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ClassicsOnline Home » PICHL: Symphonies
In his lifetime Wenzel Pichl was esteemed as one of the foremost European composers of the age. A friend of Dittersdorf, whose works exerted a strong influence on his development, Pichl wrote symphonies that rank among the most interesting of the period. The symphonies featured on this recording, all of which were composed in the 1760s and take as their subject mythical figures from classical antiquity, reveal a composer of flair and technical resourcefulness.
By Giv Cornfield, Ph.D.
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
By Kenneth Page
Here are four symphonies, representing the muses of epic poetry, tragedy and history, and the goddess of hunting composed by Pichl when he was in his late 20s. The briefly thunderous opening to Calliope sets the mood straight away. So much energy is bound up in this music! Bubbling strings and enthusiastic winds bottled up for two and a half centuries, suddenly released like some ancient genie. All these works are in major keys, so the overall feel is one of celebration. We’re hearing Pichl the positive thinker, not the woeful despondent. Despite the symphonies’ names, however, these are not pictorial works. Diana summons up no fanciful images of goddesses swanning around loosing arrows at woodland fawns. Whether you could successfully place each symphony with its nominal inspiration, without knowing which was which, is rather unlikely, but from beginning to end, it’s full of exuberant originality. Listening to it, you can only wonder at the vagaries of fame and fortune which blessed him during his own life but have, over the years, rendered him something of a neglected figure. By any standards it matches the very best work of his contemporaries, such as the better-known Vanhal, and personal friend, Dittersdorf. Mallon conducts what used to be known as Toronto Camerata, and they surpass themselves here. Their rendition is solidly mature, confident, balanced and fiery, just the thing to get the best out of this type of music.
By David Denton
That influential patron of the arts, Empress Maria Theresia,
is said to have preferred the music of Vaclav Pichl to that of Mozart, which
may be stretching a point in Pichl's favour. But she would surely have enjoyed
his Sinfonias in preference to Haydn if she had heard these Toronto performances.
An exaggerated claim? Well just try the opening track and you will see what
I mean - maybe not late Haydn but every bit as good as his middle period symphonies.
Pichl's life began in 1741, and having been employed as an orchestral violinist,
he moved from his Czech homeland in 1777 to take up a similar post in Italy,
where most of his twenty Sinfonias were composed. He was to return to Vienna
for the last nine years, dying in 1805 with a life span running as a direct
contemporary to Haydn. He was later to use the christen name of Wenzel, probably
to give himself more marketability at a time when Austrian and German composers
were enjoying so much success, though from his writings it is obvious that he
was a well-travelled and highly educated person. That degree of sophistication
comes through in his music, and though at time quite pungent, there is a high
degree of elegance in his music. I must here heap praise on the Toronto period
instrument players who are so secure in every aspect, the high horns rock steady.
Kevin Mallon's tempos keep the fast moments moving with urgency, yet so full
of charm in Minuets that really do dance. Excellent sound engineering and anyone
even remotely interested in this era must have this.
Wenzel Pichl (1741-1805)
Wenzel Pichl belongs to that comparatively small but distinguished company of eighteenth-century composers whose education was not restricted solely to vocational training in music. After receiving his early musical training in Bechyně, near Tábor, from the local Kantor Jan Pokorný, he attended first the Jesuit college at Březnice, where he served as a singer, and later studied philosophy, theology and law at the university in Prague. Very little is known about Pichl's early professional activities although his name appears among a list of choristers at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1760. Two years later he secured an appointment as first violin at the church at Týn, while continuing his studies in counterpoint with the organist J.N. Seeger. The most important of Pichl's early appointments occurred in 1765 when Carl Ditters (later Baron von Dittersdorf), whom he must have encountered in Vienna when he was singing at the Burgtheater, engaged him as a violinist and assistant director for the private orchestra of Bishop Adam Patachich at Großwardein (Oradea, Romania). Ditters and Pichl, similar both in age and in their broad intellectual interests, struck up a close friendship and there is little doubt that Ditters exercised considerable influence over Pichl's development as a composer. After the dissolution of the orchestra in 1769, Pichl returned to Prague where he served as music director for Count Ludwig Hartig. The following year, he was appointed first violinist of the orchestra at the Kärntnerthortheater in Vienna, as Dittersdorf relates in his autobiography:
By good luck there was a vacancy for the post of first violin at the German Theatre, and Pichl got it. The pay was not more than four hundred and fifty florins a year, but he accepted it eagerly. His services were only required of an evening, so he had the whole day to himself, and could devote it to his pupils. I was happy knowing that my best friend was comfortably provided with a steady income of one thousand and fifty gulden a year.
