On the trail of . . . Haydn’s Op. 1 No. 1

February 20, 2020

The Schumann Quartet are bringing Haydn’s Op. 1 No. 1 to their Music TORONTO concert, Feb 27, 2020.
Is this Op. 1 No. 1 Haydn’s very first published work?
The first string quartet from the man known as the ‘Father’ of the string quartet?
. . . . . . Would that it was so simple!


Rohrau, Austria – Haydn’s birthplace, drawing c1870-80

Rohrau birthplace today, flying the EU flag







Haydn’s birthplace today. The building suffered flooding and fire. Now rebuilt, it houses a museum and concert room


Rohrau, Haydn’s birthplace , oil painting, 1800 Obere Hauptstrasse 25, likely where Haydn, but not his Op. 1, was conceived 











By the time this oil painting was made at the beginning of the 19th century, Haydn was reaching the end of his string quartet-writing days.

The two movements of No. 68 were on his writing desk.

His former pupil and long-time friend, Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, now rivalled his teacher as the most popular composer in Europe.

Pleyel, however, was already phasing out composing in favour of publishing.

One of the earliest of some 4,000 works to come from the Paris-based Maison Pleyel was the first complete edition of Haydn’s string quartets.

That was in 1802.

Pleyel followed the lead of many earlier publishers throughout Europe by referring to the early B-flat quartet as Op. 1 No. 1.

Pleyel’s first edition of his complete Haydn string quartets was published 1802.
This is a variant, published c1803-6,
dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, now known as the ‘Bonaparte Edition.’
The St Lawrence SQ keep an eye on it in the library at Stanford University.

Publishing was, of course, a free-for-all in the 18th century.

La Chevadière in Paris had been the first to assemble an Op. 1 collection of six of Haydn’s quartets.

He put it together from manuscript copies circulating in Paris in the mid-1760s.

Haydn didn’t know about it or he might have pointed out that one of the quartets was really one of his symphonies and not a quartet at all.

Two more are sextets for string quartet with two horns.

Score 3 out of 6 for La Chevadière.


Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, Johann Julius Hummel was assembling his own Op. 1 collection, plus a further six-pack of Haydn quartets, which he titled Op. 2.

Like all early publishers, he arranged them in the way he thought would deliver the most sales.

Score 7 out of 6 for Hummel.

That’s because he included an E-flat quartet (Hob.II:6) which became lost, until re-discovered in the 1930s.

Some linear-thinker then catalogued the poor thing as Op. ‘O’, under which handicap it has languished ever since.

So, all in all, Haydn wrote a total of ten early quartets, known for the past 270+ years as Opp. 1 and 2.

He called them cassations, nocturnes, or the term that gets the most nods in academic circles these days, divertimenti a quattro.

However, consider this.

We might not have Haydn’s ten early quartets had the young Haydn undergone a surgical procedure recommended by an unknown official at the Stephansdom, St Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna.

Ahem.  We need to backtrack.

This is the ground floor bedroom at the Haydn family home, in Rohrau, Lower Austria, which I recently visited.

The reed-thatched building was built by Haydn’s father, Mathias, a wheelwright.  He had his workshop at the back, across a small garden.

It is the room where both Joseph and his younger brother Michael were born. [Michael, also a gifted composer, followed in his brother’s footsteps, serving most of his working life at the archiepiscopal court in Salzburg].

Baptismal registration for both Joseph and Michael Haydn, Parish of Rohrau



Schloss Rohrau today, for over 400 years the property of the Harrach family, a few minutes’ walk from the Haydn Birthplace










A rather sorry-looking Haydn monument in the Rohrau town centre. Count Harrach originally  installed it in his palace grounds.


Haydn, however, only lived at Rohrau until he was six.

He was then taken in by a distant cousin named Johann Mathias Franck in Hainburg, his father’s birthplace, some 10 km to the North.

Franck was a schoolteacher and also in charge of the music at a local church.

His teaching and Haydn’s rapid progress drew the young Haydn sometime around 1740 to the attention of Georg Reutter, Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s, the metropolitan cathedral church of Vienna.

Haydn was auditioned and chosen as one of six choristers that year to receive training and boarding at the Stefansdom.

Stephansdom, Vienna





The adjacent Kapellhaus where Haydn boarded (to RHS) was torn down in 1804


Haydn spent the next decade at the gothic St Stephen’s in a city then at the height of its Baroque splendour.

The young Haydn sang the daily services, learning harpsichord, violin and possibly organ.

He did not receive composition lessons while serving the church.
But he did recall having all of two theory lessons from Reutter!

He also had the dubious privilege of singing many of Reutter’s 500
compositions written for the
church calendar and the needs
of the Habsburg court.


Interior of today’s St. Stephen’s, where Haydn sang the daily services for ten years.

Haydn excelled at what he did and became the leading treble
soloist by his mid-teens.

That’s when the question of surgery was raised, with a view to offering the boy a future as a soloist in a society where a castrato singer would be in high demand.

Mathias Haydn, by now also village Marktrichter, or mayor, heard of it, rushed into Vienna and put a stop to that idea.


At 17, Haydn’s voice broke.

His brother Michael became the main treble soloist.

Haydn was now on his own: a freelance musician in Vienna at the age of 17.

But the musical and personal skills he had acquired were useful and his contacts were developing.

He was both keyboard and string musician, he sang, he taught and, of course, he composed.


Barmherzige Bruder church, Vienna

Here’s how he would spend a typical Sunday morning:

08:00 Leading the orchestra on violin at the Barmherzige Brüder church on Taborstrasse.
10:00 Playing organ in the private chapel of Count Haugwitz, Wipplingerstrasse.
11:00 Singing with his former choir in the choral service at the Stephansdom.

[We have this information and many more details about Haydn’s early life from the German diplomat George August Griesinger, who interviewed the then famous composer many times towards the end of his life. Griesinger’s seven-part biography appeared in a journal shortly after the composer’s death, in 1809.
The following year, it was edited and expanded into a book].


Two or three years into Haydn’s new life, he had virtually all his possessions stolen while living in a garret behind the Hofburg Imperial palace.

Schloss Weinzierl, where Haydn’s
Op. 1 No. 1 was first performed

A wealthy government official named Carl Joseph Weber von Fürnberg (1720-67) came to Haydn’s rescue, offering him free accomodation and meals for two months.

No less helpfully, Fürnberg later commissioned the young composer to provide music for an informal gathering of musicians that he liked to host at his country residence, the Schloss Weinzierl, to the west of Vienna.

The group included his estate steward and chaplain, Albrechtsberger (either composer Johann or his cellist brother Anton) and Haydn, playing violin.


Symphonies were sometimes adapted by the quartet – as may well have been the case with the symphony (Hob. I:107), erroneously included in the Op. 1 collection of Haydn’s early quartets published in Paris by La Chevadière.

It was for this informal gathering that Haydn’s early divertimenti a quattro came to be created.

The new medium of two violins, viola and cello provided Haydn with a springboard for music that is immediately entertaining and pleasing.

Schloss Weinzierl


A Spring music festival has been held at the Schloss Weinzierl since 2009 to mark the location where Haydn’s first string quartets were performed.  Read about it HERE



By the time Haydn returned to the medium (c1768-70) with a consciously planned set of six string quartets, published (without his approval) as his Op. 9, he had already served his apprenticeship at the Esterházy court and was well into his duties as Kapellmeister to a family he would serve for the greater part of his future career.  [And there’s much more about this chapter of Haydn’s life on the MusicTORONTO blog HERE].

From its modest beginnings at Schloss Weinzierl, Haydn would develop his string quartet catalogue into one of the landmarks of 18th century musical composition.


The Schumann Quartet plays Haydn Op. 1 No. 1, Shostakovich and Smetana, Thursday February 27, 2020
© Copyright 2020 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Gustav Holst . . . in Salonika

November 11, 2018

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – one hundred years ago today – was only the beginning of the war effort for English composer Gustav Holst.

Having sailed from Southampton October 29, 1918, Holst was less than half way into a month-long journey across worn-torn Europe on his way to Salonika, Greece when the Armistice was declared.

Holst did not end his arduous travels at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918.  Neither did World War 1 end an hour before noon.

Treaties had to be negotiated and signed.  Empires had to be further broken up.  Populations redistributed.

The Allied Forces in Salonika, were to be kept on the Eastern Front (Southern Aegean / Sea of Marmara region) almost five more years, until August 1923.  Holst was with them in Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki) and Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) part of this time, on active service with the British Expeditionary Force with the YMCA for some eight months.

Salonika postcard mailed in 1918. The photograph was taken earlier since the defensive chemise around the White Tower was demolished in 1917. A massive fire also devastated much of the Old Town in 1917. The White Tower, now a museum, remains an iconic symbol of present-day Thessaloniki

His mission with the YMCA Auxiliary?

As Music Organiser, to bring music to help heal and revitalise exhausted Allied troops waiting to be demobilised, by one-on-one teaching, organising choirs, an orchestra, concerts and lectures.  But even before he set sail for the Eastern front, there was much to be done.

