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The Thrill of Discovery

The view form oboist Debra Nagy's desk with Handel and Haydn Society.

The view from oboist Debra Nagy’s desk with the Handel and Haydn Society.


First in our series of guest articles marking Early Music Month

By Debra Nagy

Everyone can understand the thrill of a really great thrift store find: top quality, lightly used, stylish, perhaps a bit unexpected, and a great price! Retro is IN and it’s new to YOU.

That’s one of the great things about being an early music lover: the thrill of discovering new music that no one else (or at least none of your friends) has heard or performed.

Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society is doing just that this week preparing Juan Cristomo de Arriaga’s Symphony in D with guest director Nicholas McGegan. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when everyone present has the opportunity to discover and enjoy something “new” — we’ll be playing a modern premiere in Symphony Hall on Friday, March 3 and Sunday, March 5.

Arriaga earned the moniker “The Basque Mozart” in his own lifetime. A true wunderkind, Arriaga was born on January 27, 1806 (50 years to the day after Mozart), in Bilbao, Spain, and composed his first piece at age 11. By 13, he had composed an opera, Los esclavos felices, of which only fragments survive. At 15, Arriaga traveled to Paris for studies in violin and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was appointed a teaching assistant just two years later. An incredible, driven talent, Arriaga died of exhaustion just shy of his 20th birthday. His Symphony in D was one of his last works.

I learned today that Arriaga’s only symphony is powerful, richly expansive, and full of beautiful melodies. Audiences will get to hear it for themselves this weekend!

Baroque oboist Debra Nagy found it a bit odd when The New York Times saw fit to call her “busy and fluent” a number of years ago, but these days her playing is “distinctly sensual, pliant, warm, and sweet.” When she’s not busy performing, practicing, or dreaming up new projects, she can be found cooking up a storm in the kitchen or commuting by bicycle from her home in Cleveland’s historic Ohio City neighborhood.

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“Mozart’s Jupiter”: A Portrait of His Style

The Mozarts: Maria Anna, Wolfgang, Anna Maria (portrait), and Leopold, around 1780. (Johann Nepomuk della Croce)

The Mozarts: Maria Anna, Wolfgang, Anna Maria (portrait), and Leopold, around 1780.
(Painting by Johann Nepomuk della Croce)


By Samuel J. Stephens


Among Mozart’s most mature works of art,
Whence did genius from mere prodigy part?
How, from style enlightened and humane
(Facile and fluent, witty and urbane),
Was mighty Jupiter unbound and loose?
It sudden struck me like a bolt of Zeus
How that gentler manner had turned and set,
To meet the old gods, and meet them well met.

With the apprentice we must begin,
In whom the teaching-master seeks his twin.
Succeeded on the Holy Roman Throne
From across the border by older bone:
Emperor Joseph was dead and done,
Emperor Leopold was Francis’s son.
Music and Masonry his unconcern,
He set his father’s kingdom stern.
Many that depended on the royal whim
Were set marooned or left to swim.
Franz Xaver Sussmayr, orphaned once more,
(Adopted before by his knock on a door)
Rushed to his coffee mates at their usual place,
A frantic confusion upon his face.
“My master Mozart is passed away,
My adopted father, greatest of his day.
Now his widow’s left in desperation
With little or no remuneration
Of her husband’s lauded talents now gone!”
All his friends having turned to him as one,
Smiled (only some) at his pert pretense
Knowing he had advanced fair recompense
From the widow whose husband taught him all
(Of what he had retained, and that was small).


Mozart of himself had learned evermore,
Older techniques which to him were but lore:
Grounds and rounds, elaborate rimes,
Hurdy-gurdy canons of olden times.
Fresh youths sniggered (and mercenaries agreed)
Only their gallant new style should breed.
Thus, according to the Emperor’s Quantz:
“A musician must affect to the music’s wants;
According to the passion prevailing,
A joyful dance or mournful wailing—
A linear theme, concentrated clear,
Variated till it again appear
With elegance and a minimum of means,
A most delightful melody weans.
Now mournful dancing or joyous tears,
Mixed and human as our hopes and fears.”
Young Wolfgang on Christian’s knee,
Learned this light Venus and Persephone.
Once in Munich, Paris, inhaling the air,
Young Wolfgang learns this mood everywhere.


