János Gáspár Mertz, Johann Kaspar in German, was born in 1806 in Bratislava in the then Austria-Hungary in a very poor family. At a young age he learnt himself to play flute and guitar and gave music lessons to supplement the poor family income. Gradually his guitar playing drew the attention of the audiences until he gained access to the Viennese cultural elite after a successful convert in 1840.
He wanted to extend his success with a grand tour that brought him in Austria, Poland and Russia, quite an endeavour in those days. On this tour he met his later wife, the pianist Josephine Plantin. They got married, managed a music school in Vienna and performed together. The piano music that Mertz heard his wife play would clearly influence Mertz’ style of composition, that is quite pianistic indeed.
Mertz often suffered from neuralgia. In those days strychnia was used to treat the effects of neuralgia even though it was poisonous indeed! The treatment almost cost Mertz his life when his wife by accident gave him an overdose because the doctor had not instructed her properly. His recovery from the poisoning took about one and a half year, the time in which he composed the major part of his repertoire.
In the last part of his life, Mertz toured regularly with his guitar. At one of the concerts he met the Russian officer Nicolai Petrovich Makaroff who became one of his great admirers and described Mertz’ qualities extensively in his memoirs. Makaroff made an attempt to bring the guitar that suffered from a decline in interest under the attention of the audiences again. He organised an international guitar competition conquest. Mertz won the prize but died in 1856 before he was able to receive it. The money went to his widow, who could use some funds, widow’s benefits were non-existent in those days.
Mertz was a very productive composer with 100 opus numbers and a large number of non-categorised works, amongst them the Musikalische Rundschau that accomodates the opera arrangements in this book. Striking in his work is the balance between virtuosity and lyricism, and the mostly pianistic accompaniment patterns.
Vaterlands Blüthen Op. 1
This early work by Mertz characterizes itself by brevity. Yet it clearly shows the atmosphere of his later and much longer works. It is a small set, consisting of just five pieces. They are technically not too demanding and it is a nice set to play as a suite.
Nachtviolen Op. 2
The collection Nachtviolen (Estikek in Hungarian) is registered as Opus 2. Nachtviolen are known as Dame’s Violet, flowers that grow in the wild on secluded spots. The title Nachtviole also occurs in music, amongst others with Franz Schubert who composed them as romantic love songs. This bundle is dedicated to a young lady Marie Dunst von Adelshelm, possibly the daughter of an employer. The name Dunst von Adelshelm is mainly known in the nineteenth century military.
Zwey Mazurkas und Polonaisen Op. 3
The Zwey Polonaisen und Mazurka are registered as Opus 3. The work is dedicated to Carl Kletwieg, apparently a friend of Mertz.
Drei Nocturnes Op. 4
One of Johann Kaspar Mertz’s famous contemporaries was the Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin, who brought the free musical form Nocturne to a very high level. Certainly Mertz was acquainted with this form. His wife Josefine was a concert pianist who might have taken a shot a Chopin’s work.
Cyanen Op. 5
Just like the Nachtviolen, the Cyanen are flowers. Mertz intended this Opus 5 to be a sequel to this work, because its title is Cyanen als Folge der Nachtviolen. The common name for the Cyane is Bluet or Cornflower. The collection is pretty small, only three pieces. Technically the pieces are not too demanding, it is fun to play all three pieces in sequence.
Here you will find Romanza, Abendlied and Tarantella from Bardenklänge Op. 13, Erinnerungen an Ischl, 6 Ländler Op. 12, Steyrer Originaltänze Op. 33, Ständchen from 6 Schubertse Lieder and Übungsstücke from Schule für die Gitarre.
Kukuk oder Musikalische Rundschau
One of Mertz’ curious works is the collection Kukuk, Musikalische Rundschau, an anthology of 136 pieces. In this work, Mertz represents himself as a kind of Cees Hartog (an arranger of popular pop songs for the guitar) with arrangements of nineteenth century pop, opera music, folk dances and songs.
In particular the opera had hit potency in those days, people whistled the arias on the street and bought arrangements and potpourris to be able to play works by for instance Rossini, Bellini and Verdi at home. The Musikalische Rundschau contains about 35 (relatively!) simple arrangements of opera melodies for guitar.