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A turbulent album of music written in the 1760s, when composers dramatically broke free from the superficial charms and gentilities of the mid-eighteenth century rococo …
Not surprisingly, the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement was mirrored in other art forms; the evocation of fear and terror was reflected in the fashion for storms and shipwrecks in paintings of the period by such artists as Joseph Vernet and Philip James de Loutherbourg, while in music there suddenly, and often quite independently, emerged a profusion of intensely dramatic and turbulent minor-key works. It is interesting to observe, however, that the most concentrated period of musical ‘Sturm und Drang’ actually predated the literary movement, suggesting less a conscious and deliberate ‘movement’ than a latent emotional mood. Indeed, it was perhaps inevitable and natural that there should at some point be a reaction to the superficial charm and gentility of the rococo style of the mid-eighteenth century.
This series of ‘Sturm und Drang’ recordings incorporates iconic compositions by Mozart, Gluck and, above all, Joseph Haydn, but it also includes largely forgotten or neglected works by less familiar names. The music featured on this disc was all composed in the 1760s. It includes ballet and opera as well as symphonies, but is drawn together by the hallmarks of the remarkably visceral and dynamic style of music that we now call ‘Sturm und Drang’.
Gluck Final scene from Don Juan
The finale of Gluck’s dramatic ballet Don Juan, ou Le festin de pierre, which depicts the Don’s terrifying but unrepentant descent to Hell, is often cited as the birth of musical ‘Sturm und Drang’. In practice, of course, such movements or trends are formed more gradually and organically, reflecting a general spirit or undercurrent of the time, but it is hard to underestimate the impact that this music must have made when it was premièred at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 17 October 1761.
This seminal event in musical and balletic history was recorded in the diary of the Viennese civil servant Count Karl von Zinzendorf (1739-1813), who wrote that 'the subject is excessively sad, lugubrious and frightening' before describing the finale as follows: 'Suddenly the infernal Underworld appears, the Furies dance with lit torches and torment Don Juan; in the background is seen a fine firework display, representing the flames of the inferno, and also Devils … [who] eventually carry Don Juan away and hurl him into a chasm of fire.' This startling scenography clearly demanded music of commensurate drama and intensity, and this is what Gluck provided.
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87) had begun his career in Italy, where he studied with Sammartini, and during the 1740s he had written operas for London, Dresden and Copenhagen as well as for Milan, Venice and Turin. Vienna had gradually become his professional centre of gravity, however, especially after his marriage to the sister-in-law of one of Empress Maria Theresa’s favourite councillors. Following his appointment as Kapellmeister to the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen and the arrival of Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-94) to run the two Viennese opera houses (the Burgtheater and the Kärntnertortheater), he had become an increasingly important figure in Viennese musical circles, and in 1758 he had assumed responsibility for writing opéras-comiques and ballets for both theatres.
In 1761 Durazzo introduced Gluck to Ranieri de’ Calzabigi (1714-95), a flamboyant writer and businessman who had just arrived in Vienna from Paris, and the ‘ballet pantomime’ Don Juan was their first collaboration; the following year they were to join forces on the celebrated ‘reform-opera’ Orfeo ed Euridice, an even more deliberate attempt to break the mould of musical history. The scenario of the Don Juan ballet was created by the ballet master at the Viennese court, Gasparo Angiolini (1731-1803), who also danced the title role, but perhaps the deepest influence on the work came from the French choreographer and theorist Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), whose Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets had been published the previous year. Noverre rejected technique for its own sake as worthless gymnastics, and asserted that dancers should express human passions and emotions capable of profoundly moving an audience. It was in the thrall of Noverre’s writings that Calzabigi, in the preface to Don Juan, described the new kind of ballet that he was seeking to create as 'a kind of declamation conceived for the eyes, the message made more apparent by means of music, which varies the sounds according to whether the mime intends to express love or hatred, fury or despair'.
The final scene of Angiolini’s scenario is set in a crypt containing the tomb of the military commander whom Don Juan has murdered, and portrays Furies rising up and engulfing the Don as an earthquake causes the site to collapse into ruins. The location is described as 'terrifying on account of the horror of the silence that reigns there', and Gluck’s opening larghetto plangently evokes this atmosphere with a gently undulating figure in the strings which is increasingly punctuated by strident outbursts depicting the spectral commander’s challenge and the Don’s steadfast refusal to apologise or repent. The inclusion of an alto trombone, an instrument which at the time was exclusively associated with church music, reinforces the sense of divine retribution while at the same time adding to the macabre other-worldliness of the music (Mozart was to borrow the same device a quarter of a century later for the equivalent scene in his Don Giovanni).