YMCA Music Section logo





Holst’s brother Emil, working since 1908 as a Broadway actor under the name Ernest Cossart, later a successful movie actor, was badly wounded while serving in the Canadian army during WW1

At the beginning of the war, Holst and his friend Vaughan Williams, both around 40 years old, had volunteered for military service. “The recruiting office had little use for a man who could hardly hold a fountain pen, let alone a rifle, and who was unable to recognise his own family at a distance of more than six yards,” his daughter Imogen wrote in her biography of her father.

Holst later heard about Vaughan Williams’ work with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika and France. “Having been trained as a 6” Howitzer man, I’ve been bunged into a 60 pounder!” RVW wrote to his friend at one point.

As the war went on, his fellow composers and friends George Butterworth, Cecil Coles, and Ernest Farrar were all killed in action.

His wife Isobel was a volunteer ambulance driver throughout the war.

During the repeated air raids over London, Holst applied for work that would help the war effort, only to face rejection.

Meanwhile, with his thoughts constantly on the war, Holst continued teaching at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and, in the evenings, teaching adult classes at Morley College. More significantly for us, he kept busy composing in the soundproofed studio the school had constructed for him.

He wrote the ground-breaking Suite The Planets between 1914 and 1917, having to dictate part of the movement he completed last, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, because of the neuritis in his right arm.

Although he always downplayed its direct connection with WW1, the mighty Mars, the Bringer of War, completed just months before the outbreak of war in August 1914, clearly anticipates the horrors to come.

Holst’s name presented problems. Born Gustavus Theodore von Holst to musical parents, his German ancestry dated back to his great-grandfather Matthias (1769–1854) born in Rīga, of German stock – he was a composer, pianist and teacher to the Imperial Russian court in St Petersburg. This would have been a bit of a mouthful to explain to war-weary troops in Salonika.

Anti-German sentiment even against a British musician born in the comfort of a middle-class Cheltenham home was not in short supply in 1918.

G. T. VonHolst Esq’s application for Auxiliary work is accepted by the government’s Military
Intelligence Department


Holst changed his name by deed poll September 24, 1918.

Centre-right, Holst’s birthplace in 1874, then 4 Pittville Terrace, now 4 Clarence Road, and the Holst Birthplace Museum since 1975

(He was, of course, beaten to it by Mr and Mrs Saxe Coburg-Gotha, henceforth to be known as George and Mary Windsor).


Military training followed, in Nottinghamshire. “I’m going with the YMCA to Salonica for a year – it is a special educational mission. In order to be of more use I am dropping the ‘von’. I’m here under canvas and in mud learning my job.” he wrote to a friend at the time. Then Holst sought out some advice in piano tuning and maintenance, equipping him with some of the skills he would need in Salonika.

A welcome parting gift came from a friend, Henry Balfour Gardiner (great-uncle of the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner). He hired Queen’s Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra for the morning of September 29, 1918 for a private read-through of The Planets with a small invited audience. There was time for a quick rehearsal with Adrian Boult leading the musicians and a chorus made up of

A report from London’s Musical Standard outlining the work of the YMCA in camps throughout the field of war, at troop hospitals at home and in internment camps in Europe.
Holst’s posting is mentioned.

members of Holst’s evening educational classes at Morley College and a few girls from St Paul’s. The public premiere of the suite had to wait until November 15, 1920.

Holst finally arrived in Salonika December 1, 1918 and quickly settled into a shared room at the YMCA Education Office, 19 Evonon.

Two days later,, an entry in his diary reads: “Wrote lecture in morning, singing lesson Lucas Collins, Theory Lucas Collins, Interview Hagget, and see Bates at night at H2.” (the main YMCA hut in the city).

Still, music education must have been an uphill struggle for all concerned, though Holst appears to have done his best to create a welcoming environment out of his music room. Before the end of the month he wrote to his wife:

“It has a bed, two chairs, three tables and many shelves made of packing cases. I have been there every afternoon except one when I went to the Scottish Women’s Hospital to arrange teaching wounded French and Serbians (I fancy teaching tonic solfa to Serbians!) and men come in for lessons whenever they can. It is a free and easy

arrangement that appeals to them greatly.”

For three long years, the Allied expeditionary force, based in Salonika in the North of a divided Greece, had fought to support Serbia in defending a 250-mile front against Bulgarian and pro-German forces.

By late September 1918, suffering thousands of deaths on both sides, widespread influenza, rampant malaria (with over 160,000 cases in the British Salonika force alone) and exhaustion after the extended stalemate in primitive living conditions, the Allied contingent entered Bulgarian territory.

The Salonika Armistice came into effect September 29, 1918, the very same day that Holst’s The Planets introduced both war (Mars) and peace (Venus) to a London concert hall.

Another armistice was declared when the Ottoman Empire collapsed a month later. Holst would later travel with the Salonika Forces to Constantinople.

Salonika Camp Christmas card 1918





Holst had a keen eye when walking around the battered city of  Salonika.

On Christmas Day, 1918 he wrote to his wife:

“I went on a long walk and visited an old church that was first a church and then a mosque and then a church again and now a ruin because it was burnt by the terrible fire last year and since then has been used as a living place for starving refugees.”

“Our Camp Concert” is the title of this postcard below, produced by the YMCA c1916. Even though it may have sent the men running, music was an important part of camp life.





On other occasions, Holst traveled to many of the other camps in the region, giving lectures, lessons and training choirs.

January 25, 1919 finds him in Serres and his diary reads:

“Walk alone on hills till 1 am. Motor across Struma plain – see men ploughing. Arrive Serres midday . . . Lecture 7 to 8:30. Sleep on ground. Quite warm. Heard wolves in distance.”


Holst’s most ambitious event

One month later, Holst organised a “Concert of Music of British Composers” in the large canvas theatre of the 52nd General Hospital.

One of the Pomp and Circumstance marches of Elgar (little doubt that it was Land of Hope and Glory) opened the ambitious event. A part-song for female voices by Elgar was also included.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the most popular oratorio among British choral societies since Handel’s Messiah, was the centrepiece. And there was music by Purcell too, though nothing by Holst himself.

“Hundreds, including a number of red-hatted staff officers, were turned away. Some 500 sat on chairs, others on the ground, in the orchestra, in the dressing-rooms, behind the chorus and in other odd corners (five men and a dog sat on the double-bass case!).” (The Musical Standard)

By March, Holst and most of the entire camp were re-posted to Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. Buoyed by the success of the Salonika concert, Holst repeated the event at the Theatre Petits-champs in Constantinople, this time over six consecutive evenings in June.


Holst felt that the results were mixed. But his followers had enduring memories long after being demobbed and resuming lives cruelly interrupted by the war.

Laura Kinnear, curator of an intimate, well-documented exhibition at the Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham titled Gustav Holst’s WW1 with the Salonika Forces – to whom I am indebted for much of the information and graphics for this blog post – quotes one soldier who wrote to the BBC in September 1950:

“My happiest memory was of the morning visits with a few of his keener followers to where, seated at the organ with the men clustered around, he used to teach us simple harmonies . . . The greatness of Holst as a man was enhanced by his innate humility and his desire to enrich the musical understanding of a crowd of very ordinary soldiers. This episode will remain with me as one of the most fragrant memories of my life.”

Holst left for England towards the end of June 1919. He had not found time or the inspiration to compose while in Salonika or Constantinople and his wartime years of composition had produced little that directly reflected its impact. But there was more to come and it was to result directly from his first-hand experience among the troops on the Eastern Front.

The Ode to Death, for chorus and orchestra,was written that summer upon his return. It is the most powerful and, perhaps, meaningful of his choral works, written in memory of lost friends. The words are by Walt Whitman taken from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the American poet’s elegy upon the assassination of Lincoln. Holst turns this short choral work into a music of transcendent beauty, conveying not a sense of despair of the millions of lives so futilely lost, but rather a feeling of pride in their sacrifice and profound gratitude for what they achieved.

© copyright 2018 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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Mr Nobody (aka Mr Mystery) meets Mr Busoni

September 04, 2018

In his season-opening concert – his 12th on the MusicTORONTO stage – Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin includes some of his favourite piano transcriptions.  They include six by Mr Nobody.

Piano transcriptions, you say?

Not the real thing?

Secondhand piano music?

Mr Nobody?  A composer who daren’t show his face?

Let’s start where Marc-André will start his recital, with what is probably the most transcribed of all pieces in the classical repertoire: the Chaconne which closes Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin in grand style.

Mendelssohn was the earliest to make the modest sound of Bach’s violin more ‘alive’ for an early 19th c concert audience by filling out the harmonies of the solo line by adding piano accompaniment. (Violinist Catherine Manoukian played Mendelssohn’s version, together with Schumann’s paler attempt to spice up the Chaconne for MusicTORONTO back in 2002. Anyone remember?).

Later on, we find Brahms writing to Clara Schumann and saying that by putting his left-hand to work and giving his right-hand the night off, playing his own left-hand transcription “makes me feel like a violinist.”

