Music: It Wasn’t All Mozart

Still shaken over the passing of the millennium, I have retreated to my favorite musical refuge, the 18th century. Thanks to the Naxos, Chandos, CPO, and Hyperion labels, my refuge is secure. The composers of the last half of the 18th century produced some 20,000 symphonies, along with similar quantities of compositions in other genres. The great works of Haydn and Mozart have tended to obscure the fact that an unusually high number of these pieces were very good to sometimes great. Some new releases of these obscure treats demonstrate their quality.

Take the case of Francois-Joseph Gossec (pronounced Go-Say). Last year, I welcomed the Chandos release of five of his symphonies in premiere recordings, with the London Mozart Players, under Matthias Bamert. In his development of the symphonic form, Gossec played a role in France almost equivalent to that of Haydn in the Austrian Empire. Born two years after Haydn, Gossec wrote his first symphonies several years before Haydn had produced his initial efforts. Gossec also introduced Haydn’s symphonic works to French audiences.

Gossec not only wrote more than 50 symphonies but produced some great liturgical music. When reviewing his utterly charming symphonies on Chandos last year, I complained that Gossec’s masterpiece, the Grande Messe des Morts, was unavailable because the Erato label had deleted it. Was someone in the recording industry listening to me? Voila! We now have a marvelous new recording of a superb performance of this requiem Mass by Italian-Swiss artists on the Naxos label.

Gossec penned his requiem in 1760 when he was only 26 years old. It was considered one of the greatest liturgical compositions of its time, and it held the boards for more than half a century, being used well into the 19th century for the public burials of France’s greatest men. In its startling effects and vivacity, it is a young man’s requiem, which may account for its also being known as Messe des Vivants. It is hard to sit still listening to parts of it, which had my youngest son swirling around the room during a recent audition. Lasting an hour and 20 minutes, it is an enormously ambitious piece, with masterful counterpoint and expressive chromatic harmony.

Gossec got his start with Rameau, so it is not surprising to hear Baroque influences in the orchestral introduction. In fact, the cadenced four-note theme that solemnly begins the proceedings sounds right out of a Handel oratorio. Gossec soon leaves the Baroque era behind and, with the Dies Irae, launches into some extraordinarily imaginative and dramatic writing that influenced generations of composers, from Mozart, with whom he was friends, to Beethoven and, especially, Berlioz. The work’s profound influence is apparent in Berlioz’s own Requiem, which resounds with the same kind of spectacular spatial effects from the divided brass.

Gossec’s own assessment of the effect the Dies Irae produced on an audience in St. Eustache Church in Paris in 1784 gives some idea of the flavor of his music: “One was frightened by the sinister and terrible effect of three trombones united with three clarinets, four trumpets, four horns and eight bassoons hidden far off in an elevated part of the church to announce the Last Judgment, while the orchestra expressed fright with a muted trembling in the strings.”

Fear not, however. Gossec reported that “this terrible effect was followed by the soft, pleasant, confident sound from the flutes in unison with the clarinets and horns in the cantabile ‘Spera, in Deo’ of the Offertory.” His requiem is not only simply sensational but also deeply affecting.

The soloists, chorus, and Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, conducted by Diego Fasolis, demonstrate Switzerland’s high musical standards. The stunning quality of the Naxos recording helps bring this masterpiece to brimming life. A bonus, filling out the second CD of this two-CD set, is Gossec’s last symphony, La Symphonie a 17 Parties, from 1809. It is a welcome, delightful addition to the five earlier symphonies available on Chandos. However, it is obvious from this work that by 1809, Gossec was no longer a man ahead of his time. I hope this Naxos recording is such a success that Gossec’s time will come again and that more of his works will be resurrected.

On Naxos, these same Swiss musical forces essay another masterful requiem written in France, albeit by an Italian-born composer, Luigi Cherubini. I am cheating on the 18th century a little bit here because this work was premiered in 1817. But it was written to commemorate the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, so I shall include it. Berlioz, who personally despised Cherubini, said that this Requiem in C minor was “the greatest of the greatest of his work” and that “the decrescendo in the Agnus Dei surpasses everything that has ever been written of the kind.”

Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms concurred that Cherubini had reached the stars with this composition. The budget Naxos recording is up against some stiff competition, however, from a full-price performance on Hyperion, with Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra. Both recordings include the electrifying Marche Funebre. The price advantage of the Naxos CD and the merits of its performance are considerable. Though it may not displace the Hyperion CD from the front rank, I highly recommend it.

Furthermore, the CPO label (distributed by Naxos) has issued its sec¬ond of three installments covering Cherubini’s six string quartets. Hausmusik London offers Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 at a special price in finely articulated performances. Cherubini’s civilized quartets are among the best-kept secrets in the chamber music world.

Speaking of funeral music, I must mention the third installment in Naxos’s traversal of the symphonies of the remarkable Joseph Martin Kraus, with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Petter Sundkvist. Volume 1 in this series deservedly won the Cannes Classical Award in 1999 and should not be missed by any lover of 18th-century music. Nor should Volume 3, which contains Kraus’s Symphonie Funebre in C Minor, written in memory of his patron, King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot at a masked ball in 1792. Like the cantata that Kraus also wrote in the king’s memory, this symphony is a deeply affecting work. It is accompanied on this recording by two other excellent symphonies and an overture. Haydn, who had an infallible eye for talent, described Kraus as “one of the greatest geniuses I have met.” Listen to these works and you will hear why.

Like the great Haydn, the Bohemian composer Adalbert Gyrowetz (1763-1850) possessed a deep sense of humility. At the end of his long and distinguished career, Gyrowetz wrote: “I was only a talented man who can be happy if he conquers the present; only a genius lives beyond the grave.” Gyrowetz shared more than Haydn’s humility; he adopted Haydn’s musical style so completely that during a visit to Paris, he discovered one of his symphonies was being performed as a work by Haydn. Not bad.

Gyrowetz first met Haydn in Vienna. Years later, he helped Haydn feel at home in London, where Gyrowetz was the toast of society. Gyrowetz also enjoyed friendships with Mozart and Beethoven, but he made no secret that Haydn was his idol. Gyrowetz produced some 30 operas, more than 40 symphonies, numerous chamber works, and various sacred compositions, including eleven Masses. If the two new releases of his music are any indication of the quality of his other work, I hope they generate a Gyrowetz boomlet.

In its Contemporaries of Mozart series, Chandos has released a CD featuring premiere recordings of three of Gyrowetz’s symphonies, written about 1790 or earlier, performed by the London Mozart Players, under Matthias Bamert. They are sheer delight, as are the three string quartets (Op. 44), played by the Salomon String Quartet on Hyperion. Anyone who enjoys Haydn should find himself happily at home in these works.

Though contained within a musical framework of balance, order, and grace, all of these works are marvelously expressive. In fact, I find them all the more expressive for having that order and balance against which to gauge their flights of fancy and measure their merits—in contrast to much of the musical ranting and raving that was to come later in the 19th century. Order and balance allow for a freedom and a sense of play that are absent once the boundaries are gone. That’s why I find myself returning again and again to the 18th century. Come join me.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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