About this Recording
8.570459 - GRAUPNER, C.: Partitas, GWV 121, 133, 149 (Akutagawa)
English  German 

Johann Christoph Graupner (1683-1760)
Partitas for Harpsichord


In 1722 the town council of Leipzig was searching for a new cantor for the church of St Thomas. They first accepted the application of the most famous musician in Germany, Georg Philipp Telemann, who parlayed their offer into better working conditions for himself in Hamburg. The annoyed council then turned to the Kapellmeister of one of the major German courts, that of the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt. He is the subject of our recording: Johann Christoph Graupner. His master ostensibly refused to let him go, and raised his salary too. As one councillor put it, “since we cannot get the best, we must settle for a mediocrity”, and so, with a warm recommendation from Graupner, they hired the Kapellmeister of a petty court town near Leipzig, one Johann Sebastian Bach. The cantorate was an advancement for him, at least in status, if not ultimately in quality of life.

This story serves here not to illustrate the obtuseness of the good Leipzig burghers, but to point up the high esteem in which Graupner, now largely forgotten, was held at the time. He was born in Kirchberg in Saxony in 1683. His talent as a choirboy was recognized early on, and he became a choir student at St Thomas under Kuhnau for eight years, until 1704. (Telemann arrived in Leipzig as a student in 1701, and promptly took over the Collegium Musicum. They renewed their friendship when Telemann was working in Frankfurt, near Darmstadt.) Graupner fled Leipzig as a war refugee in 1706, breaking off his law studies, and went to Hamburg, where his period of residence overlapped with Handel’s last months at the Gänsemarkt opera. It was at this house where Graupner’s meteoric rise began in 1707, first as harpsichordist, then as composer of five operas and collaborator, with Reinhard Keiser, on three others. In 1709 he was invited to Darmstadt as vice-Kapellmeister; he rose to the top post on his predecessor’s death in 1712, remaining there until his own, in 1760. Blindness overtook him in old age, as it did Bach.

Graupner’s main duties involved the composition and performance of large-scale vocal and orchestral works, the great mass of which (including 1442 cantatas) are only now being catalogued. Here we are concerned with the more intimate art of the harpsichord. Graupner had a sterling reputation as a performer, and the extreme requirements of virtuosity in his suites for the instrument would seem to confirm this. He was the first German to recommend in print the use of the thumb for scales, in the preface to his first published keyboard works: a set of “partitas” (1718), a misnomer for a suite of dances, taken over from his old schoolmaster Kuhnau. Another set of suites followed in 1722, and in 1733 he started publication of a series of partitas called “The Four Seasons” - but either he never pursued the enterprise beyond “Winter”, or the others have been lost.

This last work is included in our recording – the others here presented were never printed. They are found in an undated manuscript, beautifully prepared by a court copyist, containing seventeen untitled suites by Graupner (which we will call partitas), alongside works by the three colleagues who probably exercised the most influence on him: Kuhnau, Telemann, and Handel. This is, therefore, a highly personal document, compiled, I think, for his master the Landgrave after he stopped composing for the harpsichord. It contains his finest and most difficult keyboard music – probably too difficult to be considered for publication, and thus reserved for private performance. The preludes, in particular, are highly improvisatory and technically demanding.

The probable encounter with Handel in Hamburg, and certainly an acquaintance with his “Eight Great” suites published in 1720, clearly bear fruit here. Graupner’s suites parallel, even surpass Handel’s in grandeur of conception and gesture, and sometimes match the younger man in musical substance. They share a robust, adventurous sensibility and a love of elaborate decoration typical of the German high baroque. It is pleasant to imagine the two young Saxons, nearly contemporaries and barely out of their teens, duelling at the harpsichord in the orchestra pit of the Hamburg opera after a frustrating rehearsal.

Graupner’s partitas are stylistically more advanced than Handel’s, simply because they were in all likelihood composed later. Whereas Handel seldom goes beyond the Italian idiom of around 1700 – Corelli, Bernardo Pasquini, Alessandro Scarlatti – Graupner can include influences from later French and Italian schools, particularly the Venetian concerto style. The standard order of dances is often tossed overboard entirely, and the current German idea of a “mixed style” is here realised to such a degree as to become almost chaotic.

The immense Chaconne in A major deserves special mention. This series of variations on a four-bar bass line (actually the traditional passacaille bass, with an added en rondeau element of an opening “theme” repeated in the middle and at the end) comes at the end of one of the longest of the partitas, which already has two of Graupner’s favoured final movements: a set of variations and a gigue. To add the chaconne would elongate the partita out of all proportion. The work clearly belongs to a South German tradition of monumental one-off chaconnes and passacailles, and so, taking into account the compilatory nature of the source, we have taken the liberty of detaching it from the other movements. Standing alone, it is revealed as perhaps the most superb of all the many keyboard works of the genre, certainly the most flamboyant, the most extreme – in a word, the most baroque.

Glen Wilson

Close the window