But Brahms was too respectful to Bach’s score and it took the one-armed Swiss pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) to put the pianistic fireworks into a left-hand transcription for piano – in the process, extending Bach’s three-octave range and Brahms’s four, to 5.5 octaves.

Little space to mention impressive efforts made with Chaconne transcriptions for other instruments here. Lingering for a moment over a reverential, almost religious performance of his Busoni-inspired transcription for guitar that I heard from a silver-haired Segovia in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre back in the early 1970s.
And there was the ghostly, often ethereal, but still rich dumpling of an orchestral transcription that the 92-year-old Leopold Stokowski recorded with the LSO for Decca in St Giles church, Cripplegate in that same long-gone era.

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni, on the other hand, took another approach, as you might expect with a composer whose very name reads like a transcription.

First, he re-imagined the Chaconne transcribed for organ in his mind, then he set to work transcribing this mental sonic picture for the piano.

Busoni uses all the piano registers, just about the full 7.25 octaves of the keyboard, from the lowest A to highest B-flat, and all three pedals.

The resulting masterpiece, bristling with four or five layers of counterpoint and eight or nine-voiced chords, will come alive under the fingers of Marc-André Hamelin.

Maybe you’ll be persuaded to join me in believing that a great composer-pianist can be inspired to create a transcription which not only casts new light on the original, but stands in its own right as an artistic creation of equal grandeur.

Chaconne à son goût! . . . “Chacun sa chaconne!”**

Which brings us to Mr Nobody and his brilliant efforts to bring French popular café songs to the concert platform.  Just listen to this shimmering transcription of En Avril, à Paris by Mr Nobody.


Mr Nobody’s En Avril, à Paris is like an intricately-woven spider’s web, glistening in the sun, wrapped around a simple six-note earworm of a tune.







Here’s another transcription, this time a glittering, less-than-one-minute take by Mr Nobody on Trenet’s 1938 story of lost love left behind in the hilly quarter of Paris known as Ménilmontant.


Mr Nobody released six of his arrangements of songs sung by Charles Trenet (1913–2001), the most influential popular French singer-songwriter of the mid-20th century, in the 1950s on a 45-rpm EP record on the Lumen label.

Cassette copies circulated. Insiders, of course, knew or had a good idea of the identity of the clearly brilliant pianist behind the release. (Marc-André Hamelin tells the tale in the MusicTORONTO program notes). But only in relatively recent times has it become publicly known that the pianist was Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012).

The career of the Bulgarian-born, longtime Paris resident had its ups (winner of the 1947 prestigious Leventritt Award, then international bookings) and its downs (a decade under the radar, unhappy with his interpretations and career, working on his technique, teaching). Then more ups (recording all five Beethoven Concertos with Karajan and the Berlin Phil for EMI, decades at the top of his game performing and recording most of the standard rep) – and downs (he disappeared once more, eventually dying in Madrid from Parkinson’s disease).

Weissenberg was famously criticised for the cold precision of a finely-honed, prodigious technique, offering, in the words of one critic, “all the warmth and humanity of an autopsy.” When asked how much of his playing was intuitive and how much pre-planned,Weissenberg bit back at his interviewer: “All of it is intuitive and all of it is pre-planned.”

The name “Mr Nobody” was dreamed up to prevent negative association with crossover music long before the term was invented. Anonymity gave Weissenberg permission to explore a less buttoned, side of his complex, highly cultured, eloquently-spoken personality. This was the side that French tv viewers saw in the 1970s and 80s when the good-looking, sharply-dressed, suavely-spoken pianist could be seen as accompanist to the likes of Charles Aznavour and Nana Mouskouri.



“Mister Mystery” was another nom de plume of the pianist, who took French citizenship.


Weissenberg’s sleeve notes for the original 45-rpm release of his own transcriptions of melodies from My Fair Lady give an entertaining description of how to go about the serious business of making a piano transcription — the process of successfully transfering one musical medium to another.



“You take a tune you like and play it inside out, for yourself, until you are sick of it,” Weissenberg says.  “Then, the first thing you have to do about it is forget it.  Forget it, honestly; play other things, other tunes.

“When you come back to it, the tune will have ripened, ‘matured’, in your head, in your heart, in your feet, wherever you like. Don’t touch the score again. Play it the way you think you remember it. Your way.

“Now you have the basic element of your concoction. Put it in the shaker such as it is, or upside down, if you prefer. At this point, before adding ice cubes or egg yolks, (which in musical terms are called harmonies and modulations), you have to think up carefully the ‘spices’ you want to mix to make it really a ‘Special’, ‘Tops’, or an A-Plus’ beverage.

“Think hard. Olives, mustard, pepper, Angostura, mint, sugar, lemon, lime, Worcestershire, and Ketchup correspond, in music, to rhythms, trills, sound-effects, counterpoints, syncopated notes, triplets, glissandi, and such happy combinations as a schizophrenic battery and a non-committal bass, and, from time to time, the use of a triangle, of course.

“Once the choice is established, add the spices to your basic element. If necessary, multiply them. Put in an extra melody, if you so desire. Close the shaker tight and shake. Shake hard. When you open the shaker and pour out the content, you’ll have an arrangement all your own.”






Somebody should have told Busoni it is that easy!

Jazz colours many of Weissenberg’s compositions, which include a musical, Nostalgie, which premièred in 1992 and a musical comedy La fugue, which Martha Argerich presented in Lugano in 2008 (well into Weissenberg’s illness). Marc-André Hamelin brought Weissenberg’s 1982 Sonata in a State of Jazz to MusicTORONTO a few years ago. It’s a kind of jazz re-mix in which he distils the essence of four types of jazz popular in the 1950s – the tango, charleston, blues and samba – and structures them within a classical framework.

Earlier times are recalled with these selections from the Charles Trenet collection which Marc-André Hamelin will be playing in his 2018-19 season opener next month – and which you can hear Mr Nobody play right now!











Visit this growing archive for more rare recordings, interviews, photos, videos and much more.  http://alexisweissenbergarchive.com/


** FOOTNOTE: “Chacun sa chaconne” are the concluding words of a chapter on Bach transcriptions from a book on virtuoso piano transcriptions by a brilliant pianist and dear colleague, Rian de Waal (1958-2011) with whom I worked on several projects. Metamorphoses: the art of the virtuoso piano transcription is published by Eburon Publishers, Delft (2013) and includes 6 CDs containing 50 tracks of professionally recorded virtuoso transcriptions, many of which are rarieties.

Marc-André Hamelin plays Bach-Busoni, Feinberg, Weissenberg-Trenet, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Chopin, Tuesday October 2, 2018
© copyright 2018 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the Trail of . . . Ralph Vaughan Williams (part one)

All Saints' Church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

All Saints’ Church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

“19 villagers.
3 smallholders.
12 slaves.
1 priest.”


Those were the residents of the lovely Cotswold village of Down Ampney, as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1066.


That priest’s successor (with a switch from priest to vicar after Henry VIII’s say in such matters) was the father of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The English composer died exactly 60 years ago, August 26 this year, and, earlier in the month, I went to take a look at the village where he was born. Preparations were underway for its first, modestly-scaled Vaughan Williams Festival (August 24-27).

The church is the centre of attention for both festival and visitor. Built by the Knights Templar, All Saints’ Church, Down Ampney first opened for business back in 1265.


Various brushes with plagues in the Middle Ages led to the village developing in directions away from its church, giving today’s setting the sort of pastoral tranquility where you could easily come upon a lark ascending.

But it wasn’t in Down Ampney that Vaughan Williams would have likely remembered hearing the larks that bring such a haunting beauty to his music.



Rev’d Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834-75)
Click to enlarge

The Rev’d Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams died when Ralph was only a little over two years old and the family had to move.

VW Snr. is buried at Down Ampney and has a memorial stained glass window inside the church where he gave sermons.


Memorial window to the Rev'd Arthur Vaughan Williams

Memorial window to the
Rev’d Arthur Vaughan Williams

There is a campaign underway to raise funds for the adjacent window to become a stained glass memorial to his son before the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2022.




RVW birthplace as it was

RVW birthplace as it was


Vaughan Williams was born in the vicarage, in the centre of the village. The house is now in private hands.



The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, today

The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, today

English folksong, Elizabethan and Jacobean music and English hymns were the ingredients that triggered the musical style of Vaughan Williams. He was to become the leading English composer of his day and a key figure in the revival of English music.

Although an agnostic, he did edit The English Hymnal between 1904-6, purging it of Victoriana, rediscovering old tunes, adapting over 40 folk songs as hymns and writing several himself.

These included one he titled Down Ampney after the village where he was born. It’s sung to the words Come down, O love divine.

Down Ampney has returned the favour . . . with a street . . . which leads nowhere . . .

Linden Lea - a dead-end street in Down Ampney

Linden Lea – a dead-end street in Down Ampney


Down Ampney could do better.

Meanwhile, here’s the original Linden Lea sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford.

We did drive carefully, as the sign requests, and there will be more Vaughan Williams in a later post.