Leopold the elder, his own father,
Championed this style and no other.
The bourgeois attempt to please the king,
And so coiffed his son to play and sing.
This intimate style, Empfindsamkeit,
Easy, pleasing, tempered, and so right,
Avoided the pompous ancient polyphony
And found humanity in homophony.
Here at last was Zeus turned upside down,
And Figaro’s marriage problems made renown.
This humble, upstart world gave Mozart berth
To embrace the Everyman and his mirth.
But New Vienna’s empiric spires
Could not wane the world of old sires,
And Leopold’s age, now rejecting wealth,
Looked askance his son’s spirit’s health.
(Masonry and esoteric knowledge,
Tolerated by Joseph’s inner-college—
Imperial police already espied,
Twice re-named, allegiance thrice belied.)
The book imbibed of Moses Mendelssohn,
He essayed, beseeching to his only son,
The nurturing, truthful Catholic scroll
For the late salvation of his soul.

Within the Masonic brotherhood guild—
Which was often the purpose plain distilled
For many men who wished dearly to join—
Young Wolfgang offered music for his coin.
Yet the draw was mystic that drew him deep,
Concern most Christic for the mystère sleep:
“I never lie in bed without thinking,
Young as I am, it’s a thought un-shrinking,
That I may not live to see the next day.”
(This in a letter to his father did he say.)

Of his latent marriage two days before,
He wrote Leopold, whose absence was sore:
“My wife Constanze knows the mother’s duty;
She is not ugly, rather her beauty
Is winsome in her figure and her eyes,
And like Mother Mozart was, she is wise.”
Desperate and irate at his son’s gall,
Leopold set out to visit that fall,
And disapproved the marriage in writing,
In chiding voice, churlish and biting.

Once in Vienna, his knuckles rapped the door.
He saw his son’s child play upon the floor.
Herr Franz Joseph Haydn, visiting, said,
“Your son is the greatest, living or dead.”
Leopold blushes, finding all is assured,
Keeps back his tongue, his opinion secured.


Enter the Baron Gottfried van Swieten,
Ambassador and a son of Good Reason,
Himself stiffly bound, unable in art,
As Haydn said, “Stiff as a board, but smart.”
He stood a-stream “Something new, all the time,”
Eschewed the ephemeral, praised the sublime.
For him the world was better yesterday,
When the Mighty Fortress held its sway.
Kirnberger his teacher, student of Bach,
Imparted the fugue, foundation of rock.

From Swieten’s home not mercury,
But Jupiter, or some fragment porphyry
Of that larger self, hot to human touch,
Confers on Wolfgang’s house a fugue nonesuch.
This shining jewel Constanze recognized,
With lusty ambition matronized
Wolfgang with courage, kisses no more
(She had few to give him, for they were poor),
Made up her own mind, in her own moods,
To dictate his composition of new fugues.


On each Saturday young Wolfgang returned
To play his new counterpoints blithely-learned.
Van Swieten only snorted demurely,
Not considering these fugues so purely
(Or so fine as the powder on his chair
Which he had so lately wiped on there).
“Bless you my son, your attempts I allow,
But here itself is the great burden now:
These are the two testaments of old law,
Born unlike you and I on earth and straw,
Babe of the brain in mental Bethlehem,
Bach’s well-tempered, everlasting children.
Forty-eight preludes and fugues of each stripe,
Counterpointing each other type-to-type.
This galant style’s too simple and too quick,
Simple melodies ornamented with a trick,
Giving the stomach some cheaper delights
Through cheaply drawn-up musical flights.
Chaos too contradicts on every point
As a jackass king himself may anoint,
But contradicting rightly’s out of vogue
And Bach’s rightful style’s been made the rogue.
Here, take these six fugues and preludes with you,
And arrange them for my players anew.”


Despite Constanze and her constant meddling,
He takes them and agrees to Swieten’s peddling,
And once more at the piano, he plays them
Through to find the instrumental stem
Of arrangement for six string players:
Violins, violas, and cello-bass layers.
He sits calm, plays simply, hardly moving.
Then, in an outburst disapproving,
“These old preludes are no good for playing
On today’s fine strings! Too many splaying
Melodies make them garbled and unsweet”—
Constanze brings more coffee to his seat—
“I’ll have to re-write this whole prelude batch
And risk something awful if they don’t match.”


Interrupting were the drinking days;
With Constanze, longer the billiard days.
His piano fugues, unfinished, lingered there,
Spilled with coffee upon his clavier.
From Salzburg, news of Leopold’s death:
First, Wolfgang’s tears, then a sigh of breath.
From Hamburg, death of Emanuel Bach:
For Mozart, strains of Vom Himmel Hoch.
“He was the father of us all,” wrote he,
“And how he wrote defined how we must be.”


