Monday, July 11, 2016

Summermusic 2016: The Salieri Connection

Antonio Salieri
Antonio Salieri has gotten a lot of bad press over the centuries since Mozart's death – if you're not familiar with his reputation, with or without the film Amadeus, he's the guy accused of poisoning Mozart – but there's a three-fold connection with the first two concerts of Summermusic2016. While there's no Salieri on the program and the obvious one would be Mozart, there are two of his pupils represented: Beethoven and Schubert.

The first program, Friday night at 8:00, opens with the third of the Op.12 Violin Sonatas Beethoven dedicated to his former teacher, Salieri. You can listen to the Sonata in E-flat, Op. 12/3 in this previous post and read more about it – especially the critical reaction to it – in a subsequent post.

And the second program – Sunday afternoon at 4:00 at Market Square Church – opens with a string trio that Franz Schubert wrote in 1817 not long after he'd studied with Antonio Salieri – 26 years after Mozart's death. The first half concludes with Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor which you can listen to in a separate post, (Link TBA).

(Incidentally, another one of Salieri's composition pupils was Mozart's son, Franz Xaver, sometimes known by his marketing du plume Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Jr. One assumes that if the family believed the rumors about Salieri's role in Mozart's death, Constanze would hardly have allowed their son to study with his father's murderer...)

The second program concludes with the Piano Quintet of Sir Edward Elgar which, to my knowledge, has no such connection with Salieri, but subsequently gets its own post, you can listen to it here and read about the summer get-away where Elgar composed it, plus take in a lecture by Bruce Adolph about the first movement and read about the strange goings-on that inspired at least the opening of the piece.

It will be performed by the members of the not very imaginatively named Curtis Student Quartet (certainly more direct and fluid than calling it the Ad Hoc Quartet) with faculty pianist Meng-Chieh Liu. This brief video clip captures them in the final minute of the quintet:
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To sum up Salieri's association with Beethoven, Jan Swafford, in his recent biography, Beethoven: Anguish & Triumph, puts it succinctly:

“So 1798 was a busy and prolific year... [Beethoven] kept in touch with Haydn [whom he'd studied with after his arrival in Vienna] visiting the master and showing him his new work. Probably in this year, he began to study vocal composition in Italian with court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, then forty-seven, once called 'the musical pope of Vienna' and famously the rival of Mozart [who died in 1791]. Salieri was still turning out old-fashioned operas and was active as a conductor and teacher.”

Young Beethoven's reason for seeking out Salieri was

__(a.) Vienna was a city where opera reigned supreme: if you wanted to make your fortune, you did it as a composer of opera (even Schubert knew that in the 1820s);

__(b.) Salieri was still a very important composer in the world of opera even if his court position technically was “director of the Imperial court chapel”;

__(c.) serious opera in German-speaking Vienna was still written and sung in the Italian language (something Beethoven did not speak) such as Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (his Magic Flute was sung in German but then the singspiel, an opera with spoken dialogue, was the populist equivalent of what today might be a high-class Broadway musical);

__(d.) all of the above.

The correct answer is (d.). 

It could be argued Beethoven might have studied with – or, more accurately, taken lessons from – Salieri earlier than 1798, as Swafford implies (that “probably” is open to some wiggle room). Beethoven's concert aria, Ah! Perfido was performed in 1796 but it would seem logical this Italian aria, setting Metastasio's text from 1737, might have been shown to Salieri if not originating as a lesson's assignment. There is also evidence Beethoven at least visited Salieri later, as well: Salieri's student Moscheles noted how, in 1806, he'd shown up for a lesson and found a note on Salieri's desk that “The pupil Beethoven was here.” Given their stylistic differences, it's unlikely that would've been a social call: maybe he was coming by with some practical question? His opera Fidelio (then still called Leonora) had been premiered in November, 1805. Of course, it was in German and Salieri would not have approved.

Anyway, Salieri, who saw Mozart as a rival, certainly would find the willful Beethoven a difficult student. Swafford continues with the anecdote, how Salieri “thrashed” one of his assignments, setting an old-fashioned Italian text “in a suitable style” (one cannot imagine Beethoven, then in his late-20s, subjecting himself to setting a late-Baroque text from the 1730s “in a suitable style”!). “One day, Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street... and Salieri complained that he hadn't been able to get the tune out of his head. 'Then, Herr von Salieri,' Beethoven grinned, 'it can't have been so utterly bad.'”

Still, even though the violin sonatas of 1798 might not be examples of what he'd learned from Salieri's lessons (however few or many there may have been), Salieri was a leading political force in the Viennese musical scene and the appearance of this dedication – which had to be accepted by the dedicatee – was as much a political endorsement as it was a marketing ploy and certainly not, as we might think it today, an expression of gratitude or even endearment.

Here is a 2015 live performance of the 1st movement of Beethoven's sonata with violinist Ariana Kim and Roger Moseley playing a fortepiano that is closer in sound to what Salieri might've heard in 1798:
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What the critical reaction might have been at its first hearing will involve, as you might expect, a separate post which you can read here (link TBA).

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Now we skip ahead nineteen years into the new century. Remember how we learn that Romanticism began in 1800 (give-or-take)? If you think Beethoven's 1798 sonata “sounds like Mozart,” wait till you hear what Schubert was writing in 1817.

