I might be the only person on the planet who [last week] commemorated Johann Mattheson’s three hundred thirty-first birthday. Born on 28 September 1681 in Hamburg – then the biggest, most prosperous, and most diverse of German cities – Mattheson never moved from his birthplace. Yet he was the greatest cosmopolitan of the age, an indefatigable author not just on music but on a range of subjects including politics, literature, and religion. In almost all these efforts, however, he defended the importance of music in cultural life. “What would music be without other literature?” he once asked. His response to this rhetorical question claimed for music a place at the center of humanistic study: “Exactly what the other branches of learning would be without music.”
Throughout his fifty-year career as a writer on music – and nowhere more vociferously than in the pages of his 1728 book Der musicalische Patriot (The Musical Patriot) – Mattheson claimed that music was fundamental to the ethical health of civil society. For several years that book gave its name to this column; the ideas its embodies still do: the capacity of music to further “the common good” (das gemeine Beste) to foster joyous recreation. Most important was the great Hamburger’s irrepressible impulse to have fun with it all.
Son of a Hamburg tax collector, Mattheson began receiving private music lessons in singing and organ playing at the age of six. Three years later was being hailed as a prodigy. A few years before his birth, Hamburg had founded the first public opera theater in northern Europe, and in his early teens Mattheson was taking female roles on the stage. After his voice broke when he was fifteen, Mattheson began appearing as a tenor and also composing operas.
Aside from his intensely cultivated natural gifts as a musician, Mattheson had enjoyed an enviable education consisting of private lessons in dancing, drawing, math, riding, fencing, Italian, French, and English. The later skill would serve him well throughout his professional career, since at the age of twenty-five he became secretary to the English ambassador in Hamburg and served in that capacity for more than three decades. He also translated into German the influential English journalism of The Tatler and The Spectator as well novels by Defoe and Richardson. It was the free-wheeling brilliance and irreverence of Addison and Steele that most strongly influenced his own style and attitude as a writer and that ultimately spurred him to the invention of modern music journalism. His bi-weekly Critica musica appeared in 1722-23, and although that venture didn’t continue beyond this two-year period, the approach to engaging with contemporary music culture was taken up by the subsequent generation of journal-makers deeply influenced by him. Throughout his life, the quick-witted, erudite, unstinting and ironic qualities of his journalism could be seen in the currency, acuity, and flair of his ongoing, indefatigable work as a writer on music.
Another subject of Mattheson’s early education – fencing – also served him well later in life, most memorably in his famous 1704 duel fought in front of the Hamburg opera house with his young friend Handel, four years his junior. Handel had arrived in the city the year before to pursue his opera career, and Mattheson claims in his own autobiography to have taught the newcomer the essence of melodic writing; in Mattheson’s view (one presented in many volumes of music criticism, theory, history, and biography), this was the most crucial aspect of composition and of communicating emotion to an audience. On that night in 1704, Mattheson had been on stage singing the role of Antony in his own opera Cleopatra. After his on-stage death, he returned to the orchestra to claim what he thought was his rightful place conducting the remainder of the performance from the harpsichord. But Handel would not yield and Mattheson promptly challenged him to a duel in which, according to Mattheson, Handel’s life was spared only when Mattheson’s rapier was stopped in its plunge towards his opponent’s heart by a large metal button on Handel’s frock coat: a half-an inch to either side and the history of music would have been rather different. (I should here mention, too, that the later suicide of Cleopatra in that opera is one of the most gripping representations of death on the eighteenth-century stage.)
Even while Mattheson was hugely busy as secretary to the British ambassador in Hamburg and in that capacity often involved in sensitive diplomatic missions, he was writing books whose themes ranged from educating middle-class musical lovers in the art of musical discourse, to rooting out ancient superstitions, and seeking to free musical thought from encrusted rules that violated the judgements of the ear. Still more staggering was the fact that he also served as director of music at the Hamburg Cathedral for which he composed oratorios and cantatas, most of them now lost. His progressive attitudes and embrace of the sensual allure of music even when – or perhaps especially when – it violated musical and societal norms led him to introduce women into the divine service in Hamburg: he believed that 18 August 1716 was the first occasion in the city’s history when female voices performed concerted music in church, though women had long been heard and seen on the stage of the city’s opera house. On the date trumpeted by Mattheson, Barbara Keiser, a famous musician in her own right and wife of the great Hamburg opera composer Rheinhard Keiser (from whom Handel pillaged many of his catchiest melodies), sang with two of her peers in the cathedral under Mattheson’s own direction. Proudly flaunting his subversion of gender restrictions in the divine service, Mattheson decried the resistance he encountered from some of the cathedral’s congregants, who complained about the affront caused to them by this new role for women and their visible bodies:
I am probably the first to have introduced three to four female singers into normal performances of large-scale church music before and after the sermon. But the difficulty, trouble, and grumpiness encountered defy description. In the beginning it was requested that I should not bring any women into the choir of the church. But in the end the congregation could not get enough of them. I was forced to put up a screen – one that also blocked some of the sound . . . not to speak of a hundred other petty things that caused me so much trouble.
