Juliet’s Tomb and Beethoven’s Quartet

Beethoven never wanted his string quartets to have a programmatic nature, as some other composers had been given their own works.  But years after being published, a story came to light that expressed Beethoven’s love of the work of William Shakespeare.

As part of our upcoming If Music Be the Food of Love concert featuring chamber music inspired by Shakespeare, we’d have been remiss to leave out Beethoven’s small nod to his enjoyment of Romeo and Juliet in the String Quartet Op 18 No 1.

While sketching some striking passages near the end of the second movement, Beethoven jotted down references to Romeo and Juliet, curiously in French. He writes these words for successive musical phrases: “il prend le tmobeau,” “dese[s]poir,” “il se tue,” and “les dernier soupirs,” thus depicting Romeo at Juliet’s tomg: his arrival, his despair, his suicide, and the last sighs.  Reflecting Beethoven’s love of Shakespeare, these allusions are confirmed by a remark attributed to Karl Amenda, Beethoven’s close friend and the recipient of the first version of the quartet.  Amenda reported that when he hear Beethoven play this slow movement (presumably at the piano), Amenda said, “It pictured for me two lovers parting,” whereupon Beethoven said, “Good! I was thinking of the burial vault scene of Juliet.”

Though he shared these insights with his friend, he did not include the references in the printed score, showing his reluctance to provide explicit literary programs for his string quartets.

Join the SSO Chamber Ensemble on February 3rd to hear this beautiful work.

Milhaud’s Creation of the World

In the 1920’s, Darius Milhaud was part of an avant-garde group of French composers designated by the music critic Henri Collet as “Les Six.” This association was loose to say the least, and not unified, as The Mighty Five had been in Russia in a single mission. Sometimes they did collaborate with one another, but generally each composer was independent. The whole set only collaborated once on a set of piano pieces known as L’Album des Six. What they all agreed upon was to “refresh” French music with new artistic perspectives.

According to Milhaud, “Collet chose six names absolutely arbitrarily, those of Auric, Durey, Honegger, Poulenc, Tailleferre and me simply because we knew each other and we were pals, and appeared on the same musical programs, no matter if our temperaments and personalities were not all the same. Auric and Poulenc followed ideas of Cocteau, Honegger follower German Romanticism, and myself Mediterranean lyricism.” (Benjamin Ivry in Francis Poulenc).

Les Six socialized frequently, especially at the Gaya Bar, where Milhaud liked to hear Jean Wiener play “negro music” in a popular style. Black exoticism in dance and music was embraced by in-the-know Parisians. During the jazz age in Paris this music was often labeled “le tumult noir (the black noise).”

Wiener was also a composer who had a particular fondness for “the blues” and “hot American energy.” In his own works and concerts, he was a steady promoter of jazz. The new American sound was attractive to European tastes, even though it smacked of populism and a certain uneducated quality. In Der Steppenwolf, the main character expressed the jazz effect;“This kind of music, has always had a certain charm for me…Jazz was repugnant to me, and yet ten times preferable to all the academic music of the day… its raw and savage gaiety reached an underworld of instinct and breathed a simply, honest sensuality… Unblushingly negroid, it had the mood of childlike happiness.”

Milhaud was fascinated by American jazz and credited the (American) Billy Arnold’s Novelty Jazz Band as having introduced him to jazz when he heard them during his visit to London in 1920. He was particularly drawn to the freedoms of jazz and its rhythms. “Their constant use of syncopation in the melody was done with such contrapuntal freedom as to create the impression of an almost chaotic improvisation, whereas in fact, it was something remarkably precise.” In 1922 he came to New York and listened to many genres of jazz, paid close attention to the ensembles, and wrote musical sketches.

By the time Milhaud wrote his music for the ballet La création du monde 1923, he was writing for a well-established popular taste. The ballet references African creation myths taken from Blaise Cendrar’s Anthologie negre. Leonard Bernstein summarized: “The Creation of the World emerges not as a flirtation but as a real love affair with jazz.” Milhaud explained, “This is a work making wholesale use of the jazz style to convey a purely classical feeling.”