Blog post and photographs © copyright 2018 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt

January 08, 2017

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

It is still quite easy to imagine walking in the footsteps of Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt, a small town in the Austrian Burgenland, less than 50 km south-east of Vienna. Eisenstadt was the principal residence of the Esterházy family, whom Haydn served for more than four decades, and it was here that he created much of a vast catalogue of musical compositions.

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary. Photo 1772-3 attrib Grundmann, painted C Peel

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary

Walking a few steps beyond the palace, to the left of my photo above, you can find the Margaretinum.  It’s now a parish centre and, before that, a convent.  Even earlier, the building housed an apartment where the young Haydn lived with his wife in the early 1760s, when he was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy.

Next door lies the Bergkirche where Haydn played the organ. His remains have lain in its crypt for almost two centuries. Sad to recount, Haydn’s corpse has only been reunited with its skull for a little over a quarter of this time . . . . . . maybe more of this gruesome tale in a later post.
A few minutes walk in the opposite direction, behind the buildings to the right above, there’s the Joseph Haydngasse – which was known as the Klostergasse in Haydn’s day.

No. 21 is the house that Haydn bought in 1766 once he was feeling confident in his future, having taken over the full Kapellmeistership of the Esterházy court.

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Haydn and his wife lived upstairs, with his copyist Johann Elssler and pupils occupying a former stable on the ground floor.

The Haydn-Haus has been a museum since 1935. Its scope increased significantly after 1998 when the neighbouring property was acquired and carefully restored to allow for more display space.

Its eight rooms aim to give a picture of Haydn and his times in a chronological sequence.

There’s a fine looking Anton Walter piano from 1780, believed to have been used by Haydn. Sadly, I couldn’t find a way of  laying a finger upon it.

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

A standout, for me, is a craquelé porcelain bust made by Anton Grassi, for which Haydn sat in 1799 and again in 1802. This comes closest to the mental picture of the composer that I have built up for myself over the years through reading about the man and listening to the music.


Autograph scores, original letters and early printed scores which were formerly in the museum now appear to have been moved.


An exhibition Haydn and the Women: 12 stories about music and love coyly delves into Haydn’s sex life, without saying anything that’s new.


 Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Haydn married Maria Anna Theresia Keller, daughter of a wigmaker, in 1760 having first fallen in love with her sister, destined for a nunnery.

Unlike Mozart, who similarly first fell for the wrong sister a generation later, Haydn did not have a happy marriage.
Both Haydns had affairs and there were no children.
The Haydns were to remain together until Maria Anna’s death in 1800.

Her affair was with the court painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn.

His was (mainly) with the soprano Luigia Polzelli, hired with her violinist husband for the Esterháza opera in 1779, fired by Prince Nicolaus in 1780, but almost immediately reinstated (for the remaining decade of the relationship) at Haydn’s request.

Haydn wrote just one role for Luigia’s limited talents. He did, however, spend much time adapting, rewriting and arranging arias in operas by other composers that were presented in the busy Esterháza season, to best display her way with music described as “light, ironic and charming.”

Haydn is believed to have been the father of her son Antonio. He provided for the young violinist in his will and Antonio’s daughter, in turn, maintained that she was Haydn’s grand daughter.


 City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

Along with the house at Klostergasse 21, the Haydns acquired several plots of land, including a “kitchen garden behind the hospital,” beyond the city walls.

Needless to say “Secrets from Mrs. Haydn’s Garden” is now a tourist attraction in itself, by ticket only.

An inventory drawn up following one of the two fires that damaged the Haydn-Haus during the 12 years that Haydn lived there reveals that he raised pigs and chickens received as part of his salary in this Kräutergarten.

Who knew?



Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt's Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn's time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle

Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt’s Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn’s time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle











Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Pride of place in the big house on the hill goes to the Haydnsaal, a 650-seat concert hall with outstanding acoustical and visual elements.
The room dates back to a Baroque building phase when 13th century fortress was transformed into 17th century palace.  Attractive ceiling frescos by Carpoforo Tencala tell the story of Psyche and Amor.

Berlin-based manager Andreas Richter programs the April through October concert season on behalf of the Esterházy Foundation. The Banff prizewinning Rolston Quartet will make its debut in the Haydnsaal June 6, 2017 and return the following year.
Richter outlined this year’s annual festival for me in a recent interview.
It runs September 6 – 16, 2017, titled Herbst Gold / Autumn Gold.
More details of the season, including stylish picnic concerts in the
splendid palace grounds HERE.

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit




Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates. Details HERE. Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!

Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates.
Details HERE.
Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!






Haydn led a comfortable, if demanding, life working for the Esterházy family.

Under Prince Nicolaus he and the musicians initially moved between Eisenstadt and Vienna.

By the 1770s, as opera became the centre of the prince’s attention, a hunting lodge at Süttör was transformed into a new summer palace, complete with two theatres, one for opera, the other for marionette opera.

Now, Haydn’s life involved long summer residences at the newly named Esterháza palace, just across today’s Hungarian border.

The scale of the enterprise was huge, peaking in the year 1786, with 125 performances of 17 different operas, all of them under the direction of Haydn, several of them also composed by him.

With less time to spend in Eisenstadt, Haydn sold his house there in 1778 and lived in the accomodation built for the court musicians in the three hubs of their activity: Esterháza, Eisenstadt and, in December and January, Vienna.

With the death on Prince Nicolaus in 1790, opera for Haydn and the Esterházy family came to a crashing halt.

Prince Anton dismissed all the court musicians save his music director Haydn and concertmaster Tomasini.

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies made during the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies of the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

Haydn, however, survived the downsizing quite well.

He now had a pension of 1,000 gulden per annum from Prince Nicolaus’s will, plus a salary from Prince Anton of another 400 gulden.

With little music at court, the way was clear for Haydn – now the most celebrated living composer in Europe – to accept an invitation to travel to London for two visits in the early 1790s.

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His house in Eisenstadt had brought in 2,000 gulden; but his time in London netted a princely 15,000 gulden.

“Such a thing is possible only in England,” the gleeful composer reported after one of his highly successful benefit concerts.

The rich proceeds of Haydn’s travel, together with his astute business sense selling his manuscripts to publishers across Europe, helped him prepare for old age in Vienna.

He purchased a house in 1793 for 1,370 gulden and had renovations done while he was away in the British capital.

With a salary increase to 700 gulden under Anton’s successor, Nicolaus II, and a wine allowance now at 515 litres a year, a complimentary uniform and various lump sum payments, Haydn additionally negotiated apothecary bills into his contract.

These were substantial and were to amount to 1,000 gulden in the final year of his life.

St Martin's, Eisenstadt's present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the "Nelson' Mass from the organ here in 1798

St Martin’s, Eisenstadt’s present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the ‘Nelson’ Mass,  from the organ here in 1798



Nicolaus II spent the main season, the winter season, in Vienna, with the main musical performances of a much reduced ensemble (now a wind harmonie of eight and string ensemble of a similar size) taking place in September and October. Haydn’s late masses date from this period.




Haydn’s Bergkirche undergoing restoration,sporting the banner ‘Restoration 2020: we’re saving the Haydn church.’ Haydn’s Bergkirche was originally intended as the presbytery to a much larger church, planned but never built. Throughout the 20th century – except for the year 1945 – to the present day, Haydn’s Seven Last Words has been performed here every Good Friday





Most of these six masses were privately performed on the nameday of the prince’s wife, Princess Marie, during a church service in the Bergkirche.



Incomplete rear of Bergkirche

Incomplete rear of Bergkirche





In Vienna, meanwhile, Haydn was having some of the greatest successes of his life with his two newly written oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.


By 1806, Haydn was confined to his house and never returned to Eisenstadt.

He was a celebrated figure throughout the musical world, but frail and no longer composing. He was taken to a special performance of The Creation by Princess Esterházy and family, but it proved too overwhelming for him. He had to leave at the end of Part One.

Haydn died peacefully in his sleep at 12:40am, May 31, 1809.

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche












The St. Lawrence Quartet will play two of Haydn’s Op. 20 string quartets, written in Eisenstadt in 1772 and first performed there, for MusicTORONTO, January 26, 2017.

Blog post and photographs © copyright 2017 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Johannes Brahms in Hamburg

November 22, 2016


Speckgang 24, Hamburg,
Brahms’s birthplace

It’s not exactly where you’d wish to be born and grow up, is it?

A large, shabby tenement building in a run-down area of Hamburg, close to the city walls. This is the crowded Gängeviertel, or Laneway Quarter of the North German port city, where tall, gabled wood-framed buildings of brick, clay and straw are packed together in narrow laneways.

One of Brahms’s earliest biographers, his piano pupil Florence May, visited the family’s former apartment in 1905, a few years after her mentor’s death. Feeling “a shiver of bewilderment and dismay” as she surveyed the cramped quarters, May apologises to her readers for having to speak of “the commonplace reality of bare and repulsive poverty.”

Poor Johannes!  But there’s worse to come.

