In this essay I hope to cover all the topics above – an ambitious ask – and suggest why some great composers are forgotten and then revived. In particular there is the mystery of J. S. Bach. Why was Johann Sebastian highly regarded during his lifetime, but only as one good composer among many, then forgotten, and now regarded as one of the great geniuses of all time, ranking with Albert Einstein, Michelangelo and Shakespeare?
In 1846 a group of “Ethiopian Serenaders”, including a New Yorker, my great-grandfather John Cragin Rainer, performed for Queen Victoria, their faces painted black and lips white. The jokes were suitably toned down for the royal family. While on tour in the United States Rainer’s forehead was grazed by a bullet from a man in the audience, who presumably thought the black faced minstrels were black. In 1852 he arrived in Sydney from the Californian goldfields with his group, “Rainer’s Original Ethiopian Serenaders”.
If his would-be assassin had been a better shot I would not be writing this article now.
Frederick Douglass, the African American social reformer and abolitionist (born in 1818, two years before my great-grandfather) described blackface performers as “. . . the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
A few months ago the editor of Quadrant sent an email suggesting I write about the rap musical Hamilton, a musical phenomenon, already famous as its creator already has the imprimatur of the White House. I wondered how John O’Sullivan knew I was in New York, where Hamilton was showing and why he was asking me to write about music – something no one has asked me to do before.
My son, with whom I was staying, promptly arranged to buy some scalped tickets. A couple of days later we were seated in the Richard Rodgers Theatre opposite the Church of Scientology and just off Times Square.
Lin-Manuel Miranda who plays the role of Hamilton as well as writing the words and music, based his musical on the 832 page biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow published in 2004. Hamilton is one of the American founding fathers, the first Secretary of US Treasury and his portrait is on the $10 bill. Born illegitimate on the Caribbean island of Nevis he was killed in a duel by the Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804. The musical is amazingly faithful to the main details of Hamilton’s life.
Near the end of Act I Aaron Burr, initially Hamilton’s friend and then his killer, with rapidly increasing rhythmic backing, is given this recitative:
Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one.
Burr then breaks into rap, “How do you write/ like you’re running out of time/ Write day and night/ like you’re running out of time?” backed by a chorus of women singing “Running out of time?”
Dressed in stylised period costume, the cast are African American or Hispanic except King George, a larger-than-life figure of fun with crown, red trousers and ermine cloak and anti-British lines such as:
When you’re gone
I’ll go mad,
so don’t throw away this thing we had.
Cuz when push comes to shove,
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.
Da da da dat da dat da . . .
With his rollicking and absurd pomposity, Jonathan Groff as King George almost steals the show. (This is the same George III of England, played by Nigel Hawthorne in the film The Madness of King George.)
The plot line of Hamilton is complex and packed with more detail than a first-time audience unfamiliar with Hamilton’s biography can follow. Miranda was asked when he started out on the project how he was going to make “a musical about a bureaucrat”? Yet the CD of the musical has an astounding 98 per cent five star reviews from more than 300 Amazon reviewers and the live musical is booked out for months ahead. How did Miranda achieve this popular success?
While the production uses period costume and does not oversimplify historical detail (except with King George), Miranda’s libretto uses entirely contemporary language as in an anguished ballad-style aria (not rap) of Hamilton’s wife Eliza towards the end of Act II, when she discovers his adultery and burns his letters:
You and your words, obsessed with your legacy . . .
Your sentences border on senseless,
and you are paranoid in every paragraph
how they perceive you.
You, you, you
I’m erasing myself from the narrative.
Let future historians wonder
how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.
You have torn it all apart.
Miranda recognised that two hours of continuous rap would be intolerable for audiences (perhaps a lesson learned from Frank Zappa’s rock opera Joe’s Garage, the first hour of which is marvelous and the next two hours crushingly tedious). The musical language of Hamilton is diverse, mixing rap, big arias in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and even echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan.
