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Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz

Image of Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz1790, and revolutionary Paris was a city in turmoil. On the night of 19 February, in a final dramatic gesture of despair, Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz threw himself from the Pont-Neuf into the Seine and drowned. Whether his suicide was a desperate response to his wife’s infidelity, or whether it was the result of the infinitely stressful situation brought about by the ever-burgeoning threat of instability and civil unrest in the city, will never really be known; but whereas most authoritative publications agree on the date of his death, the date and place of Krumpholtz’s birth have been the subject of many inaccurate dictionary entries, and only very recently has it been possible to determine the truth with absolute certainty.

Jan Křtitel Krumpholtz was born in Prague on 5 August 1747.  Autobiographical information published after his death reveals that his mother was a harpist who, he said ‘had no inheritance to leave me other than her passion for the harp’; his father was a military bandsman attached, like so many other Bohemian musicians of the time, to a French regiment. The young Krumpholtz travelled to France with his father, who taught him to play the horn, the violin and the viola, but he longed to have composition lessons, and longed to play the harp. Aged fourteen, he reached Paris for the first time and was able to have some lessons with Christian Hochbrucker (1733-1799), nephew of the inventor of the pedal harp. Next, he moved on to Lille, again making an unsuccessful attempt to study composition, but five years later, having no means of making a living except by playing the horn, he returned to Prague. With his passion for the harp once more re-kindled, he took it up again. Moving on to Vienna, he was influenced and encouraged in his attempts at composition by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), and it was in Vienna  that he wrote his first concerto for the harp, entrusting the scoring to his compatriot Vàclav Pichl (1741-1805).  In July 1773, Krumpholtz’s performance of this concerto at Esterház so impressed Haydn that he offered him an engagement there and then. It was as J B Krumpholtz that he signed his indenture on 1 August, though he may well already have been using this form of his Christian name for some time. He stayed at Esterház for three years, and during this time he worked with Haydn on his sixth concerto.

In the summer of  1776, he took a two-year leave of absence, and in the autumn he arrived at Metz, where, in the harpsichord workshop of Simon Gilbert in the Fournirue, adjoining the precinct of the cathedral of  St Etienne, his life was to take a surprising turn, because it was there that he met both his future wives! He married Simon Gilbert’s daughter, Marguerite, and they arrived in Paris on 14 February 1777, taking with them Anne-Marie, the brilliant ten-year old harpist daughter of Christian Steckler (1746-1838), a cabinet-maker employed at Gilbert’s workshops, and Krumpholtz’s contemporary.

The family arrived in Paris at an auspicious time. Late eighteenth-century Paris was the centre of the harp world, and Marie Antoinette herself being a harpist, harp makers, performers, composers and teachers converged on the French capital. Krumpholtz thrived in this atmosphere, and soon became known for his talents as harpist, composer, teacher and inventor. On Christmas Day 1778, he played his 5th concerto at the Concert Spirituel, and subsequently a large number of compositions – solos, duos and concertos – flowed from his pen. Mostly dedicated to aristocratic  patrons and pupils, they were variously published by Cousineau and Naderman, both of whom were also harpmakers, Naderman being harpmaker to Marie Antoinette.  Interestingly, in 1778, Krumpholtz  dedicated his Receuil de douze préludes to Mademoiselle de Guines, for whom, in April of that same year, Mozart had written his Concerto for Flute and Harp. It is tempting to conjecture that Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz may have been her harp teacher.  Krumpholtz and Naderman lived very close to one another in the rue d’Argenteuil on the Butte St Roch; in 1778, both Dussek and Mozart were also their near neighbours. Naderman began to show himself willing to incorporate Krumpholtz’s ideas for improvements to the instrument into the harps he himself made.

Carved, gilded, and with soundboard decorations in the Vernis Martin style, the harp had already become a pre-requisite of the most elegant Parisian salons, but aesthetic considerations having prevailed over practicality, there was room for great improvement, both in the construction of the instruments and in their mechanical functioning. A major problem was that their mechanism had only a single action, and each pedal could be depressed only once, raising the string by a semitone; their ‘open’ key was Eb major, and they were limited to playing in eight major keys and five minor ones. One would have assumed that Krumpholtz’s favourite key of Eb minor would be completely unobtainable, but in his late Sonate comme scène dans le style pathétique he achieves the virtually impossible by the use of ‘homophones’ or enharmonic equivalents, substituting F# for Gb, B natural for Cb, C# for Db and so on. He accomplished this by setting the pedals in advance. His purely practical improvements included a pedal-operated damping mechanism (see ill. in Dr Spinelli’s article WHC Review) and a pedal-operated swell mechanism, both of which were developed and put into practice by J H Naderman, and officially approved by the Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1787.

