The Renaissance set itself over and against the Middle Ages, which began to be considered as a dark era, with little culture and much superstition. This historiographic myth was fuelled by the rediscovery of ancient Latin and Greek sources by the fifteenth-century humanists and their epigones in the following centuries. Poetry and visual art took inspiration from antiquity and Classicism; its myths, idiosyncrasies, figures, tales, and values became foundational for early modern culture, and for modernity itself.
Still, the Greek and Roman myths were quintessentially Mediterranean. They referred to a past which had certainly influenced all Europe – thanks to the appropriation of many elements of heathen culture by Christianity – but which was primarily the past of the southern regions of the Continent. In the eyes of the Greeks and Romans (and particularly of the former, of course), what lay behind the Alps was “barbaric”, and deserved very little attention from the cultural viewpoint.
Christianity took a different stance, and was able to incorporate many traditions, rites, knowledge, and practices of the Northern or Eastern countries without betraying its own core, but rather enriching its diversity through the contact with different cultures. And then, indeed, the disparaged Middle Ages forged a flourishing civilization, whose founding principles were found in the shared narratives of the Christian story.
As previously said, the Renaissance partly replaced these narratives with the Classical myths; in this, it would be followed by the era known as Classicism (eighteenth century) when, for instance, opera librettos constantly dealt with Olympian gods and Arcadian sceneries. The pre-eminence of these narratives which shaped modern European culture was commonly accepted; however, this does not imply that it was always and entirely appreciated. This feeling became increasingly controversial and widespread with the emergence of the modern nation-states, each of which felt the need to legitimise itself, its history, and its roots by the adoption of a mythology of its own. In certain cases, there were abundant sources to draw from; not by chance, Romanticism began to re-appraise and re-appreciated the Middle Ages, and to bring to light the epic stories of peoples other than the Mediterranean ones. For instance, the Germanic lands had a wealth of stories, tales, and songs which seemed only to await rediscovery.
In the British islands, the situation was different. Scotland and Ireland did have magnificent traditions of their own, but at times it was difficult to trace them, and – more seriously – to have them accepted by the English elites, who – with some reason – feared the establishment of too powerful an identity in the hearts of their neighbours. This fear was particularly acute given the absence of an English epos: a lack which JRR Tolkien would intensely feel, and which would prompt him to create his magnificent legendarium, as the modern replacement for an inexistent ancient mythology.
It was also for these reasons that the English were quick to shed doubts about the authenticity of the Ossian songs, which, nevertheless, were hailed with enthusiasm throughout Europe and provided a new foundation to the rediscovery of “folklore”.
Ossian allegedly was a Gaelic bard from Scotland, who had lived in the third century. The “Ossian” songs had been rediscovered, or perhaps collected from oral tradition, or more probably created out of thin air, by a Scottish antiquarian by the named of James Macpherson (1736-1796), who, in 1760, issued a book by the title of Fragments of Ancient Poetry. Forgery or finding, it little mattered: what did matter was the inspiration these songs provided to the Romantics – significantly, particularly to the German Romantics. In music, the best known and probably most notable example of this frenzy is doubtlessly Felix Mendelssohn’s The Cave of Fingal (The Hebrides), where elements genuinely derived from Scottish music are woven within a distinctly “German-Romantic” fabric.
But this mania conquered many other musicians, including the protagonist of this Da Vinci Classics publication, Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806-1856). He was born in Pressburg, today’s Bratislava, only a little time after the famous treaty following the Napoleonic wars. The beginnings of his musical activity are unknown, but he seems to have been a poly-instrumentalist since a very young age, and to have contributed, through his musical performances, to the economic support of his family of origin.
He settled in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a number of musical stimuli converged. On the one hand, it was one of the first cities in Europe as concerns the presence and quality of a guitar tradition. Many of the greatest guitarists of the era – including, notably, Mauro Giuliani – were there at the same time, and this provided countless encouragements to a budding guitarist. Secondly, in Vienna could be found many of the greatest living composers, and particularly of the “founders” of musical Romanticism. And even those who did not live there were still referring to the Empire’s capital as the place where all good music should transit. This was also due to the presence of some of the most important publishers of the era, including the Haslinger company with whom Mertz would soon be in close contact. Finally, the ascent of the bourgeoisie, and its appropriation of the styles, practices, and habits which had formerly been the exclusive property of nobility fostered the production of musical repertoires conceived for the bourgeois salon and household.
Typically, all bourgeois salons had a piano, and, even more typically, all young girls had learnt how to play it. Still, very few were great virtuosas and wished to spend great effort and time in order to master the finesses of technique and performance. Their need for “good” music which had to be not excessively difficult or long dovetailed with another typical trait of the era, i.e. the attention for miniature forms in music and in poetry. Many of the greatest composers were not in the least ashamed to set aside the large-scale forms (such as symphonies or oratorios) in favour of shorter pieces; to be sure, despite their compact size, many of these miniatures were authentic masterpieces which still conquer and delight concert pianists and professionals.
Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and later Brahms, all were skilled composers of such miniatures. And these small-scale gems found their way in countless households and salons. One of them was that of Mertz’s wife, Josephine, who was a great professional pianist with whom Mertz himself would often play. It is likely that the composition of Bardenklänge was at least in part prompted by her, albeit perhaps unwillingly. This collection of extraordinary short pieces for the guitar was in fact conceived, and mainly realised, during a period of forced rest which was imposed on the composer. In fact, he suffered from attacks of neuralgia, which were treated, according to the coeval pharmacopoeia, with strychnine. As one can easily imagine, strychnine is no child’s play, and Mertz involuntarily assumed an overdose which was nearly fatal to him. Whilst he did live for another decade, that experience probably led him to consider the possibility of creating a series of short guitar pieces, in the fashion of the piano pieces his wife was playing for him, and alluding – in their titles, styles, form, and ideas – to the coeval piano collections (for instance by Schubert and Schumann, but also Mendelssohn as in Lied ohne Worte). The titles’ inspiration, however, derives in the main from Ossian’s songs. While the composer did essay to include genuine “Scottish” music in his score, the references remain rather vague, and, most importantly, occasional. It is also to be said that the titles under which Mertz’s songs were published do not always refer to “Ossian’s songs”, even though the lyrics fully belong in the tradition we might define as “Romantic”. The most explicit homage to the “Bard” cited in the cycle’s title is, of course, Fingals-Höhle, and probably the piece most “un-Scottish” is no. 13, a galloping Italian tarantella (but the victory is disputed by no. 9, Gondoliera). In other cases, the references seem to go back more to an epical, mythological past than to precise instantiations of the Ossian poetry. The themes we find in these pieces are the most quintessentially German-Romantic themes we may hope to encounter: for instance, Abendlied is a title shared by several songs by the great Romantic composers; Unruhe, with its disquieting movements, suggests the tension which are so typical for the Romantic soul. Other pieces develop technical aspects, as happens with Etude and also with Capriccio, while most can rightfully be described as “character pieces” – a label which is here intended as entirely devoid of a prejudiced aesthetical evaluation. Elfenreigen is yet another embodiment of a fairy-tale mythology (which, in all likelihood, was rather extraneous to the great warriors of “Ossian’s” time…!). It recalls the atmospheres conjured by Mendelssohn in his extraordinary Midsummer Night’s Dream. Other styles are also present; for instance the religious component of music – a trait which would be increasingly common in the Romantic era – which becomes an instrumental prayer of sort in No. 12, Gebeth.
Mertz’s ability is shown at every bar of this collection: he was the developer of new fingerings and guitar technique, but also a creator of beauty and fascination, of enchantment and poetry, whose magical world does not cease to fascinate performers and listeners alike.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Federica Canta: Born in Milan in 1991, Federica Canta discovered the classical guitar world at the age of ten.
Following her Cum Laude graduation at the “G. Verdi” Conservatory in Milan with Paolo Cherici (June 2013), she studied with Francesco Biraghi in the same institution, obtaining the Second Level Academic Degree with highest marks Laude and Honors (October 2016) with the Recital and the written thesis “Italian Capricci through the centuries”. In June 2017 she got her Master in Performance Practice with High Distinction at the Koninklijk Conservatorium of Brussels, where she studied with Antigoni Goni, and a Postgraduate in Music in June 2018.
Between 2010 and 2013 she attended the prestigious “Giulio Regondi Guitar Academy” in Milan with Andrea Dieci and Bruno Giuffredi. Federica has attended masterclasses given by Giulio Tampalini, Lorenzo Micheli, Matteo Mela, Carlo Marchione, Elena Papandreu, Margarita Escarpa, Pavel Steidl, Marcin Dylla, Leo Brouwer, Sergio and Odair Assad. During her concert activities, she focused her attention on the romantic repertoire for guitar, on modern and historical instruments too, stimulated by the profound passion of her teacher Francesco Biraghi. In 2014 she played in the big hall of the Conservatory G. Verdi in Milan for the production “Don Pasquale” by G. Donizetti and in September 2018 she collaborated with the Academy Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala in Milan for the Opera “Alì Babà” by L. Cherubini.
Federica performed for some of the most important Guitar Societies in Italy, Belgium, Germany and United States.
Caspar Joseph Mertz (baptised Casparus Josephus Mertz) was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava (Slovakia), then the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary and part of the Austrian Empire. He was active in Vienna (c.1840–1856), which had been home to various prominent figures of the guitar, including Anton Diabelli, Mauro Giuliani, Wenceslaus Matiegka and Simon Molitor. A virtuoso, he established a solid reputation as a performer. He toured Moravia, Poland, and Russia, and gave performances in Berlin and Dresden. In 1846 Mertz nearly died of an overdose of strychnine that had been prescribed to him as a treatment for neuralgia. Over the following year he was nursed back to health in the presence his wife, the concert pianist Josephine Plantin whom he married in 1842. Some speculation may lead one to the conclusion that listening to his wife performing the romantic piano pieces of the day during his period of recovery may have had an influence on the sound and unusual right hand technique he adopted for the Bardenklänge (Bardic Sounds) op. 13 (1847).
Mertz’s guitar music, unlike that of most of his contemporaries, followed the pianistic models of Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann, rather than the classical models of Mozart and Haydn (as did Sor and Aguado), or the bel canto style of Rossini (as did Giuliani). Though the date of his birth indicates that that was the logical influence, since Sor was born in 1778, Aguado in 1784 and Giuliani in 1781 while Mertz in 1806, a difference of about 25 years.
The Bardenklänge are probably Mertz’s most important contribution to the guitar repertoire – a series of character pieces in the mould of Schumann.