Thursday 14 December 2017

Forgotten Monn deserves his place in the spotlight

Devotees of cello music will be familiar with Georg Matthias Monn. This Viennese composer may be known for little else, but the tendency of record companies to bracket his concerto with Haydn's popular creations has kept his name alive.

Monn, actually Johann Georg Mann, was born on this date in 1717. His musical life took a pretty conventional course (he started as a choirboy before moving on to play the organ) and was well regarded during his lifetime.

But in the way of these things, it got forgotten after he died. Probably no great surprise. Following Monn's passing in 1750, the Viennese scene came to be dominated by Haydn, Mozart, and then Beethoven.

Still, Monn's influence was considerable. He wrote 21 symphonies, among them the first to be written in four movements. The template at the time was for a piece in three parts, but the D major that Monn composed in 1740 was made of up four sections, with a minuet included just before the concluding allegro, the finale.

In the decades after his death, Haydn and Mozart would write their symphonies based on the framework first formulated by Monn. With a few memorable exceptions this became standard practice right through the classical and romantic periods. Beethoven with his Pastoral, Schubert with his Unfinished, and Berlioz with his Fantastique were among those who broke the mould.

But with Monn, you really cannot get away from the cello. Arnold Schoenberg, the hugely influential Austro-American composer, who expanded romanticism into what's known as 20th century 'atonality', or music that isn't based on a specific key, took a harpsichord concerto of Monn's and turned it into a cello concerto of his own, which he completed in 1933.

Ironically, given Schoenberg's reputation, this is music in an older style. "Nowhere is it atonal," he wrote to Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. It's a real throwback to the earlier period, full of counterpoint and harmony and featuring Spanish dance tunes. And it's a hugely demanding work.

In a roundabout way, Schoenberg had brought the music of a neglected compatriot to a wider audience. Georg Monn, the inventor of the four-movement symphony, deserved no less.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE Lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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