At any given moment on classical music history, a few figures dominated, while others worked in their shadows. The most extreme example of this would be the three decades of the 1800s, when everything happened in the shadow of one composer: Beethoven.
Beethoven’s First Symphony, five years in the making, dates from 1800, when he was 29, and he died at the age of 56 in 1827. Apart from the “Pathetique” Sonata and the six early quartets, very little of Beethoven’s most famous music predates 1800. But by 1801 he was turning out works like the “Moonlight” Sonata and the middle quartets. Beethoven was popular and his importance well recognized while he was still in his thirties. To some degree then, and to a greater degree now, we ignore the other composers working in that same 1800-1830 period.
Do these other composers measure up to Beethoven? I haven’t found one who does. But compared to the mere mortal composers of other times, they are perfectly fine. Only in comparison to Beethoven do they seem ordinary.
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) is the most unjustly neglected of the pack, and that thought will occur to anyone who hears his “Invitation to the Dance,” originally a piano piece but best known in the orchestrated version by Hector Berlioz. Weber composed loads of great chamber music and I will sample his Second Symphony from 1823. But his greatest importance was as a composer of opera. Most of the innovations attributed to Wagner can be found decades earlier in Weber, who also used leitmotivs. Weber’s grandfather was also the grandfather of Mozart’s wife. Weber studied under Michael Haydn. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 39.
Louis Spohr (1784-1859) like Weber came of age in a world where everyone was talking about Beethoven. In an age where composers were often performers, Spohr gained notice primarily for the latter. As a violinist he is credited with inventing the chinrest. As a conductor he invented the “rehearsal mark,” allowing him to stop the musicians and restart “five bars after letter D,” which is still done today. A violinist who often concertized with his harpist wife, Spohr also composed 10 symphonies, 1o operas, and four clarinet concertos. One of the catchiest movements in the whole chamber literature is the scherzo from his first “Double Quartet.” I’ve listened to many of his symphonies and in general I think his quartets, sextets and octets are more rewarding. Spohr outlived Beethoven by more than three decades and, like Salieri, he also outlived his acclaim. Only now are people rediscovering his music.
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832): The oldest of this group, Clement was born four years before Mozart and lived five years after Beethoven. Clementi was a child prodigy in Rome, hired to work in London while still a teenager. By his forties he was well-known as a performer, a composer, a teacher, a piano manufacturer and a music publisher, who had exclusive rights to Beethoven’s music in England. Clementi’s piano music is practiced by students to this day, but as adult performers they usually “move on” to other composers.
Joseph Wolfl (1773-1812): Born, like Mozart, in Salzburg, Wolfl studied under Mozart’s father and Haydn’s brother. He was a prodigy on violin and piano, and when he and Beethoven were both concertizing in Vienna most people considered Wolfl the better pianist by a nose, until a cutting contest at a party in which attendees thought Beethoven did better. While Wolfl and Beethoven were rivals, they enjoyed civil relations. Like Rachmaninoff in a later time, Wolfl was a tall man with big hands who wrote music that is hard for some people to play. He died in London at 38. Recent years have seen a revival of his sonatas.
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) was a student of Beethoven and a teacher of Liszt, debuted at the age of nine playing piano in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, and played the premiere of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1806, making him an important historical figure if he never wrote a note. He wrote plenty of notes for piano, much of which is foisted on students for practice purposes, and nothing could be better conceived to keep someone’s music off of concert programs by adults. But after recently exploring his orchestral music I was surprised to be quite impressed with his Symphony No. 5 in E minor, which was never performed in his lifetime and discovered among his papers only after his death at the age of 66 in 1857, 30 years after Beethoven passed.
Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), a student of Beethoven who became his friend and biographer, was so closely associated with the master that the knock on his own music was always that it sounded like warmed-over Beethoven. Sometimes it does, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Ries was, like Beethoven, born in Bonn, and the young Beethoven had had lessons from Ries’ father. They stuck together in Vienna. They had a blow-up at a rehearsal for the “Eroica” Symphony but it appears to have been a one-time thing. Ries, before and after that incident, acted as Beethoven’s copyist and represented him with publishers. Ries concertized in Copenhagen, Stockholm and St. Petersburg and then spent 11 years in London. Peter Salomon, the same man who brought Haydn to London, promoted Ries there. While in London, Ries married wealth and became a board member of the London Philharmonic, and appears to have played a role in getting Beethoven the commission for the Ninth Symphony. All but two of Reis’ eight symphonies were composed in London. He and his family later toured Europe, especially Italy and France, but while traveling he fell from public notice and died forgotten at 53 in 1838.
Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was born in Genoa and was a touring violinist only in Italy until an 1813 concert at Milan’s La Scala brought him wider fame. In 1828 he toured beyond Italy for the first time and amazed everyone, including Liszt, who vowed to become a Paganini of the piano, and Chopin, who began composing etudes. In 1834 he ended his touring career and returned to Italy. He tried launching a casino but it failed and that failure cost him his fortune. A number of physical ailments caught up with him on a trip to France and he died at 57. Paganini composed numerous sonatas before 1809, 15 guitar quartets throughout his life, the “Witches’ Dance” in 1813, a violin concerto in 1816 and two more a decade later and a fourth in 1830. His famous 24 caprices were done not later than 1818. But because he didn’t tour beyond Italy until Beethoven was gone, he qualifies as a contemporary only in a technical sense. Paganini will be represented by his variations on a song from “Moses in Egypt,” an opera by Rossini (1792-1888), who was famous from 1812 and staged “Moses” in Naples in 1818 and, in revised form, in Paris in 1827.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): The youngest of this group, Schubert was born and raised in Vienna and lived most of his life there. He was not unknown but neither was he a celebrity, making it all the more astonishing that he is the only one of this entire group now seen as being in the top rank of composers with his idol Beethoven. Schubert did get a couple symphonies performed in his lifetime, but mostly wrote songs and chamber works for social gatherings of his circle of friends.
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