The Offbeat 18th-Century Symphony: We're Familiar with Symphonies by the Big-Name Composers of the Era, but Nalen Anthoni Sifts through the Many Thousands Written during That Time to Find Some Remarkable Lesser-Known Ones from around Europe

By Anthoni, Nalen | Gramophone, November 2017 | Go to article overview

The Offbeat 18th-Century Symphony: We're Familiar with Symphonies by the Big-Name Composers of the Era, but Nalen Anthoni Sifts through the Many Thousands Written during That Time to Find Some Remarkable Lesser-Known Ones from around Europe


Anthoni, Nalen, Gramophone


Startling but true: 16,558 symphonies were written between roughly 1720 and 1800--the fact established by Jan LaRue after 34 years' research and recorded in his Catalogue of Eighteenth-Century Symphonies (Indiana University Press: 1988). Mixed in with the familiar are more than 1500 composers whose works musicologist Neal Zaslaw believes were not exclusively for the aristocracy but were also 'written in or for ... the monasteries, the cities, the towns and the villages of central and eastern Europe'.

Social transformation had changed the established order, garnered new audiences. Two styles--church and private chamber that until then had circumscribed music to a fixed purpose lost their dominance. In came 'concert style': public, offbeat and out of sync with court or ecclesiastical conventions, freeing composers from former constraints. Creative autonomy ruled. Radical? Sure. But structure and instrumentation were based on Italian opera, its fast-slow-fast opening sinfonia, the da capo aria (model for sonata form?) and a band of strings with pairs of oboes and horns setting the pace. In time the sinfonia breached its origins and confines, expanding its instrumentation and adding a minuet and trio as well. The four-movement symphony had arrived.

Nevertheless, every fin de siecle brings change. As Haydn was reaching his own symphonic pinnacle, tremors of a quake were being felt, exploding in two peremptory chords opening the Eroica Symphony (1803)--Beethoven's hurtling skid into a new road, a new dawn and a new story.

But there is an old, largely unknown story too, of hundreds of composers abandoned by posterity. Here are 10 from a wide area of Europe, each one represented by a striking example of individuality, and all in performances of striking merit. Six have no alternative versions. Four--of Marsh, Gossec, Rosetti and Kraus--outstrip rivals in insight. Portrayed in a microcosm of the 18th century are its gifted composers and their symphonies, emerging in these interpretations as enterprising, eccentric, experimental--and exciting.

Erskine, Earl of Kelly

Periodical Overture No 17

Hanover Band / Graham Lea-Cox

ASV (10/01)

A titled Scotsman at an elector's court? Indeed. Thomas Erskine spent several years studying with Johann Stamitz, 'father' of the Mannheim School. Concerts at the court were noisy affairs--music a mere accompaniment to social activity. The horns in this 1767 overture (alias Sinfonia) of three movements (on a disc that includes music of five other 18th-century British composers) are raucous enough to quell the rowdiest audience.

Dussek

Sinfonia in G, Altner G4

Helsinki Baroque Orchestra / Aapo Hakkinen

Naxos (A/12)

Three movements; strings, oboes and horns only--nevertheless, perceive a symphony in embryo. Atypically, though, the symphonies of Bohemia-born Frantisek Xaver Dusek didn't reach a wide public. Allan Badley reckons certain patrons had restricted their distribution. This work, though modestly scored, is substantial in content, and the brass parts offer a reminder that the ancestor of Dusek's first patron, Count Sporck, brought the horn to Bohemia in 1681.

Vanhal

Sinfonia in D, Bryan D17

Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia / Uwe Grodd

Naxos (4/00)

Johann Baptist Vanhal--dogged by malice though he was--was important as a leading symphonist of the day, and this was recognised by Jan LaRue, HC Robblns Landon and specialist Paul Bryan. Listen from the two-minute opening Andante molto in D minor and engage with a work (composed c1779) both grand and profound. The unusual sonority of wind parts scored exclusively for oboes and trumpets enhances its significance as a symphony in all but name.

Kozeluch

Symphony in B flat, 'L.'irresoluto'

Concerto Koln

Warner Classics

'Too pleased with himself . …

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