About this Recording
8.573740 - DITTERSDORF, C.D. von: 3 Ovid Sonatas - Ajax et Ulysse / Hercule changé en Dieu / Jason, qui emporte la toison d'or (Tibbles, Tsalka)
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Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799)
Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, Four Hands


The three works featured on this recording are arrangements of symphonies that once formed part of one of the most unusual and ambitious projects of its time: a series of fifteen symphonies by the 18th-century Viennese composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Only the first six symphonies have been preserved in their original form and these remain among the best known of Dittersdorf’s works in any genre. The present arrangements are the composer’s own and represent the only known versions of three of the missing symphonies from the second group of six. The recent discovery of an arrangement of one of the works from the first group suggests that Dittersdorf may have arranged all of the symphonies in this format.

In 1781 Dittersdorf wrote to the Viennese publisher Artaria giving a detailed outline of his grand design. His intention was to issue the fifteen works in three sets of five together with a set of newly commissioned engravings for each symphony. Each work would have its own title page, a preface (in the form of a synopsis of the action) while each individual movement would be preceded by an engraving and a quotation, in the original Latin, from the relevant passage in the Metamorphoses. Being the enterprising man that he was, Dittersdorf also enclosed a draft advertisement for these remarkable multi-media works which he advised Artaria to have translated and distributed to influential people in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Breslau, centres, he modestly added, where his ‘genius is not unknown’. The wily Artaria, however, declined to take on the project in spite of its appeal to his wider business interests as a printer of high quality engravings. Some years later his rival Torricella published the first three symphonies but without the projected engravings. The remaining works were never published and appear not to have circulated very widely in manuscript copies. The four-hand arrangement of the works therefore might have been a lastditch attempt by Dittersdorf to salvage something from the wreckage.

In 1786 Dittersdorf visited Vienna to present his oratorio Giobbe at the annual Tonkünstler-Sozietät concert, a charitable event to raise money to support the widows and orphans of musicians. In order to offset his travel expenses, he brought with him twelve completed ‘Ovid’ symphonies which he planned to present in two concerts in the Augarten, one of the imperial parts which Joseph II had only recently opened to the public. Dittersdorf advertised the concert himself and sold the tickets at two Gulden apiece. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an important patron of musicians and an amateur composer who was closely associated with both Mozart and Haydn, was so intrigued by the project that he offered to distribute a hundred tickets.

The first six symphonies were probably performed in the Augarten on Saturday 13 May 1786, less than two weeks after the premiere of Mozart’s new opera Le nozze di Figaro, and the second six a week later. A number of unspecified symphonies were performed for a second time on 21 July. The first two concerts were lucrative and Dittersdorf tells us that by the time he had paid the costs associated with the concert—including the copyists and an orchestra of forty—he had made three times more than the cost of his return journey from Johannisberg in Silesia.

Dittersdorf’s printed programme for the first concert survives and gives us synopses for Symphonies 1 to 6 and, very helpfully, a first-person account of how he came to write the works. From his earliest years, the composer relates, he had been captivated by the beauty of Ovid’s poetry and had long intended to set some of his magnificent tableaux to music. He first composed a series of individual movements for full orchestra based on episodes or images from the Metamorphoses which he had performed for his friends.

In the summer of 1781, presumably shortly before he wrote to Artaria, he conceived the notion of transforming these fragments into a series of symphonies composed along more or less orthodox lines. The integration of the programmatic episodes into a conventional symphonic framework caused him some problems and in his preface he laments the impossibility of expressing in music every nuance of Ovid’s poem. His solution was instead to represent musically only the beginning, the continuation and the conclusion of each narrative which was itself selected from a larger whole. He also explains how his choice of frontispiece to identify each symphony was closely connected with the actual process of composition. By 1786 this referred to quotations from Ovid rather than the engravings he had originally envisaged, but his continued use of the term, as John Rice observes, suggests that visual representations still played a role in Dittersdorf’s imagination in bridging the gap between his music and Ovid’s poetry.

