by David Yearsley, May 24, 2017
With the ears of the body politic taking constant abuse from the choruses of recrimination echoing through and beyond White House and Capitol, we need the uplifting power of music more than ever. Your Humble Musical Patriot will answer the call to action, taking his show on the road, and not just anywhere, but to the site of the first Tea Party—Boston, longstanding home to one of the world’s most vibrant early music festivals, held there every two years. In a month’s time—on Tuesday, June 15th at 2:00pm at First Lutheran Church, 299 Berkeley Street—the Musical Patriot will appear in the Boston Early Music Festival’s day-long organ jamboree featuring three organists of international standing. The link to the site is here.
Since we’re talking Musical Patriotism, let’s remind ourselves what should and should not be conjured by these two word taken together: neither the bombast of Presidential Inauguration anthems nor the flag-waving strains of national anthems, but critical and uplifting music of independent thought, rational consensus, and unpredictable beauty.
The phrase was coined by Johann Mattheson, editor of the first journal dedicated exclusively to music criticism, Critica musica, published between 1722 and 1725. A sometime admirer of his slightly older contemporary J. S. Bach, Mattheson was an unapologetically humanistic musician with magisterial mind, a sharp tongue, and a sharper pen. Throughout his fifty-year career as a writer–and nowhere more vociferously than in the pages of his 1728 book Der musicalische Patriot (The Musical Patriot)–Mattheson claimed that music was fundamental to the ethical health of civil society. For several years Mattheson’s book gave its name to this column. The ideas that book embodies still animate my own thinking and playing. Central to Mattheson’s thought is the capacity of music to further “the common good” (das gemeine Beste) through joyous recreation. Most important, however, was the irrepressible Hamburger’s impulse to have fun with it all.
Though he spent his life in Hamburg, the long-lived Mattheson was one the age’s great cosmopolitans: he composed operas, sang in them, too; played the organ and was director of music for the city’s cathedral; befriended, then dueled (swords, not pistols) with the young Handel; gave up a musical career because of deafness, but nonetheless sustained and expanded his comprehensive knowledge of international music, while translating works by Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, and many other English and French authors into German, while producing some sixty books of his own.
In the spirit of Musical Patriotism, here are the program notes for the just-mentioned Boston concert, by me, Mattheson’s epigone, Counterpunch’s Musical Patriot. My recital is entitled “The Organ Contests of Dresden: 1650—1717—1789,” and brings together the enigmatic traveller and that master of contrapuntal complexity in the service of dramatic expressivity, Matthias Weckman; the brilliant and volatile Louis Marchand measures his keyboard abilities against the organistic gold standard that is the music of J. S. Bach; and the good-humored musical descendant of Bach, J. W. Häßler faces off against W. A, Mozart, a supremely gifted, if only occasional, organist.
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Organs are at once the most cosmopolitan and the most geographically specific of instruments. Even to this day, each national tradition clings to long-cherished peculiarities that make the task of the touring organist endlessly challenging. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such differences were much more pronounced, often confoundingly so: organs encountered by travelers on the international scene varied hugely, not just in sound but in the layout of the console; most vexing was the number, compass, shape, and size of the pedals. In the use of the feet—and many other matters as well—a foreign organist had to be supremely adaptable.
In spite of a variety as wide and unpredictable as the European weather, baroque organs from across the continent often incorporated elements imported from foreign lands. The work of the great Saxon organ builder and colleague of Johann Sebastian Bach’s, Gottfried Silbermann, is just one celebrated example of international influence, his instruments reflecting the lessons learned working with his uncle in Alsace and also the southern influence of Eugenio Casparini, a German who had spent many years in Italy before returning home in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Nonetheless, the comforting sound of a reed stop that reminds the traveler of his native land doesn’t quiet the nerves when he’s got to find that low G-sharp in the pedal in the heat of performance.
Becoming acquainted with a new organ in private over a leisurely few hours was a rare luxury in the age of the Grand Tour. More than likely the organist of the church would be along, eager to hear what the visitor could do. Local grandees, musicians, and enthusiasts might join the outing. Even more exciting, another touring virtuoso might also be in town. There was never time for practice and preparation: the challenges had to be dealt with while seated for the first time at the bench of an organ that was foreign in every sense, colleagues and possible rivals standing by.
