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ClassicsOnline Home » DITTERSDORF: Sinfonias
American Record Guide
Carl Ditters yon Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
Sinfonia in A minor 'II delirio delli compositori, ossia II gusto d'oggidì'
Sinfonia in D major 'II Combattimento delle passioni umani'
Sinfonia in A major 'Sinfonia nazionale nel gusto di cinque nazioni'
Carl Ditters, later Baron Ditters von Dittersdorf, was one of the most prolific and versatile of Haydn's and Mozart's Viennese contemporaries. He was also one of the most engaging professional musicians of his generation and his famous autobiography, completed two days before his death, reveals a man of charm, vivacity and learning.
Ditters grew up in comfortable financial circumstances and was able to enjoy the benefits of a good general education at a Jesuit school in addition to receiving private tuition in music, French and religion. He began violin lessons at the age of seven and through the influence of his second teacher, Joseph Ziegler, was appointed as a member of the orchestra at the Benedictine church on the Freyung several years later. On 1st March, 1751, he joined the musical establishment of Prince Joseph Friedrich von Sachsen-Hildburghausen and began a more disciplined course of violin study with Giuseppe Trani. Trani was impressed with his pupil's early attempts at composition and commended him to Giuseppe Bonno who offered him instruction in Fuxian counterpoint and free composition. Ditters remained in service until 1761 when the Kapelle was dissolved following the Prince's departure from Vienna to assume the regency in Hildburghausen. Along with the other musicians, Ditters was taken into the employ of Count Durazzo, Theatre Director at the Imperial Court.
Ditters's prolonged contact with dramatic music during the early 1760s through his membership of the theatre orchestra proved highly influential on his development as an artist. Nonetheless, when his contract with Durazzo expired in the winter of 1764 he chose to accept the post of Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein, recently vacated by Michael Haydn, rather than work under the authority of Count Wenzel Spork, Durazzo's successor. In his new post, Ditters assembled a good orchestra and a small company of singers. He began to compose his first vocal works, including an oratorio Isacco and several operas, in addition to maintaining a steady output of instrumental music.
In the course of his travels following the dissolution of the Bishop's Kapelle in 1769, Ditters met his next patron, Count Schaffgotsch, Prince-Bishop of Breslau. He agreed to an extended stay at the Prince-Bishop's castle at Johannisberg probably little expecting that he would spend much of the next twenty-odd years there. Although isolated somewhat from the main stream, Ditters's reputation did not suffer by his being based at Johannisberg. His instrumental music circulated widely and his vocal music, in particular his operas, operettas and Singspiels, enjoyed great popularity in Vienna and elsewhere. Through the Prince-Bishop's offices Ditters was created a Knight of the Goldcn Spur in 1770, and, two years later, was granted a certificate of nobility by the Empress Maria Theresia, after which he adopted the additional surname ‘von Dittersdorf’.
After the Prince-Bishop's death in 1795 Dittersdorf received a small pension barely sufficient for his needs. Handicapped by arthritis and short of money, he was offered lodgings by Baron Ignaz von Stillfried on his property in Bohemia remaining there with his family until his death on 24th October 1799.
Dittersdorf wrote fluently and attractively in all genres and the number of prints and manuscript copies of his works which survive today bear witness to his great contemporary popularity. Within his instrumental œuvre, the symphonies, of which there are well over a hundred, hold a particularly important place and provide the best insight into his development as a composer.
Like Haydn's symphonies, those of Dittersdorf were written over a period of several decades and reveal an extraordinary wealth of novel and convincing solutions to problems of form. The three symphonies featured on this recording cover a span of some fifteen years in Dittersdorf's creative life, a period which witnessed enormous stylistic change both in his output and in the development of the symphony as a whole. The earliest of the three works, the Sinfonia in F,was advertised in Breitkopf's famous thematic catalogue in 1766 although it was probably composed several years earlier. Like many of the symphonies of his close Viennese contemporaries Karl von Ordonez and Leopold Hofmann this engaging work is small in scale and very deftly composed. The opening Allegro begins with a pert little theme in the first violins which quickly leads into a thrilling orchestral crescendo. If Dittersdorf nods towards Mannheim in his employment of their most famous orchestral signature, the crescendo, his Viennese origins are in evidence later in the movement in the playful alternation of major and minor modes which is a strong feature of Austrian folk-music. The tiny slow movement is as charming as anything written in the 1760s and the graceful Minuetto and Trio which follow bear all the familiar hallmarks of Viennese dance music. A brilliant Presto finale brings this cheerful little work to a lively close.
