Category Archives: Baroque music

Nobility of Women in Chamber Music America

MelomanieCMAThe Baroque/New music group Mélomanie is featured in the current Chamber Music America magazine, coinciding with the release of their new CD Excursions. The CD includes my work for them, The Nobility of Women (with guest-artist Priscilla Herreid), and the article includes a bit of an interview with me about working with them. (I liked working with them.)

Check out the article (click on the picture), and check out the CD. In addition to Nobility there’s lots of wonderful music by my colleagues Ingrid Arauco, Jennifer Margaret Barker, Sergio Roberto de Oliveira, and Roberto Pace.

Bach Secular and Sacred

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, December 6th, 5-6 pm.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211, “Coffee Cantata” (c.1735)
BachHerz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (1716, rev. 1723), excerpts

The Visitation, Rogier van der Weyden, 1445. Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig

The Visitation, Rogier van der Weyden, 1445. Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig

Does the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music have vocal works? It does now, although it didn’t originally. The Symphony Club had no singers, so it didn’t require vocal or choral music. But as its library expanded, became a part of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and began circulating to orchestras, the need to look beyond purely instrumental works increased. Requests came in for Handel’s Messiah, the Brahms German Requiem, a Schubert or Mozart Mass, opera arias here and there, and so by the late 1970s the Collection started purchasing some of the great voice with orchestra literature.

We’ll wrap up our three-program excursion into the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with two of his works for voices. Last month we looked at concertos using harpsichords, which first saw the light of day in the 1730s at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, but the work most associated with that place, of course, is the Coffee Cantata. Bach wrote no operas, but this secular cantata is, in effect, a mini-opera.

“Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” are the first words sung by the father Schlendrian to his daughter, and are a great beginning to any concert, as they mean, “Be quiet and stop yakking!” (more or less). Schlendrian, literally, “stick in the mud,” wishes to get his daughter out of the newly fashionable but addicting activity of coffee-drinking. She will not yield until he offers to get her—if she quits—a husband. She agrees, but lets us know that she’ll only marry a man who lets her drink coffee. And that’s the story, the libretto by a frequent collaborator of Bach’s, Christian Friedrich Henrici who wrote under the name “Picander.”

In 1716 Bach, at Weimar, composed the original version of Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, “Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life,” a cantata for one of the weeks leading up to Christmas. When Bach moved to Leipzig to become Kantor, or music director, of the prestigious St. Thomas Church, he started to compose cantatas for each week of the church year. He needed one for a July Sunday, the Visitation of the expectant mother Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (soon to be the mother of John the Baptist), and remembered his old Weimar cantata.

It was a studied choice. Because of differences in the observance of Advent between Weimar and Leipzig, the old cantata wasn’t useable for him anymore, so instead of letting it sit in a desk drawer, he took it out and revised it. About half of it worked perfectly—it was already Marian in nature—but he added more sections. The last movement of it, however, will be recognizable to anyone who has ever heard Bach.

“Jesus bleibet meine Freude” means “Jesus remains my joy,” but we hear this music at weddings, at Christmas, at Easter, and all through the year in every kind of arrangement, as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (the words by English poet Robert Bridges, 1844–1930). The chorale melody, unadorned by Bach’s bubbling triplets, is by Johann Schop (c.1590–1667), reminding us that there really is no such thing as a “Bach chorale tune.” He excelled in these chorale movements at taking old Lutheran hymn melodies and, in settings of exquisite craftmanship, creating new works of genius. Vocal works with orchestra indeed have a place in the Fleisher Collection.

Alon Goldstein performs Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged for piano by Dame Myra Hess:

The Taste of Bach and Harpsichords

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday November 1st, 2014 at 5 pm

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord in A minor, BWV 1044. Andrew Manze, violin (conductor), Rachel Brown, flute, Richard Egarr, harpsichord, Academy of Ancient Music. Harmonia Mundi 907283, Tr 7–9. 22:25

Bach. Concerto for Two Harpsichords and Strings in C, BWV 1061. Hank Knox, Luc Beauséjour, harpsichords, Arion, Jaap ter Linden. Early Music 7753, Tr 14–16. 16:46

Bach. Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A minor, BWV 1065. Raymond Leppard (conductor), Andrew Davies, Philip Ledger, Blandine Verlet, harpsichords, English Chamber Orchestra. Philips 4784614, Tr 13–15. 9:32

CoffeeBaroqueLet’s face it, the harpsichord is an acquired taste. In popular culture, never helpful for appreciating the fine or unusual, the harpsichord is shorthand for—at best—stuffy, rich, out-of-touch, let-them-eat-cake. That’s at best. At worst, it’s sinister. And that doesn’t even count Lurch on The Addams Family.

