About this Recording
8.554761 - World of the 18th Century Symphony (The)

The World of the Eighteenth-Century Symphony

The symphony in its various guises was cultivated by composers of every nation, state and principality during the eighteenth century. From Austria to the Americas, from Mannheim to Moscow, symphonies were penned in their thousands by geniuses, dullards, itinerant virtuosi and amateurs, both talented and untalented. Over 16,000 symphonies have been identified to date, of which those of Haydn and Mozart account for around 1%. Even when the names of important secondary figures are added, such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christian Bach, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Johann Baptist Vaňhal, the percentage of this repertoire which is in any way familiar is minuscule. Naxos is committed to changing this and its landmark series The Eighteenth Century Symphony, undertaken in conjunction with the New Zealand publishing house Artaria Editions, is already proving a veritable treasure trove of wonderful, unknown music.

History is selective though cruel. Many of the composers represented on this recording are unfamiliar to audiences today and yet, in their own lifetimes, they were considered major musical figures. Their works often rivalled those of Haydn and Mozart in popularity and each composer in his own way made a distinctive and important contribution to the evolution of the genre.

This recording focuses principally on composers who worked in Mannheim and Vienna, although it also includes works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the foremost representative of the North German symphonic tradition, Johann Christian Bach, whose sunny Italianate style captivated the young Mozart, and Joseph Martin Kraus, a man both Haydn and Gluck considered a blazing genius and whose best work was written for the glittering court of Gustav III in Stockholm.

Mannheim & Paris - The Virtuoso Orchestra

While the fully-fledged classical symphony was ultimately a Viennese achievement, during the middle decades of the eighteenth century many of the most influential symphonists were working at the court of the Elector Palatine, Prince Karl Theodor, at Mannheim.

Among the first generation of composers working at Mannheim were Johann Stamitz, Franz Xavier Richter and Ignaz Holzbauer, all of whom wrote large numbers of symphonies. Together they established a high reputation for the musical activities of the court and carefully nurtured its continuation through a second generation of composers, among whom were Stamitz's sons Carl and Anton, his star pupil Franz Ignaz Beck, who worked most of his life in France, and his successor as director of the court orchestra, Christian Cannabich. As gifted players and accomplished composers, these two generations of musicians developed an orchestra and style of orchestral playing that was widely regarded as being without peer. Much of our modern orchestral performance practice can be traced to this famous orchestra.

More important than the size and discipline of the Mannheim orchestra was the way composers wrote for it. The use of wind instruments in the orchestra may have come to Mannheim via Paris but the local composers were singularly adept at using them. Even more striking was the stock of orchestral effects refined and exploited by the Mannheimers such as the thrilling crescendo, heard on this recording in the example by Johann Stamitz. The Mannheimers also evolved certain stock melodic patterns, among them the vigorous rising triadic figure colourfully described as the 'Mannheim Rocket', used to great effect here by François-Joseph Gossec. This predilection for orchestral display in the symphonies of the Mannheim composers was encouraged by another critical factor in its development: the practice of composing works for performance in front of a large, public audience.

The Mannheim style was particularly popular in Paris and local publishers issued works by most of its leading exponents. The origins of this popularity may be traced to Stamitz's residence in Paris for a season in the mid-1750s, although it is likely that many of his works were well-known there before this date. One Paris resident who certainly fell under his spell was the young Walloon composer Gossec, who played for a time in Stamitz's orchestra.

The Sons of Bach - The North-South Divide

The two most influential sons of J.S. Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, represent the North-South divide of the eighteenth-century symphonic tradition.

The north of Germany was a relative backwater in the evolution of the symphony. North German writers on music, reflecting a long tradition of serious­-mindedness, regarded the new genre - and indeed the new style in general - with contempt, considering it frivolous and indulgent. The very greatness of their own musical tradition blinded many critics and composers to the importance of the revolution occurring elsewhere. Through a combination of natural conservatism, stubbornness and pride, the north of Germany slid into a lingering Baroque twilight.

In 1768 C.P.E. Bach managed to secure his release from the stifling court of Frederick the Great, where he had spent the last 28 years as court harpsichordist, to take up the coveted post of music director in Hamburg. After Berlin and Potsdam, Hamburg came as a breath of fresh air to Bach and, free of the blinkered, conservative tastes of the King, he was able to adopt a lighter, freer style of composition.

The 'Hamburg' Sinfonias date from 1773 and were commissioned by the future patron of Haydn and Mozart, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Many of C.P.E. Bach's most characteristic touches can be found in these symphonies; energetic tuttis abound; there are sudden contrasts of mood, extreme modulations and abrupt closes, hallmarks of the so-called Empfindsamer Stil of which Bach is the supreme representative.

Emanuel Bach possessed one of the most original musical minds of the century, albeit it one that reflected local attitudes. In some respects his musical style represents a brilliant dead end but its influence on Haydn and later on Beethoven ensured that its spirit eventually triumphed.

In terms of the eighteenth-century symphony it is hard to imagine a greater contrast than between the nervous, flighty brilliance of Emanuel Bach's works and the suave, polished, worldliness of those of his youngest brother and former pupil, Johann Christian.

