Over the last seven centuries, German-speaking artists have provided a powerful and innovative influence in almost every artistic discipline, from the region’s beginnings as a constellation of independently governed states to the present day, setting a standard for excellence in music, art, and architecture, and producing a roster of artists and artworks that are exemplars within their chosen fields.

Consider, for example, these composers from what now constitutes a unified Germany: Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss and Schoenberg; each is a pivotal figure in the Western art music tradition, their music appearing countless times each year on concert programs throughout the world. Also consider these interpreters, conductors who have revolutionized the way we think of the baton-wielding orchestral leader: Mendelssohn, von Bülow, Furtwängler and Klemperer. Their recordings are some of the best-selling of all time. Expand our lists of German-speakers to neighbouring Austria, and the list becomes even more astoundingly impressive: Mozart, Mahler, Karajan, Böhm, Kleiber ….

Read more: “Im Deutsch” - Exploring Germanic Musical Identity

Exploring the history of classical music and its vast network of composers, interpreters and commentators is a fascinating task, nebulous yet surprisingly linear all at once. In many ways, the work of the musicologist resembles that of an archaeologist, who unearths and examines historical evolutions through the fossil record and physical structures, using the earth’s geological formations to tell us what came before and how that led to the modern world.

Where archaeologists use rock and sediment, the musical scholar uses manuscripts, treatises and libraries to explore the past, in both specific and wide-ranging ways. For example, the field of Bach studies has grown and improved immensely in the last five decades. This focused scholarly work on a single composer’s output has led to numerous reissues of Bach’s works, each an improvement and clarification of the previous volume. New works have been discovered as well, such as the Neumeister Collection, a series of chorale preludes found in the 1980s at Yale by Christoph Wolff and Wilhelm Krumbach, filling in our understanding of a great composer and his personal compositional evolution.

Read more: Digging Deeper Rewarded (Musical Archaeology)

November’s early twilights serve as a reminder of the upcoming festive season, a harbinger of what is to come. As the days grow shorter, we see a transition taking place in the world around us, a gradual evolution in which sandboxes are overtaken by Santa and road trips by reindeer. Lights and decorations are extracted from their hibernating hiding places until, one house at a time, our neighbourhoods begin to look like those in cheesy TV movies, though perhaps without the requisite miracles and an ageless, white-bearded neighbour conspicuously named “Nick.”

Musical programming undergoes similar changes at this time of year, following the seasonal trajectory in a way that mirrors the outside world: one by one, concerts are announced which accumulate in quantity until the month of December is saturated with choral, orchestral and many other presentations, each celebrating the spirit of the season in different ways. Scores and parts are extracted from their boxes – Messiahs, Christmas Oratorios and Concerti - in the same way as household decorations, ready to be dusted off and brought back to life for a few short weeks. 

Read more: The Season's Treasures Unpacked

Time is an equal opportunity employer” – Denis Waitley

While time may provide equal opportunity to those now living, history can be much less kind to the legacies of those who have gone before us. For example, when reviewing composers of classical music, we see specific instances of how such artists are grouped into seemingly infinite pyramid-shaped hierarchies, their status as “genius” determined as much by the quality of their output as their enduring and perennial appeal. Starting at the top, we encounter the universally revered composers, the capital-G Geniuses: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and the other craftsmen whose works have transcended time and transfixed audiences for centuries. These are the figures after whom busts are sculpted and monuments built, and who can be trusted to draw large audiences year after year.

Another tier of the legacy tower is that of the well-respected, yet under-performed composer. Arnold Schoenberg and subsequent proponents of the Second Viennese School belong here, as do many of the 20th century’s finest musical minds, such as Ligeti, Berio and Stockhausen. While their works might not tickle the ears of every person who happens upon them, or fill up a concert hall, they nonetheless played significant roles in the development of new forms of musical expression. Yet another category is that of composers who achieve renown by virtue of their writing for a specific instrument, such as Josef Rheinberger’s compositions for the organ or Franz Liszt’s piano works; while both of these examples wrote a wide variety of material for a range of vocal and instrumental forces, their legacies rest primarily on a specific segment of their output.