This image of Speckgang 24 (later renumbered to Speckstrasse 60) has been reproduced on many web postings and in books about the composer. Pages of myths have portrayed Johannes Brahms as the romantic hero, rising from the slums of Hamburg to become the most celebrated composer in Vienna, the city of the great classical masters.


1906 plaque marking Brahms's birthplace

1906 plaque marking Brahms’s birthplace

It’s an easy hook to swallow.

A recent visit to Hamburg gave me an opportunity to assess how much of the bait I might have swallowed over the years and see a few of the remaining sights known to the composer in a city that he called home for more than half of his life.

My starting point was the Brahms Museum at Peterstrasse 39, a few minutes walk from the St. Pauli U-Bahn station. The museum is housed in a detailed reconstruction of the old Hamburg townhouses known to Brahms. Most did not survive the Great Fire of 1842 and the devastating 1943 weeklong bombing and resulting firestorm that all but wiped out the German port city.


The museum’s holdings are modest and mostly drawn from the Hoffman Collection, the largest privately held Brahms archive.

Among what survives from Brahms’s early years are a baptism spoon, silver tumbler and confirmation cup.

Brahms's baptismal font from 1833 also survives in today's St. Michael's Church (Michaeliskirche)

Brahms’s baptismal font from 1833 also survives in today’s St. Michael’s Church (Michaeliskirche)

The rebuilt Michaeliskirche, Hamburg's largest church, was badly damaged in 1943 but continues to dominate today's Hamburg skyline C.P.E. Bach is buried in its crypt. He was city music director for Hamburg's five churches. Georg Phillip Telemann was his predecessor in the role.

The rebuilt Michaeliskirche, Hamburg’s largest church, was again badly damaged in 1943 but, once more restored, continues to dominate today’s Hamburg skyline.
C.P.E. Bach is buried in its crypt. He was city music director for Hamburg’s five churches.
Georg Phillip Telemann was his predecessor in the role.





A fire in 1906 destroyed the Michaeliskirche as Brahms knew the historic building













Peterstrasse, Hamburg - Brahms Museum in foreground

Peterstrasse, Hamburg – Brahms Museum in foreground


Hamburg's new 'Composer's Quarter'

One corner of Hamburg’s new Composer’s Quarter.  The ’Hamburg’ Bach and Hasse museums, together with an excellent café (try the Esterházy wine that Haydn would have known)





The Brahms museum opened in 1971. A Telemann museum opened next door in 2011. Now, with the restored burger’s and merchant’s houses on Peterstrasse designated as Hamburg’s ‘Komponisten-Quartier’, museums for C.P.E. Bach and his contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse are also open to the public.


Making up for lost time, further museums for Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn (both born in Hamburg) and for Gustav Mahler (opera are in the works.

Who’s next?  Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina has lived here for two decades.  Alfred Schnittke spend his last decade in the city and Hungarian composer György Ligeti was taught in Hamburg during the 1970s and 80s.  Oh yes, which member of a quartet of musicians said “I might have been born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg?”

Two enduring memories from the Brahms museum are the magnificent marble bust which greets the visitor on arriving and the square piano upstairs on which Brahms, in his late 20s, gave piano lessons. Taking a copy of the least technically challenging Brahms Intermezzo that was in my repertoire 50 (!) years ago from the Complete Brahms Edition in the bookcase behind the piano, your reporter played the piano that Brahms himself had played in the city of his birth. No-one save the marble bust and an understanding curator witnessed this random act of violence.

Marble bust of Brahms made in 1903 by the Austrian sculptor Ilse Conrat. She also created the gravestone for Brahms in the musician's quarter of the Central Cemetery in Vienna.
Marble bust of Brahms made in 1903 by the Austrian sculptor Ilse Conrat. She also created the gravestone for Brahms in the musician’s quarter of the Central Cemetery in Vienna


Square piano by Hamburg makers Baumgardten & Heins, manufactured in 1859. Brahms gave piano lessons in Hamburg using this instrument in 1861/2.



Square piano by Hamburg makers Baumgardten & Heins, manufactured in 1859. Brahms gave piano lessons in Hamburg using this instrument in 1861/2




 Johann Jacob Brahms    (1806 - 72)

   Johann  Jacob  Brahms          (1806-72)

Johann Jacob Brahms, the composer’s father, was a musician by profession. His five years of music study taught him the way around violin, viola, cello, flute, flügelhorn and, above all, double-bass.

He started playing in the cafes and Lokals (places of entertainment) in the St Pauli suburb of Hamburg, odd-jobbing as a street musician wherever there was money to be made. 30 years playing flügelhorn with the civil militia brought a modest pension for life.

In 1831 he became a founding member of the Hamburger Musikverein. By the 1840s, he was known as one of the best double-bass players in Hamburg, performing at the Stadttheater and in the Philharmonic concerts.

He continued to play music in the taverns between gigs in the concert hall throughout his working life. Brahms senior was industrious, down-to-earth, respected and convivial in company. He worked his way up the social ladder – when such things mattered – to a social position somewhere on the line between lower and middle class, from rural petit bourgeois to respected Bürger.

Johann Jacob Brahms was, in the words of musicologist and collector Kurt Hoffman (to whom I am indebted for many of the details of the Brahms family life), “a role model, always admired by his son.”

I mean this sort of thing, taken from one of the books on my shelves, Brahms,a Critical Study by Burnett James (Dent, 1972):

“In the Hamburg Lokale, Brahms made direct contact with the low of sex*, and the impact made an ineradicable impression. The boy Johannes not only played the piano but probably sang also in a piping treble . . . in the taverns and alleyways of the dock areas. The whores frequented tavern and alley alike, anywhere the sailors moved or gathered; and few of these ladies of the oldest profession were above using the handsome, sensitive, fair-haired boy to help excite the passions of potential customers. Thus Johannes found himself in all too close proximity to semi-naked (even naked at times) female flesh of no particular sweetness or cleanliness. The whole business revolted him; and he never forgot.”
[* a misprint – publisher’s edit, perhaps?]

Steamy stuff! But fiction according to Hoffman who has thoroughly researched the social and economic minutiae of the Brahms family and 19th century Hamburg.

Brahms senior had an annual income of between 800 and 1,000 marks in 1840, at a time that the annual rental on a modest family dwelling amounted to 60 Hamburg marks. That income peaked at 1,800 marks in 1864, by which time Brahms’s parents and their three children had moved apartments eight times, each time to a larger and more costly location in Hamburg.

Brahms's birthplace was destroyed in 1943. This monument now commemorates the site

Brahms’s birthplace was destroyed in 1943. This monument now commemorates the site

Brahms (‘Jehann’ or ‘Hannes’ as he was called by his family) was given what he later referred to as the ‘best grounding’ in piano by his first teacher, Otto Cossel, who taught the gifted young musician to express through his fingers what he felt in his heart. This advice stayed with Brahms.

When an impresario offered the ten year-old Wunderkind a concert tour to the United States, the offer was reluctantly declined. In return, Eduard Marxsen, Hamburg’s principal music teacher, took over his private piano, composition and theory teaching, gratis.

By 14, Brahms arrived at day school by 7:00 a.m., not so much to study, but more to give his school teacher free piano lessons!

Throughout these very early years, Brahms recalled in later life: “I composed, but only in secret and very early in the morning. All day, [weekends and vacations presumably] I arranged marches for wind music and at night I sat at the keyboard in taverns.”

So here we have the beginnings of the story of playing in taverns that Brahms planted in his later years. Biographers immediately ran with it and then began to elaborate.

“Brahms never played in Tanzbordellen,” Hoffman says, quoting a Hamburg statute from 1834 banning entry to bordellos by persons under 20. Even dance music was forbiddden under the city’s Bordellos and Prostitution regulations.

So Brahms, who at an early age, had inherited his father’s work ethic, was exaggerating his rise from poverty to independence and prosperity as a freelance composer – putting a romantic glow of the memories of youth. Yes, he played in Kneipe or inns, where food was served along with the wine. But not in the brothels and never, according to Hoffman’s research, before the age of 13.

Gasthof 'Stadt Hamburg,'Bergedorf, as it was . . .

Gasthof  ‘Stadt Hamburg, ‘Bergedorf, as it was . . .

. . . and today. Brahms likely played in this historic Hamburg Gasthof. It dates from 1669 and is located opposite St Peter's Church.

. . . and today.   Brahms likely played in this historic Hamburg Gasthof (1669).  It is located opposite St Peter’s Church

A friend, pianist Christian Miller, heard the young Brahms playing for a dance at a summer inn in Bergedorf for a fee of two thalers for the afternoon. This was good money – half a week’s wage for a printer at the time. Miller returned the following Sunday afternoon with Brahms – just for the fun of it – and the friends played piano duets for the surprised Gasthof guests.


Johanna Henrica Christiane Brahms (1789-1865) photo taken three years before her death

Johanna Henrica Christiane Brahms (1789-1865).  Photo taken three years before her death

Brahms’s mother encouraged a sense of thrift in her son. When he was 21 she reminded him of the bank account she had opened for him years earlier. “When you had work from [the Hamburg music publisher] Cranz for a time, which brought you in a considerable sum, do you remember how I took care that the money went into the bank?” she wrote.

