Conductor Nicholas McGegan

This weekend, December 3-5, Nicholas McGegan returns to Powell Hall for a program of music by JS Bach and his less-famous son CPE Bach. I talked with McGegan via Zoom on November 18th. Here’s a somewhat condensed transcript of that conversation. The complete video interview is available on Chuck’s Culture Channel on YouTube.

[Preview the music with my commercial-free Spotify playlist.]

Chuck Lavazzi (CL): On December 3rd through 5th, you will be here with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) performing music by a pair of Bachs. The famous Johann Sebastian and one of his many musical sons Carl Philipp Emanuel. And since that's the upcoming event, let's talk a little bit about both of those guys. And I'd like to start with CPE Bach because he was a remarkable character and is probably not that well known to a lot of concertgoers.

Nicholas McGegan (NM): No, he's not. I think if his name was not Bach he might, in a way, be just as well known. There's no reason why he should be under his father's shadow, as it were. He's a wonderful composer in his own right. In terms of the kind of music he wrote and when he lived, he's kind of between two periods a little bit. He's not exactly what we think of as Baroque music, which is what, obviously, Johann Sebastian wrote. And he's not quite classical. He's an in-betweeny, if you like. Some people call it Rococo. But that makes it sound like mice in China, that it's all very pretty and stuff. His music is very daring, full of surprises. Sometimes very hard-driven. But also full of Empfindsamkeit is what the Germans call it, sensibility. It wears its heart on the sleeve, particularly in the slow movements.

CL: The Empfindsamer Stil

NM: Yeah, the sensibility. It's half of the Jane Austen novel. Without the sense. It's the sensibility. And he was much admired by Haydn, particularly, and he lived a really a very long time. He was born in 1714, but he died only four years before Mozart died, in 1788. So he had a long career. He worked for a good many years for King Frederick the Great of Prussia in Berlin, which was very much a full-time job because when the flute playing king wasn't destroying the Austrians and being rather good at the art of war, he seems to have been an extremely good flute player. And he'd certainly played a flute concerto every day of his life if he could. And so his musicians were kept very busy providing the flute concertos, making sure that they didn't have any bits he couldn't play.

CL: Yes, very important . [laughter]

NM: But he must've been really good, and he composed a little bit, too--maybe corrected by one of his lackeys. But then, CP Bach took over from his father in law, Georg Philipp Telemann, as the main Mr. Music Man, if you like, for Hamburg. So he had a very glittering career. He was famous as a keyboard player, but also as a theorist. He wrote a wonderful book on how to play the harpsichord and continuo, playing the harpsichord in the orchestra. And he also wrote a lot of music which is not performed today. He wrote many Passions, just like his father wrote the “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew Passion.” He had to produce one every year for 20 years. And they're a lot more modest than-- or should we just say - let's be honest - a lot shorter than the Matthew Passion. The Hamburgers maybe were less patient. They only wanted them to last an hour. But he wrote a lot of those. He wrote oratorios. The only thing he never wrote-- just like his dad didn't, he didn't write any opera.

CL: I know he also wrote quite a few symphonies, and we have a couple of them on the program.

MM: He did indeed. First for strings,  then he published much grander ones with lots of wind instruments. And we're doing one of each. We're doing  one of the string symphonies, which was written and dedicated to the Baron van Swieten who was the person who later in life wrote the librettos for Haydn's “Creation” and “Seasons” and was a great lover of what, in those days, they referred to as ancient music. In other words, people like JS Bach. And he was a great friend and supporter of Mozart. His symphonies are extremely, let's say, wild. The one with winds is definitely what's called the sturm und drang, storm and stress style. This is very much away from the sort of comfy elegant music of some of the earlier part of the 18th century, or the slightly pre-classical music of his much younger brother, Johann Christian, who was a great influence on Mozart. This is wild, pushing the boundaries music-- and virtuoso too. You could tell that decaf had not been invented.

CL: Well, coffee houses were very popular back then.

