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The Flute Sonatas of Albert Jacob Steinfeld Print E-mail
Written by Tom Moore   

The Flute Sonatas of Albert Jacob Steinfeld

Albert Jacob Steinfeld (1741-1815) is a figure who has almost vanished from musical history. Luckily for flutists, two collections of his rewarding sonatas for flute and continuo survive until our day. Steinfeld was born on June 4, 1741 in Hamburg, a city with a very active musical culture – Georg Philipp Telemann had arrived to become Kantor of the Johanneum Latin School, and director of five churches there in 1721, and remained there until his death in 1767, when he was succeeded by his godson, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, in 1768. He is said to have been a capable keyboardist and highly educated musician. He was appointed organist in Archangel (then as now a Russian port where the River Dvina enters the White Sea, a bay leading to the Barents Sea, in the Arctic), presumably at the Lutheran Church of St. Catherine, built in 1768, and still standing. After leaving for a one-year stay in St. Petersburg, he returned to become organist in Bergedorf (a suburb ten miles to the southeast of Hamburg) in 1776.

His son, also named Jacob, was born in Hamburg in 1788. He is said to have been principally educated in music by Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwenke, who succeeded C.P.E. Bach as municipal music director in Hamburg in 1789, after Bach’s death. In 1819 Steinfeld junior founded the "Die Gesellschaft der Freunde religiösen Gesanges", today the Hamburger Singakademie, along with Friedrich Wilhelm Grund. He died in 1869.

The elder Steinfeld is supposed to have written at least fifty compositions, of which he published the set of six flute sonatas with continuo, op. 1 (Berlin, Hummel, 1784); a set of flute duos, op. 4; Six Rondos faciles, presumably for harpsichord, op. 5; six quartets for two clarinets and two horns, op. 20; a set of three Claviersonaten and three Sonatinen (1788); a set of Zwölf Lieder mit Andante und Variationen ä quatre mains, (1797); and a Sammlung moralischer Oden und Lieder zum Singen bey dem Klaviere (1788), for voice with keyboard accompaniment. And we also know that he produced an occasional piece (most probably not published) for a Hamburg wedding in 1794 (Ein Liedlein der Liebe des würdigen Braut-Paars Herrn Behls und der Demoiselle Illert, auf Ihrem Hochzeitstage gesungen nach der Melodie: Laßt uns Kränze winden, in Musik gesetzt von Herrn Steinfeld. Hamburg, den 5. Juni 1794)1.

Of all these works, the only that we know have survived are the op. 1 flute sonatas, which are held in the United States at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and at the Moravian Music Foundation, in Salem, North Carolina. This is a set of large-scale and technically challenging works for flute with “basse” – the score provides an unfigured bass line which nowhere includes additional notes over the bass, and descends only to a low C, so that it would be entirely feasible to execute these works with only a flute and a violoncello. The figuration in the flute part is amply provided with articulation markings, and the simpler bass part as well. The keys (D, G, C, D, C minor, D) and range are clearly accessible to the sort of one-key transverse flute depicted on the title page.

All but the first and fifth sonata are in three movements. Four of the sonatas (1,2, 3, and 5) open with Allegros in C (common time, 4/4) marked Allegro molto (no. 1), Allegro con Spirito (no. 2), Allegro Moderato (no. 3) and Allegro Assai (no. 6), in which the drumming rhythm in the bass line is in eighths, and the shortest values in the passagework for the flute is the sixteenth (or in no. 5, the triplet eighth). The remaining two sonatas begin with allegros notated at the next level down, that is, in 2/4, marked Allegro Moderato (both nos. 4 and 6), with the shortest values for the flute being thirty-seconds or triplet sixteenths. This latter type is found exclusively in the second set of Steinfeld sonatas (see below). The slow movements for sonatas 2, 3 and 4 are in the parallel minor; sonata 5, with an opening movement in the minor, has a closing movement in the parallel major. No. 6. has a minuet (marked Tempo Giusto) in place of the slow movement. All of the closing movements are rondos (no marking, Allegretto, Presto, Presto, Presto, Presto, respectively).

Our “other” set of flute sonatas from Steinfeld, which apparently were never published, are the 6 Solos for flöyten af Steinfeldt [in D, G, E minor, C, G, and D] held in manuscript at the Royal Library in Denmark2. These might be said to be similar in style to those found in the op. 1 (they could arguably be by the same composer, although not belonging to the same set of works), and perhaps generally more virtuoso and demanding technically. My remarks about the bass line for op. 1 are valid here as well – it is unfigured, with no indications that a keyboard would be intended. Unusually, the final sonata, consisting of a set of 18 variations with a concluding rondo, is specifically scored to be accompanied by the alto viola.

These are sonatas that are large in scale, with expositions (first section to the double bar) of almost fifty measures, and the development/recapitulation of twice that size. All but the closing sonata have three movements. The opening allegros are always in 2/4, with the smallest rhythmic value generally the thirty-second note. These are in binary form. When the sonata is in major, the slow movement (the second of three) is generally in the parallel minor (this is the case for sonatas 1, 2, and 4, in D, G and C respectively; sonata 5, in G, has the slow movement in the subdominant, C major). The closing movements vary – sonatas 1 and 2 close with a Rondo, 3 and 4 with a binary form, 5 with a minuet and six variations (notably, the closing return of the initial minuet is explicitly written out, with both repeats). For sonata 6 the final rondo is essentially part of the previous extensive set of variations (this type of concluding rondo is widely used to conclude such variation sets circa 1800).

The range of notes employed in these sonatas extends from the low D to the top A normal for the one-key flute, and while the top third – F#, G, A – is used, and prominently used on occasion (e.g. the arpeggio ascending to a sustained high A in the first movement of sonata 2), the general tessitura is not as high as one would find for somewhat later music. Likewise, keys on the flat side are rare, and only found in slow movements, rather than in allegros intended to be brilliant. The manuscript is extensively, but not exhaustively or systematically, supplied with articulation markings, so that the first occurrence of a pattern may have all the articulation marked, and subsequent occurrences have no articulation marked, since the player is expected to repeat what was shown the first time.

All in all, these are highly demanding and rewarding sonatas. Both sets of works by Steinfeld highly deserve to be better-known and more accessible to the flutist, and would richly merit one or more virtuoso recordings.


1. http://books.google.com/books

2. http://img.kb.dk/ma/giedde/gs01-30m.pdf

Tom MooreTom Moore is a journalist, musician, and translator living in Rio de Janeiro. He has recorded Telemann for Lyrichord (USA) and Boismortier for A Casa Discos (Brazil). He writes about music for BrazilMax, Musica Brasileira, 21st Century Music, Opera Today, Flute Talk, Sonograma, Early Music America, and other venues.