This leads directly into the famous 'Dance of the furies', in which trembling string unisons gradually build to a series of searing climaxes for the full orchestra, now including trumpets. The mood is relentlessly ominous and grim, propelled forward by dissonant screeches in the winds and virtuosically cascading scales in the strings before eventually subsiding from D minor to D major.
Jommelli 'Ombre che tacite qui sede' from Fetonte
Niccolò Jommelli was born in Aversa, near Naples, on 10 September 1714, and died in Naples itself on 25 August 1774. Largely forgotten now, he was one of the most successful composers of his day, composing some eighty operas between 1737 and 1774, and after his death the poet and composer Christian Schubart wrote:
Jommelli, the creator of a quite new taste, and certainly one of the foremost musical geniuses who has ever lived … opened up a path all of his own. His extremely passionate spirit looks out from all his compositions: fiery imagination, comparable inventiveness, great harmonic understanding, a wealth of melodic passages, bold, powerfully effective modulations, an inimitable instrumental accompaniment—these are the outstanding characteristics of his operas.
Having spent the early part of his career in Italy, writing operas for such important centres as Naples, Rome, Bologna and Venice (in 1749 he also spent time in Vienna, where he composed and premièred two operas), Jommelli rejected offers from the courts of Mannheim and Lisbon in 1753, and instead chose to become Kapellmeister to Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg in Stuttgart. Fetonte was the twenty-sixth of the twenty-seven operas that Jommelli composed for the Duke, and was premièred on 11 February 1768 at the newly built court theatre in Ludwigsburg. This had been inaugurated in 1765 and was one of the largest theatres in Europe. It was specifically designed to accommodate productions of great technical virtuosity and spectacle, and the choice and adaptation of libretti was accordingly geared towards this objective: Fetonte features an earthquake, a beautiful underwater palace which serves as a backdrop for a marine ballet, a chariot flying through the realms of the sun, and a battle scene which originally featured 341 soldiers and 86 horses.
The libretto of Fetonte was written by Jommelli’s long-term collaborator Mattia Verazi (c1730-1794), and was based on Philippe Quinault’s text for Lully’s 1683 opera Phaëton; this in turn was founded on the story of Phaeton as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Phaeton is the mortal son of Phoebus, the God of the Sun. Seeking to confirm his lineage, he visits his father and ill-advisedly persuades him to let him drive the sun-chariot for a day, but he soon loses control, causing the horses to veer from their path, scorching the earth, burning the vegetation and transforming much of Africa into desert; Jupiter is forced to intervene, striking Phaeton with a thunderbolt which causes him to fall into the sea to his death.
Jommelli’s progressive score marks the height of his experimental reaction against the rules and restrictions of traditional opera seria. The music has spectacular sweep and ambition, with the choruses and frequent ensembles in particular being treated with notable freedom and complexity, and the New Grove Dictionary of Opera asserts that the finale unfolds 'with a versatility unequalled before Mozart’s late operas'.
Phaeton’s final aria in Act Two is set in the gloomy sepulchres of the subterranean royal palace, with a grand vista stretching up beyond the highest mountain peaks to the realms of Phoebus. As Phaeton strives to overcome his terror and ascend the path to the heavens, Jommelli conjures music of eerie other-worldliness, its ghostly, macabre soundscape quite unlike anything else that was being written at the time.
Haydn 'Non v’è chi mi aiuta' from La canterina
The heightened intensity of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ style also made it vulnerable to being lampooned in comic opera, and Joseph Haydn, the greatest exponent of the style, was not averse to using it in this context. La canterina dates from 1766, and is the earliest of Haydn’s operas for which an almost complete score has survived (a very short section of the Act Two finale is missing). It is set firmly within the commedia dell’arte tradition, similar in both character and subject matter to Pergolesi’s pioneering La serva padrona of 1733, and is divided into two short parts—each containing two arias and a final quartet.
The plot revolves around the confidence trickster Gasparina, who along with her friend Apollonia—masquerading as her mother—persuades two gullible noblemen, Don Pelagio and Don Ettore, to part with their wealth and possessions. In the second part of the work, Don Pelagio, having unwittingly discovered their manipulative deception, instructs a bailiff to evict the two women, but Gasparina pleads for mercy and bursts into mock tears. The melodramatic aria that follows, intended to move the heart of her infuriated lover, burlesques the pathos of opera seria, and the comedy is heightened by her apparent sincerity. Haydn incorporates exactly the same colours and devices—the use of a minor key, insistent tremolos in the strings, wide leaps and sobbing sighs in the vocal line—that he employs in his genuine ‘Sturm und Drang’ works, and only the presence of quacking cors anglais in the orchestra betrays the aria’s comic essence.
