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Kayser Philipp Christoph (1755-1823)

Biography of Kayser Philipp Christoph:

Among composers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) has long been the most popular poet in the German language. A traditional liederabend without a Goethe setting is almost unthinkable, and the Goethe songs composed by Franz Schubert, Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss belong to the most famous examples of the genre. However, the first ever composer of note to set Goethe’s poems to music, and who was in fact the one most favoured by the poet himself, has long since fallen into obscurity. His name was Philipp Christoph Kayser, and he was born in Frankfurt am Main on 10 March 1755, the son of the organist of St Catherine’s Church. His first music teacher was his father, he later studied with Georg Andreas Sorge. While at grammar school in Frankfurt, Kayser became a close friend of Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, who was to become the most successful dramatist of the so-called ‘Storm and Stress’ movement – a movement that in fact took its name from one of his own plays. He and Kayser soon made friends with Goethe, and then their little group was joined by the Strasbourg poet Heinrich Leopold Wagner and by Jakob Michael Lenz (though the latter remained an ‘external’ member on account of his remaining resident in Strasbourg). At this time, Goethe published an enthusiastic review in the Frankfurter gelehrten Anzeiger of Expectations of Eternity by the young Zurich writer Johann Caspar Lavater. When Lavater came to take the waters at Bad Ems in 1774, he extended his trip in order to visit Goethe and his Frankfurt circle. The meeting with Lavater proved especially significant to Kayser. He was recovering from an unhappy love affair, was disinclined to maintain the Frankfurt tradition by which the son of the organist married the daughter of the watchman, and was now on the lookout for a place where he might start his life afresh. Lavater’s home town seemed to fit the bill, and so Kayser moved to Zurich in 1775. That same year, Heinrich Steiner of Winterthur published Kayser’s first collection of songs to piano accompaniment. A second collection appeared two years later, this time including settings of Klinger and Wagner as well as the Goethe songs recorded for the first time here. Goethe visited Kayser in Zurich in 1775 and again in 1779. He was so taken by Kayser’s songs that he sent him his singspiel Jery und Bäteli to set to music. Kayser declined, but Goethe still clung to him as his chosen composer, writing: ‘What I like most about your works is their chastity, the sureness of touch with which you achieve much with limited means’. At Goethe’s invitation, Kayser visited him in Weimar from January to May 1781, thereafter returning to Zurich. In 1785, a collaboration between the two finally came about when Kayser set Goethe’s singspiel Scherz, List und Rache (Pranks, cunning and revenge). After receiving the score, Goethe wrote to Fritz Jacobi in Düsseldorf, saying: ‘With this opera, a composer has come on the scene of a kind of which but few have been maturing silently’. When Goethe journeyed to Rome in late 1786, Kayser was called upon to join him. In his Italian Journey, Goethe wrote: ‘Kayser is very upright, sensible, ordered, sober and in his art so sure and fast as one can be. He is one of those men whose presence about one improves one’s health’. When Goethe returned to Weimar in June 1788, Kayser went with him. According to a friend of Kayser’s, Goethe wanted to secure for him the post of capellmeister there, but this fell through when a misunderstanding arose between the two men. In the following August, Kayser left Weimar along with the entourage accompanying the Duchess Mother Amalia to Italy. On the way, he was overcome by a depression, in Bolzano he asked for leave to depart and, when this was granted, he returned to Zurich. When Goethe himself came to Zurich for a brief visit some years later, he declined to call on his former friend. Kayser’s Weihnachtskantate (Christmas Cantata) recorded here was published by Füssli in Zurich in 1780. The same company also published his two sonatas for violin, piano and horns. The first edition of this work bears no year, but probably dates from the same period as the Cantata. After 1792, Kayser published nothing more, and it would seem that he abandoned composition altogether. He earned his living primarily as a teacher, though he occasionally played in the concerts of the main Zurich music society, Kayser died in Zurich in 1823. The Lucerne composer Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee, who came to Zurich in 1810 to continue his studies, wrote many years later that ‘It was difficult to become friends with Kayser, for his seriousness of old had turned into grimness.’ Despite recurring depression, Kayser was obviously well-loved among those who knew him. He never married, during his first years in Zurich, he had fallen in love with a singer who died early, later, he fell in love with the daughter of Goethe’s friend Bäbe Schulthess. She first returned his feelings, but then married the theologian Georg Gessner in 1791, and died a year later in childbirth. Kayser wrote afterwards to his sister Dorothea, ‘The comfort of my old, hard, dejected, sick days has disappeared’. He was at that time only 37 years of age. The Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Zurich Central Library) possesses what is probably the largest collection of Kayser’s works, including the autograph of his singspiel Scherz, List und Rache and the rare first editions of the works recorded here. Also represented on this CD is Kayser’s contemporary Johann David Brünings. Neither his date of birth nor that of his death is known. We know only that he came from Hessen, lived in Zurich from the mid-1780s until 1799, and thereafter departed for St Petersburg. Of his further career, nothing is known at all. David Hess, a member of Kayser’s masonic lodge and a friend of both men, wrote that ‘[Brünings was] just as excellent an eccentric as our brother Kayser . . . These two men, so similar in nature, never came together, although they lived for ten years in the same place. Far removed from any petty tradesman’s jealousy, they spoke with great respect of each other, but neither wished to take steps that would have led to closer relations with the other. And so they remained apart who could have done so much together. Neither of these excellent musicians ever even heard the other play.’

CD's with Kayser Philipp Christoph
Goethe Lieder & Chamber Works by Philipp Christoph Kayser

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Musik in Zürich 1500-1900

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