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Bach & his Contemporaries

Bach and his contemporaries

Jack Botelho wrote (April 12, 2004):
Bach and his contemporaries

"Among the few reviews that give an inkling of how Bach's music was regarded by his contemporaries are those of Johann Adolph Scheibe (1708-1776), editor and author of one of the earliest journals of music criticism. Scheibe placed Bach with Handel at the top of composers of keyboard music, a field in which he found Germans prominent because of their superior working out of structure and ornamentation. As an organist, harpsichordist, and clavichordist, Bach was esteemed by Scheibe as unsurpassable and rivaled by only one other, Handel. After Bach's Italian Concerto was published in 1735 in 'Clavier Ubung' (Keyboard Exercise), Part II, Scheibe proclaimed it a perfect model of a well-constructed concerto for keyboard alone, one deserving the imitation of all great composers. Foreigners, though, Scheibe warned in his chauvinistic way, would try in vain to match it. When other commentators, such as Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), wrote of Bach, they too singled out his organ music and organ playing.

"This one-sided picture given by contemporary critics of Bach's output is understandable. Keyboard music traveled more easily than cantatas, passions, and similar works. Many musicians on trips to Leipzig did hear performances of Bach's church works and admired them. Still, many probably sympathized with a remark made by Scheibe: 'Bach's church compositions are always more artificial and laborious, but by no means of such effect, conviction, and reasonable reflection as the works of Telemann and Graun.'

"Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was the first choice of the town council of Leipzig when the position of cantor of St Thomas became vacant by the death of Johann Kuhnau in 1722. Beside Telemann, most Germans would have placed Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) and Karl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) at the head of any list of the most celebrated and admired composers. Today the music of these last two is all but forgotten, however undeservedly. The reluctance of Bach's contemporaries to grant him the credit that the perspective of two centuries shows to be his due is an important historical fact that must not be lost in the later enthusiasm for his music.

"It is Scheibe again who presented the clearest statement of what people found least pleasing in Bach's music. It is, he says, unnatural, overly artful, and confused in its style. Both vocal and instrumental music are written as if meant for his own remarkable technique on the organ. He writes out all the ornaments instead of leaving them to the player and in so doing covers up the beauty of the melody and obscures the harmony. Instead of assigning the melody to one principal voice, he makes all voices equally busy and difficult. These tendencies make his music turgid, artificial, and somber, whereas, Scheibe proclaimed, it should be natural, simple, and noble.

'Indeed, we [Germans] have finally found in music too the true good taste, which Italy never showed us in its full beauty. Hasse and Graun, who are admired also by the Italians, demonstrate by their richly inventive, natural, and moving works how fine it is to possess and practice good taste.'

"In defending Bach against Scheibe's criticism, another editor of a musical periodical, Lorenz Christoph Mizler, made in 1738 a penetrating comment on Bach's historical position. 'If Mr Bach at times writes the inner parts more fully than other composers, he has taken as his model the music of twenty or twenty-five years ago.' Italian, French, and German music of the first decades of the eighteenth century, as Mizler perceived, was indeed the source of Bach's compositional practice, but he realized its possibilities in ways no one else had conceived.

"Is Bach's music, then, a culmination of the baroque period? To say so would be misleading. Bach did not lead the music of his time to a triumphant climax, for the characteristic styles of the period were in decline when Bach began his major compositions. These styles after around 1715 branched and trickled in countless directions and finally dried up. Bach's music, on the contrary, shooting off before the dispersion began, grew in strength and consistency. What he did with the resources inherited from his predecessors was a personal triumph. However, to the period in general Bach's mature works were, like Handel's oratorios, a postscript. The course of mid-eighteenth-century music would have been much the same without either. It is the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries that would have not been the same."

Palisca, Claude V: Baroque Music, third edition
Prentice-Hall Publishing, 1991.
pp.334-336

Claude V Palisca's comments (above) with regard to Bach's reception by his contemporaries, and the comparative neglect during our time of other contemporary composers hints that the musical 'taste's' of our age is quite different from those in the eighteenth century.

There is an old saying that time proves the merits of great art. I secretly hope that two hundred years from now, other composers' music of the eighteenth century will not become as popular as that of Bach's today. Or to put it rather crudely, I hope we will not all go to our graves without having heard the music of a now comparatively obscure, but 'future' great composer from the eighteenth century. 'Tastes' in music will of necessity have to change for that to happen.

Nessie Russell wrote (April 12, 2004):
Jack Botelho wrote:
"Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was the first choice of the town council of Leipzig when the position of cantor of St Thomas became vacant by the death of Johann Kuhnau in 1722. Beside Telemann, most Germans would have placed Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) and Karl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) at the head of any list of the most celebrated and admired composers."
I think Telemann is a very under-rated composer. His music is full of joy.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 12, 2004):
"Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was the first choice of the town council of Leipzig when the position of cantor of St Thomas became vacant by the death of Johann Kuhnau in 1722. Beside Telemann, most Germans would have placed Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783) and Karl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) at the head of any list of the most celebrated and admired composers. Today the music of these last two is all but forgotten, however undeservedly. The reluctance of Bach's contemporaries to grant him the credit that the perspective of two centuries shows to be his due is an important historical fact that must not be lost in the later enthusiasm for his music.”
There's an excellent article about Leipzig politics by Ulrich Siegele, dealing with the appointment of Bach to this post after the rejection of several others. I summarized part of this and it's archived on: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Topics/HIP-12.htm
...but see also the article in the book from which I cited it.

John Pike wrote (April 13, 2004):
[To Nessie Russell] I agree. He is under-rated now, though he wasn't by Bach himself. Bach thought well of Telemann's music and Telemann was godfather to CPE Bach. However, he is undoubtedly of much lower calibre than JSB. He wrote some very beautiful melodies, but I feel his development of musical ideas, originality and variability leave something to be desired.

Jack Botelho wrote (April 22, 2004):
[To John Pike] As discussed previously on this list, Bach was definitely not a mainstream or popular composer in his day, but rather more well known as a famous organist and highly respected keyboard composer among the specialists.

But there is no doubt: JSB is a very special composer. With Bach we are highly privileged to have extant most works of this "supreme connoisseur of composition" and the fact his music is so widespread today (and popular!) is a great success story, thanks to the efforts of generations of scholars and musicians.

 

Bach's Contemporaries

Douglas Cowling wrote (September 23, 2009):
Kim Patrick Clow wrote:
< I really can't say enough good things about this publication, it makes any other magazine about early music/ classical music look absolutely anemic. You can see some extracts online at: http://www.kings-music.co.uk/emr.htm. The next issue will feature many reviews of J.S. Bach recordings. >
There's also a link on the home page to a publishing site: http://www.primalamusica.com

They have editions of music of many composers in J.S. Bach's orbit: Altnickol, C.P.E. & Heinrich Bach, Fasch, Graun, Graupner, Handel, Stölzel and Zelenka.

I am so appallingly ignorant of much of the music which gives us a context for Bach that it was a valuable exercise to click on the sample first pages of the various editions. The three Latin masses of Fasch are particularly interesting.

Worth perusing.

 

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Last update: ýSeptember 27, 2009 ý09:34:06