Joseph Eybler’s 'The Shepherds at the Crib in Bethlehem'

Music history has known many composers who were highly esteemed during their own lifetimes but later went on to fall into oblivion. This posthumous judgment does not seem to be unjust for some composers, but such is not the case with Joseph Eybler (1765-1846). It is only in recent years that his compositions have begun to receive their proper due. They certainly merit rediscovery in that they show us an inventive and interesting figure from the Viennese classical period.

Eybler received his first instruction in music at his family home. His studies at the Vienna City College, where Joseph and Michael Haydn had studied before him, were of decisive importance for the whole rest of his career. As a pupil of Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Eybler enjoyed thorough instruction in composition. When he finally decided to pursue a career in music (the difficult financial straits caused by a fire in his parents’ home meant that he was unable to pursue the jurist’s career originally intended for him), well-intentioned patrons stood at his side. These patrons included not only Albrechtsberger, who wrote a glowing recommendation for him in 1793, and Joseph Haydn, who always lent his friendly support to him, but also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who described him as «a solid composer, equally talented in both the chamber and church styles, very experienced in the art of song, also perfect as an organ and piano player», as a musician «such as it is only to regret that composers of his kind are so rare».

What distinguished Albrechtsberger, Haydn, and Mozart also left its mark on Eybler’s style: thorough knowledge of counterpoint and in the «high art» of composition in general, experience in the symphonic and chamber compositional styles, and a special feeling for captivating motifs and tone color. Eybler’s career enabled all these influences to come together in a special way. He composed a great many sacred compositions, which is explained in part by the fact that he served as a regens chori for decades, with the Vienna Carmelites during 1792-94 and beginning in 1794 for thirty years with the Schottenstift in Vienna. He wrote more than thirty masses, oratorios, a requiem, and some shorter sacred works. His long years at the imperial court also clearly influenced his style. He became a music teacher for the imperial family in 1801, assistant court music director twenty years later, succeeding Antonio Salieri. Eybler was no revolutionary; he complied very well with the aesthetic-musical wishes of the court music tradition in Vienna and rejected the turning away from this tradition (as in Franz Schubert’s Mass in A flat major). Remarkably, however, he did indeed develop his own individual expressive palette within the established framework set by church and imperial taste.

Eybler composed his first oratorio, Die Hirten bei der Krippe zu Bethlehem (The Shepherds at the Crib in Bethlehem) for the Musicians Retirement Institute in Vienna. The score bears the date of December 22, 1784. He later formed a cantata from the two-part work. The author of the text is unknown. In keeping with its Christmas theme, the texts, in part almost with a folk effect, in part based on biblical passages, create a more lyrical-meditative than dramatic atmosphere full of contemplative moments.

Eybler drew on a great many musical models. The gentle siciliano in the concluding chorus of Part One and the bass aria «Er ist in Bethlehem geboren», to name two examples, point to baroque predecessors such as Handel’s Messiah or to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The influence of Mozart’s music is clearly recognizable not only in some motivic elements (e.g., in the minor beginning of the orchestral introduction, which recalls the character of the Piano Sonata in C minor KV 457) but also in the treatment of the voice parts, which is sometimes distinguished by virtuosity and sometimes by smooth cantability. Eybler’s sovereign command of the orchestral structure recalls the symphonic style of Mozart and Haydn with its skilfully employed wind effects and elaborated voice leading in the strings. Despite these roots; Eybler’s music offers a wealth of original, sometimes surprising compositional ideas. One example occurs right at the beginning, where the musical effect of the sunrise points ahead to Haydn’s The Creation; other examples are to be found in the various designs of the arias. The tenor aria «Sehet Hirten den Heiland» combines the tripartite structure of the da capo arias with the sonata-form-like modulation plan (the first part modulates to the dominant, while the third part remains in the tonic key), each of the two Allegro moderato sections of the soprano aria «Er ist’s Gott slbst» are prepared by an Adagio recitative, and the soprano voice is accompanied only by the winds in the cadenza of the highly virtuoso coloratura aria.

Eybler repeatedly came up with subtle solutions for the illustration of the text. In the alto aria «Das Kind streckt seinen Arm den Gaben wonnelächlend hin», the sixteenth passages based on broken chords solo depict quiet beating of the heart. The unusual beginning of the soprano aria «Bald weidet sich am Kind ihr Blick», where the motif begins on the dominant seventh chord and finds the tonic key only after it, has the effect of seeking, wandering glance. In the quartet «Selbst aus ihren Blicken» the devotional and moving atmosphere full of sighs and tears is underscored not only by actual «sighing motifs» but also by the unusual instrumentation in which the solo clarinet and three trombones join in with the strings. The counterpart to this quartet in Part Two, «Holter Knab aus Juda Samen», has uniquely beautiful tone colors with its two clarinets, two bassoons, and strings.

The two «divisions» or parts of the oratorio exhibit some similarities of structure. A meditative quartet stands at the center of each part. Aris placing high demands on the singer prepare for the concluding chorus in each part: the soprano aria «Er ist’s Gott selbst» in Part One and the bass aria «Er ist in Bethlehem geboren» in Part Two. The chorus of angels, «Euch ward er geboren», concluding Part One and is a siciliano which sometimes has gentle thirds and sometimes is of contrapuntal design. The concluding chorus of Part Two, «Gott sey Ehren in der Höhe», based on the biblical words «Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe», based on the biblical words «Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe» captivates the listener not only with its strong dynamic contrasts but also with the finely crafted fugue in its last section.

Éva Pintér

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