The ballet has five parts …

1. Chaos before Creation: slow and mysterious, gradually growing in intensity. Listen for elements of polytonality and the soft closure.

2. Lifting darkness and creation of trees, plants, insects, birds and beasts: jazzy solos for flute, oboe, and horn. Life and the making of it is an exhilarating and delicate process.

3. Man and woman are created: increase of movement and excitement, exuberant.

4. The desire of man and woman: beautiful seduction music from clarinet.

5. The kiss: a beautiful conclusion, introduced quietly by oboe, a bit of excitement, followed by softly fluttering flutes with a tender goodbye from the saxophone.

Ravel’s Jazzy Concerto

The works on this concert remind us that it didn’t take long for jazz to become the global music it is today. When jazz emerged around 1915—the word first appeared in a San Francisco sports column to describe a wild curve ball—it referred most often to dance music that was particularly “hot,” definitively southern, and unabashedly creole. Like the creole spoken in New Orleans, jazz was a second-generation language, merging African-American, Caribbean, and white dance styles. By the 1920s, jazz was also the soundtrack of urban modernity, still absorbing musical languages into a patois that now included French neoclassicism alongside instrumental and songwriting styles from the south side of Chicago to New York’s Tin Pan Alley and Harlem. “Symphonic jazz” like you will hear this evening was meant to open a conversation between jazz and classical music, although many rejected the term and its implication that the “symphonic” part should come first. Jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington had always heard and responded to classical music—it was the “long hair” composers who were just now figuring out jazz. Nonetheless, with the ambitiously named “Experiment in Modern Music,” held in New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924, conductor Paul Whiteman laid out his case for the role of jazz in the formation of a new symphonic music. The program culminated in the premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and the ripples from that performance spread all the way to Paris and back. Tonight’s program ends with Rhapsody in Blue (there really is nothing that could follow it), and each of the other three works has traces of its influence.

The most familiar version of Rhapsody in Blue is not just Gershwin’s work, but is also the product of Ferde Grofé’s arrangement (heard at the premiere and in most orchestral performances today). It was Grofé who filled in many of the distinctive timbres and colors we associate with the piece. There have been countless other versions of the Rhapsodyover the years, including an arrangement for banjo octet that George’s brother Ira said he would “like to hear once and then promptly forget.” Duke Ellington also periodically rearranged Gershwin’s piece for his own jazz band through the 1920s and 1930s, and many of us may remember hearing the “love theme” from the Rhapsody as the soundtrack to United Airlines commercials in the 1980s. (This excerpt still plays in the underground walkway in Terminal 1 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, a United hub.) Each of these versions attests not only to the skills of arrangers, but also to the durability of the themes Gershwin crafted for the Rhapsody. All based on the blues scale and each related to the opening notes of his song “The Man I Love,” the themes of the Rhapsody are still as diverse in character as they are recognizable. The “ritornello” theme appears the most frequently, introduced first in the opening clarinet cadenza and then closing out the work in a grand statement from the whole orchestra. The “train,” “stride,” and “shuffle” themes (appearing in that order) borrow from jazz piano styles from Gershwin’s era and immediately conjure the hustle and bustle of New York’s streets and subways. This verve is contrasted by the sweeping love theme (eventually coopted by United) which one suspects began its life as an attempt at an actual love song, probably consigned to the un-used pile until it could be finished or re-purposed. In fact, most of themes were likely “trunk songs” of this kind, which Gershwin then strung together, forming a series of piano cadenzas with connecting material from the orchestra. The work hangs together not because of any “symphonic” development, but because of the shared jazz vocabulary of the themes: blues-based harmonies, syncopation and energetic rhythm, call-and-response gestures, improvisatory character, and an affinity with popular song. Many of these characteristics, as well as the loose episodic form typical to theatrical genres, whether ballet or the Broadway revue, can be heard in the symphonic jazz that followed in Gershwin’s wake.

