A Question About Telemann

We love to receive questions from our students. Here’s one that we just received:

I am an eighth grader and pianist. I am studying your “300 Years” course. Why is Telemann not in the Lutheran hymnal, despite his family’s ties with the Lutheran church?

What a good question, yes? So, let me share part of how I answered him.


Georg Philipp Telemann

Telemann is not renown as writer of hymn melodies. He certainly knew the hymn tradition very well, and he composed wonderful instrumental-choral settings and arrangements of many popular hymn tunes of his day. These were glorious pieces, full of his virtuosic and brilliant style. He also wrote at least eight oratorios.

But his fame rested on other types of music. For example, he wrote fantastic and highly regarded operas, some of which have stayed in the repertoire. He wrote vibrant chamber music and keyboard variations based on melodies that were popular in his day. Some of these melodies were sacred “chorale” tunes that set popular religious texts of the day.

But, because other pieces by him are far more popular, and because J.S. Bach’s name is so much more dominant in the world of sacred music, it’s pretty unusual to get to hear this sacred repertoire nowadays, at least in my experience. Still, through the internet you can access some of his chorale settings.

Keep in mind that writing hymn melodies didn’t pay too many bills. And composers do have to pay their rent! Writing big works like operas, cantatas, festival vocal and instrumental pieces for big occasions did pay the bills. And it still does today for composers.

One more thing: any hymnal you pick up today is the most recent version. Generally one can trace a hymnal back through earlier editions. The repertoire changes with each edition. So, if you take a Lutheran Hymnal, for example, you might find it interesting to go back through several earlier incarnations. The changes can be gradual or drastic.

In new editions of hymnals, in virtually every denomination I know, a lot of older hymns, great ones, beloved ones, have dropped out, while new hymns come in. So, maybe you can make a comparison between a hymnal from, say, the 1940s and  a brand new edition. Keep in mind that a hymnal reflects the musical tastes of the time. Music is a living art, and things do change.

I hope this student will continue his interest in hymns and Telemann. Perhaps we will meet at a conference some time, but the lovely thing, to me, is being connected via technology to such kids who manifest enthusiasm for their studies and for the Fine Arts. It’s an honor to be part of their education.


Who’s the Best Composer?

I get asked this a lot. Perhaps you do too. I always wonder, is it a trick question? Maybe the questioner loves Bach and hopes I’ll agree. Maybe the hope is that I’ll say “Beethoven” and a good debate can ensue.

There is no best composer. Not Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Ravel, nor any of my beloved Russians. At least that’s my view.

Analogies with food are instructive. We don’t ask, “What’s the best food?” We ask, “What’s your favorite food?” The person answering nearly always gives a qualified reply. “Well, fried shrimp . . . unless it’s winter, when I’m crazy about pot roast.” Taste in music, like food, is affected by location, timing, circumstances, and most importantly, mood.

But can we make a concrete argument for a best composer if we specify certain things? Well, yes. Best at writing music within the rules of 18th-century counterpoint? (Bach). Best at thematic development in the first quarter of the 19th-century? (Beethoven) Best orchestrator of the early 20th century? (Ravel) At least, the argument is on firmer ground.

At times, composers of the past thought of best only within a restricted milieu—best choirmaster-composer in Venice or best opera composer at Joseph II’s court, for example. And they didn’t strive for lasting fame, at least not until the 19th century.

Instead, they hoped a new piece would be well received by whichever person or institution had paid for it. They hoped for a chance to fix what might be wrong with it to ensure repeat performances. And, most of all, they hoped that a new work would lead to the commissioning of the next one. Always at issue was paying the rent. Keeping a job. Feeding one’s family. Those things have not changed for composers today. The label “best” is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming

United_States_postage_stamp_honoring_Mary_Cassatt_(1966)What’s my favorite part of being Professor Carol?

It’s lovely to hear from the kids, of course. But that happens most often when there’s a discovery that thrills the student, such as a 13-year old who realized she could take her newly achieved ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet (after embracing our Imperial Russia course) and transcribe her beloved “Elvish” vocabulary from Lord of the Rings into Russian. She then created a four-page Elvish-Russian glossary and sent me a copy! Who wouldn’t be charmed by that?