A subsequent change of pastor and the hiring a new building superintendent eventually spared Mattheson the petty indignity of having to put up the grate himself. Female voices would be allowed to grace the church only if the musical bodies were hidden from the eagerly disapproving eyes of congregations and clerics. For Mattheson, if something pleased the ear then it was worth defending against austere pastors.
That is not to say Mattheson ignored the visual power of musical performance. Molded by his own youthful experiences on stage, Mattheson believed opera was a spectacular compendium of human knowledge: “A good opera theater is nothing less than an advanced school of many of the fine arts, including together and all at once, architecture, perspective, painting, mechanics, the art of dance, Actio oratoria, morals, history, poetry, and most especially music.”
He shied away from criticizing no one, including his illustrious contemporaries Bach to Handel. Mattheson’s self-confidence in the face of political power can be seen in his 1749 book defending opera. It was a volume dedicated to a great supporter of opera, the Prussian King, Frederick the Great. Mattheson deemed it appropriate that his “sixty-fourth publication” – as he proudly put in the preface – should be offered to this “most magnanimous monarch,” as if the author were deigning to honor the musician-king in Berlin the honor. One hardly has to read between the lines to understand that Mattheson sometimes addresses the Frederick with an assurance that verges on the impudent, a threshold which he occasionally oversteps.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the flamboyantly independent writer Johann Mattheson criticized those musicians who pegged their reputations to the costly gifts such as chains and rings received from the wealthy and powerful and who flaunted the inflated honorifics bestowed on them by “Emperors, Kings, Electors, and Lords.” Mattheson implicitly impugned the musical opinions of monarchs by likening the all-too-frequent success of second-rate musicians at court “to blind hens who occasionally find grains of barley.” Mattheson believed instead that educated taste as the most reliable measure of musical value and this did not always accord with royal sentiments. Thanks in no small part to Mattheson, rational, well-informed judgement would now take precedence over the aesthetic pronouncements of the high and mighty. The refined and receptive ear should be the highest judge. Ironically, this most eloquent and energetic defender of that organ had to leave his post at the Hamburg Cathedral in 1728 because of debilitating hearing-loss; he was completely deaf by 1735, having to live the last thirty years of his life with the only available musical sound available to him that which he imagined in his head.
In contrast to the attrition in his musical scores, Mattheson’s writings survive in daunting quantity, hardly any of them available in English. Along with several important composers of the day – Handel, Telemann, Keiser and others – Mattheson set the Passion poem of his long-time Hamburg associate, Barthold Heinrich Brockes (a text that also provided inspiration for the libretto of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion [BWV 244]), one of the most celebrated poets of the day. A CD of Mattheson’s Passion made in the 1990s on the Cavalli label is now hard to find. If you can put your hands on copy you’ll have much to admire and enjoy in this epic work. Mattheson imbues the often emotionally charged poetry with grandiosity, but, more crucially, with intimate feeling. Mattheson’s fundamental optimism even rings through in the bleakness of the close, where the composer converts the last chorale to an affirmative minuet enlivened by an extraordinary obbligato glockenspiel part. At the darkest moment of the church year the ear must be refreshed, and therefore the soul, too. In the last few years, the excellent Kölner Akademie under Michael Willens has brought out three further discs of Mattheson’s vocal music; from these offerings one can hear how his Christmas music demonstrates an abiding love for the Lutheran chorale and a talent for economical, affecting, and often invigorating melodic writing.
The oratorio Der liebreiche und geduldige David (The Loving and Patient David) resounds with music that the cosmopolitanism and unaffected style Mattheson championed. The Christmas disc also includes Mattheson’s elaboration of the Magnificat: the result is so affirmative that one could easily forget it was likely written after Mattheson had left active musical life because of his deafness. Though he could no longer hear, he kept fighting for music with his pen until the end in 1764, when he was laid to rest in St. Michael Church below the organ. It was one of the largest in Germany, an instrument funded by him to the tune 40,000 Marks Sterling. Above the largest central pipe soared a large oil portrait of Mattheson in his prime, held aloft by angels fluttering as if on updrafts billowing up from the largest pipe – some thirty-two feet long – directly below him. This posthumous, self-orchestrated apotheosis was richly deserved, though what was so brilliant about Mattheson, was not that he was above it all, but, during his life, always in the thick of the fray.
David Yearsley – CounterPunch