Music Director Nicholas McGegan contributes these program notes for the June 3 concert that opens the Berkeley Early Music Festival.
In the years before a television took over every living room, no parlour was thought to be complete without a piano. In many households chamber music was something you made at home rather than went to hear in a concert hall, if that was even possible outside a major city. Playing the piano, like dancing, was regarded as an essential part of a child’s upbringing, especially a young lady’s. Young men customarily learned to play the violin, flute, or cello, the latter being the most aristocratic of all.
The present Prince of Wales is the third, and probably not the best, princely cellist in his family. The Duke of Wellington’s father, the Earl of Mornington, is described as “the first member of the British aristocracy who dared to walk through the London Streets openly and unashamedly carrying a violin case.” Amateur music making was certainly an aristocratic pastime as can be seen in this cartoon of the Pic-Nic Orchestra by James Gillray, which I am lucky enough to own.
In more ordinary families, music making helped fill the hours after dinner, the daughters at the piano or singing, the father and brothers playing violin or cello. Some daughters, such as Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice occasionally didn’t know when to stop, provoking her father’s reproof: “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough.”
Another Gillray engraving shows the potential hazards of such a musical evening in a house of a rather pretentious farming family. The result of all this domestic musical activity was a ready market for all kinds of chamber music:
piano sonatas with flute or violin, string quartets, piano trios, and song with trio accompaniment. Much of tonight’s concert is based on this type of repertoire, most of which was published in England, even though it may have been written by composers based as far away as Vienna.
In 1812 Beethoven wrote his Allegretto for piano trio expressly for Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of some close friends. As he wrote on the manuscript: “for my little friend Maxe Brentano to encourage her with her piano-playing.” She was about ten years old at the time and must have been quite the prodigy. The manuscript is not only one of the neatest that he ever wrote (she probably played from it) but also Beethoven put fingerings in the piano part to guide young Maxe. She clearly continued her piano lessons because a decade later Beethoven dedicated his magnificent late Piano Sonata op. 109 to her. This elegant delightful trio was never published in his lifetime.
The second half of the eighteenth century saw a revival of interest in German as a language for poetry and drama. Prior to Goethe and his contemporaries, French had been the language of choice for verse, belles lettres, and even polite conversation, just as Italian was the language of opera. However, it didn’t take long for composers to start setting these lyrics to music, though the flowering of German lieder would not come until the following century. Tonight we will hear two fine lieder by Mozart, one of which is a setting of a text by Goethe. Unlike many German songs of the period (including some of Schubert’s) where each verse is set to the same music like a modern hymn, these gems are through-composed.
Frantisek Kotzwara was famous for two things for over a century: his piece The Battle of Prague and his sensational exit from this world. He most probably wrote the work for piano in 1788 while he was living in Dublin and it remained in the repertoire for over a hundred years. The actual battle was fought in 1757 between King Frederick the Great of Prussia’s army and the Austrians. The piano piece tries to give the flavour of the sound and fury of the battle, complete with booming cannons, charging cavalry and the whirring of rifle shots. In the era before cinema organs such pieces were wildly popular; indeed, in Boston it was said that no concert was considered complete without it. Many early pianos had the kind of percussion effects added to them that you will hear employed this evening.
Mark Twain mentions exactly this type of piano in Huckleberry Finn:
“There was a little old piano, too, that had tin pans in it, I reckon, and nothing was ever so lovely as to hear the young ladies sing ‘The Last Link is Broken’ and play ‘The Battle of Prague’ on it.”
Kotzwara’s demise was one of the most spectacular among the sometimes macabre and bizarre deaths of composers. In 1791, he visited a courtesan called Susannah Hill, offering her two shillings to emasculate him with a knife. Not surprisingly, she refused (two shillings being about the price of a good dinner back then, though I somehow doubt that money was really the issue here). He then put a rope around his neck which he tied to the doorknob. In the course of their subsequent amours he apparently died (one hopes happily) of asphyxiation. Later that year, Miss Hill was sent for trial at the Old Bailey where she was acquitted of murder. Lurid pamphlets narrating the whole episode were widely distributed. The trial was the talk of the town and Haydn, who was in London at the time,
certainly knew about it, though he discreetly only mentions the composer’s name in his diary leaving the rest to one’s imagination. The Internet is full of discussion of Kotzwara’s demise with works ranging from the sensational to articles in medical journals. In the past few years some people have even imitated him (with fatal success), including an English Tory politician and an American movie star hoping to revive his former “glory.”