Beck Symphony in G minor Op 3 No 3
Franz Ignaz Beck was born on 20 February 1734 in Mannheim, where his father was Rector of the choir school and an oboist at the Palatine court. Most of what we know about him comes from information recorded after his death, and there are numerous gaps in his biography, but we do know that as a child he studied with the celebrated Bohemian composer Johann Stamitz, who came to Mannheim in 1741 and whose symphonies established him at the forefront of what was then an embryonic musical form. The Elector Palatine Karl Theodor’s court seems to have recognised Beck’s early promise, and undertook responsibility for his education.
The date and circumstances surrounding Beck’s departure from Mannheim are uncertain. Several sources suggest that he went to Venice to study with Galuppi, but his student Blanchard also advanced the theory that he hurriedly fled Mannheim after a duel in which he had killed his opponent; further piquancy is added to the story by the assertion that in Paris many years later Beck encountered his supposed victim, who had actually feigned death as part of a malicious hoax.
Either way, we know that at some point in the 1750s Beck travelled to Italy, playing the violin in several of the leading cities and settling in Venice for several years before eloping to Naples with his employer’s daughter. In his mid-twenties he moved to Marseilles, where he became the leader of the theatre orchestra, and in the early 1760s he settled in Bordeaux, becoming organist at the church of Saint Seurin and music director of the theatre company that in 1780 was to move to the newly constructed Grand Théâtre. In the second half of his composing career he focused more on keyboard and sacred music, and he also established an excellent reputation as a teacher. Always his own man, he was brought to trial in his night-shirt during the French Revolution for mocking some over-zealous partisans of the new spirit, but he survived, composing some patriotic music to help his cause, and in 1803 the new government honoured him by appointing him correspondent of music composition for the Institut de France. He died in Bordeaux on New Year’s Eve 1809.
Beck’s twenty-four surviving symphonies were all published (in groups of six) within a decade in the early part of his career—Op 1 in 1758, Op 2 in 1760, Op 3 in 1762 and Op 4 in 1766. They are quirky and highly individual works, characterised by a volatility and unpredictability that look forward more to Beethoven than to Mozart or Haydn. This is exemplified by the extraordinary G minor symphony, Op 3 No 3, which despite being scored for only strings and a pair of horns has a power and intensity which might suggest a considerably later date of composition.
The opening allegro con spirito displays all the visceral hallmarks of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ style, with extreme contrasts of range, texture and dynamic. Beck controls and develops his motivic ideas with consummate skill and flair, and the music’s febrile intensity is unrelenting. Anguish gives way to pathos and resignation in the lilting andante un poco adagio that follows, the music tinged with an air of sorrowful reflection despite being set in the relative major key of B flat. The third-movement minuet returns to the home key of G minor, the sombre austerity briefly thrown into relief for the central ‘trio’ section in G major, and the work ends with an exhilarating presto in which first and second violins contend the opening theme with all the vigour and élan of a sword fight. These disputes are soon being waged fugally across the whole orchestra, and the music propels forward with a dizzying impetuosity. Towards the end, the tension is suddenly augmented by a whispered bass pedal of repeated pianissimo quavers on a low D, before the horns raucously launch us into a tempestuous final flurry.
Traetta 'Crudeli, fermate' and 'Sofonisba, che aspetti?' from Sofonisba
Under the patronage of the Elector Palatine Karl Theodor, the court orchestra at Mannheim rose during the mid-eighteenth century to become one of the most celebrated ensembles in Europe, memorably described by Charles Burney as 'an army of generals'. During the 1760s, following the assumption of the court poet and librettist Mattia Verazi as director of opera, the opera productions similarly began to build an international profile, and the first work to signal this new intent and quality was Traetta’s Sofonisba, which was premièred at the Hoftheater on 4 November 1762.
