Although composers for the flute in the earlier part of the eighteenth century did occasionally produce large and free-standing sets of variations for flute (a good example is the set of twenty-eight variations for flute with continuo by Johann Joachim Quantz on the song “Ich schlief, da traumte mir”, preserved in Berlin, Mus. ms. 180241), it was not until the later classic period that sets of variations came into their own as a genre (Mozart, for example, produced 15 sets for piano in his brief career).
One of the earliest composers to publish sets of variations for flute was J. B. Mayer, with two published sets. Both sets are held in the Gieddes’ collection of flute music at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and are freely accessible as pdfs over the net. The earlier set, titled Six Airs choisis varies pour la Flute2, and listed as oeuvre 2, is credited to I. Mayer, and was published by Mmes. Le Menu et Boyer…Rue de Roule, a la Clef d’or, and sold at a price of 4 L. 4 s. The flute is accompanied by unfigured bass, although this is not mentioned on the title page.
The later set is titled Second Recueil d’Airs Varies Pour flute avec Accompagnement de Basse3, and the author’s name is given as J.B. Mayer. The publisher is Le Duc, also located on the Rue du Roule, this time at the Croix d’Or, no. 6, and the volume is for sale at the same price. Although the title page says basse, the accompaniment throughout is for violin. Neither of the sets is dated, but we can have some idea of the period of their publication from Mayer’s choice of tunes for his variations.
Who is this J.B. Mayer?
There is a J.B. Mayer active in the early 19th century in London as a performer, teacher and composer for harp, who published an undated method for the harp now held in the Royal Library in Denmark (Complete Instructions for the Harp, London: Rt. Birchall4. This was likely published in 1816, since it was reviewed5 in the Gentleman’s Magazine in that year (vol. 119, p. 539), along with another volume from his pen (A Complete Demonstration…., ), where his name is given in full as John Baptist Mayer (as we might have conjectured). He had published several works for harp in 1810 (including a set of 12 little airs, op. 20, and a grand duet for two harps, op. 216) A connection between our composer for flute and the composer for harp may be the publication of at least two sets of three concertante duets for two flutes by a Johann Baptist Mayer as his op. 5 and op. 6 from Longman and Broderip, published in 1794. And a Johann Baptist Mayer is listed as directing a performance of a cantata with music by Franz Xaver Kleinheinz (the Kapellmeister of the Municipal Nationaltheater in Brünn, that is, Brno, in Moravia) in 18057.
Another citation linking our composer for harp, and flute, is the listing of works for harp by Krumpholz, Cardon and J.B. Mayer at a performance of the Concert Spirituel attended by Thomas Jefferson on May 10, 1786. Finally, Johann Baptist Mayer published two divertimenti for harp or pianoforte, the first with flute accompaniment (no opus number, issued by Chappell, London: 1811), and the second marked op. 36, with violin or flute accompaniment ad lib., issued by Falkner and Christmas in London, c. 1810. Eitner distinguishes a Johann Bernhard Mayer, a harpist active in Paris in 1781, with a harp method in the Conservatory at Paris, 4 publications in the British Library, about whom he says that he moved to London, joined the orchestra of the Italian opera, and died about 1820. I have found no other such information about a J. Bernhard Mayer8.
A tentative biographical sketch: let us imagine that our composer was born somewhere in the Czech or Moravian lands, named Johann Baptist like various other noteworthy Bohemian composers (including J.B. Vanhal and JB Vaclav Kalliwoda), was trained as both a flutist and harpist, made his way to Paris by the mid-1780s, where and when he published his two sets of variations for flute.
Perhaps, like other composers active in Paris before the revolution, he found it more congenial to depart for London by the late 1780s or early 1790s (other notable figures who did so at the time were Dussek and G.G. Ferrari), where he established himself primarily as “professor of harp”, but also continued to publish music for flute. He was able to maintain connections with his native land, and is found in Brno in 1805, but continues to be based in London. If we conjecture that he was at least 20 when he was documented in Paris in 1786, then he is at least 50 when he publishes his harp tutor in 1816. After this publication there are only two or three items by the composer that can be dated to circa 1820-1823, when we might imagine that Mayer dies in poverty/obscurity in London at about age 60.
Analysis of the Airs with Variations for Flute by J B Mayer
1. Published in a modern edition by Breitkopf & Härtel circa 1975.