Gaetano Brunetti



The Bourbons came to power in Spain in 1700 and continued to rule the country until ousted by Napoleon in 1808. For more than one hundred years French kings from the house of Anjou held court in Madrid. It was a time of great change not only in Spain but throughout the rest of the world, as overseas colonies were conquered, Enlightenment precepts pursued and, following the bourgeoisie’s growing self-confidence, absolutist monarchies toppled not only in France but elsewhere as well.

Among the Bourbon kings in Madrid were Charles III and his son, the Prince of Asturias, later King Charles IV. The Anjous had extensive possessions in Italy – Charles III grew up in Naples, while his son married Maria Luisa of Parma, who dominated him and ruled his life. Life at court was dictated by Italian customs – much to the displeasure of the Spanish aristocracy and of the populace at large. It teemed with Italian advisers, friends and musicians. It is particularly astonishing that, political, economic and religious upheavals notwithstanding, two such kings were able to create and maintain a courtly enclave of peace and creative endeavour not only for art but above all for music.

Among the instrumentalists and composers who came to the Spanish court from Italy were Domenico Scarlatti, Luigi Boccherini and the castrato Farinelli, who together formed an Italian colony fully capable of holding its own in the face of local musicians. One of the leading and most influential members of this group was Gaetano Brunetti. Recent research allows us to correct a number of earlier misconceptions concerning his date of birth. He was probably born in Fano in 1744. Another Gaetano Brunetti came into the world in Pisa nine years later (i.e., in 1753); it was this Gaetano Brunetti whom Mozart met in Vienna in 1778. One or other of the two Gaetanos studied with the internationally acclaimed violinist Pietro Nardini, who left Italy in 1760 and moved to Vienna, which suggests that his pupil was the elder Gaetano from Fano (then sixteen years old), rather than his namesake from Pisa.

Gaetano Brunetti is first recorded in Madrid in 1762. There is no evidence that he ever left the country thereafter. In this he differs from Luigi Boccherini, who came to Madrid soon after Brunetti and remained there until his death, but who had previously made a name for himself travelling all over Europe.

Brunetti was an upwardly mobile member of the musical circles at court, pursuing a career first as an instrumentalist and latterly as leader of various chamber ensembles and orchestras. Of particular importance for his musical development was his appointment, at the age of twenty-three, as violin teacher of the Prince of Asturias, who was only four years his junior and with whom he remained on terms of close personal friendship throughout the rest of his life. During this time Brunetti wrote several ambitious violin sonatas for the future King Charles IV, all of which reveal his pupil to have been an accomplished violinist.

Shortly after marrying for a second time, Brunetti died on 16 December 1798 either in Madrid or in Colmenar de Oreja near Aranjuez.

The foregoing facts, combined with what we know of the strict rules governing life at court, allow us to draw a twofold conclusion. First, Gaetano Brunetti was perfectly content with his life and with the extensive opportunities afforded to him to lead a carefree, imaginative existence, writing, conducting and performing music under the well-deserved patronage of his employers. (In this he resembles Joseph Haydn at the Esterházy court. ) Second, little was heard of his numerous compositions beyond the confines of the court, since both Charles III and Charles IV saw to it that his works were jealously guarded and placed at the court’s exclusive disposal, with the result that very little could be printed or disseminated in other ways. Only relatively recently has it been possible to gain access to a handful of Brunetti’s 500 works thanks to Newell Jenkins’s pioneering publication of some of his thirty or so symphonies.



These three works are particularly interesting examples of Brunetti’s compositional technique and wealth of imagination. They show that he was fully aware of what was going on in other centres of music in Europe – there was a lively exchange of ideas between Spain and Central Europe at this time – yet they also reveal Brunetti developing an entirely personal and in many respects idiosyncratic style, a style particularly evident in the third movements of his symphonies. Where a minuet would have been expected in a “Classical” symphony, Brunetti writes an alla breve Quintetto structurally clearly reminiscent of the symphonic minuet: two identical main sections (each of which is subdivided in turn and made up of regular eight-bar periods) frame a central section which is itself in two parts. The main sections are scored for wind quintet (two oboes, two horns and bassoon) and contain passages that surpass anything that was later to be produced by Reicha and his contemporaries, while the middle sections are for strings alone: using the most economical means, Brunetti revels in timbral, rhythmic and atmospheric contrasts.

