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Giacomo Meyerbeer's Letter to Adolphe Sax
About the 2nd "Brandenburg" Concerto

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) is much maligned and much deprecated these days, an unfortunate victim of both anti-Semitism in musicology and music criticism and the negative blade of that essential double-edged sword known as rezeptionsgeschichte.

My attitude towards Meyerbeer, about whom I knew precious little except what I had been told by a bunch of "great experts", all of whom, of course, were "perfect Wagnerites", had long been both negative and dismissive. A chance encounter with a volume called Giacomo Meyerbeer - A Life in Letters, edited by Heinz and Gudrun Becker and translated by Mark Violette (Amadeus Press, 1989), however, has changed all of that.

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As a result of my encounter with this book and the vibrant, shrewd, but thoughtful and compassionate personality that Meyerbeer's letters evince, I have begun a serious personal investigation of this maligned master's music, and I arranged things so that The Laughing Cavalier played some of Meyerbeer's orchestral works on his broadcast of August 24, 1997.

On that broadcast, Laughing also read the one letter in the anthology assembled by the Beckers that deals with Sebastian Bach. Its text came as quite a shock, since I had always swallowed -- hook, line, and sinker -- the widely disseminated canard that Meyerbeer had little use for Bach.

The letter in question, written in 1851, to Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), the great brass instrument maker and inventor of the instrument without which Charlie Parker could not have done what he did, shows not only Meyerbeer's sincere interest in and admiration for Bach's music but also his deep and all-encompassing knowledge of the history and technique of the instruments in the orchestra. Incidentally, Meyerbeer, who had independent means (His vast fortune dwarfed that of the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys, and, what's more, was "old" money.), at one point tried to save Sax from bankruptcy by paying him a substantial sum, evidently with "no strings attached".

Since the Becker anthology of Meyerbeer letters is currently out of print, I am taking the liberty of posting the letter, which appears on page 133 of the book, in its entirety on this page:

[Berlin, June 16, 1851]

My dear Mr. Sax,

You have always been so helpful and kind to me that I have assured a friend of mine that you would be good enough to give me your opinion on a difficult matter relating to a subject on which you can competently speak. The problems is as follows: musical works of Johann Sebastian Bach are currently being edited in Leipzig. The works in question are those which have remained in manuscript form until this day. The project is under the direction of the very knowledgeable Professor Dehn, librarian for the Royal Library in Berlin. I am writing you this letter on his request.

I am sure you know that, during the period when these compositions were written, i.e. about 130 years ago, trumpets did yet have valves or keys. Trumpeters not only depended on manual dexterity to execute the most difficult passages, but also used mouth pieces which made it much easier to play the natural trumpet in the high register than it is today. In the enclosed excerpt from a Bach concerto, the line written in red ink must be played on an F trumpet. [Clearly, Meyerbeer is alluding to the 2nd "Brandenburg" Concerto.] This is impossible on the natural F trumpets of our day. Since the director of the edition would like to be as true to the original as possible while at the same time using our modern instruments, he would like to know if there are trumpets or cornets à piston with exchangeable parts which could be used when performing these very difficult passages. If you were to inform me that such instruments do exist, a note could then be made to that effect in the printed score. If I am not mistaken, you invented small E-flat cornets à piston which offer a wide range of possibilities in the high register. However, I am not certain enough to swear that this is the case. Would you be so kind as to look at this passage and send me your opinion in a letter? I know that you are very busy, but I shall appeal to your kindness in asking that you send a response as soon as possible as the edition is almost completed. Please excuse, good sir, that a foreign hand is guiding my pen, for a small indisposition obliges me to take to my bed.

I confess that I do not know what the results, if any, of Meyerbeer's request were, and, since I am familiar only with the Bach Gesellschaft edition of the so-called "Brandenburg" Concertos, which was issued to the subscribers in 1869 or 1870, as I recall, I also do not know what alternates Dehn may have suggested in any performing edition that he may have published. (I am sure that one of my colleagues in the Bach field will let me know, however!).

The great irony, of course, is that nearly a century later, both Otto Klemperer (in his Vox recording) and Pablo Casals (in his 1950 Prades Festival performance and subsequent Columbia recording, ML 4345) resorted to the soprano saxophone as a substitute for the tromba in F. In both cases, the soloist was the great Marcel Mulé, and, sadly, neither recording is presently available on commercial recordings.

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