Mannheim: The Creation of Style

This article appeared as liner notes for the NDA's first CD recording presenting the NDA's Mannheim Project - Volume I: Early String Symphonies by J. Stamitz and F. X. Richter (2003) – exploring and documenting the birth of the symphony and establishment of the symphonic language at the glittering court in Mannheim.

The Mannheim court in the 18th century represents one of those pinnacles of enlightened vision, endeavour and achievement in the arts. Between 1748 and 1778 under the rule of Elector Carl Theodor the German court reached its zenith.

Carl Theodor himself was the very personification and embodiment of the new ideal of the enlightened prince. Upon coming to power in 1743, he began assembling a group of musical talents that would become an unrivalled powerhouse of musical energy, endeavour, activity and influence that would light up the cultural skies of Europe for the next half century. In the mid-18th century, the composers and performers at Mannheim, such as J. Stamitz (“the father of the symphony”), Richter, Wendling, Fränzl, Cannabich, Toeschi, Holzbauer and Filtz, were seen as the leading protagonists of the new symphonic language and the Mannheim orchestra was regarded as the defining and ultimate performing vehicle in this style. As a whole, Mannheim was the most famous and influential musical court of the 18th century. Starting at the beginning, this disc explores the emergence and formation of the classical language at Mannheim in the period c. 1740 – 1750, and the importance of the leading role that the Mannheim composers played in the formation of the medium of that western phenomenon, the symphony. The influence of the Mannheim School on subsequent generations of composers cannot be overestimated, nor can de esteem in which they were held in the 18th century, as both performers and composers.

Burney, 1772: The Mannheim Orchestra “is an army of Generals, equally fit to plan a battle, as to fight it.”

Stylistically, the early symphonic works of the Mannheim school take their inspiration from elements of the concerto grosso, orchestrated forms of the trio sonata or sonata a quattro, and the Italian opera “overture” or “sinfonia”. From this basis, the musicians at Mannheim formulated a codified, highly articulate musical language, which is full of rhetorical musical gestures and effects borrowed from these earlier musical languages. In its classic form, the Mannheim symphonic language typically combines energetic and exciting Italianate string figurations with driving bass lines, and soothing cantabile Italian opera style melody writing. [For our younger audience, these are a kind of 18th century equivalent of “block-rockin’ ” beats and chill-out/ambient.] Like the enlightened court atmosphere which it represents, the Mannheim musical style possesses an overwhelming energy, exuberance and almost uncontainable excitement, all presented with a great sense of structure, clarity, coherence and unity, and within this aesthetic of unity through variety, the Mannheim language constantly exudes a masterly sense of style, balance, elegance and poise.

The incredible variety of expression in the Mannheim language is achieved through, amongst other things, a repertoire of emotive “melodic” figures. Also, any given musical figure will also sound different (through articulation, dynamic, rhythm and tone colour) in a different key because each key is representing a different emotional state. It is this variety in performance which makes the Mannheim language so rich, communicative and compelling. In this language, the function of the continuo (bass line) is critical in providing the structure and continuity for this exploration and representation of emotive figures in the upper lines (violins). In many ways then, the importance of the continuo is similar to the importance of the rhythm section in jazz, providing the framework, structure and groove which allows and supports the melodic possibilities and freedoms of the upper lines. According to mid-18th century sources, the keys appearing here represent the following emotional states: A major - mirth and rejoicing; brilliant and uplifting, B flat major - cheerful love, masculine energy, hope, aspiration for a better world, C minor – lovely but sad, languishing, longing and sighing of the lovesick soul, D major – noisy, joyful, warlike and rousing; martial grand and majestic.

The New Dutch Academy Mannheim Project is an immense project involving original material from dozens of libraries throughout the world, the analysis of manuscripts, the preparation of working scores, the consultation of treatises and other sources; thought about aesthetical schools, flows, changes and in relation to instruments, playing techniques and musical realisation; and the combination of all this with performance, learning the Mannheim language, and bringing the music to life. Through this disc we are very proud to launch our Mannheim Project, and to set the tone for the resulting series of recordings which will present newly discovered works, many of which will appear here for the first time in recorded form.

L. Mozart, 1777: Mannheim: “that famous court whose rays, like those of the sun, illuminate the whole of Germany, nay even the whole of Europe.”

Even in these early stages, the Mannheim Project has already been a mammoth undertaking, but, to, somewhat loosely, borrow a phrase from a very different kind of music for a moment, Unwritten Law’s recent hit “Up all night”:

Yeah. It’s on again. Yeah. We’re all right.

We don’t need a rest. We’ve been up all night.

Just to see the sun come up again.


Simon Murphy, The Hague, January 2003.