When the parents write, however, it’s much different. Sometimes it’s a basic inquiry into course content or assigning credits. But more often it’s a personal statement about the parent’s experience entering, or re-entering, the study of history via the Fine Arts. It turns out to be quite a journey for them. It takes them back to vivid musical or artistic experiences from their youths. Or, it triggers a rueful review of their own education that was largely devoid of the Fine Arts, or even any teacher who seemed to value Western art, music, theater, or dance.

They want their kids to have this exposure and understanding. And they want to have it back in their lives. It’s as if the sun has come out after long stretches of cloudy days.

And so it is. The world looks brighter, and far more interesting, when bathed in music, painting, the language of theater, and the grace of dance. Reconnecting with musical interests a parent had as a teen is hugely rewarding. Recognizing architectural styles on their own streets and linking them to movements in American history changes the way they and their kids perceive their home towns. Realizing that Horowitz played in their City Auditorium in the 1930s turns an old building into a cultural shrine.

Their list of discoveries goes on and on. And we here at Professor Carol are grateful to be part of the journey. Keep those letters coming.

Advent Calendar in 2014

A reader asks: Will you still be sending out your advent calendar this year? I would like to receive it again if possible. Thanks. 

Absolutely, yes. Advent starts on November 30 this year, and my Advent Calendar will include essays for each day leading up to Christmas. You can read the Advent Calendar here on the website, but wouldn’t it be easier to let us deliver it to your email inbox?

Sign-up here and you won’t have to do anything more.

What’s Wrong with Composer Biographies?

What do you expect in a Music History course? Perhaps you don’t have any particular expectation, but it’s something that I think about a lot.

When I meet people who say they are studying music history, I ask what they mean by that. Usually, they are reading about the lives of composers. This approach to music history suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of music. Let me tell you why.

People tend to think of a composition as primarily about the artist who created it. So, the thinking goes, if you learn about the composer’s life—his joys and frustrations—you will understand the music.

This is a modern view that came out of the 19th-century and it’s wrong. Throughout most of history, composers wrote to please an employer or patron, not to express personal emotions. Even now, personal expression is just one factor dictating musical style. And the music often contradicts the substance of a composer’s biography.

Look, I like biographies. I grew up reading virtually every biography in our branch public library. A biography of Winston Churchill may yield an increased understanding of World War II. A biography of Chopin, on the other hand, won’t explain his musical style and won’t help a bit if you want to hear the difference between a mazurka and a polonaise.

To understand music, you have to hear it repeatedly with ever-increasing concentration. That’s the first thing. Then, listening needs to be accompanied by a growing set of questions about the broader context that shaped the music, everything from social forces to politics to technology. All of this weaves into a tapestry of cultural history.

So, yes, Beethoven’s frequently stormy music reflects the individual anguish of an irascible guy struggling with deafness. But far more, it reflects the devastating effects of the chaotic Napoleonic era. It reflects Beethoven’s frustration with the mechanical limits of the piano in his day and his struggle against the simplistic popular tastes that he found uninspiring. It reflects economic realities, namely his need to sell sheet music and tickets to the new venture called the public concert, increasingly the venue for composer success. It even reflects architecture, as the issue of where should music be played began to pulsate throughout the society.

Of course, a good biography can tell you some of this. But good composer biographies tend to be scholarly. They are not the ones aimed at students and aficionados. And in the end, it’s not Beethoven’s biography that I treasure: it’s his music. That’s precisely how he’d want it.

So, enjoy biographies, or not, as you wish! But please rethink them as the primary tool to understanding the Western tradition of Classical music. If you take music out of isolation and see the many connections and context from which it was born, you will be on a much more exciting journey.

Comparing American History Courses

A reader asked me to compare our 2011 Exploring America’s Musical Heritage program (2 DVDs) with the on-line course America’s Artistic Legacy. In terms of chronological scope, both programs cover approximately the same time period: 1600 to c. 1950. Beyond […] Read more.