Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Romantic classicist

When I started listening to the new Naxos CD of music by Anthony Burgess for review (coming soon), I began to wonder about other writers who were also musicians. I think the best is still Paul Bowles (a new CD of whose I praised last week), but E.T.A. Hoffmann gives him a run for the money.

It's interesting how Hoffmann, who helped to popularize the whole idea of Romanticism, is more of a classicist when it comes to his music. "Haydn shall be my master," he said, and you can hear the strong influence of Haydn's London Symphonies in the main work on this disc from 2015. There are novel effects, to be sure, but this work written in Warsaw in 1806 seems more from the 18th century than the 19th. The two overtures on the disc, to Hoffmann's operas Undine and Aurora, were written in 1812 and 1814. This is about the same time as Hoffmann's famous article "Beethoven’s Instrumental Music" (1813), one of the greatest pieces of writing about music.
Just as Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm—a world with nothing in common with the surrounding outer world of the senses. Here we abandon definite feelings and surrender to an inexpressible longing....
Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!

Romantic taste is rare, romantic talent even rarer, and perhaps for this reason there are so few who are able to sweep the lyre with tones that unveil the wonderful realm of the romantic.
But listen to the overture to Undine; it mainly looks back to Mozart and Gluck, though if you squint, you can see it looking ahead a bit to Weber and Mendelssohn.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. That Hoffmann's musical world was a bit more limited than his broad-ranging literary universe, based on his nearly boundless imagination, is only to be expected. Hoffmann was a very practical man of the theatre. Besides writing operas, he designed scenery, conducted the music, and helped in the operations of the opera house business. Add to all of this his musical journalism, his legal duties, and a significant dabbling in the visual arts (including very fine work as a caricaturist), and you can cut the guy some slack. I find Hoffmann such an appealing bloke; I'd love to go down to the pub and share a tankard of ale with him some time.
Besides his musical & literary talents, Hoffmann was a fine draftsman.

I should mention a couple of other things. First the coupling of Friedrich Witt's Sinfonia, written in 1809. This is a well-crafted work, again very much in the Haydn style. I find it interesting that Haydn loomed so large at the time, Mozart seemingly forgotten, and Beethoven passed by without remark in this symphony. If Witt had the extra-musical connections that Hoffmann had we'd all know his music much better, and I'd give him more space than this postscript.

As to the performances on the disc, they are exemplary, as one would expect from the Die Kölner Akademie & Michael Alexander Willens, who have presented so many stylish recordings, most especially the superb BIS cycle of Mozart Piano Concertos with Ronald Brautigam.

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