Like many musicians of the period - but unlike members of his own family - Johann Christian Bach was attracted by Italy. In 1756 he became a pupil of Padre Martini in Bologna and, after converting to Catholicism, was appointed organist at Milan Cathedral. Bach very quickly turned his attentions to opera and consequently to the Italian opera sinfonia. In 1762 he moved to London where he won great success as a composer of opera and as music master to Queen Sophie Charlotte. Bach's famous concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms, mounted in partnership with the German composer and viola da gamba virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel, were the finest in London.

Christian Bach's early professional exposure to Italian opera and instrumental composition left an indelible mark on his style. He was an unrivalled exponent of the galant style and his extraordinary melodic gifts, coupled with clear, concise formal thinking and sparkling orchestration, struck an immediate chord with Mozart.

The Six Symphonies, Op. 3, also known as Overtures, were published in 1765 in London and also circulated widely on the Continent. Short in duration but rich in invention, the Op. 3 Symphonies are miniature masterpieces of their kind.

Vienna -Development and Expansion

While the Mannheim fever was sweeping Paris and Christian Bach was writing his stunning Italianate symphonies in post-Handelian London, a generation of young Viennese composers clearly believed that the symphony as a genre was capable of radical development and expansion.

In spite of the fame of the Mannheim court and its leading composers, the Mannheim style did not exert a strong influence on the developing Viennese symphony. From a comparatively early date it appears as if Viennese composers recognized that there was a limit to the number of times the same old bag of orchestral tricks could be employed and that the future of the genre lay less in surface effect than in musical substance. The greatest symphonist of the period, Haydn, has been largely given the credit for transforming the symphony from light entertainment music into a vehicle capable of expressing the most profound musical thoughts. While he was the most spectacularly successful in this he was not alone in his endeavours.

Among Haydn's immediate Viennese contempor­aries three composers stand out: Leopold Hofmann, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Johann Baptist Vaňhal. Hofmann's career as a composer was relatively short but in the early 1760s he was a highly influential figure in the development of the symphony. He was the first composer to write four-movement symphonies with slow introductions and he also experimented with other structural devices and orchestral effects. The work on this recording, for example, links the first two movements together and has a real trio to the Menuet, scored for solo viola, cello and bass, in place of a fully scored section. Hofmann' s symphonies are short - a reflection of the fact that many were intended to be played in church during services - but they are very attractive and highly resourceful in their small-scale musical organization.

Dittersdorf, by comparison, wrote many more symphonies than Hofmann and over a much longer period. There is a huge stylistic range in his works from descriptive and programmatic symphonies like those based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, to powerful, absolute works like the G minor Symphony of around 1768. Dittersdorf was also an inveterate experimenter with structure. In this symphony he anticipates the Finale by incorporating a close simulation of its development section in the analogous place in the first movement. What seems bizarre at the beginning of the work is revealed as supremely logical at the end!

Johann Baptist Vaňhal was also a prolific symphonist and his finest works can easily be compared to those of Haydn. Vaňhal worked as a freelance composer and teacher in Vienna and this dictated to a certain extent what he composed. During the prosperous 1760s many wealthy noblemen maintained standing orchestras and there was, as a consequence, an insatiable demand for new symphonies. Vaňhal, like Hofmann, Dittersdorf and others, was only too happy to oblige. As the economy weakened and many of Vienna's private orchestras were disbanded, the demand for new symphonies tailed off. Hofmann stopped writing them in the early 1770s at the very latest and Vaňhal's last essays in the genre were written around 1778, even though he was to live - and continue to compose - until 1813.

The symphony on this recording is one of the last three Vaňhal published and dates from the late 1770s. The slow introduction, a very Viennese feature as we have seen, is extraordinarily beautiful and it surely cannot be coincidental that Mozart, who knew Vaňhal well, quotes part of it in both his Symphony No. 36 "Linz" and No. 38 "Prague". The ensuing Allegro is infused with Vaňhal's characteristic rhythmic energy and the scoring, with high trumpets (clarini) in place of the more common horns, is brilliantly effective. As in the Dittersdorf example, we now have a first movement of great musical complexity which is almost as long as an entire symphony by Cannabich or J.C. Bach.

Stockholm - Northern Genius

While the north of Germany was conservative, further north, in Stockholm, the situation was quite different. The court of Gustav III was one of the great intellectual centres of Europe in the late eighteenth century, and his assassination at a masked ball in 1792 was a great blow to civilized Europe.

The leading composer at Gustav's court was a German, Joseph Martin Kraus, a remarkable man who was not only a great composer but also a man of letters. Kraus had studied with Richter in Mannheim as a youth and was, therefore, well-versed in the great Mannheim traditions. His own music, however, has a depth and complexity which is more Viennese than South German. Haydn kept a score of one of Kraus's symphonies as a 'memento of one of the greatest geniuses I have met'.

The Symphony in C 'Violin obligato' dates from Kraus's first years in Stockholm, 1778-1779. The most unusual feature of the work is the solo violin part: less than one would expect in a concerto but greater than a normal obbligato part. It is, in Bertil van Boer's view, 'the eighteenth-century equivalent of Berlioz's Harold in Italy, in which the soloist interacts with the orchestra throughout, sometimes as a soloist and others as a primus inter pares.' Kraus's rich harmonic vocabulary and contrapuntal ingenuity, a legacy of his years with Richter, add depth and complexity to this marvellous hybrid symphony.

Dr Allan Badley

Close the window