Johann Christoph Pezel
Johann Christoph Pezel lived most of his life in Leipzig, more than a generation before Bach lived there. There were at least two tiers of civic town musicians in Pezel’s Leipzig: the Kunstgeiger (fiddlers) and the Stadtpfeifer (pipers). As you might expect, the pipers specialized in wind instruments, but to get a job with them you had to be proficient on multiple instruments like trumpet, trombone, shawms, dulcians, and cornetti, as well as be able to cover parts on string instruments in a pinch.
Like Stadpfiefer, Kunstgeigeren played all the instruments but their line of work consisted mostly of string playing, except when called in as substitutes for the pipers. The fiddlers were subordinate to the pipers, who were higher up on the working musicians food chain. Pipers were better paid by the city, and besides that, got first choice of freelance gigs. But prove yourself as a good apprentice, and a Kunstgeiger could expect a promotion into the Stadtpfeifer.
This turned out to be the case for Pezel, who was hired in 1664 as fourth fiddler in Leipzig. But as hoped, in due time, Pezel, who was also apparently a very capable trumpeter, earned promotion to Stadtpfeifer. The appointment ensured Pezel lifetime tenure, free housing, and tax exempt earnings.
As a Stadtpfeifer, Pezel was in charge of the daily performances from the city tower, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 6 p.m. If you’re already familiar with Pezel’s name, it’s probably for his two published collections of “tower-music” for the five-part wind ensembles that were characteristic of these performances. A lot of music from these collections has been arranged and is performed today by modern brass quintets.
Opus Musicum Sonatarum
But it’s another of Pezel’s collections, his Opus Musicum Sonatarum, that we’ll focus on today.
This set of twenty-four sonatas and a closing ciacona for two violins, three violas (or viols, perhaps), bassoon or violone, and and basso continuo is grouped by key and follows the sequence of the circle of fifths. Each of the sonatas are furthermore named after a mythological character, or a city, or a Roman festival, and then arranged in alphabetical order.
A is for Abella, B is Baccha, C is for Cadmea and so on. (Letters I and U are left out of the sequence.) The titles evoke a sort of whimsical nature–personalities for each name brought out by the character of the music.
The ensemble ACRONYM presents all of Pezel’s roll call, on a 2014 New Focus recording of these “Alphabet Sonatas.” There’s Dejanira and Ebura…and there’s Laconia, Macra, and Nabathea…Octavia, Padusa, and Quinquatria to boot! It’s a recording that spans two discs, all the way to Xantippea, Yvana, and Zacchantea.