The Musical Life of Joseph Martin Kraus…

by Bertil H. Van Boer
Indiana University Press, 2014.
[viii] + 371 pp, $55.99.
ISBN 978 0 253 01274 6

As someone who has long enjoyed listening to Kraus’s music, it has come as something of a disappointment that he seems to have been a rather unlikeable person. Most of the letters that comprise the first part of this volume are full of requests for money from his parents, and complaints about his lot in life; of course, these are very real considerations for all of us, and it makes it all the more remarkable that he chose to strive to make a musical career rather than become the lawyer his parents would have preferred. And while reading the letters, one constantly has to put on one’s Jane Austen hat and try to understand what he writes in the context of the period – not to mention all the arcane references he shares with his family. In this one is sometimes aided by Van Boer’s footnotes to the 116 letters, but some of his comments are fairly pointless (“The promised piece of music is unidentified”, Letter 54, note 2 is but one example of notes dedicated to mysterious people and things), while others are contentious (discussing the Handel Centenary that Kraus attended in London in 1785, “Presumably the Dettingen “Te Deum,” not the Utrecht “Te Deum.”,” Letter 77, note 2 – need one speculate at all, I would ask).

The book has four appendices, devoted to the composer’s will (and a discussion of the value and dispersal of his estate), and three sets of letters written to Fredrik Silverstolpe (Kraus’s first biographer) – 11 from members of the family and the answers to two questionnaires he had sent them, three that the family had asked Kraus’s former teachers to write and nine from the composer Roman Hofstetter, who was one of the young Kraus’s major influences. The latter tells Silverstolpe (among other things) that “the late Herr Kraus had for the most part nothing good to say about Italian composers”; from his own letters, it seems this extended to the majority of French and German composers, too.

I suppose the real value of this volume (aside from the many titbits of information about travel and postage in the late 18th century) is the insight it gives into the daily drudgery of composers’ lives at this time, constantly struggling to make ends meet, and at the beck and call of fickle royal employers (in Kraus’s case constantly at risk of being ousted by one or other of the factions at the Swedish court); it makes it all the more remarkable that he produced such beautiful music.

Brian Clark