Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport

Jean-Pierre (1741-1818), and Jean-Louis (1749-1819), were both brilliant cellists, and played interesting roles in the musical life of France and Germany of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were sons of a dancing master, and students of the founder of the French school of cello playing, Martin Berteau (1700-1771). They were acquainted with Beethoven, and the following history of their encounter is quite interesting.

In February of 1796, Beethoven had left Vienna for a five-month concert tour which took him to Prague (in the company of Prince Lichnowsky, who had trailed there with Mozart some seven years earlier), Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin, where he was inspired by the high level and quality of musical activity at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. JP Duport was the king's director of chamber music.

This monarch had inherited his passion for music from his uncle, Frederick the Great (reigned 1740-1786, and who employed Jean-Pierre Duport in 1773), whose musical establishment, maintained at full intensity until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1856, and included such luminaries as Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun, Franz and Johann Benda, Christoph Schaffrath, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Johann Joachim Quantz. Frederick’s accomplishments as a flutist and composer had gained him the respect of many professional musicians. His nephew’s talents were applied to the violoncello, which was just coming into its own as a solo instrument during the middle years of the eighteenth century.

In 1787, shortly after Friedrich Wilhelm’s ascension to the throne, Haydn published his six quartets of P. 50 with a dedication to the new Prussian monarch. Mozart, in a letter written two years later, set forth his intention to produce a similar half-dozen works, of which only three, known today as the Prussian Quartets, were completed. Their difficult cello parts testify to the king’s technical accomplishments, but Friedrich Wilhelm was by no means the only cellist at the Potsdam court capable of their execution.

Frederick the Great had engaged Jean-Pierre Duport, Berteau’s most gifted student, in 1773 as first cellist of the Royal Opera, chamber musician of the Royal Chapel, and instructor for the prince.

The elder Duport’s playing was rivaled, or even surpassed, by that of his brother Jean-Louis, some eight years his junior.

The sweetness and beauty of the tone he caused to issue from his instrument is said to have surprised Voltaire, who allegedly quipped, "Monsieur Duport, you will make me believe in miracles, for I see that you can turn an ox into a nightingale."

On the eve of the 1789 Revolution, Duport, sensing the coming debacle which would effectively destroy Parisian concert life for several years, fled the city to join his brother in Berlin.

Thus, when Beethoven arrived in Potsdam, he found a virtual hotbed of cellistic activity. The Biographische Notizen uber Ludwig van Beethoven, compiled in 1838 by the composer’s friend from Bonn, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, and student from Vienna, Ferdinand Ries, includes the following vignette:

Beethoven played several times at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II, where he played the two grand sonatas with obbligato violoncello, Op. 5 which he had composed for Duport, first violoncellist of the King, and himself. On his departure he received a gold snuff-box filled with louis d’ors [gold coins]. Beethoven told me wit pride that it was no ordinary snuffbox, but one of the kind which are presented to ambassadors.

The two sonatas Beethoven and Duport played were published in Vienna by Artaria in 1797. This pair of complementary works occupies a unique position in music history, being the first true duo, or obbligato, sonatas (in which the two participants share equally in the working-out of melodic material) for keyboard and cello. (Curiously, the original title page for the sonatas proclaims their instrumentation as harpsichord or fortepiano with violoncello obbligato—surely a merely commercial concession to the lingering popularity of the harpsichord, since the dynamic markings clearly indicate that Beethoven composed the work with the fortepiano in mind.)

Though their structures are similar, the two pieces inhabit completely different affective realms, as one might presuppose from their keys. The cheery brightness of the F. Major sonata’s first movement presents a clear contrast to the nearly belligerent brooding of the G minor work’s opening. The cellistic effects of the C Major rondo are altogether different from those used in the F Major sonata.

Taken together, the two sonatas examine nearly every facet of the new-found jewel their instrumental combination offers, presenting a compositional and technical tour de force in every way as fiery as that produced in performance by their original executants.

In 1812 Jean-Pierre returned to Paris. He had an amusing encounter with Napoleon, who insisted on trying out Duport's Stradivarius cello, exclaiming, "How the devil do you hold this thing, Monsieur Duport?" Duport was so obviously afraid that Napoleon would damage it, that Napoleon laughingly returned it to the cellist's more careful hands. Actually, Napoleon had made a small dent in the ribs of the cello, which may still be seen in the "Duport Strad" today. (The instrument was later owned by Franchomme, then Servais, and is now in the capable hands of Mstislav Rostropovich.)

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