Monday, 25 January 2016

FROM OBSCURITY TO LIGHT - CLASSICAL ERA: Martín y Soler, Clementi & Righini

18th Century composer Vicente Martín y Soler

This little-known (in modern times) Spanish composer was the delight of 18th century aristocracy and left an indelible artistic footprint across Europe with his selection of ballets in Naples, a slew of opera buffas in Vienna (which he composed with texts from one of the most prolific and beloved librettists of the period, Lorenzo da Ponte (of Mozart fame)) all of which were ravishing triumphs, and finally Martín y Soler would earn a lifetime post at the Court of Catherine the Great at St Petersburg, in 'European Russia', where he would even collaborate on his 1789 Russian-language opera “The Unfortunate Hero Kosmetovich” with the Empress herself, who co-wrote the libretto for the work in a jested affront to her cousin, the reigning King of Sweden, Gustav III. This opera in particular was such a resounding success amongst the Imperial rulers, it is said the Great Princes Alexander and Konstantin could recite the opera from memory alone!

Martín y Soler’s time spent in Vienna was especially fruitful. Later dubbed the “Valencian Mozart”, this contemporary of Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri and other famed composers of the period (the likes of Joseph Haydn and Christoph Gluck) worked both in tandem, and in competition with, the present era’s most well known artists of the classical period. Although posterity has seen to it that the works of this prolific and immensely talented composer would fade into relative obscurity, Vicente arguably saw more success in the latter part of the 18th century than that of his operatic counterpart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, when his operas “Una Cosa Rara” and “Il Burbero di Buon Cuore”, both of which premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater within ten months of each other, outshone Mozart’s epic opera buffa “Le Nozze di Figaro” which would premier in that same year, and which also shared da Ponte as librettist (compare Martín y Soler’s “Una Cosa Rara”, which had it’s premiere in mid November of 1786 and would be shown a whopping 78 times in Vienna, with Mozart’s "Le Nozze di Figaro", which premiered less than six months after Cosa Rara in May with a total of only 9 performances in Austria’s Capital that year).

Catherine the Great, Russia's longest ruling Leader.
Whilst Mozart was still petitioning the Emperor of Austria, Joseph II for a court appointment and brooding over the lack of Imperial support (he would not achieve his much sought after post at the Viennese court until over a year later, at the end of 1787 - as Court Composer, and even then, only to fill the void left by the passing of Christoph Willibald Gluck in November that year, who had previously held the position), Martín y Soler was already making friends in high places. Fresh off the heels of his success with Una Cosa Rara, Vicente would quite rapidly (comparatively speaking) find himself in Russia in late 1788, under the direct employment of another Imperial Ruler in the Empress Catherine the Great. It had taken Wolfgang Mozart some six years to accomplish his goal of a steady post and employment at Court (since his arrival in Vienna in March of 1781, following Joseph II’s accession as ruler of the Habsburg lands following the death of Holy Roman Empress and Archduchess of Austria Maria Theresa). Vicente Martín y Soler had accomplished his tenure to Royalty in less than half that time with scant effort on his part: his works were so valued amongst the European aristocracy, he had actually been summoned to the Russian Court where he held the title Mozart had so long fought for (and that his father Leopold had been fighting for since his son’s first foray into music as a young wunderkind back in Salzburg): "Court Composer "– a title and position Martín y Soler would hold until his death some 18 years later, on January 30, 1806.

It’s high time we rescue this once-beloved composer from the abysmal depths of Western Classical Music Obscurity and place him back amongst the blinding light where he so rightfully belongs. Listen below to the delightful aria "Dolce mi parve un di" from Una Cosa Rara, (this beautiful aria was originally sung by Nancy Storace, the doyenne of 18th century Sopranos).[1]

The opera in full is available on youtube and is well worth a listen. If the music in the work sounds familiar, it is with good reason. Mozart would later pay tribute to Martín y Soler in 1787 with his opera Don Giovanni, in which Wolfgang would quote[2] music from Una Cosa Rara at the end of his opera in the ensemble aria “O quanto in sì bel giubilo”. 