NM: Very popular, but it was the real thing. So you can't get too comfy in his music, and I think that's something that Haydn learned. Just constantly astonish, leading your audience up the garden path; give them something they're not expecting. And it's a terrific style he had. He also is another wonderful link because he had a number of students on the keyboard, two of whom were Mendelssohn's great-aunts. One of the last pieces that CP Bach wrote was a double concerto for Mendelssohn's great-aunts. And the Bach connection goes, obviously, from JS Bach through to his son, CP Bach, and to Wilhelm Friedemann, another of the sons, and then down through the Levy's and Itzigs, the very wealthy Berlin families who then, in the early 19th century, had Felix and Fanny, the two famous Mendelssohns at the beginning of the 19th century. They got the Bach bug big time, but they got it directly, as it were, through relatives and from Bach's children.

"Bach Carl Philipp Emanuel 1"
by Franz Conrad Löhr (1735–1812)[1]
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,
Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, M.589.
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

CL: This brings up something else that I think you talked about on the SLSO Zoom seminar Wednesday (November 16), is that Bach's music was really not well known after his death, and it tended to disappear for quite a while until it started getting revived by people like Mendelssohn.

NM: Absolutely, I mean, a lot of composers go into that sort of slump, if you like. Vivaldi's another case. If you'd asked Beethoven who Vivaldi was, he probably wouldn't have had the first idea. But Beethoven did know who Bach was because he kept a copy of the 48 Preludes and Fugues by his bed. And he'd studied that. But really, the only composer who kept a good deal of popularity after his death was Handel, but not the operatic Handel, the one that we know and love as much these days, but the oratorio one. And so oratorios like Messiah and so on, continued to be performed, and have continued to be performed up to the present day. But most composers go out of fashion, and I think you can say that that happened to JS Bach big time.

CL: In fact, two of the pieces you're going to play in the second half, the Brandenburg Concertos, just really sat on a shelf for many years.

NM: They did. And I think one of the reasons for this, is that JS Bach, relatively speaking, published very little of his music. It's slightly odd, in the sense that he lived so many years in Leipzig, which really to some extent still is the center of the European book trade. The Leipzig book fair is still a big deal, and it certainly was in Bach's day. If you wanted a book published, or you wanted to find a book, you went to Leipzig, and somebody would have a copy. That's where the publishers exhibited their wares. And so Bach's published works are merely works for the ages. He published organ preludes, he published French Suites, German Suites. These are publishing monuments, not terribly practical. Music that was meant to be played, generally just circulated in manuscript, and that's what happened to the Brandenburgs. Now, first of all, let's get the fact that the Brandenburgs, he didn't write them as Brandenburgs, he wrote them as concertos for next Thursday, wherever he happened to be. The earliest one is Brandenburg 1, some of which dates from 1713 when he was in Weimar. And then he went to the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen, who being a Calvinist had no organ in his chapel, so there was no sacred music to write. But the prince himself played the viola de gamba, and could even have played in Brandenburg 6, in fact, there's a gamba part. And so what the Brandenburgs really is, is a marketing piece.

CL: A resume, in fact.

NM: A resume. One is that if you wanted to publish anything, or you wanted to get something to look like a finished piece of music, in those days you'd publish them in half dozens, occasionally in dozens. So that you have the Twelve Concertos by Corelli. You have the Six Concertos of Handel, Opus 3. The Twelve Concertos, Opus 6. So to have six Brandenburgs is sort of the standard unit, as it were, to show what you mean. He could have published them, but no one could have played them. They're very, very, very difficult, and need a very fancy orchestra that most people couldn't have afforded in those days. But it is, on the other hand, a resume, as you say. It's his, "This is what I can do. This is some of the wildest concertos that you'll ever hear." Put them in a nice book. Write a lovely preface. A very obsequious preface in French to the Marquess. Dated exactly 300 years ago, incidentally. It's March the 24th. Happens to be Telemann's birthday. Very good reasons for playing them, I think, and sent them off to the marquess who was a close relative of the king of Prussia, not Frederick the great, but his rather eccentric father and apparently put them on the shelf. And that was it. He may have opened the score. He may not have done. He might've received things like this every couple of weeks. Lots of people would like to work for a member of the Royal family and they send in their CV, some saying, "I'm really good as a wine waiter." And some saying, "Oh, I've written some concertos. You might like them." So they sat in the library, and they didn't really get opened. They went through various hands until the middle of the 19th century.