Pichl clearly made a good impression in Vienna and in 1777, on the recommendation of the Empress Maria Theresia, he was appointed music director and Kammerdiener to the Austrian governor of Lombardy, Archduke Ferdinando d'Este. Pichl went to Italy in 1777 and remained there until 1796 when the French invasion of Lombardy prompted his return to Vienna. While living in Italy Pichl visited all the important musical centres. He was in contact with Padre Martini and Cherubini, among others, was made a member of the Filarmonici at Mantua (from 1779) and Bologna (from 1782), and for a time served as music director of the theatre at Monza. It is thought that Pichl may have served as Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy's musical trustee in Milan; certainly Pichl's own music was performed at Eszterháza under Haydn's direction. He continued in the Archduke's service after his return to Vienna in 1796 and remained active as a violinist until his death. On 23 January 1805 Pichl suffered a fatal apoplectic fit while performing a violin concerto in the Lobkowitz Palace in Vienna.
Pichl's erudition and wide-ranging interests are revealed both in his compositions and in his writings. At Großwardein in the 1760s he wrote Latin texts which were set both by Ditters and himself and in later years he compiled a history of Czech musicians in Italy and translated the libretto of Mozart's Singspiel Die Zauberflöte into Czech. A detailed works list that Pichl prepared for Dlabač's Künstler-Lexikon (1802) runs to around nine hundred items, the majority of which are still extant but largely unexplored.
Pichl's symphonies, which date from the mid-1760s until shortly before his death, are similar in many respects to those of Dittersdorf. Indeed, their stylistic similarity even forms the basis of a parody symphony styled Sinfonia da Pichl als Ditters which was advertised for sale by Breitkopf in 1773. Two notable traits shared by both composers is their interest in writing symphonies with extra-musical themes drawn from classical mythology. The best-known works in this vein are Dittersdorf's 'Ovid' symphonies, composed to an elaborate plan in the 1780s which initially included the publication of the works with accompanying engravings. The six extant symphonies and piano duet arrangements of three of the 'lost' works are brilliant essays in pictorial writing and we are doubly fortunate that Dittersdorf's commentaries and programmes for these works are preserved. No such information survives for Pichl's 'classical' symphonies but it seems highly unlikely, given their conventional structural patterns, that they were conceived as programmatic symphonies or even as loosely descriptive works: they appear to be purely abstract in conception. Pichl's symphonies named after the Muses date from early in his career. Terpsichore (lost), Euterpe and Uranie were composed by 1764 and appeared in the Breitkopf Catalogue in 1769; Clio, Melpomene, Calliope, Thalia and Polyhymnia were composed about 1768-1769 and several of these works found their way into the Breitkopf Catalogue and the problematic Quartbuch of about 1775. Erato was either never composed – unlikely in view of that Muse's association with the lyre – or has not been preserved. During the same period Pichl also wrote symphonies named after Diana, Apollo, Pallas, Flora, Saturnus and Mars.
The choice of the nine Muses as the subject for a group of symphonies is an obvious one given Pichl's background and education. Less explicable, however, is the fact that the works themselves reveal few if any obvious links to their subjects. Calliope, mother of Orpheus and the eldest and most distinguished of the nine, is the Muse of eloquence and epic or heroic poetry. Her symphony is the most heavily-scored of the 'classical' symphonies: only Mars, predictably, is larger with flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani and strings. The weight of orchestration and the employment of a portentous slow introduction to the first movement – the first of Pichl's symphonies to open in this manner – do lend to the work something of an heroic quality. The symphony dedicated to Melpomene, the Muse of tragic poetry, is even less convincing as a musical portrait. While the symphony undoubtedly possesses a kind of magisterial sweep, it is questionable whether any of its individual movements attempts a musical depiction of tragedy. The same might be said for Clio, the Muse of history, although the learned counterpoint of the marvellous canonic Andante is surely intended to conjure up images of the past. Like the symphonies named after the Muses, Diana is not at all pictorial in conception. Far from employing such crudely obvious devices as prominent horn calls and hunting movements to depict the virgin goddess of the hunt, Pichl seems to have taken great care that the symphony remain as abstract as possible. In view of this curious lack of a programmatic dimension to these works, it is perhaps worth considering even whether the titles derive from the composer himself. Assuming they do, on the basis of the preservation of multiple sources and other corroborative evidence, then the answer may lie in the original purposes for which the works were composed and these, unfortunately, are unlikely to be discovered.
Pichl's symphonies reveal him to be a composer blessed with both excellent technique and considerable dramatic flair. The outer movements of the symphonies are thematically enterprising, bristle with purposeful energy and make very effective use of their orchestral forces. The slow movements and Minuets are similarly impressive: the canonic Andante in Clio, referred to above, is anything but routine in the context of the symphony of the 1760s. In his autobiography, Adelbert Gyrowetz observed that Pichl was esteemed as one of the foremost European composers of the time. His symphonies should certainly rank alongside those of Vaňhal and Dittersdorf as among the most accomplished of their time.
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