The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument that has often been misapplied. It has a delicate, refined sound, yet can help to keep the players onstage together. Indeed, before we stood conductors on their feet in front of everyone, they were often in the middle of the orchestra, seated at and playing the harpsichord.

But placing that plucked keyboard in a large hall with many instruments will bury the sound. We are left to wonder: If we can’t hear it, why is it there? The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be. Even large harpsichords need smallish rooms and a modicum of company. Then we can really hear its capacity for nuance and, yes, power.

Johann Sebastian Bach understood this, as he did so many things, and basically invented the harpsichord concerto, mostly for concerts at the local coffee house, Zimmermann’s. But calling them concerts doesn’t quite catch the flavor. Bach ran (along with the music in four churches, a school, and much else in Leipzig) the Collegium Musicum, a student musical group. Bach’s Coffee Cantata, the closest thing to an opera he ever wrote, was probably written for performance here.

Zimmermann’s had two rooms, the largest, about 26’ x 32’, the size of a large living room. This is where the harpsichord concertos of Bach were premiered. Newer recordings of Bach take this to heart. We can hear the tang of the strings, the colors of the instruments, the roar of crescendos as cataracts of notes tumble up and down the keyboard.

Since the harpsichord has no sustain pedal like the piano, and since the inner mechanism plucks the strings with the same force regardless of how hard one hits the keys, the only way to make it louder is literally to play more notes at the same time. Listen for this in Bach’s writing, and in these wonderful performances.

Bach cobbled together most of his harpsichord concertos from other works, rewriting other solo concertos into this format. Because some of his sons were still living at home and were excellent keyboardists, they may have played on some of these. The triple concerto (solo harpsichord, flute, and violin with string accompaniment) features the keyboard the most. The two-harpsichord concerto may be the only one that began life as an actual harpsichord piece. For the concerto of a quartet of harpsichords, Bach went not to his own music, but to Vivaldi’s, which he loved and from which he learned so much. It’s a Baroque battle of the bands, with the players trading arpeggios back and forth.

It’s easy to imagine the sheer fun Bach had writing and playing these at Zimmermann’s, alongside students, his sons, and a willing audience of coffee drinkers eager to hear the latest from the Leipzig Kantor. Now there’s a taste we’re happy to acquire.

If you’ve never seen four harpsichords together, here’s your chance:

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 12 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

The Nobility of Women

The Nobility of Women
2011; Baroque fl, ob, vn, viola da gamba, Baroque vc, harpsichord; 20′
Commissioned and premiered by Mélomanie

excursions-500x500This 20-minute work takes its name from the 1600 dance instruction manual Nobiltà di Dame by Fabritio Caroso. The name of the book alone captivated me. I used none of the music from Nobiltà di Dame, but rather imagined a piece that would grow out of a work with that title. I also wanted to write legitimate dance music, that is, music that people could really dance to if they liked. Mélomanie is skilled in Baroque and new music, and I’ve enjoyed writing for historical instruments in the past. The sound-world is entrancing, so I’ve tried to compose a work that would release the beauties of these fabulous instruments, including some short and not-so-short solos throughout.

Here’s where you can purchase the CD Excursions which includes Nobility!

Here’s a post on the first rehearsal, and here are reviews of the premiere in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chestnut Hill Local. Below are excerpts from the premiere.

Branle Reprise 

Pieces of Vespers in Chicago

vespersHad a great time in Chicago—actually, Evanston and River Forest—with the Aestas Consort, who sang two pieces from Vespers, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern and Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn last Friday and Saturday nights.

“Herr Christ” is the a cappella hymn that begins in four parts, then goes to eight, then 16. It was the first thing I wrote when I sat down to compose Vespers, and when I sent it to Donald Nally, director of The Crossing, he wrote back that he liked it very much, but, um, the whole hour of Vespers isn’t going to be, you know, in 16 parts? It wouldn’t be, I assured him, but for some reason I felt the need to get that out of my system. Aestas Consort’s performance of “Herr Christ”:

For the Aestas performances I made a new arrangement of “Wie schön” for strings and harpsichord. I wrote a little about what that was like here. That makes two new arrangements of that since the original Renaissance-instrument version (the other’s for two trumpets, cello, and organ). Here’s the Aestas Consort performing “Wie schön”:

Friday’s concert was at the lovely St. Mark’s Episcopal in Evanston, a warm and inviting sanctuary, and Saturday’s was at Grace Lutheran in River Forest, by the campus of Concordia University Chicago. The sound in the expansive, three-balconied nave was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It was live but true, and the sweet spot—where you can hear the direct sound from the front before side and back echoes start interfering—was huge.

