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All of the music featured on this second volume (in a ground-breaking seven-part series) was composed between 1765 and 1770: iconic compositions by the leading composers of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement, alongside largely forgotten or neglected works by less familiar names.
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, though, 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. All of the music featured on this second recording in the series was composed between 1765 and 1770, with three turbulent minor-key symphonies alternating with sacred and operatic arias.
Haydn Symphony No 39 in G minor
We will probably never know the exact chronology and dating of all of Haydn’s symphonies. In the absence of precise information about many of the earlier symphonies in particular, much needs to be left to well-informed conjecture, and scholars continue to disagree and shift the emphasis of received opinion. The Symphony No 39 in G minor cannot be dated with any certainty, but is thought to have been written between May and September 1765, thus predating No 26 and making it the earliest of Haydn’s magnificent ‘Sturm und Drang’ minor-key symphonies.
Franz Joseph Haydn was born on 31 March 1732 in Rohrau, Lower Austria. In 1740 he went to Vienna, where he stayed for over twenty years, singing in the choir of St Stephen’s Cathedral until about 1749. In the late 1750s he received his first proper appointment, as music director to Count Morzin, and it was for Morzin’s small ensemble of musicians that he wrote his first fifteen or so symphonies.
On 1 May 1761 Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, the profligate Count Morzin having squandered his entire fortune and disbanded his orchestra. The Esterházys were the wealthiest and most influential family of the Hungarian nobility. Their main residence was in Eisenstadt—a small town twenty-six miles south-east of Vienna—and they had long been important patrons of culture and the arts. Although Prince Paul Anton died within a year of Haydn’s appointment, he was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus, who was an even more enthusiastic and accomplished musician than his brother. Nikolaus was to be an enlightened and inspirational benefactor for Haydn for the next twenty-eight years. Although the long-standing and rapidly ageing Kapellmeister Gregor Werner retained responsibility for the provision of church music until his death in 1766, Haydn was put in charge of all other musical activities and requirements, and had an outstanding orchestra at his disposal.
Little is known of Haydn’s daily routine during these early years in Eisenstadt, although his contract required him to appear at court every morning and afternoon to see if music was desired, and we also know that concerts were given regularly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Most of the music he composed between 1761 and 1765 was instrumental: approximately eighteen symphonies—beginning with the remarkable trilogy, Nos 6-8—nine or ten concertos, many of which are lost, and various divertimenti, minuets and other dances. If the Symphony No 39 is in many respects typical of the music of this period in Haydn’s career, it also marks an important and dynamic new departure.
It is clear from the very outset that this is to be no ordinary symphony. It starts in a hushed whisper—already a bold and highly unusual statement at the time—and the repeated quavers with which violas, cellos and double basses underpin the violins’ opening figure immediately generate a febrile and expectant intensity. The sense of disquiet is heightened by the interpolation of sudden silences, so that when the orchestra finally launches into a full forte it comes as an abrupt shock. In truth, Haydn had employed the same bag of tricks—playing with sudden contrasts, setting up and then quashing our expectations—to make many of his previous compositions so wonderfully impish, witty and unpredictable, but here these effects are focused almost exclusively on evoking a mood of brooding anxiety and unease.
The lilting andante that follows is set in the key of E flat major, but this only partially alleviates the tension of the opening movement. It is scored solely for strings, which for much of the time are divided into just two parts—a violin melody and an accompanying bass line; only in the final six bars does the texture extend into a full four parts, and even then it is tinged with an air of reflective regret.
With the ensuing minuet we are plunged back into the anguished pathos of G minor for another ‘valse triste’, full of chromatic conflict and wailing lament. Again a sense of loneliness and vulnerability is achieved through the angularity of the largely two-part texture, although oboes and horns are now reincorporated and the melody is enriched by having the 2nd violins doubling the 1st violins an octave lower. Brief respite is provided in the trio section, which slips into the major key and features some translucently high horn writing, but the finale returns to the restless intensity of the first movement, wide leaps, tremolando accompaniments, cascading scales and sudden dynamic contrasts all to the fore as the music hurtles towards a breathlessly agitated conclusion.
Gluck Two arias from Paride ed Elena
Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in Erasbach—a small village in mid-Bavaria—on 2 July 1714. His father, a forester in the service of minor nobility, attempted to suppress his burgeoning interest in music, as a result of which Gluck left home in his early teens, living in Prague for almost a decade. In 1737 he moved to Italy, becoming a member of Prince Antonio Melzi’s private orchestra in Milan and studying for three years with the celebrated composer Sammartini. It was here that he composed his first opera, in 1741, and over the next twenty years he wrote a further eighteen operas, many for theatres in Italy but others for cities as diverse as Dresden, London and Copenhagen. During the 1760s he became—by luck as much as by design—one of the primary figures in the reform movement of opera, seeking to achieve dramatic and emotional verisimilitude by placing his music directly at the service of the text. This represented a conscious attempt to replace the florid vocal excesses of the late baroque with a return to the naturalistic and poetic origins of opera; as Gluck himself wrote, 'I sought to restrict music to its true purpose of expressing the poetry, and reinforcing the dramatic situation without interrupting the action or hampering it with superfluous embellishments.'
