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Joseph Wölfl. The Symphonies


Text of the booklet "Joseph Wölfl. The Symphonies / PRATUM INTEGRUM ORCHESTRA"

Preserved in the history of 18th century music are stories of several legendary artistic duels: Johann Sebastian Bach – Louis Marchand, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Muzio Clementi, as for the young Ludwig van Beethoven, he had plenty of eminent rivals in Vienna. Some (like Daniel Steibelt) he immediately demolished, but others were more serious opponents and here there were no easy victories. One such adversary was the composer and pianist Joseph Wölfl (1773 – 1812), who has gone down in history as “Beethoven’s rival”. How fair is this?

They were of the same generation, but Wölfl probably saw himself above all as continuing the traditions of Mozart and Haydn. First, he was born in Salzburg when Mozart was still living there and his name was on everyone’s lips. Second, the young Wölfl’s teachers were Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn, father to one musical genius and brother to the other. Third, in 1790 Wölfl set off for Vienna in order to perfect his skills under Wolfgang Amadeus himself. It is not known whether this resulted in regular lessons. Mozart, however, gave his fellow townsman a valuable recommendation which enabled the latter to enter the service of Count Oginski, a member of a well-known Polish family of musicians and arts patrons. In 1792 in Warsaw Wölfl gave his first public performance as pianist.

In 1795 he returned to Vienna where competition in the arts world was extremely fierce and even Beethoven had a struggle to win for himself the reputation of ‘king’ of pianists. What were the qualities that made several experienced listeners and critics give their preference to Wölfl? In terms of personality and outward appearance the two rivals were poles apart: Beethoven – short, dark-complexioned, wiry, sharp-tongued and uncouth, but possessing astonishing will-power and strength; Wölfl – tall, thin as a rake, somewhat phlegmatic and always courteous and polite. He had huge hands: he could easily span a twelfth and had no experience of the usual difficulties of the pianist. Wölfl’s repertoire was distinguished by a noble seriousness. He played Mozart beautifully. His own works showed a good school, classical taste and a pleasant freshness, added to which he was very adept at improvisation (in Hamburg he was favourably compared to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach). And therefore his piano duel with Beethoven ended in a draw: each camp holding its own. But the creative dialogue between the two musicians continued, forming into a pattern consisting now of parallels, now of perpendiculars.

While Beethoven from 1798 onwards virtually gave up his career as touring virtuoso in order to concentrate on composing music, Wölfl in the same year left Vienna together with his wife, the singer, and set out on a long tour of the towns of Europe, being given a marvelous reception wherever he appeared. He gave performances in Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris. At the same time he managed to write quite a lot of music. In Vienna he published his first instrumental works (incidentally, the three piano Trios op. 5, which appeared in 1798, were dedicated to Joseph Haydn, and the three piano Sonatas op. 6, which came out the same year – to Beethoven). He also composed operas (Der Höllenberg to a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder, 1795; L’amour romanesque, 1804; Fernando, 1805).

There are all sorts of rumors surrounding Wölfl’s sudden departure from Paris: according to one version, he took up with a card-sharper and was forced to leave the city following a scandal; according to another, he was in the service of Empress Josephine and, after her divorce from Napoleon, accompanied her to Switzerland. But all this belongs to the realm of conjecture. What we know for sure is that in 1805 he appeared in London, where he remained to the end of his life and where, as in the other European towns, he was given a rapturous welcome. Wölfl’s concerts were successful, his works were performed, he gave lessons to talented English musicians (the most famous of them was the composer Cipriani Potter who, several years after the death of his teacher, set off… for Vienna and Beethoven – the latter however refused to teach him, giving him instead some friendly words of advice). Wölfl died suddenly, at the very height of his fame, and for several decades his compositions were to remain in the concert, domestic and teaching repertoire.

The list of his works includes: seven operas in different genres, two ballets, seven concertos for piano with orchestra, a lot of chamber music and sonatas, MÎthode de pianoforte, songs, dances, variations…

He, of course, also wrote symphonies, an all-important genre for the musicians of the classical era. By the end of the 18th century, from an introductory piece, similar to the Italian opera overture, the symphony had developed into a major genre of instrumental music, capable of sustaining any conception, whether of a tragic, philosophical or religious-utopian nature (as in the case of Mozart’s last symphony which in England was given the eloquent name of Jupiter).

This was the starting ground, from which Beethoven and Wölfl had begun their path in the 1790s. For Beethoven the symphony became the culmination genre, whereas for Wölfl it did not; being competitors in the art of piano playing, they widely differed from each other in terms of large orchestral forms.

In contrast to Beethoven, Wölfl does not invent any radically new techniques, merely utilizing very carefully the readily available ones, though it seems that this in particular presents one of the paradoxical features of his style: the typical techniques are not perceived as a tiresome conventionality. The first impression of his music is that it is pleasing; you start to examine what it is comprised of – and you could hardly discern anything which would not be present in the music of any of his contemporaries. His harmony, counterpoint and form in their general aspect fit perfectly into the classical canon – nonetheless, they are full of so much of the inspired ‘a little bit different type’, that with their help images are created, which are capable of astonishing and touching.

