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Johann Peter MÜLLER (1791-1877)
Woodwind Quintet No.1 E flat (1874) [19:34]
Woodwind Quintet No.2 in C minor (1874) [11:50]
Woodwind Quintet No.3 in A (1874) [15:28]
The Richards Wind Quintet
Recording date not given. First released in 1976. CRYSTAL RECORDS CD252 [47:04]
The name of Peter Müller (he seems not to have used the first of his given names) was familiar to me only because a bassoon-playing friend mentioned him to me as a man who wrote attractive music for winds. Having heard this disc, I can confirm my friend’s opinion. It is hard to find out much about Müller, so the little biographical background I can provide derives from the booklet note (evidently a reprint of the sleeve notes on the original LP) carrying the name of “E. L. Kirk”. This is obviously the late Edgar Lee Kirk (1923-2015), bassoonist of the Richards Wind Quintet (of which he was a founding member) and Professor of bassoon and music theory at Michigan State University. The Richards Wind Quintet was established in 1948 at Michigan State University, East Lansing and was one of the earliest resident wind quintets in the USA. The Quintet was active “until the late 1980s, when retirements brought its activities to an end” (quoted from the booklet accompanying this CD). At the time of this recording the other members of the Richards Wind Quintet were Israel Borouchoff (flute, 1924-2015), Daniel Stolper (oboe, 1935- 2020), Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr (clarinet, b.1936) and Douglas Campbell (horn, b.1924). All of them, like Kirk, taught at Michigan State University and were professors there.
Peter Müller was born in Kesselstadt, near Hannau (in Hesse, not far from Frankfurt) in 1791. He attended university in Heidelberg; his studies included theology. After his time at university he taught in Giessen and subsequently became a rector at Gladenbach – both of these towns also being in Hesse. In 1817 he became a music teacher at a seminary in Friedberg, another town in Hesse. According to Kirk, in 1839 he became a pastor in Staden (also in Hesse). During these various appointments he was also busy as a composer, his output in Staden including two operas (Die letzen Tage von Pompeii, based on Edward Bulwer Lytton’s novel, The Last Days ofPompeii (1834) – which was premiered in Staden in 1853 – and Claudine von Villa Bella, a setting of the work by Goethe of the same name, which he described as “Ein Schauspiel mit Gesang”). Kirk suggests that the three wind quintets were also written after Müller’s move to Staden, describing them as “contemporary with Parsifal and Tristan”. Tristan und Isolde was premiered in 1859, Parsifal in 1878. They were first published, as a set, by Ruhle in Leipzig in 1874. This was only three years before Müller’s death; one wonders if perhaps Müller was concerned that his work should survive? The quintets were reissued around 1901 by Prager and Meier of Bremen, but seem to have been largely lost and forgotten thereafter. Kirk tells us how the quintets were rediscovered (though he doesn’t tell us when); William Waterhouse (1931-2007) – inveterate searcher out of 18th and 19th century scores for the bassoon – “by a stroke of good luck, [found] a set of the Bremen parts … in a small Paris music shop.” The quintets were later published once more by Musica Rara of London.
Had I heard this music in a ‘blindfold’ test I certainly wouldn’t have been able to guess the composer. I would also have been many years out in my estimate of when they were written. If Edgar Kirk is right (and I wouldn’t think to contradict him), Müller’s quintets were probably written after 1839, perhaps as late as the 1860s since he describes them as “contemporary with Parsifal and Tristan”– and were not published until 1874. The genre of the wind quintet effectively began with the work of composers such as Giuseppe Maria Cambini (c.1746-c.1825) and was at its most popular in the work of Anton Reicha (1770-1836), whose 24 wind quintets were published between 1817 and 1820, as well as that of Franz Danzi (1763-1826), whose nine wind quintets appeared between 1821 and 1824. The form’s first phase of popularity was effectively over – in his booklet essay accompanying a 2014 recording (LINN CKD 471) of two of Reicha’s quintets played by the Thalia Ensemble, Geoffrey Burgess observes that “[b]y the 1830s, the wind quintet had had its day.” It was after the 1830s that Müller wrote his three wind quintets – he must surely have been familiar with some of those earlier quintets, but in his work the closest affinity seems to be with Haydn or Mozart rather than with Reicha or Danzi. Indeed, so far as Müller’s quintets are concerned Romanticism might as well never have happened.
