Curious Case of a Curious Character
is familiar with the term "the circle of fifths."
But music is not geometry, so we do not ordinarily ask ourselves a
question, "and how many degrees are there in that circle"?
Why, 360, of course.
We will never know whether this thought accounts for the
twinkle in Hässler's eyes, but it would come as no surprise. Humor
abounds in his music, and writing a cycle of 360 preludes, arranged in the order of the Circle of Fifths, was just a
small part of it.
Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747-1822) was a German composer and a klavier
player, perhaps most remembered for his contest with Mozart.
Hässler (who was a musical grandson of J.S. Bach, having studied with
one of J.S.B's last students, Johann Christian Kittel), preferred
clavichord to fortepiano, and, apparently, did not surpass Mozart in
organ playing. But then, who would.
A typical Mozart put-down came out of that encounter (in a letter of
April 16, 1789): "After lunch it was agreed to seek out an organ; we
drove there at 4 o'clock; Naumann was there as well.—At this point I
should add that a certain Hässler (organist in Erfurt) was there too;
—he's a pupil of a pupil of Bach; —his forte is the organ and the
clavichord. Now people here think that because I'm from Vienna, I am
unfamiliar with this style and way of playing.—So I sat down at the
organ and played.—Prince Lichnowsky knows Hässler well, but had some
difficulty persuading him to play, —this Hässler´s forte is his
foot-work on the organ, which is not such a great skill, since the
pedals here are arranged stepwise; also, he has simply memorized the
harmony and modulations of old Sebastian Bach and is incapable of
playing a proper fugue, and his playing lacks solidity—he's far from
being another Albrechtsberger."
To put things in context: Albrechtsberger was the greatest
contrapunctist of that time, good enough to be sought after as a
teacher by Beethoven, so Mozart is being quite nasty here, especially
in light of Hässler's apparently genuine fondness of Mozart.
Hässler was born in Erfurt, and, after a period of touring Europe
(including London, where he collaborated with Haydn), ended up in
Russia, first in St. Petersburg, and then—for over a quarter of a
century—in Moscow. Apparently, he considered his coming to
Moscow as something of a "born again" experience, because his works
there begin with Op. 1 for the second time. Or, perhaps, he
was just recycling some material for a new market, one cannot be sure.
It is from the Moscow period that one of the most astonishing works of
Hässler comes—a cycle of 360 preludes in all keys, published in
1817. Its world premiere took place on September 23, 2012,
in—naturally—Erfurt (by an American pianist of Russian descent, Dmitry
Feofanov). Its American premiere takes place today. Arranged
in the circle of fifths (C major followed by C minor, then G major and
minor, etc.), each set contains fifteen miniature preludes, some
lasting as little as three seconds. To call this "the world's
largest collection of ringtones" would not be too far off.
Nevertheless, because of sheer numbers, the complete cycle runs over 95
minutes, and ends with a sadly profound chorale prelude in F minor (O
Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid—"O Darkest Woe," one of the archetypal symbols
of German culture, used not only by J.S. Bach but also by Brahms,
Liszt, and Reger). It is a tour-de-force showing an amazing control of
textures, and not insignificant humor. Stylistically, it ranges from
the sentimental style ā la C.P.E. Bach to prophetic insights
Hässler's chief claim to fame (for reasons unknown) is a very big gigue
for piano, not necessarily his best piece. He wrote a
substantial number of sonatas, mostly for amateur musicians, and some
of these are quite lovely. As evident from the preludes, his
style is a curious mixture of backward-looking early classicism
interspersed with proto-romantic touches. After his move to
Russia, he would occasionally throw in a Russian folk song—either real
or fake—into the mix, sometimes with truly incongruous results.
The best English-language writing on Hässler was done by Christopher
Hogwood (1941-2014), in whose memory this concert is dedicated.
A substantial amount of Hässler's output is kept in the special
collection of the Moscow Conservatory. When a fellow
musician, acting on my behalf, came to copy the score, the librarian
responded to her request with "We won't give you our
Gessler!" (Things never really change in Russia, be it czars
or communists, or czars again. We arranged for copying by decidedly
unofficial means—an iPhone no one needed to see.)
"Our Gessler," indeed. Hässler found no champion in his own land, nor
in his adopted land. Today I hope to correct this injustice, for he
deserves to be heard.
~ Vitlaus von Horn