Oh, alas, my canary is dead!
To whom can I bemoan my misery,
To whom can I bemoan my bitter pain?
Who will take this song to heart with me,
To whom can I bemoan this misery?
The other day I told you about Mozart’s starling, and the poem he wrote in its memory. Today, I’m going to tell you about music written by Georg Philipp Telemann for another departed avian friend. But first let me tell you about Telemann.
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was an über-prolific composer of the baroque period (over 3,000 compositions!). He was born in Magdeburg in what is now Germany. He was mainly self-taught and learned to play a wide variety of instruments, despite his family’s initial vehement opposition to a musical career.
Telemann was highly regarded, and held prominent music posts in Leipzig, Eisenach, Hamburg and other cities. He knew Bach and Handel, who bought and studied his works. He was godfather to Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Telemann was offered the music director post of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, which he declined; only then was it offered to Bach (after yet another candidate turned down the post).
In later centuries, criticism was leveled at Telemann for the sheer volume of music that he composed (accused of quantity over quality). It should be noted that during his time in Hamburg, he was required to produce two cantatas per Sunday, a passion per year, and other liturgical music as needed.
Now for the canary. While he was in Hamburg, a patron commissioned a cantata, a lament over the loss of a pet canary that had been killed by a cat. Telemann produced it straightaway, with the title Cantata of Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master. After wondering whether Telemann was being paid by the word, I listened to this unusual offspring among Telemann’s teeming brood.
It’s a tragic/comic lament. The bird’s owner describes his great pain at the bird’s loss, its great skill, and the terrible end it has come to. He expresses his anger at Death, for being unfeeling, and hopes that he will be torn up and burst from eating the bird (!). Finally, he sadly bids the bird a fond farewell, and reads the epitaph on the bird’s tombstone, which is written in dialect.
I found a video of this odd cantata, illustrated with apt photos, featuring none other than the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3—really, there are three parts). Here is a highlight, the aria Mein Kanarine, gute Nacht. A sweet song for a sweet songbird.
Image attribution: Georg Philipp Telemann Engraving by Georg Lichtensteger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_quartets#/media/File:Telemann3.jpg
Canary, by [No machine-readable author provided]. Muriel Gottrop~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACanary.jpg. Modified by C. Gallant.
Angel with harp. Jan Matejko, Church of St. Mary in Krakow, 1895. [Public domain] via Wikimedia