CL:  You talked about how someone might've said, "I'm a great wine waiter." Composers were kind of seen at the time and musicians just as potential employees, probably not much more respectable than a wine waiter really.

NM:  Yes. I mean, he was the boss. But it was quite normal, for example, in 18th century England to put out a wish to have a servant who could be a valet and horn player. There are even pictures of people pretty much doing that because you want to have a really good doorbell, you hired two horn players who would stand. There's even a house in Devon where there are two hooks beside the door for the two horns so that the servants could rush down and go, "Toot, toot, toot," when somebody's carriage arrived to welcome them.

CL: As long as we're talking about these concerti, let's not fail to mention who's going to be playing them the third through the fifth. The viola parts are going to be played by Andrew Francois and Beth Guterman Chu.

NM: . Wonderful members of the St. Louis Symphony. And it's unusual to have concertos for violas. On the other hand, composers themselves loved playing the viola. Bach loved playing the viola. We know that. And Mozart loved playing the viola almost more than the violin. The Sinfonia concertante, for example, he played the viola. So even though the viola doesn't have much of a solo repertoire, it loves being in the ensemble. And I'm sure Bach wrote this for himself to play with a mate because it's definitely very intimate. It's a musician's piece. You can just imagine this. It's the smallest of the Brandenburgs, not really designed for a concert hall at all, more like a drawing room and it's written for six or seven musicians to have a good time.

"Statue of J.S. Bach in Leipzig" by Zarafa
at the English language Wikipedia.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Common

CL: Yeah. Well, in fact, Beth Guterman Chu was talking about how, at least in the second movement, it felt like an intimate conversation among friends.

NM: Oh, sure. And these people, travel wasn't so easy in the 18th century. So if were at the prince's court, you were there most of the time. You'd get to know your colleagues and you're going to get to know them very well until you would want to have music to play in the little ensemble that he had. Bach only had about 10 musicians there. So it's known as an orchestra but it's not what we would think of as an orchestra, more like an expanded chamber group.

CL:  We don't want to also forget Yin Xiong, who is playing the cello part.

NM: The cello part plays with the violas a lot. The gambas sort of sit in the background being super sophisticated. String instruments like the violin, the viola, at lesser extent the cello, were not regarded as aristocrats' instruments. The viola de gamba was the aristocratic instrument. It was played by princes. It was played also by women, the most famous being, I think her name is Madame Henriette, or possibly Madame Victoire. One of the daughters of Louis XV played the viola de gamba. And she has her viola de gamba on a little tuffet, like with muffet because obviously she's got those dresses they used to wear that looked as if they would quite like to be a sofa. It's hard to get a gamba between your knees if that's what you're wearing. But you could play it on a tuffet. And lots of pieces are dedicated to her. There was also in England a famous lady called Anna Ford, who actually played the viola de gamba in public. But the cello was also an aristocratic instrument later on. And, indeed, three or four Princes of Wales, including the present one, have at some time in their lives played the cello. I know that the present one plays the cello because I was at university at the same time as he was. And I actually nearly had to conduct him playing the cello once in an orchestra. Just escaped it. Can you imagine trying to tell a prince he was flat and wanting to keep your head?

CL: Likely an issue there. So this brings me to another thing I wanted to talk about. It's not specifically about this concert. But it's something you brought up yesterday in the call. The whole soundscape surrounding music of this period has changed. I mean, the soundscape of our world has changed in general. In fact, there was an excellent book with that title by R. Murray Schafer that came out in 1993 chronicling how the world has gotten increasingly louder over the past few hundred years. But these were all works intended to be performed in very small rooms for very small audiences. And there are issues, I would think, trying to scale them up for, say a 2,500-seat hall, like Powell Symphony Hall.

