A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Cité de la Musique Part 3

18 March 2011 

(Read Part 1)

(Read Part 2)

Model of the Cité de la Musique with its auditorium


We rushed across the plaza to the museum, ran through the gift shop and down the stairs to the Amphithéâtre and produced our tickets.   Soon we were at ease in a very comfortable, modern hall.

This concert was part of a series:  “Musique des Lumières — Le triomphe de la raison,” (Music of the Enlightenment — The Triumph of Reason) and tonight’s concert was entitled, “Musique á la cour de Frédéric II” (Music at the Court of Frederick II).  While waiting for the concert to start, we read the program and took in the setting.  This audience tended to be fairly young (i.e., Conservatoire students) and intelligent looking:  quiet confidence, studied casualness;  the stage, done in a sort of post-modern pastiche.

I then noticed that the program featured works exclusively by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  After looking at today’s date on the program, I was struck with the realization that, on this exact same date last year, I happened to have been at the court of Frederick the Great at Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam — the theme of this concert program.  (Technically, I didn’t just ‘happen to be there’; I did in fact plan to be there and was there, but it was the date that was coincidentally the same.)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88), was Johann Sebastian’s fifth child and third son.  He was left-handed, studied law at university in Frankfurt (that’s an der Oder, not am Main), and almost single-handedly (I’m not sure which hand) introduced sonata form.  He is also author of Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments).  In 1740 C.P.E. became cembalist (keyboard player) to Friedrich der Große, König der Preußen (that’s Frederick the Great).

By 1747 Fred was growing tired of the Berlin scene and needed an escape valve installed, so he had a rococo palace built to his own design in Potsdam, which he called, Francophile that he was, Sanssouci (French for  “without care”): replete with marble from Carrara, stucco work, gilded wood, ceiling frescoes, and canvases by Watteau. He even had Voltaire installed there for a while. 


Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam, Germany


The king can be seen playing the flute, accompanied by C.P.E. Bach, in Adolph Menzel’s painting, Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci (Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci).  The audience in the painting includes Johann Joachim Quantz, Frederic’s flute teacher and court composer.


Adolph Menzel (1815–1905):  Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci (Flute Concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci; 1850–1852; Alte Nationalgalerie [Old National Gallery, Berlin]). Frederick the Great is at center with his flute; his flute teacher Johann Joachim Quantz is at the far right; and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is at the keyboard.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


One of the king’s musicians observed that Frederick loved music as long as it was flute music, and that — as long as it was his own flute.  It is also recorded that Frederick put mustard in his coffee.  This may be important to understand, as I’ll explain.  Anyway, Frederick had a court band that would travel to Sanssouci with him, and in addition to J.S. Bach’s son C.P.E., Quantz worked for him, composing more than 300 flute concertos for Frederick the Great to play.  Unfortunately, at a certain point the king 1) lost his teeth, and with them, 2) his ability to play flute, and soon thereafter, 3) the band was dis (er, disbanded).  Here is my theory: it was the mustard in the coffee that did his teeth in.

There is another interesting musical connection with Frederick the Great, if I may take a tangent off the one we are already traveling on.  In 1747, when J.S. Bach was visiting in Berlin (presumably to visit his son), he was invited to Potsdam by Frederick the Great to try out the latest Silbermann pianofortes.  At that time Bach was given a musical subject composed by the king (or, quite likely one of his court composers) on which to improvise, and of course he did so quite well.  But then Bach took the subject home with him and really performed some tricks with it, sending the package to the king, and calling it Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering).

The work includes two ricercari, one fugue, one trio sonata, and nine canons, all based on the king’s theme.  A canon is much like a round (like Frère Jacques, for example), only there are a few more details, and to perform the canon, these details must be discovered. It is something along the lines of a musical crossword puzzle. One of the canons, “Canon a 2 per tonos,” to be performed correctly must modulate up one step with each repetition. Its label gives the clue: “As the modulation rises, so let the king’s fame.”  (If you were German you might say, Er weis, wo Barthel den Most holt — “He knows where Bartholomew gets the cider,” or in other words, which side his bread is buttered on.)  A pupil of Bach’s — Johann Philipp Kirnberger — who was also violinist with Frederick the Great, worked multiple solutions to these canons.

More recently, Douglas Hofstadter, a professor at Indiana University, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, included an entire chapter in crab canon, of course, on one of Bach’s canons and an etching by Escher called (what else?) Crab Canon.  Both Escher’s and Bach’s works are palindromes, running the same forwards and backwards, like “race car,” “tango gnat,” “reward drawer,” or “Yreka bakery” (which, unfortunately after trying to find it, I  discovered that this masterpiece of a palindrome had gone out of business a few years ago).  Hofstadter pointed out that such mirror symmetry is evident in a crab’s genes;  when the two DNA strands are unraveled and laid out side by side they read:


. . . T T T T T T T T T C G A A A A A A A A A . . .

. . . A A A A A A A A A G C T T T T T T T T T . . .


In molecular biology such segments of DNA are called, yes, “palindromes.”

Well, back to the concert at Cité de la Musique.  Soon the musicians took the stage.  Intriguingly, our having earlier in the day visited a museum dedicated to Polish expats (Musée Adam Mickiewicz), the ensemble tonight hails from Poznan, Poland — despite their Italian name, Arte dei Suonatori.  Aureliusz Golinski, first violin, is the putative director of the conductor-less chamber ensemble.  However, tonight they were conducted with a stick much larger than a baton — a flute, in fact — by the dynamic Alexis Kossenko. 

Born in Nice, Kossenko attended the Conservatoire de Paris (right next door to where this concert was taking place) and then went on to the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam.  He is in his thirties, but plays instruments of much older vintage:  Baroque flute, flûte à bec and traverso flute, as well as modern flute.  He performs throughout Europe, and as in the case of this concert, conducts and tours with the Arte dei Suonatori.

The ensemble, which consists of nine strings (33111) plus harpsichord (continuo), has recorded several CDs.  Tonight’s works by CPE Bach alternated three flute concertos (Wg 168, 13, and 22) and two symphonies (Wg 177u and 182/5).  Kossenko was soloist and/or conductor for each piece.

Each performance was one of startling clarity, precision, intonation, nuance, and quite simply, the ensemble played as one.  Kossenko performed on the flute with flair, dynamic intensity, and accuracy that was to be admired.  My initial reaction to his conducting underwent a sudden, positive reversal.  My first thoughts, unreasoned or perhaps hastily deduced, were that he was affected and over-stylized.  But on reflection I concluded that what he was doing was  . . . new and vital!

He would wave his hands like soaring birds, or as if totally immersed in waves of water — it was vividly potent.  He lived the music in front of both audience and performer, and the latter reified his movements with celerity.  While the performances of both symphonies were superlative, the true test of Kossenko’s conducting technique came with the concertos.  A perfect “before-and-after” study would be evidenced when, while Kossenko performed the solo part on the flute and the orchestra under the guidance of the concert master sounded already majestic, a break would come in the solo part and he would turn around and face the orchestra, conducting flute-in-hand:  then the music became rapturous.


The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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