The case of Giuseppe Maria Cambini is rather atypical in the history of Western music. We know extraordinarily little about some (crucial) aspects of his biography, such as his birth and death; we know much about episodes whose authenticity is highly questionable, but which attracted noteworthy scholarly attention; and the musicological debates about his life have frequently taken attention away from the artistic value of his music.
Information about his early years comes only from a couple of coeval sources, none of which is beyond doubt; for Fétis, he was born in Livorno, on the Tuscan coast, on February 13th, 1746. Seemingly, he received his first music lessons in his hometown, and later he was possibly a student of the famous Bolognese friar Fr Martini, who may have taught him composition, while Filippo Manfredi was probably his violin teacher.
In 1766, an opera by Cambini was allegedly premiered, to little acclaim, in Naples; on the way back, so the story has it, the musician was kidnapped by pirates, sold and mistreated, and eventually ransomed by a Venetian nobleman. This adventure, which briefly transformed an artist’s biography into a thrilling novel of buccaneers, is probably as fictional as it sounds; nevertheless, it contributed to creating an aura of myth around the figure of Cambini.
Cambini himself provides us with the next bit of information, over which, in turn, much musicological ink has been spilled: he stated that, in 1767, he played the viola for six months in a string quartet whose other members were violinists Filippo Manfredi and Pietro Nardini, together with the legendary cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini. Not only were the four musicians among the most gifted artists of their time; the exceptional quality of this undertaking (if the information is to be trusted) is that it could have represented the first example of its kind in Italy, if not in Europe. Taken together with Cambini’s later compositional output in the field of string quartets, this pioneering initiative has led many historians to postulate Cambini’s pivotal role in the creation and development of this musical genre.
Though this may have been overestimated, sometimes for nationalistic purposes, it is certain that Cambini was among the leading composers of chamber music between eighteenth and nineteenth century. Indeed, his ability in the treatment of the string quartet was acknowledged by none less than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had heard and admired one of Cambini’s works in Mannheim. The two musicians eventually met in Paris: Cambini had settled there in 1770, obtaining the important protection of F. J. Gossec, through whose influence many of Cambini’s works were performed in the French capital, gaining him widespread recognition. According to Mozart, Cambini was jealous of his fame and feared the comparison of his works with the young Austrian composer’s Sinfonia Concertante: it was to Cambini’s intrigues, in Mozart’s view, that the impossibility of performing the Sinfonia Concertante in Paris was due. Recent studies have highlighted, by contrast, a different story: seemingly, it was Mozart who had thrown the first stone, by ridiculing Cambini’s music publicly, and the resulting coldness by the Parisian patrons was entirely his own doing.
Musicological gossip aside, what is certain is that Cambini, in Paris, found fertile ground for his compositional and performance activity. In the French capital, his works started to appear in print, beginning with his String Quartets op. 1; some of his sacred works were performed at the Concerts spirituels; and his operas were regularly given, though not to universal appreciation.
The French critics, in fact, found a certain shallowness in Cambini’s theatrical works, which did not entirely conform to the magniloquent standards of the contemporaneous melodramatic taste (this did not prevent him, however, from being appointed to prestigious roles such as the musical director of the Beaujolais Theatre and as a Royal Chapel Composer). What could count as a defect in an operatic composer became, however, one of the most appreciated features in his chamber music: here, in the more intimate setting of a musical dialogue, of a refined conversation among peers, the lightness and brilliancy of his writing perfectly suited both his creative vein and the characteristics of the genre.
In the 1790s, however, Paris was not the most tranquil place to live in. After the French Revolution and the Republic, the Terror had transformed society, its behaviour and its pastimes. The Beaujolais Theatre closed in 1791; and the Louvois Theatre, which employed Cambini afterwards, would close in turn three years later.
The composer found himself in financial straits; and, in this case, we do know who came at his rescue: a wealthy merchant, by name of Armand Séguin, requested Cambini to organise a private concert season in his palace. It was in this cultivated setting that many of Cambini’s chamber works found both their origin and their premiere.
Eventually, also this source of income failed Cambini, and he was forced to support his own living by teaching violin and singing, and by composing propaganda songs for the Republic – one of them has the somewhat hilarious title of “Patriotic ronde on the crimes of the English”. This activity entitled him to a 2,000 livres emolument from the Convention.
Economic uncertainty continued, however, to afflict the composer, who was forced to undertake disparate musical activities: some of them were seemingly congenial to his talents (for example, the articles he wrote for the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung bear witness to his witty and poignant literary style), whereas others merely scattered his energies.