Müller’s ‘belatedness’ need not, surely, bother us. No reader will be surprised to learn that Müller was not a composer of the stature of either of the figures he so obviously admired – and he would, one imagines, have found any such comparisons laughable. He learned from them, however. In Haydn he clearly found music which deserved not to be described, as it was by some of his contemporaries (both older and younger than him) as childlike, as for example, by Robert Schumann, E.T.A Hoffman and, interestingly, by John Keats (“Haydn is like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next”). Müller’s Haydn was, clearly, the composer of music characterised by a humanity and wisdom which was thoroughly adult, but not heavy-handed; music which might perhaps be said to have those qualities of character which Charles Burney recognised in Haydn the man: “natural, unassuming and pleasing”.
All three of Müller’s wind quintets are in four movements. The longest of the three (the First) is under twenty minutes long – shorter than most of the quintets by his predecessor Anton Reicha. As this fact may imply, Müller’s writing values economy and avoids all superfluous rhetoric. The opening movement of No.1 [5:54] opens with an attractive Larghetto, in which there is a good deal of interchange between the five instruments in short solo passages. This is followed by an Allegro in which the higher instruments initially dominate. This Allegro section of the movement, considerably longer than the Larghetto introduction, is, as Kirk points out, in “strict sonata-allegro form”. Though the melodies here are not especially memorable, the whole has a definite charm. The second movement [4:40] takes the form of a vivacious scherzo and trio – in which the rhythmic patterns are playfully handled; even if Müller’s wit here isn’t as inventive as Haydn’s, it clearly belongs to the same musical family. The third movement [6:15] is a strikingly beautiful Larghetto, which sounds particularly Haydnesque. The perfect balance of the instruments is especially captivating in this lovely movement. The quintet closes with a brief [2:36], but effervescent rondo, marked Allegro molto.
Quintet No.2 is yet more economical than No.1 – its four movements – (Allegro con brio [4:08]-Andante conmoto [2:52]-Menuetto [2:12]-Allegro ma non troppo [2:27]) – are all brief. The music of the four movements is well integrated with some cross-movement echoes and allusions. The opening Allegro incorporates (in a Haydn-like touch) a hunting call on the horn. As in the first quintet, however, it is the slow movement (in E flat major, the key of that first quintet) which stands out, being lyrical and expressive, with the oboe, clarinet and flute quite prominent. The ensuing minuet (with trio) is pleasant, even if not especially distinctive and the chirpy rondo which closes the work is engaging, quietly full of life and energy. Müller’s third quintet is perhaps the most emotionally involving of the set, especially in its fine slow movement – marked Andante Sostenuto [2:58], which is preceded by an elegant Allegro [4:57] and followed by a beguiling Menuetto (with Trio) [2:59]. The quintet closes with a further Allegro [4:48], which begins with a scherzo and ends with a Trio.
When trying to write about Müller’s music, words like genial, beguiling, pleasant and charming repeatedly come to mind. I suspect that if Müller’s dates were closer to those of Haydn he would readily be recognized as an accomplished minor composer of the ‘classical’ age. As is it, however, he is likely to be overlooked even by those who would probably enjoy his work.
These are modern instrument performance of music in which period instruments can add much to the listener’s understanding and pleasure. It would be revealing to hear these quintets played by an ensemble using appropriate period instruments. Still, The Richards Wind Quintet gives us sensitive and technically assured readings and the recorded sound, despite being some 45 years old, is perfectly acceptable in terms both of balance and acoustic.
These performances were first released in 1976 as Crystal Records LP 252. This reissue comes in a digital transfer and Master made in 2020 by Sonny Ausman. Glyn Pursglove