Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792)
Complete Piano Works
Joseph Martin Kraus may be considered one of the mosttalented and unusual composers of the eighteenth century. Born in the centralGerman town of Miltenburg am Main, he received his earliest formal education innearby Buchen and at the Jesuit Gymnasium and Music Seminar in Mannheim, wherehe studied German literature and music. He studied law at universities in Mainzand Erfurt, and Gottingen, coming under the influence of the last of theremnants of the Gottinger Hainbund, a Sturm und Drang literary circle.
In 1778 the composer decided to dedicate his life to musicand to seek employment in Sweden at the court of Gustav III. Although promiseda position, he found it difficult to break into the cultural establishment ofStockholm, and for the next two years he faced dire economic circumstances ashe attempted to overcome the political obstacles. In 1780 he was commissionedto compose a trial work, Proserpin, whose text had been drafted by the kinghimself and versified by the poet Johan Kellgren. Its successful privateperformance at Ulriksdal in 1781 brought an appointment as deputy Kapellmastareand in 1782 a grand tour of Europe at Gustav's expense to view the latest inmusical and theatrical trends. This took him throughout Germany, Austria,Italy, England and France where he met major figures of the period such asGluck and Haydn.
Kraus returned to Stockholm in 1787 and the following yearwas appointed First Kapellmastare and director of curriculum at the RoyalAcademy of Music. For the next several years he achieved a reputation inStockholm for his disciplined conducting, his activities as a composer, and hisrigorous pedagogical standards. He was a participant in the Palmstedt literarycircle and contributed much to the establishment of Stockholm as one of theleading cultural centres of Europe. Nine months after the assassination ofGustav III in 1792, Kraus died at the age of 36.
As a composer, Kraus can be seen as one of the mostinnovative of the entire century. His earliest training brought him the Italianstyle of the Mannheim composers, the contrapuntal rigor of Franz Xaver Richterand J.S.Bach, as well as the dramatic style of C.P.E.Bach, Gluck and Gretry. Aman with many talents, he was also a theorist, teacher and writer, with a bookof poetry and a tragedy to his credit. His treatise, Etwas von und ??ber Musicf??rs Jahr 1777 (Frankfurt, 1778), is one of the few examples of literary Sturmund Drang aesthetics applied to music. His compositional style features theunexpected, the dramatic, and it is not surprising therefore to find manyforward-looking stylistic devices that anticipate music of the next century.
In comparison with many of his contemporaries, Kraus wrote arelatively small amount of music for pianoforte. Only seven works - twosonatas, three sets of variations, and two smaller miscellaneous pieces -survive, although there is evidence that there may have been more. For example,in March of 1779 he composed a sonata for a Countess Ingenheim (VB 189) fromMainz, perhaps a potential patron or a family friend, which he sent fromStockholm. This work had a tortuous journey; somehow it was returned to him inJune from London, and it was lost after being sent again. Another series of sixpieces (VB 206) were stolen in 1778 by a Dutch sea-captain. These, however, maynot have been keyboard pieces, although the composer did perform them for hisfelonious customer on the fortepiano. What is left, however, demonstrates thatKraus had a thorough knowledge of the instrument, using its expressive power tocraft a series of works that are highly individualistic. Although he was nothimself a professional keyboard performer, he nonetheless was often heard insoirees at the Palmstedt Circle or playing for friends compositions by himselfand others. On one such occasion in 1787, the Spanish ambassador Miranda wrotein his diary simply: \Kraus played like an angel."
The Rondo in F major (VB 191) is one of the earliestsurviving works for solo keyboard by Kraus, composed in Stockholm during theperiod 1778-1780; it was sold in manuscript form by the Viennese firm of JohannTraeg beginning in 1783, and its stylistic similarity with the works of C.P.E.Bach shows that composer's influence in the ornamentation, fluctuations ofintensity and dynamics, and free use of thematic material in each of the fourepisodes or variations. The main theme is gentle and lyrical, allowing thetension-building contrasts to be resolved, resulting in a smooth flow from onesection to the next.
The Sonata in E flat major (VB 195) is a three-movement workthat had apparently several incarnations during the course of its career. Itwas first composed as a sonata for violin and piano in Paris in 1785 where,according to the biographer of Kraus, Friedrich Schreiber, it was sent as agift to Maria Aloysia von Born, daughter of the well-known Viennese freemasonIgnaz von Born, with whom Kraus had become acquainted in 1783 during his visitthere. It, in turn, may well have been based upon an earlier version for solopianoforte, if the assertion made by the scholar Hans Eppstein is correct. Inany case, this particular version of the work, along with the Sonata in E majorheard later in this recording, was published by the Stockholm publisher,pianist, and composer (and Kraus's friend) Olof ?àhlstrom as one of the firstworks printed after receiving his royal privilege in 1788. This work is Kraus'smost "Classical" sonata, where in the first movement special attention has beenpaid to a relatively conventional formal structure and the correct balance oflyricism versus virtuosity. Of particular note is an almost Beethovenianparlando development section that devolves into a section of arpeggios in dupleand triple rhythm that explore remote tonalities. The second movement is a longset of variations based upon a simple, flowing theme. Included in the sevenvariations are both technical difficulty and expressiveness. The first has anAustrian folk sound, while the third to the fifth variations are a pair ofminuets, followed by a Larghetto in B flat minor and an Adagio, the theme ofwhich is a quintessential example of lyricism. The finale is a display piecethat interrupts the virtuoso fireworks with show-stopping rallentandos. Thedevelopment section would not be out of place in a Beethoven sonata with itsharmonic twists and turns. The work ends with a virtuoso flourish.
The Scherzo con variazioni in C major (VB 193) is an unusualset of twelve variations based upon a theme of utmost simplicity, a series ofhorn fifths and resolutions that later became used as a well-known hymn. It isalmost certain that this set was written in London in 1785, while Kraus wasvisiting the English capital for the Handel Centenary Festival. Later publishedby ?àhlstrom, it became a favourite work of late eighteenth century Swedishpianists. Additionally, it was published in London with an amateurishly addedviolin accompaniment under the names of both Pleyel and Joseph Haydn.Throughout the work the composer explores the almost infinite variety of variationtechnique, providing opportunity for both virtuosity and musical interest. Ofparticular note are the fifth variation, where the music veers drunkenly fromone strange minor key to the next, the tenth, which is based upon a Scotch snapbass-line motif, and the final, which contains a conclusive Kehraus, a signalthat the work is over and all should go home.
The extremely brief Larghetto (VB 194) was probably writtenin Stockholm about 1787- 1788. While there is no information on why Kraus wrotethis lilting gavotte, it most likely represents the