FRANZ BENDA (1709 - 1786)
The Benda family has provided a continuing musical tradition from the time of the first Jan Jiri 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 Jiri Benda’s grandfather had served as an estate steward. Jan Jiri 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, Franticek (or, Franz), was born at Stare Benatky (Old Benatky) in 1709. He had his first musical training from his father and from the cantor Alexius in New Benatky, 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 Jiri Cart (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 1734 he had been joined by his violinist and viola-player brother Jan Jiri 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. Much of the music that he wrote remains unpublished. Three violin concertos are mentioned in the Breitkopf Thematic Catalogue with a trio sonata for flute, violin and continuo. Other compositions by Johann Georg include a set of ten caprices for solo violin, and sonatas for flute and for violin. It is impossible to leave this generation of the Benda family without some reference, at least, to Jiri Antonin (Georg Anton), who left Potsdam in 1750 to become Kapellmeister to the Duke 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 Arianna and Pygmalion (Naxos 8.553345) and in Medea (Naxos 8.553346).
Franz Benda had a considerable reputation as a violinist and in the 1740s and 1750s had undertaken concert tours that had taken him to the courts of Bayreuth, Dresden, Weimar, Gotha and elsewhere, while at Potsdam he played solo parts with the King in the many evening concerts at the palace. His important influence over the following generation of violinists extended to Haydn’s impresario, the violinist Johann Peter Salomon, who had met Benda’s colleague Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, harpsichordist to Frederick the Great, in Berlin and played the unaccompanied violin works of the latter’s father. Franz Benda’s style of composition exemplifies the transition from baroque to classical. His slow movements 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. Something of the same quality is apparent in the faster outer movements.