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GP667 - HOFFMEISTER, F.A.: Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Tzinlikova)
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Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812)
Sonatas for Piano • 2


Franz Anton Hoffmeister (born Rottenburg am Neckar 1754, died Vienna 1812) is still one of the many Viennese Classical composers who are overshadowed by the famous great masters. Aside from a scattering of essays and entries in music dictionaries, there is no biography of him, any more than there is as a catalogue of his complete works; contemporary musicians generally steer well clear of his oeuvre. Hoffmeister features, at best, as an incidental part of the backdrop to Mozart’s life, which occasionally justifies mention of him as one of the people with whom the great man associated, or had to deal. But attention is then centred on Mozart, reducing minor characters to a footnote. At times, one wishes that history would simply reverse the emphasis!

When Hoffmeister, who had only just turned 14, made his way to Vienna in 1768, he did not do so to pursue a career in music, but to study law. We can assume that he studied music on the side, and there are various indications that music gradually took over. The early 1780s, when Mozart was trying to establish himself in Vienna, are characterised by a significant economic upturn; the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in particular developed a pronounced taste for luxury goods, which had a positive impact not only on the textile industry and other related sectors, but also, and especially, on music. Taking an interest in music, and being musically active in the broadest sense, was an essential part of being a member of the upper classes. This could not, of course, be done without professional support. It fell to an army of trained musicians to provide musical education, feed the growing demand for concerts and, above all, to supply music lovers’ hunger for a constant supply of new pieces to play. Franz Anton Hoffmeister was one of these, and had already made a name for himself. But he went a step further than many of his colleagues. At the start of 1784, he founded a music publishing house and, knowing that in doing so he was setting up as a competitor to Artaria, whose monopoly position had remained unchallenged up until that point thanks to its extensive trade connections, he thought of a business idea that proved to be sustainable, at least for a number of years. The subscription series he launched in 1785 offering chamber music for strings and piano pieces and works for flute was designed to offer customers a regular supply of new compositions—his own, but also work by Mozart, Haydn, Dittersdorf, Pleyel, Vanhal, and many others. It should be noted in passing that he only managed to sustain this ambitious and, by Viennese standards, unusual scheme for about two years, probably because of a certain carelessness with regard to business matters. What is more important is that at least the majority of his piano sonatas were probably composed in connection with this marketing scheme and should be viewed in this context.

We do not have any letters or journals in which Hoffmeister might have commented on his compositions, nor do we have any musical sketches or drafts. Even allowing that some material may have been lost, we cannot assume that he communicated his ideas, carrying them with him over a long period and reformulating them time and again, in order finally to arrive at a unique, characteristic and distinctive work of art in the way that Beethoven did. He did not need to prove that he knew how to write symphonies, concertos, string-quartets or piano sonatas; he knew the public whose wishes he had to satisfy, one which was well acquainted with the conventions of the various genres. He did not set out to solve compositional problems, question norms of form or content, or pursue a progressiveness that might alienate his contemporaries. It is impossible to say whether the intentions we like to attribute to the famous composers of his day (based on aesthetic norms that emerged later on) would have exceeded his capabilities, since to ask such a question would thoroughly misjudge the historical situation. Hoffmeister’s compositional interest lay in affirming the varied musical language of the day, which was also subject to certain norms. His piano sonatas are a response to the same demands as his educated, wealthy and genuinely demanding public made with regard to other luxury goods. All required—and still bear witness to—a consummate skill and artistry that does not deserve to be denigrated. And his sonatas were, undoubtedly, loved—otherwise there would not be so many surviving handwritten copies of the original editions. In sum, Hoffmeister’s piano sonatas deserve to be seen as a valuable record of social history. Moreover, they offer considerable variety and are, therefore, still worth playing and listening to today.

Axel Beer, Mainz
Edited by Sue Baxter

Something of the contemporary popularity of Hoffmeister as a composer may be seen in the fact that one of his sonatas was included in the album compiled by Domenico Corri for a Scottish and English public, Select Collection of Choice Music for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte, an engraved collection found, typically, among the music kept by Jane Austen at Chawton. Hoffmeister’s keyboard sonatas present clear examples of the classical style of Vienna, and the form in which such a style proved highly acceptable, not least to ambitious amateurs. This repertoire would include works by Steibelt and Pleyel, if not the more adventurous works of Beethoven. Hoffmeister’s 20 to 26 keyboard sonatas have been dated to a period between 1785 and 1803¹. The Sonata in C major, the first of a set of three, opens with a lively classical sonata allegro movement. The second movement is a Minuet and Trio, and this is followed by a typically lively Rondo. Strong chords open the Sonata in D major, the second of the group. The exposition provides chances for display, with an element of drama in the central development. The slow movement, marked Poco adagio, is in the tonic minor, with a contrast of mood at its heart, after the poignancy of the framing principal theme. The sonata ends with a Vivace, incorporating figuration and other elements familiar from the period. The third of the group has only two movements. The first of these is a gently melodious Andante con espressione. The second movement is a jaunty Rondo, spiced with rapid figuration. Two sonatas, dating from 1793 in the Pölitz collection², were published in Vienna by Hoffmeister under the title II Sonates pour le Fortepiano, ou pour Clavecin, to be bought à Vienne à son Magazin. The first of the pair, in F major, is very much in the spirit of Haydn’s sonatas. The opening Moderato is dominated by the principal subject, followed by a more dramatic transition before the second subject appears. After the repeated exposition of a straightforward classical sonata form movement the central development makes much of the opening figuration, proceeding through various modulations before the return of the opening thematic material. The slow movement is in ternary form and in the key of B flat major, and the main theme of the final Allegretto serves as the framework for a more dramatic excursion into D minor. The Sonata in B flat major, the second of the pair, has a similar first movement, an Allegro, with an emphatic first subject and due exploration of more distant keys in its central development. This leads to an E flat major Adagio and a sonata rondo final Allegro, with all the display needed to elicit applause.

Keith Anderson

¹ W.S. Newman: The Sonata in the Classic Era. (pp 550–51)

² From the collection of Professor Karl Heinrich Ludwig Pölitz (1772–1838) of Leipzig University, which is in the possession of the municipal library of Leipzig and consists of some 250 printed works and 380 manuscripts, some of which Pölitz copied himself. The collection was begun around 1785 and mostly completed by 1800.

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