Concerto for Solo Violin with Flute, two Oboes, two horns, two bassoons and strings
Auber, Daniel Francois Esprit
Concerto for Solo Violin
with Flute, two Oboes, two horns, two bassoons and strings
(b. Caen, 28 January 1782 – d. Paris, 12 May 1871)
In 1938, with financial support provided by the Work Projects Administration, Sidney Beck prepared an edition of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber’s Violin Concerto. Published by the New York Public Library, Beck’s edition remains the primary source for students of Auber’s early attempts at serious composition. Other works—including a youthful piano sonata; a string quartet; a trio for piano, violin, and ’cello; and several ’cello concertos—have either been forgotten or lost, or they survive today only in fragmentary form. Precisely when Auber completed his Violin Concerto seems to be unknown: Beck gives 1805, while Herbert Schneider—who compiled a comprehensive catalogue of Auber’s considerable musical output—gives 1808. In any event, it was during the early to mid-1800s that Auber turned to the stage, and as the creator of La muette de Portici (1828, also known as “Masaniello” and “Masaniello, ou La muette de Portici”), La fiancée (1829), Fra Diavolo (1830), and Le domino noir (1837) he acquired considerable wealth as well as fame. Although his operas have faded from sight, several of Auber’s dramatic overtures, including those for Le cheval de bronze (1835; revised 1857) and Les diamants de la couronne (1841), are still occasionally performed today; so too, at least in Germany, is Fra Diavolo. Between the later 1820s and the early 1870s Auber also produced several pieces for piano and orchestra, a Mass, and a number of smaller sacred works.
Born in 1782, Auber died in 1871 during his eighty-ninth year. In childhood he learned to play the piano and oboe, and he also became a skillful singer. Instead of joining his father’s prosperous business as an art dealer, however, Auber spent some time in England during the very early 1800s. There he learned to speak English and “seems to have had some success in London as a performer and as a composer of romances and quartets,” as Schneider informs us in Grove Music Online. More than a century ago, musicologist Charles Malherbe ascribed the composer’s lifelong self-discipline and penchant for musical understatement to his English sojourn. 1806, at the age of twenty-four, he was admitted as a composer to the Société Académique des Enfants d’Apollon: a signal honor for a musician at that time still an amateur.
What makes Auber’s Violin Concerto extraordinary, at least from the perspective of twenty-first-century music lovers, are its lack of drama and its comparatively tame filigree. Unlike the brilliant and more heavily orchestrated violin concertos of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, including Mozart and Beethoven, Auber’s work is essentially a quintet for strings with interpolated passages for a small group of wind instruments. Of the first movement’s 267 measures, fewer than 30 employ the entire ensemble, which consists of a single flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, solo violin, first and second violins, violas, ’cellos, and basses. For the most part throughout this movement, marked “Allegro ma non troppo,” the bassoons merely double the lower strings, including the violas, while the oboes often double the upper strings. Auber, however, provides a bit of instrumental color even in his doublings. Thus at mm. 41ff. the solo flute doubles the second violins, while the oboes double the solo violin and first violins. Later, at mm. 57ff. the flute doubles the solo and first violins, while the oboes double the violas.
Nevertheless, even Auber’s most vigorous ensemble moments merely punctuate these gentle textures rather than transforming or developing them. Furthermore, in contradistinction to more familiar eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice, the solo violin plays throughout each movement, often doubling the first violins as if Auber’s were a Baroque concerto grosso. When the solo violin is foregrounded, in mm. 71-157 and 169-270, the wind instruments vanish and what we hear is a chamber composition, frilly and yet restrained. Virtuoso display is limited to scales, trills, and a very few fingered octaves (e.g., mm. 134-136), and the soloist rarely plays notes higher in pitch than those assigned the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Zauberflöte.
Of his Concerto’s three movements, Auber is perhaps most successful in the second and third. The “Andante” is a pleasant, slightly melancholy interlude, with a bit of counterpoint played by both bassoons in mm. 38ff. The concluding “Presto” contains spritely ensemble writing (again, almost entirely for strings); it anticipates some of the livelier passages in the composer’s comic operas. It was this concerto, written for Jacques-Féraol Mazas (1782-1849) and performed, according to Beck, as early as 1806, that led the Enfants d’Apollon to nominate the composer for membership.
Auber went on to study composition with Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), who served during the two decades before his death as Director of the Conservatoire in Paris. Upon his teacher’s demise, Auber himself became Director. Although a few of his later and more serious operas differ markedly in dramatic and musical style from his earlier comedies—L’enfant prodigue (1850) is a case in point—Auber’s reputation slowly declined the century that followed. Dismissed by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann as an insignificant composer, Auber was hailed by Richard Wagner as an innovator for his use of “reminiscences” (passages similar to Wagner’s later Leitmotive) that “create a network of musico-dramatic relationships supported by a scheme of tonalities” throughout Le muette de Portici, and for Auber’s “frequent alternation between crowd scenes and intimate encounters of individuals.”
Michal Saffle, 2016
Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.