Tomasso Traetta (1727-79) had studied under Porpora and Durante in Naples, and during the early 1750s he had composed both serious and comic operas for Naples and Rome. During the course of these he had come into contact with Jommelli, for whose 1753 production of Ifigenia in Aulide in Naples he had contributed four arias. In 1758 he became court composer at Parma, where he came under the influence of the progressive intendant Guillaume du Tillot, and in addition to his commitments in Parma he began receiving important commissions elsewhere in Europe. These included Armida for Vienna in 1761 and Sofonisba for Mannheim the following year.
Verazi’s libretto for Sofonisba was closely based on the one written for Jommelli’s 1746 setting of the same story, and the title role provided an ideal showcase for Mannheim’s newly recruited prima donna, Dorothea Wendling (for whom Mozart was to write the role of Ilia in Idomeneo almost twenty years later). Sofonisba is married to Siface, the King of Numidia, who goes missing following a battle against the invading Roman army. Massinissa, one of Sofonisba’s former suitors, forcefully takes the opportunity to renew his advances, but in the opera’s centrepiece Siface suddenly appears at the altar to interrupt the imminent wedding of his wife to Massinissa. In a dramatic ‘scena’ of heightened intensity, Sofonisba rebukes herself and demands that she be put to death as punishment for her disloyalty.
Traetta’s music (set in G minor, the same key as Ilia’s tormented opening aria in Idomeneo) conveys her despair and self-castigation with breathless agitation, and on two occasions the score designates that the singer should give vent to her plight with an 'urlo francese' (‘a scream in the French manner’, unpitched and therefore musically un-notateable). This singular effect, reflecting a new-found ambition to push the boundaries of musical expression to the limits of human emotion, proved sufficient to bring short-term notoriety to both opera and singer. Traetta further enhances the dramatic realisation by breaking up Verazi’s text and constantly jumbling up the word order during the course of Sofonisba’s increasingly hysterical repetitions.
The dénouement of the opera is set in a room in the royal palace, with large curtained windows overlooking the port. Siface and Sofonisba have both now been captured by the Romans, and are preparing to be shipped to Rome to be exhibited as trophies of war. In her final monologue (Act 3, scene 10), daringly set by Traetta not as an aria but as an orchestrally accompanied recitative, Sofonisba despairingly confronts her fate. The curtains are suddenly drawn back to reveal chained Numidian prisoners being led onto the Roman ships in the background, a sort of eighteenth-century ‘March to the Scaffold’ accompanied by a hauntingly dispassionate offstage wind-band. As Roman soldiers prepare to lead her away, Sofonisba suddenly seizes a draught of poison and drinks it down in one.
This tragic ending was entirely out of keeping with the period’s traditional need for a happy ending, and it only escaped censorship because the heroine actually dies offstage rather than in view of the audience. The tragedy is subsequently intensified yet further when Sofonisba—too late—learns that the Roman senate has relented and decided to pardon both her and Siface.
Haydn Symphony No 49 in F minor 'La passione' Hob I:49
Haydn’s F minor symphony was composed in 1768, by which time he was firmly established as the head of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s musical retinue. It was one of Haydn’s most popular works during his lifetime—numerous eighteenth-century copies have survived from courts and monasteries across Europe—and it marks a significant bridge in the evolution of Haydn’s symphonic writing.
In addition to its spiritual proclivities, the F minor symphony is also one of the earliest of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, whose minor-key anguish and turbulence reflected the new trend for passionate subjectivity and emotional self-expression; it is now known that the accepted numbering system for Haydn’s symphonies is not entirely accurate, and No 49 actually predates by three or four years the two most celebrated of Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, Nos 44 and 45. This work stands alone, then, not just as the only one of Haydn’s ‘church-sonata’ symphonies set in a minor key but also as the only one of his ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies to begin with a slow movement.
This extraordinary opening adagio immediately taps into a rich and sombre vein of pathos which never relents during the course of the movement; even when the music modulates into the major it still has a tragic, portentous quality. There is no let-up to the intensity in the ensuing allegro di molto either, with its wide leaps and fiercely insistent bass-line, but despite the unbridled vehemence with which this music is unleashed, Haydn subtly maintains a stylistic unity, not only by retaining the ominous tonality of F minor but also by basing the first violins’ jagged leaps at the opening on the same three-note motif that has begun the symphony. Even the third-movement minuet, again in F minor and again founded on the same opening three-note figure, is dark-hued and elegiac, and indeed the trio offers the work’s only sustained major-key repose (although even this brief tranquillity features a particularly perilous high-lying horn part). The finale returns to the driving energy of the second movement, full of extreme dynamic contrast and feverish intensity as the music hurtles towards its dynamic conclusion.
Ian Page © 2020