Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz, one of the most influential figures in European music during the mid-eighteenth century, was born in Nemecky Brod (Deutschbrod) in June 1717. His father, Antonín Ignác, was organist at the Dean's Church and later became a merchant, land-owner and town councillor. Johann probably received his early musical training from his father before entering the Jesuit Gymnasium in Jihlava in 1728.
Stamitz is known to have been a student in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Prague during the academic year 1734-35 and is thought to have left the University in order to establish a career as a violin virtuoso. He was probably engaged as a violinist by the Mannheim Court in 1741-42 as a result of contacts made during the coronation in Prague, as King of Bohemia, of the Bavarian Elector Carl Albert, one of whose closest allies was the Elector Palatine.
The earliest known reference to a concert appearance by Stamitz occurs in an advertisement for a concert in Frankfurt am Main on 29th June 1742 at which he was to perform alternately on the violin, viola d'amore, cello and double bass as well as furnishing a concerto for two orchestras of his own composition.
Stamitz's professional career took off in Mannheim. In 1743 he was named Erster Hoff Violinist (First Court-Violinist); in 1745 or 1746- the date is uncertain -he was awarded the title Concertmeister and in 1750, was named to the newly-created post of Instrumental-Music Director.
Under the Elector Carl Theodor (1724-99), an enlightened ruler with strong interests in philosophy, science and the arts, the court at Mannheim became one of the most glittering in Europe. Although an important patron of art and literature, Carl Theodor's central interest was music and he spared neither effort nor expense in building his court into one of the leading musical centres in Europe. In addition to presenting regular productions of new operas and ballets, the Mannheim Court engaged a number of exceptional musicians, among them Franz Xaver Richter, the flautist Johann Baptist Wendling, Ignaz Holzbauer and the cellists Innocenz Danzi and Anton Fils (Filtz), all of whom played in the incomparable orchestra led by Johann Stamitz.
The Mannheim orchestra presented weekly 'academies' in the Rittersaal (the Knight's Hall) at the Electoral Palace. These academies were relatively informal social gatherings and visitors were often given standing-room to hear the performance. The academies were the primary responsibility of the Concertmeister and Stamitz was required to prepare and conduct the performance, perform occasional concertos and provide orchestral compositions of his own. While the orchestra achieved its greatest fame in the two decades following Stamitz's death, there can be little doubt that he provided the original impetus toward the development of its new style of accurate, precise performance.
In one of the most famous descriptions of the Mannheim court orchestra the aesthetician C.F.D. Schubert recalled that listening to the orchestra:
One believed oneself to be transported to a magic island of sound... No orchestra in the world ever equalled the Mannheimers' execution. Its forte is like thunder; its crescendo like a mighty waterfall; its diminuendo a gentle river disappearing into the distance; its piano is a breath of spring...
Dr Charles Burney, the English music historian, observed:
indeed, 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 fit to plan a battle, as to fight it.
In the late summer of 1754, Stamitz undertook a year-long journey to Paris, appearing there for the first time in a Concert Spirituel of 8th September 1754. While in Paris he lived at Passy in the palace of the fermier général Alexandre-Jean-Joseph-Le Riche de la pouplinière, a wealthy amateur whose private orchestra he conducted, and was also active in public concerts in the French capital, appearing with particular success at the Concerts Italiens.
Stamitz probably returned to Mannheim in the autumn of 1755, dying there less than two years later, aged thirty-nine. The official record of his death reads:
30th March, 1757. Buried, Jo'es Stainmiz, director of court music, so expert in his art that his equal will hardly be found. Rite provided.
The five symphonies on this recording span the greater part of Stamitz's career. The earliest of them, the Mannheim Symphonies in A major and B flat major, probably date from the period c.1741-1746 and may be among the first works Stamitz composed for the Electoral Court. Cast in the three-movement cycle fast-slow-fast like the contemporary Neapolitan opera sinfonia, these works already reveal considerable flair in their treatment of the orchestra with interesting dynamic shifts and a variety of musical textures. The first of the three Mannheim Symphonies, although usually attributed to Johann Stamitz, is probably the work of Antoine Mahaut, a close contemporary of the composer.
The Symphony in D major, Opus 3, No. 2, published in Paris in 1757, was almost certainly composed in the early 1750s before Stamitz's trip to Paris. Scored for comparatively large forces, it provides a fine illustration of Stamitz's late symphonic style. Although resourceful in its musical organization and not without beguiling melodic ideas, the most interesting and dramatic feature of the work is its powerful scoring and the flamboyant treatment of the orchestra. Early in the first movement Stamitz introduces one of his famous devices, the orchestral crescendo; beginning softly with strings and horns over a gently pulsating bass-line, the music gradually builds to a fortissimo outburst by the full orchestra. This electrifying effect, which literally caused its early audiences to rise out of their seats, was not Stamitz's personal invention but he made it a hallmark of the Mannheim style of orchestral writing. Remarkable too is the extensive use of wind instruments in both the Andantino and the Trio. The Finale, Prestissimo, is powerfully scored like the first movement but lacks something of its breadth and sweep.
The Symphony in E Flat major, Opus 11, No.3, was issued by the Parisian publisher Venier in 1758 in a collection of symphonies by various authors. The probable date of composition (c.1754-55) places this symphony among the last Stamitz composed. Like the Symphony in D major, the present work is cast in four movements and thus appears rather 'modern' to the present-day listener. The first movement, built around two contrasting themes, is not divided into two sections with repeats, as one might expect, but is written as a continuous whole rather in the manner of an overture. Stamitz makes good use of his orchestral forces giving important thematic material to the oboes and rhythmic punctuation. The central Andante is more conventional in structure and omits the oboes and horns. A brisk minuet with contrasting trio in the relative minor precedes the prestissimo 3/8 finale with its thrilling crescendi and driving forward momentum.
The E major Trio is, by comparison, a relaxed and expansive work with broad lyrical themes and a real symphonic sweep. The intimate, central Adagio contains some almost Mozartean chromatic shadings while the Finale returns to the exuberant, optimistic world of the Mannheim Court.
New Zealand Chamber Orchestra
The New Zealand Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1987 by a group of leading players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and established itself in a very short time as one of New Zealand's foremost cultural assets. The Orchestra tours regularly throughout New Zealand and has also given concerts in Australia and Spain. Many distinguished soloists have performed with the NZCO over the years, among them, Peter Schreier, Malcolm Bilson and David Geringas.
After completing his early violin studies in New Zealand, Donald Armstrong, Music Director of the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra, gained a post-graduate diploma from Mannes College, New York, and a Masters degree from the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying with Masuko Ushioda and Josef Gingold. Before returning to New Zealand in 1987 to take up the position of Associate-Concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Donald Armstrong was premier violin solo of the Orchestra Philharmonique de l'Opera de Nice. He has been Music Director of the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra since its foundation.
ReviewsYet again, Naxos have shown the way! The range of their bargain price recordings continues to spread apace. - Early Music Review, April 1996