Like Gershwin, Jacques Ibert prized variety in his music and often gravitated toward the theater. His Suite symphonique: “Paris” (1930) provides an almost cinematic panorama of Paris in the jazz age, from its suburban parks to its urban thoroughfares. As with the Rhapsody, there are motoric passages—as in “The Metro” and “The Steamship Île-de-France”—that depict the machinery of modernity. Many composers of the interwar period were fascinated with planes, trains, and automobiles, and jazz seemed like it could capture their kinetic energy, albeit with a more ominous tone in Ibert’s music. These two movements and “The Restaurant au Bois de Boulogne” also feature orchestral sound effects—chiming signal bells, the rumble of a train, or a car horn—that recall Gershwin. In fact, the first movement features several brief quotes from American in Paris, albeit cleverly disguised by a darker minor-mode harmony. The fourth movement, however, is Ibert’s own impression of the way in which American popular song and dance music like the Charleston and foxtrot had infiltrated the cafes and cabarets of Paris and melded with the waltzes and mélodies already popular there.

Maurice Ravel and Ibert also share some harmonic affinities with jazz, like the prevalence of extended chords and the blurred distinction between major and minor triads heard in both the blues and in modernist language like Stravinsky’s. For Ravel, however, this harmonic language stemmed from the music of Mozart and Saint-Saëns, and he valued clarity of line as much as he did the striking juxtapositions of jazz harmony. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that his Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31) stays closer to classical concerto form and style than Gershwin’s Rhapsody. In the first movement, Ravel uses the blues as the more lyrical counterpoint to a bubbling first theme. Like Gershwin, Ravel aims for a piano tour-de-force, where the virtuosity of a jazz improvisation and a concerto overlap, but within the more traditional context of a modified sonata form. After a hazy developmental section, the cadenza halfway through the first movement sounds as if it might just as easily fly from the fingers of an Art Tatum or a Bud Powell as from a Mozart or a Chopin. Gershwin hovers over this cadenza, too, as there is the briefest flicker of the “ritornello” theme from the Rhapsody in Blue. The second movement is a slow, sentimental waltz, equal parts Tin Pan Alley and French melodie. The last movement is a quick sprint to the finish, as if the pianist were trying to outrun the orchestra.

The strongest response to the call of Rhapsody in Blue, however, was William Grant Still’s symphonic poem Darker America. Also premiered in Aeolian Hall in November of 1924, Still’s attempt to speak in both symphonic and jazz languages was received more coldly than Gershwin’s. This is perhaps because, as an African American composer, Still was expected to stick mostly to piano music or theatre and band arrangements, like his predecessors Will Marion Cook and Scott Joplin. Still’s music also expanded the dissonance inherent in blues harmonies into a striking chromaticism more typical of his teacher, the French composer Edgard Varèse. There simply was no space in the American imagination for a black modernist. Nevertheless, Still persisted, and Darker America treats the blues to a thorough symphonic development in order to chart a triumphant course “representative of the American Negro.” Still introduces three themes in sequence: the “theme of the American Negro” rises and falls in the strings, the “sorrow” theme echoes from the English horn, and the “hope” theme follows in the brass, accompanied by strings and woodwinds. The long interior section of the work then adapts the strategy of countless symphonies in which musical development is an analogy for struggle or transformation. Fittingly, the call-and-response structure common in African American music, whether the spiritual or jazz, is the primary developmental force at work on these symbolic themes. Still’s journey ends with a “triumph of the people” in which the three themes are blended together. Near the end of this arc, after a dramatic cymbal crash, we hear a majestic theme from the tutti orchestra that bears a striking resemblance to the end of Rhapsody in Blue. It is hard to say if this similarity is a deliberate reference or a result of the shared blues-based vocabulary of Gershwin and Still’s pieces. Either way, Still entered the symphonic jazz conversation with a bilingual, cosmopolitan fluency that challenges us even now.

Godwin Friesen – 2017 Shurniak Concerto Competition

Godwin Friesen made a big impression on the patrons of the SSO in the fall of 2016 when he was on stage with Thomas Yu to play Saint Saens Carnival of the Animals – and then a few months later he won the Shurniak Concerto Competition!

The Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra partners with the Saskatchewan Music Festival Association to present the winners of both the Shurniak Concerto Competition and the Wallis Opera Competition.  This is not only an exciting opportunity to support the exceptional young talents in our province, its proven to be a remarkable stepping stone for emerging Saskatchewan artists.  Past winners of the competitions include Thomas Yu, Lahni Russell, Oxana Ossiptshouk, Samuel Deason, and many more!

