Product details

om204 / Volume 7
Johann Gottlieb Graun (1702/03-1771)
Concerto for viola, strings and b.c. (GraunWV Cv:XIII:116)
for va (solo), 2 vl, va and bc
Edited by Phillip Schmidt

The concerto for viola in E flat major published here for the first time[1] is transmitted in two sets of parts. The copy that appears to be the earlier one (SA 2685) identifies the composer as the cellist Markus Heinrich Grauel. In the second copy (SA 2725), which seems to have been prepared several decades later and for which the earlier source may have served as exemplar, the author’s name was probably intentionally “corrected”. The concerto possibly dates from the 1760s.

Compared with the other two viola concertos by Grauel it is noticeable that concerto no. 1 is considerably larger (536 measures compared to 409 measures in no. 3 and 442 measures in no. 4). It also surpasses the conventional duration of a solo concerto, i. e. about 15 minutes.[2] When the music historian Charles Burney (1726–1814) on his journey across Europe in 1772 also visited Berlin, he expressed his displeasure about such lengthy pieces: “This is the fault here with all these compositions, in which each movement is so drawn out that it can never keep the listener’s attention to the end.” And regarding J. G. Graun he writes: “[…] and where [his] concertos and church compositions are [not overloaded with notes so as to overwhelm the listeners] the length of each movement is more excessive than Christian patience would tolerate.”[3]

Without wishing to agree with Burney or the judgement of the “admirers of modern music”, it is true that the piece displays many characteristics that point to J. G. Graun. For example, in the first solo passage of the first movement the main subject of the ritornello is taken up in a modified form, and from m. 134 the composer introduces a contrasting solo subject. One should also note that murky basses are largely avoided. Other features are the rich harmonies, the treatment of the accompanying instruments (the violins mostly play in unison while the tutti viola occasionally supports the solo line as the only middle voice), the virtuosic and at times rather violinistic treatment of the solo part with particular emphasis on the viola’s timbre, the repeated use of double stops in thirds, sixths, and other intervals (e.g. in the Allegretto, mm. 167ff., or in the Allegro, mm. 151ff. and 222ff.), or the deeply “empfindsam” character of the central movement in c minor.

In any case this concerto appears to be a welcome addition to the rather limited viola repertoire of the 18th century, and with its challenging technical demands will perhaps arouse a more general interest in the musical taste of the age of Frederic the Great.


Phillip Schmidt

[1] A first recording of several violin concertos together with the viola concerto was released already in 2009 by the label Challenge Classics, however: “Johann Gottlieb Graun. Concertos for Strings”, Ensemble: moderntimes_1800; producer: Deutschlandfunk in collaboration with Deutschlandradio.

[2] See for example Johann Joachim Quantz, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, Berlin 1752, p. 300, §40, or Johann Georg Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, part 1, Leipzig 1773, p. 298.

[3] See Charles Burney, Tagebuch seiner Musikalischen Reisen [vol. 3] Durch Böhmen, Sachsen, Brandenburg, Hamburg und Holland. Aus dem Englischen übersetzt, Hamburg 1773, pp. 164 and 172.

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