About this Recording
8.553994 - BENDA, F.: Violin Concerto / BENDA, J. A.: Viola Concerto
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František Benda (1709-1786) & Jirí Antonín Benda (1722-1795)
Violin and Viola Concertos • Benda’s Klagen

The Benda family has provided a continuing musical tradition from the time of the first Jan Jirí Benda, born in 1686 in the Bohemian village of Mstetice, to the present day. The Bendas had settled in Bohemia at least two generations earlier and Jan Jirí Benda’s grandfather had served as an estate steward. Jan Jirí himself, the founder of the musical dynasty, in 1706 married a member of a well-known Bohemian musical family, Dorota Brixi, and of their six children five were to distinguish themselves as musicians.

The first surviving son, František, was born at Staré Benátky (Old Benatky) in 1709. He had his first musical training from his father and from the cantor Alexius in New Benátky, becoming a chorister at the age of nine at the Benedictine monastery of St Nicholas in Prague, where he also studied at the Jesuit school. In 1719 or 1720 he ran away to Dresden, where he also became a chorister, profiting from the rich musical life of the city and court and studying the violin, the viola and singing. Eighteen months later he returned home to his parents, now as an alto to join the choir of the Jesuit Collegium Clementinum in Prague, where he took a leading part in a number of important musical events. When his voice broke, he concentrated on his study of the violin and between 1726 and 1729 served as a violinist to various noblemen in Vienna, before escaping to Warsaw with the violinist Jirí Cárt (Georg Czarth) and two other musicians, there to lead an ensemble assembled by Kazimierz Suchaczewski. In 1732 he joined the court orchestra in Warsaw, but this was dissolved the following year, on the death of August II, and Benda then moved to Dresden, before entering the service of the Prussian Crown Prince in Ruppin, moving with the latter’s establishment to Rheinsberg in 1736. In 1739 he married and the following year, when the Prince ascended the throne, moved to Potsdam. In a letter to his sister Wilhelmine dated Heidelberg, 22nd August, 1734, King Frederick the Great writes about Franz Benda: "I have heard all violinists, in Mainz as well as in Darmstadt and Mannheim, but none of them reaches up to Benda". In 1734 he had been joined by his violinist and viola-player brother Jan Jirí and was himself taking lessons in composition, first from Johann Gottlieb Graun and then from the latter’s brother Carl Heinrich, who became Kapellmeister to the Prince in 1735. In 1742 King Frederick made it possible for Franz Benda, now a Protestant, to bring to Potsdam his parents and brothers and sisters, including two younger brothers eventually to join the court musical establishment as violinists. Franz Benda himself enjoyed a good relationship with the flute-playing King, with whom he collaborated in concert after concert, and in 1771, on the death of Johann Gottlieb Graun, was at last named Konzertmeister, although the gout that afflicted him in later years meant that his place seems often enough to have been taken by the youngest violinist of the family, Joseph Benda. Franz Benda provided for his family an autobiography, tracing his life up to 1763. He died in Potsdam in March 1786, five months before the death of his patron Frederick the Great.

Franz Benda was a prolific composer, chiefly of instrumental music, and left a quantity of symphonies, concertos and sonatas. Many of his concertos were for solo violin or solo flute. His brother Johann Georg had first joined the musical establishment of the Prussian Crown Prince in 1734 as a viola-player, later serving as a violinist. He died in Berlin in 1752. Jirí Antonín (Georg Anton), the next musician brother, moved to Prussia in 1742, but in 1750 left Potsdam to become Kapellmeister to Duke Friedrich III of Saxe-Gotha. In Gotha, where his sister, Anna Franziska, was employed as a chamber singer at court, Georg Anton developed the form of melodrama that so impressed Mozart and influenced later composers, dramatic speech accompanied by music, notably exemplified in Ariadne auf Naxos and Pygmalion (Naxos 8.553345) and in Medea (Naxos 8.553346). Mozart saw Medea in Mannheim and wrote on 12th November, 1778, to his father: "I saw such a piece twice here with the greatest pleasure! Really - nothing ever surprised me more! What I saw was Medea by Benda; he also composed another one, Ariadne auf Naxos, both thoroughly excellent; you know that among the Lutheran Kapellmeister Benda always was my favourite; I like those two works so much that I carry them along with me". In his letter of 3rd December, 1778, he adds: "My passion for this kind of work is immense". For the court Georg Anton wrote cantatas, an Italian opera, and, after a short period of study in Italy, two Italian intermezzi. In 1778 he resigned his position as director of the court Kapelle, visiting Hamburg, Mannheim, Berlin and Vienna, in this last writing his final two melodramas. Failing to find further employment, in 1779 he returned to Gotha, retiring to nearby Georgenthal, before moving to Ohrdruf and finally to Köstritz, where he died in 1795. His years of retirement found him, in 1781, in Paris, where his melodrama Ariadne auf Naxos was performed. His last work, in 1792, was the cantata Benda’s Klagen.

Georg Anton Benda’s Viola Concerto in F major, scored for an orchestra of strings, was written about 1775. It has been attributed by some to Georg Benda’s nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Benda, a son of Franz Benda, who was also employed at the Prussian court. The concerto opens with a well-defined melody, its bass at first provided only by the violas of the orchestra. The soloist enters with the principal melody double-stopped, returning with the first solo episode, accompanied only by the basso continuo, before providing a broken chord accompaniment to the principal theme, which recurs, framing solo episodes of increasing complexity, before the final cadenza. The F minor slow movement opens in a sombre mood, lightened at first on the entry of the soloist with an extended aria and culminating in a cadenza. The solo viola introduces the principal theme of the final Rondeau, which recurs in the orchestra to provide a framework for the intervening solo episodes.

Franz Benda had a considerable reputation as a violinist and in the 1740s and 1750s had undertaken concert tours to various German courts, while at Potsdam he accompanied the King in the many evening concerts at the palace. His style of composition exemplifies the transition from baroque to classical, with slow movements that were particularly admired by his contemporaries, reflecting, as they do, his experience as a singer, both as a chorister and, in earlier days, as a tenor in Ruppin and Rheinsberg.

The Violin Concerto in E flat major is dated to about 1760 and starts with a cheerful Allegretto, introduced by the orchestra, before the solo entry, the whole presented in textures of classical lucidity. The minor key slow movement, marked Affettuoso ma non troppo and Lento, provides a moving aria for the soloist. This is followed by a final Presto assai. Attention has been drawn to similarities of style with the work of his colleague at Potsdam, the then court harpsichordist, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, exponent of the Empfindsamerstil, in which the aim of music was to touch the feelings, a marked element of the slow movement of the concerto. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach writes about his father’s taste in a letter to Forkel dated Hamburg, 13th January, 1775: "At the end of his life, my father Johann Sebastian Bach greatly appreciated Haendel, the two Grauns, Telemann, Benda, and generally everything worthy of esteem in Berlin and Dresden. But for Haendel, he knew all of them personally".

Benda’s Klagen ('Benda’s Laments') of 1792 is a cantata for soprano, in which Georg Benda, as his title explains, at the age of seventy, ends the course of his musical life. The work is here given in a transcription by Christian Benda for solo cello and strings. The original text opens with regrets over the passing of time, from the springtime of life and the pleasure of music to a time when there is no garland of love, with a more urgent plea for the end of tender feelings that now only torment. A passage of recitative suggests the pain of longing unfulfilled, since all must fall to the scythe of Time, that now should take happier memories away: the strings that once awoke his imagination and banished care are silent, harmony turned to lament, and now it is another who must play, while he can only remember.

Keith Anderson


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