The custom of using music to accompany banquets and feasts is probably as old as music itself. By the 16th century, such music had become a genre all its own: Tafelmusik, or "table-music," music that royalty or nobility (or whoever could afford it) had played to them while they ate or partied. In the 18th century Mozart's many divertimentos had a similar social function, and the teenaged Beethoven wrote music for the wind octet that the Elector Maximilian Franz of Bonn maintained to serenade him while he ate. As society grew more democratic in the 19th century, such music moved out of the castle and into the restaurant, where small ensembles - usually of strings - played as patrons ate. Vestiges of the concept survive today in the cocktail pianist who plays in lounges.
Telemann served as music director of the city of Hamburg for over 40 years, and part of his duties was to supply music for civic functions of all sorts. In 1733 he published three sets of Tafelmusik, which he presented under the French title Musique de table; that general title is sometimes rendered in English as "banqueting music." Each set consists of six different works that might accompany a festive banquet, and the surprising thing is how varied this music is: each set opens with an orchestral overture and suite, followed by a quartet, a concerto, a trio sonata, a solo sonata, and a "conclusion" that takes many forms.
The Sonata in G minor that opens this program is the solo sonata from Tafelmusik III. In Telemann's time this might be performed with a cello taking part of the continuo line, but at this concert it is performed with a continuo of bassoon and harpsichord. This Sonata is often listed as being in six movements, but movements two, three, and four make up a three-part sequence (the two Presto movements are essentially identical), and so the Sonata falls generally into the slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of the sonata da chiesa. Telemann played the oboe (along with many other instruments), and he writes superbly for the instrument here, alternating sustained lyric lines with athletic passages, some of them quite brilliant.
The Sonata in G minor is much too good to be background entertainment at a meal. Faced with music like this, banqueters would most likely just set down their forks and listen.
- Eric Bromberger is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic program book.