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Three viscerally dramatic orchestral works frame two operatic rarities in The Mozartists’ latest foray into the artistic maelstrom of the 1770s and ’80s.
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 third volume of The Mozartists’ ‘Sturm und Drang’ series features works by Paisiello, Schweitzer and Haydn dating from the early 1770s and by Mozart and Kozeluch dating from the late 1780s, and as with the previous releases it combines dramatic minor-key orchestral works with emotionally intense operatic scenes.
Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546
Despite its brevity and the simplicity of its scoring, the Adagio and Fugue for strings is one of Mozart’s most powerful and extraordinary compositions. The fugue is actually an exact transcription of the Fugue for two pianos, K426, which he had written in 1783, and when he entered the finished work into his catalogue of compositions, on 26 June 1788, he described it as 'a short Adagio for a fugue which I had already written a long time ago'. The work is often performed by string quartets, but the presence of an occasionally independent double-bass part suggests that the composer intended the work for a full string ensemble.
Encouraged by the Viennese court administrator Baron Gottfried van Swieten, whose vast music library contained many scores from the first half of the eighteenth century, Mozart became increasingly interested in Baroque music during the 1780s (at a time when it was still unusual to perform music by composers of the past). 'Every Sunday at midday,' he wrote in a letter dated 10 April 1782, 'I go to Baron van Swieten’s, where no music is played other than that of Handel and Bach', and it was at van Swieten’s instigation that Mozart subsequently made arrangements of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Messiah, Alexander’s Feast and Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day. On 6 December 1783 he asked his father to send him 'Sebastian Bach’s fugues' from Salzburg, and he subsequently transcribed five of Bach’s four-part keyboard fugues for string quartet; a further unacknowledged set of six transcriptions of fugues by J S and W F Bach may also have been Mozart’s work.
But if the Adagio and Fugue harks back to the music of the Baroque, it equally looks forward to the nineteenth century and the dawn of Romanticism—the fugue anticipates Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue in its scale and intellectual ambition, while the jagged swagger, the ghostly introspection and, in particular, the ethereal harmonic quicksands of the adagio already anticipate the stark isolation and terror of late Schubert. Baroque form and gesture are presented very much through the prism of Mozart’s own chromatically rich musical language, and those who associate his music with an almost godlike grace and inevitability might be shocked by the angular unpredictability and modernity of this remarkable piece.
Anton Schweitzer was born on 6 June 1735 in Coburg, Bavaria. He showed prodigious musical talent in his youth, and was taken on as a chamber musician at the court of the Duke of Hildburghausen, twenty miles north-west of Coburg in Thuringia. To develop his promise as a composer, he was sent first to Bayreuth in 1758—to study with the Kapellmeister there, Jakob Friedrich Kleinknecht—and subsequently to Italy (1764-66), after which he was promoted to the position of Kapellmeister at Hildburghausen. In 1769, financial pressures compelled the Duke to disband his musical entourage, and Schweitzer became music director of an itinerant theatre troupe run by Abel Seyler, which was just beginning to add German opera to its core repertoire of spoken plays. Schweitzer’s first work for Seyler’s company, Elysium, was composed in 1770 and achieved considerable popularity as a musical afterpiece. It was followed by further celebratory pieces on mythological subjects, and by German comedies conceived in the unpretentious, Italianate musical style that was being popularised in northern Germany through the operas of Johann Adam Hiller.
Perhaps the most significant event in Schweitzer’s career came in 1771, when Seyler’s company was engaged to be resident in Weimar at the court of the music-loving Duchess Anna Amalia (niece of Frederick the Great). A fierce rivalry soon developed between Schweitzer and the Duchess’ Kapellmeister, Ernst Wilhelm Wolf, but the former was soon recognised as the superior composer. In 1772 he wrote the music for the very first German-language melodrama, Pygmalion (based on Rousseau’s 1751 French libretto), and the following year the celebrated dramatist Christoph Martin Wieland was commissioned to write a new German opera libretto for the Weimar court. He chose to base his work on Euripides’ Alceste—'a Singspiel, a formal opera, an Alceste', he wrote to a friend, 'in five (albeit very short) acts like the most proper tragedy! … Are you surprised by my audacity? I am almost amazed by it myself.'
