From the recording De Croes Symphonies and Concerti
DE CROES: SYMPHONIES and CONCERTI
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.
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 Symphonic Culture at the Regensburger Court
During the eighteenth century most smaller German principalities within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire realized they were no match for the greater powers of Prussia, Austria, France, Russia, or even Saxony and Bavaria. In terms of their military strength, economic power and diplomatic influence, they were but small fish in a rather large pond. That is why some of them embarked on expensive projects that were meant to show their dominance in another field altogether: culture. These princes were by no means poor and they were able to spend large sums of money on lavish building projects to create magnificent castles, gardens or theaters or to accumulate huge art collections that would become the envy of their peers. Some of them spent their money on music, building excellent orchestras, centred around one or two famous composers and their vision on contemporary music. Most famous amongst them was Carl Theodor, prince-elector of the Palatinate, who by mid-century could boast the most famous orchestra in Europe. Thanks to his Kapellmeister, Johan Stamitz, this Mannheimer Hoforchester set the standard for orchestral music in Germany for decades to come. Carl Theodor knew he could not compete with the big boys on the international stage and his army would be next to useless should he ever find himself pitched against France, Austria or Prussia, but everybody who was anybody in the eighteenth century knew who Carl Theodor, the magnificent prince, was, since he was the creator and protector of Europe’s most marvellous orchestra that invented the modern symphonic style. Visitors from all over Europe flocked to Mannheim in order to hear its symphonies.
Many orchestras founded during the eighteenth century tried to emulate the example of Mannheim. The Regensburger Hoforchester was no exception. In 1748 the family of Thurn und Taxis, originally from Italian descent, decided to move their seat of power from Brussels and Frankfurt to Regensburg. Since the beginning of the sixteenth century, the family had found a home in Brussels. They built a large city palace and funded a chapel in the local church of Our Lady (Sablon) where members of the family were burried. The family had made its fortune as the owners of the largest post-network in Europe. Brussels, the heart of Europe then as well as today, was an excellent headquarters from which to conduct their operations. They were great patrons of the arts, commissioning amongst other things large tapisseries from local workshops, today in Regensburg. The family of Thurn und Taxis were non-nobles in the fifteenth century, but were promoted by Emperor Leopold I to the rank of Imperial Princes (Reichsfürsten) in 1695. At the time they were one of the richest families within the empire.
We are ill informed about the musical life at the Thurn und Taxis Residence in Brussels up until the middle of the eighteenth century. A document dated 1739 gives us the first clue to the existence of a court orchestra. This orchestra seems to have been populated by foreign musicians, since their names sound Italian (Schiovanette), German (Denner) or French (Regnix). Other names belong to the great musical families of Brussels (Boutmy). The leader of the orchestra was one Henri Jacques De Croes, who entered the service of the family Thurn und Taxis in 1729.
In 1748 the family decided to move to Regensburg. Most musicians, including De Croes, were either sacked or decided to stay in Brussels. In Regensburg however, a new court orchestra was formed and an “état de la musique” of 1755 shows that at that time the Prince employed fourteen musicians and a Kapellmeister named Joseph Riepel. A simular list dated 1766 clearly shows that the orchestra had doubled in size over the course of a decade. The most expensive musician on the list was the French flute player Joseph Touchemoulin who had been recruted from Cologne after the death of prince-bishop Clemens August Wittelsbach in 1791. He took over the orchestra after the death of Kapellmeister Riepel in 1784.
The orchestra seems to have increased in quality as well as quantity with the engagement in 1771 of Hofkavalier Theodor Freiherr von Schacht, who wanted to turn the Regensburger Hoforchester into one of the best in Germany. He soon found an ally in the new Prince, Carl Anselm von Thurn und Taxis, who had a great fondness for Italian music and opera. A document dated 1775 mentions 24 musicians in the service of the prince, most of them Italian or Bohemian. Some of them were well known musicians who seem to have been attracted to increase the overall quality of the orchestra. Amongst them was Henri De Croes from Brussels, a young violinist and son of Henri Jacques De Croes. The orchestra continued to grow all through the 1770s, with 28 musicians and a court soprano in 1777 and 37 musicians and 3 singers in 1782. During the 1780s the size of the orchestra remained stable and their number settled around 40.
