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Johann Mattheson & Bach

Mattheson and the new rationalism

Jack Botelho wrote (December 7, 2003):
"By the beginning of the 18th century, German opinion was becoming subject to the spirit of rationalism. Many devout Lutherans welcomed the fresh attitudes fostered by the philosophers. The musical writings of Mattheson, for example, breathe the spirit of the new age. He argued for a fundamentally new approach to music in German society, and saw the key to its acceptance as being a change in the traditional view of musical education which held as its main aim the provision of able singers for the chorales on Sundays. He wished for a new openness towards music in all its aspects, which would keep up with the latest developments in music and not be obsessed with the past. Mattheson bemoaned the fact that music could not be studied as an independent science at the universities, and expressed a desire to establish an endowment for a professional chair in music at Leipzig. However, he also commented that if a suitable teacher could be found for the school of his home town (thus at a more fundamental level in society), he would like that ten times more. In Hamburg, Mattheson found himself at odds with a less progressively minded Stadtkantor, but he managed to find a refuge for his views at the cathedral, because this was an imperial institution and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Stadtkantor. Here Mattheson was able to adopt all the latest developments in musical style, and also to employ singers from the opera, pioneering the use of women in church music. Mattheson's radical opinions brought him into confrontation not only with members of the Hamburg establishment but also with traditionalists all over North Germany. A pamphlet appeared from the theology faculty at the University of Gottingen which condemned Mattheson's acceptance of the new 'theatralisches Kirchenmusic', and a major criticism of his views written by the town organist at Erfurt challenged Mattheson's questioning of traditional music theory. Mattheson did much work as a translator, of both political and musical documents, and his interest in philology helped to establish a thorough German vocabulary for musical criticism. In his 'Critica musica', the first German music periodical, Mattheson reproduced the famous articles of Raguenet and Le Cerf de La Vieville on the relative merits of French and Italian music in both the original French, and, in columns opposite, German translation.

"The writings of Mattheson and others like him may be viewed as a significant branch of the revival of literature in 18th-century Germany. In addition to periodicals, major dictionaries and biographical works appeared during the course of the century, as well as treatises on performance, and these placed Germany in the forefront of European musical literature. Initially the leading free towns of Hamburg and Leipzig were the centres for the new publications, but with the accession to the Prussian throne of Frederick the Great in 1740, Berlin became increasingly important."

Webber, Geoffrey: "German Courts and Cities" in
Sadie, Julie Anne: Companion to Baroque Music
London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1990.
p. 156-157


Johann Mattheson - a basic overview

Jack Botelho wrote (January 29, 2004):
Johann Mattheson (1681-1764)

"Hamburg composer and important writer who chronicled the transition from German Baroque to pre-Classical styles in his books, his periodical "Critica musica" – the first German music periodical - and his theoretical treatises. As the son of a tax collector, Mattheson benefited from family wealth and ambition: as a child he was instructed in foreign languages, fencing, riding, dancing and drawing as well as on musical instruments (organ, viol, violin, flute, oboe and lute); later he studied law and education at the Johanneum.

During the 1690s he served for a time as a page at the court of the Count von Guldenlow and began singing in the chorus and taking minor roles in Hamburg Opera productions. He made his debut with the company as a soprano soloist in 1696, but within a year his voice had changed and so from 1697 until 1705 he sang tenor roles. In all, he took part in about 65 new operas, also conducting (under J.G. Conradi, J.S. Kusser - from whom he acquired knowledge of the Italian style - and Reinhard Keiser) and composing his own operas, of which "Die Plejades" (1699) was the first.

He befriended the young Händel (four years his junior) on the latter's arrival in Hamburg in 1703, guided him in his first efforts to compose dramatic music and secured a place for him among the second violins and as a deputy harpsichordist in the opera orchestra. In the late summer that first year they traveled together to nearby Lübeck to meet Buxtehude (and his daughter), who was retiring from his organ post at the Marienkirche. However, their friendship was severely tested by an incident which took place during a performance of Mattheson's "Cleopatra" in 1704: a disagreement erupted when Mattheson, who was singing the role of Antonius, attempted to unseat Händel at the harpsichord after Antonius's suicide in the middle of the third act; when Händel refused to retire Mattheson challenged him to a duel. Händel's life was said to have been saved by a well-placed coat button. That Mattheson took the leading role in Händel's "Almira" in 1705 is evidence that, having spent their passions, they were able to repair their friendship.