As a musical biopic of Hamilton’s life, Hamilton could have become a series of loosely related episodes. While, as I said, a first-time audience will not follow all the nuances of the plot, the outline of Hamilton’s life is clear enough to an audience.
In Act I he is born illegitimate, comes to the United States, joins the revolution against British rule, Washington refuses Hamilton’s request to fight on the front line and insists he is more useful as his own aide-de-camp, Hamilton falls in love with and marries Eliza Schuyler, and Washington finally gives Hamilton a command. When the War of Independence is over, Hamilton qualifies as a lawyer, writes most of the Federalist Papers, and becomes President Washington’s Treasury of Secretary.
In Act II Hamilton, wanting to help a troubled woman, Maria Reynolds, is seduced by her and then blackmailed by her husband with Maria’s connivance. Now Washington, who would have protected Hamilton, is no longer president, there is political plotting involving Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Burr. Hamilton, under pressure, publishes the blackmail letters. Philip, the son of Hamilton and his wife Eliza, defending his father’s reputation is killed in a duel. Hamilton falls out with Burr, who he believes has been treacherous. Burr, now Vice President, challenges Hamilton to a duel and kills him.
This summarises less than half of the dramatic action in the musical. Miranda achieves dramatic unity with this diverse and episodic material by emphasising the role of Burr, Hamilton’s killer, throughout as commentator. In this way Burr does not appear at the end as a death-bringing deus ex machina. Burr, rapping, is given the opening number:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by providence,
impoverished, in squalor,
grow up the be a hero and a scholar?
The role of the chorus and choreography is as important as the rapid changes in musical style. Cast and chorus are in constant motion giving dramatic excitement even to the exposition of Hamilton’s achievements as a politician and bureaucrat. A similar effect was achieved in Sydney in 2015 by Graeme Murphy’s magical and fluid choreography for Turandot, an opera that can be stagey and static, yet comes alive when it is danced.
Music, poetry and dance were once an integrated art form. The “ensemble” or chorus in the current presentation of Hamilton has eleven men and women, rather less than the singing and dancing choruses of ancient Greek dramas. The ancient Greek dramas could have as many as fifty in the chorus. It is said Sophocles favoured a chorus of fifteen and Aeschylus twelve. Aeschylus danced in his own plays. Many traditional national theatres integrate voice, music and dance. The great aboriginal song cycles – which we can catch a glimpse of through the extraordinary translations of Ronald Berndt and T. G. H. Strehlow – were sung, acted and danced.
The modern musical comedy has its roots in opera and I shall give a potted and incomplete history of the development of opera and oratorio in the 17th and 18th centuries in the hope that this may inspire readers who are familiar with the conventional classical music fare available on radio stations and from Opera Australia to become familiar with some virtually unknown composers who have composed music that rivals that of the “greats”, as classified under the current star system.
Hamilton’s energetic use of dance dates back to the opera-ballet which began in France in the 17th century and survived well into the 18th century. In the Anglophone world it is not widely realised that many of the “plays” of France’s greatest playwright Molière were comédie-ballets, with music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian who became a quintessential Frenchman. I have paraphrased a paragraph of my Amazon review of the exceptional DVD of Moliere’s and Lully’s eleventh comédie-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, first performed in 1670:
This energetic production by Le Poème Harmonique combines Molière’ s dialogue (which is all that most Anglophone audiences are familiar with) and Lully’s music. Because the entire production is candlelit – a row of partly concealed candles serving as footlights – the faces, lit from below, have an almost surrealistic quality. In Anglophone productions, the hero of the play, Monsieur Jourdain, tends to be played as a brittle, demanding, petty and grotesque old tyrant. In this production Jourdain is portrayed as a large, plump, naive and generous enthusiast, still quite young. When he falls asleep at the end of the sublime, extended dialogue en musique between three singers, which comes not long after the opening of the comedie-ballet, his large, soft, oval face is propped to one side, like a Chinese mask.