No matter how we categorize the characters in our history books, these theoretical organizational principles are just that – theoretical. From a practical perspective, how does one choose which of these compositional strata to draw from when deciding what to perform next week, month, or year? Balance is key when constructing a concert program, and finding a stimulating and satisfying blend of composers and repertoire is the challenge of artistic directors across the globe. A quick case in point: when Pierre Boulez assumed control of the New York Philharmonic in 1971, succeeding Leonard Bernstein, his attempts to incorporate higher volumes of contemporary music led to much criticism and a drop in annual subscriptions to the orchestra’s seasons. While there was great merit to Boulez’s contemporary crusade, the slight change in emphasis from the easily digestible, top-tier “Genius” to the more sinewy Schoenbergian genius did not resonate with his audience and led to a challenging tenure for one of the 20th century’s greatest composer-conductors.

Much like the categorization of composers, there is a near-infinite number of approaches that can be taken to program-building and we will encounter some of them in this column, exploring a variety of early music through numerous combinations and juxtapositions, both of the music itself and the people who wrote it.

Discovering Antonio Lotti

A relatively unknown figure in a scene dominated by such heavyweights as Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Lotti was an Italian composer who spent his career at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, working his way up the musical hierarchy from singer to maestro di cappella. Lotti wrote in a variety of forms, producing masses, cantatas, madrigals, nearly 30 operas, and instrumental music, thereby influencing some of the era’s great geniuses: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Jan Dismas Zelenka owned copies of Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae, consisting of a Kyrie and Gloria scored for chorus and orchestra, transcribed from the manuscript by each in their own hand.

This connection between Lotti’s Missa Sapientiae and the music of Bach, Handel and Zelenka is made apparent in Tafelmusik’s “Lotti Revealed”, presented from November 14 to 17 and directed by Ivars Taurins. This is the first time Tafelmusik has performed music by Lotti and it will be paired with excerpts from Bach and Zelenka masses, as well as Handel’s Carmelite Vespers. Sumptuous and expressive, Lotti’s music will prove a valuable addition to Tafelmusik’s repertory and stimulating listening for those who enjoy the richness and depth of late-Baroque music.

This Sounds Familiar…

The turning back of our clocks signals more than the arrival of colder temperatures; it also commences the annual transition to Christmas music, which regularly features combinations of classic works and interesting revelations. On November 24, the York University Concert and Chamber Choirs join forces to present a seasonal selection of music by Dieterich Buxtehude, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, and Camille Saint-Saëns. Two of these composers are famous largely for their organ works: Buxtehude for his masterful praeludia, chorale preludes and pieces in free style; Saint-Saëns for his Third Symphony, which gives the organ a prominent place in what is an overall glorious masterpiece. Pergolesi, meanwhile, is renowned for his Stabat Mater, a passiontide classic that makes multiple appearances each year. While the names may be familiar, the York University choirs will not be performing a greatest hits concert, but rather a series of pieces that focuses on various aspects of the Christmas story.

Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël is a cantata-oratorio hybrid written for soloists, chorus, organ, strings and harp, composed while he was an organist at La Madeleine in Paris. Distinctly French in harmonic language, yet clearly indebted to the form of the Baroque cantata and dramatic element of the oratorio, this work combines arias, recitatives and chorus movements with the Latin texts of the Catholic lectionary, creating a piece of music with distinct characteristics and fascinating form. The cantata theme continues with Buxtehude’s Das neugeborne Kindelein, a Protestant church cantata for chorus and chamber orchestra, and Pergolesi’s Magnificat. These works will not only frame Saint-Saëns’ unconventional cantata with more traditional essays in the form, but delight the audience with infrequently performed works by renowned masters of their craft.

