About this Recording
8.570198 - DITTERSDORF: Symphonies in D Major, A Major and E-Flat Major
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Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
Sinfonias

 

Carl Ditters (Baron von Dittersdorf from 1772) was one of the most prolific and versatile of the Viennese contemporaries of Haydn and Mozart. Quite apart from his magnificent musical legacy, of which a distressingly small proportion has been published to date, Dittersdorf left behind one of the most fascinating and entertaining memoirs of the period. Dictated to his son and completed just two days before his death, Dittersdorf's autobiography is not only a rich source of information on music and musicians of the period, but it succeeds in conveying to the reader something of its author's charm, vivacity and learning. Sadly, there was serious intent behind the writing of the memoirs. In his last years Dittersdorf was crippled with arthritis and chronically short of money. His music, which had once delighted Europe, was now largely ignored and a subscription offer he sent out in 1799 attracted no takers. In the last pages of his memoir he appeals to all those who have received pleasure from his works to purchase a copy of the book in the hope that the proceeds will help support his family.

Ditters grew up in comfortable financial circumstances and received a good general education at a Jesuit school in addition to private tuition in music, French, and religion. He began violin lessons at the age of seven and within a few years was appointed as a member of the orchestra at the Benedictine church on the Freyung through the influence of his teacher, Joseph Ziegler. On 1 March 1751 he joined the musical establishment of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen and began a more disciplined course of violin study with Giuseppe Trani, who also probably taught Leopold Hofmann. His early attempts at composition impressed Trani, who commended him to the composer Giuseppe Bonno. Bonno offered him instruction in Fuxian counterpoint and free composition and seems to have been a generous and kindly teacher. Ditters remained in service until 1761 when the Kapelle was dissolved. Along with the other musicians, he was offered employment by the Theatre Director at the Imperial Court, Count Durazzo.

During the early 1760s Ditters was regarded as the finest violinist in Vienna. He appeared frequently as a soloist, generally in his own concertos, and composed prolifically in other genres. His close association with dramatic music during this period proved highly influential on his development as an artist. Nonetheless, when his contract with Durazzo expired in the winter of 1764 he chose to accept the post of Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein, recently vacated by Michael Haydn, rather than work under the authority of Count Wenzel Spork, Durazzo's successor. In his new post Ditters assembled a good orchestra, which also later included the composer Wenzel Pichl (a collection of Pichl's symphonies will be released on Naxos 8.557761 in 2007), and a small company of singers. In addition to maintaining a steady output of instrumental music he also began to compose vocal works, including the oratorio Isacco and several operas.

Ditters found himself at a loose end when the bishop dissolved his musical establishment in 1769 and undertook a series of travels presumably in search of a new employer. His next patron, Count Schaffgotsch, Prince-Bishop of Breslau, persuaded him to pay an extended visit to his castle of Johannisberg near Jauernig. Ditters ended up spending much of the next twenty years there, isolated from the mainstream as Haydn was at Eszterháza. His reputation did not suffer, however, and his instrumental music continued to circulate widely and his vocal music, in particular his operas, operettas and Singspiels, enjoyed great popularity in Vienna and elsewhere. Through the offices of Count Schaffgotsch, Ditters was created a Knight of the Golden Spur in 1770 and, two years later, was granted a certificate of nobility by the Empress Maria Theresia after which he adopted the additional surname 'von Dittersdorf'.

Among the highlights of Dittersdorf's professional career in the 1770s and 1780s were the highly successful Viennese performances of his oratorio, Esther, in 1773; the composition of the twelve (possibly fifteen) symphonies based on Ovid's Metamorphoses (completed 1786) and the brilliant success of his Singspiel Doktor und Apotheker (1786) which remains in the repertory to this day. The work's success led to commissions for two further Singspiels (Betrug durch Aberglauben and Die Liebe im Narrenhaus) and an Italian opera (Democrito corretto). While still in Vienna late in 1786, Dittersdorf unsuccessfully petitioned Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia for a post.

Conditions began to deteriorate at Johannisberg in the late 1780s but Dittersdorf's reputation ensured that commissions for new works still came his way. Among the most important of these were at least eleven Singspiels written for the court theatre of Duke Friedrich August of Brunswick-Oels. The death of the prince-bishop in 1795, coupled with Dittersdorf's own declining health, filled his last years with worry. At the time of his death he and his family were living in lodgings provided by Baron Ignaz von Stillfried on his property in Bohemia.

Of Dittersdorf's prodigious output of works, a large number survive, although comparatively few have been explored in any depth. The symphonies, however, have attracted sporadic attention from scholars owing to their large number – well over one hundred – and their extraordinary range of styles and musical structures. While much has been made of Dittersdorf's programmatic symphonies such as the famous Ovid works and the less well-known but cleverly satirical Il delirio delli compositori, ossia Il gusto d'oggida (The Delirium of the Composers; or the Taste of Today) and Sinfonia nationale nel gusto di cinque nazioni (Symphony in the Taste of Five Nations) his more conventional symphonies also contain a wealth of strikingly original and at times subversive musical ideas.

The three works featured on this recording present an interesting cross-section of Dittersdorf's symphonies. The two late works, the Symphonies in D (1788) and E flat (ca 1782), are written for the expanded orchestral forces which become increasingly common in Dittersdorf's mature symphonies. The earlier of the two works is roughly contemporaneous with the 'Ovid' Symphonies and displays a similar degree of subtlety in its compositional detail. Dittersdorf's marvellous sense of orchestral colour is evident throughout the work not just in terms of his cleverly varied textures but also in the way in which he combines his instruments: in the trio, for example, a solo violin is doubled an octave lower by the flute, creating a distinctive and highly original sound. The finale also reveals Dittersdorf's ingenuity as a composer with its striking combination of strict counterpoint (the movement opens in double counterpoint) and modern orchestral textures. His capacity to compose attractive, quirky themes is heard to great effect in the D major Symphony whose rondo finale is based around a theme which Haydn himself might have written. The movement abounds with unexpected turns of phrase and the varied restatements of the rondo theme are full of amusing effects which must have delighted his audiences. The subversive element in Dittersdorf's music – the quality that makes him such an interesting and attractive composer – is also heard to great effect in the early A major symphony with its lively, 'wrong-key' minuet and ravishing trio.

Dittersdorf's attractive personality and inventiveness as a composer shines through in every movement of these three charming symphonies and leaves one pondering the terrible unfairness of a fate that reduced him to such straightened circumstances in his last years.

Allan Badley

 


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