The Sinfonia in D minor,written some time between 1773 and 1779, is a work of very different character and is one of Dittersdorf's most impressive symphonies of the period. A number of Austrian composers, foremost among them Haydn and Hofmann, experimented with the idea of opening a symphony with an extended slow movement but the practice was abandoned relatively early. Haydn's last and greatest work in this style, the so-called 'Passione' Symphony (Hob. I: 49) was completed in 1768 and it is doubtful if any of Hofmann's symphonies of this type were written after the mid-1760s. The gripping Adagio opening to Dittersdorf's symphony – unaccountably headed Andantino in some sources – has a weight and intensity which is rarely found outside Haydn's Sturm und Drang symphonies. The wind instruments are used with telling effect and Dittersdorf's sophisticated melodic lines contain some marvellous and unexpected harmonic twists. The ebullient Allegro vivace, is, by comparison, a much more straight-forward movement. Its strong, driving unison opening contrasts starkly with alight, scampering figure in the first violins and the broad, lyrical second theme. All of these major thematic building blocks reappear in the central section of the movement but in place of thematic development Dittersdorf offers surprise: chiefly unexpected juxtaposition of themes and a notable pregnant pause. The Minuetto and Trio reveal the composer at his quirky best. Not only does he unsettle the listener with asymmetrical phrase lengths and odd chirrups from the wind instruments, but he also ends the Minuetto in the wrong key and directs the performer to repeat the first half only at the conclusion of the Trio. The Presto non troppo finale, built around the kind of irresistible theme of which Dittersdorf's friend Haydn became the undisputed master, brings the symphony to a spirited conclusion, one perhaps rather unexpected given the sombre opening to the work.
The Sinfonia in G minor,one of Dittersdorf’s most striking minor key symphonies, was written no later than 1768, the year the great Austrian Benedictine Monastery at Lambach acquired a copy. The symphony survives in seven contemporary sources and is also listed in three important thematic catalogues of the period: Lambach (1768), Breitkopf (Supplement VI 1772) and the Quartbuch (1775). Interestingly enough, the work is almost exactly contemporaneous with the earliest of Haydn's Sturm und Drang symphonies, Hob. I: 39, which is in the same key. Although the two works are very different in compositional approach they inhabit a similar emotional world. Significantly, a copy of Dittersdorf's symphony preserved in the Austrian National Library under the shelfmark S.m.15957 bears an attribution to Joseph Haydn.
Unlike the Sinfonia in D minorwhich spends the greater part of the time in the major mode, the G minor symphony retains its turbulent qualities almost throughout. Even the central Andante is not without its tensions and perhaps the only point of genuine repose is the delightful Trio with its shimmering solo flute doubling the cellos. If this intensity is unusual in the symphony of the period Dittersdorf’s penchant for experimentation manifests itself in an even more novel way. The development section of the first movement at once introduces new and seemingly irrelevant thematic material which serves as the basis for modulatory extension. The logic of this is not made apparent until the finale when an almost identical development section occurs but this time clearly based on the strong triadic opening theme. Thus, Dittersdorf brilliantly achieves an organic unity between the first and fourth movements of the symphony not by reusing earlier material in the finale but by anticipating the development section of the finale in the opening movement. But the surprises do not end there. Shortly before the end of the finale the music drops into a radiant G major, announced by a new theme, which in turn leads into a brief coda based on the opening theme of the movement almost in the manner of an apotheosis.
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