Ivan Ilić reveals a long lost arrangement of Haydn’s Symphony No 44, “Mourning” for solo piano.

How did you come across the transcription?

A 100-year old woman in Cologne had a young neighbor who occasionally helped her with groceries. When she died last Winter (2015) at age 102, with no heirs, she left the neighbor a HUGE crate of old scores. The neighbor ​– who doesn’t read music ​– put the crate away. A few weeks later, she met my friend Veronika by chance at the local supermarket. 

Veronika, who works in the music business, had just moved to Cologne; she was happy to make a new friend. The two met for drinks, and got to talking. The young neighbour told Veronika she had a surprise for her and told her to come with her car. She gave her the crate of music, telling her that she would surely find something to do with it.

Veronika called me in France and told me the story. She said “there’s probably nothing of interest here, but who knows? Maybe it would be fun for you to come to Germany and check”. I found a low-cost flight to Cologne, it was really just an excuse to see a friend. We opened the crate together, filled with thick black dust, and sifted through the scores. It was an eccentric collection.

We spotted the Haydn Symphony transcriptions, which neither of us had ever heard of, an early 19th-century edition. We located a piano shop and I sight read the four symphony transcriptions. The E Minor ​– No 44 ​– immediately stuck out: it worked so naturally on the piano! I photocopied the symphony and returned to France, and learned the symphony in a rush of enthusiasm.

I gave the premier at London’s Piano Day festival in March 2016, the German premiere in Berlin in August, and the French premiere at a festival in September. I also played the slow movement live on BBC Radio 3 in March. 

We hear a lot about Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven and Berlioz symphonies, but hardly anything about transcriptions of Haydn. Was his music ever big business for the transcribers and arrangers?

The comparison with Liszt’s transcriptions is useful. Liszt’s symphonic transcriptions are well-known because they are performed – and recorded – as concert repertoire, largely as a result of Glenn Gould’s pioneering 1968 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

There are transcriptions of Haydn’s symphonies and chamber music for four-hand piano, by musicians whose names have largely been forgotten. But these arrangements were meant for study, or to be played in private homes; they are faithful to the original works, and often awkward at the piano. This was the late 18th-century tradition, which Liszt and others disrupted with their virtuoso approach.

It’s difficult to locate Stegmann’s transcriptions: there are just a few scattered around. So it would appear that they weren’t best-sellers, even though they were published by a major publisher in Bonn, Nikolaus Simrock. Stegmann spent the last 15 years of his life in Bonn and it is likely that the flurry of transcriptions published from 1811-1826 was the result of his friendship with Simrock. There must have been at least a market for them at the time, given the amount of music Stegmann arranged for Simrock.

Pianist Ivan Ilić, photo © Michelle Blioux

Who was Stegmann – performer or composer?

The question is revealing! Today, we see it as either/or, whereas two hundred years ago many composers were also performers. Stegmann was both. He received a broad musical education, including voice, organ, harpsichord and violin studies, which led to conducting and composition. He was a good enough tenor to give the German-language premiere of Don Giovanni, and he performed as a harpsichordist, conducted operas by Mozart and Salieri, and acted in dramas by Schiller. All the while, he composed and transcribed. Just reading about it makes me exhausted!

Was Stegmann a good transcriber?

He certainly did a lot of transcriptions, mostly string quartets and quintets by Mozart and Haydn, all arranged for four-hand piano, all during the Bonn years, all for Simrock. I have only had access to the four Haydn symphony transcriptions. They are faithful to the original orchestra scores, yet comfortable under the hands. This combination is surprisingly rare. Also, the transcriptions conserve the transparency of the orchestra writing, the lightness of touch, one of Haydn’s hallmark qualities. Liszt’s Beethoven transcriptions are much heavier, and very difficult to pull off as a result.

Stegmann’s Haydn symphony transcriptions also raise intriguing questions: why did he transcribe string quartets for four hands and symphonies for just two? And there are philosophical concerns: is it appropriate to treat an arrangement as a concert work? Given all of Haydn’s wonderful piano music, am I justified in performing this symphony at the piano? Because Stegmann’s E Minor Symphony transcription is so effective, the last question strikes me as a non sequitur. But we’ve been so conditioned by the Baroque movement to prove “authenticity” that there is always someone out there to police performers’ choices. I admit that aggravating purists is one of the many pleasures of performing this transcription!

Has Stegmann left other traces on music history?

His most ambitious compositions were his Singspiel, a kind of musical theatre in which spoken dialog mingles with arias and ensemble singing. Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) is a good example. In terms of recordings, I am aware of only one CD with something by Stegman: his arrangement of Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet, K. 516 for four-hand piano.

Clearly there is a lot more research to be done, and luckily we have articles from Grove’s Dictionary of Music and the 1868 Biographie Universelle des Musiciens which provide starting points.

Which were the four symphonies you found?

Numbers 44, 65, 91, and 97. But the numbering in the old edition is confusing; the symphonies are numbered “19-22” This implies that there are at least 22 symphonies transcriptions by Stegmann, an exciting prospect. But locating them is not going to be easy.

What was special about No 44?

While the first movement looks like an arrangement, the second, third, and fourth movements look like piano music. How did Stegmann manage that? Even played at slow, cautious tempi, they sound amazing on the piano. I enjoy listening to the original symphony, but nowhere near as much as I enjoy playing and hearing it on the piano. It has to do with the tactile aspect as much as the sound. Also, Haydn’s works in minor are fascinating, because there is the lightness I referred to earlier, coupled with his characteristic vitality, even though the notes are tinged with the melancholy associated with minor. That ambivalence intrigues me.

Do you have plans to record these works?

I am exploring it for 2018. In the meantime it’s wonderful to be able to share the Presto movement and receive such an overwhelming reaction.