About this Recording
8.570023-24 - KRAUS: Complete Chamber Music with Keyboard
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Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792)
Allegro in D major, VB 163
Sonata in D minor, VB 157
Sonata in C major, VB 160
Sonata in E flat major, VB 161
Sonata in C major, VB 162
Sonata in D major, VB 159
Trio in D major, VB 171

 

Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792), proclaimed by Joseph Haydn one of the two most talented composers of the eighteenth century (along with Mozart), was born in the central German town of Miltenburg am Main, and received his earliest formal education in nearby Buchen and at the Jesuit Gymansium and Music Seminar in Mannheim. Following additional schooling at the universities in Mainz and Erfurt, Kraus attended Göttingen University in law. There he met members of the Göttinger Hainbund, a Sturm und Drang literary circle, under whose influence he published a treatise Etwas von und über Musik.

In 1778 Kraus decided to dedicate his life to music and to seek employment in Sweden at the court of Gustav III. Although promised a position, he found it difficult to break into the cultural establishment of Stockholm, and for the next two years struggled to overcome political obstacles. In 1780 he was finally commissioned to compose an opera, Proserpin, whose text had been drafted by the king himself and versified by poet Johan Kellgren. Its successful private performance at in 1781 brought an appointment as deputy Kapellmästare and in 1782 a grand tour of Europe at Gustav's expense to observe the latest in musical and theatrical trends. This took him throughout Germany, Austria, Italy, England, and France, where he met major figures of the period such as Gluck and Haydn, gaining their respect and admiration.

Kraus returned to Stockholm in 1787 and the following year was appointed Kapellmästare and director of curriculum at the Royal Academy of Music. For the next several years he achieved a reputation in Stockholm for his disciplined conducting, his dramatic compositions, and his rigorous pedagogical standards. Kraus died in 1792 at age thirty-six a few months after the assassination of his patron.

The composition of chamber music for the violin and keyboard occupied the composer during much of his life in Stockholm, although this was far from his major emphasis, since the Swedish court was directed towards the theatre. As a result, Kraus's forays into the world of chamber music were limited and mainly intended as the occasional vehicle for earning some additional income, principally from publication. Of the twenty surviving compositions for combinations of chamber groups, half are string quartets; of the remaining, only seven include the keyboard. These are five sonatas and a practice piece with violin, and a piano trio. These works are spread across the composer's life, from 1777 to 1790. The bulk, however, date from 1780-1786, corresponding to his first years in Stockholm and his Grand Tour.

The earliest work of these pieces is the Sonata in D minor (VB 157), written between April and December of 1777. He called it a "Duetto à Clavicembalo e Violino", i.e. a continuo sonata, which by that time was outmoded but still occasionally used. It was distributed by the Viennese firm of Johann Traeg in 1783 as the "Sonata à Violino solo e Basso". His own description seems to show that he did not envision the work with the normal continuo group, i.e., harpsichord and violoncello, but rather for keyboard alone. This recording follows his intentions. The two movement format is also found in his first two string quartets from 1778. The work has an immediate dramatic effect; the violin G string is tuned in scordatura down to F, which makes it harmonically more accessible. The opening Allegro is tension-filled, with definitive statements followed by extremely virtuoso figuration. The development section includes the only lyrical moments and considerable internal variation before coming to an abrupt, unexpected halt. A short, lyrical Andante interlude leads back to the dramatic opening. The second movement – two sections joined together – begins with a 6/8 pastorale like a peasant dance with Ländler-like moments. This proceeds to an Allegro based upon a dramatic dialogue between the instruments. A final flourish of virtuoso materials and hesitant, almost Haydnesque comic passage moves towards a brief return of the pastorale and then a rollicking finale, in which the violin imitates a hurdy-gurdy. This too is only momentary, and the dialogue returns, ending with a unison statement, an acquiescence.

