by Ben Hogwood
Picture: Beethoven’s parents, Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich
The last listening exercise before diving into the music of Beethoven is to explore the music being made in the year of his birth, to try and get an idea of the temperature in Western classical music.
For Mozart, opera was key – even at the age of 14. His year began with a trip to Italy, organised by father Leopold with the aim of securing a big stage commission. That was duly achieved in Milan, at the flagship Teatro Regio Ducal (below). In December this prestigious venue became the setting for the premiere of Mozart’s first opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. An ambitious three-act work, it has some eyecatching arias for the leading cast, virtuoso writing that established Mozart as a composer of real intent and secured a number of standing ovations at the premiere.
With the commission for Mitridate secured in January the Mozarts toured Italy for much of 1770, where Wolfgang found the time to take his symphonic canon into double figures. Don’t forget, he was still barely a teenager!
Haydn, meanwhile, an established composer in his late thirties, was beginning to flex his symphonic muscles. His Sturm und Drang period was just under way, and the innovations he would make in nearly every musical genre were beginning to take shape. 1770 was a relatively quiet year for his output, however. The symphony he completed, no.43 in E flat major, is known as the Mercure for no obvious reason. It is perhaps a more ‘polite’ piece than the minor key examples around it, but that should not be seen as a derogatory observation – it has the typical Haydn poise, guile and wit.
In London, Johann Christian Bach (Bach’s eleventh and youngest son) was impressing with his symphonies and piano concertos, and Hummel published a set of six as Op.6 in 1770. Daniel Heartz writes of how no.5 was a favourite with the public, to judge by the number of reprinting, but that the sixth in the series is impressive, with a ‘fiery middle movement’.
Meanwhile the fifth Bach son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, was adding to his enormous output too. Exact dates are harder to find for his works, though the first version of the Passion According to St Mark can definitely be said to have been completed in 1770.
Meanwhile Gluck, one of the most prominent operatic composers of the day, was occupied with the Viennese premiere of Paride ed Elena. When compared with his stage successes Orfeo ed Euridice or Iphigenie en Tauride, it has not performed well historically. Little is written about its premiere or reception, save for the relative lack of a convincing plot in the opera itself, but listening to it reveals some beautiful writing for soprano and castrato, and a Chaconne that becomes increasingly daring as it proceeds. It has been cited in a number of articles such as this one that Paride ed Elena marks a change in opera from singing to storytelling.
Elsewhere Boccherini was making a name as a prolific composer of works for strings, the most since Vivaldi – and secured for himself a prestigious role as cellist and composer to the royal court in Madrid. He would write more than 15 cello concertos and much chamber music besides.
What of the music of Bonn, where Beethoven was born in 1770? Well not much is known – or at least, not within easy reach in books or on the internet! It would be intriguing to know what was played at his baptism in St. Remigius on 17 December. Listen to the playlist below though and you will get an idea of the music circulating in what appears to have been a transitional year in European music. In many ways it was the calm before the storm.
The music of 1770 is collected in a Spotify playlist below: