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Achieving Enlightenment Via Telemann


Dismissed by 19th-century critics as a facile scribbler whose religious music lacked the depth and fervor of his close contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred pieces, Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), reigned in his own time as Germany’s leading composer. Boston Baroque’s revival of his St. Luke Passion of 1744 at Jordan Hall on Friday evening gave us a welcome chance to consider this seldom-performed work without the baggage of earlier times. As emphasized both by Boston Baroque conductor Martin Pearlman in his notes and Laura Prichard in an engaging and informative pre-concert talk, Telemann’s Passion, composed more than 20 years after Bach’s two surviving examples, reflects its time’s changing musical tastes, an infusion of Enlightenment and Deist ideas, and the very different circumstances of the two composers’ education and subsequent careers.

Born in Magdeburg in central Germany, Telemann did not come from a musical family such as Bach’s. After receiving a classical education in Greek, Latin, theology, and mathematics, he enrolled at Leipzig University in 1701 to study law. Although he showed a precocious interest in music, playing several instruments and beginning early to compose operas, cantatas, and instrumental music, he was largely self-taught. By 1705 he had left Leipzig for a series of Kapellmeister posts at Sorau (now in Poland), Eisenach, and Frankfurt, with frequent travels to nearby courts and cities where he was exposed to the latest French, Italian and theatrical styles. 

In 1721 Telemann moved to Hamburg to become Kantor (music instructor) at the Johanneum School and musical director of the city’s five main churches. In addition to music instruction at the school, his duties included providing two cantatas for each Sunday and a new Passion for each Lenten season, along with music for various church and civic celebrations. As director of a collegium musicum he ran a series of public concerts and, from 1722 until it closed in 1738, also directed the Gänsemarkt Opera, where he performed his own operas as well as those by Handel and others. When church officials disapproved of Telemann’s devotion to opera and instrumental music, he applied in 1722 for the newly-vacant post of Kantor at St. Thomas, Leipzig, and was accepted as the first among six candidates. He then used the offer as leverage to raise his salary in Hamburg, turned the Leipzig position down, and remained in Hamburg for the remainder of his long and productive career. Bach, the Leipzig town council’s third choice, became the new Thomas Kantor.

Of the 46 liturgical Passions Telemann wrote for Hamburg between 1722 and 1767, about half are lost. Hamburg liturgical tradition called for the performance of the Passion story according to a different evangelist each year in biblical order beginning with Matthew, followed in subsequent years by Mark, Luke, and John. Thus the Passion of 1744 heard on Friday was the sixth of the composer’s St. Luke Passions. Like most of Telemann’s liturgical Passions, it interpolated chorales and poetic arias sung by unnamed bystanders and observers within the biblical prose narration of the Evangelist

Boston Baroque and Martin Pearlman last performed this Passion in 1980. This time Perlman assembled a top-notch ensemble of period instrument players, a well-matched chorus of 24, and four satisfying principal soloists—tenor Thomas Cooley (Evangelist), baritone Andrew Garland (Jesus), with Teresa Wakim (soprano arias) and Stefan Reed (tenor arias).

