About this Recording
8.570421 - GASSMANN, F.L.: Opera Overtures (Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, Alimena)
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Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729–1774)
Opera Overtures


Like many musicians who achieved fame and fortune in eighteenth-century Vienna, Florian Leopold Gassmann was of Bohemian origin. Little is known about his early years although it is believed that he received his early musical training from Johann Woborschil, regens chori at Brüx, the small town north-west of Prague where Gassmann was born. His father, a goldsmith, was apparently opposed to his son pursuing a musical career and had him apprenticed to a merchant. It seems that Gassmann ran away and after a period spent living precariously in Karlsbad made his way south to Italy, where he may have studied with the celebrated theorist Padre Martini. By 1757 Gassmann was well enough established as a composer to secure a commission to compose an opera, Merope, which was produced for the carnival season at the Teatro S. Moisè in Venice. The work was well received and he was invited to compose a new opera annually for the next five years. His third opera, Gli uccellatori (The Birdcatchers), was the first of his many settings of libretti by Carlo Goldoni.

Gassmann’s setting of Metastasio’s Catone in Utica was staged at the Burgtheater in Vienna during the 1761–62 season and the following year he was invited to return as ballet composer and successor to Gluck. Although he was initially engaged to compose ballet music, Gassmann also undertook to compose operas for the Viennese theatre. The first of these, Olimpiade (another opera seria to a Metastasio libretto), had its première at the Burgtheater in October 1764. Gassmann also directed performances of operas by other composers which kept him in touch with the latest musical developments in Vienna and elsewhere. With the closure of the Viennese theatres during the year of mourning decreed following the death Franz I (1765–66), Gassmann obtained leave to return to Venice, where his opera Achille in Sciro was produced at the Teatro S. Giovanni Crisostomo. On his return he found that the disruption to the theatres caused by their enforced closure had led to the loss of a number of personnel, among them several opera seria singers. The buffo ensemble, however, was unaffected, and this, perhaps as much as professional inclination, caused him to concentrate on the composition of comic operas over the next few years. His setting of Goldoni’s L’amore artigiano (Love in the Workplace), which received its première in April 1767, proved the most successful of his operas and was staged in a number of important centres over the next few years. The work is also regarded as being of great historical interest, occupying an important place in the evolution of Viennese opera buffa.

Although Gassmann is thought of primarily as a composer of operas and perhaps to a lesser extent of church music, he also composed in other genres including chamber music. His quartets, great favourites of Joseph II, also found favour with Dr Charles Burney who wrote of them:

It is but justice to say, that since my return to England, I have had these pieces tried, and have found them excellent: there is pleasing melody, free from caprice and affectation; sound harmony, and the contrivances and imitations are ingenious, without the least confusion. In short, the style is sober and sedate, without dulness; and masterly, without pedantry.

Gassmann’s appointment as Hofkapellmeister in March 1772 marked the summit of his professional career. He owed his appointment in part to his reputation as a composer but also perhaps to his recent initiative in founding the Tonkünstler-Societät for one of whose first public performances (19 March 1772) he composed the oratorio La Betulia liberata. Gassmann approached his new position with characteristic professional zeal. Under the direction of his predecessor, Georg Reutter the Younger, the Hofkapelle had declined in size and importance although it still retained a high level of prestige. He immediately began a comprehensive reorganization of the Hofkapelle’s personnel and library but his untimely death in 1774, the result of a fall from a carriage, halted the process. After a great deal of wrangling in which music politics played a very important part, Giuseppe Bonno was brought out of retirement to fill Gassmann’s position and after his death, Antonio Salieri, Gassmann’s erstwhile pupil, succeeded to the post. The high regard in which Gassmann was held by the imperial family is evident in the Empress Maria Theresia acting as godmother to his second daughter, born shortly after his death.

This recording contains a selection of Gassmann’s overtures ranging from Gli uccellatori, the first of his Goldoni settings and composed in 1759 for the Teatro S. Moisè in Venice, to his last opera, La casa di compagna (The Country House), which was first given at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 13 February 1773. Also included are overtures to three of Gassmann’s most popular operas, Il viaggiatore ridicolo (The Ridiculous Traveller, 1766), L’amore artigiano (1767), and La contessina (The Young Countess, 1770), all of which are settings of Goldoni libretti. La contessina, perhaps Gassmann’s best-known opera, received its première in Mährisch-Neustadt on 3 September 1770 during festivities to celebrate the meeting of Joseph II and Frederick the Great. These last three overtures, along with two others—Il filosofo innamorato (The Philosopher in Love, 1771) and La notte critica (The Critical Night, 1768) enjoyed an independent life as concert symphonies. All are listed in various supplements of the Breitkopf Catalogue and several also appear in a catalogue of manuscripts belonging to Göttweig monastery in Austria.

The fact that these ‘symphonies’ were originally associated with comic operas was clearly no impediment to their performance at one of the great Austrian monastic houses. Gassmann owed his success as a composer to his ability to write attractive, well-crafted music in the prevailing style of the time. His mastery of the buffa style was impressive and his understanding of both the musical and dramatic possibilities inherent in the ensemble writing that is one of the defining characteristics of opera buffa is evident in many of his operas. Like all good theatre composers Gassmann understood the critical importance of controlling the dramatic action through musical pacing and this quality is encountered on a smaller scale in his overtures.

Gassmann’s opera overtures follow the three-movement pattern fast-slow-fast typical of the mid-eighteenth-century overture, although in some instances—the overtures to Le pescatrici (The Fisherwomen, 1771) and Il filosofo innamorato (1771) are good examples of this—there are elisions between the second and third movements which make the central sections of these overtures particularly interesting from the structural aspect. The overture to Gassmann’s last opera, La casa di campagna (1773) is rare in being unashamedly pictorial with its bucolic hunting horns and contradanza finale, for in general, his overtures, like those of the majority of his contemporaries, serve to establish the tone of the opera rather than literally to set the scene for the first act. Gassmann’s attractive opening movements with their bright, cheerful themes are perfect introductions to the comic operas that follow while the central sections, which are often distinguished by their lovely lyrical writing and sensitive orchestration, foreshadow the interior worlds of the more sensitive characters soon to be met on stage. Gassmann’s impressive technical command as a composer is evident in many aspects of these works. Their musical structures are elegant and logical; the music is well-paced and coherent; there are frequent and interesting variations in texture; and Gassmann’s fondness for counterpoint is also encountered in frequent examples of canonic writing between the violins and also in a more extensive fashion in the bustling contrapuntal finale to the overture to Le pescatrici.

Allan Badley

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