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8.573392-93 - Berlin Gamba Book (The) (Berger)
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The Berlin Gamba Book
Chorale variations for solo viola da gamba by an anonymous 17th-century master


This world première recording presents the so-called chorale settings from the Berlin Gamba Book, whose rarity alone makes them an especially precious part of the repertoire for unaccompanied viola da gamba. It is therefore all the more regrettable that we know only the initials of the arranger, J.R.; they adorn the back page of the manuscript, which was produced in Berlin. These initials recur twice in the manuscript—at the head of an Allemande (p. 169), and above the piece “Tonec Polsky” (p. 139). The first page of the leather-bound manuscript carries the date 1674—this was probably added later in another hand—and on the next page there is a note “Pièces pour la viola da gamba”. In 1880 the manuscript was purchased, together with other titles, and removed from Berlin to Paris, where it is preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale under the accession number 22344 (from a “Vente [sale] à Berlin” according to the accession catalogue). Apart from the chorale settings that interest us here, the collection of 270 folios contains other pieces by rare 17th-century composers such as Du Buisson (pp.185ff), Verdufen (pp.212ff) and Hotman (pp.267ff).

It is legitimate to suppose that it was a Prussian amateur of the viola da gamba who wrote and collected the chorales—someone who, over many years, brought both passion and discernment to bear in assembling all the pieces of music that seemed to him important and arranging them for his instrument. He was probably particularly interested in hymns, for the chorale settings crop up at regular intervals in the manuscript between dances, variations etc. The piece headings are in Gothic script. The collection also includes secular songs, a few of which, such as Nun ist alle meine Lust (CD 2 [5]), Nun schleft sie schon (CD 2 [9]) and Unser müden Augenlider (CD 2 [17]), are presented here by way of example. It is possible to identify sources for the vast majority of the hymns; they are frequently contained in the Catholic Gotteslob and/or the old or new Evangelisches Gesangsbuch (Lutheran hymnal).

When adapting the chorales for viola da gamba, the author tried to ensure that they were as well adapted to the instrument as possible. Taking the normal tuning of the six-stringed gamba as a starting point, the melody was given a simple harmony comprising a second line, doublestopping and simple chords. The arranger mostly contents himself with notating the harmonized chorale melody—roughly 12 to 20 bars. To three pieces, however, he added a variation. These are the chorales Christus der uns selig macht (CD 1 [2]), Da Jesus an dem Kreutze stund (CD 1 [3]) and Christum wir sollen loben schon (CD 2 [2]). Herr straff mich nicht in deinem Zorn (CD 2 [3]) contains a phrase described by the author as a “clausula finalis”—a simple, written-out concluding phrase. These variations are really improvisations conforming to contemporary practice that have been noted down, and together with the particular choice of pieces in the manuscript, they afford the best opportunity of gaining a deeper insight into the personality of the anonymous gambist J.R. and his musical world.

Chorale Variations for Gamba Solo

As observed above, the chorale settings for unaccompanied solo viola da gamba are extremely unusual, and for this reason alone attract the interest of gamba players and others with an interest in music. This is particularly true of the three chorale settings with an added variation, for these demonstrate most clearly the transformation from hymn to instrumental piece. It is conceivable that whoever wrote the chorales for gamba may still have sung the hymns while playing them. I consider that this is unlikely to have been the case with the variations, however; here, the instrument completely replaces the voice, and the meaning and import of the sung text are sacrificed, being replaced by the prerequisites and rules of a piece of music for one solo instrument.

It is possible to shed more light on this by looking at two other examples of chorale variations dating from roughly the same period as the Berlin Gamba Book, namely the variation on Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (printed in 1698) by August Kühnel (164–c.1700) and some of the variations from Der Fluyten Lust-Hof (1st impression 1644) by Jacob van Eyck (c.1590–1657). The latter publication contains, for example, Vater unser im Himmelreich, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir and Nun lobet Gott im hohen Thron. Whilst Van Eyck’s pieces are intended for unaccompanied recorder or transverse flute, Kühnel’s variations can, according to his preface, be played on viola da gamba with basso continuo or just on viola da gamba, as preferred. The two musicians’ method of composition is, at least in one respect, very similar: the chorale tune is the starting-point for a sequence of variations that increase in tempo, by mastering which enables the instrumentalist to demonstrate his virtuosity. Interestingly, there is even a reference to the occasions when Van Eyck performed his pieces. In his capacity as carillonneur in Utrecht, he was granted a salary increase in 1648 for entertaining people walking in the churchyard with the sound of his flute. In Kühnel’s case it is probable that variations on Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut were no longer in any way intended for church use, for they were published (as No. 10) in his collection of sonatas and partitas under the generalized title of “Aria solo”. Furthermore, throughout his career Kühnel was employed by secular princes (initially as a “Violdigambist” in the court orchestra of Duke Moritz of Saxony in Zeitz, then as director of the instrumentalists in Darmstadt, and finally as court Kapellmeister in Kassel).

Although there are only three examples of chorale variations in the Berlin Gamba Book, and only one per chorale, it is clear that they are different from Kühnel’s and Van Eyck’s: the tune is “filled out” primarily with steady quaver movement, producing something akin to a meditation. There are no virtuosic passages to arouse the listener’s admiration; instead the intention is to preserve the solemnity and gravitas which the pieces owe to their ecclesiastical origins as part of divine worship. I have followed the gambist J.R. in this, playing variations on his chorale settings and prefacing several pieces with an introduction or prelude or adding a conclusion.

Dietmar Berger
English translation: Sue Baxter

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