In 18th century Europe almost everything classy, with the exception of grand opera, originated in France. The works of Rameau, because of their rarified, hot-house style, had little appeal outside Paris and the Court. However a new generation of composers who started writing in the 1760’s changed all that. Influenced perhaps by the musical writings of Rousseau, the Baron Grimm and the Encyclopédistes, they rejected what they saw as the artificiality of the Ramelian manner in favour of what they called vraisemblance, or truth to nature. Gone were the opéra’s gods and goddesses, and instead on to the stage came real French men and women: Parisian hairdressers, grasping landlords, servants of every livery, country bumpkins and shepherdesses who actually worked, not the Little Bo Peep look-alikes you see in the paintings of Boucher and Fragonard.
Some of the plots were based on English novels such as Tom Jones, which was thought to be tremendously racy in Paris, or plays from the London Theatre. Composers wrote in a simpler style influenced by Italian opera buffa with tunes you could hum or sing at home. Instead of recitative, they preferred spoken dialogue. The result was opéra comique, which became the rage all over Europe and continued in the following century to be the format for the operettas of Offenbach, Johann Strauss, and Gilbert & Sullivan.
Of the first generation of these composers, the most famous is Philidor, partly because he had a second career as the best known chess player in Europe. However, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny is certainly not a composer to be despised; indeed several of his opéras-comiques have been revived in the USA in recent years by Opera Lafayette based in Washington, DC. The plot of Le Roi et le Fermier comes from an English play by Robert Dodsley. The song we’ll hear this evening shows off Monsigny’s gift at its finest: a simple, charming, heartfelt tune whose qualities have stood the test of time. In fact, this very song was a favourite of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who actually performed the role of Jenny onstage in Versailles.
François-Adrien Boieldieu’s most famous work is La Dame Blanche, which is an opera based on the novels of Sir Walter Scott, an author whose books also inspired Berlioz and Donizetti. This charming song is a Barcarolle, the trademark music of Venetian gondoliers.
In 1790, Haydn’s patron Prince Nicholas Eszterházy died and was succeed by his less musically inclined son Anton. He disbanded his father’s orchestra and opera company. As a result, Haydn was free to travel and see the world. A timely invitation arrived in the person of Johann Peter Salamon, a violinist and composer who had a very successful concert series in London. Haydn’s music was well known there, but I suspect that he had little idea what a sensation his arrival in the British capital would cause. He was amazed by the size and bustle of London but less thrilled by the air; he wrote that the fog was so thick you could spread it on bread.
Nothing prepared him for the star treatment he received. He had been born in a tiny farming village east of Vienna, had lived much of his life working in a princely household miles from anywhere, had never seen the sea let alone been in a ship, yet now he found himself fêted by the royal family and other members of high society in the largest city in the western world. He was astonished when he was invited to enter through the front door of each grand house whereas in Vienna or the Eszterházy palaces he had always been expected to use the servants’ entrance. He wrote that at a concert “The Prince of Wales sat on my right side and played with us on his violoncello, quite tolerably…. He is the most handsome man on God’s earth; he has an extraordinary love of music and a lot of feeling, but not much money.”
Clearly, he was having the time of his life. And not only on the public stage: he was over sixty years old and his private life was enjoying an Indian summer too. He met and fell in love with Rebecca Schroeter, some twenty years his junior. She was the Scottish widow of a German pianist who had taught the Royal children, and not only was she pretty but also of independent means. Haydn kept her love letters to him and they make charming reading, though one doesn’t have to believe him when he claimed that he only kept them in order to practice his English. Later he said that he would have married her if only Mrs. Haydn hadn’t been alive and well back in Vienna.
This trio is one of a set of three that Haydn dedicated to Maria Anna, widow of Prince Anton Eszterházy, the man who had allowed him to travel in the first place, but who had died in 1794. The opening movement is a miracle of elegant wit. As usual in trios of this period, the cellist gets the least to do, apart from doubling the bass of the keyboard which was often a bit weak on early British pianos. The gentle, wistful slow movement leads directly into a boisterous finale based on Central European folk music. It was an obvious crowd pleaser and so, not long afterwards, Haydn cloned it in the famous Gypsy Rondo, the finale of a trio that he dedicated to his London inamorata Rebecca Schroeter.
The second half of this evening’s concert would not have come into being without the seemingly tireless energies of one man, Scottish amateur musician and publisher George Thomson (1757-1851).
He held a government position in Edinburgh but his real passion was for the music of his native land. He loved the songs but was horrified by what he perceived as the roughness, even indelicacy, of the texts. Through a friend he made contact with Robert Burns, whose assistance he sought in his worthy task. In his introductory letter to Burns he wrote: “For some years past, I have, with a friend or two, employed many leisure hours in collating and collecting the most favourite of our national melodies, for publication…. we are desirous to have the poetry improved wherever it seems unworthy of the music…. Some charming melodies are united to mere nonsense and doggerel, while others are accommodated with rhymes so loose and indelicate as cannot be sung in decent company…. We shall esteem your poetical assistance a particular favour, besides paying any reasonable price you shall please to demand for it.”
