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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 4

Geneviève Soly - Love at First Note!

by Réjean Beaucage / December 6, 2003

Version française...

Three years ago, following a chance discovery, Montreal harpsichordist Geneviève Soly began researching the work of German composer Christoph Graupner (1683-1760). Her work has since stimulated a growing interest in this composer, as each new revelation demonstrates not only the amazing number of Graupner's surviving scores but their exceptional musical quality. Soly is co-director of the ensemble Les Idées heureuses, which will give a Christmas concert this month in its series devoted to the Graupner repertoire.

LSM interviewed Geneviève Soly on November 12, 2003, almost three years to the day since her world was turned upside down by a completely unexpected discovery on the shelves of Yale's Beinecke Library.

"I first laid eyes on a Christoph Graupner manuscript on November 14, 2000," Soly remembers. "Actually it's also the date of my birthday! And even more curious is the fact that it's the date of Oswald Bill's birthday. He's the musicologist who compiled the catalogue of Graupner's works. And I'm leaving for Europe on November 14 to give a series of lectures on Graupner, among other things."

Soly first talked to Montreal journalists about the results of her Graupner research prior to her first recital of his work on February 3, 2002. Her eyes lit up when she spoke of the music of this contemporary of Bach. Journalists were a little skeptical when she stated that Graupner's music compared very favourably to that of the great Cantor of Leipzig, but after three years of research, her eyes still light up and she speaks just as enthusiastically.

"You know, there are about 2000 works in the catalogue (113 symphonies, 85 suites, 8 operas, 1418 religious cantatas, 24 secular cantatas, 66 sonatas, 44 concertos, and 40 harpsichord partitas), and I haven't finished studying his harpsichord works! The sheer quantity of work is astronomical, and I think you could work at it full time for years. You can examine the scores from a number of standpoints. In my case, it's the performer's approach. That's how I can understand his style. Interpreting the work for performance requires a lot of time. Before playing the works you have to analyze them, find out the context in which they were composed, and so on.

"If you want to understand the 'Graupner style,' you have to look at his work as a whole. Graupner wrote music for nearly half a century, from 1709 to 1754, when he became blind. Furthermore, as he was always on the cutting edge for his time and very innovative in his ideas for harmony, notation, and the use of instruments, you have to take into consideration his various styles in relation to the actual period and the ideas he was interested in developing at that moment. The size of the catalogue imposes added difficulties in this respect, because another composer might have written for just as long, but in one style only. Mozart comes to mind: although he composed over a shorter period, his style was always well defined.

"Another important area of research is the study of Graupner's prefaces. He published three volumes of harpsichord works. He was a harpsichordist himself and this governed his perspective. He also published a book of choral music that I'm just beginning to study. This book was used in all the churches of Germany between 1728 and 1750, at least. It has a fascinating preface, but to read it properly I first have to translate it from old German into French. Then there's the problem of just understanding what he's talking about, because the references aren't always as clear as you might think. Also, you come back to the catalogue, because to understand his music you need to know the context of what he's writing about, otherwise you have no frame of reference."

History reveals its secrets only to those with wide knowledge. To place the composer in his context, a researcher has to know what his contemporaries were doing to see what Graupner may have learned from others and what he himself invented. A task of these dimensions can't be done by one person.

"I've worked alone for the past three years on this project," admits Soly, "but if I want it to be more productive I'll have to get other people involved. I can tell you this: my interest in Graupner hasn't lessened one iota since I first encountered his music. I still feel that there's everything to be discovered."


At first glance, the unusual part of this story is that it has been a Montreal performer's research that has brought to light the works of a great eighteenth-century German composer. "Actually, four of us have recorded Graupner's work," counters Soly. "There's a parallel between his work and mine: recently I realized that in his 1718 preface for harpsichord works, Graupner explains how to play scale passages by alternating hands. He gives the technique a name and explains how he noted it in the score. As a harpsichordist, I already knew that Rameau had written an important preface for the 1724 edition of new harpsichord pieces. I went back to it and found what Rameau called le roulement, which is exactly the same technique described by Graupner six years earlier. Rameau claims to have invented it. I don't mean to say he lied, since he had no knowledge of Graupner's music or prefaces, and I haven't found any trace of Graupner's presence in France. Maybe, as with some of humanity's great inventions, both composers had the same idea at almost the same time. I think that's probably what's happening today with the discovery of Graupner's work.

"There are moments in time when everything is ripe for an important discovery. The special feature of my own work is that I'm devoting myself completely to this specific research, which isn't the case with my colleagues. Not all writing about Graupner is the result of my research, but I'm part of a small avant-garde group and I think I can honestly say that I'm the one spending the most time on him right now. I'm preparing a book on the composer, an article on his works for harpsichord, and of course I'm recording CDs that are being released regularly by Analekta. I can certainly say that my work is taken more seriously than ever before. In this respect there's a world of difference between my current European trip and my visit last year."