The magnificent baroque city of Dresden was one of the most visited destinations for musical travelers. The Saxon rulers collected not only acclaimed musicians, but also fabulous objects of art and science. Among these treasures were the organs in the court chapel. In the first half of the seventeenth century the building housed an opulent instrument with, among other unique features, ivory fronted reed pipes in the façade. That instrument’s greatest player was Matthias Weckman, who had been sent by his teacher, the Saxon Kapellmeister Heinrich Schütz, to study in the Hanseatic organ capital of Hamburg. The result is said to have been that Weckman “moderated Praetorius’s severity with Scheidemann’s humor” —those two names belonging to famous Hamburg organists who had both studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam. Weckman’s musical lineage was august. No less impressive was the pedigree of one of the most adventurous of seventeenth-century musical travelers, Johann Jacob Froberger; he had studied with the great Frescobaldi in Rome. Just after the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War, in late 1649 or early 1650, Dresden was the first stop on Froberger’s multi-year European tour that would lead ultimately to Paris and London. The gifted contemporaries, Weckman and Froberger, met in Dresden in a contest that resulted not in envious distrust, but in a lifelong friendship. The idiosyncratic gestures of Froberger’s improvisational style as heard, for example in the program’s Toccata, and the grace and variety embodied in his variations on the charming melody Die Mayerin (The Milk Maid) must have deeply impressed Weckman as they would generations of European keyboard players, including J. S. Bach. Weckman’s Fantasia ex d has its own dramatic rhetoric that might reflect Froberger’s influence. But the Dresden host’s expansive setting of the Lutheran chorale Es ist das Heil for six contrapuntal voices—two of them in pedal—is something Froberger could not have done. Had Weckman displayed such north German skill with the feet, the visitor would have been as awestruck as I always am on hearing and playing this expansive counterpoint.
In September of 1717 J. S. Bach was set to compete against the French organist Louis Marchand then visiting Dresden. As reported by Bach’s sons, the Frenchman fled after hearing Bach play. Whether true or not, the claim often distracts from the fact that Bach greatly admired Marchand’s music, which is full of many wonderful things—including a Catholic pomp that must have pleased the Catholic Saxon rulers—not to be found even in Bach’s incomparable oeuvre. For today’s recital, Marchand does not flee the scene but instead stays to display his talents, demonstrating in the opening Plein jeu with its double pedal that a Frenchman could sometimes keep pace with his German contemporaries. Bach welcomes the tourist with a fugue in five voices (called Fantasia) in a style seemingly more French than the French, then lets loose with an Italianate trio sonata that marks the apogee of organ technique from 1717 until today.
Our last Dresden encounter finds the German virtuoso Johann Wilhelm Häßler—student of a student of Bach’s—and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart coincidentally arriving in the city in April of 1789. Their spontaneous contest took place in the Court Chapel, by then home to a glittering instrument by Gottfried Silbermann. As usual in such clashes, Mozart was dismissive of his opponent. A few months after the meeting, Häßler assembled a collection of 42 short pieces that show him not only to be at home in the galant style, but also a demon with his feet at the pedal board. Mozart was typically backhanded in assessing his opponent’s perceived talents: “This Häßler’s chief excellence on the organ consists in his foot-work,” he wrote, adding rather nastily, that this “was not very wonderful.” After chiding his opponent for simply memorizing the “modulations and harmonies of old Sebastian Bach,” Mozart went on to say that the local Saxons had wrongly believed that he would not be able to play the pedals because he was from Vienna where organs did not have the full north German array. Häßler music can indeed be quite a workout for the feet, one that even Mozart might have deigned to admire, had he been more generous in his appraisal of other musicians. I include Bach’s Fugue in F Major (BWV 540) by way of acknowledging Bach’s looming influence on Häßler’s organ playing and its spectral presence Mozart’s as well.
This Bachian presence is nowhere more palpable than in Mozart’s mighty Fantasia in F minor (K. 608) originally for mechanical organ. I feel sure Mozart also played it himself at the organ, proving that he could keep pace with, even surpass, the musical machine for which he wrote the piece. The work ends with the feet rushing maniacally towards the final cadence, a furious close that comes after a grand recurring overture, two fugues of increasing complexity, and a piling up of counterpoint in a coda that ranks with the Jupiter Symphony finale in the annals of the polyphonic sublime. Here’s betting that Mozart himself was jolted into improving his footwork in the aftermath of his organ afternoon with the genial Häßler.
In offering this musical survey of these three historic Dresden meetings, I’ll add my own occasional bits of improvised commentary—an opening prelude, sundry transitions, some extra variations. Inviting myself into the organ loft with these famed musicians, I can’t help but offer my own admiring asides.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)