Godwin Friesen was born into a home rich with music and quickly realized his own love for composition and performance. He learned a lot as a young singer and multi-instrumentalist in the Friesen Family Band, which recorded three albums and toured across the country. While studying piano with Saskatoon’s Bonnie Nicholson, Godwin placed first at the 2015 National Music Festival and received the national Senior Mary Gardiner Award in Canadian contemporary music. In 2016 he performed Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals with pianist Thomas Yu and the SSO. As winner of the 2017 Shurniak Concerto Competition, he performed Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the RSO in October. Last June, Godwin was one of ten pianists selected to compete in the 2018 PianoArts North American Competition in Milwaukee, where he won the Audience Communication Award. His first composition for orchestra, Pilgrimage, was premiered by the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra last spring. Godwin is a regular keyboardist in worship at Toronto’s C3 Church and Saskatoon’s The Rock. One of his acquired skills—as whimsical as parts of Ravel’s Concerto in G—is juggling five balls. He is currently studying on full-tuition scholarship at The Glenn Gould School in Toronto, under the direction of John O’Conor.

Godwin’s Ravel Concerto is something very special – so we can’t wait for you to hear it live with the SSO this weekend!

Atayoskewin by Malcom Forsyth

Atayoskewin is one of Forsyth’s most frequently-played compositions, and for a good reason: it is a brilliantly scored, imaginative, highly enjoyable evocation of three aspects of the Albertan northland, music that could only have been written by a Canadian.

Forsyth composed his suite Atayoskewin (the Cree word for “sacred legend) in 1984 on commission from Shell Canada to mark the opening of its $1.4 billion Scotford refinery and petrochemical complex northwest of Edmonton. When the Edmonton Symphony under Uri Mayer first performed it on November 16th of that year, the critic of the Edmonton Journal wrote: “I concur with the consensus of audience opinion: gorgeous, wonderful … brilliantly depictive.” The composition won Forsyth the Juno Award for Best Classical Composition in 1987.

The composer explains what he attempted to portray in Atayoskewin: “The inspiration behind this title is something of a mood, a feeling that I had when I made my first-ever trip to northern Alberta during the winter. It was very cold, and I saw this barren land where the tar sands are being developed. It’s a very forbidding land, but it has a kind of majesty which is unmistakable. It’s a very quiet place, and the people who have lived there for so many centuries are a very quiet people, and it somehow is the influence of the place that they’ve lived in.”

Each of the three movements conjures up a mood or image. “The Spirits” opens with the captivating sound of woodwinds and mallet instruments reminiscent of a Balinese gamelan ensemble. The four-note motif featured in the slow introduction will pervade the entire movement in one form or another. A soaring flute solo over harp ostinato sets in motion the main section in which much of the writing features glistening, shimmering effects that reflect Forsyth’s encounter with the “brilliant sunshine and crystalline air” of northern Alberta. Gentle, peaceful thoughts pervade “The Dream.” A repeated, four-note scale pattern in the strings supported by softly glowing chords in the trombones serve as the backdrop for another four-note motif making sporadic appearances in the woodwinds, an idea borrowed from the Fifth Symphony by another composer well familiar with northern climes and landscapes, Sibelius. Brass and percussion (especially timpani and xylophone) come to the fore in “The Dance,” full of spiky melodies, asymmetrical rhythms, pounding drums and exuberant spirits.

credit -Robert Markow

Hear it live with the SSO and guest conductor Gordon Gerrard this weekend!

Ravel’s Tribute to Fallen Friends

This exuberant and elegant orchestral suite was arranged from selected movements of the composer’s original piano version. Three movements (“Forlane,” “Minuet,” and “Rigaudon”) from this orchestration of Le tombeau received a dance interpretation from Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht, Jean Borlin, and Rolf de Maré which was premiered on November 8, 1920, at the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

The Tomb of Couperin was intended by the composer as an homage to eighteenth-century French music, of which a majority of characteristic forms are found in the creations of François Couperin. The “tomb” of the title came to have further resonance; with the outbreak of the First World War, several of Ravel‘s comrades fell in battle, and each movement of the piano work is dedicated to one of them.

