New Esterházy and the Test of Time

Niels Swinkels on February 4, 2013
New Esterházy Quartet
New Esterházy Quartet

Information about an interesting but relatively unknown figure in music history, combined with a fine string quartet performing at least one musical masterpiece at a beautiful venue — together, they made for an enjoyable afternoon concert Saturday, when the Bay Area’s New Esterházy Quartet performed a program titled “Pages Torn From Hoffmeister” at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco.

The concert, repeated on Sunday in Palo Alto during the Super Bowl, was built around the activities of Austrian composer and music publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812) and the music business he ran in 18th-century Vienna. Hoffmeister was a prolific composer who produced music of every imaginable genre. Some sources mention as many as 70 symphonies, 8 operas, 150 string quartets, and large amounts of chamber music for all kinds of instruments and ensembles. During his lifetime, one of his operas was performed in at least six major European cities, and his chamber music was published in Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Venice.

In 1785, Hoffmeister started publishing mixed volumes of music by the “best local composers” and “foreign masters.” Among them were local celebrities Haydn, Mozart, and (later) Beethoven, plus a whole slew of lesser gods, along with generous amounts of his own work. Through a kind of subscription service, customers could build an entire music library over time.

For its Hoffmeister concert, the New Esterházy Quartet — violinists Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen — selected two of the best works that the Viennese entrepreneur ever published: Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 499, from 1786 (which the composer dedicated to Hoffmeister, who was not only his publisher of several first editions but also a dear friend), and Haydn’s Quartet in D Minor, Op. 42, which opened the concert. From the same 1785 volume as the Haydn quartet, NEQ also played Hoffmeister’s own quartet in F Minor.

The adagio was the absolute high point of the concert.

In his comments, informally delivered after the concert opener, violist Martin (who, I suspect, also wrote the informative program notes) characterized the Haydn Op. 42 as “compact, brusque, and to the point” — which is also an appropriate description of the way New Esterházy played the piece.

The NEQ, a period ensemble, approached this 18th-century music with a certain matter-of-factness: not uninvolved, yet with objectivity and a degree of detachment. There is just the music — profound but not overemotional, and certainly with no unnecessary drama. No overly jumpy three-quarter time in the minuets or added gravity in the slow movements. In different, more 'romantic' hands, an adagio like the one in Haydn's quartet could easily become schmaltzy — or worse; but NEQ's reading had none of that, fortunately.

In fact, that adagio and the one from Hoffmeister’s quartet were both taken remarkably fast. And, on the whole, the NEQ likes to keep the tempo moving, which doesn’t always help emphasize the contrast between the different movements. In any case, that wouldn’t have done much for the Hoffmeister quartet, for all kinds of reasons. The juxtaposition with Mozart’s quartet (the adagio of which was the absolute high point of the concert) made that painfully clear.

Hoffmeister was two years older than Mozart (1756–1791), and apparently an extremely popular composer, but there’s a reason that he is virtually unknown today. Until they received a copy from a library in Germany and started rehearsing, the members of New Esterházy had never heard this quartet in F Minor, and Martin remarked during the concert that he could almost guarantee that nobody in the audience had, either. The concert on Saturday may well have been a U.S. premiere.

Hoffmeister appears to be doing everything textbook-right when it comes to structure and harmony, though his music lacks spark.

In his composition, Hoffmeister appears to be doing everything textbook-right when it comes to structure and harmony, though his music lacks spark; it sounds formulaic and unimaginative, with short themes that he seems to repeat forever. It certainly explains why the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians says about him that “his symphonies were admired for their flowing melodies and his pedagogical work for being both pleasant and instructive, [but] his style is generally lacking in originality and depth.”

Fortunately, there was the beautifully played Mozart Quartet in D major to remind us that there is music that can truly stand the test of time.