The four violin sonatas, are paired in the sources. The first two, the Sonata in D major (VB 159) and the Sonata in C major (VB 160) were probably written in Stockholm during the years 1780-1782. Since such works were rarely composed or performed in Sweden, it seems reasonable to suggest that Kraus wrote them in anticipation of his grand tour, during which he no doubt intended to make contact with European publishers. Both were offered for sale by Traeg beginning in 1784. Both are in three movements, and in keeping with the usual sonatas of the period, the violin plays a secondary, more supportive role. The earliest work was the Sonata in C major, the first movement of which is characterized by flowing lyrical themes. The piano part is uncomplicated, often with a simple theme and Alberti accompaniment. The second movement begins with an insistent flourish followed by a soaring Romanza in which the violin and piano are equal partners with lyrical lines flowing from one to the other with graceful ease like a dialogue between lovers, now pleading, now tender, now insistent, but always poised and beautiful. The final movement is a curious minuet, beginning with a cursory statement, followed by passages that have a serenade quality like distant echoes on the hills with soft horn calls. The Sonata in D major is a longer and more advanced work. The movements are all characterized by an attention to expanded lyrical themes, internal sequencing and development of motives, all with unexpected turns of phrase. The second pair, the Sonata in E-flat major (VB 161) and the Sonata in C major (VB 162, often called the "Great C Major") were both written in 1785 in Paris, apparently for Traeg in Vienna, who offered them for sale the following year. According to Karl Schreiber, they may have been dedicated to Maria Aloysia von Born, daughter of freemason Ignaz von Born, with whom the composer was acquainted. Both are likewise in three movements and represent a further evolution in the genre. The E-flat Sonata was later revised into a sonata for fortepiano alone (VB 195). Indeed, the violin role in this piece is quite diminished in the first movement to little more than simple accompaniment. In the second, a set of six variations on a folk-like theme, it is more active, particularly as Kraus inserts a rather peculiar 3/8 minuet and trio as part of the sequence. One might notice the pianistic flourishes reminiscent of Beethoven. The wandering theme of the final movement is likewise forward-looking with its harmonic twists and turns, as well as virtuoso display and dramatic rallentandos. The C major sonata, the longest and most complex of the set, includes a fantasia slow introduction that turns into toccata-like runs and virtuoso display. In the Adagio, the composer has marked the violin part sciolto in order to give the Romanza a degree of freedom from strict tempo. This makes the movement more of an arioso from an opera than a chamber work, an effect that is particularly noticeable at the end with a dramatic morendo. The final movement is a Scherzo, which features display, a highly chromatic line, and a long cadenza.

The Allegro in D major (VB 163) was written about 1788-1790, probably for students at the Royal Academy. The main purpose of this moto perpetuo movement is to provide opportunity for the instruments to practice their unisons, scales, and sustained notes (for the violin, a mezza di voce to demonstrate the proper use of vibrato). This recording represents its first performance.

The Trio (Sonata) in D major (VB 171) is the only work out of seven written in this genre to have survived. In September of 1800, Kraus's friend, Pater Romanus Hoffstetter wrote to Fredrik Silverstolpe that he remembered "6 Piano Trios that he [Kraus] once played for me in my room, and which I accompanied on the violin; they were magnificent and full of the most beautiful thoughts and turns." He further noted that Kraus intended that these works be published. It is particularly unfortunate that this entire set of piano trios has been lost. A seventh one, however, does survive. As Silverstolpe noted in 1841: "Among the most excellent of his piano works can be counted a Sonata in D major accompanied by a violin and violoncello that was written for the enjoyment of the court during a sojourn at Drottningholm." Kraus's autograph has the title-page in French, indicating that this was intended for publication. The work can be dated 1787-1788, a time when his position was so all-consuming, that he wrote on 31 March 1788: "there is such singing, piping, and beating time and organ-doodling from morning until night… so that even my sweat stinks of notes." Such a hectic lifestyle cannot be discerned in this three-movement work.

The piano dominates the opening Allegro with two contrasting lyrical themes interlaced with bravura flourishes. Abrupt cadences, continual antecedent-consequent phrases, and sequences all seem to depict a busy court, with its continual posturing and momentary crises that evaporate as the day wears on. The second movement, a pastoral gavotte with its lilting piano main theme punctuated by pizzicato strings, depends largely upon internal development in a series of variations, over the course of which the strings gradually increase their function to become equal partners. The final movement is entitled Ghiribizzo Allegro (an Allegro caprice), but is in form a rather straight-forward rondo. The main theme is rhythmically reminiscent of an Italian folk tune, the transitions feature repetition and sequence that foreshadows Beethoven. There is even a brief flourish in the coda that seems to evoke Prokofiev in its modality, and moments in the development that contain a hint of Brahms.

Bertil van Boer


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