Carl Friedrich Gessel (1724 – 1793)
You just never know when it will happen. Two days ago I was futzing around in YouTube looking for Baroque music by the Goldberg Baroque Ensemble when I came across a video I hadn’t seen before, despite having searched the group several times. It must have been added recently. Here’s the title:
Gessel [XVIII Jhd.] : zur Himmelfahr[t] Christi Vater ich will, dass wo ich bin, BG PAN Ms.Cath.f.
Well, well. Worth a listen on the evidence of such careful recordkeeping alone, don’t you think? So I gave it a go. The Protestant church music of what was then a German-speaking part of what is now Poland is very much like the music produced farther south in the musical heartlands of Thuringia and Saxony. It’s very good stuff, the list of composer names is long and some of them are illustrious. But this poor creature, our good Herr Gessel, isn’t even granted the courtesy of a Christian name, just “Gessel,” which isvery locker-roomish, it seems to me, and hardly fitting for person of his musical consequence. I started the video and followed along (available here). Things start off with an athletic aria for bass rather than with a sinfonia and a choral piece as is standard practice. All good, nothing wrong with an opening aria, I’m not picky about how my cantatas get things rolling. Then comes an accompanied recitative with very active string parts. Once again, not exactly standard practice, but quite effective and charming. We’re in the world of the Protestant church cantata, written where the musical forces didn’t involve a cast of thousands. So solo cantatas fit the bill very nicely, thank you very much. Nothing to turn one’s nose up at that, is there.
The accompanied recitative for bass ends and after a pause of some few seconds (the video is of a live recording for the Goldberg Festival in Gdansk) there begins an aria for alto of such enchanting melody, gracefulness and lightheartedness it leaves one slackjawed. The scoring is for two transverse flutes, strings and basso continuo, in triple meter, which puts a swing in its step and a lilt in its voice. I can’t explain the mechanics of how music like this sinks through the senses and into the brain to create such a strong and permanent impression. I knew as soon as I heard it that I’d struck gold, another motherlode that had previously been hidden from my awareness. I also knew I’d be listening to this music for the rest of my life. It doesn’t get any better than this. There is much that is as good as, but it doesn’t get any better.
So, just who is this musical magician consigned to the oblivion which was the fate of so many composers of his era? I had to Google like mad to come up with any information at all. If I had an older edition of the print Grove’s I’d probably have found an entry right off the bat, but let us not cast aspersions on the Age of Technology, despite its glaring limitations. I finally came across an entry on a French blog (here) that gives some basic biographical information. Gessel was fairly typical of composers of his time and place, it turns out. He was born in Bautzen (not far from Dresden) where his father was Kantor, so there was music in the family and he was tutored from a tender age. He studied at the University of Wittenberg — you can’t get any more Protestant than that — and after finishing his studies he was named Kantor of the Nikolauskirche in Lobau. And just where is Lobau, you ask? Within spitting distance of Bautzen, that’s where, so in the dense web of musicians and musical families in that part of Germany, he didn’t have to move very far from his point of origin to land a decent job. After only six years in Lobau he took up an appointment at the Johanneskirche in Zittau, today smack dab on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, where he remained for the rest of his life — that means fully 41 years in the post. Beyond that we know nothing more about the man. Clearly he was a master and doubtless he produced reams of fine music that have been lost and that we unfortunates will never hear. It’s all on the Internet, you say? Think again, babes. It’s not even all in the archives, let alone online.
Having nothing but the manuscript catalog listing to work with, back to Google I went. It turns out that BG PAN is the Biblioteka Gdanska and PAN is the Polska Akademia Nauk … which has a decidedly Soviet ring to it. It reminds me of all those Russian things that came across my desk at university from the Gosudarstvennaya Akademia Nauk blah blah blah. I have no idea what manuscript collection is involved, I dare not even hazard a guess given the vicissitudes of history and the legacy of destruction in that part of the world. I’m infinitely glad the manuscript of this cantata survived because it has afforded me a consummate delight, as it will to anyone who lends an ear.
