About this Recording
8.572865 - KRAUS, J.M.: Arias and Overtures (Groop, Helsinki Baroque Orchestra, Häkkinen)

Joseph Martin Kraus (1756–1792)
Arias and Overture


Joseph Martin Kraus, one of the most talented composers of the eighteenth century, was born in the central German town of Miltenburg am Main, the son of a local state official. 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 additional schooling at the universities in Mainz and Erfurt, Kraus spent a year at home in Buchen from 1775 to 1776 while his father was undergoing indictment for misuse of office, before resuming his studies in law at Göttingen University. In 1778 he published his treatise Etwas von 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 Kraus decided to seek employment in Sweden at the court of Gustav III. Although anticipating an official position, he found it difficult to break into the cultural establishment of Stockholm, and it took him two years to overcome the various political obstacles. Finally, in 1780 he was commissioned to compose a trial opera, Proserpin, the text of which had been drafted by the king himself and versified by the poet Johan Kellgren. Its successful private performance at Ulriksdal in 1781 brought an appointment as deputy Kapellmästare and in 1782 he undertook a grand tour of Europe at Gustav’s expense to observe the latest in musical and theatrical trends. This took him throughout Germany, Austria, Italy, England, and France, where he met major figures of the period such as Gluck and Haydn, gaining their respect and admiration, as well as attending significant events such as the Handel Centennial Celebration in London.

Kraus returned to Stockholm in 1787 and the following year was appointed as Kapellmästare and director of curriculum at the Royal Academy of Music. For the next several years he achieved a reputation in Stockholm for his modern method of 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. Nine months after the assassination of Gustav III in 1792, Kraus himself died at the age of 36.

As a composer, Kraus can be seen as one of the most progressive of the late eighteenth 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, he was also theorist, pedagogue and author (a book of poetry and a tragedy). His compositional style features the unexpected, as well as the dramatic, and it is not surprising therefore to find many forward-looking stylistic devices that anticipate music of the next century. His talent for thematic development, his colourful orchestration, and his penchant for a theatrical flair in his works caused Haydn to proclaim him one of only two “geniuses” he knew (Mozart being the other one).

This disc presents a compendium of individual arias and overtures, including several that have not been recorded previously. The overtures span a wide variety of works. The first overture is to his opera Proserpin, consisting of a languid slow introduction followed by a long Allegro characterized by a single unison motive. The influence of Gluck is felt in the frequent use of suspensions and the insistent principal unison melody that dissolves easily into a lyrical line before a strong cadence. In 1782 Kraus, on the first leg of his grand tour, visited Wismar, then a Swedish province. Here he came into contact with the Gröning brothers, both local lawyers and literati. They persuaded the composer to set to music a text written in honour of their sovereign, Gustav III. Kraus apparently wrote the entire ten-movement score in the space of only about a week, beginning with this triple metre overture that starts with a smooth flowing theme before erupting into a brilliant statement in which the trumpets are used in a percussive manner. The lyrical continuation sets the tone for the royal panegyric before concluding with a bright flourish. In 1790, Kraus, along with eight other composers resident in Stockholm, was asked to write music for a play by Johan Magnus Lannerstierna entitled Äfventyraren (The Adventurer), which takes place somewhere on a fantastical island in the southern reaches of the Red Sea (localized off the coast of what is now Somalia). There the High Priest of Freya has decreed that any stranger appearing without invitation is to be sacrificed. As the bucolic fisher folk and peasants go about their mundane tasks, a castaway (speaking Swedish in a French accent much like Gustav III himself) appears, insinuates himself with the High Priest’s wife and daughter, and eventually gets himself out of his predicament by lifting his wig to scratch; apparently the feat of strength of being able to lift his own hair from his scalp is evidence of supernatural powers. The comedy was meant to showcase the efforts of the court composers, and Kraus, as Kapellmästare, wrote this overture and the first seven movements. The work begins with a slow, clucking gavotte, with the music taken from the first chorus of fisher folk who are mending their nets. It then suddenly develops into a madcap, urgent Allegro, in which the strings scurry about frantically before finally being brought to rest by a dominant oboe solo. One can almost anticipate the manic attempts by the High Priest and his minions to safeguard their land from intruders, only to be stopped by the mocking derision of the Adventurer, who foils their machinations at every turn. In all three of these works, the music of the overture leads directly into an opening chorus, so there is a short transition that does not allow them to stand alone apart from their stage works. In order that they be performable apart from the stage works, a concert ending has been added or taken from contemporaneous sources.

In March 1792 Gustav III was shot at a masked ball, succumbing to his wounds several weeks later. Kraus, a loyal supporter of his controversial monarch, was asked to write two pieces for the funeral, a symphony and a cantata. This “Introduzzione” was intended to serve as a preface to the latter, providing a solemn, mood-setting prelude. For this Kraus borrowed much of the opening from a first movement to a church symphony from two years earlier, which itself framed a fugue that he arranged from the overture to Die Pilger auf Golgotha by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. The angry unisons at the opening are like horrified interrogatives, which are answered by soft placating chordal responses. This in turn dissolves into a poignant bassoon theme, almost a sentimental reminiscence, only to be stopped by a strict and implacable fugue, which itself dissolves into soft, mournful concluding chords. The work is highly dramatic, reflecting Kraus’s own emotional state at the murder of his sovereign.

