From Our Stage

Cannabich Sinfonia

Watch the Brandenburg deliver a spirited performance of Cannabich's Sinfonia in E‑flat major from the acclaimed concert series Haydn, Mozart & Friends.



Christian Cannabich (1731–1798)



By the time Wolfgang Mozart burst onto the European scene as a child prodigy in the 1760s, Joseph Haydn and Christian Cannabich were already young men establishing their musical careers. Both men were to make a strong mark on the development of music in the eighteenth century.

Haydn would become known as ‘the father of the symphony’ and one of the most outstanding composers of the late eighteenth century, while Cannabich as leader of the acclaimed Mannheim orchestra was influential in shaping modern orchestral practice. Both befriended Mozart at significant points in his life, although both would outlive their brilliant younger contemporary.

On hearing of Mozart’s death, Haydn wrote to their mutual friend Michael Puchberg: "for sometime I was quite beside myself over his death, and could not believe that Providence should so quickly have called away an irreplaceable man into the next world".

When Mozart and his mother travelled to Paris in 1777, they planned a lengthy stop-over in the German city of Mannheim. Here the ruler, the Elector Carl Theodor, maintained an orchestra with so many exceptional players that the English music historian Charles Burney described it as having "more solo players and good composers … than perhaps … any other orchestra in Europe; it is an army of generals, equally fit to plan a battle, as to fight it".

The Mannheim orchestra was celebrated throughout Europe, and Mozart’s father Leopold called it "undeniably the best in Germany". If ever there was a place where Mozart’s talent would be recognised and amply rewarded, surely it would be here, where not a day went by without music. Once or twice a week the court would gather for tea and cards, while being entertained with symphonies and concertos. The Elector hosted ‘Gala Days’, court celebrations for name days and birthdays, which involved a mass, two operas, ballets, and a concert, while the Carnival season in January and February saw more operas, concerts, and regular masked balls.

All the music was newly composed for these occasions. The musicians’ work did not stop even during the summer holidays, when they were required to go with the Elector to his residence at Schwetzingen. It had its own theatre where operas and other shorter staged works were regularly performed.

The director of the orchestra at that time was Christian Cannabich, whose father had also been a member of the orchestra and had taught the Elector the flute. Cannabich himself joined the orchestra as a violinist at the age of twelve, and as a young man was sent by the Elector to refine his technique in Italy. He became joint concertmaster in 1759, and director of instrumental music for the court in 1774, a position he held for the rest of his life.

Cannabich was a virtuoso violinist, but it was his skill in training the orchestra that was truly exceptional, and under his direction it gained its highest accolades. According to the German musicologist Christian Schubart, who heard them in the mid-1770s, "No orchestra in the world has ever performed music better than the one in Mannheim". Cannabich, he wrote, "has invented a totally new bowing technique and possesses the gift of holding the largest orchestra together by nothing more than the nod of his head and the flick of his elbow. He is really the creator of the coordinated execution characteristic of the Palatine orchestra. He is the inventor of all those magical devices that are now admired by the whole of Europe".

Cannabich and Mozart became good friends during the five months that Mozart and his mother lingered in Mannheim, although that was only partly in the hope of a position at court. He had fallen in love with the singer Aloysia Weber, and it was only at his father’s severe urging that he was able to tear himself away. Meanwhile, he wrote to Leopold that he was at Cannabich’s house every day, having lunch with Cannabich and giving piano lessons to his daughter. Cannabich introduced him to the Elector and other important people, and organised for him to perform at court, but no job eventuated. Mozart’s timing in this as well as the rest of the trip was off: the Elector was in the process of moving his court to Munich, having just become ruler of that region as well as of Mannheim, and was reducing the size of his musical establishment. Cannabich was obliged to move with him, without his family and at his own expense despite thirty-five years in the Elector’s service.

Cannabich was now director of the merged Munich and Mannheim orchestras, but he also had to conduct opera performances, subscription concerts, and weekly performances at court – on the same salary he had received at Mannheim. He even had to ask for money for firewood so that practices could be held at his home. One of the operas that he worked on was Mozart’s Idomeneo, in 1778.

As a composer, Cannabich is best known for the ballets he wrote for the court theatre at Mannheim, and for eighty symphonies, most of which he wrote for the Mannheim orchestra.

A sinfonia was a short concerted piece in three movements, the forerunner of the modern symphony. Composers including Cannabich who wrote for the Mannheim orchestra in the middle of the 18th century came to be known as the Mannheim school, as they shared a similar style and used devices for which the orchestra was famous. These included striking dynamic effects, abrupt or very extended crescendo passages, thrilling rhythmic devices and swift ascending passages (known as the Mannheim rocket). All these features can be heard in the outer movements of this sinfonia. The Mannheim orchestra was also famous for its outstanding wind players and this sinfonia makes full use of them both to add colour and variety to the orchestral sound and as featured soloists, often in pairs.


Program Notes: © Lynne Murray, 2017
Image Credit: Steven Godbee, 2017