The first movement is a “Prelude”, in memory of First Lieutenant Jacques Charlot (transcriber of Ma mère l’oye for piano solo), in a lively triple meter marked Vif. The largely pentatonic theme is taken by the oboe, echoed by the clarinets, and gradually builds to a brief lush texture in the strings. Woodwinds are employed percussively at times, and the bassoons are sometimes combined with low clarinets for reedy timbres. Muted and pizzicato strings with harp harmonics at times form velvety “impressionist” textures that briefly contrast with the clear, pastoral timbres. The piece concludes with a surprising harp glissando into a sustained tremolo on flutes, oboes, and muted strings.

Although the rhythm, sprightly mordents, staccatos alternating with offbeat accents, and structure of the “Forlane”, in memory of First Lieutenant Gabriel Deluc (a Basque painter from Saint-Jean-de-Luz), are the same as the historical dance, Ravel employs major sevenths and chromatics, giving the tune a decided contemporary edge. This dance is lively like the preceding prelude, but has a more earthy feeling and is at a slightly less hectic Allegretto. An unusual touch is the combination of staccato woodwinds with string and harp harmonics.

The “Menuet”, in memory of Jean Dreyfus (at whose home Ravel recuperated after he was demobilized), opens with the theme in the oboe with mostly semi-staccato accompaniment figures and wonderful modal harmonies. The musette theme is scored with cello drone and subtle rhythmic harmonics. Thick, dramatic chords descend over a pedal and introduces the combination of minuet and musette themes.

The fourth movement “Rigaudon”, in memory of Pierre and Pascal Gaudin (two brothers and childhood friends of Ravel, killed by the same shell in November 1914), is in two contrasting sections: an animated dance in C major and a charming pastoral-like C minor oboe melody accompanied by guitar-like pizzicati. The first section is recapitulated for a bright conclusion.

Hear it live with the SSO Saturday, November 10th – click for more information.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock!

Humourist Stephen Leacock gave Canadians an identity at the time that the fairly new country needed a voice that bonded it ocean to ocean.  His writings were honest and captured a moment in time. Leacock found himself troubled by the onset of War – he understood that Canada needed to support the Allied Forces, but he acked for the young men a young country was sending off to war.

In 1914 when a Christmas ceasefire was declared, Leacock felt so moved by the act that he needed to write.  Putting pen to paper he coined a story that was Canada’s Christmas Carol. The story has magically been turned into a chamber opera by Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel and the SSO is thrilled to partner with Saskatoon Opera to co-produce this charming work that reflects on one of Canada’s greatest writers during one of the country’s defining moments.

Known for his gentle satire on small town life, Leacock wrote the short story “Merry Christmas” as his own cry against the horrors of World War I, and the inescapable robbing of innocence that war brings. In a deceptively short tale, he uses the character of Father Christmas, as a symbolic guardian of all our innocence, cruelly turned into a mad, shell-shocked victim of war, to bring his message home. Using a device that pays homage to his favourite author, Charles Dickens, in the classic “A Christmas Carol”, Leacock (himself a character in the drama) is visited by two spirits over the course of one night. These otherworldly visitations will lead to a transformation – one that empowers the author to use his writing as a tool for peace.

Our production of Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock will feature tenor Michael Harris as Leacock, soprano Chelsea Mahan and baritone Janaka Welhinda as the two night visitors.  The production will be directed by Charles Peters and conducted by Maestro Eric Paetkau.


Friday and Saturday, November 23rd and 24th

Quance Theatre at Education Buildling, University of Saskatchewan

Seating is limited – tickets are just $25.

Click for Tickets

Flanders Fields Reflections

As part of our SSO Remembers series, we’re honoured to present a performance of John Burge‘s Flanders Fields Reflections at our November 10th concert.  The concert commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, and John’s piece is a perfect way to capture the emotion of all Canadian’s reflecting on the impact of WWI.

