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Program Notes: Telemann’s St. Luke Passion of 1744

February 26, 2018

Buxtehude, Dixit Dominus

Dieterich Buxtehude was best known in his day—and is still best known in ours—as a great organist whose music is standard repertoire for that instrument. Yet the majority of his output was for voice. More than a hundred cantatas, motets, and other vocal works have come down to us, although sadly his large-scale oratorios have been lost.

Buxtehude considered Denmark to be his birthplace—a point debated by some historians—but he spent most of his professional life in the north German free city of Lübeck, where he was organist of St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche). There his work as a keyboard player and as director of the famous Abendmusik concert series made him a major influence on the German music of his day and of the next generation.

In 1703, the young Handel traveled from Hamburg with his colleague Mattheson to see and hear Buxtehude. They were both considered as possible successors to the aging organist, but there was a catch. Following tradition, Buxtehude’s successor would be expected to marry his daughter. “It turned out,” wrote Mattheson, “that there was some marriage condition proposed in connection with the appointment, for which we neither of us felt the smallest inclination, so we said goodbye to the place after having enjoyed ourselves immensely. . .”

Two years later, in 1705, the young J. S. Bach walked over 250 miles to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play the organ and to attend his Abendmusik concerts, where he doubtless would have heard Buxtehude’s oratorios and other choral works. He got in considerable trouble for overstaying his leave of absence, but he came away from Lübeck tremendously influenced by what he had heard.

The text of the Dixit Dominus is from the Latin version of Psalm 109 (Psalm 110 in the Hebrew numbering). Buxtehude’s setting is an attractive work for solo soprano with strings and continuo.

Telemann, St. Luke Passion

In 1721, at the age of forty, Telemann settled in Hamburg, where he was to remain until his death in 1767. One of his obligations as director of music for the five principal churches in that city was to set the passion story to music each year, treating one evangelist per year for four years and then beginning the cycle over again. In all, he composed some 46 passions, most of them at Hamburg. Of these, 20 survive, including five St. Luke passions. The unknown poet who provided Telemann with his libretto for this passion drew on the biblical text (St. Luke, 22:39–23:48) but contributed his own poetry for all the arias, as well as for the contemplative chorus Ach, klage.

Telemann and Bach

Since Bach’s two surviving passions from the 1720s are the only ones commonly performed today, listeners may think of them as models to which one can compare Telemann’s passions. But Bach’s passions, while they are great masterworks, come from a different world. Although the two composers were exact contemporaries, Telemann’s musical style in this piece is more “modern.” By 1744, when it was composed, Bach had not written passions for nearly two decades. Enlightenment ideas were by then well known in Germany, as were the writings of English deists, who questioned many of the supernatural and miraculous aspects of religion.

Thus it is perhaps not surprising that Telemann emphasizes the emotional, human side of the drama. Here Jesus sings a dramatic rage aria, something almost unimaginable in a Bach passion, and the lightness and worldliness of the first two soprano arias may be shocking to anyone who expects the tone of a Bach passion. Bach’s settings are darker than Telemann’s and interrupt the narrative more frequently with contemplative chorales and choruses.

Unlike Bach, Telemann was also an opera composer. He wrote numerous operas in Hamburg and even directed the city’s opera company for a time. How much that influenced his settings of the passion drama is a matter of speculation, but we do know that female singers from the opera were occasionally brought in as soloists in Hamburg churches in place of the traditional boy sopranos, and we know that passion music sometimes went beyond the church to be sung in secular concerts.

Part of the beauty of this passion is in the simplicity and directness of its music and storytelling. Telemann’s chorales too are harmonically simpler than Bach’s, no doubt partly a reflection of the fact that the congregation sang along in the chorales of Telemann’s works, whereas they did not in Bach’s. Telemann himself remarked that he wanted the chorales to be simple enough for the congregation to sing, but added that he did not want them limited to mere “kettledrum harmonies.”

There are, to be sure, deeply dramatic moments, such as the crowd’s call to release Barrabas, the chorus Ach, klage, or the dying words of Jesus on the cross. One may hear similarities in the way Bach and Telemann set several key events in the drama—e.g., the chromatic melisma when Peter weeps bitterly—but these are not so much the influence of one composer on the other as they are common material that was used by many composers.

The opening sinfonia

This passion has no large introductory chorus or orchestral movement, but begins instead with a simple chorale. For that reason, our performance tonight follows an occasional Baroque practice of opening with a musical introduction, in this case, the first movement of Telemann’s Concerto in G for oboe d’amore.

Biographical sketch

Georg Philipp Telemann is known today mainly for his chamber music, a few orchestral pieces, and a few vocal works. But many of these are lighter pieces written for informal occasions, hardly enough to understand the extravagant praise heaped upon him by his contemporaries or the high esteem in which he was held by a composer such as Handel. His total output, more vast than that of any other major composer, includes thousands of vocal works, among them many operas, passions and other major compositions that are unknown to the general public today, as well as thousands of chamber and orchestral works. His music has not yet been fully catalogued.

Telemann was born in Magdeburg, Germany on March 14, 1681. Largely self-taught as a musician, he composed music regularly for the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig while enrolled in the university there as a law student. He eventually gave up law to devote himself full-time to music, writing cantatas for the churches and operas for the theater in Leipzig, as well as orchestral suites for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, an ensemble which he founded and which Bach was to direct many years later.

After leaving Leipzig in 1705, he found employment at Sorau (now in Poland), Eisenach and Frankfurt before settling in Hamburg, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During these years, Telemann came into close contact with and assimilated various musical styles, among them French, Italian and, according to his own account, Polish folk music. The number and range of Telemann’s activities in Hamburg is staggering. In addition to being the director of music for the Hamburg churches, he composed frequently for the Hamburg Opera, became director of that company, and composed for many other musical functions.

In 1722, in what was probably an attempt to pressure his employers in Hamburg, he applied for the post of cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. He was offered the position but turned it down, once he was offered improved conditions in Hamburg. The job in Leipzig eventually went to the council’s third choice, J. S. Bach.

© Martin Pearlman 2018

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