Soly's secret dream is to set up a Quebec centre for studying Graupner's work--although it's less of a secret these days. She is already a considerable expert on the subject, and since most of the composer's scores are preserved in the Hessische Landes-und Hochschulbibliothek in Darmstadt, where Graupner spent most of his life, Soly risks becoming a further casualty of the brain drain of Canadian musical talent toward Europe.

"I happened on a gold mine," she explains, "and the more I dig, the more I realize that this is top quality gold. Speaking objectively, it's impossible to deny its truly golden nature, given the impressive number of works and their obvious excellence. From the musicological standpoint, we needn't be afraid to make comparisons with Handel and Telemann. Of course, you may or may not like his music, but the facts are there. And I realize that the size of the task facing me is such that I won't be able to do it by myself for much longer. I dream of putting together a team of performers and musicologists who could work in tandem so as to speed up the research process. I'd like to be able to give public readings of cantatas, for example, and have a choir and a chamber ensemble available to do two cantatas each week. However, for this you have to have scores and text ready ahead of time. I've done two cantatas already, and I know that it took me nearly a hundred working hours. Clearly I can't continue to do this alone. I've already assembled a great deal of documentation on Graupner, but it should be placed in a library, there should be lectures and so on. We're thinking of a wide-ranging project."

History's nooks and crannies

But how is it possible that such a "gold mine" should remain hidden for so long?

"You know, some musicologists already knew about Graupner. During the year following my discovery of the manuscripts, I found that about a  dozen musicologists had published articles on Graupner between 1900 and 2000. They were mostly in German, naturally, but also in English, although none in French. However, these articles varied greatly in their approach, which means that we'll have to see how they relate to one another. When I visited the Yale library I wasn't the first to hold in my hand the little card bearing the name Graupner and the title 'Partien auf das Clavier, 1718, Darmstadt.' But I was curious enough to go and see what the collection contained, even though the composer was totally unknown to me. Of course the date made me think of Bach, Rameau, and Couperin. Putting all this in context, I thought that it seemed pretty early to have written eight partitas, and that intrigued me. Normally you don't want to get involved with the works of an unknown composer because you feel that if he's remained unknown this long, his work must be negligible. But I like to keep an open mind and try to be ready for anything. When I first started my research at Yale, I had selected nearly 300 reference cards as being interesting, out of which I chose thirty-five books. Out of these, four seemed worth looking into further. But when I finally looked at Graupner's book I played the scores in my head--being first and foremost a performer--and became totally absorbed in what I was reading. There were about a hundred movements, and I went from one surprise to another. I didn't tell anyone about it for six months because I couldn't believe that no one had seen it before; it seemed too weird. On that basis I could have been content simply to play these partitas, but I wanted to know more--and then I discovered that Graupner had written 1418 cantatas!

"My second passion after the harpsichord is eighteenth-century religious music. By the age of fifteen it was my ambition to learn all Bach's cantatas by heart, which is why I began to study German, telling myself that I had to understand the words. I didn't necessarily understand the entire scope of the text, but I could read it. At the time Nikolaus Harnoncourt was bringing out recordings of all the Bach cantatas with Teldec. This was on vinyl, of course, during the 1970s, when the baroque revival really took off. The booklets accompanying this collection included all the lyrics and all the scores. I studied them just for the pleasure of doing so, but all this has been very useful in enabling me to read Graupner's libretti. I've only just started to delve into these, but Graupner's cantatas give me an insight into those by Bach. I realize that Graupner's body of religious works is the largest of its kind in Germany. It's titanic! My most recent discovery dates from last week: in 1717 Graupner used the oboe d'amore–the alto member of the oboe family–in one of his cantatas. Some musicologists question this detail, saying that it's impossible, since Bach only began using it in 1720, and that he was the first to do so. Well, that's another bit of received wisdom that proves that the research road will be long and filled with discoveries. In the case of Graupner there can be no argument: the score exists, it's dated, and it contains a part for oboe d'amore. We also know that the same author supplied cantata libretti to both Bach and Graupner. There'll be some comparing to do that promises to be a lot of fun. And if anyone's thinking of recording all Graupner's cantatas, doing it in groups of three would take nearly 500 CDs! With an optimistic estimate of four CDs a year, you're looking at a 125 year project. You clearly need a team.

"I estimate that a discovery of this nature in baroque music happens nearly every fifteen years. People come upon something, bury themselves in the body of work for about fifteen years, and then a new discovery is announced. Vivaldi was discovered in the 1930s, but before that he was unknown, like Graupner today."