Lully brought opera to France from Italy. The ancient Romans were great opera-goers, but none of their operas survives. The honour of composing the first surviving opera is disputed by Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini both of whom composed music for two different operas, each named L’Euridice, to the same libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini and first performed in 1600 in the Pitti Palace in Florence for the wedding of Maria de Medici to King Henry IV of France. The subject matter, Eurydice’s death by snake bite, and her failed rescue from the underworld by her husband Orpheus was hardly suitable for a royal wedding. The work performed for the royal couple and a small select audience, was a pasticcio of the music of both composers, with more music being contributed by the younger Peri.
Caccini rushed his score for the entire opera into print before Peri. However the contemporary judgment correctly included more of Peri than Caccini in the first performance. Although sweet, Caccini is static and uninteresting compared with Peri. When Peri’s Pluto, god of the underworld addresses Orpheus as “misero amante” or “miserable lover”, Pluto is disdainful, almost contemptuous. When Caccini’s Pluto sings these words he is merely regretful.
I have listened to two versions of Peri’s L’Euridice: a 1973 performance conducted by Angelo Ephrikian, which is occasionally reissued and hard to get, and the more easily obtainable 1992 Robert De Caro recording on Arts Music. Peri’s L’Euridice, particularly in the Ephrikian performance, has a heart-breaking innocence and beauty that makes it equal (in my view) to the more famous and ambitious 1607 work on the same subject, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Peri has left behind a much smaller body of work than Monteverdi, and this has contributed to his unjust neglect.
The traditionalist music theorist Giovanni Maria Artusi was a proponent of the earlier polyphonic style typified by Latin masses in which standardised, barely distinguishable words are the servant of the music, and blended voices are treated like a musical instrument. Artusi famously attacked what he called the crudities and license of the new homophonic music espoused by Monterverdi. Giulio Cesare Monteverdi, the composer’s younger brother, in a preface to his older brother’s Scherzi musicali a tre voci, spiritedly defended what he called the “seconda practica” of his brother that was replacing Artusi’s “prima practica”. The musical revolution achieved by Monteverdi, Peri and their colleagues gave supremacy to the words. In particular they used a basso continuo or musical accompaniment by instruments that provided rhythm and counterpoint and allowed individual voices to wander freely and expressively over the bass line – but not to the detriment of the text. Monteverdi wrote in his preface to the publication of his Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda:
The narrator’s voice must be a clear and firm one, and his diction perfect, so that the words may stand out from the orchestra and thus be easier to hear in the recitative. At no point should the narrator permit himself ornaments, neither gorghe nor trilli . . . The rest is to be performed in accordance with the passions of the text.
The seconda practica was developed for madrigals and operas – secular music. Sacred music was by its nature more traditional. But composers of sacred music also became exponents of seconda practica. I’ll mention two outstanding examples. Both are masterpieces.
The libretto of Alessandro Stradella’s spectacular oratorio San Giovanni Battista (1675) ends with an unanswered question of King Herod (as translated by Clive R. Williams): “What anguish/ what torment/ do I feel and experience within me./ A more unhappy,/ more joyless/ day the world has never seen./ And why,/ tell me, why?” The score also ends abruptly with a dominant chord, amputated like St John the Baptist’s head.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio La Santissima Trinita (1715) survived in only one manuscript. It is a dialogue between Faith, Divine Love, Theology, Faithlessness and Time about the trinity. Somehow Scarlatti is able to compose brilliant and exciting music for this unpromising subject, ending abruptly and ambiguously (perhaps in homage to Stradella) with Faith proclaiming: “Now Faith has triumphed/ let all the world adore/ in three Persons the One God.”
Like the painter Caravaggio, his countryman from the previous century, Stradella was a prolific creator, led a wild life and was murdered. Alessandro Scarlatti lived to a ripe old age for that era (he was 65 when he died) and was the father of the more famous Domenico (equal and very different but not greater than his father). By the end of his life Scarlatti had dimmed beside the bright stars of younger composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Antonio Caldara, whose most deservedly famous work is Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo (“Magdelene at the Feet of Christ”) (circa 1700). Vivaldi’s operas are uneven in quality, but his thirteenth opera La verita in cimento (1720) is a beguiling masterwork, full of surprises and energy, with muscular music you want to dance to (as performed by Spinosi). Spinosi’s performance will come as a shock if you are accustomed to the syrupy 19th century-style performances of early Vivaldi exponents such as Claudio Scimone. Spinosi makes Vivaldi sound like an 18th century Thelonious Monk.