A simple four-note theme transforms to song,
Natural to his nature and un-wrong.
This pulsing polyphony is not Bach,
But is conjured of the Bachian stock.
Mozart, rather than fuguing at the fifth,
Unisons his themes in resolving lift,
Releasing energy previously bound,
Exalting in the rising stretto sound.
Counterpoint devices, used securely,
Used confidently and maturely.
Feeling the strength to be his own,
He knows he is himself, yet not alone.
Integration, not imitation, is right,
Mere imitation is the artist’s plight—
It stops your hand cold, frozen in terror,
Doubting in shame all before as error,
To unlearn at the greatest, utmost pain,
To kill those works in your natural vein.
But no artist must work without knowing
What seeds have been planted before sowing
Their own or else they commit that offense
Intolerable in adolescents:
Presumed conquest of a civilized land
(Hopefully to be scorned, kicked, and banned).


To Sussmayr now once more, in whose mouth
Are words of response, but finding it drouth
He closes it and goes about his way.
Of his fortune, our fears we can allay:
Fat in later age (dead at thirty-eight),
Composer of opera and dead-weight,
For a time enjoying some fair success—
But not too long, too much, we must confess.
For the laws of the craft are demanding,
Requiring a mind forever expanding.
(A poet may plow the sands of the beach,
But only bustling smallness does he breach.)
And even then the emperor’s purview
May cut you forever from his view:
Where can talent find a place where spirit
Truly cares for song among those who hear it?
The artist on earth, suffering aright,
Is best equipped to appraise his own plight.

To meet the old gods, and meet them well met,
One must know their minds, admit no regret.
Favor their favors, like the burst from Jove,
Be allayed in the Dionysian grove.
(But Bacchus is best measured not too much,
Requiring the surgeon’s mindful touch.)
Thus, he that dies with no tomb of stone
May of his genius sit on Zeus’s throne.

To meet the High King, and meet Him well met,
Know of yourself, admit your own regret.
Heaven is heaven, man is only man,
Who to attain it must do best he can.
(Genius does not await you in far halls,
Nor confines within you within four walls.)
Ready your garment for the eyes of the king,
For it is you yourself that you must bring.

Samuel J. Stephens works professionally in copywriting and promotions in the Nashville music industry, but reads classical-music history by night. He studied literature at the University of Middle Tennessee and writes poetry in many forms. He is writing a poem in the ancient Beowulf meter. He can be reached at

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Heading Back To Old Vienna With Period Guitar

Scottish lutenist and guitarist James Akers is is a lecturer in early plucked strings at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Lutenist and guitarist James Akers is a lecturer in early plucked strings at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.


Classical Vienna: Music for Guitar & Piano.
James Akers, Romantic guitar; Gary Branch, fortepiano
Resonus Classics RES10182

By Benjamin Dunham

CD REVIEW — When this disc first begins to spin, the listener is embraced by the most wonderfully delicate and engaging texture — on period guitar and fortepiano — two sounds not too dissimilar but whose ictus are distinct: a manicured hand in a fitted leather glove.

Classical Vienna Cover 350Scottish guitarist James Akers, playing an original 1820s instrument by Saumier and a modern Panormo replica by James Cole, and British pianist Gary Branch, playing an 1826 Conrad Graf fortepiano from the Richard Burnett Heritage Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, present an inviting program of music that might have been heard in Viennese salons in the first half of the 19th century.

For this listener, the real find among the composers is an exact contemporary of Beethoven, Fernando Carulli (1770-1841), a truly musical spirit with a song in his heart. His three pieces form the spine of the program: beginning, middle, and end. Nocturne No. 1 is sprightly in mood, not luminal. Nocturne No. 2 is a gallant march fit for elves. The Variations on Themes by Rossini explore the simple radiance of “O, mattutina albori” from La donna del Lago and concludes with spirited changes on a theme from La Gazza Ladra.

While the Sonata for Piano Forte and Guitar, Op. 71, of Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) may be heard mostly as a recommendation of his prowess as a music publisher, the solo piano Fantasia on “Potem Mitzwo!” in F minor by Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) is truly remarkable. This probing musical commentary on a Jewish funeral lament was published in 1804, when the prodigy was 10. He could hardly be expected to plumb such depths. It is possible that the 1803 death of his 16-year-old half-sister, Rebeka, prompted this early inspiration (thanks,!).

