Joseph Küffner (1776-1856)

Joseph Küffner (1776-1856) was a Bavarian composer and guitarist of the early nineteenth century. I am happy to announce a new modern re-engraved edition in Tecla of the Serenade op. 4 by Joseph Küffner for flute, viola and guitar, edited by Francesco Biraghi. It is an interesting and attractive work, with a passage marked Russe (in Russian style) and another passage marked Hongroise (in Hungarian style). It is one of three chamber works by Küffner which the Classico Terzetto Italiano in Milan recently recorded with Brilliant Classics.

Brian Jeffery


Serenade op. 4 by Joseph Küffner for flute, viola and guitar.

*  *  *  *

Biographical note about Küffner by Francesco Biraghi

Joseph Küffner, a Bavarian composer and guitarist of the early nineteenth century, was thoroughly investigated by Matthias Henke, who published his research in 1985 in a double volume entitled Joseph Küffner: Leben und Werk des Würzburger Musikers im Spiegel der Geschichte. This work is practically unobtainable today, but I was fortunate enough to be able to consult a copy belonging to my friend Gerhard Penn. Before the appearance of Henke’s essay, the only available source to reconstruct Küffner’s biographical and professional profile had been the entry in Bone, in the well-known “dictionary” of guitarists that saw the light of day in post-Victorian England in 1914 (Philip J. Bone, The Guitar and Mandolin, Biographies of Celebrated Players and Composers for these Instruments, London, Schott-Augener, 1914). The following biographical note, therefore, is the result of a synthesis of these two, with additional support from a few minor sources. It should be read keeping in mind that many of Bone’s statements are to be taken with due caution; however, for example, dates have been corrected according to the information furnished by Henke. Here then is a reconstruction, partly fact and partly hypothesis, which hopefully will contribute to shed light on this composer whose music in recent years has enchanted me and my colleagues of the Classico Terzetto Italiano.

Joseph Küffner was born in Würzburg on 31 March 1776. At the age of just eleven years Joseph lost his mother, and his father, with the intention of making his son pursue a scientific and literary career, enrolled him in a school of his hometown. There the young Küffner showed considerable success in his studies, completing his education at the university. He learned the rudiments of music from his father, early on also acquiring a certain skill on the guitar and the violin. In 1793, having finished his academic studies, Küffner got a position in a lawyer’s office, but during his spare time he also continued his guitar studies, taking violin lessons from a conductor by the name of Ludwig Schmidt as well. Küffner made phenomenal progress, so much so that the following season (1794-95) he performed publicly two violin concertos, one by Giovanni Battista Viotti and another by Nicola Mestrino. Although it is not known whether or not Küffner studied the guitar with some Bavarian master, it is nevertheless certain that at this time Würzburg was a fairly important centre of guitar interest. This is evidenced by two periodicals dedicated to the guitar which were published there during those years; moreover, some newspaper reviews and the presence of two guitarists, Franz Xavier Kürzinger and Franz Joseph Frölich, confirm that the guitar certainly enjoyed good health in that city. To this may also be added the local publication of some guitar music by Leonhard von Call, the well-known guitarist and composer of South Tyrolean origin.

After the death of his father, Küffner gave lessons in Latin, violin and guitar in order to survive. When Würzburg and its territory came under Bavarian rule, the prospects of a more lucrative position as a musician of the Royal Chapel (where he had been employed since 1797) or in the public administration faded. Küffner now became a band leader in a local regiment, a commitment lasting several years during which he composed a notable amount of military music.
Joseph’s success in this activity helped to spread his name to a wider audience, and when in 1806 Würzburg came under the rule of Archduke Ferdinand – a talented musician himself – Küffner was appointed as chamber and court musician with a salary of four hundred guilders; the additional office of Chief Superintendent of Military Music gave him a handsome three hundred guilders more. A curious hypothesis, incidentally, is that the 30-year-old Küffner may have met Napoleon Bonaparte who visited Würzburg in 1806; however, there is no evidence of him performing in the presence of the Corsican Emperor. From this point on, the wind in his sails turned favourable. The first publisher to bring Küffner’s music to the market was Christian Bauer, who in Würzburg in 1808 printed his Cinq allemandes et une écossaise for guitar and violin, but soon Küffner’s music was published by more important publishers such as André and Schott. The collaboration with André continued until at least 1827 when the publisher (who held Küffner in high esteem) commissioned from him a Trio for three guitars, a project which however was never realized. As Henke suggests, this may have been one of the reasons for their relationship to break up.