The great German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) studied in Venice with the polyphonist Gabrielli in his early twenties and returned twenty years later, taking a break from the devastation of Germany’s Thirty Years War. This second visit was a revelation for the now middle aged composer. He absorbed the seconda practica from “the noble Monteverdi”. He recalled:
I engaged myself in a singular manner, namely how a comedy of diverse voices can be translated into a declamatory style and be brought to the stage and enacted in song – things that to the best of my knowledge . . . are still completely unknown in Germany.
Schütz nails down the essence of seconda practica. It is not just a single (or homophonic) voice singing above an accompaniment. For centuries, probably thousands of years, minstrels have sung solos accompanying themselves with a stringed instrument. Lutheran congregations sang simple hymns together in a broadly homophonic style. Monteverdi’s English contemporaries John Dowland and Thomas Campion composed a musical accompaniment for the songs they wrote for solo voice. The minstrels and congregations, Dowland and Campion, all sang verses. What was revelatory for Schütz was the “declamatory style”. This allowed prose recitative as well as verses to be sung, and homophony could be flexibly combined with the old polyphony, “a comedy of diverse voices”, and even enacted.
One of the results of Schütz’s encounter with Monteverdi was his radiant Die Weihnachtshistorien (“The Christmas Story”) (1660), my favourite work by Schütz (as performed by Robert King), a work that has been recorded several times. More overlooked is the quietly sublime Matthäuspassion (St Matthew Passion) (1673) of Schütz’s pupil Johann Theile, recorded only once (by Charles Medlam) and reviewed to acclaim when the recording appeared, with French commentators saying “what a great work!”, “a great moment in sacred music”, “intense fervour, radiant humanity”. These quiet pietistic works by Schütz and Theile of sung prose, closely based on biblical texts, opened the way for the spectacular operatic oratorios of the first half of the eighteenth century.
The year 1685 was a miraculous year for music: the year when J. S. Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were born. Bach and Handel are now seen as the preeminent composers of the operatic oratorio. The perspective of the 18th century public was different. This style of oratorio, otherwise known as “passion oratorios” or “sacred operas” emerged from Hamburg, then the home of German opera in the late 17th and early 18th century, where the most renowned composer was Reinhard Keiser. Keiser was hailed in an obituary by the contemporary music critic Johann Mattheson as “the greatest opera composer in the world” and also “le premier homme du monde”. Scheibe, another critic of that era, comparing Keiser to Handel and Hasse, described him as “the greatest original genius in music that Germany has ever produced”. This may sound excessive, but if you listen to the opera Croesus (performed by René Jacobs), Keiser’s masterpiece, you will understand his historical reputation.
It was a short step for German composers to discard their reticence and compose sacred music like operas. In 1712 Barthold Heinrich Brockes a well-connected Hamburg citizen produced a rhyming libretto for a passion. Its title (following the tortuous word order of the original German) is “The for the Sins of the World Martyred and Dying Jesus”! This crudely written passion, which opens with appeals for God to “free me from the hangman’s rope of my sins” and to “heal me from the suppurating sores of vice” has come to be known as the Brockes-Passion. It has been set perhaps more times than any other text to some of the most sublime music in the western canon.