Gary Branch and James Akers recording the CD.

Fortepianist Gary Branch and guitarist James Akers recording the CD.

The disc includes two works of Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), a guitarist-composer whose music is seldom overlooked on guitar recordings, and for good reason. His Sonate Brillante for solo guitar, Op. 15, whose first movement Julian Bream arranged and recorded, is given a subtle, colorful reading, if without Bream’s bravura. The Variations on Paisiello’s “Nel cor più non mi sento” are worth hearing; the finale, “Polonaise,” will get your feet tapping.

Two of the works recorded here, the Diabelli sonata and the Giuliani variations, are also included on a 2009 Musiphon disc, Wiener Serenaden, with Maximilian Mangold, historical guitar, and Kristian Nyquist, fortepiano. Their performances have a bit more bite and presence than those of Akers and Branch, but no matter. Just lean back and take in the warm sound of these persuasive artists, imagining you are at a Viennese house concert in the early 19th century. It’s a treat.

Former EMAg editor Benjamin Dunham has reviewed recordings for The Washington Post and Musical America.


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Exceptional Haydn from Handel & Haydn Society

Harry Christophers conducts the Handel and Haydn Society on its newest Haydn CD. (Photo by Stu Rosner)

Harry Christophers conducts the Handel and Haydn Society on its newest Haydn CD. (Photo by Stu Rosner)


Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 83, Violin Concerto No. 1
Aisslinn Nosky, violin; Handel and Haydn Society; Harry Christophers, conductor
CORO 16139

By Laurence Vittes

CD REVIEW — These Handel and Haydn Society live concert performances of three key Haydn works from Symphony Hall in Boston in January 2015 are so comprehensively thought out, expertly put together, and commandingly played, it’s as if the Boston Symphony had been reborn playing on 18th-century instruments and modern copies. With artistic director Harry Christophers conducting and Aisslinn Nosky leading the strings and serving as soloist in the Violin Concerto No. 1, the Society may not use the 40 strings for which Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, which commissioned Haydn’s six “Paris” symphonies, was famous. But the Boston ensemble’s 24 have the same audience-pleasing attitude, and they come complete with handmade gut strings and Classical bows to evoke the sounds Haydn himself expected to hear.

haydncover-400The advantages in the second of the “Paris” symphonies are evident; like the others in the set, No. 83 (“The Hen”) can be a bear (pace No. 82, “The Bear”) to move quickly in concert when the conductor might sense a need for more urgency or passion. But here the response is almost instantaneous, the energy hair-raising at times, and usually thrilling. This is a performance of great physical beauty, heightened expressive nuance (including nearly inaudible moments in the slow movement), and carefully chosen speeds: the lines of the Andante are spun out to emphasize its timeless poetry, while the Menuetto and Trio race along at a cheeky reinterpretation of Allegretto.

There is no way not to make Haydn’s early Symphony No. 7 (“The Noon”) sound drop-dead gorgeous. And while, at its core, it is still a galant concertante symphony, a performance like this — with the wind and string soloists so confident in the sheer pleasure of their virtuosity — brings out the composer’s emerging sense of structural integrity, over which he would build larger symphonic forms.

Haydn’s concertos never benefited from his mature thinking, but in Nosky’s passionate advocacy, and particularly her technically brilliant, stylistically wide-ranging cadenzas, she gives the Violin Concerto No. 1 a reading of size, charm, and deep affection. Playing her 1746 Spanish instrument with a copy of an early Tourte bow made by Stephen Marvin of Toronto, the orchestra’s Canadian concertmaster takes an approach to Haydn, she wrote in an email, that “is personal rather than based on any concrete historical performance practice.”

Handel and Haydn Society concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky is soloist.

Handel and Haydn Society concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky is soloist.

In fact, Nosky uses her own cadenzas for all her concerto performances. She believes the cadenza should, in addition to entertaining the listener and heightening the excitement at the end of the movement, “complement the overall arc of the composer’s musical narrative.”

Nosky looked at Mozart’s cadenzas to his piano concertos not for models, but “for examples of what may have been performed in terms of length, scope, and technical difficulty,” she said. Although she plans most of her cadenzas ahead of time, “there are improvisational elements in all of them, especially in regards to tempo and rhetorical space. The cadenzas I compose are more of a harmonic framework within which the smaller elements can change.”