That virtually all Canadian citizens and most English speakers in the Western world will immediately know that this musical work draws its inspiration from John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is a good indication that this is perhaps the most famous poem ever written by a Canadian. Born in Guelph, Ontario, in 1872, Dr. John McCrae died in 1918 at Wimereux, France of pneumonia while on active service as a medical officer with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War I. “In Flanders Fields,” was first published in the magazine, Punch, in 1915, and later appeared posthumously in a small volume of his poetry that bears the same title.

Flanders Fields Reflections is scored for string orchestra and is in five movements, each of which is titled with a phrase taken from the poem. The poem is remarkable in the way that it follows the fixed poetic form of the rondeau (which requires the repetition of the opening phrase at the end of the second and third verses) while expressing the extreme emotional gamut of loss, despair, sacrifice, obligation and hope. When one hears this poem recited at a Remembrance Day service, the words resonate with a depth that is transcendental in its power to convey what Wilfred Owen, another World War I poet, described as, “…the pity of war.” It is this resonance that the composer has tried to capture. At times, the music is literal in its approach, as with the wind effects in the first movement’s, “The Poppies Blow,” or the high, bird-like violin solo in the second movement’s, “Still Bravely Singing.” The middle movement’s, “We Are The Dead,” is captured in a slow funeral march while the final movement conveys the sentiment, “We Shall Not Sleep,” with a melody that keeps returning and an extended series of endings. The work’s most expressive music is found in the fourth movement’s interpretation of “Loved and Were Loved.” These few words represent so vividly, the individual tragedy that is contained within each and every death which is in stark contrast to the numerical tallies of war fatalities that can be summarized all too quickly. In this movement, a simple descending line of six notes is maintained throughout, as if to symbolically show that our search for love is perhaps humanities’ most constant desire. As the poem makes clear, we cannot forget that we are alive and free today because of those who gave up their own lives or loved ones.

The SSO’s audience last heard Burge’s work in the spring of 2017 when the SSO featured his work Four Seasons of the Canadian Flag as part of our all-Canadian concert.

For more information about the concert, or to listen to Flanders Fields Reflections, click here.

Confession Time: I didn’t always love baroque music

Here’s a hot take: baroque music is about to get EXCITING.

Stay with me – I have a confession to make. I didn’t always love baroque music. As a young musician, I joked about baroque being “music to do math by,” and grumbled when my ever-patient teachers tried to impart their passion.

I got on the baroque train only a decade ago, feeling ready to dig a bit deeper. Nothing gets me going like feeling as though I’ve “discovered” new-to-me music! You can have the same experience on October 6, 2018 at Knox United Church, because I’m about to drop another bomb: all but one of the six concerti in this concert were new to the Saskatoon Symphony music library. Even better? The sheet music for the  Stamitz concerto for clarinet (Margaret Wilson) and the Punto concerto for horn (Carol-Marie Cottin) had to be transcribed by hand for this performance because they were unavailable in print. Yeah, you heard me – hot off the presses, new to Saskatoon, and delivered to your ear.

That means unique, fresh performances coming directly to Saskatoon by Saskatoon-based musicians. See? Exciting!

Also new to this series is Veronique Mathieu, violinist and holder of the David L. Kaplan Chair in Music at the University of Saskatchewan. She’s performing the incredible and now beloved Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as well as the Bach oboe and violin concerto, with our principal oboe, Erin Brophey. Veronique is a recent and highly-lauded voice on the Saskatoon scene.

With a program also including the Vivaldi Paris Concerto no. 1 for strings and the Vivaldi Concerto alla Rustica for strings, the audience is sure to experience the kind of music one can imagine featured in the ballrooms of the late 17th and early 18th century that probably melted a few wigs – and tore many a pair of hose. You can anticipate the vigour of danceable movements, the touching lament and whispered confessions of love in every drawn-out chord in the andante movements, and that satisfying sensation of each piece drawing to a close with dramatic resolution.

If you’re not fully stoked yet, please take my word for it as a relatively new fan of baroque music – this will be an evening you won’t want to miss!

Get your tickets today!

From SSO Blogger Michelle Telford

Michelle Telford teams up with the SSO this season to bring a wide range of blog posts – her creative work has focused in the world of opera, recently winning the Musique 3 Femmes Prize as librettist for a work composed by Saskatoon composer Kendra Harder, Book of Faces.  Her custom surtitles have been seen above the stages of many opera productions in Canada.