Academie für Alte Musik BerlinTwo Bits of Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are stunning masterpieces, as virtuosic a display of compositional prowess as their instrumental interpreters must be to convey the secrets contained therein. This November, the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin visits Kingston on November 26 and Koerner Hall on November 27 in a performance of the first five Brandenburgs, a not-to-be-missed musical event. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Akamus for short), founded in East Berlin in 1982, is one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras on period instruments. It has established itself as one of the pillars of Berlin’s cultural scene, holding its own concert series at the Konzerthaus Berlin for more than 30 years, as well as a concert series at Munich’s Prinzregententheater. Having sold more than one million CDs, their highly successful recordings have won all important awards for classical recordings; with such extraordinary international performers making a rare Canadian appearance, tickets for these concerts will certainly be in high demand.

Ottawa Bach ChoirNow in its 18th season, the Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC) continues to impress with their high level of skill and devotion to the art of their namesake composer. As a testament to their dedication and continued excellence, the OBC has been invited to return to Leipzig for the 2020 Bachfest as one of a select number of ensembles worldwide to present Bach’s entire chorale cantata cycle, a remarkable and imposing proposition! On November 30, the Ottawa Bach Choir, led by founding artistic director Lisette Canton, will visit Toronto for A Bach Christmas, providing us with the opportunity to hear a miniature Bachfest of our own. This program includes the cantatas the choir will perform at Bachfest Leipzig 2020 (Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht, BWV124; Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, BWV3; Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit, BWV111), as well as the Christmas interpolations from the Magnificat, BWV243 (Vom Himmel hoch, Freut euch und jubiliert, Gloria in excelsis Deo, Virga Jesse floruit), the celebratory motet, Singet dem Herrn, BWV225, and more. Featuring the Ensemble Caprice baroque orchestra with strings, oboes d’amore, horn, as well as soprano Meredith Hall, countertenor Nicholas Burns, tenor Philippe Gagné and bass Andrew Mahon, there is little doubt that this concert will give Bach aficionados much to rejoice about this Christmas season.

Whether discovering the profundity of Antonio Lotti for the first time, hearing a rare performance of Saint-Saëns’ Oratorio de Noël, or basking in the resplendent genius of Bach, the month of November is full of magnificent music that is well worth the price of admission. There is also much to look forward to in the following weeks, as the ushering in of the Christmas season brings with it many more opportunities to take in landmark works by both renowned and less-known composers. See you in December – until then, feel free to get in touch at earlymusic@thewholenote.com.

EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

NOV 19, 7:30 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Purcell’s King Arthur. Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Containing some of Purcell’s most lyrical music and adventurous harmonies, King Arthur is a mystical journey through Arthur’s battle against the Saxons, with cameo appearances by Cupid, Venus and more! Much like last month’s Acis and Galatea, this is a fine opportunity to hear the U of T’s rising stars.

NOV 23, 7:30PM; NOV 24, 3PM: Cantemus Singers. “A Boy is Born.” Church of the Holy Trinity, 19 Trinity Square (Saturday)/St. Aidan’s Anglican Church, 70 Silver Birch Avenue (Sunday). In a column devoted to building a program, Cantemus deserves a special mention, as their concerts regularly consist of a fascinating variety of material. This month’s presentation features carols and motets from Renaissance England, including Thomas Tallis’ stunning Missa Puer natus est nobis for seven voices.

NOV 24, 7PM: Cantorei Sine Nomine. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. St. Paul’s Anglican Church (Uxbridge), 59 Toronto Street South. And so, it begins! This season’s first performance of the Christmas Oratorio features six cantatas drawn from the larger work, one of the finest Christmas choral pieces ever written and an unbroken sequence of drama and beauty that continues to inspire audiences, despite being premiered almost three centuries ago.

DEC 4, 7PM; DEC 5 TO 7, 8PM; DEC 8, 3:30PM: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. “O Come, Shepherds.” Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. With a diverse program connected through an underlying pastoral theme, this concert promises a unique combination of Baroque Christmas concertos and the soulful folk music of Southern Italy, with its own rhythms, instruments, and spirit – a fine continuation of Tafelmusik’s mission to broaden its horizons and those of its listeners, through innovative and unexpected presentations.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

According to a fundamental theory of perspective in the visual arts (grossly oversimplified here), an image can be broken down into three distinct components: a background (the space furthest away from the viewer); the foreground (the area closest to the viewer’s eye) and the middleground, which defines the space between the foreground and background. Together, these areas combine to form the image’s composition. This idea of building perspective through layers of perception carries over well into other disciplines and, as we shall see, provides a useful platform for understanding an essential facet of classical music.

