Music from Town & Tavern — May 2012
The Collegium Musicum in Leipzig
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Leipzig, where commerce had flourished since the Middle Ages, was known for its trade fairs, its university (founded in 1409), and its prominent music school, the Thomasschule. A thriving commercial and intellectual center, the city had a reputation as “little Paris.” In contrast to cities and towns that relied on the patronage of local nobility, Leipzig featured a prosperous middle class that together with the forces of the university set the tone for civic and cultural life. Printing and publishing thrived, bookstores and newspapers abounded, and frequent book fairs attracted a cosmopolitan clientele. Music, in both church and public performance, was a prized element of culture.
A collegium musicum consisted of students and amateur musicians who gathered to play for enjoyment and for sharing new music, outside the strictures of the church. These groups formed in many cities, among them Augsburg, Frankfurt, Jena, Leipzig, and Ulm. In Leipzig, the musical talents and energy of the university students combined with the musical skill, scholarship, and inspiration provided by the city’s churches and Thomasschule to nurture a vibrant urban music scene, in which the collegium played a leading role.
Collegium members gained experience and established ties that would serve many, especially students, in musical careers as cantors, composers, ensemble leaders, court musicians, and opera singers, often in large cities like Hamburg and London. Others participated as an avocation. An early-18th century Leipzig collegium roster lists lawyers, clerks, courtiers, a deputy headmaster, a privy councilor, and an official in charge of weights and measures among the players.
The first Leipzig collegium musicum dates to the early 17th century. Indeed, Johann Hermann Schein’s drinking songs on today’s program, probably from his student days around 1610, are likely precursors of the more varied and complex repertoire that later developed. The 20-year-old George Phillip Telemann was a reluctant law student but an enthusiastic musician eager to compose and perform. In 1701 he revived the Leipzig collegium with entertainments for visiting nobility marked by more polished—still amateur—music-making. After four years Telemann moved on and the collegium directorship fell to Melchior Hoffman, another law student with a passion for music.
The musicians met weekly, in private houses, civic buildings, taverns, and coffee houses, usually to sight-read new music. Collegium membership ranged from 40 to 60 players and singers—a large ensemble for the time. What began as informal and sometimes unruly gatherings in tavern or coffee house with random audiences evolved by the mid-18th century into regularly scheduled, if still relaxed and informal, performances. When Gottfried Zimmerman, proprietor of a popular coffee house in central Leipzig, began hosting the collegium in 1723, he became a promoter and patron, purchasing instruments that he would lend to collegium students and, importantly for Bach, to church performers as well. During trade fairs the collegium would put on two concerts a week. Feast days or dignitary visits were occasions for festive performances of music composed for the particular event, often featuring visiting soloists.
By the mid-18th century, Leipzig was supporting two collegia, a testament to the city’s musical endowment and fervor. J.S. Bach became director of one of these in 1729 and prepared its weekly performances for over a decade. In Zimmerman’s coffee house in winter and in his garden outside the city walls in summer, Bach’s collegium musicum premiered many of the composer’s keyboard and instrumental works and secular cantatas and treated audiences to the latest works in the Italian style, including opera arias and secular cantatas by Handel, Telemann, Scarlatti, and Johann Bernhard Bach.
Composers and Music
Opera did not take root in England as it did on the Continent. In England in the 17th century, audiences enjoyed an even more lavish art form, known as the “masque,” an aristocratic entertainment similar to the French court ballet. Masques involved elaborate sets, costumes, spoken dialogue, the outline of a plot (often humorous), and much singing and dancing (especially in a pastoral mode, with fairies and the like). Queen Elizabeth I loved these masques and had one composed for nearly every occasion. The music for Tudor masques was usually composed by leading court musicians: the Master of the Chapel Royal, members of the King’s Musick or the organist of St Paul’s. Performers were the instrumental consorts, choirboys and singing-men of the King’s Musick and the Chapel Royal, and on occasion the musicians and boys of St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. Under the Stuart kings, masques were again composed and performed in great numbers, but they were increasingly used for political purposes.
Masque music included vocal and instrumental numbers. The latter were mostly dances, in a variety of forms, such as pavans, galliards, courantes, branles and country dances. The vocal music included solo songs with viols and part-songs for multiple voices. Most masques start with a procession, followed by speeches or dialogues alternating with musical scenes, often with dancers, and a final grand dance (as in the ballet de cour) and chorus.
Henry Purcell (1659–95) was born, probably in Westminster, into a family of active musicians. He showed musical gifts from a young age and rose rapidly as a court musician. As a boy he served as a chorister in the Royal Chapel where his father and his uncle sang. In 1673, when his voice broke, he became Keeper of the king’s wind and keyboard instruments. In 1677 he was named composer for the court violins. Purcell studied under John Blow, the organist of Westminster Abbey. In 1679–80 Blow gave up his position in favor of his gifted pupil, and Purcell retained that post until he died. In 1682 Purcell became an organist of the Chapel Royal. When Charles II died in 1685, his successor James II reorganized the court musical establishment and Purcell’s title changed from composer to “harpsicall.” The Chapel Royal, which had been Anglican, lost importance under this Catholic king, though Purcell retained his post. When James II fled the realm in late 1688, Purcell stopped composing for the court, though under William and Mary he remained on the payroll. Purcell died at the age of 36, probably of a catastrophic worsening of a minor infection. His funeral took place in Westminster Abbey, where he was interred next to the organ.