Johann Jacob Brahms and Johanna Henrica Christiane Nissen were married June 9, 1830. Brahms was the second of three children born to a mother who was 17 years older than her husband. At the time of his birth, May 7, 1833, the family was living in the back courtyard on the first floor of the apartment building pictured at the top of this post. The city was still built round the relatively small, formerly Hanseatic port, with its sailing ships and as yet undeveloped portlands.

This was a far cry from today’s massive port, the largest in Germany, with 43 kilometres of quay.

Crucially, it was also a far cry from the port it had become by the end of the 19th century when Brahms’s earliest biographers were making the pilgrimage to the city where the celebrated, now deceased composer had spent roughly half of his life.

When Brahms was born, the Gängeviertel quarter was then leafy, with tended gardens and half-timbered apartment buildings grouped around the laneways between. It was a respectable neighbourhood where the middle-class lived. The family moved to even better quarters when Brahms was just six months old.

Later in the century, with the expansion of the port into the Neustadt and with Hamburg now the major Central European port for transatlantic traffic, the area fell into disrepair and disrepute. This was the Gängeviertel on which biographers built their picture of the composer’s childhood, fueled by the aging composer’s predilection for a romanticised tale of childhood poverty.

Brahms in 1853, at 20. This is the earliest known photograph of the composer

Brahms in 1853, at 20.    This is the earliest known photograph of the composer

Brahms only made a lasting committment to Vienna when he was 38. “I am rather old-fashioned in most respects . . . and cling to my native city as to a mother,” he wrote to pianist Clara Schumann in 1862. He lived at home until he was almost 30, then lived in seven or more residences (including Vienna) while touring as a pianist and conductor or seeking a quiet retreat for composition. But it was only on December 27, 1871 that he rented rooms at Haus Wien, Karlgasse 4, Vienna, where he would remain for the final 25 years of his life.

Brahms’s ties to Hamburg ran deeper than family ties alone. Throughout his life he continued to contribute to his family’s income, supporting both parents when they separated in 1864, then his father after his retirement in 1869, and his sister Elise even after she married.
He kept a room and all of his books in one or other of the family homes until 1869.

Brahms was seeking a professional position throughout his years in Hamburg and well into his time in Vienna. Top of his list was the conductorship of the Philharmonic Orchestra, his father’s orchestra – and Brahms knew that, with such an appointment, no father would have been more proud of his son than would Johann Jacob. It was not to be. Twice passed over, Brahms held a grudge against the organisation until the end of his life. When the members of the committee of the Hamburg Philharmonic Society finally offered the position in 1894, the 61 year-old Brahms replied from Vienna with a letter conveying emotions ranging from regret to disdain:

“It was long before I got used to the idea of going along other paths. If things had gone according to my wishes I would perhaps celebrate an anniversary with you today; but in that case you would still have to look around for a younger capable talent. May you find him now, and may he serve you as faithfully as would have . . . your respectful and obedient servant, J. Brahms.”

Brahms’s personality was complex and not easy to live with. There is, of course, another side to his deep anger over not having been sooner offered the conductorship in his native city. Several of his friends and supporters felt that his lack of both practical and people skills disqualified him for the position. Even Clara Schumann, arguably the person he felt closest to in the 1860s, recommended someone else over Brahms for the position, though Brahms never knew this.

As we sailed out of Hamburg, I wondered what the city’s most famous composer would have made of the new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, about to open two months from the time of this posting, on January 11, 2017.

The Elbphilharmonie in the HafenCity quarter of Hamburg

The Elbphilharmonie in the HafenCity quarter

Like a proud galleon sailing down the river Elbe

Like a proud galleon sailing down the river Elbe







Off to the pub . . . in Vienna, not Hamburg. Zum roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog) was Brahms's favourite dining establishment

Off to the tavern . . . but in Vienna, not Hamburg. Zum roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog) was Brahms’s favourite dining establishment



The crystal structure sits atop an old brick warehouse like a proud galleon sailing down the Elbe. And proud she should be, having docked with a $1.22 billion (€860 million) pricetag, more than 10 times the original estimate.

There will be a party, of course, with a three-week festival showcasing the Elbphilharmonie’s three concert halls, large music education area, hotel and panoramic viewing platform with views of the city. The Hamburg Philharmonic will be part of the festival, but not as resident orchestra of the main 2,100 seat, vineyard-shaped Grosser Saal – that honour goes to the NDR (North German Radio) Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.

Neither orchestra is offering an homage to Brahms during the opening festivities. The only orchestral Brahms to be played in the festival will be orchestral transcriptions of four of his Chorale Preludes and the Four Serious Songs . . . the two final works from his pen.

And the orchestra? . . .

.  .  .   it’s not from Hamburg; it’s the visiting Vienna Philharmonic, from Brahms’s adopted city.

Brahms’s Piano Trio in B, Op. 8 (1853-4, rev. 1889) will be performed by the Gryphon Trio, December 15
© copyright 2016 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Beethoven in Heiligenstadt (with audio)

September 11, 2016

beethoven-around-1803-portrait-by-hornemannDoes any composer have more plaques, statues, museums or memorial sites than Ludwig van Beethoven?

Top of the list are the 12 museums and memorial sites spread over five countries.

Vienna has a quarter of them. The city is also decorated with many of the more shadowy ‘Beethoven lived here’ and ‘site of the dwelling of . . .’ signs.

Beethoven was a restless soul and a demanding tenant who is known to have held simultaneous leases on two or even three apartments for his own use.


Print of one of Beethoven’s studios in the Eroicahaus museum, Vienna

One book documents an eye-popping 87 apartment moves during Beethoven’s three decades in Vienna. Imagine the labour involved in moving all those books, manuscripts, printed scores and pianos, in a city without elevators.

One of these moves was to the rural village of Heiligenstadt, beyond the city walls to the north. Beethoven had by then been living exactly ten years in the Habsburg capital and made the move on the recommendation of the music-loving Dr. Johann Schmidt. He was Beethoven’s trusted, ‘intelligent’ doctor and his prescription was for the peace and quiet of the village, the local spa and its waters.

Although just 32 at the time, Beethoven had been alarmed by deteriorating hearing and persistent noise in his ears for five years and had already visited many doctors and tried all manner of medicines, oils, baths and infusions. He was to remain away from the bustle of Vienna in Heiligenstadt from May until October, 1802.


19th century postcard – Beethoven seeking the peace and quiet of
the village of Heiligenstadt

The personal drama Beethoven went through in Heiligenstadt is reflected in the four-page document, which he wrote in the depths of despair when he was even contemplating suicide.

Now known as the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, it remains Beethoven’s most famous literary text.

It is a heartfelt plea for understanding and sympathy from his brothers and from the world at large and in it, Beethoven confronts his feelings, faces his deafness and ultimately finds renewed determination and independence as a composer.

Although addressed to his brothers, the four pages were not sent to them during his lifetime and were found among his papers at his death.

The original German text (below) seems neatly copied out rather than a heat-of-the-moment original manuscript. Nevertheless, the emotions Beethoven was feeling at this personally tumultuous time ring out with aching immediacy and intensity.

Below is my reading of the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ translated into English, which I was moved to record shortly after visiting the village. . . now a leafy, but still tranquil suburb at the end of Vienna’s U4 subway line.  (Click on the arrow to play).





The four pages of Beethoven’s ‘Heiligenstadt Testament,’ dated October 6 and 10, 1802















Probusgasse in 1896. Beethoven’s believed residence is in the distance, centre left





Beethoven is believed to have stayed at No. 6 Probusgasse in Heiligenstadt, though this is based on anecdotal evidence dating back to 1902, the centenary year of his visit.  The City of Vienna now runs a museum at the site.





Probusgasse in 2016, facing same direction

Probusgasse in 2016, facing same direction

Beethoven returned to Heiligenstadt for stays in the summer of 1807 and 1808 and again in 1817.

"Beethoven: Habitations and Monuments in Heiligenstadt" . . . now a minor tourist industry in Heiligenstadt. This street map in the Pfarrplatz shows seven of them.

“Beethoven: Habitations and Monuments in Heiligenstadt” . . . now a minor tourist industry in
Heiligenstadt. This street map in the Pfarrplatz shows seven of them.


Heiligenstädter Kirche


Pfarrplatz (Parish Place) in Heiligenstadt around 1910. It is two minutes walk from the Beethoven museum. Far left, another Beethovenhaus at Pfarrplatz 2. Centre, to the left of St Jacob’s church, entrance to spa.  Far right, wall of a large winery where this example of Viennese Heuriger culture dates back to 1683.





