KRAUS: Symphonies, Vol. 1 (Petter Sundkvist/ Swedish Chamber Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553734)
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Joseph Martin Kraus (1756 -1792)
Symphonies in E flat major, C major and C minor
Musical life in Stockholm took a new turnin the seventeenth century with the arrival from Germany of the D??ben family.
At this time serious music was confined to the church and it was not until 1731that public concerts began, the earlier of these organized by Johan HelmichRoman, the first Swedish composer of importance at the beginning of a nationalmusical tradition. His Drottningholm Music of 1744, composed for a royalwedding, still has an important place in Swedish musical repertoire.
The fine arts came fully into their own,however, only with the reign of Gustavus III, from 1771 to 1792, when culturallife was reformed and revitalised. In the first year of his reign he foundedthe Academy of Music, which was charged with the handling of musical educationand the promotion of further interest in the art. A few years later heestablished the first music theatre, the Royal Swedish Opera. The king's mainpersonal interest was in the theatre, where he wanted every1hing performed inSwedish by Swedish artists. This soon proved impossible, owing to thesuddenness of the change and the shortage of available artists, leading to theengagement of a number of artists from abroad, who were soon to make asignificant contribution to Swedish cultural life. The result was a fruitfulmixture of French, Italian and German inspiration.
The most important of the immigrantcomposers were Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Georg Joseph Vogler (the Abbe Vogler),Johann Christoph H?ªffner and Joseph Martin Kraus. There is no doubt that Krauswas the most talented of these. Born in Miltenberg am Main in 1756, he had beeneducated from the age of twelve in Mannheim, then a city of many musicalinnovations. After his earlier schooling, he followed his parents' wishes bystudying law in Mainz, Erfurt and finally Gottingen, in this last finding arich breeding-ground for his interests in literature and music. During hisperiod at the university he composed symphonies, sacred music and an opera andjoined the circle of writers known as the Gottinger Hainbund, cominginto contact with the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) movement of the1770s and making his first attempts at writing fiction. It was in Gottingenthat he heard from Swedish students of the state of fine arts in Stockholm andwas advised to go there to try to secure a position at the opera-house.
It was thus in 1778 that Kraus, at theage of 22, arrived in Stockholm. His first years were not easy and more thanonce he considered going home, but after his opera Proserpina, with alibretto by the poet Johan Henrik Kellgren, had been given a concertperformance at Ulriksdal Castle things rapidly improved and in 1781 he wasappointed conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera. This position brought theprivilege of studying abroad for five years, good proof of the royal interestin the maintenance of high artistic standards. Kraus gladly accepted theopportunity, travelling to Vienna, where he met Christoph Willibald von Gluck,and, on a visit to Esterhaza, Joseph Haydn, two composers who were to exert astrong influence over his work. A number of Kraus's best works were composedabroad. Some were published in Vienna and Paris, with those issued in Parisoften bearing the names of better known composers, a common trick of publishersat the time, in the interest of increased sales. Some of these are thought tohave been written for the famous Paris Concerts spirituels.
In Stockholm again in 1781 Kraus metdifficulties through the intrigues of some fellow- composers. The followingyear, however, he was appointed principal conductor at the Royal Swedish Operaand director of the educational part of the Academy of Music His own work as acomposer enjoyed only partial success. Of some fifteen symphonies few, if any,were ever performed in Sweden, apart from that written for the funeral ofGustavus III, the Symphonie fun?¿bre. Abroad, however, he fared better.
His foremost operatic project, Aeneas i Carthago (Aeneas in Carthage),with a text by Kellgren, took on gigantic proportions over a period of tenyears and was not performed until seven years alter the composer's death.
Kraus's career was cruelly short. He diedin December 1792 at the age of 36 and was soon forgotten, the Romantic periodhaving little interest in or understanding of the Gustavians. Only in thetwentieth century has Kraus been accorded the importance he so richly deserves.
That he is Sweden's foremost composer between Roman and Berwald is nowgenerally accepted.
In addition to orchestral and chambermusic, operas and other vocal works, Kraus also wrote incidental music for thetheatre. In January 1792 Voltaire's tragedy Olympie was staged at theRoyal Dramatic theatre, in a translation by Kellgren. For this production Krauswrote an overture, a march and a number of interludes. The first of these,following the tradition of Lully, took the form of a French ouverture, witha solemn adagio introduction in dotted rhythm, an impatiently hurrying allegroand an epilogue related to the beginning. The overture is fullycharacteristic of its composer and easily stands comparison with similar worksby Gluck and Mozart.
Twelve symphonies by Kraus have beenpreserved. Many more are mentioned in letters and notes by Kraus and others,but it is difficult to ascertain which of these have disappeared completely orwhich have perhaps been assimilated into works we know in some other form.
Almost invariably his symphonies consist of three movements, without thetraditional minuet. It is possible that Kraus found that its dance characterdid not suit the dignified style of his writing.
The three symphonies here included areall thought to have been composed in the first half of the 1780s, the Symphonyin C major in Stockholm in 1781, and the other two during Kraus'sleave of absence from his duties at the opera-house. The Symphony in C minor,the most frequently played of his compositions, goes back to an earlier Symphonyin C sharp minor, a key very rare in this context. Both versionshave been preserved and the later version, apart from its change to a moremanageable key, displays a considerable increase in refinement and a profoundertreatment of the material. It was once assumed that the work had its firstperformance under Haydn during Kraus's visit to Esterhaza in 1783, but thesymphony then played may well have been the Symphony in D major, laterpublished under Haydn's name. In any case, Haydn liked the music very much andmany years later is said to have remarked to a common friend, the Swedishdiplomat Fredrik Silfverstolpe: \The symphony he wrote here in Viennaespecially for me will be regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come;believe me, there are few people who can compose something like that." Thedark, passionate mood of the Symphony in C minor is reminiscent ofHaydn's Sturm und Drang period around 1770, comparable with minor-keysymphonies such as Nos 44, 45 and 49. Stylistically it is also very close toGluck, with his overture for Iphigenia in Aulis, an opera which had beenstaged in Stockholm in the year of Kraus's arrival there Gluck is said to havecommented on Kraus: "That man has great style."
To call Kraus the Swedish Mozart, as hasoccasionally been done, has little relevance, apart from the fact that bothcomposers were born in the same year and that Kraus died just one year afterMoz