Routes to Beethoven – 1770: Music in the year of Beethoven’s birth

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.

Listen

The music of 1770 is collected in a Spotify playlist below:

 

BBC Proms 2017 – Edgar Moreau and Il Pomo d’Oro at the Cadogan Hall

Edgar Moreau (cello), Il Pomo d’Oro / Maxim Emelyanychev (harpsichord)

Hasse Grave and Fugue in G minor (c1735)

Platti Cello Concerto in D major (c1724)

Vivaldi Cello Concerto in A minor, RV419 (c1725)

Telemann Divertimento in B flat major (c1763-6)

Boccherini Cello Concerto in D major, G479 (c1760)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 7 August 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

Fresh performances of seldom-heard repertoire. That sums up the fourth of the BBC Proms’ weekly visits to Cadogan Hall, downsizing as they do on a Monday lunchtime.

This was an invigorating hour, documenting the emergence of the cello as a solo instrument in the 1700s. Until then it was largely used as part of the ‘continuo’ – that is, the small section of instruments responsible for providing the harmonic base of the music – but thanks to composers such as Platti, Vivaldi and Boccherini the instrument’s own melodic potential began to be fully realised.

The first item in the concert provided some helpful context, a lean performance of the stern Grave by Johann Adolf Hasse, followed immediately by a Fugue rooted in dance forms. The authorship of this remains in doubt – Hasse is a contender, but a more likely composer was Franz Xaver Richter, a fellow Mannheimer. Whatever the outcome, the two pieces dovetailed nicely, setting the scene for the much brighter Cello Concerto in D major by the Italian composer Giovanni Benedetto Platti, employed in the German city of Würzburg.

His bright and breezy work showed off the cello’s new capabilities, if not quite raising it above the level of the surrounding violins. Edgar Moreau brought plenty of energy and pizzazz to the performance, however, with brilliant technique and studious interaction with the finely honed instrumental sextet Il Pomo d’Oro, and their charismatic leader Maxim Emelyanychev. His contribution on the harpsichord was a constant delight, punctuating the music and cajoling his players.

Vivaldi was next, one of the 20+ concertos he completed with the cello centre stage. This one, in A minor, had some tricks up its sleeve in the outer movements that Moreau enjoyed showing off, but the serene and rather beautiful melody in the central Andante stole the show.

Il Pomo d’Oro then took over for some forward looking music by Telemann. The German master’s Divertimento in B flat major contains glimpses of classical practice with its use of five light hearted ‘scherzo’ movements out of the six in total. There was plenty of variety within them however, and the poise and dexterity of the ensemble was a joy to watch.

Finally the cello got its best workout in one of Italian composer Luigi Boccherini’s 12 concerti. This one, the Cello Concerto in D major G479, sparked into life immediately, helped by Moreau’s immaculate control in the higher register, where most of the writing for cello could be found. This was a striking change in comparison to the Platti, the cello now much more dominant, and the duet with Zefira Valova’s violin in the slow movement felt more like a ballet score. Boccherini relocated to Spain, and the last movement betrayed this somewhat in its Fandango flavouring, where Moreau enjoyed the rapid dancing and energetic conclusion.

To bring us back to earth there was an encore of solo Bach, the Sarabande from the Solo Cello Suite no.3 in C. If Boccherini and co raised the cello to the heights in the concerto, then it was Bach who revolutionised the instrument in a solo capacity – and it was a nice touch to include that point here.

Ben Hogwood