       Pfarrplatz today, from opposite side, at bottom of Probusgasse


Entrance courtyard of the Beethoven museum

beethoven_heiligenstadt_dauerausstellung_04The two rooms of the museum shows Heiligenstadt at the time of Beethoven’s visits there and deal with his illness and death, including (above) a death mask and lock of his hair. The house itself, thoroughly restored in 1970 to something approaching its layout in 1802, in fact dates back to the 16th century. It is currently undergoing another refurbishment, with all the displays and furniture removed. Walking through the empty white building (early Spring 2016) alone, except for the occasional construction worker, was an extraordinary, somewhat melancholy experience, almost like entering a dead person’s house now that they are no longer around. It put me in the frame of mind to re-read the composer’s will and testament at the earliest opportunity.

Probusgasse 6, now undergoing restoration

Probusgasse 6, now undergoing restoration


Street entrance to the Beethoven museum

Street entrance to the Beethoven museum

Rear garden at Probusgasse 6

Rear garden at Probusgasse 6
















Beethoven’s First ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1, was the first string quartet Beethoven wrote after his life-changing 1802 visit to Heiligenstadt. It is featured in the opening concert of the MusicTORONTO 2016 season, October 13, performed by the Juilliard Quartet.

© copyright 2016 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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Train-spotting with a famous composer

August 29, 2015

Here’s a curious sidelight on the life of Antonín Dvořák – the viola-playing member of ‘The Czech Quartet’ above.  Dvořák’s Op. 61 quartet is featured in the Apollon Musagète Quartet concert this November

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

A small exhibition at the Dvořák Museum in Prague highlights the fascination that the Bohemian composer had with the steam locomotive.

This is how Dvořák spoke of trains in a conversation recalled by his student Josef Michl, after the two of them saw a train near the small country property the composer owned in Vysoká, just South of Prague:

“I [Dvořák] especially like the huge and clear ingenuity with which the locomotive is constructed! It consists of many parts created by many different components.

Each of them has its importance; each of them is right in place.

Even the smallest screw is in the correct place, being used to hold something.

Everything has a purpose and role and the result is amazing.  Such a locomotive can be put on the track and filled with water and coal. One person moves with a small lever and the big levers start to move too. Even though the carriages weigh a few thousand quintals, the locomotive runs as quickly as a rabbit with them!”


Dvořák was nine and living in Nelahozeves when he witnessed his first train, carrying miltary personnel, in the spring of 1850. It was on a branch of the main line from Prague to Dresden, passing through Nelahozeves and Kralupy to Podmokly.

Nelahozeves was a farming outpost, lying on the Vltava River, within the large estates owned by the Lobkowitz (Lobkowicz) family – a name familiar to music-lovers via Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, one of Beethoven’s key patrons.


Dvořák’s home in Nelahozeves for the first 12 years of his life

Today, Dvořák’s house, Building No. 12 in this then rural community of a little over 400 permanent residents, remains, as it was during Dvořák’s childhood, directly across from the station.

His father, František, rented rooms in the property and ran the inn on the main floor – though his  interest in running the business (and that of his earlier occupation as butcher at Building No. 24) increasingly came second to that of playing the zither.

Once freight started being carried on the line in 1851, Dvořák’s curiosity in the latest form of transportation was piqued.

In his maturity, when traveling in Europe or the United States, Dvořák would avidly – some would say obsessively – comb railway timetables to plan his best connections.

He would also keep records, such as details on the express trains traveling from Prague to Vienna.

His habitual early morning walk when living in Prague would take him above the tunnel, just beyond the historic Vinohrady quarter of Prague, through which trains would exit from Prague’s splendidly grand main station.

Prague – Franz Joseph I central station

Dvořák was reported to regularly chat with train drivers to find out about the latest technical innovations on the trains.

He was also a trainspotter, collecting the engine numbers of the express trains from Prague to Vienna and Dresden.

Composer Josef Suk (1874-1935)

Dvořák once asked one of his students at the Prague Conservatoire, composer Josef Suk, to wake up early and record the engine number of the Vienna express train as it came out of the tunnel.

The young Suk obliged – as befits a future son-in-law – taking his opera glasses to ensure accuracy.

No train-spotter he, Suk duly reported back to Dvorak’s apartment in Žitná street with a train number . . . not of the engine itself, but of the tender at the back of the train.

A workman here installs marble on a balcony  at Žitná Street No. 564, alongside a new bust of the building’s most famous resident: ‘Dr. Antonín Dvořák – composer.’


The five-storey apartment block at Žitná Street No. 564 is currently under renovation.


Dvořák lived here, in four different apartments as the size of his family changed, from 1877 to his death in 1904.


The impact of Dvořák’s train-spotting hobby on his music is . . . well . . . mostly intangible.  But there are shared qualities between what Dvořák saw as the precision and elegance of a steam locomotive’s design, construction, and function with one of his own carefully crafted scores.   At its best (and there are a surprising number of gems in his catalogue), a Dvořák score is designed to sound natural, uncomplicated, spontaneous and ‘right’ on its chosen instrument – these are honest, hard-working qualities achieved through both inspiration and perspiration.

It’s quite often said that the famous Humoresque (No. 7 from his last piano collection,  Op. 101)CLICK is inspired by the movement of a train.  I don’t hear it, myself.

On the other hand, No. 6 from the same collection CLICK certainly opens with the sound of a North American train whistle and continues with an accelerating motion not unlike that of a train. The Op. 101 collection uses sketches that Dvořák made in notebooks during his three years in the United States. So, just maybe . . .

There is a solid connection between Dvořák and trains in the Seventh Symphony, however. Here’s the manuscript score of the opening movementCLICK.


At the very bottom, Dvořák’s handwritten note reads:

“I got this theme when the festival train from Pest was arriving in the State Station in 1884.”

The train was bringing several hundred anti-Habsburg sympathisers from Budapest to Prague for a festival at the National Theatre.  Nationalists – and Dvořák strongly identified himself with the rising tide of Bohemian nationalism – had been tracking the group’s progress through Moravia and Bohemia with enthusiasm. Dvořák was at the station with them when the ominous, stirring theme, rich in ideas for development, came to him.

Dvořák was artistic director and professor of composition of the American National Conservatory of Music and based in New York for almost three years, 1892-5.

To the right is the boarding pass that got him on board the S.S. Saale which took him to the United States.

But when it came to watching the trains at Grand Central Station, the famous composer had no such privileges.  Only ticket-holders were allowed on the platforms.  From his East 17th Street apartment, it was too time-consuming to travel to a good vantage point where he could spot the inter-city New York to Boston or Chicago trains.  So what to do?

Well, there were always the pigeons (sic)!

Dvořák often went to see them – pigeons, that is – in the gardens in Central Park.  Back home, he specialised in breeding pouter and fantail pigeons among the many he kept in a pigeon loft at Vysoka.  He had even been sent a gift from one member of the British royal family after they had found out that the Bohemian composer had a thing for pigeons – two braces of English pouters and four braces of wig pigeons, no less.

The excitement on Dvořák’s face is palpable as he presides over his loft (or kit) of pigeons at Vysoka

Pigeons, however, were but a sideline for Dvořák’s main New York hobby: trans-Atlantic ocean liners.  Here was a hobby with both technology and a timetable (of sorts), just like his beloved trains.  The arrivals and departures from the New York port were to be found in the New York Herald.  Dvořák mapped them out and, as his biographer John Clapham narrates, toured every ship bound for Europe  from stem to stern, making friends with their captains.

Business card of Dr. Antonín Dvořák Director of the Prague Conservatory of Music Member of Parliament

But, once Mrs. Thurber’s noble plans for her New York Conservatory crumbled and Dvořák returned to the country of his birth, train-spotting again resumed its place in the composer’s priorities.

He was appointed as a member of the Herrenhaus of the Austrian government in March 1901 (a sort of MP – though he attended just one session of the parliament).

Then came the Directorship of the Prague Conservatory later that same summer (with an assistant doing all the admin).

Still, Dvořák found time for his trains.  They were to remain important to him right to the end.

He was now well into his sixties.  Even days after a severe pain in his side gave cause for concern during production rehearsals for his last opera Armida, Dvořák insisted on walking to the Franz Joseph I central station to view the locomotives and chat with an engineer.  He caught a chill and never recovered.  A few days later, on May 1, 1904, Antonín Dvořák, composer, train-spotter, pigeon-fancier died.

“I’d give all my symphonies if I could have invented the locomotive!” (Antonín Dvořák)

Dvořák’s C major quartet, Op. 61 opens the Toronto début concert of the Apollon Musagète Quartet, November 26, 2015.
Antonín Dvořák Museum, Ke Karlovu 20, Prague.
© copyright 2015 Keith Horner    –     khnotes@sympatico.ca


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On the trail of . . . Edvard Grieg in Bergen

September 07, 2014

grieg_3When Janina Fialkowska performs a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces for MusicTORONTO October 28, she continues to champion the cause of a composer who remains his country’s most widely known cultural export, more than a century after his death.

For Norway today, as it continues to preserve and discover a cultural identity outside mainstream Europe and the EEC, Grieg remains a catalyst for self-discovery.  “A society that has a visible heritage is a society with a future,” is how Norway’s King Harald V put it during the composer’s anniversary celebrations in Bergen a few years ago.  “Grieg has contributed towards giving us confidence in the value of our own culture in an international society.”

