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 Interview, David Owen Norris on Mozart in the Nineteenth-Century Drawing-Room

David Owen NorrisIn his capacity as Professor of Music at the University of Southampton, the pianist David Owen Norris is currently engaged in a large-scale research project exploring early nineteenth-century arrangements of orchestral favourites for chamber groups, and his latest recording Mozart in the Nineteenth-Century Drawing-Room makes a hugely attractive case for some of his discoveries: transcriptions of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 21 and the overtures to Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte by Clementi, Cramer and Hummel, all scored for flute, violin, cello and piano (or ‘Jupiter Ensemble’, as the configuration became known).

I spoke to David last month about the popularity of arrangements for these forces in nineteenth-century Britain, the degree of artistic license taken by the three composers here, and the special sonorities of the Broadwood piano (complete with divided pedal) which he plays on the recording.

Why do you think this particular instrumentation was so popular, and where were the arrangements performed?

The charming thing about the ‘Jupiter Ensemble’ is that it actually manages to sound like an orchestra – obviously the piano has to be the brass, but because you’ve got a wind instrument and string instrument, there’s still some orchestral colour. I think it’s very significant that these Mozart arrangements were all published in London: they were probably more necessary in England than in German-speaking countries, because in England all the orchestras were concentrated in London, whereas every little German city had its own. There’s a magazine review that Professor Mark Everist found by the man who founded the Norwich and Norfolk Festival, in which he particularly praises Hummel’s arrangements of the overtures and makes the point that because Mozart’s melodies are so beautiful they really lend themselves to arrangements - so possibly the arrangements found their place in festival concerts of that time, and they might well have been put on at something like the Three Choirs. Interestingly enough, though, the manuscript of Cramer's version of K467 is dated ‘Munich, 1836’, so Cramer was evidently finding his arrangements useful even during concert-tours.

It's also worth noting that the Jupiter Ensemble was made up of the common instruments of the day: the flute was very much in the public mind in the nineteenth century because of the great flautist Charles Nicholson, and so quite a lot of gentlemen played the flute. Possibly in the eighteenth century it would have been an oboe, because there was Johann Christian Fischer; it always takes a great virtuoso, I suppose, to make an instrument popular.

How faithful are these arrangements to the originals?

Some bars are quite sensibly missed out in the Munich version, where Mozart has repeated bars in his build-ups to create a sort of Mannheim crescendo: Cramer occasionally truncates these, probably because he’s working with chamber forces and the Mannheim crescendo’s more effective with an orchestra. He also alters some of Mozart’s figurations so that they’re a little bit more harmonically daring, because tolerances were greater then, so he obviously doesn’t feel bound to do exactly what Mozart wrote. There’s another very interesting category of change which we can only speculate about: Cramer didn’t bother to write out all the notes of the piano part, and consequently in the piano solos in the finale there are bars rest given in the short score...but many more bars rest than there are in the original! Obviously Cramer decided that in those piano solo sections he was going to extemporise a little extra, so that’s what I’ve done – we have no way of knowing exactly what he would have played, except that I do know quite a lot of Cramer’s music, so what I play is my idea of what he might have done.

The piano part of the concerto is also considerably altered to take account of the fact that the pianos that Cramer was writing for were bigger than Mozart’s, which had only five octaves; Cramer had access to an additional octave on top of that, and in their arrangements of the piano concertos both he and Hummel used the new bottom notes and top notes, because to them it seemed madness not to. What they’d have made of somebody playing Mozart’s original version with only five octaves on a seven-and-a-half octave Steinway I can only imagine! Their instruments also had slightly heavier and deeper actions than Mozart’s Viennese instruments, which made a sort of flamboyant virtuosity possible, and you notice that at the very first solo entry of K467: Mozart writes an ornament for only one hand, whereas Cramer does it with both hands and makes it fuller and richer.

The 'drawing-room' element of the title suggests that these arrangements were conducive to domestic as well as public performance: would any of them have been within the hitting-zone of good amateur musicians?

