Christian Cannabich



Christian Cannabich and Mannheim

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the musical establishment at Mannheim was one of the most famous in Europe. The town had been the capital of the Palatinate since the ruler Carl Philipp moved his court from Heidelberg in 1720. It was his nephew Carl Theodor, succeeding him as Elector Palatine on New Year’s Eve, 1742, who built up the orchestra, having the good fortune to inherit also the composer Johann Stamitz. Stamitz led the orchestra from 1745 until his death twelve years later and trained it to an exceptionally high standard: the historian Charles Burney wrote that ‘the band... was regarded as the most complete and best disciplined in Europe’.

Stamitz and his fellow composers at the court, including the Kapellmeister Ignaz Holzbauer and the cellist Anton Filtz, cultivated what much later became known as the ‘Mannheim style’: effects such as crescendos over a pedal point (the ‘Mannheim steamroller’) and vigorous rising phrases (the ‘Mannheim rocket’) that were derived from the overtures of Italian composers such as Niccolò Jommelli, whose operas were performed at Mannheim and whom the Elector much admired.

The reputation of the orchestra continued after Stamitz’s death under the tutelage of his pupil, Christian Cannabich. When Burney visited Mannheim in 1772 his judgment was that ‘there are more solo players, and good composers in this, than perhaps in any other orchestra in Europe; it is an army of generals, equally fi t to plan a battle, as to fi ght it’. The only imperfection was that the woodwind played out of tune, as they did everywhere else; a surprising comment on a band that included Friedrich Ramm, the virtuoso for whom Mozart later wrote his oboe quartet.

Burney referred to Cannabich, along with Holzbauer and the violinist Carl Toeschi, as ‘three masters [who] are authors of several excellent symphonies, some of which have been printed in England’. Cannabich was born in 1731 in Mannheim, where his father was a flautist in the court orchestra. The boy’s musical talent was recognised early on by the Elector, who sent him to study with Jommelli in Rome, where he remained from 1750 to 1753.

By the time he was promoted to director of instrumental music at Mannheim in 1774, Cannabich, like many of his colleagues, had made several visits to Paris, where he had built up a reputation as performer and composer. When Carl Theodor became the Elector of Bavaria in 1778, most of his musicians, including Cannabich, moved with the court to Munich. There the orchestra continued to attract admiration. The composer and poet C.F.D. Schubart wrote that, under Cannabich, ‘its forte is a thunderclap, its crescendo a cataract, its diminuendo a crystal stream bubbling away into the distance, its piano a breath of spring’. By the 1790s, though, the glory days were over. Cannabich’s son Carl, also a composer and violinist, spent most of his life at the Munich court; for a short time he was a conductor in Frankfurt and it was there, while on a visit, that Christian Cannabich died in 1798.

Cannabich is mentioned several times in the letters of Mozart and his father. Wolfgang, accompanied by his mother, arrived in Mannheim in October 1777. He hoped to fi nd a job there, ignoring Leopold’s warning that the place was expensive and the ruler an ungenerous employer. (Burney, on the other hand, mentions the ‘handsome’ pension arrangements.)

Wolfgang was unsuccessful and in March 1778 he and his mother moved on to Paris. He had got on very well with Cannabich and his wife, but found them insufficiently grateful for the time he had devoted to giving piano lessons to their daughter Rosa. Leopold was not surprised that Cannabich had failed to secure an appointment for his son and described him as ‘a wretched scribbler of symphonies’.1 However, Wolfgang thought that he had greatly improved as a composer and, in the letter to Leopold that broke the news of his mother’s death, he wrote that Cannabich was the best conductor he had ever seen.2

In November 1778 Mozart was back in Mannheim, lodging with Cannabich’s wife and still hoping for employment there, despite the court’s having moved to Munich. Two years later he was in Munich itself, having been commissioned to write an opera, Idomeneo, for the Carnival season. In his first letter to his father, Mozart wrote of an overture by Cannabich, ‘if you had heard it, you would have been as much pleased and excited as I was; and if you had not previously known it, you would never have believed that it was by Cannabich’.3 He worked closely with Cannabich, who was to conduct Idomeneo, and a few weeks later he begged his father to write to him, adding ‘What does it matter... if he does not reply? He does not mean to be what he appears to be. He is the same with everyone – you must just get to know him.’4

Symphony in G major

1. Allegro
2. Andantino
3. Minuet and Trio
4. Presto assai

The Symphony in G major, composed in 1760, is scored for flutes, horns and strings. The first movement is in an embryonic sonata form, with an exposition that moves to the dominant, and an abridged recapitulation in the tonic. The Andantino and the Trio of the Minuet give prominence to the flutes; the horns, silent in the Trio, elsewhere have excitingly high notes to negotiate.

This early work is in four movements; in his later symphonies Cannabich settles for three.

Symphony in A major

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegro ma non tanto

The Symphony in A major begins with a premier coup d’archet, the call to attention often, as here, on the strings in unison. Another Mannheim trademark, the famous crescendo (‘steamroller’), occurs in the finale. The central Andante, for strings only, makes much play of a little motif exchanged between the first and second violins.

Symphony in E flat major, No. 57

1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Allegro

The Symphony in E flat major, No. 57, includes clarinets and bassoons as well as the usual horns. The bassoons have independent parts but are not given any solos, whereas great prominence is given to the clarinets. These relatively recent additions to the woodwind family were to be found in London, Paris and Mannheim – but not in Mozart’s home town of Salzburg, Wolfgang writing wistfully to Leopold, ‘Ah, if only we had clarinets too! You cannot imagine the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes and clarinets.’5

Symphony in C major, No. 22

1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con brio
3. Un poco presto

The Symphony in C major, No. 22 is scored for the more usual line-up of oboes, horns and strings. The first movement is given extra propulsion by Cannabich’s use of triplets, and there are further splendid instances of the ‘Mannheim steamroller’. After a delicate Andante con brio, triplets return with a vengeance in the finale, and Cannabich even flexes his contrapuntal muscles with a couple of passages in canon.

Symphony in D major

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Andante grazioso
3. Presto assai

In the first movement of the Symphony in D major, a rhythmically teasing two-note figure leads to a forte passage full of martial vigour. In the following two movements the Mannheim players would have taken every opportunity to show their skill in dynamic contrasts.

Cannabich may not have been a composer of the first rank, but these five symphonies afford a charming glimpse of the galant style that was to lead to the masterpieces of Haydn and Mozart.

Richard Lawrence (2006)

1 Correspondence from Leopold Mozart to Wolfgang, 6 April 1778

2 From Wolfgang to Leopold, 9 July 1778

3 From Wolfgang to Leopold, 8 November 1780

4 From Wolfgang to Leopold, 1 December 1780

5 From Wolfgang to Leopold, 3 December 1778