Friedrich Kuhlau by Jens Cornelius
Kuhlau was Danish music’s most cosmopolitan personality at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He had a wide network abroad, and as a great admirer of Beethoven he fought for new tones in Danish musical life.
In human terms, too, Kuhlau stood out from the crowd; and not only because he was a German who never learned to speak Danish, and only had one eye. He was a restless soul who did not fit naturally into the small, homogeneous Copenhagen elite to which his audiences and patrons belonged. Instead he preferred to live outside the capital.
If one reads through the ambiguous circumlocutions of the age the picture emerges of a warm, vital, but not very conformist man with a liking for jovial company, tobacco and wine – indeed something of an alcoholic. Like his model Beethoven Kuhlau never married, or as cryptically remarked in a commemorative speech after his death: “He lacked many of the relationships and motives that are most congenial and encouraging to mankind. Music was his truest, almost his only female companion through the reefs of life”.
Kuhlau was born in 1786 in the northern German town of Uelzen. As a boy he lost his right eye in an accident, but this did not prevent him from aspiring to a future as a musician. As early as his teenage years he was active as a pianist and had his first compositions published.
In 1806 Kuhlau went to Hamburg, where he studied with the strict cantor Schwencke, but that same year the city was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. In 1810, when the young men of the city began to be conscripted into the French army, Kuhlau left the danger zone and travelled to Copenhagen. The next year he made his debut as a pianist in a concert at the Royal Danish Theatre and was well received as an intriguing messenger from the Continent.
For generations Danish musical life had been dependent on immigrants and guests from the south. In 1813 Kuhlau too was granted Danish citizenship and the honorary title of Royal Court Musician with the duty of writing official cantatas and an opera every second year. These included epoch-making works in Danish music – the operas Røverborgen (The Robbers’ Castle), Lulu and especially the music for the national play Elverhøj (The Elf-Hill) which has over the years been performed over 1000 times at the Royal Theatre. The Elverhøj music is based on Danish and Swedish ballads and became the clearest indication of a new national-romantic ideal in Danish culture.
In short, Kuhlau was one of the leading figures in what posterity has dubbed the Danish Golden Age: the first half of the nineteenth century when the arts and sciences saw intense development, in stark contrast with the stagnating absolutism and general impoverishment of the country.
Abroad, on the other hand, Kuhlau has passed into history as a flute composer. “The Beethoven of the flute” is the rather derogatory label that has stuck to him. Because he was never given a permanent salaried position that matched his format, he had to exploit the fact that he could effortlessly write large quantities of high-quality music for the flute, the fashionable instrument of the time. Kuhlau himself was not a flautist – a rumour that was already current in his own lifetime, but as he said, “I play this instrument very little, but I know it thoroughly”.
The flute music and the iconic national-romantic works have both overshadowed Kuhlau’s other production. He was a highly prolific composer who besides his theatrical works also wrote piano music, violin sonatas and a masterly string quartet which according to plan was to be one of six. And then there are the three piano quartets, of which the first two are recorded here.
© Jens Cornelius, 2015
Piano Quartets 1 & 2 by Toke Lund Christiansen
“He’ll end up writing his reputation away”. This is how bombastically Kuhlau’s contemporary composer colleague C.E.F. Weyse described Kuhlau’s productivity, and it is true that Kuhlau’s pen seldom lay idle. But Weyse may have been right in implying that Kuhlau’s creativity moved at several levels of intensity. He wrote an easy-flowing succession of piano works, many of which are aimed directly at the amateur pianists of the time, and almost as many works (about 60 in all) had flautists all over Europe as their buyers. Kuhlau was constantly corresponding with the leading music publishers of the age. They ordered, and he delivered. Kuhlau would have preferred to concentrate on major chamber works, but the publishers put pressure on him to supply the most easily marketable music. “He can scribble down six flute duets in as many days”. That’s how dismissively it could be put – in this case in fact in a direct remark to Beethoven when Kuhlau was introduced to the maestro in Baden outside Vienna. Beethoven was almost deaf, and the remark has survived in Beethoven’s conversation book for that late summer’s day in 1825. But Beethoven gave Kuhlau a fine reception, and they developed a brief but intense friendship; undoubtedly the greatest moment in Kuhlau’s life, for Beethoven along with Haydn and Mozart were his greatest models, whether he was writing for two flutes or for one of the most challenging ensembles of Classicism and Romanticism: the piano quartet.
