Moral Cantatas

Even deprived of the latest technological appurtenances, the earbudded slacker of today might have easily found her groove in eighteenth-century Hamburg. It was a thriving commercial and cultural center, the largest city in German-speaking Europe with a population rising steadily towards 100,000 by century’s end. Many social practices, institutions, and affectations flourished that historians would hasten to call “modern”: there were dozens of coffee houses where conversations, games, music, warming beverages, and even romance could be had; there were public concerts, many put on for the benefit of the local poor or for the victims of distant disasters (as in the musical initiatives in aid of the victims of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755). A capital of technology and trade, Hamburg was a place of luxury and leisure for those who could afford them. There was plenty of sugar for your coffee: the city was a leader of refining and consuming it. Then there was that new thing called free time that had to be made the most of with walks in town and out of it along the River Elbe. There was poetry to be read, music to be made.

The chief venue for this last activity was the opera house on the Gänsemarkt (Goose Market), the first public music theatre in northern Europe founded in 1678; in the eighteenth century it lavishly staged works of George Frideric Handel (for a few years in his late teens he’d lived in Hamburg) and his friend Georg Philipp Telemann (the city’s Director of Music from 1721 until his death 1767). With uncharacteristic pithiness, Johann Mattheson, the most prolific and cosmopolitan of writers among Hamburg’s many prolific cosmopolitans, laid bare the relationship between cash and culture in 1728: “Wherever the best banks are, there one will find the best opera.” Wealth nourished the arts, both public and private: money made sophisticated music possible for the successful, alone and amongst fellow burgers.

Like ours it was an age of entertainment by subscription—for operas, concerts, plays, newspapers, magazines, and music journals and printed pieces. Perhaps most modern of all were those services that helped enliven things at home with music, not just for passive enjoyment à la Sonos streaming, but through doing. You had to make your own fun, but in Hamburg you could get the help of the latest software—up-to-date sheet music—from the industry leader.

That leader was Telemann—the Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) of his day when it came to music subscriptions. He vigorously marketed his chamber music and even engraved it himself for purchase and play by patricians, burgers, and fellow professionals in Hamburg, across Germany and beyond. From 1715 through the late 1730s Telemann issued forty-six new editions of his works. Even Handel, that pre-Napster pirate eager to snatch a few musical ideas from his friend, was a sometime subscriber from across the North Sea in London. These transactions made the musical merchant rich: Telemann’s publishing ventures brought in a few thousand Reichsthaler every year—two or three (or even four) times his music director’s salary that, even without his extra business income, equaled the salaries of Hamburg’s mayors.

To bring Telemann’s sounding pleasantries into the well-furnished home required the proper technology and training: not Apple TV or Xbox, but a harpsichord, and perhaps a cello, violin and flute, plus the ability to sing and read music. Musical leisure was not as cheap as it is now.

As always—but especially so in a church-going city where Christian values were literally trumpeted from organ loft and clocktower—affluence bred anxiety. How to feel good about—or, as Simon Schama put it, not be embarrassed by—having so much.

One form of music therapy for the well-to-do facing this conundrum of complacency was the curious genre of the moral cantata. Telemann issued two sets of six in 1725 and 1726 respectively; the first installment was for harpsichord, with optional cello, and voice (of any register—thus expanding the appeal); the second volume augmented the ensemble with an obbligato part to be played either by violin or flute. Like the best games, the music Telemann offered for sale was challenging but not so difficult as to be discouraging: it was meant to entertain amateurs and experts alike. The warning for this musical medication did not need to be printed on the title-page: everyone knew that individual results would vary.

The themes of the moral cantata were similarly unthreatening. Many were the paeans to rural activities like wayfaring, fishing, and animal husbandry. Eighteenth-century wellness activities like tobacco smoking and coffee drinking—though not yoga—were hymned. Music, too, could be praised in the very doing of it. The joys and pitfalls of love were always available to feed the imagination and the market.

Thus urban folk pined for fresh country air; busy merchants longed for a good pipe and the pleasures of indolence; the spurned thought of love. But it’s pretty impossible and very stupid to lug a sumptuously veneered two-manual harpsichord over rough roads and across green pastures. These pieces are often about precisely what you don’t have at the moment, as in country delights while ensconced in the city.

