Hiding in plain sight for 250 years

The three viola concertos presented here are examples of heretofore lost works that have been hiding in plain sight for almost 250 years. All three were offered for sale by the German firm of Breitkopf in 1787 under the name of Pater Romanus Hoffstetter, a Benedictine monk known as the probable composer of Haydn’s Op. 3 string quartets. Hoffstetter, a close friend of Kraus, was an admirer of Haydn, so much so that his quartets and Masses are closely modelled on that composer.

Previously, only one source for all three concertos existed in the university library in Lund, Sweden, a set of parts donated by an amateur player named Johan Samuel Hjerta in 1798. Thus, no one thought to question the attribution, since no documentation linked them to Kraus.

Given that these are extraordinary works, it has been said that Hoffstetter must have been an extraordinary violist because he wrote three major concertos for the instrument, or conversely that these concertos indicate he was an extraordinary violist.

Given that little research has been done on Hoffstetter’s music apart from the Op. 3 controversy, the matter rested until a few years ago, when Breitkopf’s master copy from which the parts for one work was drawn was examined by the present author. It turned out to be an authentic autograph by Kraus, leading to the conclusion that all three, which demonstrate stylistic cohesiveness, are by this composer.

A comparative study of the works of both composers shows that, first, no Hoffstetter quartet (or any of his other music for that matter) contains any sort of obbligato writing for the viola. On the other hand, Kraus, a highly-trained and extremely talented violinist, seems to have preferred the viola. Not only was this the only stringed instrument found in his personal effects following his death, his chamber music often includes extremely virtuoso parts for the viola, particularly in the quartets.

Second, analysis shows that all three are formally and structurally identical with Kraus’s well-known violin concerto, but they show no musical affinity with any surviving Hoffstetter work whatsoever. Third, trademarks of Kraus’s style, such as his penchant for varied repetition, his often interesting harmony and modulatory patterns, his use of sequence, and certain motivic ideas, are evident throughout while little similarity with Hoffstetter, apart from the odd stereotyped motive, exists. In short, Hoffstetter’s authorship seems doubtful, while Kraus’s extends on many levels, including even a quote from the overture to Proserpin in the opening of the G major double concerto.

This evidence also shows these three large concertos to have been written most likely during the earlier part of his life, probably sometime between December of 1777 and 1781, according to handwriting style. This makes them co-equal with a Sonata for flute and viola, the latter part of which in many ways duplicates much of the technical proficiency of the concertos.

All three works are substantial and demand the utmost virtuosity from the soloist. Each is carefully constructed so that phrases and textures flow seamlessly into each other, alternating passages of lyrical themes with virtuoso figuration that takes the soloist into the highest range of the viola (and cello in the G major concerto, which, although technically a double concerto, actually is more of a viola concerto with extensive cello obbligato). There are similarities in tone and structure of both the first movement and rondo main themes in all three concertos, often with a flowing lyrical line.

Rhythmic contrasts are provided in the powerful orchestral ritornellos through use of contrasting motives and syncopation, giving a forward moving restless feel. This is contrasted texturally by pairings of the lower strings and flutes or oboes (in the C major), and often the introductions conclude with soft cadences, allowing the soloists to appear smoothly in turn. The second movements all have sections of extended mezzo di voce sustained notes, although in the double concerto the G minor harsh dotted sequences lend an air of distinct almost Brahmsian drama (another trademark of Kraus).

This particular work is structured in a unique form, with two written-out cadenzas for both the viola and cello. In the case of the C major and G major, there is an ambiguous conclusion, allowing for a direct sequence into the rondo. At every twist and turn there are thematic surprises, in keeping with Kraus’s other works, such as the Gehraus horn calls at the end of the E-flat major work, the insertion of a sudden Adagio into the G major finale, almost like a dramatic turn of an aria, a duet between both solo instruments, following a brief minor-key passage that has a hint of Eastern exoticism in is dance-like rhythms. Harmonically in all of the concertos there are progressive moments that remind one of Beethoven or perhaps even Brahms, such as in the minor key section of the double concerto rondo, with its extraordinary range for the solo cello. These are a distinct trademark of Kraus’s compositional style.

All three concertos demonstrate without a doubt both the familiarity of the composer with what appears to be his favourite instrument and a continuation of his explorations of the concerto genre during his early Stockholm years. These combine a dexterous solo line(s) with the dramatic intimacy of Kraus’s orchestration, harmonic, and textural contrasts, resulting in three first-class works that in turn show the height which the 18th century concerto could achieve.

Bertil van Boer


See our full collection of sheet music by Joseph Martin Kraus