Bronze Becomes Gold
At first, I thought it was rather strange. It might be an interesting title for a book. But it’s a classical music CD titled: Leipzig 1723 - Bach and His Rivals for the Thomaskantor Position. (Accent 24375)
The concept didn’t strike me as being particularly musical. As a book title, I would have guessed that it was a published music history dissertation. Or, with a little imagination, I could begin to picture a film with a cast in powdered wigs promoting resumes.
On the cover of the CD, there’s an amusing close-up facial shot of a recorder player whose expression seems to suggest that the listener could be in for a little fun. I guessed he was Stefan Temmingh, whose name appears along with that of the Capricornus Consort of Basel. I had never heard of them.
I have now. And I heard some selections that I indeed wanted to share with listeners.
I then explored the CD notes to learn a little about the famous “job opening.” It was for the post of Kantor of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. The position is known in German as the Thomaskantor. Nine years ago, that school, billed as the oldest public school in Germany, celebrated its 900th anniversary. It was founded in 1212 by the Augustinians.
By Bach’s time, the Thomasschule played a leading role in Lutheran church music, according to Domen Marinčič, harpsichordist and viola da gamba player, who wrote the notes for the new recording. The Kantor was the music director for the four main churches in Leipzig. It was considered one of the most important posts in the German musical world. It had been held for some 21 years by Johann Kuhnau, who died in 1722.
Leipzig 1723 is far from being a study of the resumes of all those who were in the running for the position. But it is a collection of works by the more famous applicants: Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Chirstoph Graupner, and Johann Friedrich Fasch. And there is an interesting plot of sorts.
Since it’s already an historical fact that Bach would serve as Thomaskantor for some 27 years and up to the time of his death, I don’t think I need to give you a spoiler alert before telling you that the job was offered to two other candidates before it was offered to Bach. Now you know, if you didn’t already.
Georg Philipp Telemann, who held a similar post in Hamburg at the time, was the top pick. In the end, the Leipzig offer helped him get a raise in Hamburg. The second choice was composer Christoph Graupner. He too turned it down and managed to have his salary boosted as music director in Darmstadt. Both Telemann and Graupner had been well known and respected in Leipzig. Both were very much interested in opera and theatrical works. According to Domen Marinčič, there had been concern in Leipzig that opera was attracting the best singers away from church music performance.
So Bach was the third choice – the ”bronze medalist.” He had no connection with opera or theatrical music. Leipzig seemed to be unaware that it was hiring a musician who would become legendary - and who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Given all that, would you have sat through a two-hour film with two averted plot climaxes as Telemann and Graupner declined their offers? And would it have been a happy ending with Bach, the number three pick, taking on the job? Marinčič’s account is most interesting and informative. But I’m guessing there’s not a screenwriter who would touch this one.
The “soundtrack” is most enjoyable. Temmingh and the Copernicus Consort Basel are the real heroes, celebrating the music of Bach and his “rivals.”
I’m not sure if they’ll be celebrating the “event” in Leipzig in 2023. It was a coincidence that on the day I introduced the recording and mentioned the upcoming tricentennial of Bach accepting the post, it was just two days away from the 250th anniversary of the first performance of Mozart’s opera Ascanio in Alba, which almost landed Mozart the post of court composer in Vienna.
He was asked to write the opera as a wedding gift for Archduke Ferdinand Karl, the son of Empress Maria Theresia. The couple was so thrilled with the work of the 15-year-old that the Archduke promised Mozart the royal post. The Empress decided otherwise. Nevertheless, October 17 was the 250th anniversary of the first performance and the royal couple’s 250th wedding anniversary.
I’d like to offer you the post of Classic Mornings Listener! All you have to do is join us Monday through Friday from 9-noon on FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu. And you don’t have to wear a powdered wig.