Nicholas Mcgegan

February Program Notes: Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 and Hummel’s Concerto for Keyed Trumpet

Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in E Major, S. 49

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was born in Pressburg, Hungary (now Bratislava, Slovakia) on November 14, 1778 and died in Weimar, Germany on October 17, 1837. A Mozart-caliber child prodigy, he became one of Europe’s most admired composers, pianists, conductors, and teachers. The Trumpet Concerto in E Major, S. 49 was completed in December 1803 and premiered three weeks later in Vienna, during New Year’s celebrations.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel belonged to a generation of composers whose posthumous stars have been obliged to twinkle through the glare of Beethoven’s supernova. But Hummel had a better go of it than most. Student of Mozart, kapellmeister first to the Esterházy court as Haydn’s successor, then at Stuttgart and Weimar, illustrious virtuoso pianist and renowned composer, Hummel enjoyed a splendid career that took him all over Europe, festooned him with honors, and lined his pockets with gold. He left behind a substantial oeuvre that includes specimens of just about every genre save the symphony—probably reflecting his reluctance to lock horns with Beethoven over that particular turf. Posterity has tended to lump him in with empty-calorie note spinners such as Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, and Steibelt, but Hummel was no jejune saloniste. He was an artist of taste and integrity, a pianist’s pianist and a musician’s musician.

Hummel wrote several works for the keyed trumpet, an instrument that, as the name implies, employs keys (typically five) rather than valves. The first keyed trumpet appears to been made in Dresden around 1770, but it took the championship of Viennese court trumpeter Anton Weidinger (1766–1852) to bring the instrument into the mainstream, until it was superseded by the modern valve trumpet in the 1840s. Leopold Kozeluch provided Weidinger with a chamber work featuring keyed trumpet, but it is the twin concertos of Haydn (E-flat Major, H. VIIe:1) and Hummel (E Major, S. 49) that have proven to be the instrument’s most significant repertory items. After the keyed trumpet became obsolete, its repertory fell into obscurity; only in 1958 was was the Hummel concerto revived, after its 150-year slumber, when a Yale student unearthed it as a potential recital piece.

Keyed trumpets being in exceedingly short supply, the reborn Hummel concerto is usually played on modern instruments, and transposed down a semitone to E-flat major to accommodate the standard B-flat trumpet. But with reconstructions of keyed trumpets becoming available, listeners may now hear the softer and more clarinet-like timbre that Hummel had in mind, and in his original key of choice, as is the case in this performance.

Hummel put the finishing touches on the manuscript on December 8, 1803; it was premiered three weeks later by Weidinger for a New Year’s Tafelmusik (dinner music) at the Imperial court in Vienna. Its Mozartean models are clear and its Viennese Classicism unmistakable. The first movement is cast in double-exposition sonata form, in which an orchestra-only exposition exploring the movement’s main themes is repeated, but now featuring the soloist and modulating to a new key for the secondary thematic group. Development and recapitulation conform to the standard sonata-form model. Hummel’s opening movement follows the form precisely, as a brightly chiseled opening theme reminiscent of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony (No. 35 in D Major) is contrasted with a fluffier second theme characterized by sprightly dotted rhythms. The fine second-movement Andante offers an operatic melody in the trumpet characterized by long sustained notes that give way to flourishes of triplets. (Some of those long notes are notated with an undefined wavy line that allows for a variety of interpretations, including trills or vibrato.) The concluding Rondo follows attaca and features an exclamatory, quasi-Turkish tune for its reprise, the intervening episodes providing contrast via softer melodies and changes of key. The whole ends with a snappy flourish of dotted rhythms, joyous and confident.

Louis Spohr: Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 49

Louis (originally Ludwig) Spohr was born in Brunswick, Germany on April 5, 1784 and died in Kassel on October 22, 1859. Over the course of his long and successful career he created a vast catalog of works ranging from the late Classical style of his youth to a conservative but unmistakably Romantic idiom in his maturity. Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 49 was written in 1820 and premiered on April 10 of that year by London’s Philharmonic Society.