Paride ed Elena was the third and final collaboration between Gluck and the librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, following Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Alceste (1767), and it was premiered at the Vienna Burgtheater on 3 November 1770. It was actually Calzabigi who was the main driving force behind many of the reforms for which Gluck became renowned, and the reforms themselves were not entirely new. They generally involved adopting French rather than Italian models, and included giving priority to the concept of the scene rather than individual numbers, the rejection of the ‘da capo’ arias beloved by Italian opera seria, the use of orchestral accompaniment throughout (rather than ‘secco’ recitative), and the rejection of empty virtuosity in the vocal writing.
Paride ed Elena has perhaps languished in the shadow of its two predecessors, and Gluck himself acknowledged that it lacked the 'tragic situations' of those operas, but it contains some exquisite music. According to Homer, it was the love of Paride (Paris), a Trojan, for Elena (Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta and allegedly the most beautiful woman in the world) that prompted the Trojan Wars. Gluck and Calzabigi’s opera disregards the political framework and presents a simple love story, focusing almost exclusively on the two main protagonists (as had also been the case in Orfeo ed Euridice). Gluck achieved musical variety by creating highly contrasted sound worlds between the Trojans and the Spartans, and between Paris’ ardent protestations of love and Helen’s coolness and severity.
At the beginning of the opera, Paris and his followers have just landed on the shore of Sparta, and in the aria O del mio dolce ardor he sings of his joy and relief that he can at last breathe the same air as Helen.
In the second of the opera’s five acts, set in a hall of the royal palace of Sparta, Paris finally meets Helen and presents her with gifts. There is an immediate chemistry between the couple, but Helen defensively feigns indifference. Left alone, Paris bemoans his apparent lack of success in the aria Le belle immagini d’un dolce amore, drawing comfort only from the fact that Venus, the Goddess of Love, has pledged her support to him. Gluck’s music is masterful in the way it simultaneously evokes Paris’ nobility and his fragility, his uncertainty and his constancy.
Vanhal Symphony in D minor
Johann Baptist Vanhal (or Wanhal, as he himself spelt it) was born in Nechanice, Bohemia on 12 May 1739 and died in Vienna on 20 August 1813. Despite his humble background he showed early promise on the violin and the organ, and in 1760 or 1761 the Countess Schaffgotsch took him to Vienna as a musician within her personal retinue. Here he studied with his exact contemporary Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf and established himself as a teacher to the high nobility, as a result of which he was invited to perform his symphonies to such patrons as Count Erdődy and Baron von Riesch of Dresden. In 1769 the latter sponsored Vanhal to travel to Italy, where he spent a year in Venice before visiting Bologna (where he met the celebrated teacher Padre Martini), Florence and Rome among other cities. While in Italy he met Gluck and Gassmann, two of his fellow Bohemian composers, but he only wrote (or contributed towards) two operas, both of which are lost.
On his return to Vienna in September 1770 Vanhal was to have moved to Dresden to become Kapellmeister to Baron von Riesch, but in the event mental illness seems to have prevented him from taking up the appointment, and he remained in the Habsburg capital instead. Later in the 1770s he spent time in Hungary and Croatia, where he visited the estates of Count Erdődy, but in about 1780 he moved back to Vienna, remaining there for the rest of his life. The colourful memoirs of the Irish tenor Michael Kelly famously describe a gathering in the mid-1780s at which Vanhal, Haydn, Mozart and Dittersdorf played string quartets together.
Vanhal was one of the most prolific and respected symphonists of the eighteenth century. His earliest works spread throughout Europe in manuscript and printed copies, and by 1800 their popularity had reached the USA. Contemporary accounts of his output list over seven hundred works, including a hundred symphonies, and manuscript sources are even more numerous, although authorship is often difficult to prove. As a result we will probably never know the exact number of symphonies that he composed, and accurate dating of composition is no less problematic. The musicologist Paul Bryan has done valuable work in this regard, and he has suggested that the first of Vanhal’s two D minor symphonies was 'probably composed a few years before 1771', the year in which it was cited in the supplement to the catalogue of the celebrated publishing house Breitkopf.