Kuhlau’s piano parts in all three of his piano quartets are demanding and virtuosic and testify that Kuhlau himself was an extremely competent pianist who in his very young years often presented himself as a piano soloist. In Copenhagen he made his debut in a Beethoven work, the quintet for piano and four winds in E flat major, opus 16.
In 1820 Kuhlau had drawn up his plan: in the course of the winter he would compose three piano quartets, and in December he offered them to the publisher Härtel in Leipzig. At first, though, he only managed to compose the first in C minor. He sent it to Härtel at the beginning of March 1821, and a few days later he embarked on a journey abroad that lasted most of a year, and which took in visits to Vienna, Munich Leipzig and Hamburg. The second piano quartet, in A major, opus 50, may have been composed during the journey, but perhaps more likely after his return. The quartet was composed the year after Schubert’s A major quintet, D 667, ‘The Trout’, but it must be considered highly doubtful that Kuhlau met Schubert or heard his music in Vienna. Kuhlau’s A major quartet was not published, as originally planned, by Härtel, but in 1823 by Simrock in Bonn – a publisher Kuhlau later accused of lying about payments, specifically in the case of the A major quartet. The publisher claimed to have made a loss on the publication, but Kuhlau rejected the claim with the argument that the quartet was sold by music dealers all over Europe. “By the music dealer Lose [in Copenhagen] alone ... how many copies went through his hands?”
Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major Op. 50 was written in one of the most productive periods of Kuhlau’s life. It was flanked by other major works such as the three quintets for flute and four strings, opus 51, and Kuhlau’s masterpiece in the opera genre, Lulu. The quartet is dedicated to Kuhlau’s pupil and friend Anton Keyper (1796-1861), an able ‘musical amateur’, who also sometimes assisted his teacher with simple arrangement tasks.
The quartet begins with a first movement that is as generous with its length as with its originality and energy. The main subject is presented first in the piano and then in the strings; the second subject has an almost Schubertian sweetness as it moves through each of the strings in turn, only to be taken over by the piano. As in Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ sonata in A major (1803), this is followed by Kuhlau with an F major movement, an Adagio, in the form of an air with among other things pizzicato accompaniment, which is followed by a Scherzo, Presto. This is the first time Kuhlau expands the sonata form to span four movements. The Scherzo in A minor is rhythmically supple, in a constant alternation between 3/4 and a reinterpretation as 2/4 (hemiolas). Surely Schumann knew this Scherzo and re-used the idea in his E flat major piano quintet (1842)? The trio section in Kuhlau is a Ländler in F major. The rest of the Scherzo leads on, accelerando. to a kind of leaping dance. The final movement, Allegro molto, is ingenious and humorous in its themes. Here Kuhlau demonstrates his contrapuntal mastery and the refined ear for harmony that one has to go to the greatest composers of the age to match.
The A major quartet was already performed several times during Kuhlau’s lifetime, and surely this is the work we see on the music stand in Wilhelm Marstrand’s famous oil painting A Musical Evening at Waagepetersen the Wine Merchant’s? The painting was done two years after Kuhlau’s death, and pays tribute to the composer, whose portrait hangs on the wall behind Weyse seated at the piano with the three strings.
Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor Op. 32 is dedicated to the composer Andreas Romberg (1767-1821). Kuhlau and Romberg probably knew each other from their younger years in Hamburg, where Romberg played the violin in the orchestra of the Hamburg Opera from 1793, and until 1815 was a central figure in the musical life of the city. The idea of ‘models’ takes on a special meaning in connection with the piano quartet in C minor. Kuhlau often quite consciously used works for which he had a high regard as models for his compositions. He was himself responsible for the content and development of the music, but the formal scheme and certain melodic turns of phrase were often borrowed, not least from Mozart and Beethoven, and used as starting points for the composition.
The introduction to the first movement, Allegro, borrows its thematic material from Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, which is also in C minor. The piano is so soloistically disposed, with sparkling semiquaver figures, that it tends towards the piano concerto. The movement is expansive and has the same length as the next two movements together. The second movement, Adagio, in A major, has an inward, cantabile feel. Particularly notable is the A flat minor section where the piano’s dotted theme variation and a pizzicato cello accompany a melancholy duet of violin and viola. The energetic third movement, with a restless, searching first subject, soon progresses, first to a fugato passage and then to a regular fugue. The fugue and canon techniques were disciplines in which Kuhlau was a true master. All over Europe Kuhlau’s canonic legerdemain was known, Beethoven joking called him “der grosse Kanonier”. The movement culminates in a captivating C major coda section.
© Toke Lund Christiansen, 2015