‘The Swedish Mozart’

Giovanni Battista Serini and Joseph Martin Kraus, both with symphonies being performed by the Sheffield University Chamber Orchestra at Firth Hall this coming Sunday, are a couple names to conjure with.

Kraus, the ‘Swedish Mozart’ as he has been christened, is the better known of the two – just, because Serini is all but forgotten!

The allusion to Mozart is coincidence. Kraus was born in the same year and died the year after him. He wasn’t strictly Swedish either! He was born in Germany and talked into going to Stockholm at age of 21.

Three years later he attracted the attention of the arts-loving Gustav III, who would later be immortalised in Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera: A Masked Ball, at which he was assassinated in 1792!

Kraus began ailing soon after and died from tuberculosis in December 1792, the same month as Mozart a year earlier. The epitaph on his tombstone just outside Stockholm reads: Here the earthly of Kraus; the heavenly lives in his music.

There are indications that the shade and music of the composer of over 200 works may be re-emerging as “an outstanding figure of the Classical period” into the limelight.

Gustav thought so highly of him, he financed a four-year educational tour of Europe for him. On it, at Eszterháza in 1783, he met Haydn and wrote a symphony for him, causing the older composer to prophesy that it would be “regarded as a masterpiece for centuries to come.”

Very much in the Sturm und Drang mode Kraus was so fond of, Haydn’s prediction hasn’t quite worked out – maybe those centuries are still to come! In the meantime, you can hear the symphony, in C minor, this Sunday.

It may leave you pondering over the fact that Kraus has baker’s dozen of other symphonies to his name, with at least seven lost, plus five operas, 16 string quartets and a groundbreaking flute quintet (1784), among other things.

The life, times and music of Giovanni Battista Serini remain to be documented, if ever!

It is not known when he born: 1710-15 is the best guess, or when he died – except that it was after 1765! It is known he came into this world in Cremona and that his family were a thoroughly musical lot.

Maybe as early as 1714, he ended up in Venice where he became a pupil of Galuppi at some point and, in all likelihood, it was he who got him a post in service to Robert D’Arcy, IV Earl of Holderness, here in Yorkshire, and English ambassador to Venice between 1744 and 1746.

This is where some slightly confused facts come into the Serini story thanks to a dedication, dated the 15th of June 1755, which accompanied a portfolio of autographed manuscripts he sent to D’Arcy – “commanded from me by you,” and are preserved at York Minster.

The dedication also appeared in some sort of Venetian census or other in 1750 the same year, almost certainly through D’Arcy, he obtained a prestigious post as court composer to a certain Count Wilhelm Schaumburg-Lippe at Bückeberg in Germany.

He mentions five rewarding years spent there in the 1755 dedication, which came to an end that year with the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. The last we hear of him is in a letter he sent with some scores to the Count from Bonn in early 1765.

It seems the library at Bückeburg had preserved about 24 sinfonias, numerous pieces of chamber music, intermezzi, cantatas, motets, various sacred and secular works by Serini, but all were is at least partially lost in the Second World War.

The two sinfonias by Serini, No’s 1 and 2 in their first modern performance at Firth Hall on Sunday, are described as newly rediscovered – at York Minster perhaps, the largest extant corpus of the composer’s works?

It contains six sinfonias, but some are said to exist in manuscript elsewhere, such as in Venice and Paris.

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