Geneviève Soly will return from Europe, where her work on Graupner is attracting growing attention, just in time for the Christmas concert by Les Idées heureuses. To give readers an idea of her itinerary, it includes a concert in a harpsichord workshop in Paris, another in Grenoble the next day, then back to Paris for an afternoon of courses at the Conservatoire national supérieur, followed by a three-day visit to the Metz Conservatory with students from the five conservatories in the region (she will give three lectures, a talk, master classes, and a public concert). She'll go to Darmstadt, naturally, to do further research on Graupner. While in Paris she'll spend two days doing research at the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles. Soly will leave Graupner momentarily to penetrate the world of the Duchesse du Maine with fellow researcher Catherine Cessac. They're working on a program in line with those initiated by Les Idées heureuses: concerts devoted to Marie-Antoinette, Marie-Joseph de Saxe–Louis XV's daughter-in-law– and Madame de Pompadour. Into this packed timetable Soly will fit a few meetings with musicologists who are interested in her work, as well as with festival directors. She'll be gone for about eighteen extremely productive days, somehow managing to fit in a day off, too. Back in Montreal on December 1, she starts rehearsals the next day for the December 8 concert. From December 10 to 12, she will record the concert program for the third release in the "Graupner's Instrumental and Vocal Music" series for Analekta.

Christmas at Darmstadt

The very first Christmas concert of Les Idées heureuses will feature music from Graupner's repertoire. The number of works by him for this genre are enough to launch a long tradition of such concerts.

"Three theses on Graupner's religious music were published in the United States between 1970 and 1990," says Soly. "One of them deals with cantatas for solo bass, another with Easter cantatas, and the third with Christmas cantatas. I've got ideas for at least five programs from reading these three theses. In Montreal we have a tradition of Christmas concerts, as do most cities, but here people go to hear, for example, Handel's Messiah performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. My work is diametrically opposed to this kind of performance. I'd like to institute a series of Christmas concerts featuring baroque music performed in an aesthetically correct manner. At first I didn't know how to accomplish this, but the Graupner project has given me the answer. He wrote fifty-five Christmas cantatas--enough for years of concerts! To this we can add instrumental pieces that aren't necessarily written for Christmas, but that reflect the spirit of this season, either through their instrumentation or by their nature. For the December 8 concert we'll have three Christmas cantatas and an overture for recorder. Recently--but too late to include in this program--I found an Overture for Christmas Day. Of course I was delighted, but it will have to wait until next year. Graupner's patron, the landgrave Ernst-Ludwig, was born on December 26. Graupner wrote compositions for him that aren't strictly speaking Christmas cantatas, although they are jubilant in spirit and in keeping with the Christmas season.

"You should know that there was an opera house in Darmstadt. Between 1709 and 1719, Graupner was the house composer and brought the best performers of the day to Darmstadt, including an excellent bass named Gottfried Grunewald. He became Graupner's right arm, and the composer wrote a number of cantatas for him. Bach, for example, wrote very few solo cantatas because he didn't have first-class singers available. Graupner wrote six for solo tenor, forty-seven for solo soprano, and forty-seven for solo bass--an enormous output! Plus an extraordinary body of work for bass singers. Most of these are chamber cantatas, because the Darmstadt chapel was very small and required very simple instrumentation: violin, bass, and continuo."

The cantata, Nun Freut euch, lieben Christen gmein, as well as the cantata for the first Sunday after Christmas, Gedenket an den, for alto, tenor, strings, and continuo, will receive their premiere performance on December 8. Also on the program is the cantata for the first Sunday of Advent, Machet die Tore weit, for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, strings, oboe, flute and continuo. The Overture in F Major for recorder and strings rounds out the program.

The Les Idées heureuses ensemble consists of Nathalie Michaud (recorder), Chantal Rémillard and Olivier Brault (violin), Chloe Meyers (viola), Karen Kaderavek (cello), Nicolas Lessard (double bass), Suzanne DeSerres (bassoon), Matthew Jennejohn (oboe), and of course Geneviève Soly (musical director, organ, and harpsichord). The singers will be Charmian Harvey (soprano), Claudine Ledoux (alto), Nils Brown (tenor) and Olivier Laquerre (bass).

The concert takes place on Monday, December 8, in the Salle Pierre-Mercure of the Centre Pierre-Péladeau, 300 de Maisonneuve Blvd. East (just west of Saint-Denis), Montreal – 514 987.6919.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

Discographie des œuvres de Christoph Graupner enregistrées par Geneviève Soly et Les Idées heureuses sous étiquette Analekta

Partitas pour clavecin, vol. 1

FL 2 3109 (CD) 72 min 19 s

Musique instrumentale et vocale, vol. 1

FL 2 3162 (CD) 63 min 55 s

Partien 1718 & Galanteries : Partitas pour clavecin, vol. 2

FL 2 3164 (CD) 59 min 38 s

Cantate, Sonate, Ouverture : Musique instrumentale et vocale, vol. 2

FL 2 3180 (CD) 64 min 46 s

Version française...
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