Vanhal composed more minor-key symphonies than any other eighteenth-century composer, and he was evidently influenced by Haydn long before they spent the evening playing string quartets together. His G minor symphony (g2) in particular owes a clear debt to the Haydn G minor symphony featured on this recording, while the fact that his D minor symphony (d1) was subsequently (and illicitly) printed by leading publishers in Paris, London and Amsterdam following its publication by Breitkopf is testament to its quality and popularity. Its first movement launches headlong into the dramatic, visceral style of the ‘Sturm und Drang’, and there is virtually no let-up to the music’s forward thrust and momentum. As in Haydn’s G minor symphony the orchestra is augmented to include four horns, two of which are tuned to play in the home minor key and two in its relative major, and this adds to the pungent intensity and power of the music.
The tranquil second movement, by contrast, is like a serene opera aria, with bucolic flutes replacing the oboes, an effect which is repeated in the trio of the ensuing movement, while the finale returns to the wild and tempestuous energy of the opening, with dashing string figurations propelling the work to a dizzying climax.
Haydn 'Fac me vere tecum flere' from Stabat mater
Haydn’s setting of the Stabat mater, which he composed in 1767, is relatively rarely performed nowadays, but during his lifetime it became one of his most popular and widely disseminated works, performed on a regular basis both in its liturgical context and in the concert hall. It was published no fewer than three times—in London in 1784, Paris in 1785 and Germany in 1803—and contemporaneous manuscript copies survive in France, Holland, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and South America.
The Stabat mater dolorosa is a thirteenth-century prayer, written in the first-person singular, expressing a deeply felt compassion for the mother of Christ as she stands by the cross on which her son hangs. Haydn would have been familiar with the famous setting by Pergolesi (1736) and probably also with that by Alessandro Scarlatti (1724), and as a boy chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna he would have sung the version by Palestrina, which dates from the late sixteenth century.
In its liturgical context the Stabat mater was designed to be performed on Good Friday and on the Feast of the Seven Sorrows in September, and Haydn’s setting would first have been performed at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt on one of these two days in 1767. Haydn was seemingly pleased with the work, for he sent a score to the composer Johann Adolph Hasse, an act which the following year led to him requesting a brief leave of absence from his duties in Eisenstadt to supervise a performance of the work in Vienna. 'You will recall', he wrote, 'that last year I set to music with all my might the highly esteemed hymn called Stabat mater, and that I sent it to the great Hasse, celebrated across the world, with no intention other than that, in case in one or two places I had not adequately set words of such great import, this lack could be rectified by a master so successful in all forms of music. Contrary to my merits, however, this unique artist honoured the work with inexpressible praise, and wished nothing more than to hear it performed with the good players it requires.'
The work was duly given its Viennese premiere at the church of the Barmherzige Brüder in March 1768, and a second Viennese performance was mounted at the Piaristenkirche in March 1771. In 1803 Haydn supervised a performance of the piece at Eisenstadt for which his student Sigismund Neukomm provided additional parts for flute, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani. The original setting of the work, however, was scored for an orchestra of just two oboes and strings—alongside the choir and four vocal soloists—and it gains immeasurably from the resultant intimacy and introspection.
Haydn’s thirteen movements are carefully constructed to alternate five choruses with seven solo arias and a duet, but the monothematic nature of the text means that he is less able to create contrasts of tonality and tempo. Six movements are set entirely in a minor key, as is the opening section of the final chorus, while eight of the movements have slow tempo markings, ranging from Andante to Largo assai. One of the most expressive and heartfelt numbers in the work is the aria 'Fac me vere tecum flere'—set in G minor and tellingly marked Lagrimoso—in which the accompanying violins interweave empathetically with the long-spun vocal line while oboes wail dolorously above a throbbing bass-line. The results make one wonder what the results might have been had Haydn, like his younger brother Michael, composed a Requiem.
Mysliveček 'Tu mi disprezzi, ingrato' from Semiramide
Josef Mysliveček was born near Prague on 9 March 1737, and died in Rome on 4 February 1781. He was one of very few composers whose music Mozart admired, and one of even fewer foreign composers who enjoyed sustained success and popularity in Italy. In addition to oratorios, symphonies, concertos and chamber works he composed some twenty-five operas, of which Semiramide was the first. He initially trained in his father’s profession as a miller, and achieved the rank of master miller in 1761. Throughout his childhood, though, he had displayed a particular talent for music and mathematics, and in 1763, following the success of his early instrumental works in Prague, he moved to Italy, where he is thought to have studied with Giovanni Battista Pescetti in Venice.