It was immediately set by to music by Keiser in 1712 and performed in the poet’s house – not in a church! Keiser’s setting has been recorded and is very fine. In 1716 Telemann composed the next setting of the Brockes-Passion, followed by Handel, possibly in the same year or 1717. Handel’s setting has been recorded several times and is better than Keiser’s. It shows hints of the mellowness and sweetness of his great English oratorios composed twenty years later. The Telemann setting is a masterpiece of anguish, dramatic Sturm und Drang and sublime arias. Perhaps Telemann’s greatest work, it stands comparison with J. S. Bach’s great St Matthew and St John Passions (which do not use the Brockes text except for some passages). A year or two after that Johann Friedrich Fasch did a briefer setting of the Brockes text, good, but not compulsory listening.
Then in 1725, a composer five years younger than Handel and J. S. Bach composed a setting of this substandard text, that may be equal to the great Telemann setting. Gottfried Heinrich Stöltzel’s Brockes-Passion has an astonishing opening, as electrifying as the great and much longer opening of J S Bach’s St John Passion. Stöltzel then maintains dramatic urgency over 110 minutes, as performed by Ludger Rémy in the only recorded performance. Rémy says Stöltzel’s passion is “one of the most moving and genuinely human pieces of music I have . . . had the good fortune to hear . . . I believe that the helpless silence and perplexity of humanity in the face of the unchangingness of existence has only rarely found such eloquent expression in music.”
Stöltzel had a prestigious position in the Gotha court, writing sacred music for the castle chapel and secular music for the court. The contemporary critics, Scheibe and Mattheson (who also composed a Brockes-Passion I have not heard) ranked Stöltzel with Handel, Bach, Telemannn and Hasse. So why was this great and prolific composer forgotten until about 20 years ago when a small revival of his work began?
Stöltzel wrote 18 orchestral suites. None of them survive. His successor at Gotha, the minor composer George Benda, treated Stöltzel’s manuscripts as junk for an attic where they were ruined by rain. The only surviving copy of his Brockes-Passion was forgotten in a container behind an organ for many years when it was discovered in 1870. Another 125 years went by before Rémy began examining the score with a view to performing it. J. S. Bach was lucky in having a son, also a great composer, C. P. E. Bach, who became famous in his lifetime in a way that Johann Sebastian was not, and lovingly preserved his father’s reputation and his unpublished work.
The second and main reason why Stöltzel was forgotten was a change in musical culture. By the second half of the 18th century music composed by professional musicians had moved out of the churches and princely courts into concert halls and the parlour.
The story of J. S. Bach’s appointment as cantor of the Thomasschule at the church of St Thomas in Leipzig is illustrative of this change. This was his final appointment, held for 27 years until his death in 1750. Bach’s immediate predecessor in the role of Thomaskantor was Johann Kuhnau, who had succeeded Johann Schelle in 1701 and died in 1722. Both Schelle and Kuhnau composed outstanding sacred music for the human voice. Although little of their work survives, they were not minor composers, judging from the discography, which is inspiring. When Kuhnau died, Telemann and Christoph Graupner were offered the position and declined it. Bach was the third choice for the job. When he died, he was succeeded by nonentities, and his gifted pupil Johann Krebs (meaning “crayfish”, who modestly described himself as “a crayfish in the stream”, “Bach” being German for stream) was unable to obtain a position anywhere. The death of Bach marks the end of the era of having an important composer in residence with a church, composing new music each week to attract congregations.
The opinionated 21st century music lover may think how ignorant the Leipzig city councillors were to offer the job to Telemann and Graupner ahead of Bach. Were they so lacking in judgment? Telemann had already composed his Brockes Passion which is the equal of the two great passions Bach was yet to compose. After the councillors’ first choice Telemann knocked them back, they auditioned Graupner’s Magnificat and offered him the position. At the last minute Graupner’s employer, the Landgrave of Hesse Darmstadt, refused to release him from his contract and paid his outstanding salary which was increased. The councillors wanted someone who would compose inspiring sacred vocal music for the congregations of the Lutheran churches in Leipzig, and correctly judged that Graupner could do that.
Graupner is yet another major composer who is currently being rediscovered. He wrote no long passion oratorio. However he composed a series of cantatas on the seven words of Christ on the cross. When performed as a single work, with its anguished solos, sublime chorales and complicated and inventive orchestral accompaniment his Die Sieben Worte Jesus am Kreuz, first recorded in 2012, is equal to the great passions of Bach, Telemann and Stöltzel (or the great 1748 Johannes Passion of Georg Gebel, another Ludger Rémy discovery).