NM: Yeah. Certainly, things have changed a lot. It's not only sound, but light has also changed. We've got something called electricity. I think Paris was the first city to get streetlights, had about 50 of them. We can imagine everybody else just wandered around in the dark. We can't imagine that now. Of course, there were many fewer people. And you simply, in the 18th century, couldn't light a concert hall that held 2,500 people. You could light a theatre because you lit the stage. And you lit the individual boxes. But everything else was-- I should think we would think of it as pretty dingy.

So concert halls tended to be pretty small. Can you imagine lighting every single lightbulb individually in Powell Hall, how long that would take? And a candle burns half an hour, constantly needing to be changed. So aristocrat's houses had chambers, the knights' rooms or princes' rooms or ballrooms, but they would hold relatively small number of people. And the great thing about a prince's concert is in order for it to be classy, you want to keep as many people out as you can. You wouldn't want anybody less than an archduchess actually to be listening. It would lower the tone. And even if there was only one prince there and he was the guy paying you, that was enough. You could also be sure that CP Bach working in Berlin JS Bach in Cothen and the Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy for Haydn, these were all people who loved music. And a lot of them played themselves. And so we're talking a very sophisticated audience who would, should we say, get the complications of Bach whether they were actually playing it and had to experience how hard it is to play, or just listening to the intricacies of it. And being up close and personal to something like a Brandenburg really helps you hear just how intricate these pieces are. Orchestra music comes in the later part of the 18th century, but even then Haydn's concert hall is seven or eight hundred. That was considered a large space because they couldn't light anything bigger, and so-- nor could the orchestra see.

So what we think of as a concerto is something like the Tchaikovsky piano concerto. These, though, were concertos because they feature a single or a small group of instruments, in these cases, small groups of instruments, what in the 18th century would have been called concerti grossi, big concertos rather than just one solo, like “The Seasons” of Vivaldi and an audience of maybe 25 people sitting round. It's a very different aural experience. And when you're trying to project that into a space of a couple of thousands, the size of the coliseum in Rome, if you like, you have to do them in a slightly different way. In the same way, as if you were not using a microphone, if you're talking to a small group, you're talking in one way. If you're talking to two and a half thousand people, you're talking in a different way. You're enunciating, you're speaking more slowly, and so on. I've done all the Brandenburgs in Powell Hall and they worked fine, but it would be a very different experience. I always wished that the artist was on stage. Now, funnily enough, the hall where Bach played in the palace in Cothen still survived. We can see how big it was. Architecturally, it was altered in the early 19th century. It's been modernized, but it hasn't been made any bigger. And we don't even know if that was the room they were actually played in. It could have been done in a smaller one. I was quite recently in a palace just north of Berlin, where Frederick the Great lived when he was a young man. And there is a music room, but it was too big--35 feet by 35 or something. He had a much smaller room around the corner where he really liked to play, which is the size of the average living room.

CL: So as a conductor, are there adjustments you have to consciously make? Are ways that you have to think differently about this music because you're performing for such a large group?

NM: Well, one thing you have to do is not to try to aggrandize it so that you sort of sling it to the back of the hall. What you want to do is to encourage the audience maybe to move a couple of inches further towards us, sit on the edge of their chair, and just get used to the intimacy of the music.

CL: Draw the audience in as they sit, as opposed to trying to push the music out.

NM: Yeah. Yeah, I think it would be great if everyone was in theyou first 10 rows, frankly. The harpsichord is the ideal instrument for a small room. If you had a Bösendorfer or a great big Steinway on stage trying to play this, it would just drown everything out. On the other hand, a harpsichord trying to play the Tchaikovsky piano concerto would be extremely silly. First of all, you wouldn't have enough notes. You have no dynamics. And harpsichords are designed for small spaces. So I hope they won't mic the harpsichord to make it artificially loud because, in vast places, it needs to be there as part of the sound, but it's not adding any extra chords or anything like that because Bach's already fully scored. It’s continuo, so. It adds a bit of pep to the rhythm as well.

CL: And we have a harpsichordist, Mark Schuldiner. Have you worked with him before?