The second performance at Grace brought new revelations to all the music. “Herr Christ” was magical and “Wie Schön” clicked brilliantly. The Bach Cantata 4, “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” roared in spots, the performance taking off in exciting directions.

The Buxtehude Membra Jesu nostri is a thrillingly spiritual, wildly delicious work, the combination of Scripture and bold, metaphysical commentary taking it into the realms of ecstasy. Maurice Boyer, director of Aestas, never let the pace lag (and it’s a long work, in seven parts). Musically, it comes across as a “concerto for orchestra” or in this case, choir, with solos, duets, and trios constantly shifting within the ensemble. Violinist Martin Davids led the Baroque instruments with finesse and a gorgeous sound.

Bach famously walked 250 miles to Lübeck to meet Buxtehude. I took an airplane (and with the kindness of Steven Hyder and Maurice driving me through snow), but made sure to visit a giant of Lutheran hymnody, who lives nearby, Carl Schalk. Utterly unpretentious and always cracking jokes, he regaled me in his living room with challenging thoughts on Lutheran church music, on the deep purpose of music in the service, and with behind-the-scenes stories of his important (although he’d never put it that way) career—composing, editing, writing, speaking, and decades of teaching at CUC.

As I was riding away from his house and came to the first cross-street, I looked out the passenger side, noticing an extra blue placard below the street sign. It read, “Dr. Carl F. Schalk Drive.” Man, I thought, but these Lutherans sure are serious about their musicians out here. How fortunate I was to sit and talk with this man.

And how fortunate to be with Aestas, this new, committed band of singers. Thanks for the new friends, for the reaquaintance with old friends, for the food, for the rides, for the trip, and for the big and little kindnesses shown.

Elena Smith and Her Graduation Recital

NelliePostElena Smith, finishing 12th grade and entering Temple University in the fall as a student of Jeffrey Solow, gave a recital May 31st to celebrate her graduation. She is home-schooled, so this served in lieu of a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Abington filled up with friends on this Friday evening to hear her not only on cello, but also on viola da gamba in the Abel.

Our good friend and colleague Kenneth Borrmann accompanied at the piano; we’re so fortunate to be surrounded by lovely musicians who are lovely people as well. Thanks also to Charles Tolton for recording this (the entire recital is below), to Pastor Tavella for his heartfelt invocation, to the Donnellys and everyone for the reception, and to our church for opening its doors. All these people are blessings to us.

Nellie honored me by playing my Spirituals for cello, and so beautifully. My thoughts about our middle daughter, and about her music-making, are included in my, well, baccalaureate sermon I suppose it was, at the end. To say that Jackie and I are proud of her is woefully to understate the case, as it is true of her two sisters.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Suite II in D minor, BWV 1008


Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787). Allegro in D minor, WKO 208, from 27 Pieces for Bass Viol  

Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

1. Zart und mit Ausdruck
2. Lebhaft, leicht
3. Rasch und mit Feuer

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1942). Elégie, Op. 24 

Kile Smith (b. 1956). American Spirituals, Book Two, for Cello and Piano

1. Jesus, Master, O Discover
2. When the Stars Begin to Fall
3. Little David, Play on Your Harp

(Encore) Schumann. Träumerei 

Nellie’s Dad’s speech 

Thank you, Mélomanie, for Nobility of Women encore

Had a blast at Mélomanie’s season opener last night: Telemann, Boismoitier, a Chris Braddock world premiere, and selections from recent commissions, including The Nobility of Women, which they had premiered in January.

I always enjoy hearing the music of Ingrid Arauco, Mark Hagerty, and Chuck Holdeman. I love hearing Priscilla play… anything, or anything of mine, or that Boismoitier, which was a delight. The audience loved everything.

Nobility was represented by the Sarabande (Priscilla’s solo, with cello and harpsichord) and the closing Canario (which also closed the concert), with the whole band. Immanuel Church Highlands in Wilmington is a jewel of a venue for concerts: live, but not too, and beautiful. Mélomanie sounded terrific.

Truth be told, you do take a chance with so many live composers on one concert. Many came up after, in the sanctuary or at the Columbus Inn reception, to tell me how much they were transported by Nobility. Especially did I appreciate the comments of one woman, who was moved by my ingenious picturing of the river. She could really feel the movement of the water, and all I could do was thank her. She was so dear and inspiring with her compliments that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t Mark Hagerty.

(He deserved those compliments for Trois Rivières, so I happily passed them along to him!)