By way of a preface, Teresa Wakim opened with a setting for soprano, strings, and continuo of “Dixit Dominus” (The Lord said unto my Lord; Psalm 109) by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707), the famous Lübeck organist and composer visited in his final years by both Handel and Bach. Wakim’s precise intonation and sure rhythmic sense did full justice to the crisp rhythms traded between singer and string ensemble, culminating in a lively “Amen” in triple time. Since Telemann’s St. Luke Passion has no introductory movement, Pearlman prefaced it with the first movement of his Concerto in G Major for oboe d’amore, a mellow-toned instrument with a pear-shaped bell pitched a minor 3rd below the standard oboe. Gonzalo Ruiz played it with sensitive phrasing and dynamic nuance. After the opening chorale, the Passion narrative began with Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of Olives. All biblical texts for the Evangelist narrator are set in secco recitative style, accompanied only by basso continuo. Thomas Cooley’s light and flexible delivery maintained a generally cool narrative tone, yet was capable of dramatic intensity when it came to describing Christ’s agonized prayer or Peter’s weeping acknowledgement of his triple denial. By contrast, and again following established tradition, sustained chords in the strings lent a unique “halo” effect to the utterances of Jesus. These were far from uniform, however, and gained expressivity as the drama unfolded. Most surprising was the interpolated full-fledged “rage” aria “Ihr werdet mich sehen mit feurigen Flammen” (You will see me with fiery flames). In a musical idiom borrowed unabashedly from opera, Jesus railed against his tormentors, employing dramatic leaps and elaborate roulades against heavy syncopations in the orchestra. Andrew Garland’s warm and beautiful tone combined with virtuosic agility made this one of the expressive highlights of the evening.

Commentary in the interpolated settings of chorale melodies (in which the congregation would have joined) was necessarily limited to the generalized moralizing of pre-existent texts, but in the soprano and tenor arias Telemann took much wider stylistic latitude. The first soprano aria, “Die freundlichsten Küsse” (The friendliest kisses), commenting on the kiss of Judas, called on the ingratiating melodic language of mid-18th-century North Germany in its first section, only to rail against such deceits in the contrasting second section. In the Da capo return of the opening, Teresa Wakim’s virtuosic but always idiomatic ornamentation took full flight. The “simile” tradition was the vehicle for Wakim’s second aria, “Wie sich ein winz’ges Lüftchen regt” (As a tiny breath of air stirs). Here she echoed the haunting woodsy tones of Andrea LeBlanc’s Baroque flute in delicately galant motives evoking quivering leaves, analogous to the quivering of a bad conscience; in a sudden harmonic twist, chromatic tones represented the resistance of the steadfast heart to these sweet-toned blandishments. In another soprano aria, “Schönste Freundin edler Seelen” (Most beautiful friend of noble souls), flute and oboe, traditionally employed for pastoral scenes in 18th-century opera, evoked the innocence of Jesus, symbolized by the white robe forced on him by Herod’s men. The dark tones of the oboe d’amore accompanied the tenor aria inserted after Peter’s denial, Stefan Reed’s melting plea for compassion for all human sinners. In Reed’s second aria, the flute obbligato — in opera, the instrument could also represent heaven — symbolized the convinced Christian’s joyous acceptance of death. Reflecting on the promise to the “good” criminal of a place in paradise, virtuosic expansion on key words conveyed the mood, enhanced by Reed’s adroitly executed ornaments in the Da capo repetition.

Contemplative in chorale interpolations, the chorus-as-crowd became a dramatic persona at key points in the narrative, culminating in the demand for the release of Barrabas rather than Jesus, and percussive calls of “Crucify him!” The final chorus, on the other hand, represented the sad contemplation of the mourners who accompanied Jesus on his way to the cross. “Ach klage, wer nur klagen kann!” (Oh, lament, all you who can!) was set in a plain, declamatory style that conveyed clearly the highly emotive language increasingly adopted in Protestant religious texts during the course of the 18th century.  Seven soloists who stepped out from the chorus to assume the roles of Peter and the Roman Centurion, the maiden, two soldiers, Pilate, and the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus completed the cast of dramatic characters. Since they were part of the biblical narrative, their texts, like the Evangelist’s, were set in simple recitative style.

Photo by Kathy Wittman

Conductor Martin Pearlman coordinated his disparate forces with loving attention to detail combined with steady, unhurried pacing that maintained the narrative continuity of Telemann’s account. Clearly it is time for us to abandon schoolbook notions of Telemann as humdrum and trivial, and to appreciate his choral works as skillfully conceived reflections of the humanistic spirit of the North German Enlightenment that reflect solid grounding in Baroque contrapuntal tradition.

Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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