Symphonie in C minor
Joseph Martin Kraus
Length: 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Kraus was but one of the legion of talented late 18th-century central European composers - his brothers-in-arms included Dittersdorf, Reichardt, Naumann, C.P.E. Bach, and Michael Haydn - defeated on the battlefield of popular memory by Haydn and Mozart. Usually, when orchestras decide to program something from the classical period, they turn to those two stalwarts. The opportunity to hear from Kraus not only enriches our understanding of the musical context in which Haydn and Mozart worked, but also dusts off an accomplished symphony that deserves a more secure place in the repertory.
Kraus was born in the middle of Germany, in the town of Miltenberg, just south of Frankfurt on the Main River. He studied law, but had to drop out of university in 1775 to help defend his father, a local-level bureaucrat, from charges of corruption. Kraus returned to his law studies a year later in the Lower Saxon university town of Göttingen, where he fell in with a band of young Sturm und Drangers. These partisans of the "Storm and Stress" movement in German literature and music marched under the banner "back to nature," not in the sense that composers and writers stopped washing their hair and wore clothes made out of hemp, but rather that they strove for authentic, unforced - and thus natural - emotional expression in their works. In literature, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther marked the movement's culmination. Musically, Sturm und Drang meant passionate, almost violent, outbursts, lots of writing in minor keys, an irresistible rhythmic drive, and a general rawness of sentiment undiluted by classical good manners, all traits that dominate Kraus' Symphony in C minor.
In 1775, before he composed his Symphony, Kraus wrote a treatise explaining how to adapt the ideas of Sturm und Drang to music. In 1778, he moved to Stockholm, hoping to gain employment at the court of Gustavus III, the Swedish monarch. Gustavus was a great patron of music and the arts - he built the Dröttningholm Court Theater, the charming, intimate opera house where Ingmar Bergman filmed his version of Mozart's Magic Flute - and Verdi fans might recognize him as the king who gets assassinated in Un ballo in maschera. To test the young composer, Gustavus sketched an opera libretto and asked Kraus to set it. The work pleased the king, who hired Kraus as his deputy director of music (Kapellmästre) and sent him on a five-year tour of Europe. Kraus' goal, from the outset, was to get to Vienna and meet the composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck, a pilgrimage the young composer finally made in 1783. The Symphony in C minor was performed in the Austrian capital during that visit, and Haydn was so impressed that he took the work back to Eszterháza for more performances.
Gluck casts a long shadow over Kraus' Symphony. Gluck's music had such a profound effect on composers such as Kraus because of its monumentality and its austerity, which sometimes bordered on severity. The first movement, especially, breathes the same classical air as Gluck's overture to Iphigénie en Aulide, one of his operas that attempted to strip away the frippery of Italian opera seria, with its castrati and vocal fireworks, and return to the essence of Greek tragedy.
Kraus' Symphony only took on these classical dimensions after a process of thorough revision and recomposition. The work started life as a Symphony in C-sharp minor, conceived on a chamber scale by Kraus during his first few years in Stockholm, sometime before 1781. The unexpected expressive twists and turns of the C-sharp-minor work place it squarely in the Sturm und Drang tradition. These are smoothed out in the C-minor Symphony. From the agitated, unstable thematic fragments that characterize the earlier work, Kraus developed long-breathed themes that unfold at an almost epic (at least for the 18th century) pace. Kraus also replaced the flutes of the original with oboes, doubled the number of horns, and removed the tinkling harpsichord continuo, giving the orchestra a darker, weightier sonority. Finally, he suppressed the third movement, a brief minuet without the proper trio a Viennese audience would have expected.
The work that emerged from these revisions is full of the turbulent passion one would expect from a student of the Sturm und Drang and, at the same time, makes the kinds of monumental gestures that mark Kraus as a devoted Gluck worshiper. We find the former in the tumultuous first theme of the opening movement's allegro and in the pulsating accompaniment that recurs throughout the finale, giving the movement its unstable atmosphere. The slow unfolding of the first movement's larghetto introduction and the dignified second-movement andante both display Kraus' debt to Gluck.
The Symphony in C minor was well-known to musicians at the end of the 18th century. It was published by Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1797 and performed at the Gewandhaus (the city's famous concert hall) in 1817. Unfortunately, Kraus didn't live long enough to see these successes or to consolidate his reputation through further triumphs; he died of tuberculosis in 1792, at the age of 36.
— John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. His research looks at the political, social, and cultural importance of opera in Berlin between 1740 and 1806.