In these symphonies, Dittersdorf sets out to tell a story through a series of musical tableaux the meanings of which are signalled by the accompanying literary tags. Some of these tableaux are static—they serve to set a scene or establish a character—but others are dynamic, throughcomposed action pieces that embody within them the moment of metamorphosis. It is these movements which presumably represent the material composed before 1781 and that became the kernels of the completed symphonies. The remaining pictorial scenes (as distinct from these highly unconventional narrative scenes) were possibly chosen in order to provide a suitable framework for the movements Dittersdorf felt were necessary to add if the works were to comply with the widely accepted conventions of the contemporary symphony. Thus, the ‘Ovid’ symphonies juxtapose conventional structures such as sonata form and the ubiquitous minuet with fluid, unconventional musical complexes that accommodate the narrative demands of the text.

Although Dittersdorf could have chosen to omit the minuets and still kept true to his promise of transforming the tableaux into ‘modern’ symphonies, their inclusion posed a significant challenge because the rigidity of their musical structure gave him little scope to advance the narrative. It was Rice who first proposed that Dittersdorf’s ingenious solution was to invest these movements with dramatic significance rather than attempt to advance the narrative through musical action, and indeed in virtually every symphony the pivotal moment in the drama takes place during the minuet. The works are full of such brilliant conceits and half of the fun in listening to them is working out why the music is written in the way it is.

The order of the works on this recording necessarily differs from that originally conceived by Dittersdorf since the cycle as a whole is incomplete. Jason is in some respects the counterpart of the first of the ‘Ovid’ symphonies, The Four Ages of the World, notably in its powerful and presumably impressively scored Ciaconna finale and its lack of a transformation scene. As the first work in the second group of symphonies premiered in Vienna, Jason was presumably chosen to open the concert. It is clear from the discrepancy between the printed programme and Dittersdorf’s prospectus, however, that he gave careful consideration to the placement of works. Ajax was originally to be the first of the last group of three symphonies which included Aeneas and Dido and Julius Caesar. The symphony that should have completed the second Augarten concert was Iphigenia but we have no idea whether that work or the final two symphonies were ever completed.

Allan Badley

Synopses and Programme Notes by the Composer

Ajax et Ulysse
Ovid: Metamorphoses Lib: XIII Fab. I


After the death of Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses argued as to who should receive his weapons. The commander of the Greek army was the arbitrator. Ajax stepped forward; held fast to all the rules of rhetoric in his speech which shone forth with a great deal of schoolroom erudition—or better to say, pedantry (1). At the completion of this speech one was in no doubt about the [probable] victor. After this Ulysses rose and, with a cool bearing and confident glance, expounded his case with so much charm, such subtle delivery and thrilling eloquence, that it was impossible to resist his convincing arguments (2). The judge recognised this and awarded the weapons of the great Achilles to him (3). Ajax, full of despair at Ulysses’ victory (4), seizes Achilles’ sword and in a clear voice, cries: ‘at least Ajax shall be conquered by no one but himself’: he stabs himself in the breast (5). At the place where Ajax’s blood stains the earth (6) purple-coloured flowers grow up (7).

1. In writing the Allegro moderato in a contrapuntal style, the composer wishes to depict an orator who certainly exhibits his deep knowledge of rhetoric, but whose speech abounds with his schoolroom pedantry.

2. This Recitativo and Arioso shall depict an orator who can bind his audience to him through subtle delivery, without transgressing the rules of the art [of rhetoric].

3. The Tempo di Minuetto depicts Ulysses’ victory, the Alternativo, Ajax’s discontent at it.

4–7. Irresolution, pain, ambition, shame and rage alternate in this Allegro molto. After the rage depicted in the two repeated sections, Ajax stabs himself in the breast with the sword of Achilles. The blood streams out of the wound, but stops again. At that point, the composer is not capable of depicting the colour or fragrance of the flowers; so he requests his audience, whether or not with closed eyes, that at the performance of the last Adagio con molto, he must imagine a whole bed of the most wonderful flowers, in a summer setting, which not only satisfies the eyes but also the nose.