Küffner’s catalogue includes about three hundred and fifty works with opus number and at least one hundred without, but he most probably wrote more, since some manuscripts were lost during the Second World War. As an intriguing detail, Küffner left to posterity no less than seven Symphonies for large orchestra. In 1814 the Grand Duchy of Würzburg was newly reunited and like all his fellow musicians of the Royal Chapel Küffner was placed on the pension list. Nevertheless, this event did not cause him any inconvenience given that his compositions were now actively sought after by publishers, a state of affairs that allowed him a position of economic independence. As for Küffner’s own guitar playing, it is known that a few years later, on 22 February 1817, he performed his own Pot-pourri for guitar and orchestra, which confirms his abilities also as a performer.

Küffner lived permanently in Würzburg until at least 1816. He travelled at least once to Paris, probably in about 1820, where it seems that his principal publisher was Richault, although Bone additionally names Leduc and Lemoine. It is also documented that he met in Paris with Antonin Reicha, the well-known Bohemian composer and teacher of harmony and counterpoint at the Paris Conservatory. When Küffner visited Belgium in 1829, he was welcomed and rewarded with numerous diplomas. In the musical societies which were found at the time in practically every German city, Küffner’s compositions were often performed, and it is perhaps also thanks to them that these societies prospered. Küffner died on September 9, 1856 in his hometown, where he had lived all his life, except for short intervals, at the remarkable age of eighty and a half. In short, he was an esteemed artist, appreciated by publishers and musicians alike, very popular amongst audiences and, last but not least, his music was already in his lifetime known all around Europe.

Küffner’s works for flute, viola and guitar – often entitled Serenade – number at least twenty-five. They have either three or four movements or are set in the form of a fantasy or a pot-pourri. This corpus of trios no doubt belongs to the most prominent chamber music of the entire guitar repertoire. The Classico Terzetto Italiano already had Küffner’s Serenade op. 2 in its repertoire, but out of curiosity we read through some fifteen more, which presented us with many pleasant musical surprises. So the decision was made to dedicate an entire CD to this unjustly overlooked composer and we finally selected three Serenades of different characters. The Serenade op. 4, dedicated “to his friend Wiskemann” (most probably a Jewish pharmacist active in Würzburg), is one of the few 19th-century chamber-music works for guitar in a minor key. Its character is surprisingly exotic with rather Slavic than Western sounds: the composer’s brilliance shows itself in the use of sonata-form in both the first and the second movements (where an agitated development is to be noted) while Küffner also achieves inspiring results in the two remaining movements, the Minuetto and the Rondò. In the latter, to be noted is a delicious variant of the theme, once “à la Russe” and another time “à l’Hongroise”. The Serenade op. 10 is dedicated “to Monsieur de Metz, War Counsellor to His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke of Würzburg”: it is, therefore, a tribute “from a military man to another military man”. This may be heard in the second theme of the first movement which is the famous March from Lodoïska, a comédie héroïque by Rodolphe Kreutzer. The atmosphere set by the first movement continues in the delightful second one that appears to describe the (only apparent?) tranquillity of a night camp, while the final Polka joyfully celebrates the conclusion of the military campaign. The concluding work of the disc is the Serenade op. 15, perhaps the formally best structured of the three works recorded here. The first movement, in rigorous sonata-form, is in somewhat unusual 6/8 time and is followed by a witty Minuet. The third movement sounds like a homage to Mozart and is followed by a final virtuosic Galop, largely entrusted to the guitar. Having said that, due to the atmosphere of the first and third movements, this serenade is nevertheless the most pastoral of the three presented here. The work is dedicated “to my friend A. Schwind”, probably a singer from Würzburg.

The Classico Terzetto Italiano is grateful for the assistance and encouragement provided at different stages of the project by a number of people who are irreplaceable for their passion and professionalism. Mentioned here – in no particular order – we thank Christiane Meininger, eminent flutist and our cooperator in Germany; Jukka Savijoki, a Finnish scholar from Helsinki at ease in all the countries of Europe (of which he has mastered most of the languages); the outstanding Thomas Hirschberg and Markus Spätz from the Bayerische Rundfunk and the perfect producer Lutz Wildner; the already above-mentioned Gerhard Penn for his availability and always punctual comments; Gabriele Lodi for the fine tuning of my Louis Panormo guitar of 1838; Stefano Spallotta for irreplaceable technical support during the recording; Werner and Barbara von Berg, owners of the recording studio in Lehrberg, Bavaria, and the staff of the local Hotel Dorfmühle; Domenico, the remarkable pizza chef from Puglia in Lehrberg and – last but not least – the German shepherd, Paula, an extraordinary concierge.

Serenade op. 4 by Joseph Küffner for flute, viola and guitar

Tecla Editions home page