Reports that Mysliveček composed an opera for Parma in 1764 are almost certainly false, and Semiramide is therefore believed to be his first opera. It was based on a libretto by Metastasio which had originally been created for an opera by Vinci in 1729; it had since been set by more than twenty other composers, including Porpora, Jommelli, Hasse and Gluck. Mysliveček’s setting was first performed at the Teatro di Cittadella in Bergamo as part of the town’s 1766 summer fair, and it was soon revived at the Teatro Guasco in Alessandria on 7 October 1766, in Parma (date unknown), and in Prague in 1768 and 1769. The original cast included Caterina Galli in the title role, Antonio Pini as Ircano, Marianna Bucinelli as Tamiri and the castrato Adamo Solzi as Mirteo. All four of these singers reprised their role in the Alessandria performance.
Even by operatic standards the plot of Semiramide is remarkably tortuous. The Indian prince Scitalce and the Egyptian princess Semiramide have fallen in love and eloped, but when he is duped by Sibari, a rival with his own amorous designs on the Egyptian princess, into believing Semiramide to be unfaithful, Scitalce tries to kill his beloved in a fit of fury. Semiramide survives the attempt, however, and subsequently marries the King of Assyria, Nino. Upon Nino’s death, she disguises herself as their son and heir, also called Nino, and in this guise she assumes the throne. This extraordinary sequence of events has all taken place before the opera begins.
At the start of the first of the opera’s three acts, Tamiri, a princess from Bactria, is due to choose a consort from three suitors who have arrived in Babylon to advance their claims—one of whom is Scitalce. When Scitalce and Semiramide first see each other among the assembled company—he a suitor to Tamiri, she disguised as the King of Assyria—they immediately recognise one another, but they are unable to reveal the truth or indeed to talk in private. When Tamiri chooses Scitalce to be her consort, however, he swiftly rejects the invitation. She turns furiously on him in a dynamic G minor aria, and in the contrasting middle section she challenges other suitors to avenge her humiliation.
J C Bach Symphony in G minor
Johann Christian Bach was born in Leipzig on 5 September 1735, the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Following his father’s death in 1750 he went to live in Berlin with his half-brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was twenty-one years older and a musician at the court of Frederick the Great, and here he also came into contact with the music of such eminent composers as Johann Joachim Quantz, whose famous treatise was published in 1752, and Carl Heinrich Graun, who had seven operas premiered there between 1750 and 1754, including Mitridate (December, 1750), Orfeo (March, 1752) and Silla (March, 1753). Carl Philipp Emanuel, however, had never enjoyed good relations with the King, and he was seriously considering leaving Berlin. Furthermore, the political situation was uncertain, with the Seven Years’ War looming, so it was a logical decision for Johann Christian to move to Italy in 1754 to continue his apprenticeship.
There he studied in Bologna with the famous composition teacher Padre Martini, and secured a patron in Milan, Count Agostino Litta. These two influences seemed set to steer Bach towards a career in church music, and in June 1760 he was appointed as one of two organists at Milan Cathedral, but his introduction to Italian opera in Milan and Naples was to transform his musical outlook and ambition. The first three of his eleven operas were written in Italy, and their success led to an invitation to write two works for the King’s Theatre in London.
He arrived in the English capital in the summer of 1762 as 'Mr John Bach, a Saxon Master of Musick', and spent the majority of his remaining years there. His first London opera, Orione, was premiered on 19 February 1763, and his second, Zanaida, on 7 May of the same year. Both were resounding successes, and later that year he was appointed music master to George III and Queen Charlotte. His next and arguably greatest opera, Adriano in Siria, was first performed in January 1765, and the young Mozart almost certainly attended a performance.
In London Bach met his compatriot Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), who had arrived there in 1759, and in 1765 the two composers set up the famous Bach-Abel concert series at Carlisle House, Soho Square. These concerts featured numerous works by both composers—not only symphonies but also concertos and chamber works—and they also brought much new music by Italian, French and German composers to England for the first time. The concerts transferred to Almack’s Assembly Rooms in King Street in 1768, and then to the Hanover Square Rooms in 1775.
The six symphonies of Op 6, which would all have been premièred at these concerts, were published in 1770, and the G minor symphony which concludes the set is one of Bach’s greatest, and his only one written in a minor key. In its scale it is similar to his other symphonies, its three short movements reminding us that the symphony as a form originally derived from the Italian opera overture, but the work’s content and originality mark it out as one of the most significant in the remarkable sequence of G minor symphonies emanating from this period.
The opening allegro hurls us headlong into the wild energy and vigour of the ‘Sturm und Drang’, full of jagged unisons, wide leaps and rapid repetitions, while the second movement is also set in a minor key, C minor; it is dominated by a sombre unison figure reminiscent of those which open Mozart and Beethoven’s subsequent piano concertos in the same key. The finale returns to the febrile intensity of the first movement, again dominated by tremolos, leaps and dynamic extremes, before the storm subsides as abruptly as it had begun, suddenly decaying into silence.
Ian Page © 2020