Classical Composers - Boston Musicians

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)


Crafts were handed down in family clans, and in music the Bach clan was one of the most extensive, providing the region of Thuringia in central Germany with musicians for many generations. Most of the Bachs were lowly town musicians, or Lutheran church organists; only a few of them gained court positions. Johann Sebastian, who was himself taught by several of his relatives, trained four sons who became leading composers of the next generation. Bach's early career was like that of many German musicians at the time Before he was twenty, he took his first position as a church organist in a little town called Arnstadt, then moved to a bigger town called Muelhausen. Then he worked his way up to a court position with the Duke of Weimar. As a church organist, Bach had to compose organ music and sacred choral pieces, and at Weimar he was still required to write church music for the ducal chapel, as well as sonatas and concertos for performance in the palace. The way his Weimar position terminated tells us something about the working conditions of court musicians. When Bach tried to leave Weimar for another court, Coethen, the duke balked and threw him in jail for several weeks. At Coethen, where the prince happened to be a keen amateur musician but was not in favor of elaborate church music, Bach concentrated on instrumental music. In 1723 Bach was appointed Cantor of St. Thomas's Church in Leipzig, an important city in what is now East Germany. He not only had to compose and perform, but also organize music for all four churches in town. Teaching in the choir school was another of his responsibilities. Almost every week, in his first years at Leipzig, Bach composed, had copied, rehearsed, and performed a new cantata - a work for soloists, choir, and orchestra containing several movements and lasting from fifteen to thirty minutes. Bach chafed under bureaucratic restrictions and political decisions by town and church authorities. The truth is he was never appreciated in Leipzig. Furthermore, at the end of his life he was regarded as old-fashioned by modern musicians, and one critic pained Bach by saying so in print. Indeed, after his death Bach's music was neglected by the musical public at large. though it was admired by composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. The"rediscovery" of Bach was hastened by a performance of his Passion "According to St. Matthew" by the young Felix Mendelssohn in 1829.

Bach had twenty children - seven with his first wife, a cousin, and thirteen
with his second, a singer, for whom he prepared a little home-music
anthology, The Note-Book of Anna Magdalena Bach. The children were
taught music as a matter of course, and also taught how to copy music; the performance parts of many of the weekly cantatas that Bach composed are written in their hands. From his musical response to the sacred words of these cantatas, and other works, it is clear that Bach thought deeply about religious matters. Works such as his Passions and his Mass in B Minor emanate a spirituality that many listeners find unmatched in any other composer. Bach seldom traveled, except to consult on organ construction contracts (for which the customary fee was often a cord of wood or a barrel of wine). His last two years were spent in blindness, but he continued to compose by dictation. Before this time, he had already begun to assemble his compositions in orderly sets: organ chorale preludes, organ fugues, preludes and fugues for harpsichord. He also clearly set out to produce works that would summarize his final thoughts about Baroque forms and genres; such works are the Mass in B Minor, the thirty-three Goldberg Variations for harpsichord, and "The Art of Fugue", an exemplary collection of fugues all on the same subject, left unfinished at his death.
Bach was writing for himself, for his small devoted circle of students,
perhaps for posterity. It is a concept that would have greatly surprised the
craftsmen musicians who were his forebears.

 

George Frideric Hangel (1685-1759)

Georg Friedrich Haendel - he anglicized his name to George Frideric Handel after settling in England-was one of the few composers of early days who did not come from a family of musicians. His father, who was sixty-three when Handel was born, was a barber-surgeon and a valet at a court near
Leipzig. He disapproved of music, and the boy is said to have studied music secretly at night, by candlelight. In deference to his father's wishes, Handel studied law for a year at Halle, one of Germany's major universities, before finally joining the orchestra at Hamburg, Germany's main center of opera.
From then on, it was an exciting, glamorous life. Still in his teens, Handel fought a duel (about who was to get top billing) with another Hamburg musician. In 1706 he journeyed to the homeland of opera and scored successes at
Venice, Florence, and Rome. Though he became a court musician for the Elector of Hanover, in northern Germany, he kept requesting (and extending) leaves to pursue his career in London, a city that was then beginning to rival
Paris as the world capital. Here Handel continued to produce italian operas, again with great success. He also wrote a flattering birthday ode for Queen Anne and some big pieces to celebrate a major peace treaty; for this he was awarded a substantial annuity. In 1717, after the Elector of Hanover had become George I of England, Handel got back into his good graces by composing music to be played on boats in a royal aquatic fete on the River Thames-the famous Water
Music. As an opera composer, Handel had learned to gauge the taste of the public and also how to flatter singers, writing music for them that showed off their voices to the best advantage. He now also became an opera impresario-today we would call him a "promoter'' - recruiting singers and negotiating their contracts, planning whole seasons of opera and all the while composing the main attractions himself: an opera every year, on average, between 1721 and 1743. He also had to deal with backers - English aristocrats and wealthy merchants who supported his opera companies, and persuaded their friends to take out subscriptions for boxes.
Handel made and lost several fortunes, but he always landed on his feet, even when Italian opera went out of style in Britain, for he never lost a feel for his audience. After opera had failed, he popularized oratorios - retellings of Bible stories (mostly from the O1d Testament) in a semioperatic, semichoral form. Opera audiences, who had been ready to identify opera's virtuous Roman emperors with local princes, were now delighted to identify oratorio's virtuous People of israel with the British nation. Handel was a big, vigorous man, hot-tempered but quick to forget, humorous and resourceful. When a particularly temperamental prima donna threw a scene. he calmed her down by threatening to throw her out the window. At the end of his life he became blind-the same surgeon operated (unsuccessfully) on both him and on Bach-but he continued to play the organ brilliantly and composed by dictating to a secretary.

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