Biography of Eschmann Johann Carl:
One seeks the name of Johann Carl Eschmann (b. in Winterthur on 12 April 1826, d. in Zurich on 17 October 1882) in most of the major music encyclopedias in vain. Neither in the New Grove, nor in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, nor even in the Swiss Musician’s Encyclopedia is he to be found, only in Hugo Riemann's Musiklexikon is he mentioned. In all the great libraries of the world – be they in London, Washington or Munich – one finds in total no more than a handful of his works. And yet, as even a perfunctory glance at his music will suffice to prove, he was a highly talented composer from the school of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Thanks to his descendants’ donation of his musical estate to the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Zurich Central Library) in 1997, his complete oeuvre is now accessible to the general public for the first time. Eschmann’s father was the director of the Cantonal Military Band in Zurich, then a position of considerable respect. Eschmann himself received his first piano lessons in Zurich from Richard Wagner’s friend Alexander Müller, then moved to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1845, where he was apparently a favoured pupil of Felix Mendelssohn’s. From 1847 to 1850 Eschmann was active as a teacher of piano and composition in Zurich, then from 1850 to 1859 in nearby Winterthur. During his Winterthur years, he published a number of compositions, mostly for solo piano or for voice and piano. He did not have to depend on small local companies as did his Swiss contemporaries, but was published instead by Luckhardt in Cassel, by Raabe and Plothow in Berlin and by Hofmeister in Leipzig. At this time, Eschmann also appeared occasionally as pianist in the concerts of the Zurich Music Society (the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft Zürich – AMG). It was there that he made the acquaintance of Richard Wagner, who was at that time the guest conductor of the Music Society’s orchestra and the star of the city’s musical life. In Winterthur, Eschmann’s livelihood suffered increasingly from the greater popularity of Theodor Kirchner, who had been active there as organist and pianist since 1843. So in 1859, Eschmann moved to Schaffhausen, where he spent seven years conducting choirs and teaching piano and singing. He thereafter returned to Zurich, where he continued teaching until his death in 1882.
Eschmann’s oeuvre includes much piano music, several songs and small choral works, but little chamber music and only one work for orchestra (an early overture). The emphasis on piano music and song is also typical of Eschmann’s Swiss contemporaries, such as Wilhelm Baumgartner. With the exception of the virtuosic Caprice-Etude op. 36 for piano, which was probably composed in around 1860, all the works recorded here were written before Eschmann’s thirtieth year. Schumann and Mendelssohn were his greatest influences, though he soon developed an individual style. There are ample rhythmic subtleties and harmonic surprises to be found in Eschmann’s music of the 1850s. One is occasionally even reminded of Wagner – the energetic sequences at the end of the first movement of the Fantasy Pieces op. 9 for Clarinet (or violin) and piano (1850-51) seem almost a harbinger of the first act of the Valkyrie. The influence of Schumann is suggested not least by the title itself. Schumann’s three Fantasy Pieces op. 73 for clarinet and piano were written just a year or so before, and might well have inspired Eschmann to write his own. The main theme of Eschmann’s first movement is even strongly reminiscent of Schumann’s. However, in formal terms, Eschmann’s pieces are rather more interesting. In Schumann, both the first and second movements lead attacca into the next, but are still self-contained movements. Eschmann, however, avoids a final cadence time, leading without a break from one movement to the next. At the close of the Romanze there even comes a shortened reprise of the second half of the first movement. These Fantasy Pieces were conceived for clarinet, but the violin version recorded here was made by the composer and was published at the same time as the original version. Eschmann played violin and viola himself, and occasionally helped out in the AMG orchestra under Wagner.
Cyclical elements are not only to be found here, but in several other works by Eschmann from this time. At the end of the Intermezzo from the Lyric Pieces op. 15, for example, the opening music of the previous piece returns. These Lyric Pieces incidentally offer further proof of Eschmann’s good relations with the Schumann circle, for the dedicatee was Robert’s wife, Clara. The influence of Chopin is also to be found here – the Intermezzo is somewhat reminiscent of his Revolutionary Study. The Spring Blossoms op. 14, published by Luckhardt just before the aforementioned Lyric Pieces, are dedicated to Eschmann’s former teacher Carl Reinecke. Here, Eschmann’s models are again Mendelssohn (especially his Songs without words) and Schumann – Eschmann’s In the Night bears the same title as a movement from Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces op. 12, and was obviously influenced by it.
Fantasy Pieces is also the subtitle of Eschmann’s suite for horn and piano In Autumn, op. 6 (1849). Of particular interest here is the fact that the first four bars of the Intermezzo, which serve as a transition from the third to the fourth movements, were only composed later. This is further proof of Eschmann’s desire – as in his op. 9 – to place his small-scale pieces in a larger context.
Eschmann’s four-movement String Quartet in d minor has only survived in the form of handwritten parts. The date of composition is not known, though it is probably an early work. The influence of Mendelssohn is still strong, but that of Carl Maria von Weber can also be discerned – note the repeated three-note rhythm that dominates the first movement, and which Eschmann – whether consciously or unconsciously – must have first heard in Der Freischütz (see the famous aria of Max in the first act). The many imitative and canonic entries, the inversions, the transition from the third to the final movements – all these have something demonstrative about them, as if Eschmann were keen to show off his considerable compositional skills. The quartet might perhaps have been written at the end of his studies in Leipzig, as a sort of ‘apprentice piece’. There is, however, nothing remotely academic or student-like about the quartet. It is one of Eschmann’s finest works, and can count as an important contribution to the quartet repertoire of the 19th century as a whole. It remains a mystery why Eschmann never published it.
Eschmann is almost unknown today, but in his lifetime, he counted among his admirers no less a figure than Johannes Brahms. On 3 April 1878, Brahms wrote to his publisher Simrock as follows: ‘He [Eschmann] will already be known to you, and does not need my recommendation, since you already look with envy upon Luckhardt’s many editions of his works’. Shortly afterwards, Simrock decided to publish Eschmann’s piano pieces op. 62, Licht und Schatten (Light and Shadow). Eschmann thus shares with Antonín Dvorák the honour of having been recommended by Brahms to his own publisher. While there is no doubting Dvorák’s greater gifts, the music on this CD is proof enough that Brahms had another gifted composer friend, but one whose works still await discovery today.