The orchestra was used to entertain. When prominent guests, like emperor Joseph II, came to visit, the orchestra would be ordered to play during the banquet and the ball given in his honour. In autumn, winter and spring the orchestra was obliged to give a weekly performance in which they played symphonies or concertos. During the summer they played outside in the palace garden. The court musicians also played in the theater whenever they were ordered to do. On special occasions, the orchestra was also employed in the church. They played passion cantates or funeral music on the death of a family member. With all these responsibilities, it is no wonder that most of the orchestra members were lodged on the castle grounds and could only leave those grounds after having asked for permission to do so.
The repertoire in Regensburg was extremely rich and diverse. When Theodor von Schacht took charge of the orchestra, one of the first things he did was to organize the music library. Copies of scores were made in Regensburg by copyists who were most probably members of the orchestra. A catalogue, made by Von Schacht in 1790 lists no less than 1319 symphonies by at least 157 composers (some scores are anonymous). Amongst them were symphonies by Haydn and Mozart. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century did the music library order printed scores from music publishers in Vienna or Paris. In 1803 the court payed a large sum to a publisher in Paris to obtain the scores of Haydn’s symphonies.
The symphonic culture in Regensburg declined after 1798. Due to the war with France, the princes had lost control over their post-services in key parts of the continent. Touchemoulin, a very expensive musician, was dismissed and was replaced by De Croes. A document dated 1800 shows that the orchestra still comprised of 24 musicians, but its budget was only half of what it had been in 1790. The orchestra was still 23 musicians strong when it was disbanded in 1806. That year the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist and the princes of Thurn und Taxis lost their “Prinzipalkommissariat der Fürsten”. It was the end of a rich symphonic era that lasted about forty years.
The Musical Style of Henri Joseph de Croes
The two known symphonies by Henri Joseph de Croes were written at different junctures in his career and are separated in time by almost two decades. The first symphony, written in 1782, is clearly marked by the characteristics of the Late Mannheimer Style in general and by the symphonic style of Christian Cannabich in particular. A key hallmark of Canabich’s symphonies is the slow introduction at the beginning of the first part of the symphony that leads immediately into a rather spectacular and energetic allegro molto. Having met Cannabich in Mannheim, Mozart would use exactly such an introduction in the first movement of his Paris symphony (KV 297) of 1778, precisely because he knew Cannabichs symphonies were widely appreciated there. The two middle section of the symphony were factured after the galant style, typical for the Mannheimer Schule and the symphony concludes with a spectacular finale in which de Croes uses a trademark formula involving an up-beat in his second theme, which can also be found in his other works, as well as in the bassoon concerto.
It is impossible to say how many symphonies de Croes composed during his lifetime, but the more modern style and structure of the second symphony, compels us to speculate that the composer must have matured during the intermediate decades. The first movement of the second symphony, written around 1800, again opens with a slow introduction, this time in the minor, immediately followed by an energetic allegro in the style of Cannabich. The second movement seems to deviate from the Mannheimer formula and is written in a theme-in-variation-form in which the various soloists are given ample opportunity to create a rich palet of colours. The symphony concludes with an intoxicating tarantella and a ravishing alla caccia on the horn, in a way that is reminiscent to the symphonic style of Joseph Haydn.
Both symphonies are galant, affable an original construction, infused with the surprises and effects of Sturm und Drang. The most unique sounding compositions are perhaps the partias on cd2 in which the composer truly finds a voice of his own. He tends to use the middle voices - and the violas in particular – as a way to create a darker, more sensitive sound, bordering on the melancholic. In these compositions, de Croes clearly shows himself as a delicate and erudite composer of the Galant Style.
The discovery of a “new” solo bassoon concerto
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.