Cipriani Potter: Symphony (no. 10?) in Gm

performed by the Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra (apparently now known as the Milton Keynes City Orchestra) under Hilary Davan Wetton

(Caveat emptor: if you download this recording from iTunes, as I did, there’s a maddening clicking sound most noticeable in the first and fourth movements. I’m not sure where this comes from, but this recording couldn’t ever have been transferred from LP (could it?!) That’s what this ticking sounds like. Recording quality otherwise wonderful.)

This work is listed as Symphony [No. 6] in G minor, but also styled both No. 10 and No. 2 by the composer. We’ll get to this confusion shortly.

Philip Cipriani Hambly Potter was born on October 3, 1792 in London, to Richard Huddleston Potter, a piano teacher. The name Cipriani was given him in honor of his godmother, a relative of Giovanni Battista Cipriani, a standout Italian-sounding part of an otherwise very English name. Potter began his music studies with his father, later studying with Thomas Atwood and William Crotch, both English, as well as the Austrian Joseph Wölfl, who studied under both Leopoldo Mozart and Michael Haydn, and had at least once visited and maybe taken lessons under Wolfgang Mozart. He was also the unfortunate loser in a piano duel against  Beethoven, who Potter also knew.

Anyway, Potter became “frustrated by a lack of opportunities in England,” says Wikipedia,” so he moved to Vienna in 1817, where he met Beethoven. I assume Potter would have tried to book LvB as his own teacher, but the master recommended Aloys Förster, associate of Beethoven through Prince Karl Lichnowsky, and he was friends with both W. Mozart and F. J. Haydn. Talk about connections.

Potter spent two years in Vienna before moving back home, where he “became a central figure in London concert life as both a pianist and conductor.” He performed the British premieres of several Mozart concertos as well as the first, third and fourth piano concertos of Beethoven, also conducting the British premiere of Mendelssohn’s Gm piano concerto with the composer himself as soloist.

As if that wasn’t enough, he went on to begin teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, then relatively young, becoming its principal a decade later, a position he held for almost three decades, until he resigned in 1859. It was there that he taught William Sterndale Bennett, who we shall discuss tomorrow.

He wrote a total of nine symphonies, but wth ridiculous records for numbering. Today’s work, listed as the sixth (chronologically?) by Wikipedia but numbered as both no. 10 and no. 2 by the composer, is in G minor, earned praise from Richard Wagner when he was conducting the Royal Philharmonic Society. There’s not any explanation on Wikipedia for the numbering confusion, but if you’re interested in lots more good info about the composer, go check out this thread from the Unsung Composers forum. One user, who is listed as a guest but appears to be the original poster, says this:

The discrepancies in numbering are based on an acknowledgement that several intervening symphonies are now unfortunately ‘missing’, presumed lost (for example, three alleged lost works are presumed to intervene between the 1821 B flat major and the 1826 C minor Symphonies).

To compound confusion, Potter was apt to give his symphonies numberings such as ‘D no.2’ or ‘D no.4’, leading some scholars to assume that there must have originally been two other symphonies in D (i.e. ‘D no.1’ and ‘D no.3’). Potter himself numbered the 1826 C minor as No.6, the 1826 F major as No.7, the 1828 E flat as No.8 and the 1832 G minor as No.10 on the autograph scores.

So that makes for confusion.

(Also, as a side note, he owned a Stradivarius violin, which now bears his name, the 1693 ‘Cipriani Potter’ Stradivarius. It’s a gorgeous violin, and currently resides at the Ashmolean Museum.)

The Gm symphony we will discuss today is not the unnumbered earliest symphony by the composer, but the one numbered 6 (as on YouTube) or 2 or 10 (see above). It’s good music, anyway, and maybe you can hear, in the opening, what may have gripped Wagner from the get-go. It bites from the first bars, but immediately contrasts that opening figure with the same theme, but in a nostalgic, sweet presentation. While this initial continuity is powerful, there’s maybe a slight sense of the movement meandering a little more than one might expect from a symphony. We’ll get to that later, but overall, the first movement carves out a powerful figure, and the most standout elements are Potter’s intense color in the movement.