Wölfl wrote only three symphonies, moreover, the third has been preserved only in the form of a piano reduction. The two other symphonies are presented in this album; they have been recorded for the first time, and are not yet familiar to the general public. As a bonus, the CD presents the recording of the Grand Duo for pianoforte and violoncello, which was composed approximately at the same time as both symphonies.

As a strange coincidence, the G minor Symphony is catalogued in his list of compositions under number 40, and the C major Symphony is listed under number 41. The same numbers and keys are bestowed to the last two symphonies by Mozart: the famous Fortieth Symphony was written in G minor, while the Forty-First (the Jupiter Symphony) is in the key of C major. This correspondence, however, is entirely by chance: Mozart had not numbered his symphonies, this tradition having appeared only after Ludwig von Köchel had compiled a catalogue of his works, publishing it in 1862.

As determined by the opus numbers, Wölfl’s symphonies were written one after the other. The First Symphony appeared in 1803, while the exact date of the composition of the Second is unknown, though mention of it could be found from 1808. Both of them are obviously written in consideration of a large auditorium audience – this is ‘large-scale music’, resembling opera libretti with numerous characters, where gods and heroes, pastoral scenes and battles are plentiful; these plots require much space; they develop quickly and are full of metamorphoses and sudden changes. This whole ‘chatoyant’ world is seen as if from a certain distance, so that it is not possible to follow all the minute details, however their beauty and abundance please the eye even from afar.

Wölfl prefers to utilize short themes; in fast movements he juxtaposes dozens of motives in a virtuosic manner, while in slow movements he contents himself with one or two, but what spreading forms he is able to create from them! At the same time, building colossal constructions from small details, he evades the expected outcome almost at every point: the strokes of the overall picture, usually predictable in its general features, always appear somewhat different ‘than normal’, and this in particular is what causes the listener to be on the alert all the time, to notice everything unusual – and to take pleasure in the masterfully, vividly created beauty. To deceive, to show cunning, to mislead your expectations – this seems to be the favourite ploy of this composer.

For example, he could write a theme, which obviously is meant to become a theme of a fugue (like in the beginning of the Finale of the Symphony in G minor) – and continue postponing the fugato, while promising its beginning many times, but not presenting its continuation (the fugato appears only in the development section). In the same symphony he turns the Minuet into a rollicking procession – simultaneously endowing it with such pathos at times, as if for all of its participants it happens to be the last procession in their life. In the recapitulation, the theme ‘cracked’ and split up: the lower voice delayed, the upper voice went onwards faster which resulted in a canon, held out strictly up until the cadence. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, such contrapuntally ‘dishevelled’ Minuets had been written by many composers; they could be found in the music of Förster, Rosetti, Boccherini, Beethoven (the most famous example is, of course, in Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony). Wölfl was not alone in this kind of endeavor, and this is exactly one of these cases, when traditional ideas were embodied with the most typical, average means – but in such a talented way, that it all seems to be very novel.

Wölfl with great pleasure and with millions of various means evokes ‘thunder and lightning’: his Bellona is perfectly equipped and can attack from anywhere, whether in a major or minor keyed composition, in a fast and slow movement, and in any section of the form. Mozart generally never used brass instruments and timpani in his symphonies in minor keys, whereas Wölfl does not leave them out in any of the movements, even the slow ones. In the Andante from the G minor Symphony the forte section with the timpani, horns and trumpets becomes the main trump of the form. This music is written as if according to the scene from Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri: “I feel good, when all at once... A funereal vision, sudden gloom, or something… Here, listen”. This “something” is created with the entire orchestral force: the role of the “vision” is played by the previously sounded out motive, which at first seemed to be an innocent dance tune, and subsequently every one of its giant footsteps leads to convulsive shakes of the entire orchestra.

Such kinds of forte are at times so dazzling and pathetic, that by the end of the symphony they remain in the listener’s memory seemingly apart from the entire context and, perhaps, they first come to mind in response to the mention of Wölfl’s name.

Then, one recalls the brightest melodies, and among them, of course, the melody of the Finale of the Symphony in C major. In its genre it depicts country dance – the dance with which a ball was usually finished. It was so popular that young people often came to balls particularly to dance the country dances at the end. It used to be called ‘jumble-dance’ in jest, and this kind of jumble dance concludes the C major symphony. However, when conclusions of musical compositions are touched upon, one should mention that one of the most effective cadenzas could be found at the end of the first movement of this composition: gradually absorbing new groups of instruments, the musical flow accumulates into a tremendous many-layered C major triad. But, then, such details in Wölfl’s scores are innumerable. Moreover, it seems that this composer was able to achieve everything with great ease: most likely, he wrote his symphonies in a good emotional mood, taking pleasure in the swiftly appearing ideas and feeling that he could embody them quite freely into his compositions.

Undoubtedly, many traits of this music could remind one of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. However, while listening to Wölfl, the wish to compare him to anybody else disappears; he is so fluent and original, that, forgetting about all of his contemporaries and rivals, one sincerely admires his simple scales, teasing grace-notes and many other charming details, filling the high-coloured atmosphere of his music.


Anna Andrushkevich

Translated by Amanda Calvert, Anton Rovner


Text of the booklet "Joseph Wölfl. The Symphonies / PRATUM INTEGRUM ORCHESTRA"


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