WATERLOO -- “Party like it’s 1799” was the theme for the weekend concerts of a small portion of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony. Music Director Jason Weinberger led an ensemble of wind players in two concerts of classical era chamber music in the lovingly remodeled Brown Derby Ballroom in downtown Waterloo. Identical concerts were performed at 5 and 8:30 p.m. I attended and am reviewing the first.
Concertgoers are quite familiar with the larger ensembles and genres of the “Classical” period (roughly 1750-1810), from orchestras to masses, but are generally unaware of what was probably the most commonly heard type of music of the time — namely, music written or transcribed for a group of wind players. The genre was called “harmoniemusik”, and the ensemble that played it was a “harmonie band,” or simply a “harmonie.” It consisted generally of pairs of winds (clarinets, oboes, horns and bassoons, and sometimes flutes). The horns functioned at that time more as woodwinds, in contrast to their more robust role today.
In truth, the origin of these ensembles was primarily rather humble —functional or social music played by groups drawn from the military bands of central Europe. As the populace at all levels grew to appreciate and benefit from the utility of these ensembles, however, their rather pedestrian early repertoire grew to include the sublime creations of the great master of the era, Mozart, Beethoven and others — written especially for these instruments.
The varied instrumentation of harmonie bands gradually coalesced into an octet — pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons. These little bands were everywhere in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany, in venues from street corners to the social events of the wealthy. They were the “radios” of their time — mixing serious compositions, dance and party music, popular music of the day, and excerpts from the latest fashionable operas.
Louder than string instruments and arguably better able to withstand inclement weather, they could play on street corners, move around town, and provide background for indoor parties — hence the theme of the evening. In this day and age, this music is known for the most part only by musicians and connoisseurs, but contains a world of fine art and virtuosic display.
The concert opened with the “Overture” from “The Abduction from the Seraglio [Harem],” a Mozart opera, in a transcription (a reworking of a piece from one performance medium to another) by the man most famous for this type of revamping — Johann Nepomuk Wendt, a Czech oboist and kappelmeister. There are still a number of companies that specialize in “gig” music for woodwind and brass quintets, and their godfather is Herr Wendt, who must have made a good living supplying harmonie bands with endless reincarnations of the current literature.
The evening continued with the extensive four-movement Partitia [Suite] of Franz Krommer, another Czech (his name was Frantisek Kramár), a Beethoven contemporary — highly thought of in his time, a prolific writer, and the composer for the Imperial Court of Austria. Krommer’s writing here emphasized the flow of melodic lines, looking back to Haydn and Mozart, and later Schubert, than it drew from the concentration on thematic development favored by Beethoven. However, particularly striking was the Menuetto — marked presto, not common for its time, and I’ll wager that the models here were the riveting scherzi of the Beethoven symphonies —burying the old minuet in an avalanche of activity. Krommer also added a string bass, which helped to balance the timbres within the ensemble.
The highlights of the evening for me were the spoken explanations by Weinberger, who quoted from letters of the time describing the wind ensembles in action at various events. How meaningful to hear Mozart’s own comments on this music-making as it happened — a clear window into a little-remembered aspect of music in society!
There followed the Rondino in Eb of Beethoven — a fairly lengthy piece from rather early in his career, but showing his insightful skills in wind writing. He must have had a good consultant on the horn, as the work exhibits novel and daring use of the muted instrument.
We then heard just the menuet from Franz Schubert’s early Octet in F Major. This is not the well-known octet for clarinet, horn, bassoon and strings, but it may have been just as long-winded, as the menuet itself was fairly lengthy, contained two trios rather than the usual one, and I imagine caused endurance challenges for more than a few. While rarely performed, it nonetheless exhibited Schubert’s gift for unending melody.
The evening closed with one of the greatest works in the harmonie band genre, the Serenade in Eb, K. 375, of Mozart. The extensive work encompasses five movements and was reworked by Mozart from an earlier sextet, after he saw the octet gaining popularity.
The Eb Serenade ranks compositionally with anything Mozart has written. The delicious half-step dissonances early in the opening give us a foretaste of what is to come — masterful exchange of melodic lines and an adroit mix of lightness and drama. The fugato passages in the last movement are another stroke of genius. This work has remained in standard literature, primarily done by the better collegiate wind ensembles.
The hardworking performers were not listed in the program — they were Heather Armstrong and Rebecca Kimpton, oboes; Eric Wachmann and Daniel Friberg, clarinet; Dan Malloy and Valerie Shanley, horn; Cayla Belamy and Annalea Milligan, bassoon; and Alexander Pershounin, bass.
Thanks are due to sponsors Heartland Financial Services, Russell and Diane Curtis, Jim Walsh and the Brown Derby Ballroom, Vaughn and Judy Griffith, the Iowa Arts Council, the R.J. McElroy Trust and to Phil Maass of KUNI-KHKE for recording.
The symphony next appears at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 27 in Gallagher-Bluedorn for "A Cedar Valley Christmas," and on Dec. 10 in the same location for the annual Christmas event, "The Snowman" movie accompaniment at 4 p.m. Then it's back to the Brown Derby on Feb. 10.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music of UNI, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.