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ClassicsOnline Home » MERK, J.: Fleurs d'Italie / Air suisse varie et Rondeau / Valses brillantes (Rummel, Kruger)
Joseph Merk was the most outstanding cellist in Vienna in the first half of the nineteenth century. Although Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was not originally written for him, Merk’s performances established it as an important work, and he was the dedicatee of Chopin’s Introduction et Polonaise brillante. He was also a formidable composer for his own instrument, creating a dazzling series of instrumental episodes in his Fleurs d’Italie, based on operatic motifs by Donizetti and Verdi. The Valses brillantes bridge the gap, in classic virtuoso fashion, between Schubert’s piano dances and Johann Strauss the Elder’s grand gestures.
Joseph Merk (1795–1852)
Fleurs d’Italie • Air suisse varié et Rondeau, Op 32 (Aux amateurs, No 8) • Valses brillantes
Cellists are a funny lot—every musician will tell you so. Unlike violinists or pianists, they love to be together with other cellists, even forming cello quartets, sextets, octets or whole cello orchestras. ‘The cello is a grown-up violin that has learnt to stand on its own feet’, is the pithy summary of the history of the cello by the German aphorist and journalist Wolfram Weidner (born in 1925). But cellists are often less proud of the past great masters of their instrument than their fiddle or keyboard colleagues, which is why so many compositions and their creators or even just great cellists are not as well-known today as the practitioners of other instrumental music. One such exponent of our strange fraternity is the Viennese cellist Joseph Merk.
Born on 18 January 1795, Merk originally wanted to become a violinist, an ambition that was, however, foiled by the effects of a dog bite on his arm—it became impossible for him to hold up the violin. So he began to study with the principal cellist of the Vienna Court Opera, Philipp Schindlöker (1753–1827), in whose footsteps he followed after a début concert tour through Europe in 1816 or 1818 (different sources make different claims in this respect), and later he also became a member of the Emperor’s musical establishment. From 1821 to 1848 Joseph Merk taught as a professor at the Vienna Conservatory and in 1834 he was appointed Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, while still touring all over Europe as soloist and chamber musician.
Eduard Hanslick’s Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien (History of Concert Activity in Vienna) vividly recounts Joseph Merk’s chamber music making in Vienna: ‘[…] a hard-working giver of concerts, indefatigable and always supported by the sympathy of the audience. He often gave concerts with Mayseder, liked to play that man’s compositions and could justifiably be called the Mayseder of the cello […] As a cellist, Merk also took part in Böhm’s quartet productions […]’
Retrospectively much more important, however, is Merk’s commitment to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Op 56, originally written for Anton Kraft, which had not been particularly successful at its première in 1808 and which he played again, together with Josef Mayseder and Karl Maria von Bocklet, for the first time in 1825, now to great public acclaim. In 1829 Chopin on a visit to Vienna dedicated his Introduction et Polonaise brillante, Op 3, to Merk, and Franz Schubert was also a friend of his. He died, highly respected, in his home town of Vienna on 16 July 1852.
The Air suisse varié, Op 32, is a typical example of Biedermeier virtuoso writing. On the one hand it uses classical variation form (introduction—theme—variations—final virtuoso passage), on the other it introduces an art-music theme made to sound in the style of folk-music, so that the whole outer world is dragged into the overdecorated domestic salon. But considering the seriousness of the compositional process, the musicianship ‘without gimmicks’ which dominates here—in contrast to the work of many piano and violin virtuosos of the time—it remains pleasing to this day. The subtitle of the piece reads ‘Aux amateurs’, but it should be remembered that at the time, words such as ‘amateur’ or even ‘dilettante’ had none of the negative connotations which we associate with them today.
The main work on this recording is just as typical for the nineteenth century, with the marvellously eloquent title Fleurs d’Italie. Fantaisies pour le Violoncelle avec Accompagnement de Piano sur les Motifs les plus favoris d’Opéras nouveaux. The operas by Donizetti used in Opus 26 were indeed new: Lucrezia Borgia and Torquato Tasso had had their premières in 1833, Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835 and Dom Sébastien in 1843, then in 1845 in a revised version at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. So it must be assumed that Merk played in all these operas as an orchestral cellist. Apparently these operatic paraphrases were so successful that he fashioned a fifth one from Verdi’s 1844 opera Ernani, as his Opus 31. Chamber music and virtuoso adaptations of orchestral works made it possible for the middle classes to bring favourite melodies into their own drawing-rooms, and so it became the done thing to publish symphonies in versions for piano duet or in arrangements for chamber ensembles—as in Hummel’s magnificent versions of Mozart’s last symphonies. Then in the nineteenth century operatic paraphrases emerged, used by peripatetic virtuosi to gain favour with their audiences by using famous melodies to display their instrumental skills. Joseph Merk does this with a certain nobility, without, however, refraining from the occasional instrumental trick, mostly in the final passages of his pieces. But the ‘mad scene’ cannot be left out of the fantasia on Lucia di Lammermoor, nor can the famous cavatina of Ernani, and so these pieces are not only instrumental star turns, but also a collection of fabulous melodies.
In contrast the Valses brillantes, Op 6, are classic virtuoso pieces, and it is safe to assume that Merk could have written them for his first large-scale concert tour. Considering that Johann Strauss the Elder only emerged as a composer in 1826, these works can be seen as interesting evidence for the transition from Schubert’s piano dances to Straussian dance music—the waltzes exhibit the intimacy of domestic music-making as well as the grand gestures of an imaginary dance band.
When Joseph Merk, the most distinguished cellist in Vienna, the capital of music, died in 1852, one of his successors on the throne of solo cellist at the Imperial Opera, David Popper, was just nine years old. He occupied this position for just five years, from 1868 to 1873, before gaining what was already available to violinists and pianists in Joseph Merk’s time, but not to cellists: world renown.
Translation: Bernd Müller
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MERK, J.: Fleurs d'Italie / Air suisse varie et Ro...