Wieland studied not only Philippe Quinault’s libretto for Lully’s French Alceste (1674) and Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Italian Alceste (1767), but also the works of Metastasio, whom he described as his favourite dramatist next to Euripides. Partially influenced perhaps by the limited resources at his disposal, he eschewed the scale and grandeur of these models, instead turning Euripides’ narrative into a much more private and intimate drama with just four singing roles. When the opera was premièred, at the Weimar Hoftheater, on 28 May 1773, only one member of the cast was a ‘first-study’ singer, with the title role sung by Seyler’s leading tragedienne, Franziska Koch.
Wieland had collaborated with Schweitzer the previous year, and in accepting the commission for Alceste he had insisted that Schweitzer rather than Kapellmeister Wolf should be entrusted with composing the music. Despite the Metastasian style of Wieland’s text and the vocal limitations of his cast, Schweitzer’s music is decidedly un-Italianate in the brooding darkness of its harmonic language and the pungently dramatic difficulty of the orchestral writing. The vocal writing, too, is almost unrealistically challenging, and it is perhaps tempting to sympathise with Mozart’s scathing dismissal of Schweitzer’s abilities: 'Unlucky the singer who falls into Schweitzer’s hands, for all his life long he will never learn how to write singably.'
This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the opera’s opening aria, but for all its inherent difficulties it certainly packs a visceral and dynamic dramatic punch. Admetus, the young King of Thebes, is dying, and his wife Alceste is waiting to hear the decree of the oracle at Delphi. As she sees the messenger approaching, she fears the worst and, in a text whose debt to Metastasio is clear, she oscillates violently between hope and despair.
Kozeluch: Symphony in G minor
Leopold Kozeluch was born on 26 June 1747 in Velvary, Bohemia—twenty miles north-west of Prague. Christened Jan Antonín Koželuh, he subsequently adopted the name Leopold to avoid confusion with his cousin, who shared exactly the same name and was also a musician (he served as the organist and choirmaster at St Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague from 1784 until his death in 1814). After a preliminary musical training in Velvary, ‘Leopold’ moved to Prague in 1765, where he studied not only with his cousin but also with Franz Xaver Duschek. During the 1770s he composed several ballets and pantomimes, and their success led him to abandon his law studies in 1778 and move to Vienna. It was here that he modified his surname to the Germanic ‘Kozeluch’.
By 1781 he was sufficiently well-regarded to be invited by the Archbishop of Salzburg to replace Mozart as his court organist—and sufficiently well established in Vienna to turn down the invitation. 'If he lets such a man go', he reportedly said to his friends, 'what might he not do to me?' By 1784 his compositions were starting to be published, and the following year he founded his own music publishing house, which was later run by his brother. In September 1791 he achieved a notable success with the cantata that he wrote for the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and on the accession of Emperor Franz II in 1792 he became an official composer at the Imperial Court in Vienna. He died in Vienna on 7 May 1818.>
Many of Kozeluch’s compositions have been lost, including five of his six operas, but his surviving works include twenty-two piano concertos (he was one of the leading advocates of the fortepiano in preference to the harpsichord), fifty-six piano sonatas (including seven for piano duet) and eleven symphonies. The G minor symphony—the only one of these eleven to be written in a minor key—was the last in a group of three that was published in 1787, and it serves as a fascinating reminder that Mozart and Haydn were not the only composers writing outstanding music in Vienna during this period.
The surging power of the opening allegro has a febrile intensity that recalls Haydn’s famous ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, but also a lyricism that is fully Mozartian in its dramatic sweep. The slow second movement, in which the violins are muted throughout, possesses a warm nobility that is the epitome of classical elegance and grace, but—again as with Mozart—there is an anguished vulnerability lurking beneath the surface, particularly in the plaintive dissonances of the woodwind writing.
Kozeluch foregoes the usual Minuet and Trio—the only time he did so in any of his surviving symphonies—and the finale launches headlong into the agitated pathos that characterizes the opening movement. Phrases are deliberately short, breathless and asymmetrical, and the composer eschews variety and contrast in favour of an almost monothematic vigour, propelling the music forwards with relentless verve and dynamism.
