Voices from the 18th Century: Johann Mattheson on what we ‘must necessarily and indispensably know’



In a previous post, Johann Mattheson made an appearance with a quote from his celebrated book Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739) regarding women singers in church. Another excellent publication by Mattheson, ever the wise and opinionated teacher, is the Grosse General-Bass-Schule (1731), where he is especially rigorous in teaching the art of accompaniment to the budding organist. As part of the Schule, forty-eight “test pieces” are included, with commentary, that take the student through every key that they might at some point confront.

As Mattheson explains, even the easiest of keys can possess a challenge.

“1. I shall not guarantee that anyone will be able to play this piece at first sight without stumbling, though the key is one of the nicest and also one of the best known and most common. All the excuses of the self-styled lights means nothing here because nothing appears except what an average thorough-bassist must necessarily and indispensably know, nay, which he must play at first sight without faltering.

2. No doubt these good gentlemen will take exception saying the clefs change so frightfully often and they are not used to such things. Reply: it is true that every single clef in music makes an appearance in this piece; that they are strange to the organist is no one’s fault but his own. Does it take so very much skill to know merely nine when housekeeper may have to be acquainted with twenty of them? But as one would laugh at him who would unlock his chest without keys, a derision is justly merited for him who would be called a musician who would try to open his artistic cupboard in accompaniment but has overlooked the key.” (Translation: Harvey P. Reddick)

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