When life give you lemons...make lemonade. It seems that’s what Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf decided to do.
In 1781, the Viennese composer pitched an idea to the music publisher, Artaria, for a set of 15 symphonies based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Dittersdorf's proposal was to be a sort of collector's edition of symphonies complete with synopses of selected myths, illustrated with newly commissioned engravings. Dittersdorf was rejected by the publisher but he didn’t give up. He shopped his idea around and had some success several years later with another firm who agreed to publish the first three symphonies-albeit without the engravings or front material. By this time, Dittersdorf had completed 12 out of the originally planned 15 symphonies.
The Ovid Symphonies
Born in 1739, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf lived and breathed Viennese classicism. He rubbed noses with all the familiar people, even playing string quartets with Haydn, Mozart, and Vanhal at a friend’s house. A prolific composer of abstract instrumental music-symphonies, concertos, chamber music and the like—Dittersdorf's theatre blood ran thick too. The son of a costume-maker, Dittersdorf followed in his father’s theatrical footsteps. In 1761, he took a job as the Imperial Theatre Director for Count Giacomo Durazzo, and later, oversaw the theatre in his several subsequent employments including those at Grosswardein and the Johannisberg castle. Dittersdorf's Ovid Symphonies therefore seem a natural synthesis of these two pursuits of a composer drawn to the programmatic aspects of dramatic storytelling in music.
The first performance of Dittersdorf’s Ovid symphonies tell us a lot. In 1786, Dittersdorf finished an oratorio commission for the musician’s society and traveled to Vienna to hear the work performed. Dittersdorf also brought with him the 12 completed Ovid symphonies, and arranged for their performance in the Augarten over the course of two concerts in May of that year, the same month that Mozart premiered his new opera Le nozze di Figaro. For his Augarten premiere, Dittersdorf engaged a forty piece orchestra and hired a copyist to make parts for them. Mozart’s friend and patron, Baron Gottfried von Swieten took notice, and helped Dittersdorf sell and distribute tickets. Despite bad weather, a postponement, and some official red tape, the event was by all accounts a huge success—even—lucrative for Dittersdorf.
Still, the path to publication proved problematic. Aside from the first three symphonies that were published in the 1780s, the next in the series—numbers 4 through 6—remained in manuscript. Numbers 8, 10, and 11 were lost entirely, and three others, numbers 7, 9, and 12 now exist only as Dittersdorf’s own arrangements for piano-four hands. Just why Dittersdorf decided to arrange his symphonies for piano isn’t known, but a good guess is that he was making the best of his publishing debacle, hoping that the piano arrangements would be more marketable to a wider public.
Now, over two centuries later, the wider public can hear Dittersdorf’s symphonies-turned-sonatas for fortepiano-four hands in a world premiere recording from historic keyboard specialists, James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka.
Ajax and Ulysses, a tale in music
In Dittersdorf’s musical take on Ovid’s Ajax and Ulysses, the warrior Achilles has died. Ajax and Ulysses contend for his arms in a debate arbitrated by the commander of the Greek army. This first movement of Dittersdorf’s symphony depicts Ajax as he makes his case, the second movement depicts Ulysses’s appeal.
For his part, Ajax gives solid arguments as to why he should receive the prized weapons. His rhetoric is technically good, proper, and effective…but also plodding. In his program note, Dittersdorf explains it this way: “In writing the Allegro moderato in a contrapuntal style, the composer wishes to depict an orator who certainly exhibits his deep knowledge of rhetoric, but whose speech abounds with his schoolroom pedantry.”
By the 1780’s contrapuntal writing was certainly considered old-fashioned and doctrinaire—fitting for the figure of Ajax. In contrast, the musical depiction of Ulysses's response comes in a calm, charming, and confident recitative. Ulysses is—as Dittersdorf describes it—an orator who “can bind his audience to him through subtle delivery, without transgressing the rules of the art.”
Ulysses’s eloquence proves irresistible, and so, winning the contest of words with Ajax, he is awarded Achilles’s armor. The 3rd movement Minuet then portrays Ulysses’s victory (in the A section), and Ajax’s despair and defiance with the Commander’s ruling (in the B section).
The final movement follows the story to its dramatic end: Ajax commits suicide after which a purple scented flower blooms from the place where Ajax’s blood has fallen. Here’s how Dittersdorf describes it: “Irresolution, pain, ambition, shame and rage alternate in this Allegro molto. After the rage depicted in the two repeated sections, Ajax stabs himself in the breast with the sword of Achilles. The blood streams out of the wound, but stops again. At that point, the composer is not capable of depicting the color or fragrance of the flowers; so he requests his audience, whether or not with closed eyes, that at the performance of the last Adagio con molto, he must imagine a whole bed of the most wonderful flowers, in a summer setting, which not only satisfies the eyes but also the nose.”
James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka
Fortepianists James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka are well-matched in their performances—so seamlessly responsive in their back and forth that it’s sometimes easy to forget there are two players and not only one at the helm of the 1801 Walter model fortepiano on which they perform.
The two other symphonies-turned-sonatas four hands that they play together on this recording tell the tales of Hercules and Jason. Knowing the stories makes all the difference in the listening, and it’s especially delightful to have the composer's own descriptions of his music.