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1813: Wagner, Vanhal, Beethoven on Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection

Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection broadcasts Saturday, September 7th, 5 to 6 pm. The two most famous composers for whom 2013 is a bicentennial are Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. They were born in 1813, but in the spirit of Discoveries we’ll dig a little deeper to see what else happened that year.

Wagner’s Wesendonck songs and Siegfried Idyll are his only non-operatic works heard with any regularity these days. The songs are also unusual among his output because the words are by someone else (most of the time he set his own texts).
The Wesendonck of the title is the poet Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Otto, a financial supporter of Wagner’s in the 1850s. She may have been the muse for the opera he was about to start, Tristan und Isolde, but in any case, he specifically called two of the five songs “studies” for Tristan.

Wagner wrote these for voice and piano and did orchestrate one of them. But Felix Mottl, an excellent conductor who specialized in Wagner’s operas, orchestrated the entire set, and that’s the version most used today. Mottl conducted Tristan in Bayreuth in 1886, and during his 100th performance of that opera, in Munich in 1911, he suffered a heart attack and died soon after.

A composer’s death bicentennial for 1813 belongs to Johann Baptist Vanhal (also spelled Wanhal and many other ways). A well-known composer from Bohemia of more than 70 lively symphonies, he worked most of his life in Vienna, writing Masses and other church music. He also made a good living composing piano music for the growing retail trade, including popular incidental and “battle” pieces.

He had given up his earlier interest in large instrumental works, but his symphonies are charming, and very much in the spirit of Haydn. Fortunately, these have started to be recorded in recent years, so that we have open to us another window into the Classical period.

One birth, one death, and for one piece composed in 1813, we choose the famous (or infamous) Wellington’s Victory by Beethoven. Having nothing to do with Napoleon and Waterloo (that was in 1815), this celebrates Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte at Vitoria in Spain.

At word of the victory, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who would patent a time-keeping metronome, commissioned Beethoven to write a piece to be played on another Mälzel invention, the panharmonicon, which played wind instruments by itself. Beethoven wrote something too big, though; only a large (actual) band could play it. Beethoven’s solution was to expand it for orchestra. He added feuding percussionists to represent the armies, as in any proper “battle” piece, and the result is Wellington’s Victory, a mélange of pomp, nationalist tunes, and cannon that, if not considered among Beethoven’s finest works, certainly fits the bill for a celebration.

With apologies to Verdi for the oversight, we nevertheless take a snapshot of 1813 for a birth, a death, a creation, and, keeping time, a bicentennial.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Wesendonck Lieder (1857), orch. Felix Mottl
Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813): Symphony in C minor (c.1770)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Wellington’s Victory (1813)

Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek singing "Der Engel" from the Wesendonck Lieder, Mariss Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 12 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2. Look at an archive of all the shows here.