Let’s consider for a moment the places in which Gessel was active. Born in Bautzen, died in Zittau. The distance between those two places is 50 km ((31 miles) — something one could easily cover on a day’s bike ride if the weather cooperates. Bautzen has much to recommend it, I’m sure, but musical luminaries are not dense in its registers. Zittau, on the other hand, my goodness … let’s start with Melchior Franck. Franck! “Fahet uns die Fuchse” is one of my favorite motets of all time, it gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Close on Franck’s heels comes Andreas Hammerschmidt, whose music I’ve enjoyed hearing although I don’t remember any goosebumps erupting as a consequence of the audition, but that’s probably just me. Next comes Johann Philipp Krieger, whose trio sonatas are fabulous. I have the recording of them made by Parnassi Musici, which is wonderful. Krieger is also the composer of an astonishing aria, “Einsamkeit, du Qual der Herzen,” which pulls so strongly at the heartstrings I could hardly believe when I first heard it that it’s from the early Baroque period. It uses a slow, descending ostinato bass with a vocal line that wavers and arabesques in the soprano range in a most heartfelt way. Then we have next on the list a bona fide Big Gun: Johann Kuhnau. I can hear some of you muttering under your breath, Johann WHO?? Well, my dears, even in my young days — which lie some way back in the chronology of the previous century — we knew about Kuhnau. The Biblical Sonatas, dontcha know. I don’t think I ever played any of them publicly, but I certainly gave a couple of them a good thump on the harpsichord. As programmatic sonatas they do the job they’re meant to do, but really, can you seriously expect a harpsichord to express the weeping of women or the sound of battle? I think not. Try it and all you’ll end up doing is sounding quaint. Do it with the slightest lack of taste and you’ll find yourself careening into the realm of kitsch, which is no place for a lady, is it. Kuhnau’s vocal works, on the other hand, are quite impressive. I have a recording of a large-scale Magnificat that gives Handel a run for his money. The list ends with one Heinrich Marschner, of whom I knew precisely NOTHING before reading the Wikipedia article on Zittau. Apparently he was “the most important composer of German opera between Weber and Wagner.” Well, that explains my ignorance of him. Opera … Romantic era opera, to boot. I’d rather go to the dentist than listen to opera from the Romantic period. So no bloody wonder I’m appallingly ignorant of Herr Marschner and his operatic oeuvre. Bad me.
Looking at the list of composers who were active in Zittau, then, we count five — count ’em, FIVE — major composers as natives of the little burg. It’s what the French would probably call “un petit bled,” a “little somewhere” — its current population is just under 28,000, so we’re talking boondocks. Yet from those boondocks came five major composers, a number I will now increase to six because Gessel spent most of his life there and deserves to be counted among the others mentioned. His musical gifts were no less. Six major musical figures from a town of less than 30,000 people. Is it something in the water? Do the rays of the sun strike the area at a particular angle that excites musical imagination? I have no idea why that area of Germany had musical marvels so thick on the ground you could hardly turn around without bumping into one. Those lucky ducks.
One final thought: print still matters. Yes, all those of you who think the book is dead and “it’s all on the Internet anyway,” well, I beg to differ. It is NOT all on the Internet. The aria that has so captured my attention over the past few days comes from a manuscript in Poland that isn’t on the Internet and doesn’t even exist in a modern edition. The manuscript is all there is, period end of story. So thank God for the people who continue to curate and preserve things that are not composed of zeroes and ones. If you consider the matter carefully the truth dawns on your awareness that much of the world’s creative treasure trove is in the care of such people, not with the IT Crowd. So let’s hear it for those dedicated souls who continue to archive, conserve, and catalog. They do us all a great service.
There is to my ear a clear kinship between Gessel and Gottfried August Homilius (1714-1785), who were close contemporaries. By kinship I mean just that, an affinity of temperament and spirit that expresses itself in their musical idiom, not a case of direct influence, derivation or such like. Homilius was active in Dresden, which is 125km away from Zittau. OMG 78 miles! The ends of the earth! I don’t know if Gessel ever made it to Dresden during his lifetime, but I’d wager to say he didn’t. Whether he knew the work of Homilius or not is an open question. The kinship I recognized between the two composers became immediately apparent to me when I heard the instrumental introduction and the melody of the alto aria that has been running through my head for the past three days. In the mid-18th century things were heading in the direction of Empfindsamkeit and bel canto, away from the hard-core counterpoint of the High Baroque. The kinship between Gessel and Homilius is probably a result of that historical trend, in which both composers lived their working lives. If anything, I would say Gessel is even more refined than Homilius in the way he handles tonal masses and the interplay of the solo voice with the strings and continuo. The instrumental introduction of the aria is absolutely fabulous, and I still don’t catch some of the interplay of the flutes and upper strings, but there’s no way I’m going to get my hands on a copy of the manuscript over the Internet (I rest the case made above), so I’ll just have to keep trying to puzzle it out while listening.
