Giovanni Punto [Johann Wenzel (Jan Václav) Stich] (1746-1803)
Born Jan Václav Stich, Punto was the son of a serf, bonded to the estate of Count Joseph Johann von Thun. While growing up, he was taught singing, violin and later on, the French horn. His talents were pronounced enough so that Count Thun sent him off to study with the best horn players of the time, first in Prague with Joseph Matiegka, then with Jan Schindelarz in Munich, and finally completing his training with A. J. Hampel in Dresden (1763-64). From Hampel, Jan Václav adopted his hand-stopping technique, which he later improved and extended.
After completing his studies, Jan Václav returned to the service of Count Thun, but being a retainer at this rural estate did not suit his temperament. He served the Count for 4 rather stormy years, acquiring the reputation as a hothead and troublemaker. Count Thun ordered him not to wear a sword in order to prevent any tragic accidents, and in the end had to threaten to put him in the military if his horn player didn’t better control his temper.
So, in the end, at age 20, Jan Václav and four friends defected from the Count and ran off to find a better life. The furious Count sent soldiers after them, with orders, once they apprehended Punto, to knock his front teeth in order that he could never play the horn again. Fortunately, the five runaways were able to elude the soldiers and escaped over the border into the Holy Roman Empire, where Jan Václav Italianised his name, becoming Giovanni Punto.
The first position Punto held after leaving Count Thun was with the orchestra of the Prince of Hechingen, but he soon moved on to Mainz court orchestra, where he left after a few years because he was not made konzertmeister. He then began to tour Europe as a soloist, traveling throughout Europe, playing in the German states, Spain, France, Hungary, the Italian states, and England. Charles Burney heard him play in Coblenz in 1772 and reported:
“The Elector has a good band, in which M. Punto, the celebrated French horn from Bohemia, whose taste and astonishing execution were lately so applauded in London, is a performer.”
Although, while he may have been applauded by members of the audience, his use of hand stopping was criticized by some in London, probably because this technique was still a novel item in London at this time. Punto returned to London in 1777 and was invited to teach the horn players in the private orchestra of King George III. On his last trip to London in 1788, he performed at Gertrude Elizabeth Mara’s vocal concerts in the Pantheon. Here he met a friend of Mozart’s, Michael Kelly, who noted the occasion in his own Reminiscences.
On the Continent, Punto moved throughout Europe at this time, playing as a soloist and with many different court orchestras. He made his way to Paris by 1776, and between then and 1788 he appeared no less that 49 times with the Concert Spirituel. Mozart, who met him there in 1778, wrote to his father that “Punto plays magnifique,” and along with the noted soloists Wendling (flute), Ritter (bassoon) and Ramm (oboe), he composed the Sinfonia Concertante K.297B (now lost). While in Paris, Punto apparently struck up several contracts with various publishers, as from this time forward, nearly all his works were published in Paris editions. Previously, he had works listed in Breitkopf’s catalogue of 1778.
Although he was in great demand as a touring soloist, Punto wished for a permanent, lucrative position or patronage and a chance to conduct. In 1781 he entered the service of the Prince Archbishop of Würzburg, but soon left to become the Konzertmeister, with a pension, for the Comte d’Artois (later to become Charles X of France) in Paris. Requesting and gaining a leave of absence in 1787, Punto toured cities and town in the Rhineland, using his own coach, giving one an idea of his success and prosperity.
Back in Paris for the start of the Reign of Terror (1789), he became the conductor of the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes and stayed with them for 10 years. However, in 1799, after failing to advance to the staff of the newly founded Conservatoirie, Punto moved on to Munich and then Vienna. Here he met Beethoven, who wrote his Op. 17 Sonata for Horn and Piano for the both of them to premiere on 18 April 1800 at the Burgtheater. The following month the pair played the work again in Pest, Hungary, where a local music critic commented:
“Who is this Beethoven? His name is not known to us. Of course, Punto is very well known.”
Finally, after being gone for 33 years, Punto returned triumphantly to his homeland in 1801, playing a grand concert on 18 May in the National Theater in Prague, highly praised by the Prague neue Zeitung as:
Punto received enthusiastic applause for his concertos because of his unparalleled mastery, and respected musicians said that they had never before heard horn playing like it…In his cadenzas he produced many novel effects, playing two and even three-part chords. It demonstrated again that our fatherland can produce great artistic and musical geniuses.”
At this point in time, Punto became friends with Jan Ladislav Dussek, with whom he soon (1802) went on a concert tour, including giving a recital at his birthplace.
In 1802, after a short trip to Paris, Punto developed Brustwassersucht (chest dropsy), which today is known as pleurisy. It was a common illness of wind players of the times. He was ill for five months, and finally passed away on 16 February 1803. He was given a magnificent funeral in the Church of St. Nicholas before thousands of people, so great was his fame at the time. Mozart’s Requiem was performed at the graveside. His tomb was inscribed as follows:
Punto received all the applause. As the Muse of Bohemia applauded him in life, so did she mourn him in death.
Like many soloists of the time, Punto composed pieces that displayed his own talents and virtuosity. He was a cor basse player, using a silver cor solo made for him in 1778 in Paris. Works composed by and for him show that he was a master of quick arpeggios and stepwise passagework. Punto was acclaimed as a virtuoso of the highest order, considered to be the finest horn player to date, and perhaps of all times. A typical commentary (here by Franz Joseph Fröhlich) runs as:
What distinguished Punto, in a way that one has never heard in any other artist heretofore, was his most magnificent performance, the gentlest portrayals, the thunder of tones and their sweetest indescribable blending of nuances with the most varied tone production, an agile tongue, dexterous in all forms of articulation, single and double tones, and even chords, but most important, a silver-bright and charming cantabile tone.
Amongst his works are found: 16 horn concerti (nos. 9, 12, 13, 15 and 16 lost), a 2 horn concerti, 1 clarinet concerto, a horn sextet, 21 horn quartets, 47 horn trios of various combinations, as well as 103 horn duos of various combinations. Punto also revised Hampel’s horn tutor manual and wrote a book on various daily exercises for the horn.
Sadie, Stanley (Ed.) The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians 2nd Edition Groves Dictionaries, New York 2000
Tuckwell, Barry Liner notes to Four Horn Concertos by Giovanni Punto on Angel Label 52-37781
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