The romanticism came from the East

The romanticism came from the East

This was the title (rather provocative and controversial, I agree) of one of my concerts in the 90s. After years of playing early romantic music, I am convinced that the piano music of this period was greatly influenced by Slavonic musicians and their folk music.

During the 18th century many talented Italian musicians were admired and demanded everywhere. Yet at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century their role was take over by not less talented Czech musicians. We can name Myslivecek, the only foreigner to make a career in Italy, the Benda family in Germany, Reicha in Paris, Pratch in Russia, Jivny in Warsaw, Dussek – the travelling virtuoso, and an army of Czech musicians in Vienna – among them Stepan, Vanhal, Kozeluch, Gyrovetz, Gelinek, Vitasek, Vorisek, Czerny, Maschek…

The Czech as well as the entire Slavonic folk music is very rich melodically, this can be heard in the Slavonic compositions of any period. Without doubt, Schubert (who lived all his life in Vienna,) was influenced by his Czech surroundings, as he was, for example, by Vorisek, whose Impromptus (1822) served as an inspiration for Schubert’s own Impromptus. But already Vorisek’s 12 Rhapsodies op.1 (1818) show romantic elements, to begin with the title. There is a wonderful recording of his complete piano works by V. Kvapyl:

The Czech Ivan Pratch, correctly Jan Bohumir Prac (1750?-1818) worked in Russia as a clavichord master and music teacher. His two volumes of Russian folk songs, published in 1790 together with N. Lvov, are an important contribution to the Russian music history. Many of these songs were later reused by well-known Russian and Western European composers: in operas of Mussorgski and Rimskij-Korsakov, in the string quartets of Beethoven (e.g. op.59) and in the works of Rossini. Also his is the merit of publishing the first Russian piano school. Pratch’s music is completely forgotten today and difficult to find, but his chamber and piano works were known and played in the first part of the 19th century. Just a curiosity: Doesn’t the beginning of his Funeral march sound a bit familiar?

It is widely considered, even in Poland, that there are no valuable Polish piano composers before Chopin. Yet some of these “nonexistent”, “not valuable” contributed to the development of the romantic piano music sufficiently enough to be named. At the eve of the 19th century the musicians in the eastern countries began to be conscious of their national musical patrimony. Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838), Haydn’s pupil, was very popular and active in Warsaw before he withdrew from the musical life. Josef Elsner considered him even to be a genius. Very often in his compositions Lessel used the folks songs of his country. Isn’t his piano concerto (1813) a forecast for Chopin’s concertos? Judge it by yourself – with an example from the 3rd movement:

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Josef Kurpinski (1785-1857) was not especially a piano composer, but some of his piano polonaises show already harmonic and melodic lines close to Chopin. The polonaises were composed for an orchestra and played at the evening concerts. Very shortly after, sometimes already the next day they would appear at the music shops as a piano transcription.

The women composers and musicians in France being an exception, there are only few female composers in this century in Europe. Of course, there were many excellent women amateurs, especially in the upper social class. They were allowed to play and be admired in the salons, but not to choose the music as a profession. It is this way that started Maria Szymanowska’s (1796-1837) later musical career, when she toured Europe. She composed exclusively for the piano and Chopin was well acquainted with her compositions. Impressive are her 20 preludes, played by herself on many of the European tours.

The older Polish edition presents only a few of them. Fortunately they have been published recently by another edition – here.

(to be continued…)

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