Let’s all give a round of applause for Herr Gessel and shower him with the praise he deserves, even if it happens to be a few hundred years too late and he happens not to be in a position to acknowledge the appreciation. He deserves it richly, nonetheless.
Johann Theodor Roemhildt (1684-1756)
Roemhildt obviously escaped the complete oblivion that engulfed the works of Gessel, since Roemhildt’s compositions have a work designation — RoemV, for Roemhildt Verzeichnis, and his complete work list arranged by RoemV number is available here. Roemhildt’s dates put him smack dab in the lifespan of J.S. You Know Who, which means we’re squarely in the High Baroque, not in the transitional period of Gessel with its greater emphasis on monody and suave melodies. Roemhildt is thoroughly contrapuntal, just as you’d expect a German composer to be who is almost an exact contemporary of the Big J.S.B. The biographical material on Roemhildt is studded with well-known names, to such a degree it seems almost an exercise in name dropping. The best biographical material is, of course, in German, and one item I found expounds a happy thought I can’t resist sharing:
Die genauere Kenntnis der Kompositionen J.Th. Roemhildts kann dazu beitragen, auch den heute berühmteren Zeitgenossen J.S. Bach in einem anderen Licht zu sehen bzw. unsere Kenntnis der Kirchenmusik des Barock auf eine breitere Grundlage zu stellen.
(Closer knowledge of J.Th. Roemhildt’s compositions can help us see even his much better known contemporary J.S. Bach in a different light and put our knowledge of Baroque church music on a broader footing.)
Well howdy doody, let’s run that idea up the flag pole, shall we? And there’s very good reason for it: Roemhildt was in the thick of things musical all his life. As a boy he studied with Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau (the Zittauer), both eminent composers. One of my favorite Christmas arias came from Schelle’s pen, “Furchtet euch nicht” from his Christmas oratorio, and I’ve mentioned Kuhnau’s merits above. But get this: among Roemhildt’s fellow pupils at the Thomasschule in Leipzig (the musical Harvard of its day) were none other than Christoph Graupner, Johann Friedrich Fasch and David Heinichen. I’ve done a whole post on Graupner, who was a genius of the Baroque music world. Fasch and Heinichen are both outstanding composers, as well, very popular today, as the many recordings I have of both testify, and of course my taste such matters is impeccable, just to be clear on that point. 🙂 It all begins to feel a bit Bloomsbury-like, actually, with to-be-famous people all huddled together in rooms drinking tea (or beer, more likely, with good German folk). I remember a line from one of Woolf’s essays about a sweet young thing, thrown of an evening into the mix with a group like the Bloomsbury bunch, who burst out in distress during some deep discussion, “Is there nobody commonplace here?” Sorry, babes, we’re fresh out of commonplace. Only smart-as-a-whip folk here, so sorry … what’s a girl to do?? So during his formative period Roemhildt was being taught by two of the chief composers of the early Baroque period and was a fellow student with three of the chief German composers of the High Baroque. And all of this in quaint old Leipzig, which isn’t exactly Paris or Rome. One asks again, is it something in the water? Who knows …
Roemhildt’s reputation appears to be fairly high in Germany because of his associations and the quality of his output, but he’s never hit it big in the music history books or in the modern recording industry. How many recordings have been done of the Goldberg Variations by You Know Who? I’d need more than both hands and feet to count them. How many recordings have been done of Roemhildt’s church cantatas? Two — count ’em, TWO. And these recordings involve individual cantatas by Roemhildt as part of an anthology of works by different composers, not recordings entirely devoted to Roemhildt’s music. So clearly, Roemhildt never broke the sound barrier like so many of his contemporaries have done since the Baroque revival began in the mid-20th century.
