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Giovanni Punto (born Jan Václav Stich) (September 28, 1746, Žehušice, Bohemia – February 16, 1803, Prague, Bohemia) was a Czech horn player (more correctly, he played the cor basse) and a pioneer of the hand-stopping technique which allows natural horns to play a greater number of notes.
Punto was born in Žehušice in Bohemia. His father was a serf bonded to the estate of Count Joseph Johann von Thun, but the young Stich was taught singing, violin and finally the horn. The Count sent him to study horn under Joseph Matiegka in Prague, Jan Schindelarz in Munich, and finally with A. J. Hampel in Dresden (from 1763 to 1764). This last was especially significant as Hampel taught Stich the pioneering hand-stopping technique which he later improved and extended.
Stich then returned to the service of the Count, where he remained for four years, earning a reputation for volatility and troublemaking. At the age of 20 Stich ran away, with four friends. The Count, who had invested heavily in his prodigy, dispatched soldiers with orders to knock out Stich's front teeth to prevent him ever playing the horn again. Fortunately they failed to capture the party, and Stich crossed into Italy, into the Holy Roman Empire.
On arriving in Italy, Stich changed his name to Giovanni Punto (more or less an Italianisation of his given name) and went to work in the orchestra of the Prince of Hechingen. From there he moved to Mainz, to the court orchestra, but left after a few years when they refused to give him the post of Konzertmeister. After this he began to travel and play as a soloist, touring much of Europe including England. Charles Burney heard him play in Koblenz in 1772, saying:
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.
Punto was particularly popular in Paris, playing there 49 times between 1776 and 1788, but his use of hand stopping was criticized by some in London, possibly due to the novelty of the technique. In 1777, however, he was invited to teach the horn players in the private orchestra of George III.
Punto also composed pieces to better display his own virtuosity (a common practice then). By studying these works we know that he was a master of quick arpeggios and stepwise passagework.
1778 seems to have been a particularly good year for Punto; not only did he meet Mozart in Paris (Mozart reported to his father Leopold that "Punto plays magnifique."), he also appears to have made arrangements with some Parisian publishers; nearly all his subsequent compositions were published in Paris, whereas they were previously listed in Breitkopf's catalogue. Finally, a new horn was made for him, a silver cor solo, which he used for the rest of his life.
Punto actively sought a permanent position where he could conduct as well as compose and play. and in 1781 he duly entered the service of the Prince Archbishop of Würzburg, whence he moved to become the Konzertmeister (with a pension) for the Comte d’Artois (later to become Charles X of France) in Paris. His success was such that in 1787 he was able to secure leave of absence and tour the Rhineland in his own coach (a mark of considerable wealth at the time).
On returning to Paris in 1789 Punto was appointed conductor of the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes, where he remained for ten years, leaving in 1799 only after they refused to appoint him to the staff of the newly founded Paris Conservatoire. Moving on to Vienna via Munich, Punto met Beethoven, who wrote his Op. 17 Sonata for Horn and Piano for the two of them. They premièred the work on 18 April 1800 at the Burgtheater and the following month the pair played the work again in Pest, Hungary (it was here that the critic commented "who is this Beethoven?...").
In 1801, 33 years after leaving, Punto returned to his homeland, playing a grand concert on 18 May in the National Theater in Prague. A reviewer commented:
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.
In 1802, after a short trip to Paris, Punto developed "Brustwassersucht" (pleurisy), then a common illness of wind players. He died five months later on 16 February 1803, being accorded a "magnificent" funeral in the Church of St. Nicholas attended by thousands. Mozart's Requiem was performed at the graveside.
Franz Joseph Fröhlich writes of Punto:
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.
Among his surviving compositions are: