We are continuing our series on the viola repertoire with Carl Stamitz’s viola concerto.
Violists tend to take a lot of grief. There are the jokes about how the first-seat violist in an orchestra is actually just the beginning of the list of people who didn’t make it into the back of the violin section. (There are even websites full of viola jokes – http://www.ahajokes.com/viola.html). There is the plethora of music – particularly Baroque-era music – that gives the viola the exceedingly boring role of holding drone notes while the violins carry the melody. There’s the fact that most people haven’t even heard of any compositions written for the viola. And much more. It is therefore only fitting that we hear at least once in this series from one of the least well-known, rarely-performed composers in all of classical music.
The relative obscurity of Carl Stamitz was most likely due to the fact that he was primarily a conductor, not a composer. His primary contribution to music, aside from the viola concerto you’ll hear, is the popularization of the modern symphonic form. The Stamitz family was a wealthy and reputable family in the music world of the 19th century, and they invested their money and influence in the development of the symphonic form that they liked best. Carl alone wrote over 100 symphonies in their preferred style. He was the first composer to utilize the idea of a crescendo and a diminuendo – the gradual increasing or decreasing of the loudness of the music – rather than the standard Baroque procedure of strict transitions from loud to soft. The Stamitz family was also responsible for introducing the clarinet into the orchestra, from which it had been previously excluded. (Some, including myself, would argue that it still should be excluded, along with its cousin the oboe, on account of its mortifying resemblance to the quacking of an irate waterfowl). Despite these significant contributions to the repertoire, the Stamitz family legacy is practically nonexistent today.
It is therefore no surprise that this concerto has a very symphonic feel and begins with a clarinet melody. The opening theme, with its broad, sweeping expanses of sound, point to Stamitz’s medium of choice. However, the work is unique in that it blends the characteristics of the early Classical period with a taste of the Romantic period. For instance, the opening melody is almost Mozartian in its giddiness, lightness, and airy energy; yet when the viola enters it brings with it a somber richness that is unmistakably Romantic in flavor. The soloist performs a virtuosic cadenza – a signature characteristic of the early Classical era – but the orchestra responds with a lengthy Romantic-era exposition of its own. Listen for these changes in style and see if you can hear the differences between the Classical-era motifs (Mozart-ish lightness) and the Romantic-era motifs (Brahms-like richness).