Friedrich Witt



Friedrich Witt was born on November 8, 1770, as the sixth of the eight children of the schoolmaster Johann Kaspar Witt in Niederstetten, near Bad Mergentheim im Hohenlohischen. After the death of his father, his mother in 1776 married his successor, with whom she had four more children. Witt received his initial training in music, which included instruction on various instruments, from his father and stepfather. In October 1789 he joined the court orchestra of Prince Kraft Ernst zu Oettingen-Wallerstein (1748–1802) in the Nördlingen Ries as a cellist. In 1793 and 1794 he undertook concert tours with the clarinetist Joseph Beer (1770–1819), another member of the court orchestra, that took the two musicians to cities such as Coburg and Weimar as well as to the Potsdam and Ludwigslust courts. During the summer of 1796 Witt and Beer made their way to Vienna, where they presented a concert in the Augarten attended by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) and other leading personalities of the imperial capital’s music world. Beer performed a solo concerto by his traveling companion, and Witt conducted one of his symphonies, having already composed several such works by that time. Neither of the two returned to the Wallerstein court. Beer took up residence in Vienna, while Witt traveled around for quite some time, until in the spring of 1802, after the premiere of his oratorio Der leidende Heiland, he was appointed court music director by the Würzburg Prince Bishop Georg Karl von Fechenbach (1749–1808). In Würzburq, where he married in 1803, Witt finally found a permanent home but, owing to the turbulent times, served various masters in the same function during the following decades: after the secularization of the archdiocese (1802), first the Bavarian Prince Elector; then, beginning in 1806, Archduke Ferdinand of Tuscany (1769–1824), to whom Würzburg had been promised as an independent principality in the Peace of Pressburg; and finally, beginning in 1814, the Bavarian crown. In addition, in 1807 he served as music director of the archduke’s court theater for a short time. Witt was dismissed in 1824 on account of irregularities for which he was assigned responsibility. He died of “pulmonary paralysis” at the age of sixty-five on January 3, 1836.

Without resisting new developments as a matter of principle, even in the majority of his later works Witt was a more conservative musician obliged to the classical heritage. Joseph Haydn in particular numbered among his important models, but the Wallerstein court music director Antonio Rosetti (ca. 1750–92), with whom he even is supposed to have received instruction in composition, also seems to have influenced him in matters such as the employment of the wind instruments. Witt was an elegant melodist and knew how to instrumentate. He often succeeded precisely in creating slow movements of an eminently atmospheric quality, and it is above all in them that he repeatedly is shown to be a genuine romanticist. It is unfortunate that musicology has taken notice of him really only as a consequence of a false attribution. At the beginning of the past century Fritz Stein (1879–1961) found the handwritten parts of a symphony in C major bearing the note “par Louis van Beethoven”. At the time this discovery created something of a sensation, since it was believed that an unknown work of Beethoven’s youth had been found. Although critical voices registered their stylistic doubts, the “Jena Symphony”, as it was called, was treated as an early work by Beethoven for half a century, until evidence to the contrary was provided at the end of the 1950s: Friedrich Witt was in fact its author.

On May 17, 1809, the reviews of two symphonies by Friedrich Witt appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig. These works had been issued by the renowned Offenbach music publisher André shortly before as Witt’s Nos. 5 and 6. In his review of the Sinfonie turque (No. 6) the author from the very start made no secret of what he thought of such Turkish or janissary music1), which had enjoyed great popularity ever since the eighteenth century: “Formerly the bass drum and the tinkling of the tambourine, triangle, and cymbals only rarely found their way into the theater, then more and more often, and finally also into the concert hall. The latter probably should have remained closed to them, for rarely is a concert hall large enough and an orchestra strong enough to render even tolerable the booming sound of the bass drum and the tinkling of the other so-called Turkish instruments.” As soon as he came to speak of Witt’s music, however, his tone changed: “Meanwhile, Mr. W has now once again written a sinfonie turque with the bass drum and all the trappings and thus has gratified the taste of those who in this way want to be rattled musically – or, rather, unmusically. That Mr. W even in this manner will not have delivered anything bad, anything base, can be expected already in advance from such an intelligent composer, and this expectation is also in no way disappointed in the present work.” His sympathy for Witt’s music is perhaps even more apparent in his review of the fifth symphony: “In the whole of the symphony ... Mr. W has shown himself to be a thorough, understanding composer, and his evident endeavoring to lend the whole not only a great deal of depth but also only the highest degree of pleasantness possible shows that it is written for a large public, which it certainly also will find if only it is performed in any way well, very effectively – and for this reason is rightly to be recommended to every orchestra.

1) The name is derived from the instrumentarium of the bands of the elite military corps of the Turkish sultans (Turkish yeniҫeri = new troop). This instrumentarium consisted primarily of percussion instruments and since the eighteenth century had also been incorporated into European art music.