Hercule changé en Dieu
Ovid: Metamorphoses Lib: IX Fab.III


As the glorious deeds of Hercules became known throughout the entire world (1), Juno’s hate for him increased. Deianira, Hercules’ wife, was secretly informed that her husband was in love with Iole. This news broke Deianira’s heart and filled it with pain and jealousy (2). After long reflection, she settled on sending her husband a shirt she had been given by Nessus (3) little knowing that this unlucky present would plunge her husband into so wretched a condition. Here it is important to know that before his death, which Hercules had brought about, in order to avenge himself, he gave this shirt which had been dipped in the strongest poison of the Lernaean Hydra to Deianira with the assurance that it would infallibly keep her husband true and constant. Hercules puts it on (4); the poison spreads throughout his body. He rages, builds a pyre, lights it, and immolates himself. Jupiter adds him to the number of the gods and places him under the glittering stars.

1. The first Allegro e vivace depicts in the first part the fame which resounds throughout the world at Hercules’ deeds; in the second, the superhuman strength which enabled him to complete his Labours.

2. In this Adagio the composer seeks to express Deianira’s deep melancholy when she hears of her husband’s infidelity.

3. Both in the Tempo di Menuetto, as in the Alternativo, he wishes to depict the differing emotions, almost bordering on the crazy, and to set up a contrast with the preceding and succeeding movements.

4. A fugal movement through which the composer wishes to depict the poison spreading throughout the body. In the following Adagio he sketches a serene summer evening, and, at the close, a brightly lit star in the glimmering darkness.

Jason, qui emporte la toison d’or
Ovid: Metamorphoses Lib: VII Fab. I


The Argonauts, with Jason, their commander, landed on the banks of the Phases. As soon as they set foot on land they went in full state to the king, who received them magnificently; they requested that he hand over the Golden Fleece which Phryxus had left in Colchis (1). The king, with the aim that they would abandon their plan, put to them the difficulty and also the dangers that they would be exposed to as a result. While this was going on, Medea, the king’s daughter, fell in love with Jason (2). After much reflection she finally said to herself: what I abandon here is less important than that which lies before me (3). Briefly, she gives magical herbs to Jason with the help of which he lulls to sleep the dragon which guards the Golden Fleece, and after that, kills it. Proud of his booty, and even prouder of the possession of his beloved Medea, Jason boards [the Argo] with her, arrives safely in Iolcos, and is received there in triumph (4).

1. Through the imposing Largo, and the following Allegro, the composer wishes to depict not only the glittering entry of the Argonauts but also the magnificent reception with which the king honoured them. With the Unisono in this Allegro, he wishes to illuminate the difficulty and danger that the king pointed out to them, and, indeed, also those which he conceals. In the trifling piano which follows immediately thereafter, he depicts the first impression that Jason’s charming appearance has made on Medea; but the close of the Allegro flashes with the determination to overcome all dangers.

2. This Andantino shall express the Medea’s tenderness, and, henceforth, the mutual understanding of the lovers.

3. With this Tempo di Minuetto, the composer suggests the soliloquy which father Ovid gives to Medea when she says: the splendour I leave behind here is a trifle compared to the glories that await me in Jason’s arms; in the Alternativo, he tries to depict Medea’s blissful Ideal: that in the future the gods of love will flutter about her.

4. This type of music [the movement is styled Ciaconna] is customary at the close of an heroic ballet which terminates in splendour and triumph. Such a piece of music to close the work seems not improper to the composer, and through it, to represent the triumph with which the inhabitants of Colchis honour the great hero and capturer of the Golden Fleece.

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