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Day of judgment

A little-known work by Telemann,
appreciated by REX HARLEY


One of life's great pleasures is being introduced to a work of art that knocks you off your feet; and it can happen at any moment. The older you are, the greater the accompanying sense of shock. How was it possible that something so remarkable had remained beyond your vision or hearing for so long? This was exactly what happened when, in my late forties, a good friend played me Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recording of Telemann's Das Tag des Gerichts (The Day of Judgment). Here was a piece which clearly ranked with the greatest works of the Baroque. Not that his contemporaries would have been surprised: during his lifetime Telemann was regarded as the pre-eminent German composer. For us, that honour goes almost without question to Bach. 'Telemann's works are more light-hearted and accessible ...' as a current Encyclopaedia of Music puts it. In other words, he's a light-weight compared with the Cantor of Leipzig. Ah, the dubious pleasures of pigeon-holing!

Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Photo © Harry Schiffer
Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Photo © Harry Schiffer

The newspaper announcement of the first performance described Das Tag des Gerichts as a 'poem for singing full of strong emotions', and, in its understated way, this goes to the heart of the piece. The text, by Pastor Christian Wilhelm Alers, a one-time pupil of the composer, consists of a series of four 'reflections'. In the first, the opening words, spoken by a group of believers, tells us simply but disturbingly: 'The Lord is coming with many thousand of the blessed to sit in judgment on us all.' This provokes the figure of Unbelief into a diatribe against superstition until he, in turn, is silenced by Reason and her helpmeet, the Mocker. At last, Religion herself enters and concludes the argument with:

Ein Tag der Schrecken bricht herein,
von Gnade voll und schwer von Pein;
zum Fluche dem, der Gott geflucht,
und seinen Gläubigen zum Heile.

('A day of dread, full of mercy
and heavy with pain, overtakes
with damnation him whom God has cursed,
with salvation his faithful.')

The Believers, thus vindicated, then restate the opening premise in suitably triumphalist terms. In the Second Reflection, as a prelude to the final judgment, the elements rage and the world is ravaged in scenes which pressage the reward of the damned:

Wie fürchterlich die wilden Flammen knittern!
Meer, Himmel, Erd' und Luft sind Glut.

('How fearfully the wild flames crackle!
Sea, sky, earth and air are aflame.')

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Copyright © 18 July 2004 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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