NM: Yes. Several times in St Louis, he came down when we were doing, I think it was the Vivaldi “Gloria,” and he actually played the organ. But I also know him from Chicago because one of the things he does besides playing very well-- is he also is an excellent tuner. And I was doing a concert of 17th Century Jewish music from Venice. And there was suddenly Mark providing all the keyboards. So it was great to see him again. So this is the third time I've worked with him. He's terrific. So that will be great fun to see him again. It's just a hop, skip, and a jump down from Chicago with the harpsichord. I don't know if he's bringing his own harpsichord. We'll find out.

CL: Okay. I think that's mostly what I had on my list of things to bring up. I do want to say this. I have seen you many times at Powell Hall and one of the things I always notice, you don't just walk out on stage, you bound out on stage. I mean at one point commented on the fact that you ran out on stage, and you walked up to the podium, and you rubbed your hands together and I said it was like he was saying, "Oh, this is going to be such fun."

NM: Well, it's going to be, I hope. I'm not sure I'm quite the bounder. I don't bound quite as much, but I do a little bit more than I used to because I had a hip replacement, so I can bounce a bit more. I'm not quite the Bugs Bunny me going out there, that that might have been a number of years ago.

I think we should also mention Yin Xiong again. She's going to be playing this remarkable CP Bach cello concerto. It's an unusual piece because there aren't that many concertos for the cello compared to the violin. And CP Bach's ones also are written for several instruments. He would write a concerto which could be played on the cello, on the keyboard, or the flute. The music is essentially the same, he's adapting them perfectly for whichever instrument it is. So he had to write a flute concerto, of course, because the king probably paid him to. But then he said, "Well, why not make it for the cello as well? We've got a mate who plays the cello, and I'm sure he'd love to have this concerto." And then he said, "Well, I'm a great keyboard player. I could play it on the harpsichord." So it gives it a bit more of a shelf life.

I have to say, the one she's playing in A major is my favorite of the three, very sparkly in the last winter, especially, but with a very, very deep, sad, miserable, back to that very sensitive, full of sensibility slow movement, wearing your heart on your sleeve, which of course, as the 18th century goes on, becomes increasingly part of the makeup of how people thought. In Goethe, you've got “The Sorrows of the Young Werther,” which is all about wearing your skin inside out, and feelings, deep feelings. And that's very much something, of course, that CP Bach got from Daddy. The slow movement of Brandenburg 6 is a very deep, beautiful, quiet piece, but he traded on it. And the slow movements of nearly all the pieces that we're playing, the CP Bach pieces, come to that format, and they're really wonderful.

CL: So you can see the seeds of what would eventually become the century of the Romantic sensibility.

NM: Absolutely. And it's not the sort of music that's merely elegant. They had beating hearts, and they loved and lost just as we do.

CL: Yes. We tend to have this artificial image of these stiffly-posed people in wigs and elaborate gowns, and we, yeah, forget that they were just as human as the rest of us.

NM: Yeah. And the ones we're thinking of are only the rich ones. Can you imagine what it'd be like if you're basically living on the street or making one of those dresses by candlelight, working through the night, sewing the silk for something that the queen might wear once.

CL: Yes. It isn't the way it looks in those Hollywood movies from the '50s, but [laughter]--

NM: Yeah, the scarlet pimpernel is not how it was for everybody.

CL: Yes. I always say that I'm glad I was not born before the age of relatively painless dentistry, myself.

NM: Yes. Young, rich, and good teeth is what you needed.

CL: Nic McGegan, thanks for taking some time to talk to me. Once again, you are going to be conducting music by CPE Bach and Johann Sebastian Bach, December 3rd through the 5th at Powell Hall, for more information. I look forward to seeing you on stage again because you always, as I alluded to earlier, have this tremendous joy and enthusiasm for the music. And you know that that really communicates itself through the audience.

NM: Thank you. I can't wait to come back because I was supposed to have a concert last February, which is of course just when the symphony was not performing, so I missed out on my annual jaunt to St. Louis. But I get to come now, and that's absolutely terrific. Can't wait. And with a live audience too.

The Essentials: Local favorite Nicholas McGegan returns to lead the SLSO in music of C.P.E. Bach and his dad, Johann Sebastian, including two of the latter’s Brandenburg Concertos. Performances are Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm, December 3-5.

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