While Nosky’s graceful cadenza in the Adagio flows conventionally, her creation for the Allegro moderato has a spontaneous feel, leading through a series of imaginative episodes to a spectacular final trill.

Laurence Vittes writes regularly about music for The Huffington Post, Gramophone, Bachtrack, Strings, Audiophile Audition, and the Southern California Early Music Society.

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Sumptuous Volumes Celebrate Erard Instruments


The History of the Erard Piano and Harp in Letters and Documents, 1785-1959.
Robert Adelson, Alain Roudier, Jenny Nex, Laure Barthel, and Michel Foussard, editors.
2 volumes, 1134 pages. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

By Nicholas Renouf

BOOK REVIEW — Drawn from the Gaveau-Érard-Pleyel Archives now maintained by the AXA Insurance Group in France, this sumptuously produced two-volume set about the history of the Érard piano and harp represents a rich lode of information not only for those interested in these instruments, but also for all who want to learn about the role of music within the context of European culture of the last two centuries.

erardcover-long-400It would be difficult to overestimate the inventive genius of Sébastien Érard (1752-1831). At the age of sixteen, Sébastien, who had apprenticed himself in his native Strasbourg to the keyboard maker Johann Heinrich Silbermann, left for Paris. While still in his twenties, Érard had already mastered the art of keyboard instrument making. Protected by a privilège du roi at the end of the reign of Louis XVI, he provided both harpsichords and pianofortes to members of the highest levels of society. His royalist associations obliged him to withdraw to London for a period during the Reign of Terror. There, he continued to improve the mechanism of the piano, as well as that of the harp. His success ultimately resulted in patents, both English and French, which revolutionized the manufacture of the two instruments and resulted in the development of the modern grand piano and concert harp.

Érard’s inventive successes gave rise to a business that became a nexus for the musical world of 19th-century bourgeois society. With the aid of older brother Jean-Baptiste and nephew Pierre, both instinctive businessmen, Maison Érard rapidly expanded operations in both Paris and London. The firm was especially successful in exploiting its relationships with many of the most important pianists and composers of the day. The symbiotic relationship between the Érard company and such musicians as Liszt, Thalberg, and Mendelssohn — and later Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Massenet, and Ravel — exemplifies an ongoing fruitful interaction of the forces of art, technology, and commerce. All of this is impressively documented in the letters, patents, testimonials, and other items assembled and painstakingly annotated in these books.

It has long been assumed that the repetition action was key to the flowering of the Romantic-era pianism of Liszt and Chopin. Pierre Érard’s letter to his uncle in Paris on June 22, 1824, describing the 13-year-old Liszt’s London debut brings to life this history-making premiere for artist and instrument:

Dear uncle,
    Liszt’s concert yesterday was a real triumph for your piano! The room where he played is very big but very good for music. The whole piano world was there. Clementi, Cramer, Kalkbrenner, Ries. They were all surprised by the young Liszt, who truly played in the most amazing way, and much better than I had ever heard him. The entire audience and all the teachers agree that the piano is the best that has ever been heard in public!

Sébastien Érard, as painted by Henry Raeburn.

Sébastien Érard, as painted by Henry Raeburn.

Nearly a century later, during an era when German Bechsteins and American Steinways had already made significant inroads even in France, Fauré revealed his “brand loyalty” to the Érards with a jocular remark in a 1910 letter to Albert Blondel, director of Maison Érard from 1879 to 1935: “In any case, if ever anyone says that Érards are dry, send me the insolent one!”

When first confronted with these books, this reviewer had some reservations that the overwhelming extent of these archives might be better served by their presentation in a searchable, online digital archive. However, longer acquaintance with these tomes has led to a deep appreciation of the judicious selection, organization, and impeccable annotation of the documents and letters exercised here. The books allow the reader to look beyond the information on the subject presented in biographies and scholarly articles — interpreted and filtered by a secondary author — to arrive at a direct examination of the granular and contemporary factual evidence.

The five editors and those who aided them in publishing this monumental publication deserve the highest praise for an important work very well done. Researchers and amateur “pianomanes” who may wish to go even further should be encouraged by the footnote on page 2 of the introduction referencing the Centre Sébastien Érard, where we may hope an increasing number of primary source documents of the Gaveau-Érard-Pleyel archives will continue to be made available.

An alumnus of New England Conservatory and the Yale School of Music, Nicholas Renouf is curator at the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, director of music at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, and co-founder of the Saint Gregory Society.

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