Johann Kaspar Mertz

by Thomas Siemens

Johann Kaspar Mertz and his tragic success

If one were to plot the amount of guitar literature by quantity on a timeline, one might notice that the guitar falls into a valley in the second half of the 19th century, after which it had a golden period in the first half. This gap only begins to close again with Francesco Tarrega, so that the history of the guitar only picks up again at the beginning of the 20th century.

A guitarist who stands between the times, so to speak, is Johann Kaspar Mertz. Born just 38 years later than the great Fernando Sor, the heyday of the guitar was already noticeably fading at his time.

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Johann Kaspar Mertz was born in 1806 in Bratislava and died in 1856 in Vienna, where he had lived since 1840. While guitarists before him such as Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani were more committed to classical traditions, Mertz can clearly be classified as a romantic. His wife Josephine certainly had a great influence on his style. She was a pianist whom he met in Dresden, where Robert Schumann worked. It is certainly no coincidence that Mertz’s style is often more reminiscent of romantic piano pieces than of what one would otherwise expect from the guitar. This can be seen particularly well in the Bardenklänge, a large collection of character pieces which, in terms of their titles and layout, are very reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s Album für die Jugend.

Although Johann Kaspar Mertz was an excellent guitarist and his compositions are of good musical quality, his work did not gain nearly as much momentum as it did with Sor or Giuliani. That this was the case, however, cannot be blamed on him. Unfortunately, Mertz was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or rather epoch. With the changes in the Romantic period, people’s listening habits and their expectations of music also changed. The halls in which music was played became larger. People wanted more “immediate” emotional expression and more big sound. The piano was able to serve this well with the structural developments it had received, so that the era of the piano virtuoso could begin. The guitar could not keep up. Mertz tried, for example with the “Introduction et Rondo op. 11”, but one notices that the music tries to be more than it can.

Another large part of Mertz’s oeuvre consists of opera paraphrases, i.e. arrangements of well-known opera melodies into concert fantasies. His collected “opera revues” comprise 38 large fantasies of sometimes high virtuosity. The large quantity can be explained by the fact that it was easier to inspire the audience with melodies that were popular anyway than with original compositions. You have to imagine that their aim is to make the audience think: “I know this melody. It’s crazy that you can play that on the guitar.” A tragic story surrounds the end of Johann Kaspar Mertz’s life. In 1856, a composition competition for guitar was announced in Brussels by the Russian nobleman Nikolaj Petrovic Makar. The prize consisted, among other things, of a large concert tour through Europe. Mertz submitted three pieces, his 3 Morceaux Op. 65, and won the competition with them. However, he died before he could embark on the winning tour. Thus, the prize with the concert tour went to the second-placed Napoleon Coste. The latter memorialised the events in the “Fantasie Dramatique “le Depart” Op. 31.

What remains of Johann Kaspar Mertz is a large body of music that can be described as romantic in the best sense of the word. Through the symbiosis of romantic piano music with the guitar, he succeeded in creating his very original style with large concert works, such as his “3 Morceaux Op. 65”, but also with very sensitive, atmospheric pieces such as in the Bard Sounds. Meanwhile, the guitar continued its journey through history. Unbeknownst to Mertz, Antonio Torres was tinkering and developing a new guitar design with a larger body that solved the sound problem that had caused the guitar to lag behind the piano. Unfortunately, Johann Kaspar Mertz did not live to see it.

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