Georg Joseph Vogler


Symfonier, uvertyrer och baletter

To most English-speakers the name Vogler, if it has any resonance at all, is associated with Robert Browning’s poem ‘Abt Vogler’, with its subtitle ‘After he has been extemporizing upon the musical instrument of his invention’. In his own day, Vogler was indeed famous for his improvisations, famous for his ‘orchestrion’, a portable organ, and famous – or, perhaps, notorious – for his theoretical writings. He was also a celebrated teacher, whose pupils included Weber and Meyerbeer; but he seems to have had little renown as a composer.

Georg Joseph Vogler was born at Pleichach, near Würzburg, on 15 June 1749, the son of a violinist and instrument maker. After studying at Würzburg University, he moved to Bamberg for three years of religious instruction: hence the references to Abbé, or Abt, Vogler. In the early 1770s he was appointed almoner, then chaplain, to the court at Mannheim. The Elector, Carl Theodor, was so impressed by Vogler’s musical abilities that he paid for him to study in Italy. Vogler did not get on with Padre Martini of Bologna, Mozart’s esteemed teacher, who found him lacking in both aptitude and perseverance, but he was well received in other cities, including Rome. On his return to Mannheim in November 1775 he was appointed spiritual counsellor and, fifteen months later, vice-Kapellmeister.

Mannheim was the home of a flourishing musical establishment, and the court orchestra had an international reputation: Vogler’s superior was Ignaz Holzbauer, and his colleagues included Christian Cannabich. Again financed by the Elector, Vogler founded a conservatory, the Mannheim Tonschule. At the end of October 1777 the twenty-one-year-old Mozart arrived, accompanied by his mother. He failed to obtain a post at the court, but remained till the following March teaching, composing and performing. Mozart had a low opinion of Vogler, writing to his father that he was ‘a dreary musical jester, an exceedingly conceited and rather incompetent fellow. The whole orchestra dislikes him’.1 He also execrated him for disparaging Johann Christian Bach2, and complained at the way he scrambled through Mozart’s own piano concerto (in C, K 246) at sight.3

When Carl Theodor moved his court to Munich on becoming Elector of Bavaria, Vogler remained in Mannheim. After visiting Paris and London he took up the post of first Kapellmeister in Munich, but resigned in order to become Kapellmeister to Gustavus III of Sweden, the king whose assassination in 1792 later inspired Auber’s Gustave III and Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. His contract permitted him to travel and he ranged as far afield as Ottoman Greece and North Africa. He continued as Kapellmeister for Gustavus’s successor for a few years and then resumed his travels, visiting a large number of European cities as performer, teacher and propagandist. In Vienna, one of his pupils was Weber, aged nearly seventeen, who soon fell under his spell.

In August 1807, Vogler was appointed Kapellmeister and privy counsellor for ecclesiastical affairs by the Grand Duke of Hessen-Darmstadt, a post he held for the rest of his life. In 1810 he was able to welcome Weber and another favourite pupil, Johann Gänsbacher, both of whose exercises he supervised without taking any payment. A third pupil was the eighteen-year-old Jakob Beer, later to achieve fame as Giacomo Meyerbeer. Weber was very fond of Vogler, who gave him much encouragement: he planned to write a biography of his master, but never got further than a couple of magazine articles.

Vogler died in Darmstadt on 6 May 1814. His output included operas, church music, symphonies, concertos, and what Mozart called his ‘tedious... sonatas’3. The listener to this disc will surely agree that his music is worth exploring; and, perhaps, that Browning’s costive soliloquy gives no indication of either its power or its charm.

Symphony in D minor

1. Allegro molto
2. Andante
3. Allegro

The Symphony in D minor was composed in Paris in 1782. Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings, it is cast in three movements. The first contrasts gentle woodwind phrases with stern passages for full orchestra. One of the phrases in bare octaves is reminiscent of – or, rather, looks forward to – the C minor piano concertos of both Mozart and Beethoven. The Andante is in D major, with a middle section in the minor key that draws on material presented in the first part. The last movement reverses the contrast of keys, beginning and ending in D minor.

Symphony in G major

Allegro – Andante – Allegro

The one-movement Symphony in G is scored for the same forces, but without the timpani and with the texture enriched in the outer sections by divisi violas. Written in Mannheim in 1779, it is both lighter and shorter than the D minor symphony. The format is an idiosyncratic version of sonata form, the development section being replaced by an Andante for the strings alone.

Overture to the opera ‘Athalie’

The Overture to ‘Athalie’ dates from August 1786, shortly after Vogler’s arrival in Sweden. Piccolos replace the usual flutes, and the woodwind section includes parts for the clarinet. (The players of this recent addition to the symphony orchestra were perhaps not wholly reliable, as it never appears solo without a bassoon in support.) The seriousness of the piece matches that of Racine’s drama, which is about Athaliah, the usurping queen of Judah, and her confrontation with the rightful boy-king.

Ballet Suite No. 1

1. Overture. Allegro
2. Andantino
3. Larghetto
4. Allegretto

Ballet Suite No. 2

1. Gigue
2. Aire de chasse
3. Menuetto grazioso

The two Suites recorded here were edited by Eugen Bodart in the 1950s; they contain movements from Vogler’s ballets, including Le rendez-vous de chasse. The bright overture of the first suite is followed by an Andantino, which begins with a plaintive little tune on the oboe. Like the Andantino, the Larghetto is in binary form, with a modulation to the dominant at the half-way point. The second suite consists of a Gigue and an ‘Aire de chasse’, oboes and horns to the fore. In the trio section of the Menuetto grazioso, the scoring is pared down to solo strings.

Overture to the play ‘Hamlet’

Largo – Allegro – Largo

Vogler composed an Overture and a four-movement entr’acte for a production of Hamlet at Mannheim in early 1778. According to the composer, the slow introduction, which returns at the end, represents Hamlet’s state of mind: in the first three bars, for instance, the grief-stricken prince is pounding his fists and wringing his hands, while the pause in bar 6 shows him almost paralysed by his sorrow. The Allegro is a major-key sonata movement, with the recapitulation – another anticipation, of Schubert this time – starting in the subdominant.

Overture to the Singspiel ‘Erwin und Elmire’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an exact contemporary of Vogler. Erwin und Elmire, a Singspiel (an opera with spoken dialogue), was his first libretto, written in 1775 for his friend, the composer Johann André. Based on a ballad in Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, it included ‘Das Veilchen’, a song set by Mozart ten years later. Vogler’s version of Goethe’s libretto was performed in 1781. The cheerful Overture does not include a development section; but there is a surprise after the recapitulation, when the first group of themes appears in the minor, before expectation is satisfied with a major-key coda.

Richard Lawrence (2009)

1 Wolfgang to Leopold Mozart, 4 November 1777

2 Wolfgang to Leopold Mozart, 13 November 1777

3 Wolfgang to Leopold Mozart, 17 January 1778