Tag Archives: Classic era

W.F. Bach’s polonaises

 

 

The 12 keyboard polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach were immensely popular during the composer’s lifetime, and they are among his best-known pieces today.

W.F. Bach did not treat the polonaise as a light, unpretentious dance form for dilettantes; rather, he approached the genre with the same compositional refinement and sophistication found in his large forms.

Written during the period when the popular galant style dominated, these pieces display aspects of the older contrapuntal art and a level of complexity that rarely appears in light popular dance genres of the time.

This according to “‘…welche dem größten Concerte gleichen’: The polonaises of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach” by Peter Wollny, an essay included in The keyboard in Baroque Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 169–83; RILM Abstracts 2003-4580).

Today is W.F. Bach’s 310th birthday! Below, the 12 polonaises played on the fortepiano by Slobodan Jovanović.

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Cherubini and revolutionary opera

 

Luigi Cherubini’s Médée was the first new major operatic work based on classical subject matter to appear on a Paris stage after years of lip service to—but little artistic concern with—the heritage of Gluck.  The work’s 1797 premier met a lukewarm reception because it attempted to reinterpret the classical tradition in revolutionary terms at a time when the conservative backlash of the Directoire had already begun.

Dramatically, the character of Médée symbolizes the fury of the Jacobin, while musically the colorful mass effects and harmonic boldness of revolutionary opera are matched with stylistic conventions of prerevolutionary composers. The result is an intermixture of musical realism and expressionism that anticipated not only the last works of Verdi and his veristic successors but also the psychological dramas of Strauss and Berg.

This according to “Cherubini’s Médée and the spirit of French Revolutionary opera” by Alexander L. Ringer, an essay included in Essays in musicology in honor of Dragan Plamenac on his 70th birthday (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969 281–99; RILM Abstracts 1969-1154).

Today is Cherubini’s 260th birthday! Above, the composer as a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, ca. 1820; below, Maria Callas sings an aria from Médée in a widely used Italian translation.

 

 

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Salieri’s wit

 

Unlike the troubled fictional character of stage and screen, the real Antonio Salieri was described by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the master librettist of Mozart’s operas, as “a most cultivated and intelligent man…whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination…more than a friend, a brother to me.” He also had a nimble wit and enjoyed jokes at his own expense.

Salieri wrote a memoir that is now lost, but some quotations from it have survived. In one particularly winning anecdote, Salieri is recounting the première, in 1770, of his second opera, Le donne letterate. The applause is vigorous, and the young composer follows the audience out into the street, hoping to soak up more praise. He overhears a group of operagoers:

“The opera is not bad” said one. “It pleased me right well” said a second (that man I could have kissed). “For a pair of beginners, it is no small thing” said the third. “For my part” said the fourth, “I found it very tedious.” At these words, I struck off into another street for fear of hearing something still worse.

This according to “Salieri’s revenge:  He was falsely cast as music’s sorest loser, and he’s now getting a fresh hearing” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker XCV/15 [3 June 2019] 26–31; RILM Abstracts 2019-6047).

Today is Salieri’s 270th birthday! Above, a portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler; below, excerpts from Axur, re d’Ormus, one of Salieri’s collaborations with Da Ponte.

BONUS: The finale of Axur as depicted in the film Amadeus.

Related article: Telemann’s wit

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Mozart’s carriage and the Haydn cartwright tradition

 

In 1762 Leopold Mozart purchased a horse-drawn coach in Pressburg: a well-sprung, covered travel carriage for four at the price of “nur 23 duccatten”. Leopold described it as a “guten Reisewagen”. It brought the family safely back to Vienna (a trip of 12 hours) and from there home to Salzburg, leaving Vienna on 31 December 1762. Half a year later the Mozart family used the same carriage for their grand tour of Western Europe (1763–66), which took them as far as London.

It is likely that the carriage Leopold purchased in Pressburg came from the workshop of the Haydn family, which was for several generations involved with carriage production and shared the market with just a few others. The family profession of carriage building began with Thomas Haydn, Joseph’s grandfather, who was allowed to open a workshop in 1686.

Joseph Haydn stayed interested in the work of cartwrights, blacksmiths, and other manual professions. His letters and notebooks from London in particular show his interest in the working conditions of craftsmen there, and his preference for technical and practical matters, numbers, and measurements. Even at the peak of his international success, Haydn stayed connected to the family’s cartwright tradition.

The carriage trade was still on his mind during his second stay in London, when he made several visits to a Mr. March, an 84-year-old dentist, wine merchant, and carriage maker. The aged gentleman impressed Haydn not only because of his very young mistress and a daughter of nine, but also because each coach sold by Mr. March earned him at least £500.

This according to “Did Mozart drive a ‘Haydn’? Cartwrights, carriages and the postal system in the Austrian-Hungarian border area up to the eighteenth century” by Käthe Springer-Dissmann, an essay included in Ottoman empire and European theatre. II: The time of Joseph Haydn–From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r.1730–1839) (Wien: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014, 257–80; RILM Abstracts 2014-88916).

Above, an Austrian carriage from around 1790; below, a carriage ride through Mozart’s Vienna.

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The truth about “Così”

 

The immorality of the characters in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, o sia La scuola degli amanti, K.588, has always been shocking to operagoers, and some have denounced Da Ponte’s plot as tasteless and vulgar; but the librettist did not invent the story—he simply borrowed the myth of Cephalus and Procris, enriching the tale by doubling the pair.