Who was Giovanni Punto…?

At our October 6th concert Carol Marie Cottin, the SSO’s Principal Horn, will be performing Giovanni Punto’s 5th Concerto for Horn….its the 5th of 16 concertos for horn.  His lasting legacy as a horn composer is undeniable, but Giovanni Punto wasn’t his real name…..in fact he wasn’t even Italian!

Jan Vaclav Stich was born in Žehušice in Bohemia. His father was a serf bonded to the estate of Count Joseph Johann von Thun, but Stich was taught singing, violin and finally the horn. The Count sent him to study horn under Joseph Matiegka in PragueJan Schindelarz in Munich, and finally with A. J. Hampel in Dresden (from 1763 to 1764). Hampel first taught Stich the hand-stopping technique which he later improved and extended.

Stich then returned to the service of the Count, where he remained for the next four years. At the age of 20 Stich and four friends ran away from the estate. The Count, who had invested heavily in Stich’s education, dispatched soldiers with orders to knock out Stich’s front teeth to prevent him ever playing the horn again, but they failed to capture the group, and Stich crossed into Italy, into the Holy Roman Empire.

On arriving in Italy, Stich changed his name to Giovanni Punto (an approximate Italianisation of his name) and went to work in the orchestra of Josef Friedrich Wilhelm, Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. From there he moved to Mainz, to the court orchestra, but left after a few years when they did not give him the post of Konzertmeister. After this he began to travel and play as a soloist, touring much of Europe including England. Charles Burney heard him play in Koblenz in 1772, describing Punto as “the celebrated French horn from Bohemia, whose taste and astonishing execution were lately so applauded in London”.

Punto was particularly active in Paris, playing there 49 times between 1776 and 1788, but his use of hand-stopping was criticized by some in London, possibly due to the novelty of the technique.In 1777, he was invited to teach the horn players in the private orchestra of George III.

Punto also composed pieces to demonstrate his own virtuosity (a common practice then), which indicate that he was a master of quick arpeggios and stepwise passagework.[clarification needed]

In 1778 Punto met Mozart in Paris, after which Mozart reported to his father Leopold that “Punto plays magnifique.” The same year Punto probably entered into an arrangements with some Parisian publishers; nearly all his subsequent compositions were published in Paris, whereas they were previously listed in Breitkopf‘s catalogue. A new horn was also made for him in 1778, a silver cor solo, which he used for the rest of his life.

Punto sought a permanent position in which he could conduct as well as compose and play, and in 1781 he entered the service of Franz Ludwig von Erthal, the Prince-bishop of Würzburg, later moving to become the Konzertmeister (with a pension) for the Comte d’Artois (later to become Charles X of France) in Paris. He was successful enough in this role that in 1787 he was able to secure leave of absence and tour the Rhineland in his own coach, a mark of considerable wealth at the time.

On returning to Paris in 1789 Punto was appointed conductor of the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes, where he remained for ten years, leaving in 1799 when he was not appointed to the staff of the newly founded Paris Conservatoire. Moving on to Vienna via Munich, Punto met Ludwig van Beethoven, who wrote his Op. 17 Sonata for Horn and Piano for the two of them. They premiered the work on 18 April 1800 at the Burgtheater and played the work again the following month in Pest, Hungary.

In 1801, Punto returned to his homeland after 33 years, playing a grand concert on 18 May in the National Theatre in Prague. A reviewer commented that Punto “received enthusiastic applause for his concertos because of his unparalleled mastery, and respected musicians said that they had never before heard horn playing like it”. The reviewer commented on his innovative techniques, noting that “in his cadenzas he produced many novel effects, playing two and even three-part chords”, and added that Punto was evidence that Bohemia was able to produce “great artistic and musical geniuses”.

In 1802, after a short trip to Paris, Punto developed pleurisy, a common illness among wind players. He died five months later on 16 February 1803, being accorded a “magnificent” funeral in the Church of St. Nicholas attended by thousands. Mozart’s Requiem was performed at the graveside.

See this fresh concerto live with Carol Cottin and the SSO on October 6th!