Other ‘improvements’ suggested by his fertile imagination proved less practical, even, in some instances, almost farcical. That Krumpholtz was a brilliant, but excitable, nervous and intense man – possibly even exhibiting depressive tendencies – can be sensed from the portrait owned by Berlin’s State Musical Instrument Museum, which, unfortunately, it has not proved possible to reproduce here. Another maker he approached with great enthusiasm was Sebastien Erard, this time with his ideas concerning frequent string breakages and the unreliability of intonation caused by the defects of the pedal-operated hook mechanism. Erard’s first concern was to circumvent the harp’s limitations, observing in a letter that ‘the mechanism of the instrument is too complicated; I have changed and much simplified it; this means it doesn’t break strings like before.’ The result of  Erard’s experiments was the ‘fork’ mechanism which he invented, and which is, of course, still in use today.

Meanwhile, Krumpholtz’s young pupil, Anne-Marie Steckler made sensational progress.  Aged 13, on 13 December 1779, she had played before Marie Antoinette at the concert spirituel; in 1781, reported as having ‘an extraordinary talent’ and being ‘a phenomenon’ she played five concerts in her home town of Metz, and by 1783, the sixteen-year-old was playing the difficult 5th and 6th concertos of Krumpholtz to great acclaim at important Parisian venues. Here it is, however, that scandal appears to rear its ugly head! Marguerite Krumpholtz  had died in Paris at the beginning of January 1783. A bare seven weeks later, on 26 February 1783, Jean-Baptiste Krumpholtz married Anne-Marie Steckler. She was sixteen. Aged thirty-six, he was one year younger than her father. The following October, billed as Madame Krumpholtz-Steckler, she brazenly defied convention by playing in public when eight months pregnant, attracting adverse press comment as to either the wisdom or propriety of such an appearance.   

Their first child, Louis-Armand-Jean-Baptiste, was born in November 1783, soon to be followed by Charlotte-Esprit (1785) and Antoine-Philippe (1787). All the children were baptised in the parish church of St Roch.  Persistent rumours about her departure for England as the mistress of a fellow musician may well be unsubstantiated, but in early 1788 ‘Madame Krumpholtz’ was already playing in London, where, on 30 April The Times reported that ‘this Lady’s (the capital letter is original) wonderful execution is universally admired, and the public have to regret that her talents are only to be heard in private.’  She was 22 years old, and her fee for a private party was 40 guineas! She was featured at Haydn’s benefit concert at the Drury Lane Theatre on 13 May, played duos with Dussek at the Hanover Square Rooms on 2 June, and on  13 June she appeared at a benefit concert for Cramer. The following year, she was again a sensational success, making 17 London appearances between March and June 1789. Her own benefit concert was held on Friday, 15 May.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Krumpholtz mused on his wife’s talents. In his autobiographical sketch, he wrote: “I am reproached for neglecting public performance. It is true that I have abandoned it almost totally. If this is a fault, I must admit that it is becoming a new source of pleasure for me. I have become too demanding and perhaps too hard on my own account, seeing myself surpassed by the playing of my wife: nature has endowed her with unparalleled facility. Her playing combines strength and fluency; and what is more valuable is that she is able to imbue her performances with the expression and feeling which transform music into a veritable language. I leave her to express my ideas. When I was performing, it was impossible for me to judge the effect; now that I listen, nothing escapes me. So from the point of view of composition, I gain what I have lost from the point of view of performance. I am no longer a better performer than the average music-lover. I no longer play better than my pupils; and because I have rehearsed my wife in the same passages twenty different ways, I know better than anyone what the fingers can do, and I know the limitations and capabilities of the instrument. I am still criticised for appearing to look for difficulties; this is wrong; my only concern is to make known all the possibilities and resources of the harp. The instrument has its faults, but when it is understood properly, it is inferior to none. Perhaps what the instrument needs is another dozen or so able composers. All I have attempted to do is to push back those limitations with which people wish to burden the harp, and to extend its boundaries.”