Louis Spohr

The case of Louis Spohr makes for a textbook study of fame’s perfidy. Lauded in his day, considered an A-list composer on par with Beethoven and a performer of unimpeachably high class, Spohr would seem to have merited a permanent place on musical Olympus. But posterity has decreed otherwise, and the poor chap has evaporated away to near invisibility.

Recently glimmers of a nascent reconstitution have been spotted. Spohr societies have sprung up on both sides of the Atlantic; furthermore, Spohr’s works are attracting the attention of musicians who seek worthy but lesser-known repertory to perform and record (vide this current program.) Spohr may or may not achieve a posthumous second act à la Vivaldi, but at least some of his music is emerging from its long silence.

This is a very good thing, for in an early Romantic landscape littered with the parched bones of copycat Beethoven-wannabes and crass purveyors of flashy drivel, Spohr stands apart as a musician of substance and the composer of full-bodied symphonies, concertos, chamber music, oratorios, and operas, all just ripe for rediscovery and revival.

A pioneer in the then-fledgling art of conducting, Spohr brought the mind of a born efficiency expert to the business of rehearsing and leading an orchestra. Fed up with the divided leadership common in the early Romantic, as a quasi-continuo pianist and the first violinist vied for control, Spohr took the initiative of mounting a podium with baton in hand, an ubiquitous enough sight nowadays but at the time an eyebrow-raising novelty. (He also invented matching rehearsal letters for both score and parts, bless his heart.) The dramatically improved ensemble of London’s Philharmonic Society must have played a part in the grand success of Spohr’s Symphony No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 49, premiered under the composer’s direction on April 10, 1820 and repeated regularly by the Philharmonic thereafter until 1871.

Spohr’s D Minor Symphony fully deserved its place in the sun as a first-class specimen of a “pastoral” symphony à la the Beethoven Sixth. Although the first movement dispenses with the usual slow introduction, its opening passage serves in a similar function by presenting us with sharply-etched orchestral unisons alternated with ominously surging scalar passages. The mood lightens before long, as a graceful albeit subtly melancholic primary theme appears. As might be expected from a composer of Spohr’s sophistication, the movement’s thematic materials are all closely related and therefore lend themselves to a raft of contrapuntal treatments. Intrepid forays into far distant keys culminate in a large-scale feint into the parallel D major key—but the original D minor prevails in the end.

The second movement Larghetto glows with summery lyricism from strings and winds, whipping up a dandy storm passage before resettling back into the bucolic calm of the opening. Spohr follows Beethoven’s lead by indulging himself in a dizzily unpredictable third-movement Scherzo featuring two trios and written-out, varied repeats in place of the usual da capo. But there is no Beethoven influence on display in the finale; instead of a heaven-rattling conclusion, Spohr provides a jovial wrap-up brimming with charming melodies and shot through with ear-tickling flashes of orchestral color.

The cause of Spohr’s near-universal neglect after the mid-nineteenth century can be summarized in three words: Spohr wasn’t Beethoven. But he didn’t have to be. Beethoven did a fine job of being Beethoven, so let’s allow Spohr to be Spohr. To this day, occasional offhand slights emerge from commentarial corners, terms like mild or bourgeois tossed around like so much spare change. But if there is a place in our repertory for superbly crafted and orchestrated symphonies, for classy and attractive string quartets, for brilliantly effective violin concertos and movingly dramatic operas, then there is a place for Louis Spohr.

Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11

Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the eminent Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, was born to a wealthy and influential banking family in Hamburg on February 3, 1809 and died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847 at the age of 38. Starting out as a dazzling child prodigy, he matured to become the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a noted pianist and organist, and one of the most beloved composers of the nineteenth century. Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11 was written in 1824 and was given its official premiere in Leipzig on February 1, 1827, with a London premiere following on May 25, 1829.

