Henri Joseph de Croes (1758-1842)
The superb court library of the Thurn und Taxis family in Regensburg contains many musical treasures, including the music of the almost forgotten Belgian composer Henri Joseph de Croes. Given that he composed works for the clarinetto d’amore, an instrument that is also practically forgotten, he immediately becomes twice as interesting.
The clarinetto d’amore has today completely disappeared from the concert stage; two replicas of this unusual instrument were therefore made especially for this recording. All of the works by De Croes that are presented on this CD are world première recordings. De Croes, however, was no obscure composer who wrote only for this curious instrument; he was a respected musician with an intriguing body of work. In order to provide a balanced overview of his output, we are also presenting examples of his symphonies and concertos here alongside his chamber works.
Henri Joseph de Croes was born in Brussels in 1758 and died in Regensburg in 1842. He was born two years after his illustrious contemporary and colleague Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Like Mozart, De Croes had a talented musician for a father who had won his spurs as leader of a typical central European court orchestra during the middle years of the 18th century. This father was Henri-Jacques de Croes (1705-1786), who had already become concert master of the court orchestra in Brussels in 1744. Between 1749 and his death in 1786 he worked as Kapellmeister to the court of Prince Charles of Lotharingen, the brother of the emperor who had been appointed as viceroy over the Austrian Netherlands. Henri Joseph de Croes grew up in this environment and was quickly recognized as being a superb violinist.
“Een streling voor het oor, waarbij de zangerige klank van de instrumenten die in de ruimte mooi tot hun recht komen voor momenten van ver- rassende schoonheid vormen.” - MARJOLIJN SENGERS
Henri Joseph de Croes entered the service of the Thurn und Taxis family in 1776; this aristocratic family had been awarded the monopoly on postal and courier services within the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg territories by emperor Charles V. The family had lived in Mechelen since the 16th century and later moved to Brussels. The elder De Croes had also been in service to the Thurn und Taxis family before his appointment to the court of Charles V and had commuted back and forth between Brussels and Frankfurt with them from 1729 to 1744; he clearly remained on good terms with the Thurn und Taxis family, for his talented son entered their service when he turned eighteen years old.
Henri Joseph de Croes’ new employer was Karl Anselm, Vorst von Thurn und Taxis (1733-1805), who engaged him for the Prince’s family orchestra in Regensburg. Karl Anselm was a great lover of music and had expanded his court orchestra with a few of the most skilled virtuosi in Central Europe, these including the French viol player Joseph Touchemoulin, the Italian oboist Giovanni Palestrini, the Bohemian violin player Franz Xaver Pokorny and the Italian flautist Fiorante Agustinelli. The arrival of the young Belgian violist Henri Joseph de Croes fitted in perfectly with the Prince’s artistic policy. This was also the time when remarkable court orchestras could guarantee long-lasting fame that would echo far beyond its country’s borders; Karl Anselm’s efforts were well worthwhile. The orchestra of the Regensburg court was declared to be one of the best in German-speaking lands during the 1790s; its only rivals were the renowned Hofkapelle in Mannheim and the orchestra of the Esterházy’s with Joseph Haydn at its head.
Theodor Freiherr von Schacht (1748-1823) was De Croes’ direct superior in Regensburg. He too came from a highly musical family and had for a time been a pupil of the Napolitan composer Niccolo Jommelli, who had himself been employed in Stuttgart for many years. Von Schacht was not only a serviceable composer and producer of German and Italian operas but also an excellent diplomat who was able to shape the Regensburg court orchestra according to his employer’s wishes. When Von Schacht was later required to spend the greater part of his time on diplomatic duties, the daily administration of the orchestra passed to Touchemoulin. Following the dismissal of Touchemoulin in 1798, the post went to the then forty-year-old De Croes, who had already composed a number of works for the court. We know of his Singspiel Der Zauberer (1782), concertos and two symphonies, as well as divertimenti for a novel type of wind ensemble in which the oboes were replaced with violas.
The death of Karl Anselm von Thurn und Taxis in 1805, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the tempest that Napoleon unleashed in the German-speaking world all combined to ensure that the court orchestra in Regensburg swiftly became an irrelevance. Theodor von Schacht left Regensburg for Vienna, other musicians also soon began to disperse. The new prince, Karl Alexander von Thurn und Taxis (1770-1827), seemed to be too busy with protecting his family’s interests to be able to maintain an expensive court orchestra.
This was a disastrous time for Henri Joseph de Croes as well. Two of his children had already died, followed by his wife, the singer Maria Augusta Houdier, in 1806. De Croes nonetheless remained in Regensburg but seems not to have composed much more after 1806.
His two extant symphonies are here recorded for the first time. The first was composed in 1782 and dates from before his appointment as Kapellmeister. This symphony is very much in the Mannheim style. The second symphony is more in the tradition set by Joseph Haydn. We have here also recorded the bassoon concerto by De Croes that is kept in the library of the Regensburg court.
The discovery of a “new” solo bassoon concerto, by Jane Gower
The discovery of a “new” solo bassoon concerto is certainly something to be excited about. Even when not a masterpiece, it is still such an unexpected gift to our relatively meagre repertoire that we bassoonists can get quite worked-up. When Vlad Weverbergh told me late one night that he had a really excellent (Belgian!) bassoon concerto for me to play, I apparently looked doubtful, if not downright scornful, and said along the lines of “yeah, SURE you do!” Well, since preparing and recording it with him and his wonderful band, I am eating my words. The concerto by Henri Joseph de Croes is indeed a great piece, and a really worthy addition to our solo literature.
The most famous bassoon concerto is of course Mozart’s early K.191, a true masterpiece. His reputed four others having tragically disappeared, we have had to content ourselves with some other “ok, definitely worth playing” classical concertos such as those by J.C.Bach, Kozeluch, Vanhal and Devienne. It’s not until C.M. von Weber’s operatic extravaganza of 1811 that we have something really to boast about; certainly nothing that modern bassoonists can regularly be bothered with. Of course, this can also be explained by the fact that these transitional classical-romantic compositions are very much dependent on the specific qualities of the period instruments and performers they were intended for - their idiosyncrasies, colours and techniques. They tend to be pushing the limits both of the performers and the instruments in terms of technique and virtuosity, and so it makes sense that when played on a modern bassoon (on which they are quite unchallenging), one misses the drama and the inherent risk-taking, as well as the individual tonal palettes and altered balance in the orchestral interplay.
An earlier great discovery for me was of the five concertos of Franz Danzi, (three of which I recorded) which are truly neglected. They really are jewels of idiomatic early romantic bassoon writing, with lyricism, humour, thoroughly well-worked architecture, and rich orchestral colour. The De Croes concerto can in many ways be compared to these pieces in style, range and quality. De Croes builds a proper grand romantic concerto opening with a thoroughly worked orchestral exposition, before the solo bassoon enters as part of the wind section of horns and oboes - as if to slyly remind the performer not to get too pretentious! The writing exploits many of the bassoon’s abilities and most-loved characteristics for tenor-register lyricism, rapid-fire staccato passage-work, large leaps across the register and comic effects. As in the Mozart concerto, the bassoon is often in eager dialogue with the violins, emphasising the instrument’s multiple roles; as melodicist, wind section member, and bass instrument. The middle movement in particular is very beautiful with its lilting, cantabile, beguiling character, whilst the finale is a comic romp.