The second movement, andante con moto, is the longest in the work (or at least in this recording). It begins quietly, pastorally, with woodwinds and horn, and echoes from strings, but the movement builds to some stronger heights before calming back down. Flutters and echoes and wisps from winds feature prominently throughout this largely idyllic movement, and again the standout here is color and texture, contrast in expression and tension-and-release, but I find the actual use of the material a bit plain. There’s a nice cello solo, but I feel the movement overall doesn’t go very far. It’s extremely colorful, though, with pizzicato used toward the end, and more solos. The movement ends quietly.

The third movement, the scherzo, is the shortest of the work, and it’s brisk, light, spirited, and lively, the exact kind of thing that works to what are clearly Potter’s strengths in color and vibrancy. It’s an exciting, compact little movement, simple, but flashing between extremes of big boldness and quiet quaintness. It fits perfectly with the overall expression of this symphony, a charming, approachable, even a bit intoxicating work.

We find ourselves, then, at the finale. Has Mendelssohn come to mind at all in this work? I’d liken the kind of excitement and color to some of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, but with a different kind of direction. Celebratory contrasts again abound in the finale, fireworks of orchestral color and texture, perhaps the most well executed of all the movements, and how wonderful, then, that it’s our finale. Except… I still find myself thinking just a little bit that the material is underdeveloped. It’s wonderfully handled from an orchestration standpoint, but there’s more to be said here.

I feel like the sound of the music, how the orchestra is utilized, is stunning, really clear, vivid, balanced, but that there’s something slightly different about this symphony, that it doesn’t plumb much depth, or reach through chasms. I’m not saying it should, but it feels slightly small for what it is.

And maybe this is why. There’s a great Gramophone review of this album, written by Stanley Sadie. I quote a portion of it below, because he touches on what might be the root of my feelings about the work, but also, potentially, a strength, if you’re into that sort of thing:

Our notions of what an early romantic symphony ought to be are so strongly coloured by Beethoven that one is tempted to criticize Cipriani Potter simply because he is different. It is, I fear, broadly true that the symphonic tradition, as we have come to know it, has its roots in the practices of Beethoven, and Haydn before him…

So this is context, not that any of us needed it, or thought we did, but yes, for most of us, when we hear ‘symphony’, especially from this era, we are thinking largely in terms of what Beethoven did. Sadie continues:

Potter had a keen and sensitive ear for orchestral colour and an ingenious and poetic feeling for harmony. Looked at from a strictly Beethovenian perspective, one might say that these were his undoing. He does not, as it were, keep his eye on the symphonic ball, and see it carefully through rather he lets himself be drawn off into fanciful realms, as regards both tone colour and key. Several movements here begin with the same kind of pattern: an idea announced by one group (strings or woodwind), a response quite different in character from the other, then a return to the first group and a speedy, perhaps quite distant modulation. I find this appealing, very often, as both fresh and delightful, but his disinclination to consolidate his key structure is also a shade disorientating, and it results in a less purposeful handling of sonata form than any of the Viennese symphonists, not excepting Schubert.

Go read the whole article, because he continues to speak of Potter’s own approach and why, compared with the more famous, established contributors to the symphonic tradition, Potter might seem obscure, or even inferior, but the answer Sadie provides, and the one I would (and almost always do) suggest, is just to listen. We can get in trouble when we have expectations that are too specific. When one hears that we’re getting a symphony from 1832 that Wagner performed a few decades after its completion, one for good reason expects it to adhere to certain traditions, and in most cases you’d be right.

Regardless of your enjoyment of sonata form, what you’re looking for in a symphony, how you feel about trendsetters and the importance of tradition, Potter was clearly a talented man, even from looking at this single work, and even though he did trail off in his compositions later, how nice it is that we have what little we do have, even if it offers nothing more than a very small glimpse into another world, the English symphony, or perhaps more correctly, a Potter symphony, and what might have come of the form had history been a little different.

There’s more to say about tradition and possibilities and ignored (or “unsung”) composers, but I think cover my fair share of obscure composers and works, even if I might not have anything terribly insightful to say about them. In any case, we’re still not done this week, so stay tuned for one more symphony tomorrow as the big opening week of our English Symphony Series comes to a close. There’s lots more to enjoy. We’re just getting started. Thanks for reading.

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