An Interview with Kenneth Weiss
By John Sherer
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center kicks off its annual Baroque Festival in December 2023 with its Baroque Collection program. The repertoire is a showcase for harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss, a passionate advocate for early music. “There’s as much music from Bach going backwards as from Bach going forwards,” he says. Truly, the wide-ranging musical selections reflect the extraordinary breadth and depth of his knowledge. I spoke with him in late September about the program; an edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
John Sherer: These concerts contain pieces by Baroque composers whose work may not be as familiar to audiences as that of Bach, Handel, or Vivaldi. Can you tell us about some of the composers and their works?
Kenneth Weiss: We’re beginning with Telemann, an incredibly prolific composer who wrote opera, religious music, and instrumental works. We’re playing one of his Parisian Quartets; he was well-traveled, and when he came to Paris he heard the “galant” style, which is extremely cultivated and refined. It’s based on rhetoric and conversation, and of course the art of good conversation is one of the achievements of 18th-century France!
Next we’re doing a piece by C. P. E. Bach, the most successful son of J. S. Bach. He’s probably the composer most connected to a style called Empfindsamkeit, which was a way of playing with great feeling, without having to use words, allowing composers to go deeper psychologically. This piece has two characters who are opposed, the Sanguine and the Melancholic; it’s almost bipolar, with one being very “up,” the other very “down,” and it explores how they meet. After that is a piece by Buxtehude, who was a huge inspiration for J. S. Bach. His music is virtuosic, but it’s also very benign and friendly. This one is a perfect Christmas-sounding piece, and a joyous way to end the first half.
For the second half we start with Couperin. During this time, there was a divide between the French and Italian styles, and most French people didn’t accept the Italian style. But Couperin was one of the first to really embrace it. He looked up to Corelli a great deal, and in this piece he gives a beautiful homage; it depicts Corelli going to heaven, with different episodes of him meeting the muses and drinking from a fountain of inspiration, then undergoing an apotheosis and joining the pantheon of great composers. Then we have Rameau’s Concert IV from Pièces de clavecin en concerts. He was an incredible orchestrator and a major opera composer, but he didn’t write his first opera until he was 50 years old. In this piece he pushes each instrument to the limit of its capabilities.
We end with a chamber version of Les Élémens by Jean-Féry Rebel. He wrote the piece as a ballet-symphony, a new form at the time. It explores the moment of creation, a “big bang,” with a level of discord that was never written in music before. There’s chaos, and then a separation of the elements of earth, water, fire, and air, that all move throughout the piece.
JS: In the annals of oversimplified music history, there is sometimes this idea that program music didn’t really get off the ground until the Romantic era, supposedly starting with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique or some other ur-piece. But as you well know, program music is all over the Baroque period; these works by Couperin and Rebel are great examples. What can audiences expect from these as “program music”?
KW: Yes, it certainly goes back farther than the Romantics. Composers were always interested in projecting not just a feeling, but something concrete. Les Élémens is very avant-garde for the 18th century. In a normal French dance suite, you’d have an allemande, a courante, and all the usual dances. But what I find very beautiful in the Rebel is that each dance has its individual meaning; he depicts birdsong, love—all the things that came from the world’s creation. The Couperin is also very thought-out; you can see his deep admiration for Corelli and the introduction of Italian-type figurations into French music. There are seven movements, each with a written text. Often when it’s performed, the French text is read aloud. We won’t be doing that, but it’ll be in the program.
JS: I was struck by how specific those movement descriptions are—talking about how Corelli drinks from the spring, falls asleep, and so on.
KW: Exactly! He went pretty far in connecting an imagined narrative with musical gestures.
JS: CMS’s performance of Les Élémens will use the piece’s most fundamental instrumentation: flute, two violins, and continuo. Early performances may have included various horns and reeds as well. What are the advantages of the smaller ensemble for repertoire like this?
KW: In earlier music, before music was written idiomatically for a given instrument, you’d have “melody” music and “bass” music that could be played by whatever instrumentalists were there. Here, it’s a full orchestral work. The first movement is heavily scored with many different parts, but then some later movements have as few as two voices. On the first page of the score, Rebel says it can also be performed in a chamber music setting, and he specifies the instruments: flute, two violins, and continuo, which we’re using at CMS. The movements work beautifully as chamber pieces; when the music goes down to two voices, we don’t have 30 people on stage!
He also writes that it can be played in a solo harpsichord transcription, so it’s part of the very long tradition of transcription. Historically, before recorded music, one of the pleasures of transcription was to be able to hear again what you heard in the concert hall or opera house. You could play it at home with a group of friends, and the music would keep living. With a large orchestra, Les Élémens would be louder and different, but the chamber version allows the music to be heard and speak for itself, and it’s a record of the way many of Rebel’s contemporaries would have experienced it.
JS: What does the Baroque aesthetic represent for you, and what does it have to teach us in the 21st century?
KW: That’s a great question. Of course, there were many sub-periods in the Baroque. I think the 17th century is a time of wild invention; things weren’t codified; there was an amazing amount of creativity and experimentation. There were many isolated geniuses, like Frescobaldi, who found ways of seeing things that nobody else saw before.
Music in the 18th century is more about projecting how to get along in society, how to fit in. Of course, you have to show your brilliance, but it’s also codified, with a lot of elegance and refinement. So there are different aesthetics, not just at different times but in different countries. The Italians liked things very brilliant and high-pitched, and the French thought that was vulgar—to play virtuosically. None of their sonatas ends with a fast movement! That was not the last thing you’d show; you were supposed to show your sophistication at the end because that’s how you’d want people to remember you. So within Europe there were a lot of different styles.
With all this in mind, I’d say what we can learn from the Baroque today is the importance of creativity, of individuality, and of listening to each other. Of course, that’s the principle of all chamber music. I’d say chamber music began at the end of the 1500s with English consort music. That’s the first music in which every line is equally important. It’s not all about the soprano! It’s a kind of democratic ideal in which each part is important, and each has to listen and interact. And that’s what we could all do more of.
JS: I agree. It’s always surprising to me how quickly these things get political.
KW: I completely see it. Chamber music is a kind of ideal that requires understanding the other. That feeling of playing chamber music, interacting with colleagues—if only life could be so harmonious.
John Sherer is Editorial Manager at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.