Classical Music | Music for Oboe

Franz Krommer

Oboe Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 52  Play

Alex Klein Oboe
Czech National Symphony Orchestra
Paul Freeman Conductor

Recorded on 06/17/1998, uploaded on 03/25/2009

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Oboe Concertos of the Classical Era

notes by Andrea Lamoreaux

"All roads lead to Rome"; or so it was said in ancient days when the Roman Empire encom­passed all the lands surrounding the Mediter­ranean Sea, plus a good chunk of Western Europe and the British Isles. Rome fell from its pre-eminent position under pressures both internal and external, but the idea of "empire" persisted in European history for centuries - not dying out entirely until the end of World War I in 1918. From the early Middle Ages onward, many nations were at least nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne.

By the 18th century, imperial power had become consolidated in the Hapsburgs, the dynasty that ruled Austria-Hungary from the city of Vienna. And although the Vienna of the Hapsburgs was not the political colossus that Rome under the Caesars had been, it became true that virtually all roads led there, espe­cially for musicians. The emperor's court and chapel, plus the smaller but no less music-lov­ing households of the Viennese nobility, were magnets drawing composers, instrumental virtuosos, and singers from provincial capitals and remote villages to find work, sell their scores, and make a name for themselves in the most musical city on earth.

Of the great Classical-Romantic "Viennese" composers, only one, Franz Schubert, was actually born there. Haydn and Mozart came from smaller Austrian towns, Beethoven from the German city of Bonn, Brahms from Ham­burg. There were others: around the turn of the 19th century many successful composer-performers migrated to Vienna from what is now the Czech Republic, then a province of the Empire known as Bohemia. Their names - Leopold Kozeluch, Anton Reicha, Johann Van­hal, Jan Vorisek, the brothers Anton and Paul Wranitzky - are not terribly well remembered today, but they held important posts in their adopted city, made a good living, served their patrons well, and left behind a wealth of music that is worth hearing. One of these Bohemi­an emigrés was Franz Krommer - Frantisek Kramár in the original spelling.

Krommer was born in 1759 in the town of Kamenice, where his father was both inn­keeper and mayor. His uncle, church choir­master in a nearby town, taught him to play the violin and the organ. He was in his early 20s when he first went to Vienna, but found it hard to gain a foothold in the city's com­petitive environment. He spent several years in Hungary, employed by princes and churches as a violinist, composer, and choir director. When he returned to Vienna in 1795, he was a seasoned professional. After some years of theatre work, he entered the emperor's service in 1815, and three years later won the coveted post of imperial court composer: the job nei­ther Mozart nor Beethoven ever achieved. The successor to his countryman Kozeluch and before him, Antonio Salieri, Krommer was the last to hold the official court-composer posi­tion. By the time of his death in 1831, musi­cal economics had changed such that even emperors stopped employing composers as personal staff members.

A biographical essay by Othmar Wessely notes that "Krommer was one of the most successful of the many influential Czech composers in Vienna," and that he wrote over 300 works. "Krommer's reputation is attested by the rapid spread of his compositions in reprints and arrangements by German, Danish, French, English, Italian and American publishers," Wessely says, "and equally by his honorary membership of the Istituto Filarmonico in Ven­ice, the Philharmonic Society in Ljubljana, the Musikverein in Innsbruck, and the conserva­tories [of] Paris, Milan and Vienna. With the exception of piano works, lieder and operas, Krommer cultivated all the musical genres of his time, and was regarded (with Haydn) as the leading composer of string quartets, and as a serious rival of Beethoven. The present view, however, places his solo concertos for wind instruments as his most individual accom­plishments."

Krommer was fond of wind instruments in other contexts too: he produced several scores for the nine- or ten-member wind ensembles that the Viennese called Harmoniemusik, and combined flutes and clarinets with strings in chamber music. His list of concertos includes several for his own original instrument, the violin, plus pieces for flute, clarinet, and two for solo oboe, written in 1803 and 1805.

The late Classical era boasted quite a num­ber of virtuosic oboe players, some of whose names have survived. Mozart wrote oboe works for his colleagues Giuseppe Ferlendis and Friedrich Ramm; Krommer's first concerto was dedicated to a fellow Bohemian emigré, Josef Czerwenka, first-chair oboist in the Vien­na Court Orchestra. The oboe began to devel­op its solo potential during this time, as Alex Klein has explained, because technical innova­tions made it possible to keep the instrument in better tune, and a new type of central bore greatly extended its range of high notes. "For Mozart and for Krommer, this meant greater freedom to write interesting, challenging music for the oboe," Mr. Klein says.

The solo parts in both Krommer concertos are notably virtuosic, featuring rapid pas­sage-work and wide leaps from high notes to low and back again that are reminiscent of Mozartean opera arias. Stylistically, the first concerto very much recalls Mozart, while the second leans toward Beethoven. They are laid out using the basic pattern those composers favored for their concertos: an opening move­ment in sonata form, with a long orchestral introduction before the soloist enters; a lyrical Adagio; and a Rondo that brings each work to a dramatic conclusion.

Discussing the nearly-forgotten life and work of an Austro-Bohemian composer named Ignaz Brüll, a friend and valued colleague of Brahms, the German musicologist Hartmut Wecker recently wrote: "From today's perspective, the musical history of the 19th century appears to reduce itself to a few big names whose works still continue to dominate our concert halls and opera houses. But appearance and reality are far apart: the everyday music of the epoch, and contemporary taste, were in fact shaped by a large number of finely-trained compos­ers, most of whom have left little behind but their name, even though in their own time they ranked as artists of international stature."

The performances on this CD deliberate­ly seek to replicate the bright, open, high-volume sound that Classical-era composers desired, according to Mr. Klein. It is a mistake, he believes, to produce a delicate tone-color in music from this time. With Baroque music, the sound ideal for the oboe is a mellow, softer tone, but that is because the instrument known to Bach and Handel had a different type of bore, and thus a much different timbre. "The Baroque oboe is analogous to the viola," Mr. Klein says, "the Classical oboe, to the violin: brighter and higher. All three works on this CD provide excellent examples of Classical oboe writing."

Mr. Klein also comments on the ornamentation practices appropriate to concertos from the Classical period. "Ornaments, and ornamen­tation opportunities, come less frequently in Classical compositions than in Baroque ones, but the practice was still favored," he tells us. "Ornamentation is especially appropriate when motives and phrases are repeated, in the varia­tion passages of the finale of the first Krommer Concerto, for example. This movement pro­vides a perfect opportunity for the performer to add something new." In the Baroque period, ornamentation was a regular feature of slow movements, which were notated very spar­ingly by Bach and his contemporaries, in the expectation that the artist would create his own elaborations. By the Classical era, Mr. Klein points out, composers were expressing their own thoughts in slow movements, and performers were not expected to add much ornamentation.

Mr. Klein has added cadenzas to the first Krom­mer concerto and to the Hummel Variations, neither of which included cadenzas in their original versions. His ornaments and additions present a couple of notes, including a high G and a low A, that were not common or even possible on oboes of the early 19th century. Mr. Klein believes that if those notes had been available to performers of the time, they would have used them in their own interpolations of the basic scores. "Ornaments must fit the style of the music," he says, "but as long as an artist keeps the style of the composer's time in mind, he should feel free to play the music in the way he thinks it sounds best."

Andrea Lamoreaux is Programming Executive at Fine Arts Station WFMT-FM in Chicago.