In 1692 Purcell composed The Fairy-Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The score, his longest for theatre, was rediscovered in 1901 and published by the Purcell Society. The Fairy-Queen unfolds in five acts. At the end of each there is a masque, which can be performed and enjoyed separately, apart from its theatrical context. A complete production would last about four hours. It is not unusual for selections to be excerpted and performed in concert, as we do today.
George Frederic Handel “was the greatest English composer—he was German and wrote Italian opera.” This oft-repeated and seemingly incongruous comment is true in all its parts. Handel was born in 1685—a felicitous year that saw the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti as well—and died in 1759. He was from Halle, and later Hamburg, and in 1710, after three years working and composing in Rome, he entered the service of the Elector of Hanover, Prince Georg Ludwig. Two years later, during one of his visits to London, he decided to establish himself in that city, without asking the elector for his leave. To Handel’s surprise, and perhaps chagrin, Prince Georg Ludwig, the closest Protestant relative of the deceased Queen Anne, ascended the British throne in 1714 as George I. (There were more than 50 closer relatives, who were however Catholic and therefore, pursuant to the 1701 Act of Settlement, ineligible for the throne.) Fortunately for Handel, potential backlash was averted because the new king appreciated talent where he saw it and forgave the composer—as legend has it, after Handel composed his famous Water Music for one of the king’s parties on the Thames.
In London Handel was mostly occupied with composing Italian operas, until the English stopped patronizing this elaborate, extravagantly expensive, loud, and often incomprehensible form of entertainment in a foreign language.
Today Handel is the only early 18th century composer of operas whose works are regularly seen on the contemporary operatic stage. In London he was prolific, composing 36 operas between 1712 and 1741, when the Royal Academy stopped producing Italian opera. His operas are what are commonly called “mood operas” or “aria operas.” Thus each aria presents the character in a mood that is pure, the character becoming the incarnation of a single state of mind, which, however, varied, by design, from each aria to the next.. The complete character is the sum or synthesis of the expressive moments in the opera. As was common at the time, plot development and consistency were secondary to this aesthetic, often resulting in stories that were complex and bordering on the obscure. Most of Handel’s operas were a succession of arias and recitatives, with few chorus parts, though more than in Italian opera.
Handel composed Semele in 1743, but since opera in Italian was no longer produced in London, in 1744 Handel himself designed and performed Semele “in the Manner of an Oratorio”— that is, in concert form. The plot is based on a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Semele had only a modest success, was not performed again in Handel’s lifetime, and is infrequently performed today. Alcina, though, was and is a popular opera. Composed in 1735 in London for the new theater at Covent Garden, it tells the story drawn from Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, of the sorceress Alcina and her captive paladin Ruggiero. Noteworthy for the emotional range and expressive power of the title role, Alcina ranks with Giulio Cesare as one of Handel’s greatest operas.
Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630) was a versatile composer, a poet, and a cantor (he held the job in Leipzig that was later to become Bach’s). Schein started his career as a singer in Dresden, and in the early 1600s matriculated at the University of Leipzig, only to transfer soon to the prestigious Schulpforta, a school specializing in music and the humanities. Having finished this school in 1607, he enrolled (on a full scholarship) at the University of Leipzig to study liberal arts and law, graduating four years later. After taking positions as music director in other places, Schein was invited back to Leipzig in August of 1616, to the position of Thomaskantor. He was always quite sick, suffering from tuberculosis, gout, and scurvy, among other things, and died at the age of 44.
Schein composed sacred and secular works, both vocal and instrumental, but his main interest was vocal music. All of his secular music is on texts of his own composition, from the first collection (Venus Kräntzlein, published when he was a student at the university and reflecting the informal student music-making centered on Leipzig’s popular collegia musica) all the way to his last (the Studenten-Schmauss published in 1626 but probably composed significantly earlier, when Schein was still at university). The five pieces of the Studenten-Schmausscollection are all for five parts (SSATB). They are drinking songs with basso continuo accompaniment. They probably were never intended for performance as a set; in today’s concert, we intersperse two of Schein’s instrumental works. Schein composed relatively little instrumental music, though the Banchetto musicale (Musical Banquet) of 1617 is a substantial set of dances: 20 numbered groups of, in Schein’s words, “pavanes, galliards, courantes and allemandes, which are arranged so that they correspond to one another in both mode and invention.” Some—namely the allemandes and triplas—are folk-like and homophonic, in four parts, while others—the pavans and galliards—are complex, contrapuntal, and in five parts. The courantes are stylistically somewhere in the middle.
—© 2012 Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D
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