Burns reply was certainly all he could have wished for: “In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, and etc. could be downright Sodomy of Soul! A proof of each of the Songs that I compose or amend, I shall receive as a favour.”
Burns went about his work with gusto. He wrote: “You cannot imagine how much this business of composing for your publication had added to my enjoyments…. Balladmaking is now as completely my hobbyhorse, as ever Fortifications was Uncle Toby’s [Burns is referring to a character in Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy]; so I’ll e’en canter it away till I come to the limit of my race (God grant that I may take the right side of the winning post!) and then chearfully looking back on the honest folks with whom I have been happy, I shall say, or sing, ‘Sae merry as we a’ hae been’ [a reference to a well known Scots song].”
The relationship between them was not always an easy one largely because Thomson often insisted on “improvements” which Burns had to find a way of rejecting.
After Burns’ death, Thomson continued to publish songs but with increasingly elaborate musical settings. For these he sought the help of the famous composers of the time, most notably Haydn and Beethoven. Thomson was a good businessman and he paid well, so not surprisingly even these great composers were willing to work for him. He also commissioned instrumental chamber music based on Scottish airs and included ones from Wales and Ireland.
Not surprisingly, Beethoven was a tough customer as can be seen when one reads the correspondence between him and Thomson. Some fifty letters survive of which Beethoven’s are in French and, for him, very neatly written. Thomson complained about the difficulty of Beethoven’s settings and Beethoven complained about the money. Here are a few examples that give the tenor of their correspondence:
On August 5, 1812, Thomson wrote to Beethoven about fifty three airs that he received:
“There is none which is not marked with the stamp of genius, science and taste… (However) in this country there is not one pianist in a hundred who can play…four notes in one hand and three in the other… Your great predecessor Haydn asked me to indicate frankly to him anything that did not please national taste in his ritornelli and accompaniments, and he willingly made changes.”
To which Beethoven replied in a huff on February 19, 1813:
“I am not accustomed to retouch my compositions…. It is your job to give me a better idea of the taste of your country and the lack of skill of your performers.”
Beethoven also complained about the fees, noting in a letter dated February 29, 1812:
“Haydn himself assured me that he received four ducats for each song.”
To which Thomson retorted that Haydn had only asked for two ducats per song but “for the last twenty songs I gave him more at my own wish, because he had composed much for me con amore and he had treated my suggestions with attention and politeness.” (December 21, 1812)
In the end Beethoven got £550 for his 126 songs while Haydn only received £291. 18s. for 230 songs.
The first group of Haydn songs is all about the sailors and the girls left behind on land. This was of course a popular theme, since this was after all the age of Nelson. The ballad “Auld Robin Gray” was especially well known and it has never lost its power to move. The tune of “O’er the Hills and far awa” will be familiar to anyone who knows The Beggars’ Opera.
“The Massacre of Glencoe” tells the sad tale of the unforgivable assassination of the Clan MacDonald by the Clan Campbell on February 13, 1692. Beethoven gives the magnificent tune of this lament extra prominence by having the violin and cello double the singer throughout, keeping the piano part in the background. The poem is by Sir Walter Scott, who with Thomson was a tireless champion of Scottish culture.
The last group is all about love, happy or unhappy, young and old. “Oh might I but my Patrick love” and “Garyone” are Irish songs. “John Anderson, my jo, John” is one of Burns’ most touching lyrics, expressing a wife’s deep love for her husband after many years together.
Haydn not only provided introductions and postludes to his settings, he also wrote sets of variations on a number of the songs. These could either be used to vary each verse as it was sung or simply be performed without the voice part at all. “My love she’s but a lassie yet” is a fine example of the latter. Let no one think that this song is about some sonsy, Caledonian Lolita, however; Burns’ young love is really a bottle of whisky that’s not yet ready to drink!
Besides Haydn and Beethoven, Thomson also requested settings from several composers who are less well known today. Among these was Ignaz Pleyel, a friend, pupil, and sometimes rival of Haydn. In 1772, Pleyel, one of thirty-eight children (!), began his studies with Haydn and they retained a mutual admiration for each other for the rest of their lives. Both of them were in London in the 1790s and indeed had rival concert series. Nonetheless, they would dine together, attend each other’s concerts, and perform each other’s music in their own. In 1793-94, Thomson commissioned twelve piano trios from Pleyel stipulating that each had to have at least one movement based on a Scottish air. We are performing the last movement of the third trio in the set. I am lucky enough to own a first edition of these fine pieces. My own copy, which originally belonged to a Miss Isabella Stanley, exactly the type of young well-to-do pianist these works are designed for, also bears the signature of George Thomson himself.
- Nicholas McGegan