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15 Sep 2005
THEILE: Arias; Canzonettas
Johann Theile is best known for his significant body of church music and his reputation as “the father of contrapuntists.” It is easy to summon the image of a learned graybeard, well-practiced in contrapuntal art (especially invertible counterpoint, it would seem). This recent recording from Ludger Rémy, however, shows us a less well-known and very congenial side of Theile: the composer of student love songs.
As a young man, Theile began law studies at the University of Leipzig in 1666, and while a student he was a member of the Collegium Musicum, the same ensemble that J. S. Bach would lead in the eighteenth century. Anthologies of student song must have been common enough in Leipzig—there are surviving collections by Adam Krieger, Sebastian Knüpfer, and Johann Pezel—and in 1667, Theile published his own: Weltlichen Arien und Canzonetten.
The songs are strophic airs for one or two voices with basso continuo and instrumental ritornelli, and their texts unsurprisingly treat the themes of unrequited love, the pain of departure and separation, the pleasures of the bed, and the difficulties of malicious women. One song even offers a philosophy of student life: “It’s good to wake up with the Muses/ and consult one’s books for their uses./ But one also has to have some fun/ instead of studying from early to late./ Frequent kisses and a little reading:/ it offers a fine change of pace.” The songs are naturally varied in their tone and mood, but throughout they are the fruits of a careful and inventive hand. Where the text leads, the music can be rollicking or serious, even poignant, in response, but in any event, these seem “student” works in venue and chronology only.
The performances are unflaggingly first-rate. All four singers command period style with notable ease, and with their lithe and flexible voices imbue the songs with ornamental grace and character. The instrumentalists of Les Amis Philippe make a substantial contribution here with richly textured, contoured playing. Though relegated largely to ritornelli, these are not ancilliary “throw aways.” Rather, they occasion some of the most expressive music making on the disc, and powerfully add dimensionality to the strophic forms.
Rémy has sought to maximize the flexibility of seventeenth-century music making in his approach to his program. The continuo ensemble is a varied one and the ritornelli similarly employ a range of instrumental color. Duets are rendered in various ways: both parts sung or one part sung, the other one played, following the lead of Theile’s teacher, Heinrich Schütz. And, unsurprisingly, the singers employ ornamentation as one way of keeping the strophic forms alive and in motion. In only one instance did I find the variability unsuccessful. The performance of the aria “Gehab dich wohl, o Schönste” divided the stanzas between tenor and soprano. Inevitably the octave disposition invites us to hear this as a gendered dialogue—the man sings, now the woman—and yet, the text is continuously one voice, not a dialogue. In other instances where the stanzas are divided between two singers, it is a division between soprano and alto in the same octave, and thus a more unified sense is maintained.
There is great delight in these songs and in these very accomplished performances. That in itself might be a sufficient conclusion here. But it is important to note, as well, that in bringing these songs to life, Rémy and his colleagues have also substantially enlarged our sense of student music-making--both its quality and its nature. And ultimately, given the roots of these songs in Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum, they have helped us better to understand the world of J.S Bach, too.