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H + H Introduces Czech Composer and Conductor

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Václav Luks to conduct

The Handel and Haydn Society’s planned performances of Jan Václav (Hugo) Voříšek (1791-1825) Symphony in D Major (1823) come to Symphony Hall on Friday and Sunday in a pair of concerts which also feature the 19th-century Black composer Joseph Bologne’s Overture to L’amant Anonyme, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Czech harpsichordist, horn player, musicologist, pedagogue, and conductor Václav Luks presides at the podium.

Voříšek (probably best pronounced Vort-chi-shek; the German spelling is usually given Worzischek), a Czech native, was a slightly older contemporary of Schubert, born the year of Mozart’s death and active most of his life in Vienna; like Schumann and Stravinsky, he studied for a career in law, and like Chopin and Keats, he died prematurely of tuberculosis. Few have heard of Voříšek today, but the new New Grove gives him a three-page article with a short bibliography. In his time, he was known as an expert performer, a court organist, and a composer of considerable piano music, including short non-sonata pieces given the title of “Impromptus” by their publisher (the same thing happened to Schubert a few years later, for which Voříšek and not Schubert got the credit for inventing the form). His last major work is a compact but impressive Mass in B-flat major, of which a modern edition is now being prepared. H & H might look forward to that.

I first heard Voříšek’s symphony during my college years; back then, it had been sufficiently rescued from oblivion to merit at least one recording (Supraphon, I think), and there have been a few since then. (On my shelves, with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, is Cedille CDR 90000 058, which also includes the Mass.) A modern edition of the score appeared in vol. 34 of the Musica Antiqua Bohemica series, and from there, in 1966, I liked it well enough to copy out a set of parts by hand in order to conduct a performance, and again in 1980. (Attention, orchestra librarians: in m. 51 of the slow movement, the A in the second bassoon is missing a sharp sign, in both the full score and the rental parts.) We can enjoy this work today on a par with Schubert’s early-middle symphonies, still revealing the influence of Beethoven’s (especially the Second, in the same key), and almost on the cusp of the early Romanticism. It shows no striking originality, but rather a bright melodism, imagination, and solid craftsmanship. The orchestra is standard-full for the 1820s: paired woodwinds, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings.

A comparison with early Beethoven’s symphonies suggests itself, especially the Second, which dates from 20 years earlier. Like Beethoven’s, Voříšek’s tends to cling to sonata form and strains to burst out of it at the same time. Contrasting melodic ideas move smoothly without effort, from one moment to the next, in late-classical fashion. This is noticeable in the energetic D major of the first movement, with a short Development section, but even more in the expressive slow movement in B minor, wherein a dramatic, roving Development section is followed by an abbreviated Recapitulation in B major. The finale is almost a sonata-rondo in 2/4, with a dancelike verve that suggests a Hungarian friss; Haydn’s late style is somewhere in the background here. The third movement, a scherzo in D minor, 9/8, is the most conventional of the four in form but perhaps the most original in orchestral sound, looking forward to Brahms’s serenades, with some fine solo writing for horn.

The New Grove explains that Schubert and Voříšek both became members of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna in 1825. Schubert, in gratitude, dedicated his greatest symphony (the big C major, D 944) to the Gesellschaft, whose Archiv today holds the autograph as one of its greatest treasures; nevertheless, its resident orchestra didn’t perform the symphony, because it was too difficult. Apparently they did perform Voříšek’s, but that autograph score now resides in the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek. (If I’d known that, I could have looked at it when I was there studying Alban Berg’s manuscripts.)

See related review HERE.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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