Prometheus Laces up His Hiking Boots
Schubert, Strauss and the Magic of the Symphony Orchestra
Schubert lieder as viewed by Max Reger, Hector Berlioz and Johannes Brahms
By the end of the 19th century, the genre of orchestral song, already well established in France, had also been embraced in the German-speaking countries. Even as interludes, songs accompanied by piano were no longer welcomed in symphony concerts, as Max Reger pointed out in 1914 to Simrock, his publishers; but the public still demanded to hear this repertoire. In any case, by virtue of their dramatic, at times onomatopoeic, qualities, a considerable number of lieder by Franz Schubert lent themselves to instrumentation. Reger himself contributed a total of 15 orchestrations in 1913-14. His frequent doubling of the vocal line in the orchestra means that they could, theoretically, be performed without a singer – a not unimportant marketing aspect given the demand generated in Reger’s day by the widespread spa orchestras, as he himself shrewdly recognized.
His orchestral version of Prometheusis a textbook example of the genre, emphasizing the compartmentalized alternation of recitative and arioso sections with which Schubert rendered the irregular strophes of Goethe’s celebrated Sturm und Drang soliloquy. The sound of string orchestra dominates, with the brass contributing no more than discreet colourations until they are allowed to impart a festive C major brilliance to the triumphal gestures of the final strophe. One imagines one is listening to a little scena: even more clearly than in Schubert’s original, the young Goethe’s revolt seems to be steered into the channels of operatic conventions. Entirely different is the closed system of An die Musik. Reger charmingly doubles the vocal part on solo wind as well as adding little counterpoints, allowing one of Schubert’s best-known songs to shine in a new light. This is still more true of Hector Berlioz’s instrumentation of Erlkönig. In 1860, the art of orchestration’s uncontested master created it for a tenor friend. Every instrument seems to be deployed according to its colouristic and dramatic potential. To accompany the Erlking’s ghostlike falsetto, Berlioz opts for virtuosically jabbering woodwind, while the violins’ descending broken triads are entirely his own invention, transporting the passage’s unreal atmosphere into something spaciously symphonic.
Memnon – in Greek mythology is the Ethiopian king, son of Eos (Aurora, the goddess of dawn), whose enormous statue near Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt) began to sound every morning at daybreak. In his poem, Schubert’s close friend Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836) makes Memnon an allegorical figure who relates the unappreciated poet’s melancholy. Brahms orchestrated the song in 1862 for the great baritone Julius Stockhausen, translating the melodically supple original to the larger instrumental apparatus with great restraint. Already in the opening bars, his subtle use of woodwind shows a keen sensitivity to the text’s light symbolism. In Goethe’s 1774 poem An Schwager Kronos(To Brother Time the Coachman), Chronos, the god of time, is the driver in the turbulent passage through life. As though speeded up by a time lapse, this journey leads in a constant rise and fall from the optimism and impatience of youth to the gates of the underworld god Orcus. Whereas the percussive 6/8 repetitions sound considerably more relaxed in the instrumental version than they do in Schubert’s vehement piano writing, Brahms’s added wind parts highlight the song’s harmonic breadth, for example in the D major episode (“Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten”).
Life after death as viewed by Franz Schubert
Not until 1860, more than 40 years after its composition, did Schubert’s only oratorio Lazarus have its premiere in Vienna. The libretto by August Hermann Niemeyer, a poet-theologian from Halle, dated from as early as 1778. In this work, for the first time, Schubert attempted a music-theatrical form that included through-composed numbers intermingling recitative and arioso. Scholarship is still unable to determine why he suddenly broke off work on the oratorio shortly before the end of the second act (“Handlung”). He did, however, prepare a careful fair copy manuscript. Perhaps a performance had been planned that unexpectedly came to nothing. It might also have been substantive misgivings about the Christian conception of life after death that sapped the composer’s creative drive.
Simon’s great scene at the beginning of the second act vividly conveys the anguish and sense of existential abandonment of a man who has lost his faith. Particularly bold is the accompanied recitative in which the doubting, despairing Simon wanders among gravestones and open graves on a verdant meadow. Schubert shows great confidence in his handling of the large orchestra, from the nervously pulsating strings over an anxiously pleading oboe and a solemn passage for three trombones to the expressively heightened tutti chords. The shift between different movement characters is flexible, the harmony both nuanced and precise. The aria ends in a searing Allegro molto in F minor, whipped by fierce sforzati.
The Alps as viewed by Richard Strauss
A 5th lower, in B flat minor, begins Strauss’s Opus 64, the Alpine Symphony. The issues of the Resurrection and Christian redemption had long since ceased to occupy the successful composer and contented family man. All alone but with a cheerful heart, he sets out on his mountain climb in the misty string cluster of “Night”. What follows is a not unambitious, yet philosophically neutral endeavour: an adventure in nature, accounted for in every physical detail by the Munich-born composer – who discovered the high mountains for himself at an early age – supported by his notably ingratiating tonal harmony (enriched with further ear-catching allures), to which the erstwhile “modern” Strauss seems to be giving the lie. The itinerary of this excursion is made abundantly clear by 22 stages designated in the score, aided and abetted by an orchestra of at least 125 musicians generating a vividness that borders on the excessive.
A profusion of examples testifies to Strauss’s irresistible handling of his orchestral means. But even in moments of greatest brilliance, such as the “Waterfall” and its thousand glinting drops, there is a tendency to thin out the apparatus to solo writing. The arrival at the summit is a moment of introverted, breathless stillness (oboe solo), the “End” begins quietly as a prayer on wind supported by solemn organ chords. Strauss’s instrumentation is masterly not only in the glaring trumpet brilliance of the “Glacier” but above all in the play of sonorities clouded by polytonal motivic superimpositions, in the easy application of smudges and glazes. This begins with the B flat minor cluster already mentioned and continues in “Wandering along the Brook” as the gurgling water draws in more and more instrumental voices.
When Strauss’s wanderer on the mountain is haunted by an alarming “Vision”, when he surrenders to a dark “Elegy” and, finally, after weathering a thunderstorm, as though retreating to his own front garden, only one thing is certain: life on the heights is, in the long run, not for him. Maybe the truth of this music lies in making something audible of his recognition of induced melancholy. In the final bars, the sprightly E flat major wandering theme appears wearily in B flat minor. Optimism sounds different...