Popma van Oevering, Carbonelli and the Allure of Obscurity

Back in the 1980s, I befriended the matriarch of a prosperous Cincinnati family. Helen was in her nineties and in the 1920s she had studied music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Helen had numerous tales of how cruel Bertha Baur – the head of the Conservatory – was, echoing similar stories that I’d heard from a later student of that same institution, composer Conlon Nancarrow.

Helen was a pioneer in the then new field of elementary level Music Appreciation – remnants of which still existed when I was in the third grade, but since have become extinct – and worked with special needs children. The Great Depression hit her hard, but she married well, and moved into a long life of family and no more need to teach to get by.

The author, Uncle Dave Lewis, at some serious juncture in the late 1980s. Photo: Nebulagirl

One night – over the invariable and invariably delicious meal of chicken and rice casserole prepared by Helen’s maid, Pauline – I distinctly remember a discussion with Helen over the relative value of forgotten classical composers. “Doesn’t most music deserve to be forgotten?” she asked. “Isn’t it the natural order of things that there are great composers who write music which is remembered, and that the rest of it just falls away, not worthy enough to be heard again?” I suspect that my expression was as deadly serious as in the photo taken of me by Nebulagirl at about that same time when I said, “Not necessarily. Many significant figures in music have been left in the dustbin of history without just cause, and it is both right and just to revive their music when somehow their contributions and significance are newly known.”

I suspect that my expression was as deadly serious as in the photo taken of me by Nebulagirl at about that same time when I said, “Not necessarily. Many significant figures in music have been left in the dustbin of history without just cause, and it is both right and just to revive their music when somehow their contributions and significance are newly known.”

The expression that Helen returned to me was both amused and bemused. I imagine she thought “This kid is so confident; how could he know just how much useless junk that there is?” Helen would’ve survived the era of Streabbog, Kullak and August Spindler, composers that produced pieces in the thousands only to serve the purpose of teaching those little fingers to play. Helen has long gone on to her reward, but looking back at our conversation, I sometimes wonder if I was as ‘right’ as I was ‘serious.’

So naturally, it is with some reluctance that I approach discussing the music of Reijnold Popma van Oevering (1692-1781) and Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli (1694-1773). Both have new releases on the Aeolus and Delphian labels respectively, as done by first class musicians; Popma van Oevering by the redoubtable Baroque keyboard specialist Bob van Asperen and Carbonelli performed by violinist Bojan Cicic with The Illyria Ensemble. Both composers are only known by one set of works.

Bob Van Asperen

Despite living to the age of 89 – an eternity in an age where the average life expectancy was only 35 years – Reijnold Popma van Oevering is only known for six suites published in Amsterdam around 1710, when he would’ve been about 17 or 18 years old. What did he do with all of that additional time? Popma van Oevering was an expert at organ and carillon building, repair and installation; he was also a conductor and choral director whose psalm settings are lost to us.

Bob van Asperen was once an assistant to the great Gustav Leonhardt, and under van Asperen’s hands, the Popma van Oevering Suites become dazzling and incredibly complicated pieces that really deserve to be heard more than one time to be appreciated. Van Asperen insists that Johann Sebastian Bach would have known the Popma van Oevering publication and drew its influence into his own French and English Keyboard Suites of the 1720s, quite a claim for a provincial Dutch composer.

Although he didn’t live quite to 89 years, Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli was an Italian violinist that may, or may not have, studied with Arcangelo Corelli, the father of the Italian Concerto. While missing works of Popma van Oevering may yet turn up somewhere in a dusty corner of a library or attic, Carbonelli’s Six Suonate de Camera, published in London in 1729, appear to be “it;” the only musical works we are likely to hear from him, all others being unknown or lost.

After 1730 Carbonelli took up a different line of work, that of wine merchant — by the 1750s he was the main supplier of wines to the Royal Court. One may speculate as to whether the quality of the libations Carbonelli provided to George III contributed in some way to his mental condition, but I digress. Carbonelli’s sonatas are incredibly fleet and busy with a lot to do for the violinist, and Bojan Cicic is more than adequate to the task at hand. This Delphian release is the said to be the first in a series of releases by The Illyria Consort that will expose little known eighteenth-century works of this kind.

In a purely instrumental sense, both releases are quite impressive, though they do more to celebrate the talents of the players – van Asperen and Cicic – than they serve to promote the cause of these composers. As to Popma van Oevering’s possible impact on J.S. Bach, it should come as no surprise that there were many little streams flowing into Bach’s ‘brook,’ as he may have been the most well-read musician of his time in regard to his predecessors and contemporaries.

Once I pointed out to a professor — and a foremost expert on the subject of Bach’s most famous son, Carl Philipp Emanuel – some structural commonalities between Christoph Graupner’s Monatliche Clavier Früchte and J.S. Bach’s French Suites. Words cannot express how completely underwhelmed this professor was with my ‘discovery.’ And as a listener I have to consider whether Carbonelli’s sonatas, as fine as they are, really do for me what Antonio Vivaldi’s Manchester Sonatas achieve. Though some disagree, I feel that Vivaldi’s sense of taste and musical individuality was equal to his matchless ability as a player, and I’m not so sure that Carbonelli is quite in the same league.

Nevertheless, both discs provide rewarding sidelights on differing aspects of the Baroque era, and some good listening. My only reservation is that in saying so I feel a little of the glare of Helen’s wry and wizened smile beaming down upon me from the beyond. And perhaps it will always be so.

Reijnold Popma van Oevering: Suittes voor’t Clavier
Bob Van Asperen
Aeolus Records

Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli: Sonate de Camera Nos. 1-6
Bojan Cicic, The Illyria Consort
Delphian Records

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present a selection of music from these album on the upcoming episode of The Early Music Show to air October 2, 2017.

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