Thursday 14 December 2017

Classic talk: The musical magic of Mannheim

The port of the city of Mannheim in south-west Germany, at the junction of the Rhine and Neckar rivers
The port of the city of Mannheim in south-west Germany, at the junction of the Rhine and Neckar rivers

George Hamilton

Mannheim, where the rivers Rhine and Neckar meet, may not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of cities in Germany.

One of Europe's biggest inland ports, it's where Karl Benz produced the first car to be powered by an internal combustion engine. Today it remains an important industrial and business centre.

It's an appealing place, its historic buildings and the symmetrical pattern of its streets hinting at a past that placed it in a much more prominent position than it occupies now at the centre of Germany's 11th biggest metropolitan area.

Since 2014 it's been a UNESCO City of Music, an acknowledgement not only of its place in the country's culture today, but also of the fact that, as the bid team put it, Mannheim is music, it runs like a big red line right through its whole story.

That story really started in the mid-1700s. Karl Theodor, the Duke who ran that part of the Holy Roman Empire, was a lover of the arts. His patronage brought top musicians to town.

Mannheim became a byword for musical excellence, the composers there known as the Mannheim School.

The court orchestra was the best around, and what it was playing would form the basis for much of what was to follow through the classical period.

Driving this new Mannheim style was a Czech composer, Johann Stamitz, born around this time 300 years ago (he was baptised on June 19, 1717).

Duke Karl Theodor had come across him at the coronation of the Emperor Charles VII in Prague and had brought him to Mannheim. There, Stamitz was given free rein to develop his ideas.

Prior to Mannheim, music wasn't scored for specific instruments in the way we would understand it.

Take Bach, for instance. He would feature a basso continuo, a bass line that was the basis of the piece but which would be played usually by the keyboard, not a cello or a double bass.

But what was coming out of Mannheim was different. Boundaries were being pushed back. It was almost like a musical test bed, and it was here that the symphony was born.

Stamitz took an experimental set-up and made it his trademark. The piece would be in four parts. First a fast section, followed by a slower passage, then a minuet and trio, and finally an uptempo conclusion.

He also augmented the traditional string ensemble by adding wind - oboes and horns, and later flutes and clarinets.

A melody played on an oboe, for instance, was nothing that would have been heard from an orchestra before.

Stamitz is also credited with composing the first concerto for clarinet, a fresh new sound at the time. This novel tone, superimposed on Baroque structures was an instant winner.

Mozart came to Mannheim, and was blown away by the music.

"You wouldn't believe how wonderful a symphony can sound with flutes, oboes and clarinets."

We can safely assume that the music of Johann Stamitz was a huge influence on Mozart.

He was also hugely impressed by the playing of the orchestra's principal oboist, Friedrich Ramm. Though Mozart's Oboe Concerto wasn't written for Ramm, his is the name on the dedication.

Mozart would subsequently compose an oboe quartet especially for Ramm, and it was with Ramm in mind that he wrote the oboe part in his opera Idomeneo.

The development of Mozart's interest in the woodwind, and the gorgeous music that followed can be traced right back to Mannheim.

Stamitz had two composer sons. The prolific Carl was a master melodist. Anton was rather less productive, but his output still fills a chunky column on Spotify.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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