Symphony No. 26 in B flat major

1. Larghetto – Allegro
2. Largo
3. Quintetto: Allegretto
4. Finale: Allegro di molto

Elsewhere, too, each of the three symphonies included here reveals special characteristics. A notable feature of the opening movement of Symphony No. 26 in B flat major is the way in which virtually all its thematic ideas are derived from a short three-bar cell. No less striking is the use of oboe and bassoon with their often highly virtuosic solo interjections over sparingly deployed strings. A surprising feature of the second movement is the theme on woodwind and brass over muted violins in chromatically ascending triplets. With its reminiscences of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, the whole movement is dominated by this often daring chromatic figure which, with its secretive restraint, is almost impressionistic in character – not until the late Romantic repertory shall we find such a mood again. The central section of the Quintetto is a wild string passage in the minor that forms the greatest conceivable contrast with the outer sections on woodwind and brass, where the impression is one of tranquillity and charm. As so often, Brunetti then forges a thematic and stylistic link with the opening movement by means of the dancelike structures of the final movement.

Symphony No. 22 in G minor

1. Allegro vivace
2. Andantino amoroso
3. Quintetto: Allegro moderato
4. Allegro di molto

Symphony No. 22 is in G minor, the favourite key of the German Sturm und Drang composers of the 1770s. Brunetti uses the key not for sombre tragedy but to underline the tonal contrasts. This is already clear from the first subject, a descending triplet clad triad on the violins which, first heard pianissimo, is answered by a two-bar phrase of almost vocal mellifluence. The entire movement is dominated by these two elements, which are treated harmonically and timbrally with immense variety and skill. The second movement is a songlike binary Andantino amoroso, its character well summed up by its title. Here, too, chromaticisms and minor-key shadings typical of the age of Empfindsamkeit guarantee colour and contour. The finale is once again a highly idiosyncratic piece that defies formal classification in terms of Classical categories, although the double return of the main theme might perhaps suggest a rondo. Particularly striking is the way in which Brunetti plays with short-breathed motivic particles, investing the movement with a breathless, harassed quality. The implacable forward momentum allows no time for thematic contrasts, with the movement as a whole whistling past the listener’s ear with the force of a veritable whirlwind.

Symphony No. 36 in A major

1. Largo – Allegro di molto
2. Andantino
3. Quintetto: Allegretto
4. Allegro di molto

Symphony No. 36 in A minor / A major deserves to be numbered among Brunetti’s most original works: not a single aspect conforms to the categories of symphonic writing familiar in his own day. Among its unusual features are the repeat of the slow minor-mode introduction at the end of the opening movement, but with a different ending that leads directly into the second movement. The opening movement includes passages that recall Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, a work first performed on 1 May 1786 (did Brunetti know the opera?). After a second movement notable for its cantabile introversion and a third with the usual contrast between wind quintet and strings, the final movement proves once again to be a display of Brunetti’s magisterial talent, as he juggles with the set-pieces of sonata form and achieves surprising effects with them: after the first and second subjects have been expounded, the first subject returns as a codetta shortly before the dal segno of the whole first section, but although this may once again suggest rondo form, such an assumption tums out to be false, since a brilliant development section brings us back to sonata form, before the work comes to a dazzling conclusion with a double codetta.


Newell Jenkins is an enthusiastic advocate of these and other works by Brunetti. In the case of the symphonies he praises their clarity and idiosyncratic form, the use of precise and succinct thematic material, the careful working out of the development sections, the highly personal musical language, the astute choice of instrumentation and particular feeling for harmonic colours. This characterisation is true of all the works from Brunetti’s pen, works whose rediscovery may prove to be one of the most exciting events of the century.

Diether Steppuhn
(Translation: Stewart Spencer)