Joseph Martin Who?

How about a nice piece of music?

Wasn’t that splendid?

I ‘discovered’ Joseph Martin Kraus long before I came to Sweden, and was surprised when I arrived here to discover how little he was known in his adopted country. This symphony – his best – was on an old Turnabout LP called ‘Symphonies for Kings’. The King in this case was Gustavus III of Sweden; the highly cultured but latterly increasingly authoritarian monarch whose assassination is the subject of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (1859). I reckoned that this symphony was up there with Mozart and Haydn; and apparently Mozart and Haydn thought so too. Haydn claimed that Kraus’s Symphony in C minor would be ‘regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come’. Mozart called him ‘the first great composer of genius that I ever knew’. He wrote several symphonies, plus operas and chamber music; as well as being a playwright, poet and philosopher of some merit. He also shared a rather spooky history with Mozart: sharing his dates (1756-92), dying tragically young, therefore, and with his final musical work being a Requiem (of sorts, for his murdered king), just as Mozart’s was. Some of his music is appearing at last on CD, and on YouTube, whence this example is taken.

Kraus was one of those German composers who sought patronage abroad, as had Handel in England earlier, and one of the Bach sons around Kraus’s time. The German states clearly had a surplus of symphonists, and other countries a serious lack of them. Who between Purcell and Elgar could be counted a really ‘great’ native composer in England, for example; or at any time at all in musically impoverished Sweden? The quirky Berwald, perhaps; but he couldn’t make a living there as a composer, so only made music part-time. His day job was as an orthopaedic surgeon. (I’m sorry, I can’t accept Stenhammar: see But maybe I’m just deaf to him.) In fact it’s curious that Sweden is the only Scandinavian country that can’t boast a Grieg, a Nielsen or a Sibelius; though I’ve long thought it might appropriate the last-named, who was a Swedish-speaking Finn, after all. – And yes, of course I’m being elitist in my choice of the kind of music I’m writing about; though I think I could be accused of greater elitism if I thought that ‘ordinary people’ couldn’t appreciate classical music too.

It’s for reasons like this – the unequal spread of musical genius around Europe – that what talent there was needed to be shared out. And – to insert a political point into this argument – doesn’t it more than justify freedom of movement in Europe, at least on this cultural level? Just think what Britain might have been if Brexit had gone way back? Little decent music, no Gothic architecture, Shakespeare without his Continental links (visits by his ‘players’, for example, to the castle of Helsingør), no Saxon democracy, even possibly no drinking cups (brought over from Europe by the ‘Beaker Folk’); to put against the less admirable aspects of immigration: Viking rapine and pillage, the Norman Yoke, our aristocracy, the Royal Family, and so on. And the same applies the other way around. Where would the Continent be without our manufacturers (Engels’s dad, for example), railway builders, football, and Political Economy? All of which was made possible because freedom of movement was more or less a ‘given’ in that period; except in a few very backward countries – Tsarist Russia was one – where there were even restrictions on travelling between towns. Britain, for one, didn’t require passports for foreign incomers until the 20thcentury.

You can see where poor Martin Kraus fits into this argument. But his music should mainly be listened to, of course, for its intrinsic beauty and drama. I thought of him in this context because I’ve just acquired a volume of his letters in translation, edited by the leading – perhaps, sadly, the only – scholarly expert on him, Bertil Van Boer. I’m looking forward to reading it, with the Symphony in C minor playing in the background.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Joseph Martin Who?

  1. kstankers5 says:

    There was some interesting ‘left-field’ music on Turnabout in the 60’s and early 70’s. TV Turnabout (to give it its full name) helped launch a few careers – notably Alfred Brendel, with his fine cycle of the 5 Beethoven Piano Concerti.
    As for Tsarist Russia and its insularity – an exception to this if I may. The Russian word for station is ‘Voksal’, originating from Vauxhall Station, one of the earliest on the Underground. A group of Russian engineers, tasked with designing and building a new station in Moscow, came to London for some inspiration. They were taken to Vauxhall Station, saw the sign’ Vauxhall’ – and thought it meant ‘Station’!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s