The frail, diminutive silver-haired popular composer was active throughout his life as composer, pianist and conductor, consciously marrying Norwegian tradition with new European trends in music.

Grieg statue at Troldhaugen, outside the sod-thatched intimate modern concert hall which has been built adjoining his home.

“Grieg lives today,” was a phrase I heard many times during my first visit in the early 1990s to the West coast port city of Bergen. The city was Grieg’s home city and is now the centre of a thriving Grieg industry. There’s the usual bric-à-brac of tee shirts, medallions, postcards and Grieg umbrellas (it rains a lot in Bergen as the tubercular Grieg, constantly in ill-health, lamented throughout his life). In the nation’s schools back then, over 4000 Grieg projects ensured that there was not a child in Norway who didn’t know about Edvard and Nina Grieg.


Troldhaugen, the idyllic turn-of-the-century home Grieg built to find solitude by an isolated fjord, which now finds itself, rather incongruously, in suburban Bergen.

Nina, the Copenhagen cousin Grieg married, outlived her husband by almost three decades. In the tradition of Constanze Mozart, Nina Grieg destroyed or edited thousands of his letters.

Grieg’s composing cabin overlooking the fjord, where he sought, but did not always find, the tranquility to compose

Many of Grieg’s projects were left abandoned, despite the care with which Grieg located his composing cabins at both Troldhaugen and Lofthus.

Those works that were completed, however, brought considerable wealth. When Grieg turned out another set of Lyric Pieces, his Leipzig publisher, Peters, was said to raise the flag in anticipation of wide sales.

When Grieg died, his estate was worth many millions of Kroner.  He held shares in several shipping companies.  Future royalties and all his manuscripts, letters, and diaries were left to the city of Bergen.  The Harmonien, which Grieg himself conducted for several seasons, later became the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. It was sustained by these funds until copyright ran out in the 1960s.

Bryggen: the Hanseatic wharf in Bergen, dating back to the 11th century. “I am simply enthused at the smell of fish at the Wharf. Indeed, I believe there is both coalfish and cod in my music.” Grieg on June 15, 1903, speaking at his 60th birthday celebrations.

Today, there are Norwegian composers who find the carefully contrived public image of Norway’s hero stifling.  They want to find ways of breaking free from his ever-present legacy. Someday I may get around to posting the full radio documentary I made probing deeper into the life and legacy of a restless Norwegian composer who spent over half his life in Denmark and much of the rest of it travelling as a renowned virtuoso pianist throughout Europe. In the meantime, here is the opening segment – which, I caution, you may find poses more questions than it answers. . . .

Janina Fialkowska (piano) – Grieg, Schubert, Ravel, Chopin
Tuesday October 28, 2014 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright 2014 Keith Horner

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Mendelssohn’s Octet – an athlete sets the bar high

October 13, 2013

When the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble brings the Mendelssohn Octet to MusicTORONTO at the end of the month, we’ll be treated to a work that has been at the heart of the ensemble’s repertoire since they were founded almost a half-century ago. It’s music they have played more frequently than any other work . . . . music that R. Larry Todd, today’s leading Mendelssohn scholar, told me in an interview in a Leipzig hotel room a few years ago, “catapulted 16 year-old Felix Mendelssohn into the Western canon of ‘great’ composers.”

Mendelssohn in 1821, four years before composing the Octet, by Carl Begas


As a composer, Mendelssohn peaked earlier than Mozart – possibly, in part, because his father had a thriving private banking business to attend to and saw to it that his four children had an intensive, well-rounded education in the family home from the best instructors. Or, maybe it was just luck of the draw. Mozart’s education, on the other hand, was frequently undertaken on the road, in breaks between concerts, in carriages, in rented accommodation, while travelling throughout the European musical capitals in pursuit of gold snuff boxes.

Mendelssohn, eight years later in 1829


Mendelssohn wrote the Octet for the 23rd birthday of his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, for whom he had already written a concerto and sonata. In the Octet, Mendelssohn’s concerto-like writing for the first violin within a chamber-music framework elevates Rietz’s fiddle to first among equals – an appropriate role, perhaps, when teacher and pupil and other musicians gave the première of the piece at one of the family’s Sunday noonhour musicales, a well-attended feature on the Berlin social calendar. The concept of the piece is ground-breaking. Mendelssohn paints in myriad instrumental colours, ranging from the hushed monochrome unison at the end of the Scherzo to the burst of multi-coloured hues in the eight-part fugal exuberance that follows. Though I find that there are still musical discoveries to be made in this innovative, four-movement Octet, the circumstances of its composition have long intrigued me.

Mendelssohn’s family life at the time of composition was not without its adventures, as anyone who has undergone a house move and renovations might agree. On February 18, 1825, Mendelssohn’s father Abraham had purchased a big pile at No. 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin, just around the formerly baroque, still octagonal platz where you can find the present-day Canadian Embassy. The mansion, imposing though run-down, had earlier served as a silk mill and was next door to the royal porcelain factory. Abraham Mendelssohn’s plan was to return the mansion to the grand family home that Heinrich von der Groeben had designed it to be nine decades earlier, around 1835. Abraham and his wife Lea also had plans for a third floor addition drawn up, but they were shelved.

Leipzigerstrasse 3, two storeys and 19 windows wide, into which the Mendelssohn family moved around July 1825. The Prussian state purchased the building from Mendelssohn’s brother Paul in 1856. It became the Upper House (Herrenhaus) of the Prussian Parliament. An unknown photographer took this picture shortly before the building was demolished in 1898.

While work on the house proceeded, the family moved into a summer house in the garden at the rear. This Gartenhaus was at the far end of a substantial, half-acre inner courtyard, with the main house and its two wings, stables and carriage house forming the other three sides. Mendelssohn’s musical education continued through the move from the previous family home at Neue Promenade No. 7. Even the family’s Sunday musicales, begun in 1822, continued in the 16-room, three-kitchen summer house, with its fresco-painted central saal, which, according to his nephew Sebastian Hensel, could hold ‘several hundred.’ That’s quite a ‘summer house,’ even if some of the audience was listening from outside the sliding glass doors which overlooked a park of about seven acres (almost 3 hectares).

The Gartenhaus at Leipzigerstrasse 3, Berlin

It was here, living in the Gartenhaus, with renovation work in full swing, during the summer and Fall months that Mendelssohn wrote his earliest masterpiece, the Octet Op. 20. His ability to focus on a project and to multi-task was exceptional. A friend (Julius Schubring) recalls chatting with him the following year on a variety of unrelated subjects while he was at work composing the Trumpet Overture in C – or ‘copying out’ as the young Mendelssohn put it of an orchestral work which was already fully created and scored in his mind, if not yet on the page. Mendelssohn’s musical education was still in progress, generally together with that of his older sister Fanny, an exceptional musician in her own right, already beginning to act as a trusted go-to editor for Felix as he composed. Schubring’s picture of his friend, (put together after Mendelssohn’s death and after his own collaboration in the preparation of the librettos for both St. Paul and Elijah), next mentions Mendelssohn’s skill as an athlete, regularly doing a vigorous half-hour work-out on the horizontal pole and bars set up in the garden. Mendelssohn also swam well and, like any well-to-do upper class Prussian youth of the time, was a good horseman. He also danced well, winning many friends in his youth, but could not skate. Curiously, though a good chess player, Mendelssohn had a hard time with math.

After visiting Paris before composing the Octet,  Mendelssohn’s ‘grand tour’ lasting several years began in 1829 with trips to England, Scotland and Wales.

In an age before photography, the young traveller captured many of the scenes in hastily-made sketches and watercolours.  

His skill as an artist resulted in some 300 works.

↑    The sketch of Dunollie castle on the isle of Mull captures something of the mystery and wildness of the Scottish Hebrides.  This trip also inspired the earliest musical sketches for the Hebrides overture.     

→  To the right, Mendelssohn’s sketch of Ben More, on the Isle of Mull, the highest peak in the Inner Hebrides.


At the end of 1825, Mendelssohn moved from the summer house at Leipzigerstrasse 3 into a room on a mezzanine level in the left-hand wing of the main house.  But he was to return to the Gartenhaus with what his nephew Sebastian Hensel referred to as its ‘deep loneliness of a forest,’ steps away from the bustling city of Berlin, the following summer.  Then, in the space of just a month, July 7, 1826 to August 6, his imagination — plus a good deal of reworking under the supervision of his composition teacher Adolph Marx  — conceived another perfectly shaped composition.  The Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows the lead of the Octet in exploring the boundaries between absolute and program music.  Mendelssohn never again brought the same spontaneity, certainty of touch and vividness of imagination to a composition as he did in his teens in the Octet and music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, free to explore his private world in the seclusion of the Gartenhaus . . . in the former hunting grounds of Frederick the Great which now form the site of present-day German Bundesrat, or Federal Council.

Mendelssohn's sketch of the Gartenhaus

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble – Raff, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn
Thursday October 31, 2013 – 8:00 pm. Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto
© copyright 2013 Keith Horner

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