Paisiello: Annibale in Torino
Annibale in Torino, the twenty-third of Giovanni Paisiello’s eighty-seven operas, was premièred on 16 January 1771 at the Teatro Regio in Turin, with the fourteen-year-old Mozart and his father in the audience. Paisiello had been born near Taranto, in Apulia, Southern Italy, on 9 May 1740, and studied at the Conservatorio di San Onofrio in Naples between 1754 and 1763. He wrote his first opera—a short comic intermezzo—while he was still a student, and gradually established himself during the 1760s, firstly in Bologna and Modena and then back in Naples. There he came to the attention of King Ferdinand IV, who commissioned him to compose three serious operas for the celebrated Teatro di San Carlo in 1767 and 1768, and he was to retain Naples as his base until 1776, when he accepted an invitation to become director of music at Catherine the Great’s court theatre in St Petersburg.
Mozart met Paisiello briefly in 1770 during his short stay in Naples, and the two composers were reacquainted a few months later in Turin following the première of Annibale in Torino. In a letter sent to his wife from Milan on 2 February 1771, Leopold Mozart wrote: 'We returned safely from this beautiful town on 31 January, having seen a most splendid opera there. You’ll hear about it all in due course.' No further information was forthcoming, but it is easy to see why Leopold was so impressed.
Adrane’s solo scene in Act Two is particularly accomplished, progressive and dramatically charged. As she laments the presumed death of her beloved Artace, who has just leapt off a bridge to avoid being captured by Hannibal’s invading army, a viscerally dynamic accompanied recitative leads to an exquisite and all too brief cavatina. This is suddenly interrupted as her hope gives way to despair, and another accompanied recitative leads in turn to a breathless, anguished and archetypally ‘Sturm und Drang’ aria in G minor.
Haydn: Symphony No 44 in E minor 'Trauersinfonie' Hob I:44
The ‘Trauer’ symphony is generally recognised as one of the greatest of Haydn’s so-called ‘Sturm und Drang’ symphonies, whose minor-key anguish and turbulence reflected the new trend for heartfelt romantic subjectivity. It cannot be dated with exact precision, but we know that it had been written by 1772, and its supreme technical mastery and confidence suggest 1771 as the most likely year of composition. The nickname (meaning ‘mourning’) is thought to derive from the nineteenth century, possibly from a commemorative performance of the work given in Berlin in 1809 following Haydn’s death. Haydn is said to have wanted the symphony’s sublime slow movement to be performed at his funeral, and this has therefore been proposed as the nickname’s origin, but the story is unsubstantiated.
The first movement opens with a stark but urgent four-note unison figure which soon gives way to a warmly sombre melody in the 1st violins. But this melody soon peters out too, and much of the rest of the movement is built on its opening four notes. Indeed, a substantial part of the music’s extraordinary intensity and power derives from the fact that Haydn limits his material to the barest minimum of themes and motives, exploiting them with virtuosic economy and intellectual panache.
The minuet, which unusually is placed second (presumably to allow some respite between the drama of the opening allegro and serene nobility of the adagio), is in the event no less remarkable, consisting of a strict canon between top and bottom lines—not only the notes but also the phrasing and the dynamics of the bass-line are throughout an exact copy of the violin line, but one bar behind. Haydn is renowned for the wit and humour of his music, and even when he was writing such dramatic and soul-searching music he must have enjoyed the challenge of such a puzzle.
This minuet is offset by a trio whose high-lying first horn part and shift into E major offer a contrasting ray of light and anticipate the glorious slow movement which follows. This adagio is imbued with great calm and purity, generally scored for strings only (with Haydn’s trademark muted violins) but with oboes and horns tellingly added on occasion to add an extra warmth and glow to the sound. The finale, like the first movement, opens with a unison theme which provides the material for the whole movement, its power intensified by its rhythmic relentlessness, sudden silences and hurtling quavers which rush the work towards its exhilarating conclusion.
Ian Page © 2023