Magazine article Musical Times

Symphonic Studies

Magazine article Musical Times

Symphonic Studies

Article excerpt

Symphonic studies

The symphony in Beethoven's Vienna David Wyn Jones Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1006); xii, 23ipp; £50, $90. ISBN 978 o 521 86261 5.

Music as thought: listening to the symphony in the age of Beethoven Mark Evan Bonds Princeton University Press (Princeton & Oxford, 2006); xxi, iogpp; £18.95, $19.95. ISBN 978 0691 12659.

WE DO NOT COMMONLY THINK of the symphony in the first decades of 19th-century Vienna as being in crisis. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence ot a relentless diminution in supply and demand from the peak of Haydn's productivity in the early 1790s to Beethoven's most fertile years at the beginning of the 19th century. The second half of the 18th century had seen a growing appetite for symphonies, performed for the most part - because the provision of public concerts was slow to take off - in churches and monasteries and above all in the many aristocratic households that maintained an orchestra, and facilitated by the improving distribution of manuscript copies and the increasing trade in engraved orchestral parts. But by the first decade of the new century many opportunities for performing symphonies had been lost: the Josephian reforms had reduced both the means and the occasion for orchestral music in church, and the majority of private orchestras had been disbanded in favour of the more economical wind band. In consequence, the supply of performance material dried up, and the number of new symphonies composed in and for Vienna declined markedly. It was in this barren climate that, in 1807, Beethoven petitioned the directors of the court theatres for the post of house composer: the status of the symphony seemed so unpromising that he was prepared to contemplate building his career upon the composition of an annual opera, having struggled to have four symphonies performed in seven years.

Fundamental to the decline of the symphony was the absence of a regular series of public concerts in Vienna - the contrast with Haydn's successful selfpromotion in London in the 17905 is acute. Such concerts that did take place offered an environment unfavourable for the symphony: charity concerts, of which the most important were the Christmas and Easter offerings of the Tonkunstler-Societat, were increasingly based on choral music (especially Haydn's oratorios); benefit concerts, usually devised to support a soloist rather than a composer, tended to feature concertos. The result was not only a scarcity of performances, but also of commissions. Even at the height of his fame, Haydn never had a symphony commissioned by a Viennese institution (there is evidence that his earlier works were preferred to his ground-breaking masterpieces of the 17905), and the symphonic output of visiting composers - for example Vanhal, Gyrowetz and Kozeluch - plummeted when they moved to the imperial city. That the decline in demand accelerated in the last years of the century is reflected in successive editions of the catalogue of the publisher Johann Traeg: the catalogue of 1799 still shows a healthy demand, with performance material for more than 500 symphonies for sale - though, ominously, these were mostly older works. By the time the catalogue was updated in 1804, a mere 30 symphonies were available. In the last years of the Napoleonic period the situation continued to worsen. The symphony all but disappeared from public concerts: between 1809 and 1814 no symphonies were included in the programmes of the Tonkunstler-Societat; just one Haydn symphony was included in the WohltatigkeitsAnstalten concerts, and a single movement of a Mozart symphony was given in a benefit concert. David Wyn Jones advances the remarkable argument that the symphony as a public event was 'in danger of disappearing' in these years - a claim that is not altogether invalidated by the hidden amateur activity in this period, often intense and prolific, such as the nightly performance of symphonies (largely older music, with Haydn and Mozart well represented) during Schubert's schooldays at the Stadtkonvikt. …

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