Such congenial contradictions are reflected most blithely in one of the genre’s favorite topics—the renunciation of worldly possessions. But worldly possessions are exactly what Telemann’s airing of this sentiment happens to require: a harpsichord for starters; then a flute, maybe a violin; chairs to sit on. Landscape paintings on the walls, a coffee service to enjoy the trendy drink during and after the music: these would be nice, too. And don’t forget the cost of the subscription for Telemann’s latest.

No one has chronicled Telemann’s compositional and capitalistic creativity as rigorously and gracefully as Steven Zohn, whose hefty, but ceaselessly engaging book, Music for a Mixed Taste: Style, Genre, and Meaning in Telemann’s Instrumental Works (Oxford, 2008; paperback edition 2015) rightly extols the genius and resourcefulness of this unique figure, one so vigorously involved in his own time, but whose musical legacy brightens our own. Telemann was proud not only of his marketplace savvy but also, as a university graduate, of his humanistic learning. Like Telemann, Zohn is a scholar and a practicing musician, a baroque flutist of taste and technique with whom I’ve been lucky enough to play on many occasions — even joining up for Die Tonkunst (The Art of Music) of 1726, also heard on this first complete recording of Telemann’s second set of moral cantatas. Zohn’s commentary in the booklet is elegant and illuminating, detailing the intellectual and social context for the genre and clearly describing the musical textures and forms the composer used to animate the moral texts supplied by the Hamburg teenager Johann Joachim Daniel Zimmermann. That this high-schooler could wax poetic on a life of noble poverty and kindred topics shows just how facile such philosophizing could be (perhaps had to be) when served up for bourgeois delight. But the reliance on rhetorical formula doesn’t sap the appealing verve of this music and the bright spontaneity of its performance by Zohn and his friends: the buoyant bass-line support of Eve Miller on baroque cello, and the imaginative but never intrusive continuo accompaniment from Leon Schelhase on harpsichord. (One might like to know what instruments they play, but this information is not supplied.)

The opening cantata covers ever-elusive contentment (Die Zufriedenheit) in just over ten minutes (the rest of the cantatas come in at just under ten). The central message expressed matter-of-factly in the recitative calls that man “happy, if he lives satisfied at his plow. / Who covets nothing can well be called rich.” That patronizing cant works rather against the advice of keyboard tutors of the day that recommended the avoidance of all manual labor. The pseudo-rustic cello drone of the cantata’s closing movement suggests that life is more fun without the encumbrance of things—with the exception of flute, cello, and harpsichord. This is music that breezes over idyllic fields, the flute line curling and eddying with gallant irregularity not the dogged straightness of the plow. Zohn’s shimmering ornamentation, unpredictable but always natural, captivates on the returns to the opening sections, as if to say there can be contentment in variety. It might event be better than eating the dust of oxen all day.

Telemann redeems such sanctimonious treatment of the rural poor with his light touch, as in the third cantata, “Moderate Happiness” (Das maßige Glück) where the contrast between the chic finery of the stylish and the dust-grubbing of the rabble is evoked with pairs of airy lines, the first in major, the second in minor, the music echoing into silences, captured artfully in this well-produced and well-engineered recording.

Each movement is introduced by an instrumental ritornello whose subtle meanings become clear only once the text is delivered, here by the great American soprano, Julianne Baird, lithe of voice, clear of diction, clever with her own ornaments, and operatic when the moment calls for it, as in the rage aria of the third cantata Die Liebe” (Love):

You are a great monster,
An arrow, a net, poison, a fire,
And yet, O love, I laugh at you

(The excellent translations in the booklet are by Lawrence Rosenwald).

Baird cackles down the scale at the close leading to the cadence at the close of the first section after she has the clarity of her trill and brandished her coloratura with devastating accuracy and expression. The band spurs her fury on. The flamboyant mockery of Zohn and Baird seem as easy as swiping left.

From turbulence the sequence of cantatas turns back toward the calm land: another drone sets the scene for “Die Landlust” (Rural Pleasures) and the set closes with a not uncynical account of “Freundschaft” (Friendship), its stylish morality might be right at home in our own immoral times.

To close the CD the instrumentalists must make their own meanings in a bravura Telemann sonata—full of shadowy pathos and sparkling panache—from 1734.

Enlightened metropolitans of today would surely condemn the aesthetic exploitation of peasants and proto-proles heard on this wonderful disc. Still, such guilty pleasures might make any harpsichord-playing hipster and his hipster friends yearn for that century when the culture industry was in its infancy and the likes of Telemann set the algorithms of taste.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at