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Tafelmusik for Thanksgiving!

Elegant musicians at an elegant table
Ambrosius Benson (1520-1550)
Wikimedia Commons
Elegant company with musicians seated at a table..."

The German word tafelmusik means “table music,” and was used to describe mostly instrumental music, sometimes improvised, and always played in the background of everything from royal dinners to lavish feasts and banquets, so it seems like the perfect thing to explore for Thanksgiving.

Tafelmusik was also the name given to some music collections written in the 17th and early 18th centuries. So many composers tried their hand at tafelmusik that it even prompted Michael Praetorius to write about this new musical trend in his 1619 treatise, Syntagma musicum.

One of the best known and earliest table music collections was by Johann Hermann Schein. Although he wrote mostly sacred music, he is probably best known for his 1617 collection, Banchetto musicale (musical banquet). The 20 suites that make up Banchetto musicale each contain four standard dances of the day. These are not pieces for dancing, however; they are in dance form but presented in a much statelier way. Collegium Terpsichore plays it for you here:

It's believed that Banchetto musicale was Schein’s only collection of instrumental music.

An even more famous table music collection, however, was composed in 1733 by Georg Philipp Telemann. While Schein’s Banchetto musicale was divided into Suites, Telemann’s Tafelmusik, or Musique de Table, was divided into what he called three “productions.” These divisions included everything from a solo sonata to quartets, and overtures to dances. Here’s a recording of every single piece in the collection, which lasts over four hours. It’s played by flutist Wilbert Hazelzet, violinist Rémy Baudet, cellist Jaaap ter Linden, and Musica Amphion, with Pieter-Jan Belder as harpsichordist and concert master.

Telemann wasn’t only a leading composer of the day – he was also an ace marketer. He found more than 200 wealthy subscribers who paid him in advance of the publishing of Tafelmusik. For the hefty fee, the first published edition included their names, addresses and social status. While everyone from royals to wealthy merchants were listed, his patrons included fellow composers Georg Frideric Handel and Johann Georg Pisendel.

By the late 1700s the tafelmusik form had been pushed into the background as composers like Mozart and Haydn moved on with divertimentos. In 1809, however, Carl Friedrich Zelter did a tafelmusik “revival.” His Liedertafel (table songs) were written for either solo male singers or male choral societies, which used the word to describe this style of singing into the first half of the 20th century. The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings one of them, accompanied by pianist Aribert Reimann:

With just these three examples you’ve got almost 5 hours of table music . . . enough to accompany your next fancy dinner! 

CODA:  Apropos of nothing to do with table music, but certainly fitting for the Thanksgiving holiday, here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils.” This delightful march was included in the incidental music he wrote for a 1909 production of Aristophanes’ play, The Wasps. Adrian Boult conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.