It is to his pupil, Jean-Marie Plane (b.1774), that we are indebted for preserving Krumpholtz’s memoirs. It is thus that Plane ends his own recollections of his teacher. “These are all the details which Krumpholtz has left us on the subject of his education, and I have reported them faithfully, because they must, of necessity, interest everyone who is concerned with the harp, and they have, in any case, a direct bearing on the study of the instrument. Every line reflects that modest attitude which is the true indication of genius, and which should always serve as a model to performers”.

Continuing, Plane says “It remains for me to add a word or two on the subject of his final misfortunes, the memory of which is ever present in my thoughts. Some years had passed, during which, being prey to an intense jealousy which allowed him no respite, Krumpholtz finally passed from love to devotion; and it was in religion that he searched for the consolation he could no longer find in worldly affairs. The misfortune which had so long pursued him caused him to choose as a guide an ignorant and fanatical priest, whose baneful advice, rather than reassure his deranged conscience, only served to exacerbate his doubts.

We were just reaching that memorable epoch which saw the beginning of the French Revolution. The first events, which took place before his very eyes, succeeded in confusing his poor brain. Finally, no longer able to bear the burden of the problems of his life, he brought it to an early end.”

On 11 March, 1790, The Argus, a London newspaper, honoured him with the following obituary:

All the musical  amateurs in Europe will be afflicted to hear of the untimely end of this celebrated performer on the harp.  He was not merely regarded as the improver, but the creator of the brilliant execution which has lately distinguished that delightful instrument.

....... KRUMPHOLTZ, has ever been heard with the utmost admiration by connoisseurs. His pieces were original and enchanting; he imitated no man, but his style of composition as well as of execution peculiar to himself, attained to a degree of unrivalled excellence. How painful it is to add, that he lately drowned himself in the Seine, to which desperate act he was impelled by the perfidy of a faithless wife, a pupil too of his own, and whom he had always most passionately loved.

Thus a man, whose talents secured him universal admiration, could not fix the heart of his fair inconstant; and we may apply to Mr. KRUMPHOLTZ, what has often been observed of illustrious characters, that the same sensibility which assisted their genius, was often the bane of their repose, it promoted the glory of the art, but caused the misery of the artist. So true is the poet’s remark, that ‘Refined sense is but refined woe.’ 

As far as is known, ‘the celebrated Madame Krumpholtz’ never again set foot on French soil. The ‘famous woman on the harp’ stayed in London where she earned her living as a performer and fashionable teacher. She sat to her portrait by Richard Cosway, and she also acted as an agent for Sébastien Erard, obtaining commissions for the sale of harps sold on her recommendation to the rich and famous, many of whose daughters she numbered among her pupils. In 1796, the French emigrée gossip, Laurette d’Alpy, bitchily intimated that Anne-Marie was something of a courtesan, that she was very fond of a glass of wine, that at that moment she was madly in love with the composer Giacomo Ferrari, and that her air of sweet innocence concealed every known vice. A long-standing affair with Charles Sturt, MP for Bridport in Dorset, was brought to light in a famous case heard before Justice Kenyon at the Court of the King’s Bench Westminster in late May, 1801. Here it was revealed that Mr. Sturt had “lived for years in a state of adulterous concubinage with Madame Krumpholtz, a celebrated player on the harp”. One of their several children had been named Henry Sturt Krumpholtz after his father.

She seemed to have been involved in another court case in 1807, as on 24 August Erard’s Order Books note payments made on her behalf to several well-known lawyers, amounting to the sum of £176-11-8. Little more is heard of her in England after this time, but a census register for Metz in 1807 records opposite her father’s name the information that “he has a daughter who has lived for the last twenty years in England.”

Her tumultuous life finally came to an end on 15 November, 1813. It was thus that the Gentleman’s Magazine recorded her death: “Madame Krumpholtz, the celebrated performer on the harp, in Upper Marylebone Street, of an apoplectic fit.”
© Ann Griffiths 23 October 2010