From Start to Finish
Music from Franz Schubert, Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel
Prelude in the Theatre: Franz Schubert
Who wouldn’t want to be immortal? Unfortunately for Helmina von Chézy, her posthumous reputation is less than enviable. The poetess, absurdly enough, owes her entire fame to flops. On 20 December 1823 her “Grand Romantic Drama” Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern (Princess of Cyprus)had its premiere at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. It was such a devastating fiasco, derided by audience and critics alike, that the management pulled it from the repertoire after the second performance, leaving it to languish in obscurity ever since. Schubert’s occasional music, on the other hand, though composed within a few days under the tightest deadline, has survived and flourished.
Although nothing of the abortive Rosamunde play is extant but a fragmentary draft of the first act and a never-performed revised version from 1835, its plot can be plausibly reconstructed from descriptions by contemporary critics. Thus Schubert’s music returns, in the mind’s eye at least, to its origin, on the imaginary stage of a Romantic melodrama and tale of intrigue bearing witness to a bygone era of theatre history. The overture alone eludes this reconstruction, having been intended, not for Rosamunde, but for another work – the melodrama Die Zauberharfe (The Magic Harp) D 644 – and only published after Schubert’s death as the supposed prelude to Rosamunde. This borrowing was nonetheless able to establish the piece in the concert hall as an expedient stopgap, and no one nowadays would want to do without this festive, inventive and splendid sounding introduction. Let the play begin.
“The Einstein of Music”: Arnold Schoenberg
The American violinist Louis Krasner is known most widely for having commissioned the violin concerto created by Alban Berg in memory of Manon Gropius, who died tragically young. Many fewer know that he was also the man of the hour in Philadelphia on 6 December 1940 when the violin concerto by the émigré composer Arnold Schoenberg was premiered before a fractious, restless audience. It all began with a rejection. Jascha Heifetz, to whom Schoenberg offered his Violin Concerto op. 36, rejected the work as unplayable. The composer’s brother-in-law Rudolf Kolisch, for whom the concerto was initially conceived, was put off by the challenge on more practical and all-too-understandable grounds – as leader of the renowned Kolisch Quartet he had no room for it in his busy schedule. On a crossing from New York to Europe he encountered his violinist colleague Louis Krasner, who was immediately intrigued when Kolisch described the new concerto. In this work – within the seemingly familiar framework of a classical solo concerto having the outlines of a sonata-form movement, a three-part song form and an “alla marcia” rondo finale – life is exposed and endured: elegiac and expressive, bewitching and bewildering, phenomenally precise and brilliantly bizarre. Schoenberg’s music speaks with the voice of an ambivalent, eccentric and cosmically reclusive soul. It sounds like the work of a tinkerer haunted by oppressive dreams, or of a goldsmith who really wanted to erect cathedrals: utterly artificial and yet wracked internally by tormenting tensions. This concerto is dominated by the logic of the emotions and the pathos of the intellect. Under its craggy surface, the power of creative orderliness prevails in the all-binding formula of a twelve-tone row. Here this foundation begins with the notes A – B flat – E flat (in German: A – B – Es) like a scrambled monogram (Arnold SchönBerg): the predetermined row, the subjective law.
When Schoenberg’s son-in-law Felix Greissle received the commission to prepare a piano reduction of the Violin Concerto, he noticed at once that the “Einstein of Music” (as Schoenberg was dubbed in the US) had committed an “error”: the master had not applied the row correctly. He promptly informed Schoenberg and, receiving no reply, repeated his complaint until finally he found a postcard from the composer in his letterbox. Schoenberg’s only comment: “So, who cares?”
Ball, Ballet and Bacchanal: Maurice Ravel
In the winter of 1919-20, Maurice Ravel was living in seclusion at a country house in the Cévennes. He had retreated there to resume work after overcoming a protracted creative crisis in which he was afflicted by headaches, insomnia and disturbed concentration. The composition he conceived during those weeks of solitude was La Valse, an effusive waltz that he labelled a “poème chorégraphique”. Ravel connected his music to a theatrical vision: “Billowing clouds part from time to time, letting us glimpse waltzing couples. As the clouds gradually dissipate, we can make out an immense ballroom crowded with people whirling about. The stage grows progressively brighter. At the fortissimo, the chandeliers are fully illuminated. An imperial court around 1855.”
From its beginnings, the waltz entailed an element of intoxication, of oblivion, of “dancing on the volcano”. Ravel took this inner propulsion to the flash point, to the moment in which exuberance turns into self-destruction. After elegant, insinuating and intimate moments, after high spirits and champagne effervescence, the dance burns up in feverish obsession – like a “cry from the whole orchestra”, related Manuel Rosenthal, Ravel’s former composition pupil and close friend, who perceived the ending of the piece as “a kind of anguish, a very dramatic feeling of death”.
The success story of the Ballets Russes began with an acclaimed engagement in Paris in the summer of 1909. But that year was momentous for other reasons as well. Sergei Diaghilev, who managed and inspired the remarkable company, commissioned Ravel to compose a ballet based on the ancient Greek pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe. This bold joint effort does betray certain cracks in its foundation: whereas Ravel dreamt of an idealized Greece, as depicted by French artists at the end of the 18th century, Mikhail Fokine’s choreography was strictly guided by the sculpture and vase painting of antiquity.
Its symphonic autonomy notwithstanding, Ravel’s “choreographic symphony” Daphnis et Chloé cannot be entirely divorced from its scenario, even when “only” the second suite is being performed. Here is a rough outline of the plot: A throng of young people assemble at the edge a sacred wood to honour Pan, the shepherds’ god, with offerings and a religious dance. Among them are the shepherd Daphnis and the maiden Chloe, who, in naïve playfulness, discover a mutual attraction. In a dancing contest for Chloe’s favour, the coarse cowherd Dorcon makes a fool of himself while the gracefully athletic Daphnis wins the day. The idyll is disrupted by the arrival of pirates who abduct Chloe away from Pan’s sanctuary, but the god comes to the distraught Daphnis’ aid and sends the pirates fleeing. After the break of day (the second suite begins here), the couple is happily reunited. Daphnis and Chloe mime the tale of Pan and Syrinx. An all-embracing bacchanal concludes the ballet, the suite – and our concert.