Symphonie Fantastique

May 2010

The Chamber Ensemble of Symphonie Fantastique played in Vienna Ehrbar Saal on the 26th of May.

  • S. Neukomm – Septet (Fantasia Concertante) für Bläser und Kontrabass
  • L.v. Beethoven – Septet op. 20
  • G. Onslow – Nonet op. 77

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Standing before the Mozarthaus in Salzburg, how many people even notice the inscription on the house immediately to their right? It is true that the music of the Chevalier Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm is no longer as popular as that of his very close neighbour, but in his lifetime his huge output was known across half the world, from Rio de Janeiro to
St. Petersburg. Neukomm was especially popular in London, and his Septet, commissioned by the Philharmonic Society in 1832, was regularly performed for years afterwards. The astonishing popularity of the work was in part due to its easy style, but mostly to the fact that Neukomm wrote it for a very specific group of players and friends, who performed the piece time after time. These were the best musicians in Europe, and in effect the Three Tenors of their day. Now, only the double bass player Domenico Dragonetti is still widely remembered, but the flute player Nicholson and his clarinettist brother-in-law Willman both wrote important treatises and made significant to improvements to their instruments, as did the trumpet player Thomas Harper. The old natural trumpet that the audiences were used to was very limited in the notes it could produce, but Harper’s new slide trumpet could play an expressive melody, and Neukomm created a real coup de theatre by reserving it until nearly the end of the piece.

Rapid and widespread popularity was also the fate of Beethoven’s Septet, but in this case it has proved to be more lasting. Again, the piece is perfectly crafted for all of the instruments, and probably also for very specific players as the work was first performed at a benefit concert organised by Beethoven. But the success of the Septet was entirely due to the piece itself rather than the performers, as shown by the very large number of arrangements that quickly started appearing after its publication around 1800. There was no copyright law to protect a composer’s interests, and perhaps it was the knowledge that a hundred often second-rate versions were making money for other people that reportedly drove Beethoven to declare he wished he had burned the piece. However, with a public eager to play the Septet at home, this didn’t stop him attempting to cash in himself in later years when he made or approved of several versions of his own.

Ironically, it is probable that Beethoven deliberately set out to compose a piece that would be popular. Upon his arrival in Vienna he had quickly introduced a series of new works including several designed to showcase his virtuoso talent on the piano. Whilst many writers see the Septet as coming from the tradition of the multi-movement divertimentos and serenades of Mozart and Haydn, it is also possible that Beethoven was trying to create a work that would advertise his talents as a composer. With an extended symphonic sonata form opening, a lyrical slow movement, variations, a rondo, an old-fashioned minuet and a scherzo (soon to become the composer’s “signature-dish”), the Septet has a movement in each of the major musical forms of the day, and so is a sort of shop-window of Beethoven’s abilities. The scoring for solo instruments is also a new and modern idea, especially the increased independence of the double bass. Dragonetti had met Beethoven early in 1799 at exactly the time he must have been working on the Septet, and had demonstrated the capabilities of his instrument to the composer’s extreme delight. It is quite possible that the Italian then stayed in Vienna for long enough to have taken part in the premiere.

Onslow’s early studies included copying out and performing Beethoven’s op.18 string quartets, and after surviving the turmoil of the French revolution and the Napoleonic era (for a time in exile) his family’s wealth meant that rather than earn a living through writing opera he could largely devote himself to composing chamber music. A long sequence of piano trios, string quartets and quintets were published across Europe, and were known and acclaimed by Beethoven himself, Berlioz, Schumann and Schubert, who probably followed the Frenchman’s example for his own famous C major string quintet.

With the same forces and the same number of movements, Onslow’s Nonet from 1848 appears to closely resemble Spohr’s of 1813; the very attentive listener might even hear the briefest melodic reference to the older work early in the first movement. But whilst Spohr’s Nonet is closely modelled on Beethoven’s Septet and is designed particularly to show off the skill of its violinist composer, Onslow’s is more like an expanded string quartet. Its integrated texture with solos appearing naturally out of the fabric, and the carefully constructed motivic links between themes and movements would have pleased the musically educated audience in the salons of Paris where Onslow’s works were performed by the most famous musicians of the day. It was at one of these soirees that a certain well-travelled Italian double bass player took the second ‘cello part in one of Onslow’s quintets. Dragonetti’s playing so impressed the composer, an able ‘cellist himself, that he began to include the bass in his works, although sadly this most influential and long-lived musician died before the composition of the Nonet.

For this concert, Onslow’s Nonett and Neukomm’s Septett were editetd by Robert Percival. We thank you Reine Dahlqvist for kindly providing the manuscript of Neukomm’s Septett.

The Musicians

Signora Barbini – flute
Señor Medina – violin
Señor Duarte – oboe
Herr Parmerud – trumpet
Miss Worthington – clarinet
Monsieur Oechslin – viola
Señor Camí Farràs – horn
Mr Percival – bassoon
Madame Gomi – cello
Herr Hazod – double bass