ORDONEZ: Symphonies (Kevin Mallon/ Toronto Camerata) (Naxos: 8.557482)
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Karl von Ordonez (1734-1786): Symphonies
Karl von Ordonez cut a somewhat unusual figure in themusical life of eighteenth-century Vienna for unlike allof his important contemporaries he was not aprofessional musician. For most of his working life hewas employed by the Lower Austrian Regional Courtand his musical activities, both as a performer andcomposer, were pursued in his spare time. It was not, itseems, the promise of an exciting and glamorous careerin local government that was responsible for luring himaway from life as a professional musician but rather thecircumstances of his birth. Ordonez's family belongedto the minor nobility and as such a professional musicalcareer would not have befitted a man of his rank.
However much talent might have been admired inViennese society - and one close contemporary ofOrdonez, Carl Ditters, was even raised to the ranks ofthe nobility by the Empress - an enormous gulfseparated the meanly-born professional musician fromeven the minor nobility. Mozart felt this acutely anddecades later Beethoven, for all his self-professedegalitarianism, fought an unsuccessful legal battle toestablish his own claim to nobility. In the circumstancesit is perhaps unsurprising that Ordonez opted to pursuehis musical career as an amateur. This difference instatus did not in any way diminish his seriousness ofintent as a composer and his music has receivedsignificant attention from scholars in recent years.
Nothing has come to light concerning Ordonez'sgeneral education although it seems likely that he wouldhave attended a Ritterakademie, a boarding-school forthe nobility, and, in preparation for a career in the civilservice, gone on to study law at the University ofVienna. Nor is anything known about his musicaltraining although his contemporary reputation as aviolinist suggests that he studied the instrument from anearly age and, no doubt, was also a proficient keyboardplayer.
Of his training in composition it is not possibleeven to hazard a guess.
Ordonez's professional activities includedmembership of two prestigious performing bodies, thek.k. Hof- und Kammermusik (where he was employedas a Kammermusikus) and the Tonk??nstler-Societat inwhich he was active both as a violinist and as acomposer. Ordonez was one of the earliest members ofthe Tonk??nstler-Societat, an organisation devoted toraising money through public concerts for the widowsand orphans of musicians, and maintained a closeassociation from 1771, the year of its foundation, until1784. He also performed regularly in the houses of thenobility. Dr Charles Burney heard him play at a musicaldinner party in 1772 held in the residence of the BritishAmbassador in Vienna, Lord Stormont, and reported:
Between the vocal parts of this delightful concert, wehad some exquisite quartets, by Haydn, executed in theutmost perfection; the first violin by M. Startzler[J. Starzer], who played the Adagios with uncommonfeeling and expression; the second violin by M.
Ordonetz; Count Br??hl played the tenor, and M. Weigel[F.J. Weigl], an excellent performer on the violoncello,the base. All who had any share in this concert, findingthe company attentive, and in a disposition to bepleased, were animated to that true pitch of enthusiasm,which, from the ardour of the fire within them, iscommunicated to others, and sets all around in a blaze;so that the contention between the performers andhearers, was only who should please, and who shouldapplaud the most!
The onset of pulmonary tuberculosis forcedOrdonez to resign both his professional playingappointments in 1783 and the same year he was forcedto retire on half-salary from his position with the LowerAustrian Land Court. The last three years of his lifewere spent in sickness and poverty. His desperatefinancial circumstances reduced him to a precariousexistence in shared lodgings and at the time of his deathhe possessed only a few items of clothing and his totalestate, including outstanding pension payments, wasvalued at less than the cost of his funeral. His son-inlaw,Joseph Niedlinger, a minor government official inthe Upper Building Management Division of the court,paid the outstanding balance and saved the noblemanthe ignominy of a pauper's grave.
Ordonez's output as a composer leaves us in nodoubt that he regarded himself as a professional in allbut name. In addition to his two operatic works, amarionette opera, Musica della Parodia d'Alceste and aSingspiel, Diesmal hat der Mann den Willen, Ordonez isknown to have composed a significant number of sacredworks (now lost), a large corpus of chamber music ofwhich the 27 authenticated string quartets are ofparticular importance, a violin concerto and no less than73 symphonies. The symphonies were widelydisseminated in manuscript copies and the celebratedpolymath Abbe Stadler noted that they \received greatapplause". Seven of these works found their way intothe thematic catalogues and supplements published byBreitkopf between the years 1766 and 1778, arespectable number but low nonetheless in comparisonwith his close contemporaries Hofmann, Wanhal andDittersdorf. He was it seems a respected rather thancelebrated composer, a consequence, no doubt, of thestrange half-life he lived as an artist.
Although Ordonez was a part-time composer, hewas no dilettante. Neither was he a slave to fashion orconvention. His liking for contrapuntal textures givesmuch of his music a very distinctive quality and hissophisticated experiments with cyclic unity, particularlyin the string quartets, reveal a highly original musicalmind. The five symphonies featured on this recordingbear eloquent testimony to Ordonez's talents as acomposer.
As is the case with the works of so manyeighteenth-century composers it is impossible toestablish an accurate chronology for the Ordonezsymphonies or to learn anything much about thecircumstances of their composition. Indeed, of thepresent works, only the Sinfonia in A (Brown A4) andSinfonia in G minor (Brown Gm8) possess any externalcorroborative references that give a clue to theircomposition date: both are listed in the famousQuartbuch catalogue and must have been composed nolater than 1775, the generally agreed date for the latestknownworks in this catalogue.
If the number of extant copies of a work is anyindicator of its contemporary popularity then theSinfonia in C (Brown C2) was undoubtedly one of thebest known of Ordonez's symphonies. One of thereasons for this may lie in its beautiful slow movementwith its striking employment of violin and violoncelloobbligati. Ordonez was by all accounts a good violinistand it is tempting to think that the solo violin part wasfirst performed by the composer himself. The work isalso somewhat unusual in being a three-movementsymphony with a slow introduction to the firstmovement. This Adagio introduction adds a certainweight to the work and there are also subtle thematiclinks between it and the ensuing Allegro molto. That noconcentrated attempt is made within the work as awhole to establish a deeper unification of the cycle mayindicate that it represents one of Ordonez's earliestexperiments with this technique.
A number of scholars have drawn attention toOrdonez's predilection for minor key works althoughthe proportion of minor key symphonies in his oeuvredoes not differ significantly from that found in theworks of Haydn, Wanhal and Dittersdorf. The choice ofB minor, however, is unusual and suggests a composersensitive to the tonal nuances of different keys. Of thetwo G minor symphonies, one (Gm8) was composed notlater than 1775 (on the evidence of its inclusion in theQuartbuch catalogue) and is, therefore, roughlycontemporaneous with Haydn's so-called Sturm undDrang symphonies. The symphony is delicately scoredfor a pair of oboes and strings; the Quartbuch entry alsospecifies h