Mahan Esfahani, LACO’s very first Baroque Conversations artistic partner, has named three different cities to be the focus of the music during his three-year tenure. Tonight he leads us to the first stop, Berlin in the 1740s and 50s. The composers on this evening’s concert did not merely overlap geographically, but also shared many similar experiences. Three worked at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia (CPE Bach, Janitsch and Benda), three were German (Benda was Czech), two studied law before pursuing music as their central focus (WF Bach and Janitsch), and three came from musical families (Janitsch was born of a merchant). While all four lived during the important decades between the end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the Classical period, each chose a unique way to navigate through these transitionary times, some carrying the past with them, some looking firmly ahead.
Johann Gottlieb Janitsch was a German composer who became very active in the musical community in Frankfurt while he was a law student at the University there. Not only did he write music, but he also conducted and played in Prince Frederick’s orchestra. When Frederick II – known as Frederick the Great – ascended the throne, Janitsch was named contraviolinist in his court orchestra in Berlin, where Janitsch was to remain for the rest of his life. While there, he also began a weekly concert series called the “Friday Academies” that featured musicians from the court orchestra, enthusiasts from the community and guests. These concerts flourished for years and inspired other concert series of a similar nature. Janitsch witnessed the transition from High Baroque complexity to the beginnings of a cooler symmetry and simplicity in the Classical period. His musical style reflects both of these shifts. Some of his works show great mastery of counterpoint, while others use the simpler, gallant style found in the works of CPE Bach. Among his surviving works are about three dozen trio sonatas and 40 or so quadro sonatas. The theme of his Quadro in G minor for Harpsichord and Strings is the Lutheran chorale, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” whose text is related to the Passion story in the Bible.
Of Bach’s many children, a few carried on the musical tradition of the family. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was his oldest son and the second child born to him. Like his father, who was also his teacher, he was known as a fine organist with incredible skills as an improviser. When WF Bach finished at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig, where his father was working, he briefly studied law at Leipzig University but changed focus to mathematics. When he began finding employment as a musician, however, his interest in math became more of a leisure activity. WF Bach worked as an organist, first in Dresden and then in Halle. Unhappy in the latter position, he left without any other prospects for employment, and his professional life fell into disarray, though is unclear exactly why things went sour. Perhaps it was WF Bach’s uncompromising personality or his unwillingness to write music that was easily accessible to the public. Unlike his brother, CPE Bach, who embraced the clarity emerging in the nascent Classical period, WF Bach continued to write in the complex contrapuntal style that was his birthright, as is evidenced in his Sonata in D major for Solo Harpsichord. His reputation is somewhat sullied by the fact that he, as one of the caretakers of his father’s manuscripts, sold off some of these precious documents to pay his debts. Regardless of whatever troubles he may have experienced in his personal life, his music masterfully displays the scintillating joy of counterpoint and improvisation. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s contribution to this concert is his Sonata in B minor for Violin and Harpsichord. As a composer and musician, CPE Bach worked tirelessly, producing dozens of works including sonatas (for various instruments, but especially keyboard), symphonies, liturgical works and songs. In addition, he published a keyboard treatise while he was working in Berlin of which Haydn and Beethoven were reportedly big fans.
Jirí Antonín Benda, known as Georg Anton Benda, was a Czech composer born in Bohemia. Like Janitsch, Benda also found a place at Frederick the Great’s court. He was just 19 years old when he was appointed second violinist of the orchestra. In 1750, he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Duke of Gotha, where he wrote primarily instrumental works, but he was very interested in writing for the voice as well. He traveled to Italy to absorb the Italian style, and was particularly interested in opera there. A young Mozart admired Benda’s stage works – melodramas and singspiels (vocal dramas with spoken dialogue). Benda was well-known for his instrumental works, of which the Concerto in G minor for Harpsichord and Strings is a prime example.
– Christine Lee Gengaro PhD © LACO