*Una Cosa Rara is quite significant in yet another way: it featured one of the first stagings in Vienna of a new form of sound and dance at the end of the second act of the opera, in which Martín y Soler had included a short, two-couple waltz - something entirely new to Viennese audiences. It was by all accounts, received most exuberantly amongst operatic circles and Martín y Soler himself would go on to be credited with introducing the waltz to the Austrian Capital (an attribution that would later be adopted - and made famous by - Johann Strauss II in the 19th century).

[1]Storace was much admired for her vocal prowess amongst the leading composers of the period. She had both song and roles written exclusively for her, and would be cast as the first “Susanna” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

[2]“Quoting” could imply the direct sampling of music from another compositional source (another artist), by musical theme or in whole; it could also imply a theme on which another composer would perform variations. A composer could also, and often would, “quote” from himself in addition to, or exclusive of, the works of other artists.

OTHER LESSER KNOWN (in modern times) COMPOSERS, CONSIDERED HIGHLY REGARDED IN THEIR DAY (despite what wikipedia says!)

Composer & Pianist Muzio Clementi.
Muzio Clementi, who had a birthday this January 24th, was an immensely well respected composer, pianist and conductor of his day – he was considered to be second only in talent and genius to the internationally celebrated Joseph Haydn, who is still considered one of the greatest musical minds to have ever walked this planet to this very day.

Clementi’s travels would place him among the world's leading musical spheres, where he would find himself in much esteemed company, performing for the Royal likes of the Archduchess and future Queen Consort to the throne of France, one Marie Antoinette during a visit to Paris in 1780 whilst on his European Tour; and at the Imperial Court of Vienna, where he would perform alongside Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the French Queen's brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II of Austria.

Clementi was also an astutely skilled pianist. His innovations on the instrument would influence many contemporary and later composers of note that you will almost certainly recognize by name: Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ludwig van Beethoven, just to mention a few.

Certainly, if we can attribute much glory and fanfare to the prolific and mesmerizing works of Meyerbeer and Beethoven, it is seems only right to pay homage to their objet d'inspiration, Muzio Clementi: the spark who lit the flame.

Buon compleanno maestro!

Famed Pianist Vladimir Horowitz plays Clementi's (then) famous Sonata no. V (video 1 of 3).

Composer Vincenzo Righini.
VINCENZO RIGHINI – Let’s set the record straight on this one. Despite being incorrectly cast as an unoriginal thief, this one time Italian choirboy, one time successful tenor (even holding the distinction of membership in the Bustelli Opera troupe in Prague) and eventual composer was highly regarded in Vienna as both a composer and singing teacher and as director of the Austrian Capital’s Italian Opera. He would also serve as Kapellmeister in Mainz and Berlin, and would be appointed the same post of the court theatre in 1811. As we have already seen with Martín y Soler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, ‘borrowing’ music from other artists, in particular amongst contemporaries, was a well-known practice of the period, and was generally considered to be a high honor and achievement for the sampled musician. There exist plenty of works in all eras of classical music where composers draw on, perform variations on, or directly sample from (including from the works of Righini himself) the compositions of previous or contemporary artists whose music they admired.

Righini could count amongst his supporters and peers many of the Classical period’s most noted Composers and performers, even securing for himself a placement amongst Western Classical Music’s elite with a performance of his cantata Il Natale D’Apollo at the highly exclusive Tonkünstler-Societät (the Society of Musicians), a privately run organization founded by Florian Gassmann (the same teacher who had brought Antonio Salieri to the Viennese Court of Emperor Joseph II in 1766) in the effort to support ‘musicians and their families’, and which boasted the works of such well-loved composers as Felix Mendelssohn and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and was host to such prolific clientele as Antonio Salieri, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s famed and wealthy patrons included many persons of aristocracy, including the Empress Maria Theresa.

Righini also shares a birthday this month of January, he was born in Bologna on January 22, just five days before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in 1756.

What an era!

Buon compleanno!

Listen below to the exquisite "Ombra Dolente" from Righini's cantata "Il Natale D'Apollo". This is one of my absolute favorite pieces from this period. 21st century soprano and coloratura diva Diana Damrau can be credited with helping to bring the works of this often overlooked Composer back to the forefront of the mind and ears of modern classical era aficionados. 


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