Withstanding the Texts of Time

November 30, 2017

They once were considered a big deal. They were part of an earlier wave of “hand-held” devices, you could say.  And they’re still around too, though you don’t see folks totally engrossed in them while walking around or using them while driving.

You’re probably familiar with those label-makers with which you could personalize all of your belongings by embossing one by one the letters of your name onto a thin plastic strip with an adhesive backing. It was as simple as selecting each letter or character from those on a plastic dial on the gadget and squeezing the handle.

When they were introduced, it became fashionable to attach labels to all sorts of items. You might call it the texting of its time, though the communication seemed to be limited to informing others of what something was, what belonged where or to whom it belonged.

Sadly, the labels didn’t always stay in place. But amazingly, some of those that were pressed out once upon a time continue to live happily ever after.

What does this have to do with classical music?  Well, let’s just say it all came to mind recently with the birthday anniversaries of 2 individuals in the history of music whose legends live on in labels.

November 2nd marked the 265th anniversary of the birth of an amateur violinist and patron of the arts who has gotten top billing over the centuries without ever having written a note.  Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky (1752-1836) was the Russian ambassador in Vienna in the time of Beethoven. There are 3 string quartets by Beethoven (op. 59), which were commissioned by Razumovsky and which have come to be known as the “Razumovsky Quartets.”  That name has been as firmly attached to the quartets as the opus number. And in 1995, a recording orchestra based in Bratislava borrowed the name and is known as the Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra.

Beethoven’s music has long been the object of “labeling.”  The composer himself called his 6th symphony the “Pastoral” and one of his piano bagatelles “Für Elise.”  Beethoven’s contemporary, the Berlin-born poet Ludwig Rellstab once said that the opening of Beethoven’s 14th piano sonata reminded him of the moon over Lake Lucerne. Since that time, the sonata has been referred to as the “Moonlight.” 

Beethoven’s Sonata no. 9 for piano and violin (better known as the “Kreutzer Sonata”) was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never played it.  He called it “outrageously unintelligible.” Yet his name is immortalized along with the work – and not that of George Bridgetower, the violinist for whom it was written and who gave the premiere performance with Beethoven. They had a falling out after the premiere, which led to Kreutzer’s being selected for the dedication.

If you peel off the “Kreutzer” label from the sonata, you not only eliminate a legendary title from the history of classical music, but from world literature as well. Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote a novella titled The Kreutzer Sonata, named for the sonata, which is an important element in the story. Composer Leoš Janáček went on to write a string quartet inspired by Tolstoy, which he subtitled The Kreutzer Sonata. And there are films, a famous painting and a stage work all using that title.

Publishers could have gone wild affixing the name of Beethoven’s friend, pupil and patron, the Archduke Rudolf, to all the works the composer dedicated to him, including the Missa Solemnis (Mass) and Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5 (which came to be known as the “Emperor Concerto”). Yet the nickname “Archduke” has “stuck” to only one of those: the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello in B flat, op. 97, which is commonly referred to as the “Archduke Trio.” 

But back to Razumovsky’s birthday, November 2nd.  It was also the 325th birthday anniversary of a Dutch nobleman, diplomat and amateur musician by the name of Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, born 60 years before Razumovsky in 1692.  He wrote 6 concertos that for well over 2 centuries wore the name tag of the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Pergolesi lived only 20 years, but enjoyed quite a bit of posthumous fame.  That resulted in all sorts of works suddenly showing up with his name on them, presumably to cash in on his popularity.

According to violinist/conductor Roy Goodman, Wassanaer wanted to keep the 6 concertos he wrote for musical evenings with friends and associates anonymous, since composing music would have been considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman back then. One of his musical friends published the works under his name and before long, the concertos turned up with various composers’ names like Handel and Pergolesi.

The finale of the 2nd of Wassenaer’s concertos found its way into Igor Stravinsiky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella. In the ballet, it’s a tarantella, though it wasn’t a tarantella in Wassenaer’s concerto. When Stravinsky worked with the composition, it still was under Pergolesi’s name. It was only in 1979 that the autograph manuscript was discovered, proving that Wassanaer had written the concerto. 

It may take time for Wassenaer’s name to replace Pergolesi’s. That’s a lesson you may have learned from those label-making devices.  It wasn’t always easy to remove those thin plastic labels with just a fingernail. You could get anything from a nasty pinch to a painful puncture of the skin if the label was firmly in place.

Perhaps it was a mildly painful situation when the ensemble known as Les Musiciens du Louvre (The Musicians of the Louvre) decided to move from Paris, where it formed 35 years ago, having taken its name from the largest museum in the world. In 1996, the group relocated in Grenoble to merge with the Ensemble Instrumental de Grenoble. They kept their name, though sometimes you’ll notice they’ve simply added another right alongside, calling themselves: Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble.

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