Felix Mendelssohn

The critic for London’s Harmonicon shifted into hyperbolic overdrive as he reported on Felix Mendelssohn’s debut at the Philharmonic Society, on May 25, 1829. “This gentleman,” he purred, “only about one- or two-and-twenty years of age…shews a genius for composition that is exceeded by only the three great writers…and he will in a few years be considered as the fourth of that line which has done such immortal honour to the most musical nation in Europe.”

It’s probably all for the best that our dazzled reviewer was unaware that Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C Minor had been written five years previously, by a lad of fifteen. The shock just might have unhinged him. Then again, maybe not: Felix had already established his credentials as a world-class chronic overachiever, as the Harmonicon well knew. Just two months previously Mendelssohn had gifted posterity with a priceless treasure by reviving Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, thereby adding another feather to a cap already sporting the magnificent E-flat Octet and the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Overture. Even at age twenty, Felix Mendelssohn was a creative dynamo; over the next eighteen years, before a series of strokes took him away at age 38, his career was to be the stuff of dreams.

It’s impressive enough for an adolescent to have written a symphony that has stood the test of time, but astonishingly, Mendelssohn’s C Minor Symphony was actually his thirteenth in a series, and was originally numbered as such. The previous twelve “string symphonies” were intended as practice works, but the combination of Mendelssohn’s precocity with Carl Friedrich Zelter’s intensive training resulted in eminently worthwhile compositions that have been receiving some belated attention since their publication in 1972. Many of the string symphonies reflect Zelter’s emphasis on strict counterpoint, given their frequent forays into fugal passages; in addition, they bear witness to the teenaged composer’s fascination with earlier music as some open with Baroque French overtures, while others invoke the spirits of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Mozart, and Haydn.

Mendelssohn chose wisely when he promoted the C Minor Symphony out of his student workbook and into his professional portfolio. There is nothing of the apprentice about it, even allowing for a whiff of schoolroom musk in the finale’s fugal passages. The symphony may have been heard as early as 1824 at the Mendelssohn home in Berlin; without a doubt it was performed at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on February 1, 1827, eliciting a warmly favorable review. For London, Mendelssohn replaced the original third movement with the Scherzo from his 1825 Octet, but afterwards restored his original movement for the work’s 1834 publication.

The Mendelssohn C Minor symphony is indubitably a young man’s creation: energetic, muscular, and bursting with rambunctious high spirits. Mendelssohn wastes no time on a genteel introduction; instead, the downbeat plunges us headlong into an Allegro di molto characterized by vibrant rhythm, crisply-delineated and varied themes, razor-sharp sonata-allegro form, and faultless orchestration. By Mendelssohn’s time the secondary theme of a sonata-allegro movement was usually conceived as ‘lyrical’, or at least contrasting to the primary theme; in this movement, the major-key secondary theme is a gentle descending scale typically scored as a dialog between strings and winds. Although it sounds for a while as though the movement will end in the parallel C Major key, minor modality reasserts itself in the resolute coda. The lovely second movement luxuriates in that sweet triple-meter lyricism so typical of Haydn’s late-period symphonies, possibly reminding older Londoners of the Viennese master’s visits forty years previously. (The movement’s tendency to wander into surprisingly distant keys between restatements of its main theme is yet another reminiscence of Haydn’s practice.) The Scherzo (original, not the Octet version), cast in 6/4 meter rather than the usual 3/4, bristles with a dramatic urgency that places it squarely within the flamboyant rhetoric of the early Romantic. However, its central Trio—in A-flat major rather than the C minor of the Scherzo proper—luxuriates in long-breathed melodic lines and steady harmonic rhythm. That serenity is eventually abandoned as the Trio begins its return to the turmoil of the Scherzo, as references to the Scherzo’s melodic materials arise in the violas and quickly spread through the entire string section. Although some critics have perceived weaknesses in the Allegro con fuoco finale, few listeners are likely to agree. The movement’s sturdy sonata form structure, the charming juxtaposition of clarinet over pizzicato strings in the secondary theme (also found in Spohr’s Second Symphony), and the double fugue at the end of the development all combine to create a zippy romp with just a soupçon of Sturm und Drang tossed in for extra spice.

— Scott Foglesong, Scholar in Residence