The concept of context affects every musical performance we encounter; and like the theory of composition outlined above, can be thought through in terms of background, middleground and foreground.

Some contexts are broader in scope and include those pieces of historical background information that are essential in understanding how an individual composer, style or work developed. In the case of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, for example, it is useful to know before listening that Beethoven was deaf when he composed and conducted this piece, and that the choral finale is Beethoven’s musical representation of universal brotherhood based on the Ode to Joy theme. For a composer as dense and innovative as Gustav Mahler, whose symphonic tomes can be immense and overwhelming to first-time listeners, a basic knowledge of the German symphonic lineage (Haydn led to Mozart, led to Beethoven, led to Brahms and Wagner, led to Bruckner, led to Mahler) can help provide some perspective and shape perceptions of a specific work in an informed way.

Middleground information includes those anecdotes and facts that inform our modern perspectives in relation to music. That the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of the Berlin Wall in 1989, soon after its toppling, is an important historical moment, as was the performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the site of the fallen World Trade Center 12 years later. Much like the composition of visual images, the musical middleground can easily be overlooked and even eliminated altogether, and the drawing of our attention to it is often a noteworthy and revelatory experience. (Consider the isolated girl in the middleground of Rembrandt’s Night Watch – how illuminatory, once made apparent!)

Perhaps the most important of the three layers of perspective, foreground context most informs our immediate perception of a musical work, taking the music, its venue and its audience and creating a micro-environment unique to that specific concert. Factors such as location (Is the concert in a formal concert hall, in an outdoor amphitheatre, or a converted parking garage?) and the social atmosphere (a white-tie fundraiser or gala is a very different experience from a jeans-and-T-shirt casual concert) provide different ways of looking at and listening to the musical works contained therein. Imagine, for example, hearing the Ninth Symphony in three places: in a concert hall; on the radio while caught in traffic driving to work; and blaring from tinny speakers outside McDonalds, in an attempt to keep misbehaving youth at bay. The musical work is the same each time, the performers may even be the same each time, but the environment in which we hear a specific piece of music inherently informs our response to that artwork on a case-by-case basis.

By changing essential components of a concert presentation, the performing artists themselves can redefine and recreate the contextual setup for a musical work. Because the back- and middleground contexts are essentially uneditable, the majority of these presenter-based decisions correspond with our foreground perceptions, as we shall see in three concerts this month, each of which varies a different aspect of the classical music experiential composition.

Place

Nuit Blanche is an annual cultural tradition in Toronto in which the city is transformed by hundreds of artists and nearly 90 art projects. This year’s event features a fascinating installation at the Aga Khan Museum; according to the project synopsis, Arrivals and Encounters: Sama will present music and art from around the world, inviting listeners “to listen to the rhythms and stories of artists whose roots extend around the globe. Sacred spiritual music and dance, including whirling dervishes, staged in quiet spaces will evoke the more contemplative side of the city. The museum grounds will host an illuminated sound installation, offering visitors the chance to experience art while feeling the pulse of the arrivals and encounters that shape our city.”

While this sounds like a fine opportunity to step outside of one’s musical comfort zone and a remarkably obfuscating and inappropriate inclusion within an early music column, it is perhaps even more remarkable (and redemptive for your columnist) to find Vivaldi on the program of such an event. At 7:30pm on October 5, musicians from Tafelmusik bring the music of the Red Priest to the Aga Khan, kicking off their Nuit Blanche exhibition with a disorientingly orthodox bang. The contextual question is clear: how will the venue and environment (whirling dervishes and all) change the audience’s experience and perception of Vivaldi’s music? One could certainly expect that the effect and affect originally intended by Vivaldi will be modified by the extraordinarily varied surroundings, and exactly how this is accomplished will undoubtedly be a highlight of the month.

