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8.554472 - KRAUS: Symphonies, Vol. 2
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Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792): Symphonies, Volume 2

Joseph Martin Kraus can be considered one of the most talented and unusual composers of the eighteenth century. Born in the central German town of Miltenburg am Main, he received his earliest formal education in nearby Buchen and at the Jesuit Gymnasium and Music Seminar in Mannheim, where he studied German literature and music. Following studies in law at the universities in Mainz and Erfurt, Kraus spent a year at home in Buchen in 1775-1776, while his father was under indictment for misuse of office, a charge later dropped. In 1776 he resumed his studies in law at Göttingen University, but under the influence of the remnants of the Göttinger Hainbund, a literary circle in the Sturm und Drang vein, be began to explore a career in music. In 1778 he published his treatise Etwas van und über Musik, which is one of the few actual theoretical works devoted to the adaptation of Sturm und Drang literary philosophy to music.

In 1778, with the encouragement of fellow student Carl Stridsberg, the composer 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 he faced dire economic circumstances as he attempted to overcome the political obstacles in his way. His opera Azire was rejected by the Royal Academy of Music, but in 1780 he was commissioned to compose a trial work, Proserpin, the text of which had been conceived by the king himself. Its successful private performance at Ulriksdal in 1781 brought an appointment as deputy Kapellmästare and in 1782 a grand tour of Europe at Gustav's expense to view the latest in musical and theatrical trends. This took him throughout Germany, Vienna, Italy, England, and France, where he met major figures of the period such as Gluck and Haydn.

Kraus returned to Stockholm in 1787 and the following year was appointed as First Kapellmästare and director of curriculum at the Royal Academy of Music. For several years he enjoyed a reputation in Stockholm for his disciplined conducting, his activities as a composer and his rigorous pedagogical standards. He was a participant in the Palmstedt literary circle and contributed much to the establishment of Stockholm as one the leading cultural centres of Europe. Soon after the assassination of Gustav III in 1792, Kraus succumbed to tuberculosis and died at the age of 36.

As a composer, Kraus can be seen as one of the most innovative of the entire century. His earliest training brought him the Italian style of the Mannheim composers, the contrapuntal rigour of Franz Xaver Richter and J. S. Bach, as well as the dramatic style of C.P.E. Bach, Gluck, and Grétry. A man of many talents, the composer was also theorist, pedagogue and author (a book of poetry and a tragedy). His compositional style features the unexpected and the dramatic and it is no surprise, therefore, to find many forward-looking stylistic devices that anticipate music of the next century.

Kraus began composing symphonies during his youth, and completed his last only a few months before his death. In all some fourteen works in this genre survive, although there are indications that this is only a fraction of the total. Indeed six symphonies written in Göttingen and described in his correspondence have been lost, as have groups of works from Buchen, Mannheim and Paris. What has survived, though, indicates that a strong dramatic element infuses the works, making them more theatrical than simply mass-produced concert works. The trend towards more occasional, dramatic music intensified during his last years, when symphonies were of lesser importance than the stage in the musical venues of Stockholm.

The Symphony in A major (VB 128) is one of the earliest symphonies by Kraus to have survived. Stylistic evidence dates the work to his first years of formal musical study in Mannheim, from 1768 to 1772, when he came under the influence of members of the famed Mannheim Kapelle. Evidence of Kraus's interest in providing a dramatic foundation can already be found in this youthful work. The first movement s characterized by bold unisons, flashing motivic figures and expansively worked out contrasting themes, while the second is filled with considerable lyricism. This symphony is one of only two to include a minuet, filled with textural contrasts and a slightly obtuse dance rhythm rather than the expected staid triple metre. The final movement, however, is the dramatic tour de force, containing within a central section a musical depiction of a hunt, complete with authentic horn-calls. The viola part is largely missing in the original source of this work. For this recording, the viola part has been added to the missing sections, doubling the bass-line at the octave. This represents one possible version of the work, although the original part may have been more independent, as evidenced by the extant sections in the second and final movements.

The Sinfonia buffa in F major (VB 129) was likewise probably composed during Kraus's early years in Mannheim. Unlike the previous work, it is a three movement Italian sinfonia with a title that reflects the dramatic content of the entire composition. The symphony is a miniature pantomime, with an opening movement that moves swiftly between contrasting scenes, from sudden outbursts of melodramatic emotion to melodies that trail off into unsettling silence. The unusual drama is highlighted by the end where a rising triad poses a musical question. The second movement with its monophonic chant opening and sudden changes between major and minor reinforces the dramatic content. The finale is a fast-paced 'perpetual motion machine', with extensive virtuoso passages for the flutes, a forward-looking section for strings that anticipates Verdi, and a portion of altered Gregorian chant, as if a mendicant monk were wandering through the musical landscape of this non-scenic drama.

The Symphony in F major (VB 130), composed for a small orchestra of a pair of horns and strings, was written in 1776 during Kraus's enforced residence in Buchen. In three movements, it reflects the composer's growing maturity, whilst accommodating the reduced forces of the Buchen Kapelle. The first movement is solidly composed, with particular attention paid to formal structure. The use of Mannheim devices is evidence of his completed studies, while the march-like secondary theme is calculated to appeal to audiences of the time. The lyrical second movement contains a plethora of flowing melodies whose technical structure provides for dynamic contrast and accentuation without the need for special markings. The finale is a stylized hunt in 6/8 time, fast-paced and lively but without the particular allusions that characterize the Symphony in A major.

The Symphony in C major a violino obligato (VB 138) dates from Kraus's first years in Stockholm, 1778 and 1779. Similarly in three movements, it is a work that foreshadows the composer's penchant for harmonic surprise found in later works. The most salient feature is the existence of a solo violin, whose virtuoso part is less than a concerto but greater than a normal obbligato part. It is the eighteenth century equivalent of Berlioz's Harold in Italy, in which the soloist interacts with the orchestra throughout, sometimes as the soloist and at others as a primus inter pares. Indeed, Kraus also includes smaller obbligato parts for the flute and violoncello, lending the work an unusual soundscape. The opening slow introduction begins in the odd key of E minor with layered suspensions leading to a brief recitative passage for the solo violin and concluding with a G minor tutti section. The main theme contrasts stark unisons with the full orchestra, which is then taken up between the solo instruments and the ripieno in almost concerto grosso fashion. The second movement is a flowing lyrical piece that features ever-changing textures, while the finale contrasts duple and triple rhythms in a madly rushing perpetual motion race to the end.

Bertil van Boer

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