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Buxtehude To Telemann

The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985

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David M. Greene

What I had planned here was a capsulation of the history of the German church cantata (so­called) from Buxtehude to Telemann. But no sooner had I sat down to write than I found myself preoccupied with the saga of Buxtehude's elderly ugly daughter.


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After 30-odd years of attempting to do it, I am convinced that there is no more fatuous delusion than that one can "teach writing'' to anyone over the age of eight (at which early stage one can at least drill into the bony little heads the basic mechanics of the skill). Present practice, at the level of so-called higher education, requires that the writer, given a subject to write about, evolve a thesis, state it in an opening paragraph, demonstrate it with three examples in as many more, and sum up ("And in conclusion") in a final condensation. The working-out of this for­mula involves a whole succession of outlines and drafts that are even more stultifying to the minds of the readers than they are to those, if any, of the writers. The usual result is a little museum of desiccated formulae couched in an artificial language that would make Joseph Addison (sup­posedly its ultimate model) writhe in his sepulchre.

My reason for attacking this procedure, besides being admittedly an excuse for my inability to "teach writing," (increasingly a desideratum in my university, now that the majority of our students neither know nor care about literature), is no doubt self-serving. Frankly, I have never been able to pre-plan in the recommended manner. Not that I don't try to adhere to it: I spend sleepless nights devising (at least in my head) feasible approaches to each of these little pieces. But-inevitably-as here, when I position myself before the keybaord, my fingers quite uncon­trollably set out in an unforeseen direction all their own.

What I had planned here was a capsulation of the history of the German church cantata (so­called) from Buxtehude to Telemann. But no sooner had I sat down to write than I found myself preoccupied with the saga of Buxtehude's elderly ugly daughter. Actually we should not to­day have considered her elderly-she was only 30-but the facts of the case seem to imply that she was no raving beauty. No fewer than three of the most promising young musicians in Germany-J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and Johann Matthesson--turned down the succession to her father's prestigious post as organist at St. Mary's in Lubeck rather than marry her, she being a re­quired bonus or side effect of the job. Bux­tehude, who seems not to have boggled at ac­cepting Franz Tunder's daughter, Anna Margarethe, under the same conditions, must have thought the fellows quite unreasonable; moreover, he must have been getting nervous about leaving an unprovided-for woman in a world that refused to let women provide for themselves on any honorable grounds. (The saga has a more or less happy ending: when the daughter- also hight Anna Margarethe-was 32, both she and the organ were claimed by 28-year­old Johann Christian Schieferdecker.)

The Buxtehudes (who for a while, because of shifting back and forth between Holstein, where they produce cows, and Elsinore, where they produce Hamlets, weren't sure whether they were German, Danish, or Swedish) were a close­-knit family. Dietrich (or Diderik) followed in the footsteps of his father Johann, and actually suc­ceeded him at Halsingborg in Sweden. The old man played at Elsinore (Helsingr) until he was 69, and then came to live with his son at Lubeck in his final year of life.

When he died in 1674, his son wished him a "Peaceful and Joyful Journey" with a two-part publication, consisting of a chorale and the first work on this record. Glibly lumped under the heading of "cantata," it is really a simple aria set to a strophic poem probably by the composer. The second Buxtehude work, to a text from the Vulgate, was probably for Easter usage. This joyous work, consisting of an instrumental sonata, and two fast movements bracketing a slow one, is a vocal concerto, stemming from those of late-Renaissance Venice.

So is the Lament by Johann Christoph Bach. Johann Christoph, four generations down from the legendary Veit and first cousin to Sebastian's father, was the most important of the Johann Christophs (Grove lists nine!), and is generally conceded to be the best of the musical Bachs before the great J.S. Apart from a collection of his chorales, only about 25 of his works, in­cluding six concerti, have survived. This one begins with the quaint wish "O that I had water enough in my head!"-i.e. to supply sufficient tears to bewail his sins.

The cantata proper-a succession of arias, or vocal melodies, and recitativi, or song-speech statements-was an Italian invention. And post-­Renaissance German music, like French cuisine, is basically Italian. The only true cantata on this record is Telemann's. Telemann was a prodigious producer of cantatas-Grove notes 1043, though it is not clear whether these include the four printed cycles, and Baker's speaks ambiguously of "over 3000 numbers." Suffice it to say that several were mistakenly added to Sebastian Bach's of­ficial list as the work of that master.

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