Thursday, March 31, 2016

March 31—Future Thinking

Events occurring on this date in history allow us to entwine many musical threads. We end the month of March with two births and a look to the future.

On March 31, 1685 in the Gregorian calendar, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. We celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21, because he was born on that date in the Julian calendar. Protestant Germany did not switch from Julian to Gregorian until 1700. Nevertheless, if we want to consider Sebastian’s birth in New Style (Gregorian) rather than Old Style (Julian), we can celebrate his birth today!

On March 31, 1732, Franz Joseph Haydn was born, in the Gregorian, or New Style calendar. Haydn also personifies the New Style in the music—Classicism—which succeeded the Old Style—Baroque—of J.S. Bach. The year Haydn was born, Bach was 47 years old, in Leipzig, and had just composed his Coffee Cantata, really a comic opera, for Zimmerman’s Coffee House.

Franz Joseph Haydn

Untangling our musical threads, however, we find strands that link Haydn to Bach. The most important strand is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), J.S. Bach’s fifth child and second surviving son. CPE’s compositions embody one of the important transitional styles in music—empfindssamer Stil or “Sensitive Style”—between Sebastian’s Baroque and Haydn’s Classical style. The year Haydn was born CPE Bach was 18 years old.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

When Haydn himself was about 18 years old, he went into a bookshop and asked for a good textbook on music theory. The proprietor offered the writings of CPE Bach as the best and most recent. Haydn learned quickly, and from the age of 19 is quartets reflected CPE’s principles. Upon the publication of Haydn’s first works, CPE returned the compliment by claiming Franz Joseph as a pupil.

Haydn said: “Whoever knows me thoroughly must discover that I owe a great deal to Emanuel Bach, that I understood him and studied him diligently. Emanuel Bach once complimented me on this fact himself.”

There is also a thread that attaches Haydn to Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, known as “the London Bach.” After the death of J.C. Bach in 1782, Haydn’s works became the compositions most frequently performed in London concert halls. In 1790, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s patron, died and was succeeded by his son Anton. Anton, following a trend of the time, dismissed most of his court musicians, simultaneously giving Haydn permission to travel to London to conduct his symphonies with a large orchestra. Haydn’s biographer wrote that Haydn considered the days he spent in London the happiest of his life.

Johann Christian Bach

Previously, during his time at the Esterházy family estate in Eisenstadt in the 1770s and 1780s, Haydn was responsible for producing 150 performances a year, in which time he composed 15 serio-comic operas, similar to those of his future friend Wolfang Amadeus Mozart.

In a most unusual twist of the threads, one of Haydn’s comic operas was Il mondo della luna, (Life on the Moon), based on a libretto by the Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni written in 1750. It is entirely possible that Goldoni based his play on an early work by the British playwright Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon, produced in 1687. Goldoni certainly knew English literature, since he had adapted Samuel Richardson’s Pamela for the stage. Here’s the kicker. Yours truly, Linda de Vries, wrote, co-directed and produced a contemporary adaptation of Behn’s The Emperor of the Moon in 2004 with Ken Sawyer and David Burnham. The English Touring Opera Company keeps Haydn’s works in this genre alive today.

Emperor of the Moon, 2004

On March 31, 1784, Mozart played the last of three subscription concerts at Trattner Hall in Vienna. It was in this same year that Haydn and Mozart met in person. Haydn’s brother Michael had been Mozart’s friend and colleague in Salzburg. Mozart published his “Haydn”quartets in 1785. The two shared a strong mutual admiration. Mozart said of Haydn, “he alone has the secret of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.” Haydn of Mozart: “Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” Mozart’s Requiem was played at Haydn’s funeral.

Which brings us to the future. On May 14, 2106, Chorale Bel Canto will sing Mozart’s Requiem at First United Methodist Church Pasadena. On that same program the Chorale will sing Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughn Williams. This brings us full circle back to Bach.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

On March 31, 1941, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote a letter to Myfanwy Jones thanking her for supporting his protest against the BBC. The composer Alan Bush Was a committed communist. At that time in WWII, the USSR and the Nazi Third Reich were allies. In consequence, the BBC banned Bush’s music. Vaughn Williams, although not supportive of Bush’s politics, protested the ban and withdrew a song the BBC had commissioned.

What does Ralph Vaughan Williams have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach?

Vaughan Williams, throughout all of his professional success, remained deeply committed to community music making. In 1905 he helped found the Leith Hill Music Festival and remained its principal conductor until 1953. He first conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion there in 1931 and continued to conduct it regularly. Although his interpretation was eccentric (he disliked the harpsichord and refused to use it), he is remembered for his ability to get the very best out of singers, at one moment flying into a rage and the next telling a funny story, often saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better than this.”

One choir member noted: "His endeavours to get a collection of gardeners, grooms, parlourmaids and the gentry (not forgetting the odd journeyman carpenter) to sound like a howling mob outside Pilate's Palace led him to remove his jacket, revealing large holes in the elbows of his cardigan. In spite of these small things the look on his face and the magnetism of his personality seemed to succeed in doing the impossible."

 Dorking Halls, Home of the Lieth Music Festival

In another letter, in March of 1949, four years before his death, he wrote to his choir:

            “Not only was the performance technically the best we have given, but it had a quality of flow in the phrases and an understanding of the real meaning of the music greater than we have formerly achieved.”
            I am now 76 years old and the time must come before long when I shall have to relinquish the honour of conducting you, but I feel sure that you will show, through my successor, the same loyal devotion that you have always shown to great music and its greatest composer.
            I like to think that our performance of the ‘Passion’ will never cease and that when you in your turn are unable to cope with your high Soprano A’s and low bass D’s, that the younger generation will be there, ready to step into the ranks from which you have reluctantly fallen out.”

The tradition continues; the future approaches. On April 2, 2016, Chorale Bel Canto will sing Bach. On May 14, 2016, we will sing Vaughan Williams. 
Join us!

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