How can the almost complete absence of Witt’s music from today’s concert world be explained in view of such praise – which, moreover, comes from an authoritative source, since the reviewer was no less a figure than the author-composer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822)? Beethoven (1770–1827), Witt’s contemporary, is immediately to be named as one reason. With his music he opened the door far into the nineteenth century and became the guiding model and ideal for subsequent generations of composers from Schubert to Brahms. As a result, side by side with him, the music of his – more conservative – contemporaries had to pale. A further reason surely lies in Witt’s relatively early silencing as a composer, which presumably owed to ill health. Changing musical taste meant that the works of the formerly popular Witt disappeared from the concert programs. When he died at the beginning of 1836, no obituary was published in any music journal. Apart from a few sacred pieces, his oeuvre already at that time seems more or less to have been forgotten.



The center of Witt’s oeuvre is occupied by twenty-three symphonies, but he also wrote instrumental music as well as sacred music and music for the stage. More than half of his symphonies were composed during the 1790s. The Symphonies Nos. 1 to 9 printed by Johann Anton André (1775–1842) between 1803/04 and 1818 and assigned these numbers by this publisher were the last ones to be written by Witt.

The Sinfonie turque in A minor (No. 6, printed in 1808/09) and the Grande sinfonie in D minor (No. 9, printed in 1818) heard here for the first time in recorded form exhibit a number of similarities in formal respects: a slow introduction followed by an extended first movement in sonata form; a songlike slow movement and a minuet in the second and third positions, respectively; and a finale movement in sonata form. The two works also have something else in common: their minor keys notwithstanding, they are not at all marked by gloominess but by what in the end is a basic character of this-worldly optimism.

Symphony No. 6 Sinfonie turque in A minor

1. Adagio – Allegro molto
2. Adagio
3. Minuetto: Allegretto
4. Finale: Allegro

E. T. A. Hoffmann’s judgment can be seen to hold without any difficulty in the case of the Sinfonie turque, since Witt did in fact succeed in incorporating the “Turkish” instrumentarium (piccolo, bass and snare drums, triangle, and cymbals) tastefully into the late-classical/early-romantic music idiom without merely creating a “spectacle” (this in contrast to some of his contemporaries). The first movement makes ample use of the rhythm instruments and is followed by the central movement of the work, a wonderful Adagio entirely without Turkish color and borne by the doubled woodwinds and four horns. In its romantic expressive depth it recalls the slow movements of the Mozart pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837). For the trio of the minuet Witt invented a very magical ländler motif presented by the cello. The Allegro finale is closely related thematically to the framing parts of the previous movement, and here the percussion instruments again determine the picture. The fact that Witt in his Sinfonie turque was at the height of his times is attested not least by Beethoven’s music to Kotzebue’s drama Die Ruinen von Athen (1811) with its Turkish march and by his Ninth Symphony (composed during 1822–24), with its finale also holding janissary sounds in store toward the conclusion.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor

1. Adagio – Allegro vivace
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Minuetto: Più allegro
4. Finale: Allegro

The introductory measures of Witt’s “Ninth”, like that of Beethoven scored in D minor, very much reflects the influence of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The minor mood of the Adagio introduction is initially continued in the following tension-charged Allegro, before a very different, this-worldly, joie-de-vivre “minor world” is attained during the further course of the thematic presentation. In the atmospherically dense Adagio cantabile slow movement the solo cello, in addition to the dominant winds, once again is given an opportunity for short solos. And Witt also features his principal instrument in the trio of the mighty minuet, this time in alternation with the horns. Thematic dualism stamps not only the first movement but also the Allegro last movement, in which the composer furthermore displays his “thorough knowledge of counterpoint”. Another review published in the Allgemeine musiketische Zeitung, this time in 1819, concludes with the following words: “The merits of the author clearly shine forth from his work. He is not poor in the invention of melody, ... knows the instruments, knows how to instrumentate, ... and furthermore knows how to control his material. May Mr. Witt soon delight us again with a new work of this sort.” Unfortunately, this did not come about; the Symphony in D minor remained his last such work.


Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in G major

1. Allegro
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Rondo

The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in G major presumably composed around 1806 presents itself as a richly instrumented masterpiece full of musical beauty. Already the energy-charged Allegro first movement shows us Witt the experienced practitioner who knew how to compose just as “effectfully” as “effectively”: the soloist is given enough space in order to display all the facets of his art, and the orchestra too is allowed to shine – without this resulting in the “overexertion” of the musicians. In the ensuing eminently atmospheric Andante cantabile the strings and winds magically weave a romantic sound fabric over which the solo instrument may unfold in the best way possible. A Rondo of merry elegance and not without its fashionable polonaise forms the conclusion.

Günther Grünsteudel