In Search of Lost Immortality
Works by Paul Dukas, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Schmidt
Some composers seem to be able to write new works in every situation of life. Even under difficult circumstances music flows from their pens, while others compose so little that their presence in the repertoire borders on a miracle. This concert begins with examples of these two extremes: on the one hand, Sergei Prokofiev, who made sketches for his Third Piano Concerto in his native Russia during 1917, the year of the revolution, then completed it – along with other works – several years later in France and gave the premiere in the US. On the other hand, the French composer Paul Dukas, who struggled to wring out his exquisite oeuvre despite harsh self-criticism and – apart from a few studies – wrote only one work in the genres of opera, ballet, symphony, tone poem, chamber music, song for voice with piano and piano sonata. Franz Schmidt, in turn, a typical product of the Habsburg dual monarchy, can be rediscovered as an only seemingly old-fashioned composer of symphonic confessional music during the second part of the programme.
Flower of Immortality: La Péri by Paul Dukas
The name Paul Dukas is rarely mentioned alone: Dukas, the friend of Claude Debussy. Dukas, the eloquent critic, who admired Gustav Mahler as a conductor. Dukas, the formative teacher of Olivier Messiaen. Dukas, who involuntarily supplied a soundtrack for Walt Disney – in the animated feature film Fantasia from 1940, Mickey Mouse waved the magic wand to L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). This scherzo based on Goethe’s ballad (1797) is by far Dukasʼs best-known work – the ballet music La Péri [The Peri] is a rarity by comparison.
In La Péri – the title role is a fairy from Persian mythology – Dukas takes up a legend that had fascinated composers for a long time. The plot, which Dukas developed himself, takes a different direction, however. The prince Iskender travels throughout Persia in search of the flower of immortality. After a long journey he sees the sought-after plant in the lap of a sleeping beauty, for whom Dukas composed oriental melismas never heard before. The prince is depicted powerfully and with rhythmic intensity, but the music is much too dense, too fond of variation, augmentation and superimposition to be content with such a conventional character depiction. When he attempts to wrench the flower from her hand, the Peri awakes with a start, but during a seductive dance, climaxed with a kiss, she takes back the flower and leaves the prince alone with the realization that he is not immortal at all but close to death.
The Ages Dance: Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto
A decade later, in 1921, Sergei Prokofiev spent his summer holidays on the coast of Brittany, where he met a prominent emigrant: Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942), a leading Russian symbolist poet. In addition to an obligatory setting of Balmont’s poetry, Prokofiev also tackled older material, including sketches dating back ten years for, as he wrote, a “large piano concerto full of virtuoso passages”. Shortly before the revolution he added other ideas for a work which – according to Prokofiev – “would be played only on the white keys of the piano”. Thus the key of C was fixed, but boundless musical drive and the fear of “monotony” also prompted Prokofiev to use highly virtuosic intermediate notes strung together as he revised the sketches. He played part of the new work for his neighbour Balmont, who was inspired to respond with the poem “Third Concerto”, in which he wrote: “The moments dance a waltz, the ages a gavotte. / Suddenly a wild bull, startled by foes, / Bursts his chains, halts, his horns poised to strike. / But once again the tender sounds call from afar. [...] Prokofiev! Music and youth in bloom, / In you the orchestra yearns for summer’s ecstasies / And the indomitable scythe strikes the tambourine sun.”
Prokofiev reciprocated by dedicating his new work to the poet. Nevertheless, the C major Concerto does not exude an aura of symbolism. Its structure follows classical models, with a slow introduction and sonata form, variations and rousing finale. The tone is clear and dry; kinetic energy and grotesque represent a new age. If the opening clarinet solo can still be interpreted as a farewell to Russia, the piano soon does away with all nostalgia, while the second theme, accompanied by castanets, gives the concerto something circus-like but at the same time unreal and placeless. This impression is reinforced in the finale, when the piano repeatedly becomes a distortion of the orchestra and caricatures the musical proceedings, somewhere between the performance markings “with feeling” and “turbulent”. In the Andantino with five variations Prokofiev restrains the piano, however, entrusts the theme to the orchestra and assigns the at times elegant accompaniment and ornamental functions to the soloist.
Song on the Death of a Child: Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony
Like Dukas, Franz Schmidt is known today, if at all, for one work: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln[The Book with Seven Seals], one of the great oratorios of the 20th century. Fans of “light” classical music were also familiar with the once popular intermezzo from his opera Notre Dame. Such different figures as Hans Pfitzner and Alban Berg praised his Fourth Symphony, which Schmidt completed at his house in Perchtoldsdorf near Vienna in November 1933. The reality and inwardness of Schmidt’s tragic biography were conveyed in this work: his first wife was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1919, where she was murdered as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme in 1942, and their daughter Emma died in childbirth in 1932.
Schmidt called his Fourth Symphony a “requiem for my daughter”, which despite its personal background must be numbered among the great masterworks of strict formal structure. Schmidt spreads an expansive arc over a period of 45 minutes and, as with Arnold Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, it is not easy to decide whether the four large sections should be regarded as movements that merge into one another or as the exposition, two-part development and recapitulation of a single movement. The first interpretation can be defended on the basis of the traditional sequence of the sections, the second because of the reflection of beginning and end. The most conspicuous feature of this symmetrical form is the gloomy trumpet solo, whose series of fourth intervals has echoes of Baroque Passion music. It becomes the thematic basis of the entire work, opening and concluding the symphony in the greatest solitude. This death theme is contrasted with an animated “passionato” idea in the strings.
The second large section intensifies to a funeral march in which the composer has the cello play a lament. The scherzo-like third section culminates in a collapse of Mahlerian proportions after a dense contrapuntal passage, followed by the farewell of the finale. In Schmidt’s own words: “After the end of the development section (scherzo), with intimations of a catastrophe, in the recapitulation of the first movement everything appears more mature and transfigured.” He described the last sounds of the “passionato” theme as “a death in beauty, in which one’s entire life passes by once more”. Like Johannes Brahms before him, Franz Schmidt completed his oeuvre as a symphonic composer with a Fourth – with this work, everything had been said.