Joni Mitchell on a flyer for the Riverboat, Yorkville 1967Genre

Johann Sebastian Bach and Joni Mitchell walk into a bar…

So continues Tafelmusik’s contextual subterfusion, this time with their Haus Musik: Café Counterculture concert at the Burdock Music Hall on October 10. Incorporating and juxtaposing music from the 18th and 20th centuries through a series of classical standards and new arrangements of popular hits, concertgoers can expect everything from, well, J.S. Bach to Joni Mitchell, tied together through the concept of the coffee house. In the words of Tafelmusik: “It’s 1730s Leipzig, Germany. J.S. Bach and his colleagues gather at Zimmerman’s coffee house for weekly concerts featuring the new music of the day. Fast forward to Toronto in the 1960s. Yorkville (now known as the ‘Mink Mile’) is a hub of subversion and anti-establishment activism. Undiscovered artists are making their breaks and international acts have come to sling it in underground dives and coffee houses. Legends of this counterculture scene pepper music collections across the world.”

An ingenious and creative programming idea, the inherently multi-genre concept of café counterculture provides an opportunity to combine music that does not at first appear to fit together at all, creating an opportunity to produce a concert experience greater than the sum of the parts. In this particular instance, the foreground context will be a constantly shifting, unexpected series of works that could give unsuspecting audience members a hint of temporal whiplash, but do so in favour of an innovative means of exposing fresh ears to the masterpieces of bygone eras.

Claude Le JeuneStyle

From extreme, genre-bending fluctuations within a single concert to more orthodox programming, the variation of context via musical means is a fluid and exploratory spectrum, as demonstrated by the Toronto Consort on October 25 and 26. In this instance, the fundamental organizational principle is the music of France, presented in a variety of forms and styles. Whether enjoyed in refined 16th-century courts or in today’s traditional music scene, the popular “voix de ville” songs and exquisite courtly music of Claude Le Jeune and his contemporaries or modern folk stylings, the appeal of French music has endured through the centuries. It is exactly these components, the countryside and court, combined with traditional fiddle and dance, that the Consort combines this month, a juxtaposition in triplicate that is sure to enthrall those in attendance.

With artistic direction by Katherine Hill, a well-known early music performer and director of music at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, and guest fiddler and dancer Emilyn Stam, the musical quality will undoubtedly be top notch and well worth a listen.

After a relatively slow September, this month is full of remarkable and worthwhile early music concerts for all who enjoy the genre in all its forms. From conventional concerts in traditional venues to more exploratory programming in contemporary spaces, there is something for everyone in this issue of the WholeNote, and I encourage you to support as many of our talented artists as possible. Have questions as you develop your own contextual compositions? Email earlymusic@thewholenote.com for your October tutorial.

EARLY MUSIC QUICK PICKS

OCT 19, 2:30PM and OCT 20, 7:30 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Heliconian Hall. One of Handel’s miniature dramatic works (referred to as a ‘little opera’ in a letter by the composer while it was being written), Acis and Galatea was the pinnacle of pastoral opera in England, Handel’s most popular dramatic work, and his only stage work never to have left the opera repertory. This is a fine opportunity to hear the University of Toronto’s rising stars, led by the superbly talented Larry Beckwith.

OCT 27, 2PM: Rezonance Baroque Ensemble. “Bach’s Extraordinary Oboe.” St. Barnabas Anglican Church. Dig deep into the Bach canon with his works for oboe, an instrument for which Bach was undoubtedly fond: not only does this instrument receive some of the most beautiful passages within the cantatas and passions, but Bach also composed four concerti, passed down in various forms and instrumentations and reconstructed for oboe and ensemble. Featuring U of T alum Ruth Denton on the double reed, this concert will surely be a delight.

OCT 31 TO NOV 9, various times: Opera Atelier. Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Whether intimately familiar with this opera or only aware of it from the death-premonition scene in Amadeus, this opera is a sublime opportunity for the operatic veteran and neophyte alike to experience Mozart’s masterwork through a historically informed lens. With a superstar cast and magnificent orchestra, you can’t go wrong with this classic.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

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