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ClassicsOnline Home » DUSSEK: Three Sinfonias
Franz Xaver Dussek (1731-1799)
Franz Xaver Dussek was the most prominent composer of instrumental music in Prague during his lifetime. In addition to being a successful composer he was also a highly respected pianist and teacher. Like his compatriot VaÀhal, he was the son of a peasant. He revealed his musical gifts at a very early age and through the patronage of Count Johann Spork was able to attend the Jesuit Gymnasium at Hradec Králové. He undertook further musical studies in Prague with Habermann and completed his training in Vienna with the harpsichord virtuoso and court composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil. Wagenseil was an influential figure in Viennese music and numbered among his pupils Leopold Hofmann and Joseph Anton Steffan, both of whom enjoyed highly successful professional careers. Dussek would have profited enormously from his time with Wagenseil not only as a keyboard player and composer but also, through his teacher’s good offices, by developing a network of influential contacts in aristocratic society, many of whom maintained large establishments in Prague as well as in Vienna.
Judging from the current distribution of manuscript copies of his works Dussek seems to have had a close professional association with the orchestras of Counts Pachta and Clam Gallas, the latter a relation by marriage of his early patron Count Spork, and also, on the evidence of his music library, a possible patron of both VaÀhal and Hofmann. Dussek’s wife Josepha, a former pupil and famous soprano, had close family connections with Salzburg and through them the Dusseks became very friendly with Mozart. Leopold Mozart suspected their influence in Wolfgang’s growing determination to escape from the narrow, stifling musical and intellectual environment of Salzburg. Dussek’s obvious success as a freelance virtuoso, composer and teacher working in Prague and Vienna must have made a strong impression on him. The Dusseks were probably instrumental in persuading Mozart to visit Prague to witness the phenomenal success of the local production of Le nozze di Figaro. In October 1787 he completed the composition of Don Giovanni in the charming Villa Bertramka at Smíchov, the Dusseks’ summer residence, and he probably wrote much of La clemenza di Tito there in September 1791. Dussek’s home was an important centre of musical activity and the composer himself, according to his obituary in the Leipziger Allgemeine Zeitung, afforded visiting virtuosi a warm welcome and used his influence to introduce them to leading members of the nobility.
Like most composers of his generation Dussek wrote the majority of his symphonies during the 1760s and 1770s. The middle decades of the eighteenth century was a period of enormous economic vitality in the Habsburg dominions and wealthy aristocratic families, many of whom maintained sizeable musical establishments, vied with each other to present concerts of orchestral music. More often than not the music was composed specially for the occasion by the house Kapellmeister or commissioned from prominent freelance composers such as Dussek and VaÀhal. When economic conditions began to deteriorate towards the end of the 1770s the market for new orchestral music began to dwindle. VaÀhal composed his last symphonies around 1778 and it is unlikely that Hofmann composed any after the mid-1770s. Of the major historical figures, Haydn’s continued interest in the genre should be viewed as something of an aberration, a reflection of his unique professional circumstances while Mozart’s meagre if brilliant contribution is indicative of a major shift in patterns of patronage and musical demand.
Dussek’s symphonies and string quartets exhibit a number of quite progressive stylistic tendencies and the quartets, in particular, have attracted a good deal of scholarly attention since the earliest of them were written more or less at the same time as Haydn’s first works in the genre. His compositions do not seem to have been disseminated very widely in spite of a strong local reputation. The overwhelming majority of the extant sources are preserved in and around Prague; moreover, the Breitkopf Catalogue, a generally reliable indicator of a composer’s popularity, contains surprisingly few Dussek works.
The three symphonies featured on this recording are undated. They formed part of an extensive collection of Dussek’s symphonies owned by Count Clam Gallas and, if the original cataloguing numbers recorded on the wrappers have any chronological significance, the works were acquired in the following order: Sinfonia F4 (No.11); Sinfonia Eb3 (No.13); Sinfonia G2 (No.16). Paradoxically, Sinfonia F4, the most sophisticated of the three symphonies in some respects, has the earliest acquisition number, a salutary reminder that caution must be applied to all bibliographic evidence. These acquisition numbers imply that Dussek had composed roughly a dozen symphonies prior to writing the works under consideration and it seems likely, given the closeness of the Clam Gallas sources to the composer, that the acquisition sequence is probably a fair reflection of the order in which the works were composed. Judged purely on the basis of style it seems unlikely that there is much of a chronological gap between the earliest and latest of the three symphonies. All the works exhibit a similar level of technical mastery and there is nothing in terms of their musical syntax and structure to suggest a major shift in the composer’s musical thinking.
Dussek is not generally numbered among the Viennese symphonists as most of his career was spent in Prague. Nonetheless, it is against the background of works composed by close contemporaries such as Dittersdorf, VaÀhal and Hofmann that his works should be measured. Dussek’s symphonies display all of the stylistic and structural characteristics of the mid-eighteenth-century Viennese symphony, a reflection not only of his own professional training and experience in that city but also of the cultural hegemony inevitably imposed by Vienna throughout much of the Habsburg territories. In the eighteenth century, except in very rare and self-conscious expressions, there was no great national stylistic divide between Bohemia and Austria.
The symphonies of Dussek compare very favourably with those of his better-known Viennese contemporaries. He was a skilful composer, an efficient and effective orchestrator and more than capable of writing attractive, well-crafted music. First movements, generally considered the yardstick of a composer’s technical facility and sophistication, are, in these three instances, extremely well composed. Dussek employs a variety of structural procedures to control the overall shape of the movement. His preoccupation with achieving a high degree of musical unity — a characteristic he shares with Ordonez — can be seen in the organic growth of thematic material and also in his fondness for basing the closing theme, or elements of the closing group, on the principal theme. The development sections are comparatively long and do not begin invariably with a statement of the principal theme in the dominant. Nor are they simply phases of modulatory extension: important thematic material from the exposition is developed and both transitional figures and secondary themes are subjected to the same development processes. Dussek varies his recapitulations by employing both the full and truncated variant which omits the principal theme. Only one of the works, Sinfonia Eb3, employs a slow introduction; as is generally the case during this period, there is no obvious thematic link between the introduction and the ensuing Allegro.
The slow movements also resemble those of Dussek’s Viennese contemporaries. The inclusion of wind instruments is a progressive tendency but the instruments are rarely assigned an important thematic role. The phrase morphology of Dussek’s slow movements firmly root them in the mid-century style of Hofmann, Dittersdorf and VaÀhal. The Minuet and Trio movements are generally enterprising and in one, Sinfonia Eb3, Dussek unleashes the horns in a lovely little solo passage, accompanied by bassoon, in the second half of the Trio. The fast, sonata-form finales are lighter in character than the first movements but employ most of the same structural devices.
It is a mystery why these charming symphonies did not reach a wider public in the eighteenth century. The obvious conclusion to draw is that Count Clam Gallas put restrictions on the composer’s freedom to distribute his works and enforced it with some strictness. This implies a rather different contractual arrangement for Dussek than, for example, for either VaÀhal or Hofmann, both of whose works are well represented in the Clam Gallas collection but are also known elsewhere. Indeed, there may have been no contract involved at all. Perhaps their works were simply acquired for the Clam Gallas library from Viennese professional copyists.
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DUSSEK: Three Sinfonias