Although an accomplished - indeed, it is said, virtuoso - organist, Mattheson never took up any of the posts, available or proffered, such as that at Lübeck or as Reincken's successor at the Catharinenkirche. Instead, he became tutor to the son of Sir John Wich, the English ambassador, and then long-serving secretary to Wich himself in 1706. Because of his background, Mattheson rose with ease to the demands of his new post. He was entrusted with diplomatic missions abroad as the ambassador's official representative, becoming an excellent English speaker, well versed in English law, politics and economics. In 1709 he married an English woman. Far from abandoning his career in music, Mattheson took on additional responsibilities as music director of the cathedral (1715-28) and as Kapellmeister to the Duke of Holstein (1719), all the while remaining in the service of Sir John.

During the next quarter of a century, Mattheson was extremely prolific as a composer and writer, producing many translations of English books, pamphlets and articles. Among the music he composed were cantatas, serenades, a Magnificat and an oratorio, "Das Lied des Lammes". Increasing deafness forced his retirement from the cathedral as early as 1728, although he continued to compose until as late as 1760, when he produced his own funeral oratorio, "Das frohliche Sterbelied", which Telemann conducted four years later.

His first (and most far-reaching) book on music was "Das neu-eroffnete Orchestre" (1713). In it he attempted to sweep away the traditional attitudes on music theory (such as the validity of solmization and the church modes for contemporary music) and aesthetics, and to encourage their re-examination and reformulation. To his ear the interval of a fourth could be considered either consonant or dissonant, according to the context; major and minor scales could be shown to have different affective connotations. He also made a plea for native German composers to assert themselves more decisively instead of acquiescing to the resident Italians. Inevitably, it stimulated a conservresponse which Mattheson quashed with well-placed satire. The criticism came from the theorist J.H. Buttstett, writing in "Ut, mi, sol, re fa, la, tota musica et harmonia aeterna" (1716), which Mattheson parried with "Das beschutzte Orchestre" (1717), to which Buttstett obdurately replied with "Der wider das Beschutzte Orchestre erangenen offentlichen Erklarung" (2/1718). "Das neu-eroffnete Orchestre" became a rallying point for Enlightenment musical intellectuals and was the subject of some of the first lectures on music for more than a century at a German university, given by C.G. Schroter at the University of Jena in 1724.

In 1722 [Mattheson] inaugurated his innovative journal "Critica musica", which survived until 1725, during which time he produced 24 issues. Intent upon presenting a wide range of views, he published in the first issue his own annotated translation of Raguenet's controversial "Parallele des italiens et des francois" (1702), along with Le Cerf de La Vieville's reply, the "Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique francaise" (1704-6). Recent musical events are chronicled and new books reviewed; excerpts from his correspondence with Handel, J.J. Fux, Telemann, Johann Kuhnau, J.D. Heinichen, J.P. Krieger and Johann Theile are included in the subsequent issues. Mattheson sought, in "Der musicalischer Patriot" (1728), to justify the use of the theatrical style in Lutheran church music. Digressing, he wrote of his experiences at the Hamburg Opera, providing an inventory of the works performed there, and attributing the collapse of the Opera to the decline in the taste of the public. A devout Lutheran later, he donated most of his wealth to the rebuilding of the great organ (which had been destroyed by fire) at the Michaeliskirche.

There followed two treatises on keyboard playing, the "Grosse General-Bass-Schule" (1731), with instructions to the soloist on how to improvise from a bass, and the "Kleine General-Bass-Schule" (1735), aimed at the accompanist wishing to realize a figured bass. Drawing upon his experiences as a court and cathedral music director, he published "Der vollkommene Capellmeister" in 1739, in which he provided the would-be Kapellmeister with all the necessary training and guidance needed - whether in the service of a church, city or court. Its importance lies in his systematic presentation of musical rhetoric, the 'Doctrine of the Affections', which he believed was conveyed by melody. His last and most valuable work was the "Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte" (1740), a lexicon based on reminiscences, excerpts from correspondence and autobiographies contributed by 149 German musicians; notably absent from the list is Bach, who declined to supply Mattheson with the details of his life."

Sadie, Julie Anne: "Mattheson, Johann (1681-1764)" in
Companion to Baroque Music
London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1990.


Johann Mattheson: Short Biography | Johann Mattheson & Bach

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