IN: Reviews

360 Degrees of Romantic Bits


 J.W. Hässler
J.W. Hässler

Returning after a quarter-century retreat from the keyboard, a pianist with the Icelandic name of Vitlaus von Horn gave the American premiere of J.W. Hässler’s 360 Preludes in All Keys (1817) under the auspices of the Frederick Historic Piano Collection in Ashburnham on May 17th. According to the performer’s extensive program notes [here], the score of this unusual work was smuggled from the rare manuscripts collection of the Moscow Conservatory after that institution proved overly stingy about disseminating that item.

Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747-1822) was a German composer and keyboard player. He is perhaps most remembered for his having been bested by Mozart in an organ competition in Dresden. 

For this performance, von Horn chose the collection’s 1830 Bösendorfer grand, which the Fredericks plausibly suggested was likely Herr Bösendorfer’s first. This Opus 1 was constructed less than a decade after Hässler’s death, and nicely reflected the Viennese school of piano construction at the time. The straight stringing (in other words, no overstrung bass) and original leather-covered hammers accentuated timbral distinctions between treble and bass of which Hässler’s preludes took full advantage; it effectively introduced Hässler’s vast and overlooked collection of miniatures. Von Horn took full advantage of the familiar damper and shift pedals, but ignored the others, which did not appear to be functional in any event. The piano was nicely in tune at the beginning of the program, and at the start of the second half after a touch-up, but drifted a bit as it was played. However, tolerating a bit of tuning instability is a small price to pay for the privilege of hearing a fine early pianoforte in substantially original condition. And von Horn showed himself a rare exemplar of a pianist who normally plays the modern piano but obligingly and good-naturedly adapts  when an occasion calls for something different.

Von Horn revealed the preludes as quite entertaining, sometimes humorous. As the program lasted approximately 100 minutes, the average length per prelude comes to a little under 20 seconds. According to the program notes, the shortest of the preludes lasts just 2.4 seconds, and the longest did not exceed three minutes. Hässler arranged them in groups of 15, progressing major to minor, and through the circle of fifths (the collection thus starts in C Major and ends in F Minor). Apparently Hässler himself disclaimed performing them as a set, but the logical organization, including that the more dramatic moments occur in the second half, suggests otherwise. Most of the preludes were Mozartean in flavor, but some looked forward to a Romantic style reminiscent of Schumann’s moodier moments in Kinderszenen, Carnaval, or even Davidsbündlertänze.

[Ed. note: Von Horn’s playing of other works may be heard here. There are a couple of 360 excerpts on YouTube, giving an intriguing glimpse into what lower-tier European pianism, lovely if perhaps sometimes tedious, sounded like in the 1810s-1820s; it may call to mind the likes of Diabelli’s famous 51-Austrian-composer post-Napoleonic-war fundraiser Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (Patriotic Artists’ Association).]

Despite the dizzying array of musical ideas, the audience gave von Horn a standing ovation. The chatter after the program indicated that many audience members quite rightly credited the performer with the rather extraordinary memorization skills required to present 360 distinct pieces in order.

Such presentations—combining rarely heard musical gems with appropriate period instruments—are much to be encouraged. Well done, Frederick Collection! Well done, Vitlaus von Horn!

Steven R. Manley retired as Head Piano Technician of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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