I have only three cantatas by Roemhildt in my collection, all of them performed by the Goldberg Baroque Ensemble of Gdansk (or Danzig, if you prefer the Teutonic take on the name), to wit:
Search Johann Theodor on YouTube and see if you find any more, I bet you won’t. If the cantatas recorded on the two CDs with works by Roemhildt include any of the ones listed above performed by the Goldberg Ensemble, we’re looking at less than 5 works transmitted to modern ears from a composer who racked up a total of 235 cantata manuscripts in curated collections before World War II. And as we all know, World War II was bad news not only for large swaths of humanity but also for cultural resources held in archives and libraries. This appalling loss of manuscript material is discussed (here) on a site from the University of Bochum. Let’s read a bit and consider in full measure what this loss means:
Hans Römhild, eine später Nachfahre des Komponisten, schrieb 1963 in “Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart” (MGG), von dem Bestand an 235 Kirchenkantaten sei “im 2. Weltkrieg ein erheblicher Tl. vernichtet” worden. Die Formulierung bezieht sich offenkundig auf die Handschriften der Stadtbibliothek Danzig (56 Kantaten der Catharinen- und 55 der Johanneskirche, unter ihnen einige Doubletten), die bis in die 1990er Jahre als Kriegsverluste galten. Des weiteren befanden sich eine Kantate und ein Kyrie im Pfarrarchiv der Hauptkirche Sorau (heute: Zary/Polen), sie wurden nach Angaben von Hans Römhild ebenfalls ein Opfer der Kampfhandlungen. Da das Archiv der Stadt- und Hauptkirche Guben/Gubin, in dem das Manuskript einer weiteren Kantate lag, im Krieg zerstört wurde, ist auch dieses Werk nicht überliefert. Die Handschrift der von K. Paulke 1921 edierten Matthäus-Passion aus Danzig scheint ebenfalls vernichtet worden und damit endgültig verloren zu sein.
(Hans Romhild, a descendant of the composer, wrote in “Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart” (MGG) in 1963 about a collection of 235 church cantatas “of which a major part was destroyed in World War II.” This assessment apparently refers to the manuscript collection of the Stadtbibliothek Danzig (56 cantatas from the Catharinenkirche and 55 from the Johanneskirche, among them some duplicates), which until the 1990s were held to be lost during the war. Additionally, a cantata and a Kyrie were held in the parish archive of the Hauptkirche Sorau (currently Zary, Poland), which according to Hans Romhild were also victims of the war. Since the archive of the Stadt- und Hauptkirche Guben/Gubin, which had the manuscript of an additional cantata, was destroyed in the war, that cantata was not transmitted, either. The manuscript used by K. Paulke for his 1921 edition of the Matthew Passion from Danzig also appears to have been destroyed and thus lost forever.)
This makes for grim reading. What’s true in Roemhildt’s case must be true in the case of many other composers of the period from that part of the world. The horrific thought I have when reading such things is this: what if there were a composer or composers whose works were totally destroyed without ever being transmitted to the modern world? How many Gessels and Roemhildts have met the fate of their manuscripts being destroyed before anyone rediscovered them? I can’t bear to think about it, it’s too distressing. Obviously the losses from World War II are immense with regard to Kulturgut as the Germans call it — let’s call it cultural legacy for lack of a better equivalent. It’s the equivalent of a mass extinction event in the realm of biology. Knowing the scope of the carnage that destroyed both human beings and manuscripts in World War II makes the manuscripts that survived that much more precious as the survivors they are. Let us care for them as we would care for the state jewels of some dead kingdom that has dimmed in the distance of history, since they carry the only remnants we have of what is precious from that time and place.
There’s a kinship relation I noticed in Roemhildt’s case, as well, but it’s entirely individual, not based on the musical trends of a particular period. The link with Roemhildt is to Jan Dismas Zelenka. Roemhildt seems to me the Protestant version of Zelenka. Why? Well, there are a number of reasons: sudden shifts from major to minor in unexpected places, a penchant for very energetic string parts in the arias, the use of complex solo instrumental parts in arias (oboes noodling all over the place, for example), and a shared fondness for unusual and unexpected rhythmic figures. All these things amount to music which carries of lot of kinetic energy, sometimes manifest, sometimes potential because it results from the pull and tug between elements such as vocal part held over multiple beats while strings or oboes run about like chickens with their heads cut off. Roemhildt’s music gives me the same eyebrows raised in surprise I get from Zelenka’s music. Anybody who has listened all the way through Zelenka’s six trio sonatas for oboes, bassoon and basso continuo will have had several circuits in their brain either blown or rerouted to other portions of the organ. Roemhildt’s music has the same innovative quality and sense of surprise about it as Zelenka’s, although to a lesser degree, it must be said, and Roemhildt’s music lacks the Czech ethnic substrate that Zelenka’s music has no matter what type of composition he writes. I say Roemhildt is the Protestant Zelenka because the hymns in his cantatas are luscious, lusciously scored for the accompanying instruments and beautifully balanced between the choral lines and the instrumental parts. Zelenka didn’t do hymns, of course, being a Catholic in Catholic Dresden, where such things were beyond the pale. Compare some of their arias, however, and you’ll find that they were certainly birds of a feather.
So, there we have it: two more jewels in the crown of the Baroque. May they glitter in their brightness forever.