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8.557482 - ORDONEZ: Symphonies
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Karl von Ordonez (1734-1786): Symphonies

Karl von Ordonez cut a somewhat unusual figure in the musical life of eighteenth-century Vienna for unlike all of his important contemporaries he was not a professional musician. For most of his working life he was employed by the Lower Austrian Regional Court and his musical activities, both as a performer and composer, were pursued in his spare time. It was not, it seems, the promise of an exciting and glamorous career in local government that was responsible for luring him away from life as a professional musician but rather the circumstances of his birth. Ordonez’s family belonged to the minor nobility and as such a professional musical career would not have befitted a man of his rank. However much talent might have been admired in Viennese society – and one close contemporary of Ordonez, Carl Ditters, was even raised to the ranks of the nobility by the Empress – an enormous gulf separated the meanly-born professional musician from even the minor nobility. Mozart felt this acutely and decades later Beethoven, for all his self-professed egalitarianism, fought an unsuccessful legal battle to establish his own claim to nobility. In the circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising that Ordonez opted to pursue his musical career as an amateur. This difference in status did not in any way diminish his seriousness of intent as a composer and his music has received significant attention from scholars in recent years.

Nothing has come to light concerning Ordonez’s general education although it seems likely that he would have attended a Ritterakademie, a boarding-school for the nobility, and, in preparation for a career in the civil service, gone on to study law at the University of Vienna. Nor is anything known about his musical training although his contemporary reputation as a violinist suggests that he studied the instrument from an early age and, no doubt, was also a proficient keyboardplayer. Of his training in composition it is not possible even to hazard a guess.

Ordonez’s professional activities included membership of two prestigious performing bodies, the k.k. Hof- und Kammermusik (where he was employed as a Kammermusikus) and the Tonkünstler-Societät in which he was active both as a violinist and as a composer. Ordonez was one of the earliest members of the Tonkünstler-Societät, an organisation devoted to raising money through public concerts for the widows and orphans of musicians, and maintained a close association from 1771, the year of its foundation, until 1784. He also performed regularly in the houses of the nobility. Dr Charles Burney heard him play at a musical dinner party in 1772 held in the residence of the British Ambassador in Vienna, Lord Stormont, and reported:

Between the vocal parts of this delightful concert, we had some exquisite quartets, by Haydn, executed in the utmost perfection; the first violin by M. Startzler [J. Starzer], who played the Adagios with uncommon feeling and expression; the second violin by M. Ordonetz; Count Brühl played the tenor, and M. Weigel [F.J. Weigl], an excellent performer on the violoncello, the base. All who had any share in this concert, finding the company attentive, and in a disposition to be pleased, were animated to that true pitch of enthusiasm, which, from the ardour of the fire within them, is communicated to others, and sets all around in a blaze; so that the contention between the performers and hearers, was only who should please, and who should applaud the most!

The onset of pulmonary tuberculosis forced Ordonez to resign both his professional playing appointments in 1783 and the same year he was forced to retire on half-salary from his position with the Lower Austrian Land Court. The last three years of his life were spent in sickness and poverty. His desperate financial circumstances reduced him to a precarious existence in shared lodgings and at the time of his death he possessed only a few items of clothing and his total estate, including outstanding pension payments, was valued at less than the cost of his funeral. His son-inlaw, Joseph Niedlinger, a minor government official in the Upper Building Management Division of the court, paid the outstanding balance and saved the nobleman the ignominy of a pauper’s grave.

Ordonez’s output as a composer leaves us in no doubt that he regarded himself as a professional in all but name. In addition to his two operatic works, a marionette opera, Musica della Parodia d’Alceste and a Singspiel, Diesmal hat der Mann den Willen, Ordonez is known to have composed a significant number of sacred works (now lost), a large corpus of chamber music of which the 27 authenticated string quartets are of particular importance, a violin concerto and no less than 73 symphonies. The symphonies were widely disseminated in manuscript copies and the celebrated polymath Abbé Stadler noted that they “received great applause”. Seven of these works found their way into the thematic catalogues and supplements published by Breitkopf between the years 1766 and 1778, a respectable number but low nonetheless in comparison with his close contemporaries Hofmann, Wanhal and Dittersdorf. He was it seems a respected rather than celebrated composer, a consequence, no doubt, of the strange half-life he lived as an artist.

Although Ordonez was a part-time composer, he was no dilettante. Neither was he a slave to fashion or convention. His liking for contrapuntal textures gives much of his music a very distinctive quality and his sophisticated experiments with cyclic unity, particularly in the string quartets, reveal a highly original musical mind. The five symphonies featured on this recording bear eloquent testimony to Ordonez’s talents as a composer.

As is the case with the works of so many eighteenth-century composers it is impossible to establish an accurate chronology for the Ordonez symphonies or to learn anything much about the circumstances of their composition. Indeed, of the present works, only the Sinfonia in A (Brown A4) and Sinfonia in G minor (Brown Gm8) possess any external corroborative references that give a clue to their composition date: both are listed in the famous Quartbuch catalogue and must have been composed no later than 1775, the generally agreed date for the latestknown works in this catalogue.

If the number of extant copies of a work is any indicator of its contemporary popularity then the Sinfonia in C (Brown C2) was undoubtedly one of the best known of Ordonez’s symphonies. One of the reasons for this may lie in its beautiful slow movement with its striking employment of violin and violoncello obbligati. Ordonez was by all accounts a good violinist and it is tempting to think that the solo violin part was first performed by the composer himself. The work is also somewhat unusual in being a three-movement symphony with a slow introduction to the first movement. This Adagio introduction adds a certain weight to the work and there are also subtle thematic links between it and the ensuing Allegro molto. That no concentrated attempt is made within the work as a whole to establish a deeper unification of the cycle may indicate that it represents one of Ordonez’s earliest experiments with this technique.

A number of scholars have drawn attention to Ordonez’s predilection for minor key works although the proportion of minor key symphonies in his oeuvre does not differ significantly from that found in the works of Haydn, Wanhal and Dittersdorf. The choice of B minor, however, is unusual and suggests a composer sensitive to the tonal nuances of different keys. Of the two G minor symphonies, one (Gm8) was composed not later than 1775 (on the evidence of its inclusion in the Quartbuch catalogue) and is, therefore, roughly contemporaneous with Haydn’s so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies. The symphony is delicately scored for a pair of oboes and strings; the Quartbuch entry also specifies horns although these are not listed on the wrapper of the sole-surviving source. Ordonez makes limited but effective use of the oboes in the outer movements and introduces two solo violas in the central movement which creates a warm, sensuous wash of string colour. The composition date of the other G minor symphony is unknown but its polish and structural balance suggest that is it probably one of his later works.

Ordonez possessed good technique as a composer, a lively musical imagination and a highly-developed sense of orchestral colour. His symphonies contain much that is beautiful and, in their own way, original. They achieved modest fame in his lifetime and like so much music of the period fell quickly into oblivion. As more has been learned about the musical milieu in which he worked Ordonez’s stature as a composer has grown and his own unique musical voice has come to be appreciated on its own terms.

Allan Badley


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