I can still recall first hearing—and subsequently enjoying again on multiple occasions—The Parley of Instruments’s album German consort music, 1660–1710. Directed by Peter Holman and Roy Goodman, the sparkling performances on this classic 1983 Hyperion LP (reissued as a CD in 1990) featured a series of engaging works by Johann Rosenmüller, Georg Böhm, J. C. F. Fischer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer and Telemann that came as something of a revelation to a university student living far from Europe, on the other side of the world. Now, at last, listeners, performers and scholars interested in discovering more about this rich body of repertory have at their disposal a full-length, detailed and insightful study in the form of Michael Robertson’s latest monograph, Consort suites and dance music by town musicians in German-speaking Europe, 1648–1700. This new volume is a welcome companion to Robertson’s first book, The courtly consort suite in German-speaking Europe, 1650–1706 (Ashgate, 2009; reviewed in Early Music, xxxviii (2010), pp.285–7), transporting the reader from the context of German courts to the equally important setting of German towns during roughly the same time period. With his focus again on consort suites and dance music, Robertson’s definition of the term ‘consort’ is a reasonably broad one, comprising ensembles of two or more instruments together with continuo. It should be noted, however, that the contemporary keyboard suite is also considered in some depth (see chapter 8), not in the form of a comprehensive survey but, rather, in light of its ‘often-symbiotic relationship’ (p.172) with the town-music suite tradition, lingering evidence of which was still present in the keyboard works of Mattheson and Handel. Robertson has analysed (and, with another hat on, edited for publication) an impressively wide-ranging selection of relevant repertory, and this research has led to the book’s central premise: that a clear differentiation existed between two major German traditions of consort-suite composition, which emanated from the courts and the towns, respectively. What is more, Robertson contends that the failure of musicologists to recognize this distinction has resulted in a ‘misunderstanding of the suite as a whole’, noting that ‘a “classical” order for the latter [the suite] simply did not exist in the seventeenth century and the concept of a rigid framework of dance types imposes a compositional structure unknown in the consort suites of both court and town composers’ (p.207). Following an introductory chapter examining the general state of German towns in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, together with a helpful summary of the training, duties and status of professional town musicians, Robertson’s argument is contextualized through a discussion of dance types, the importance of printed music collections, and the French and Italian musical styles. Chapters 5 to 7 identify general trends in the composition and publication of consort suites: from the renewal of interest in printed editions of dance music after the end of the war and the rise and heyday of the consort suite during the 1660s and early 1670s (when ‘careful organisation became fundamental to the construction of dance-music publications’, p.65), to the tradition’s decline in the final decades of the 17th century. These traits of ‘careful organisation’ encompassed diverse practices, including the set order of dance types within individual suites and the utilization of variation techniques, in which at ‘its simplest, movements in a variation suite were linked by shared fragments of common melodic or harmonic material, sometimes both’ (p.36). As Robertson points out, the use of such procedures experienced a revival during the 1650s and in the decades that followed, but this was only the case with town composers—since suites by court composers were ‘often directly linked with entertainment on the dramatic stage, resulting in frequent changes of order and movement type reflecting different performance conditions’ (p.19). These findings are supported by in-depth analysis, as well as an impressive array of relevant musical examples, detailed tables and appendices (including some really sterling work identifying concordances with English sources in a series of collections issued by the Frankfurt am Main-based publisher Balthasar Christoph Wust). Specific case-studies are made of Leipzig (chapter 6) and Hamburg (chapter 7), with detailed examination and comparison of suite collections by a wide range of individuals, including Rosenmüller, Johann Pezel, Johann Caspar Horn, Matthias Weckmann, Dietrich Becker, Johann Theile and many more. Reflecting the town’s strong tradition of Turmmusik (tower music) performance, the chapter on Leipzig is divided into two sections, with wind-based ensembles considered in addition to string-based ones. Perhaps most striking, however, is the volume’s final chapter (based on Robertson’s article in Early Music, xlii (2014), pp.207–18), which delves into the largely misunderstood world of mensural notation and note blackening, two aspects of notation that continued to be used by German composers of dance music for most of the 17th century. As Robertson contends, failure to recognize the significance of these features ‘is to run the risk of playing the music incorrectly’ (p.195). His explanation is well illustrated through the use of specific musical examples, a method that can be seen throughout the book as a whole. Here, for example, when discussing a movement by the Leipzig-based Georg Knüpfer (brother of Sebastian), Robertson reaches the conclusion that ‘the purpose of the note blackening is to indicate the presence of syncopated cross-rhythms in triple time and the reversal of the normal hierarchy: that which is normally weak becomes strong; that which is normally strong becomes weak’ (p.200). Yet, despite its obvious implications for performance, as Robertson remarks, in modern editions of 17th-century German music note blackening is sometimes regarded ‘as little more than a nuisance … and is frequently omitted’ (p.206). This is but one of many examples to be found in this important volume where Robertson’s findings—drawn from a wealth of primary source material, both textual and musical—have direct implications for performers of this repertory today, ensuring that this fascinating study will be of interest to a wide range of musically interested readers. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Early Music – Oxford University Press
Published: May 31, 2018
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