I’d say that they’re rather more challenging than that, though of course it depends on how gifted the amateurs were. It’s not just the concertos that are taxing: Hummel’s arrangements of the Zauberflöte and Figaro overtures are both very difficult, and the finale of Clementi’s Jupiter is a pretty major virtuoso piece. Nor is it just the piano-writing - the flute parts are also quite high, so I don’t think that in these particular arrangements that anybody’s taking any prisoners! The provinces were full of good professional musicians, though, so I suppose there’s always a possibility that you might have invited your local cathedral organist to try something through: cathedral cities have always been places where musicians have coalesced, and probably in places like Oxford and Cambridge there would have been quite a lot of people who could have played them through purely for the pleasure of it. You see something similar with piano duet arrangements of works like Holst's The Planets, which are purely designed as a way for people to experience the music rather than being intended for public performance. But the piano duet on its own was a rather later phenomenon – that started to take off in the 1860s, whereas the last arrangement for flute, violin, cello and piano that comes to mind is an arrangement of the Mendelssohn Octet from the 1850s.

Did working on these reductions give you any new insights into the originals?

The first thing that springs to mind is the counterpoint in the Jupiter – all of the players except me have played the piece orchestrally, but I think we were all in agreement that the counterpoint became more insistent and urgent when you’re sitting in a concentrated group, and in particular when you hear phrases that are usually played on the viola or something on the piano… From my point of view, of course, I’ve not had that orchestral experience, and it was wonderful to be right in the middle of the counterpoint and see exactly how it works. Another thing that I found very interesting is the establishment of speeds: in familiar music like these Mozart pieces we all have a basic idea of the 'right' tempo, even if one’s heard them in performances that do go at different speeds. Once it’s been arranged for a different ensemble, though, you have to consider how fast it’s possible to play certain passages on the piano – we know that Hummel and Cramer could play things very fast indeed, but because things lie differently on the piano we really had to approach the question of tempo from scratch.

The slow movement of the Jupiter is also quite tricky because Clementi chooses to give the tune to the piano, and because of the way that the piano tone fades and cannot build during a note, you have to use particular performing tricks. (This is slightly different repertoire, but when Mendelssohn arranged the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream for piano he changed all the dynamics – for instance, he put in twice as many sforzatos). All of these arrangers were great pianists rather than great violinists: Cramer’s father led various orchestras in London, so Cramer certainly knew a thing or two about playing the violin, but they were all primarily pianists and they all knew that you had to do certain things a little bit differently on the piano, so it was very interesting to see how they dealt with the nature of the instrument in their arrangements.

You're using a Broadwood piano for the project - how did you acquire it, and what special qualities does it bring to the music?

It certainly is one of the first (if not the first) recording of a Broadwood with a divided pedal. It’s an interesting construction: its frame is new, but its action has come out of earlier instruments for which the cases have not survived. Around twenty years ago I came across a Broadwood with a divided pedal for the first time; I borrowed it from its owner and took it around doing concerts and started to find out about how this divided pedal worked. I discovered that during the period when the divided pedal was at its height (which is roughly the 1820s and 1830s), the pitch of wind instruments was A=430, so I got Christopher Barlow to keep his eyes open for a piano that could live at 430, and the piano he found currently lives in my music-room. When it became apparent what a rich field this was, I asked Chris if he’d like to make this new piano with old actions, so that we could really hear what instruments of this period sounded like. Hopefully the result gives us the best of both worlds: authentic action coupled with a new case and soundboard so that the resonances are as it would have been when it was new.

Once you’ve come across this divided pedal idea it’s a great mystery why they stopped being made, because I keep coming across other composers that used it: for example, Mendelssohn’s aunt in Berlin had a Broadwood with a divided pedal, though as far as we know it was only London-built pianos that had that mechanism. In Cramer’s arrangement, he even puts the pedal-marks in different places – above, below and between the staves - to show you which bit of the pedal you should be using.

The other lovely thing about the Broadwoods of this date is that they have the true una corda, so when you put your foot on the soft pedal the keyboard plays only one string, and that sound is quite unearthly because it’s very, very pure: even on a perfectly-tuned piano, there’s a certain richness due to the fact that there are three strings which are all resonating slightly differently. These early pianos have such a range of colours from all this wonderful hardware: the manufacturers were very inventive, partly because the actions weren’t very deep. As actions developed through the later nineteenth century, it became possible to do without some of the sound-assisting gadgets that had been used earlier - but of course the actual sounds that they made were then lost altogether, which is a great pity as they're often very interesting sounds.

(The photograph shows Owen Norris at Elgar’s 1844 Broadwood piano, (c) Simon Weir).

Mozart in the nineteenth-century drawing room

David Owen Norris (piano), Katy Bircher (flute), Caroline Balding (violin), Andrew Skidmore (cello)

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