His last years are as uncertainly documented as his first ones had been: though Fétis claims that Cambini died in a madhouse, demented and destitute, in 1825, it is more likely that his death happened in the Netherlands, probably around 1818. If the preceding biographical sketch justifies the scholars’ focus on the obscure, adventurous or mysterious circumstances of Cambini’s life, it is however to his music that a greater attention is owed. His immense output, of which a substantial portion still survives, includes hundreds of chamber music works, exploring a variety of instrumental combinations; along with these, a number of vocal works, both sacred and secular, and an equally impressive literary output (particularly in the field of teaching methods) bears witness to Cambini’s manifold talents and to his lively creative mind.
His string quartets represent a milestone of the early history of the genre: if he really did play with the exceptional musicians cited above, it is likely that such an experience influenced his own writing, in which no individual instrument towers above the others, and no musician is confined to background roles.
This equality in diversity, through which variety is achieved in the continuous timbral changes, and the harmony of a peaceful and cultivated society is symbolized, is found, perhaps to an even more accomplished degree, also in the three Quintetti concertants for wind instruments recorded in this Da Vinci Classics CD.
Indeed, Cambini’s Quintets are ground-breaking, setting the standard for the later literature written for this ensemble. Somewhat surprisingly, in fact, woodwind quintets started to be sporadically composed in the early nineteenth century, and found widespread acceptance only in the twentieth century. The august ancestor of this form was, undoubtedly, the Viennese Harmoniemusik, whose ideal setting was the Austrian imperial court and the surrounding aristocratic palaces; bound as it was to a particular social condition, this genre started to fade at the end of the eighteenth century, but not without having inspired the creation of the woodwind quintet.
The three Quintets recorded here are possibly the first published examples of this kind; they were printed in Paris by Sieber around 1802, and were dedicated to Jean Xavier Lefebvre. The dedicatee was a founding member of the Faculty of the Paris Conservatoire (1795), the principal clarinettist of the Chapel Royal Orchestra and an author of pedagogical methods himself.
The structure of these three Quintets is homogeneous: three movements, in which the slow second movement is framed by the two fast external movements. Even the lyrical moments, however, constantly eschew the tones of pathetic drama or touching emotion; they favour, as their faster counterparts, an exquisite balance of the affections, in full consonance with the aesthetics of the Enlightenment and the refined taste of the cultivated upper classes. Humour is abundantly present, with the wind instruments engaging in brilliant asides, or wittily commenting even the most expansive melodies.
The five instruments are, as in Cambini’s string quartets, on a footing of equality; however, and possibly to an even higher degree than there, here the individual qualities of the five different instruments are constantly highlighted and exploited through a masterly knowledge of their idiosyncratic features. If operatic reminiscences are to be found in Cambini’s Quintets, they do not suggest the grandiose atmospheres of tragic operas, but rather the amusing imbroglios and the brilliant chatter of comic operas; frequently, the instruments seem to embody as many musical “characters”, whose different traits emerge, in a constant interplay, throughout the pieces.
This CD, thus, represents a welcome opportunity for discovering or re-discovering the music of an unjustly forgotten composer, who wrote beautiful works himself but who also contributed, indirectly, to the creation of a language of chamber music which would be employed by many later composers in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Ars Nova Ensemble is a “variable geometry” group, whose composition may vary from the wind quintet up to the wind ensemble. It gathers musicians coming from diverse artistic experiences: its members cooperate with several Italian Symphonic Orchestras (such as the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, Orchestra Sinfonica di San Remo, Orchestra dei Pomeriggi Musicali di Milano, Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, Orchestra del Teatro Regio di Torino, Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona) and belong to other ensembles of mixed instruments; they also teach at Italian Conservatories and musical associations. Their repertoire ranges from early music works, performed in accordance with eighteenth-century performance practice studies and historically-informed performance, up to contemporary music. Since its foundation, eight years ago, the Ars Nova Ensemble has performed in more than eighty concerts in Italy and Europe, and it has recorded works (among which some world premieres) for the Edizioni Musicali Wicky.
Giuseppe Maria Cambini: (b Livorno, ?13 Feb 1746; d ?Paris, 1825). Italian composer and violinist. His birthdate was supplied by Fétis, who mistakenly gave Cambini’s forenames as Giovanni Giuseppe (Jean-Joseph). Fétis also stated that he studied with Polli, who is otherwise unknown. Cambini’s own account (AMZ, vi) of his playing quartets as a young man with Manfredi, Nardini and Boccherini contains errors that raise questions about its validity, but it is likely that he worked with Manfredi. The tradition of his study with Padre Martini is doubtful, as is that of his personal contact with Haydn.