Telemann, Stöltzel and Graupner all composed great and expressive music for the human voice, different from, but in many ways equal to Bach’s, but their instrumental music is inferior. Bach composed instrumental music to please and express himself. The little of Stöltzel’s chamber music I have heard was uninteresting. There is a growing discography for Graupner’s instrumental music, including for keyboard. It is appealing but not profound, except for some amazing canons recorded on a CD entitled Die Kunst der Imitation. Stöltzel and Graupner were employed by princely courts and this may have inhibited their instrumental output, which was composed often as background music, unlike their sacred vocal music where they were expected to be more expressive. Telemann may have had more freedom and his copious output of instrumental music has many gems, but it cannot rival Bach’s. Telemann’s fantasias for solo violin are intriguing exercises; Bach’s (and Tartini’s) unaccompanied violin sonatas are profound.
Sacred cantatas became passé when music moved out of churches and courts into concert halls and the parlour. Unlike his rivals Bach had a large body of profound and highly expressive instrumental music that kept his name alive in the late 18th century and allowed his greatness to be discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the traditional Broadway musical the words of arias are in verse. (My two favourite musicals on DVD are Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain and Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland and its amazing series of tableaux vivants of models each posing in a frame as though for the cover of a fashion magazine.) Rap has added flexibility to the language of the traditional musical and may be seen as a species of seconda practica. Aaron Burr’s opening number at the start of Hamilton is rhythmic prose which is capped by two unexpected rhymes: “squalour” followed by “scholar”.
A couple of years ago I saw The Book of Mormon in New York. This musical religious satire was created by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are well known for the animated satire South Park. The musical is uninhibited in its satire. The Mormon Church has responded with playbills outside the musical’s venues, saying, “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.” The church also claims the musical has resulted in conversions. (Perhaps the Charlie Hebdo murderers could have learned something from the Mormons.)
I did not enjoy Hamilton in the way I enjoyed The Book of Mormon. It is not the quality of the language that worries me. Some of the libretto is well written. The Brockes Passion shows an effective libretto does not need to be great poetry. This was Benjamin Britten’s mistaken assumption by when setting to music poetry by Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson and Shakespeare in his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. A poem may be great because of remarkable imagery or dense verbal music which is lost when translated into a song. (Somehow this does not happen with rhyme. Rhyme enhances words when they are sung.)
Nor was I worried by African American and Hispanic members of the cast playing the roles of America’s Founding Fathers. Boys played female roles in Shakespeare’s plays. The first performance in 1934 of Virgil Thomson’s wonderful opera Four Saints in Three Acts with a Gertrude Stein libretto had an all-black cast playing 16th century Spanish saints with scenery wrapped in cellophane.
Nor do I have a problem with the plot – its extraordinary attention to historical detail is admirable – or with the production. I liked its fluid and snappy movements.
What worries me with Hamilton is its earnest self-regard. When Alexander Hamilton is contemplating the duel in which he is killed, he sings:
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.
You let me make a difference.
This is tricky, on the money cornball. I feel the uneasiness I get listening to Bob Dylan, whose self-righteousness Frank Zappa parodies brilliantly in the album Sheik Yerbouti.
Rap or hip-hop emerged in the 1980s and has became mainstream. I am not an aficionado of rap. But if I wished to be one, I would start with the music of the originators. In the film Ghost World Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) become friends with a loner Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who is an obsessive collector of old 78s of early blues singers. They set him up for a date with a girl who “loves the blues” and takes him to a present day blues performance which he hates and can’t bear. For him it is ersatz, not authentic, embarrassing. I am on Seymour’s side.
Geoffrey Lehmann’s Poems 1957–2013 won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award (Poetry) in 2015 and he is a former Chairman of the Australian Tax Research Foundation.