Others have maintained that the characters are mere puppets, not real people, so one may relax and enjoy the blameless music. However, Mozart drew fully developed musical characters for all of the roles, musically asserting their reality.

Ultimately, the work is a ruthlessly rational exposure of the instinctive irrationality of human behavior—and therein lies its ability to shock.

This according to “The truth about Così” by Donald Mitchell, an essay included in Tribute to Benjamin Britten on his fiftieth birthday (London: Faber & Faber, 1963, pp. 95–99).

Today is the 230th anniversary of Così fan tutte’s premiere! Above, a handbill for the first performance; below, an excerpt from Act II.

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Stravinsky and Pergolesi

 

In his statements on the origin of Pulcinella, Igor Stravinsky leads the reader astray; none of the models used by him are, as he alleges, fragments, incomplete, or sketches, and none were unknown.

Stravinsky’s ballet is a parody based on 21 pieces transmitted under Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s name and taken from various contexts. Four are from Pergolesi’s Frate ’nnamorato, three from Flaminio, one from the cantata Luce degli occhi miei, and one from the violoncello sonata. The rest of the pieces have been incorrectly attributed to Pergolesi; one is a modern forgery.

The texts of the arias are distorted to the point of unrecognizability in Stravinsky’s ballet; the curious double text in the trio results from a misunderstanding of the manuscript source. Apparently Stravinsky became acquainted with the music from both of Pergolesi’s comedies in 1917 in Naples. The material that he took from these was later supplemented by primarily unauthentic pieces from printed sources in the British Museum.

This according to “Die musikalischen Vorlagen zu Igor Strawinskys Pulcinella” by Helmut Hucke, an essay included in Frankfurter musikhistorische Studien: Helmuth Osthoff zu seinem siebzigsten Geburtstag uberreicht von Kollegen, Mitarbeitern und Schülern (Tutzing: Schneider, 1969, pp. 241–50).

Today is Pergolesi’s 310th birthday! Below, Stravinsky’s suite from Pulcinella.

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Christian Cannabich’s “Les Fêtes du sérail”

 

In 2019 A-R Editions completed its series Ballet Music from the Mannheim Court with a critical edition of two ballets by Christian CannabichLes fêtes du sérail and Angélique et Médor, ou Roland furieux.

Les Fêtes du sérail was probably based on Jean-Georges Noverre’s Les jalousies, ou Les fêtes du sérail, as described in his Lettres sur la danse. The ballet features several movements with “Turkish” instruments and the exotic setting of a harem.

Above, a portrait of Cannabich by Egid Verhelst; below, a suite from Les fêtes du sérail.

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Friedrich Christian Mohrheim, pupil of Bach

 

A member of Bach’s circle, long known only as Anonymous Vg, was identified early in the 21st century as Friedrich Christian Mohrheim.

From 1733 to 1736 Mohrheim was a documented boarder at the Thomasschule in Leipzig, where he studied with Bach. He later influenced musical life in Gdańsk through his extensive concert activity and his work as Kapellmeister at the Bazylika Mariacka.

This according to “Der Bachschüler Friedrich Christian Samuel Mohrheim (1719–1780) als Danziger Kapellmeister und Konzertveranstalter” by Karla Neschke, an essay included in Vom rechten Thon der Orgeln und anderer Instrumenten: Festschrift Christian Ahrens zum 60. Geburtstag (Bad Köstritz: Forschungs- und Gedenkstätte Heinrich-Schütz-Haus, 2003, pp. 210–21).

Today is Mohrheim’s 300th birthday! Above, the Bazylika Mariacka; below, Mohrheim’s cantata Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn from 1762.

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Not Luka Sorkočević

In 2015 the Hrvatska pošta produced a stamp honoring the eighteenth-century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević, inadvertently illustrated with an image of the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

The mistake was discovered just before the stamp’s release, and the entire run was withdrawn and destroyed, though one post office had sold 22 examples of it prior to the release date.

In view of the events and given the fact that apparently no copies had yet reached the philatelic market, a 2018 advertisement from the auction house Barac & Pervan noted that this stamp should become widely sought after; and since this rarity is also important for the American philatelic market, its value is expected to increase over time.

This according to “Unissued stamp from 2015 supposed to show Mr. Luka Sorkočević” (Barac & Pervan 2018). Below, one of the composer’s symphonies.

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William Herschel at the crossroads

 

William Herschel’s career shift from art to science can be regarded as a symbol of the change that music aesthetics underwent in the eighteenth century.

The traditional view of music’s dual nature as both art and science was widely accepted as the century opened, but it was challenged by a growing interest in issues such as genius and the role of inspiration in the creative process. The nature of musical expression defied rational explanation.

The conclusion that genius and inspiration were beyond the law of nature, and that music is not just an expression of natural order but a means by which feelings and emotions can be expressed and thoughts and ideas transferred, contributed to the philosophical background for the Romanticism of the nineteenth century. The arts and sciences had come to a crossroads, and Herschel chose to follow the path of science.

This according to “Music: A science and an art—The 18th-century parting of the ways” by John Bergsagel (Dansk årbog for musikforskning XII [1981] pp. 5-18).

Today is Herschel’s 280th birthday! Above, a portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott; below, his viola concerto in C Major.

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