A Sonata for Two Viols, Written for Hamburg’s Amateurs

Structure. © Charles Thibo

The warmth of Baroque music, the dark and friendly tone of a bass viol, or even better two bass viols – what a pleasure it gives to me! In 1728 Georg Philipp Telemann founded the first German music journal under the title “Der Getreue Musicmeister” (The Truthful Master of Music), and I have grown fond of one particular piece that was published in this periodical: the Sonata in A major for Two Bass Viols (TWV 40:111), performed by the London-based viola da gamba player, Claire Bracher. The “Musicmeister” was meant to promote the study and performance of music at home, in a private context. It was published  every second week until 1729 with composition written by Telemann, Jan Zelenka, Reinhard Keiser and Francesco Bionporti.

At the time Telemann wrote the Sonata in A major, he served as cantor and music director in Hamburg. In 1721 he had succeeded Joachim Gerstenbüttel on this post and was responsible for most of the church music performed in the city. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach would take up this post upon Telemann’s death in 1767. Telemann was also responsible for teaching music in the city, he composed for the Hamburg opera, wrote innumerable works of chamber music for the city’s amateur musicians and set up a publishing house in 1725. With selected amateur musicians he founded a new Collegium Musicum, that gave regular concerts during the winter in Telemann’s house. Under him, Hamburg regained in the field of music the importance in Germany it had lost under his predecessor Gerstenbüttel.

The sonata is scored for different instruments and keys: There’s a second version in B flat major for recorder and violin and a third in G major for flute and viola or violin. It is characterized by the absence of a bass accompaniment, four movements and frequent counterpoint. The musicologist and cembalist Siegbert Rampe calls Telemann’s chamber music without bass “rather challenging”, and I take it that the Collegium Musicum must have had a rather high standard for amateur musicians, since many of these works were actually not published in printed form, but existed only as manuscript for immediate and local use.

What Telemann saw as one of his hallmarks – the fusion of the Italian style with French and Polish elements – ran counter to the academics taste, and Telemann’s music was harshly criticized and belittled by proponents of the Italian style as the one and only way to compose music. I am always surprised and shocked to see, how pedantic quarrels and personal infighting made brilliant musicians waste their time, time they could have better spent writing or performing music. And I am very glad that Telemann did not let himself be distracted by his critics.

Anyway I love Claire Bracher’s recording of this sonata and several other works for viola da gamba very much. It is light-hearted music, radiating an atmosphere of intimacy, coziness and happiness. May you have the same enjoyable experience!

© Charles Thibo


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de Chareli

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