Here is a performance of the String Trio in B-flat Major, D.581 (complete) with violinist Oleg Kagan, violist Yuri Bashmet, and cellist Natalia Gutman:
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Franz Schubert 1817
 Consider, first of all, when Beethoven was writing his Op. 12 violin sonatas, Franz Schubert was 1 year old. A child prodigy, having written a masterpiece like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” when he was 17, Schubert had written several string quartets for his family ensemble (his father was an amateur cellist) and already five symphonies for his school orchestra or a group of friends who formed a “reading orchestra” at a local merchant's house by the time he wrote the string trio on the second Summermusic program. He was now 20.

Schubert was a regular student of Salieri's, studying with him from the summer of 1812 when he was 15 years old, and even though we don't know when the lessons stopped, there are corrections in Salieri's handwriting on an Italian aria written in December, 1816.

One of the works Schubert composed, probably as an assignment for Salieri, was a string trio in B-flat Major. It is, however, only a single movement with the briefest start of a second before the manuscript breaks off (presumably, he reached a road-block and stopped composing, much as he did after starting the third movement of what later became known as the “Unfinished” Symphony, a work in which he only completed two movements). This, incidentally, was a habit of Schubert's – there are several symphonies, quite a few operas, numerous songs as well as the famous “Quartettsatz,” or Quartet-Movement which also has the start of a quickly abandoned second movement.

I mention this earlier string trio, composed in October, 1816, only because it's in the same key and was written a year before the four movement trio on the program, written in September, 1817. Confusion is not something Schubert would have been concerned about at the time...

Whether Schubert was still studying regularly with Salieri in 1817 or not isn't important. His influence, however, continued long after that last lesson.

On June 16th, 1816, Schubert, then 19, made a rare journal entry, following a party given to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Salieri's arrival in Vienna:

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“It must be fine and enlivening for an artist to see all his pupils gathered around him, each one striving to give of his best for his master's jubilee, and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the eccentricity that is common among most composers nowadays and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists [i.e. Beethoven]; that eccentricity which combines and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and that which is most holy with harlequinades, without distinction, so as to goad people to madness instead of soothing them with love, to incite them to laughter instead of lifting them up to God. To see such eccentricity banished from the circle of his pupils and instead to look upon pure, holy nature, must be the greatest pleasure for an artist who, guided by such a one as Gluck, learned to know nature and uphold it in spite of the most unnatural conditions of our age.”
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Beethoven in 1816
Beethoven, by 1816, had completed his 7th and 8th Symphonies, his last Violin Sonata, the “Serioso” Quartet and that summer was working on his Op.101 Piano Sonata.

While such a statement was clearly written under the influence of a celebratory evening with his teacher and like-minded students, it's very likely, following performances of several students' works in tribute to their master, there was quite a lot of shop-talk about (and most likely, against) the leading exponent of Contemporary Music in Vienna at the time.

It is also interesting note that the very next day Schubert composed a celebratory cantata for the teacher of one of his law-student friends, “Prometheus” it is called, listed in the Deutsch catalog as D.451, the music long since lost. That night, young Schubert wrote in his journal: “Today I composed for money for the first time.”

Moving ahead to the next year, Schubert, now 20, was living with the family of his close friend, Franz von Schober. He had met the singer Johann Vogl who would soon champion his songs and many of the 65 songs he composed that year were specifically for Vogl to perform (including Die Forelle, D.550, that spring). Prospects were bright at the start of the year but diminished quickly and, without income or a place to live, he was forced to return to his father's house and again take up a teaching job at his father's school. He remained there until the following summer, frustrated at having to teach boys their ABCs, stuck in what might, out of necessity, become his professional future. And so he threw himself into his music.

The String Trio D.581 (the complete four-movement one) was written in September. It may have been intended for “household performance” with his brother Ferdinand, a fine violinist and teacher (the same month, Schubert wrote a Polonaise, also in B-flat, for solo violin and strings for his brother who performed it publicly the following year); the composer playing the viola; their father, the cello. Regardless, the Trio did not receive a public performance until 1869, forty-one years after Schubert's death, at a concert in London where the violinist was none other than Joseph Joachim. If you remember Curtis faculty cellist Soo Bae's recording of Alfredo Piatti's caprices for solo cello, Joachim's cellist at that London concert was Alfredo Piatti. (Alas, I can't find any information about the violist Blagrove, but then such is the fate of many a violist...).

It is also interesting to note that the following month, Schubert began work on what he considered his first “mature” symphony, exploring the greater realm of the symphonic form, what we know as his Symphony No. 6 in C Major. It was intended to be “ein grosses Symfonie” in that the orchestra would include trombones which, not to encourage trombonists more than necessary, automatically made it a “great symphony” – that is “gross” in the German sense of “large.” Ironically, because he wrote another symphony in C Major also with trombones and which, on a much grander scale, has always been known as “The Great C Major Symphony” – truly, one of the masterpieces of classical music – this 1817 C Major Symphony is now called “The Little C Major Symphony” (making it in effect the Little Great Symphony...).

It is interesting to note that, at this point, no longer studying with Salieri, his model for the expansion of form that became the hallmark of his later style – the great quartets and sonatas of his last few years, the scope of the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” symphonies, and especially a work like the C Major String Quintet – were fueled not by his teacher Salieri but by the sheer force of... Ludwig van Beethoven.

- Dick Strawser

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