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ClassicsOnline Home » DITTERSDORF: Sinfonias
Carl Ditters yon
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
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. One very distinctive quality the two
composers share – and one for which they were roundly criticised by pedantic
critics in their own lifetimes – is wit. This is revealed both on a subtle,
musical level by deceptive phrase lengths, rhythmic surprises and unexpected
modulations, and, more obviously in Dittersdorf’s case, by his penchant for
writing descriptive music.
Unlike the famous symphonies based on Ovid's Melamarphoses, the
works on this disc are not programmatic in a narrative sense so much as
descriptive, and, in the case of the Sinfonia 'Il deliria delli
compositori, ossia Il gusto d'oggidì' and the Sinjonia nazionale
nel gusto di cinque nazioni, less descriptive than satirical. The Sinfonia 'Il
delirio delli compositori, assia Il gusto d'oggidì' was advertised for sale
in Supplement XIII (1779-80) of the Breitkopf Catalogue and was probably
written several years earlier. In the late 1760s and early 1770s a number of
composers, Dittersdorf among them, wrote dark, troubled minor-key symphonies of
quite extraordinary depth and power. In Haydn's case, his patron, Prince
Nicholas Esterházy, took active steps to warn Haydn off this line of
development perhaps sensing in this revolutionary music the whiff of sedition.
Knowing Haydn's 'Sturm und Drang' symphonies and virtually nothing by
any of his major contemporaries, some nineteenth-century and early
twentieth-century biographers attributed this style of composition to a great
romantic crisis in the composer's life. If that were the case, then research in
recent years has established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vanhal,
Dittersdorf, Mozart, Beck and even the genial Johann Christian Bach all
suffered similar crises in the space of a decade. We now know, as Dittersdorl
surely did, that this was fashion not mass hysteria and wherever fashion leads
satire is sure to follow.
The nervous, syncopated opening theme of Dittersdorf's symphony which so
tellingly depicts 'the delirium of the composers', contains all the hallmarks
of the 'Sturm und Drang' style. Dittersdorf's title, however, also implies
a degree of confusion and more than a nod in the direction of current tastes
and the smooth, dance-like second subject, which also figures prominently in
the development section, is the epitome of fashionable 1770s style.
Dittersdorf's target in the second movement is rather less obvious although its
dualistic thematic treatment of the strings and winds brings to mind Haydn's
hugely popular incidental music to Regnard's play 'Le distrait', now
better known in its guise as Symphony No. 60 in C major, Il
'distratto', whose main protagonist is 'distraught' to the point of being
in a delirium. This feeling that Dittersdorf's good friend Haydn may be the
target for the symphony is strengthened in the two subsequent movements. The
canonic Minuetto is a movement of which even Haydn, the supreme
contrapuntist of the age, could be justly proud and the sweetly lyrical Trio,
with its sudden displaced accent, is also strongly Haydnesque in flavour.
The quirky, energetic Finale continues the allusion and such is its vivacity
and musical quality that we can be quite sure that Dittersdorf intended to
compliment rather than denigrate the great musical trend-setter.
The Sinfonia 'Il Combattimento delle passioni umani' (‘The
Battle of the Human Passions’), written around 1771, presents a more typical
theme for musical depiction and parody. In a sequence of seven movements
Dittersdorf depicts Pride, Humility, Madness, Love, Contentment, Constancy,
Melancholy and Vivacity. The grouping of themes is in itself highly significant:
the outer movements are paired with opposites – Pride and Humility, Melancholy
and Vivacity – while Love, Contentment and Constancy literally lie at the heart
of the work. Some of these passions are easier to depict than others but to all
of them Dittersdorf brings the acute perceptions of a born man of the theatre.
Il Superbo (‘Pride’) is pompous and stately, laden with terse, dotted rhythms and
broad sweeping melodic figures. Il Humile (‘Humility’) naturally eschews
the presence of the oboes and horns and never rise, in volume beyond piano. The
second half of the movement has a cringing, descending chromatic bass-line over
which a shrinking little sequence is heard in the first violins. Il Matto (‘a
mad Minuetto’) is far more extrovert in spite of its scoring for
strings only. Powerful unison writing, strange chromatic alterations to the
melodic line and offbeat accents all contribute to unbalance the movement in
contrast to the greater regularity of the sensuous little Trio: Il Amante (‘Love’).
Dittersdorf's depiction of Contentment (Il Contento) relies to a
large extent on the 'agreement' of the two violin parts which frequently play
in unison or shadow each other in thirds and sixths. By an odd coincidence,
this is exactly the same technique Mozart employed in Così fan tutte twenty
years later to depict the closeness of the lovers. Il Constante (‘Constancy’)
provides a less obvious angle for Dittersdorf to exploit although its closely
wrought structure and musical unity is successful enough. Il Malinconico (‘Melancholy’)
and the Finale Il Vivace (‘Vivacity’) are by comparison far less
challenging and make use respectively of hushed, anguished, unsettled melodic
lines and bold, driving music of power and self-confidence interspersed with
mercurial changes of mood.
Like the human passions, national foibles have long stimulated the
creative interest of the artist and satirist. Dittersdorf selects a fairly
predictable line-up to work on in his 'Sinfonia nazionale del gusto di
cinque nazioni' – the Germans, the Italians, the French, the English and
the Turks – and then proceeds to parody the musical tastes (and perhaps
characters) of each nation in turn before bringing them all together in the rondo
Finale which represents a kind of musical equivalent of the European Union.
The people of central importance in this symphony are the Germans as the
work not only opens with a 'Tedesco' movement but the rondo theme
in the Finale is also given to the Germans. In the first instance the
Germans depicted appear to be a little old-fashioned, probably North-Germans
and more than likely, given the date of the work (c. 1766), hostile to the
avant-garde style of the Viennese. In the Finale, however, the Germans –
now almost certainly
Southern Germans and Austrians – are clothed in modern dress (with oboes and
horns) and speaking the new musical lingua franca of Europe with great
fluency. To Dittersdorf, the musical polemicist who felt obliged to defend the
works of Haydn and others which were being denigrated in the North-German
musical press, this symphony carries on the fight. The 'German' rondo theme,
representing the new musical order, imposes discipline and structure upon the
artistic utterances of other nations. These are treated with considerable
insight although the empty, bombastic, repetitive 'Italian' movement is by far
the most cruel. The French movement – the Minuetto – is beautiful and
courtly although perhaps a little old-fashioned. The English are very
four-square and perhaps a little naive musically and the poor Turks arc there
for their usual harmonic and rhythmic barbarisms.
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