before the Darmstadt composer had officially applied for the position as director of music there. It was clear from such a commission which musician the Leipzig city fathers wanted, if they couldn’t have Telemann. Graupner’s Magnificat delivered his appealing mix of festive spirit, energetic themes, imaginative harmonic turns, and towering polyphony. (The Magnificat can be heard on YouTube.)
The just-released offerings of this 250th-commemorative year only slightly deepen the dent into the nearly 200 cantatas Graupner wrote for Advent and Christmas alone, a number that nearly matches the sum total of Bach’s surviving vocal works.
From the Belgian choir Ex Tempore and orchestra the Mannheimer Hofkapelle (Mannheim court orchestra) both dedicated to the incipient Graupner revival, comes a sampling of nine cantatas on two discs from across the composer’s career. These disparate works are packaged as Ein Weihnachts Oratorium (A Christmas Oratorio), a transparent marketing attempt to capitalize on the enduring popularity of Bach’s own Christmas Oratorio. The group’s director Florian Heyerick, leading Graupner scholar and conductor of his music, freely admits in his informative and engaging liner notes that the composer never wrote a Christmas Oratorio. It’s the old bait-and-switch, and it seems that the posthumous Graupner will never get out from under the long shadow of the guy he beat out back in 1723.
Heyerick’s faux-Christmas Oratorio recording begins with Graupner’s cantata for the first Sunday of Advent of 1722, composed only a few weeks before the Leipzig performance of his Magnificat. First Advent marks the beginning of the church year and was typically afforded large doses of magisterial pomp by Lutheran composers. Indeed, the opening chorus begins with quaking organ chords followed by echoing F-major volleys from the hunting horn: is it the apocalypse or the beginning of the hunt? The strings spur the music on until the chorus enters with breathlessly exhorting chords setting the text from the thirteenth chapter of Romans (a text also used for a rousing chorus from Mendelssohn’s second symphony): “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” Graupner launches his musicians into the fray like a cavalry captain waving his sword; the cantata and the music chase away the darkness with directed abandon that batters its way to cataclysmic cadence, at which point a magisterial fugue ensues with a long sweeping subject setting the words “Let us walk then in honor as if it were full day.” The counterpoint is august, Handelian in its grandeur, striding surely through the moral world, drawing you into its majesty rather than merely impressing with its erudition. Marvel at how Graupner pulls back on the reins and turns the bracing gallop into the controlled grandeur of the princely promenade.
Graupner and his poet (his brother-in-law J. C. Lichtenberg) wisely cut Romans 13:13 short at this point, rather than continue on to one of prudish St. Paul’s classic utterances against sex: “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness”?chambering being a hobby that a long succession of mistress-loving Darmstadt princes practiced.
At its height the Darmstadt musical establishment boasted forty musicians, and these riches were exploited by Graupner in imaginative textures involving celebratory horns and trumpets, suave oboes, eloquent bassoons, and courtly flutes. In the last cantata recorded here, composed in 1753 for the Feast of the Epiphany, Graupner introduces two then-trendy chalumeaux?essentially recorders with clarinet-like mouthpieces. The opening choruses of this late piece sets the Chistmas chorale “From Heaven above I come” (Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her) in a style suggesting the regular patterns and gestures of current Italian opera, but Graupner animates this approach with baroque unpredictability and exuberance. The two chalumeaux race upward in parallel thirds in anticipation of each line of the chorale, before trailing off into silence at the movement’s close?not a flippant operatic conclusion to this ingenious setting, but more like a hushing of the music at the side of the newborn baby.
This marvelous recording shows Graupner to be an unsurpassed master of orchestral color, not only in melody instruments, but perhaps above all in his use of timpani, which he clearly liked to deploy in the Christmas season, and perhaps throughout the church year as well. The triumphant openings of several of these cantatas resound with celebratory drumbeats. But Graupner is unique in that he calls for four timpani, rather than the usual two; this allows him to keep the timpani involved in the music when it modulates beyond the home key. Graupner elevates the timpani’sg presence not only in fully concerted movements, but in solo arias, where its presence is as unlikely as it is compelling. Graupner began his cantata for the first day of Christmas in 1753 with full-on timpani-power jubilation. He demonstrates how unexpectedly intimate the timpani can become in the piece’s sixth movement (CD 2, track 2): this poised, almost tentative love duet between soprano and tenor to the words “Come my friend, my salvation, my king” begins with two flutes, oboe and violin tracing sensuous arabesques above stately horn sonorities with a walking bass tracked by the timpani, whose soft hollow, resonant thuds impart the gorgeous melodies with a unique message of longing. This duet could have been on the Voyager, and it should definitely be on the play list of all devotees of 18th-century.
The other brand new recording of Graupner Christmas cantatas comes from Hermann Max, the most important promoter and interpreter of the non-Bachian repertory of the 18th-century. Following the performance practices documented at the Darmstadt court, Max uses only one singer to a part, and this gives these recordings more a sense of their original ducal chapel milieu, rather than the more powerful chorus of Heyerick one would more readily associate with public spaces. Instead of the sumptuous assortment of horns, reeds, flutes, and timpani at Heyerick’s disposal, Max makes do with strings, a single oboe and bassoon. But Max’s lively and nuanced readings of Graupner’s less grandiose Christmas music reveals that the composer does not rely only on color and contrast; under Max’s expert and enlivening guidance, Graupner’s music convinces through the energy of his musical ideas and their ingenuity elaboration, always in the service of interpreting a text.
This year Graupner’s Christmas music will supplant Bach’s Oratorio for our household’s tree decorating. It was a decision arrived at, of course, by committee.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org