Saturday, 3 October 2015


“Music is the best means we have of digesting time.” - W. H. Auden

Franz Xaver Hammer (1741 – 11 October 1817) was a German gambist, cellist and composer. Hammer was born in Oettingen in Bayern. He is another of the composers that have become obscure even if during his lifetime he enjoyed prestige and renown.

There is an anecdote that Hammer started his career at the Esterháza estate, where no less a personage than Haydn himself helped him out of a jam when he gouged out an oboist's eye, supposedly unintentionally, in a tavern brawl. From 1771 to 1778, he worked under Joseph Haydn as cellist of the Esterhazy court ensemble in Eisenstadt and at the Eszterháza palace. It is thought that Haydn composed three cello concertos for him. His salary rose (from his already high 100 ducats and 30 kreuzers) a few times suggesting his extraordinary qualities as an instrumentalist.

At the premiere of Haydn's oratorio “Il Ritorno di Tobia”, Hammer played his own cello concerto. During 1776–1813, he was member of the Viennese musicians’ society. From his works have survived sonatas for viola da gamba, viola d’amore and violoncello with basso continuo and also manuscript collections of instructive pieces and solo concertos for violoncello or viola da gamba and orchestra.

Here are five viola da gamba sonatas as well as one by another late gambist, Carl Friedrich Abel. They are played by Simone Eckert (viola da gamba); Dorothee Palm (violoncello); Ulrich Wedemeier (theorbo) and Karl-Ernst Went (harpsichord and pianoforte).

Some of the movements are distinctly old-fashioned in style, raising the question of how and to what extent the instrument for which they were written forced them in that direction. Hammer was clearly capable of writing natural, Classical-style vocal-oriented melody. These pieces are accompanied sonatas, but the nature of the accompanying group is not always clear; two of the works are simply marked “basso”, which is itself an old-fashioned concept. The performers of the Hamburger Ratsmusik opt for a variety of solutions, using both harpsichord and fortepiano, as well cello and theorbo. This is a good option as it points up the odd mixture of musical thinking present in these works.

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