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8.553734 - KRAUS: Symphonies, Vol. 1
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Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 -1792)
Olympie Overture
Symphonies in E flat major, C major and C minor

Musical life in Stockholm took a new turn in the seventeenth century with the arrival from Germany of the Düben family. At this time serious music was confined to the church and it was not until 1731 that public concerts began, the earlier of these organized by Johan Helmich Roman, the first Swedish composer of importance at the beginning of a national musical tradition. His Drottningholm Music of 1744, composed for a royal wedding, still has an important place in Swedish musical repertoire.

The fine arts came fully into their own, however, only with the reign of Gustavus III, from 1771 to 1792, when cultural life was reformed and revitalised. In the first year of his reign he founded the Academy of Music, which was charged with the handling of musical education and the promotion of further interest in the art. A few years later he established the first music theatre, the Royal Swedish Opera. The king's main personal interest was in the theatre, where he wanted everything performed in Swedish by Swedish artists. This soon proved impossible, owing to the suddenness of the change and the shortage of available artists, leading to the engagement of a number of artists from abroad, who were soon to make a significant contribution to Swedish cultural life. The result was a fruitful mixture of French, Italian and German inspiration.

The most important of the immigrant composers were Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Georg Joseph Vogler (the Abbé Vogler), Johann Christoph Hæffner and Joseph Martin Kraus. There is no doubt that Kraus was the most talented of these. Born in Miltenberg am Main in 1756, he had been educated from the age of twelve in Mannheim, then a city of many musical innovations. After his earlier schooling, he followed his parents' wishes by studying law in Mainz, Erfurt and finally Göttingen, in this last finding a rich breeding-ground for his interests in literature and music. During his period at the university he composed symphonies, sacred music and an opera and joined the circle of writers known as the Göttinger Hainbund, coming into contact with the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement of the 1770s and making his first attempts at writing fiction. It was in Gottingen that he heard from Swedish students of the state of fine arts in Stockholm and was advised to go there to try to secure a position at the opera-house.

It was thus in 1778 that Kraus, at the age of 22, arrived in Stockholm. His first years were not easy and more than once he considered going home, but after his opera Proserpina, with a libretto by the poet Johan Henrik Kellgren, had been given a concert performance at Ulriksdal Castle things rapidly improved and in 1781 he was appointed conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera. This position brought the privilege of studying abroad for five years, good proof of the royal interest in the maintenance of high artistic standards. Kraus gladly accepted the opportunity, travelling to Vienna, where he met Christoph Willibald von Gluck, and, on a visit to Esterháza, Joseph Haydn, two composers who were to exert a strong influence over his work. A number of Kraus's best works were composed abroad. Some were published in Vienna and Paris, with those issued in Paris often bearing the names of better known composers, a common trick of publishers at the time, in the interest of increased sales. Some of these are thought to have been written for the famous Paris Concerts spirituels.

In Stockholm again in 1781 Kraus met difficulties through the intrigues of some fellow- composers. The following year, however, he was appointed principal conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera and director of the educational part of the Academy of Music His own work as a composer enjoyed only partial success. Of some fifteen symphonies few, if any, were ever performed in Sweden, apart from that written for the funeral of Gustavus III, the Symphonie funèbre. Abroad, however, he fared better. His foremost operatic project, Aeneas i Carthago (Aeneas in Carthage), with a text by Kellgren, took on gigantic proportions over a period of ten years and was not performed until seven years alter the composer's death.

Kraus's career was cruelly short. He died in December 1792 at the age of 36 and was soon forgotten, the Romantic period having little interest in or understanding of the Gustavians. Only in the twentieth century has Kraus been accorded the importance he so richly deserves. That he is Sweden's foremost composer between Roman and Berwald is now generally accepted.

In addition to orchestral and chamber music, operas and other vocal works, Kraus also wrote incidental music for the theatre. In January 1792 Voltaire's tragedy Olympie was staged at the Royal Dramatic theatre, in a translation by Kellgren. For this production Kraus wrote an overture, a march and a number of interludes. The first of these, following the tradition of Lully, took the form of a French ouverture, with a solemn adagio introduction in dotted rhythm, an impatiently hurrying allegro and an epilogue related to the beginning. The overture is fully characteristic of its composer and easily stands comparison with similar works by Gluck and Mozart.

Twelve symphonies by Kraus have been preserved. Many more are mentioned in letters and notes by Kraus and others, but it is difficult to ascertain which of these have disappeared completely or which have perhaps been assimilated into works we know in some other form. Almost invariably his symphonies consist of three movements, without the traditional minuet. It is possible that Kraus found that its dance character did not suit the dignified style of his writing.

The three symphonies here included are all thought to have been composed in the first half of the 1780s, the Symphony in C major in Stockholm in 1781, and the other two during Kraus's leave of absence from his duties at the opera-house. The Symphony in C minor, the most frequently played of his compositions, goes back to an earlier Symphony in C sharp minor, a key very rare in this context. Both versions have been preserved and the later version, apart from its change to a more manageable key, displays a considerable increase in refinement and a profounder treatment of the material. It was once assumed that the work had its first performance under Haydn during Kraus's visit to Esterháza in 1783, but the symphony then played may well have been the Symphony in D major, later published under Haydn's name. In any case, Haydn liked the music very much and many years later is said to have remarked to a common friend, the Swedish diplomat Fredrik Silfverstolpe: “The symphony he wrote here in Vienna especially for me will be regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come; believe me, there are few people who can compose something like that.” The dark, passionate mood of the Symphony in C minor is reminiscent of Haydn's Sturm und Drang period around 1770, comparable with minor-key symphonies such as Nos 44, 45 and 49. Stylistically it is also very close to Gluck, with his overture for Iphigenia in Aulis, an opera which had been staged in Stockholm in the year of Kraus's arrival there Gluck is said to have commented on Kraus: “That man has great style.”

To call Kraus the Swedish Mozart, as has occasionally been done, has little relevance, apart from the fact that both composers were born in the same year and that Kraus died just one year after Mozart and nine months after the assassination of his patron, Gustavus III.

Translation 1997 Lars Johansson


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