Friday, February 15, 2013

Bach vs. Telemann: A Baroque Smackdown

At Faith UMC (Champaign, Illinois, USA) Pastor Wes Wilkey is starting a series of sermons this week which might get us thinking about Sin in different ways. So, as a musical corollary, today's blog concerns a couple of attempts to deal with the subject musically.

Sin! Everybody's favorite subject. Or not.

Still, it's hard to avoid if you spend your life working in a church setting Lutheran Chorales for choir and organ, like the two fellows whose works you are going to meet today. They've both been given the task to set the chorale "Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt" which is a good old text and tune dealing with the concept of Adam's fall (a.k.a "the first sin") in the 3rd chapter of Genesis. In English the title reads "Through Adam's Fall Everything got corrupted/spoiled/ruined" depending on how you translate that last verb. Personally I like "spoiled." I think our composers are ready with their selections. They were given their assignment some 300 years ago so I think they've finished by now.

In one corner, a fellow by the name of Bach. His setting of the tune is, predictably, a bit complicated. There are three layers: the tune itself, a "falling" figure in the pedal, and a "slithery" line (for the snake in the garden") in the middle, made up of the suspicious chromaticism that makes everyone musically uncomfortable. Here's what it sounds like when you put it all together:

Bach: Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt

In the other corner, a Mr. Georg Telemann. Telemann was a contemporary of Bach, even a family friend. Bach chose him to be the godfather of one of his kids, so they must have been fairly close.

But (in true 21st century American "reality" TV fashion) we can only have one winner! One of you will win, and the other will have to pack his quill pen and go home!

Let's see if it's Telemann. His rendering of the chorale tune is more straightforward and dramatic than Bach's.
You might find it easier listening. You might even be able to dance to it (is it just me or does that opening sound a bit like the theme to Monday Night Football?) Finally, it's shorter. Here it is:

Telemann: Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt

So here's the question, celebrity judges: whose is the best? You can vote in the poll at the top of the page. And in the comments below, you can tell us how you feel about each of them and why you voted the way you did.

Does Bach have something to say about the nature of sin that Telemann doesn't? Is the Telemann more viscerally arresting? Is it over the top? Is there a reason he was so popular with the people of Leipzig? Or is that a bad thing? What are you listening for and do you find it?


Now for a little soap opera. Telemann eventually got a job in Hamburg, but in his younger days spent a few years in Leipzig, where he got in really good with the town council and the public, and really got on the nerves of a Johann Kuhnau, director of the city's churches. Telemann seemed to have the ability to know what the public liked, and to incorporate all the latest trends in his music, where the much older Kuhnau was a conservative who wanted all the best for his churches, and was not pleased that the charismatic Telemann formed a 40 member ensemble that siphoned off most of the best musicians in town to play operas instead of church services. When Telemann got himself installed by the town council in one of the churches not under Kuhnau's control a real turf war ensued. At one point Kuhnau fell ill and the town council was really hoping the old guy would die so they could replace him with Telemann. Nice, huh?

Fast forward 15 years. Kuhnau "finally" dies and the job is open. Telemann, who is now in Hamburg, applies, but is apparently not really interesting in moving again. Basically he uses the job offer he gets from Leipzig (because of course the council is falling all over itself to have him) to get a significant salary increase from the Hamburg officials in order to keep him at home (a little free agency from the Baroque period). Telemann, satisfied with his enormous raise, withdraws his application and another pool of applicants is auditioned. Eventually, one J. S. Bach gets the job. Meantime, one council member is quoted at a meeting saying in frustration, "well, if we can't have the best (meaning Telemann) we'll just have to settle for mediocrity (meaning, indirectly, Bach, et. al),"  thus earning the musicological evil-eye (and a lot of nasty remarks) for centuries!

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