The arias reflect a range of works, some of which are performed here for the first time in over two centuries. The earliest of these is the sacred aria Parvum quando cerno Deum (VB 5), a work that was written in Buchen in 1776, possibly for one of the outlying churches. Scored for alto or mezzo-soprano as the soloist, it is a sort of non-liturgical Christmas song, the text of which is taken from the twelfth century Repertorium Hymnologicum. The work is revealing of the young Kraus’s talents, for it contains an extensive solo violin part, in addition to well-integrated pairs of woodwinds (originally clarinets but performed here by alto oboes to emphasize the pastoral nature of the text) and horns, all of which alternate freely with the voice extolling the feelings of Mary as she nurses her child. Nonetheless, the music is virtuoso, resulting in a more operatic style, replete with intertwining solos and cadenzas. Two other vocal pieces on this disc are recreations of insertion arias commissioned by the Royal Dramatic Theatre to be performed as musical interludes within spoken comedy. The first, Hör mina ömma suckar klaga (Hear my tender sighs’ lament) (VB 26) was meant to be sung by a secondary character, the Secretary, in Visittimman (The Visiting Hour), an adaptation of a French play by Poinsinet in a translation by Karl Ristell from 1787. A simple set of strophes, it gained popularity as a published song. The original score was burned in a theatre fire in 1827, and all that remains is a portion of Kraus’s draft of the end of the orchestral introduction and vocal entrance, thus it cannot be determined whether it was through-composed or strophic. Here the aria has been reconstructed based upon this fragment, with each verse accompanied by a different instrument, as may well have been Kraus’s original. The second of these is Zelda’s insertion aria to Nils Sparrschöld’s comedy De Mexikanske Systrarna (The Mexican Sisters), Du i hvars oskuldsfulla blick (You, in whose innocent glance), from 1789, which likewise has been lost save for a version published as a song. Fortunately, a transcription from Turku, in Finland, for voice and cittern allows for the original to be reconstructed to some extent. Originally probably strophic, all of the verses save the first have not survived, and so the work is most probably much shorter than the original. Here, the entire aria is performed without and then with voice; the orchestration has been reconstructed by the editor.

The three Italian concert arias were written for public concert series in Stockholm. All have texts by Pietro Metastasio and all are intended for modest vocal ranges. The short Ma tu tremi (But you tremble) (VB 63) is from the cantata La Tempesta and is a brief da capo of only thirty bars. The gently bouncing accompaniment adds the “trembling,” broken only by a brief central section of rising emotion. The simple format of the work allowed Kraus to recast it as a solo song, adapting the orchestral accompaniment of horns and strings to the fortepiano, and his colleague Johann Christian Friedrich Haeffner later reorchestrated it for bass voice and a darker orchestral accompaniment, as well as intending it to be reformatted as a hymn. The same sort of compact structure can be seen in the rondo Ch’io mai vi possa (VB 59), also written at the same time. Scored only for strings and voice of a more limited range, to a text taken from Metastasio’s libretto Siroë, this is a far cry from the aria Sentimi, non partir! (Listen to me, do not go!) (VB 55), taken from the text of Gaetano Roccaforte’s Antigona from 1776. This is Kraus’s arrangement of an aria by Johann Christian Bach composed in 1778 for the castrato Fernando Tenducci. Kraus no doubt acquired it either in Paris (where it had been first performed) or London during his visit there in 1785 with the intent of adapting it as a concert piece for tenor Cristoffer Karsten or possibly mezzo-soprano Caroline Müller, both of whom seem to have sung it at the public concerts in Stockholm in the years that followed. The dramatic alternations between arioso featuring sonorous solo cellos and recitative leads into a lyrical rondo whose theme is organically derived from the arioso. This idyllic orchestration no doubt captured Kraus’s attention, as he retains large portions of Bach’s original with only the slightest of alterations (and omitting the fortepiano solo), diverging only in the contrasting sections, though never so much as to destroy the musical structure of the model. Finally, composed during Kraus’s visit to Paris beginning in 1784, his brief rondo, Du temps, qui détruit tout (VB 58), represents his only concert aria in French and its strophic text by an unknown poet probably reflects opéra comique practice. It is, however, a panegyric meant to honour Kraus's sovereign, Gustav III, though the context is not known. The soft string accompaniment never overshadows the voice, originally a tenor, and the simple tune is eminently singable with a lilting tune. This performance adds a flute, a practice that would not have been out of place in the eighteenth century. It is hoped that this series of pieces will demonstrate the variety and talent that Kraus, noted by his contemporaries as a significant composer of his age, could offer.

Bertil van Boer

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