Woelfl’s Third Grand Concerto for the Piano Forte

Tuesday 21 April 2020
Joseph Woelfl (Gravure de Meyer, 1811). Source: https://c.bnf.fr/HNs

Born in Salzburg on Christmas Eve 1773, Joseph Woelfl was an Austrian pianist and composer. As a chorister at Salzburg Cathedral between 1783 and 1786 he studied with both Leopold Mozart and Michael Haydn. It was as composer to Count Ogiński in Warsaw that he made his first public appearance as a pianist, in 1792. His talent as a performer meant that he was soon regarded as the only serious rival to Ludwig van Beethoven, and following a lengthy concert tour in 1798 the Journal de Paris described him as “one of the most exciting pianists in Europe”.

A view of Salzburg, with the Cathedral bottom left. Copyright Briony Harding.

Woelfl’s rivalry with Beethoven dated from 1795, and in 1798 it culminated in a piano duel. Piano duels were improvisation contests, a popular form of entertainment amongst Vienna’s aristocracy. Both virtuoso pianists would be supported by a nobleman, with the contest taking place in one of the noblemen’s salons. Each pianist would set the other a tune upon which to improvise, and the playing would go back and forth, increasing in intensity, until a winner was declared. Beethoven was declared the winner on this occasion.

The title page of Joseph Woelfl’s A third grand concerto, for the Piano Forte (St Andrews s M1.A4M6;200)

Amongst the music currently in our online catalogue are 17 pieces by Woelfl, the majority for the piano forte. One of these pieces is his A third grand concerto, for the Piano Forte, op. 32 in F major, dedicated to his friend Johann Baptist Cramer. It consists of the traditional three movements, fast slow fast: Allegro, Andante, and Finale Presto. This concerto is from the Copyright Deposit Collection, and is bound with 21 other musical pieces, consisting of rondos, divertimentos, overtures, and other concertos, most for the piano forte. Although the title page states “with Accompaniments for a Full Orchestra”, these accompaniments are wanting. No date of publication appears on the piece, but it was entered at Stationers’ Hall on 17 December 1805. It is one of six piano concertos composed by Woelfl. Although his piano music is rarely played today, it maintained its place in the repertory for several decades after his death, unlike his other instrumental music, which quickly passed out of circulation.

A page from the first movement, showing the orchestral cues in the final stave.

Briony Harding
Assistant Rare Books Librarian

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