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A swift kick to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’

Jonathan Swift.

Jonathan Swift.

On Oct. 31 at First Church in Boston, violinists Dorian Komanoff Bandy and Emily Dahl will perform Georg Philipp Telemann’s Intrada-Suite based on “Gulliver’s Travels.” Complete with a “Lilliputian Chaconne” and a “Brobdingnagian Gigue” (notated in comically small and large note-values, respectively), Telemann’s suite — published in 1728, just two years after the book appeared — was savvy marketing on the part of the composer, jumping on the bandwagon of an instant bestseller.

The Suite would have meant little to the book’s author: Jonathan Swift hated music. He rarely went to concerts (or, when he did, made a show of leaving; a half-hour into one program, he boasted, he “stole out so privately that every body saw me”). He decried music, especially sacred music, as excessively sensual and irrational — “Cant and Droning supply the Place of Sense and Reason.” He wrote a St. Cecilia’s Day ode mocking that annual musical tribute to the patron saint of music: “To act such an opera once in a year / Is offensive to every true Protestant ear.” He even recruited a composer, John Echlin, to set a nonsensical lampoon “Cantata” of Swift’s own devising, “shiv’ring” and “quiv’ring” through ostentatious tremolos, “lolloping, galloping” in clichéd triple-time, culminating in a brief refrain of “Bo peep bo peep bo peep bo peep peep bo bo peep.”

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It was some sort of divine jest, then, that, upon his appointment as Dean of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Swift found himself in charge of one of the most highly regarded and well-funded church music programs in the British Isles. Nevertheless, in spite of his antipathy to music — or, perhaps, because of it — Swift kept close tabs on his choir. “Dirty and indecent in his dress,” he scolded one chorister; another was “Daily losing his voice by intemperance.”

Swift’s discipline was effective. St. Patrick’s maintained such a musical reputation that George Frederic Handel recruited the choir to sing in the 1742 premiere performances of his “Messiah.” But when Swift found out about it, he characteristically fumed, condemning the musicians for “the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude.”

Early Music Thursdays at First Church Boston presents Dorian Komanoff Bandy, baroque violin, assisted by baroque violinist Emily Dahl, Oct. 31, 12:15 p.m., donations accepted. www.firstchurchboston.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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