Cherished, undervalued and overlooked
Orchestral works and songs by Antonín Dvořák, Hugo Wolf and Franz Schubert
Antonín Dvořák: Legends
Antonín Dvořák’s international breakthrough as a composer started in Berlin. In 1878, on the recommendation of none less than Johannes Brahms, the Berlin publisher Fritz Simrock published Dvořák’s Moravian Duets, op. 32 as well as his Slavonic Dances for piano four hands, op. 46. Both works proved to be big sellers. Two years later, Dvořák informed his publisher that he was planning – as a kind of counterpart to the Slavonic Dances – a cycle of ten lyrical piano pieces which he thought of entitling Legends. He set to work on them at the beginning of the following year, and by summer the Legends for piano four hands, op. 59 were already in print. Still in that year, the composer decided to follow up the original version with one for orchestra – a sales strategy that had already shown itself to be highly profitable for the Slavonic Dances.
The sixth of Dvořák’s Legends is in C sharp minor and tripartite song form. A theme echoed by surging string and harp figuration lends the outer sections a rather lyrical character, while the woodwind are given prominence in the more folklike D flat major middle section. No. 10 in B flat minor which concludes the cycle calls for four horns in addition to woodwind and strings. Defying expectations raised by the syncopated second cello line at the beginning, this piece in 4/8 time assumes the character of a melancholy march. The clearly contrasting middle section is in B flat major, its theme introduced by the horns. Regardless of its dynamic upswings, the work dies away pianissimo.
Mörike and Goethe settings by Hugo Wolf
Caught up in a veritable creative frenzy, Hugo Wolf wrote 43 lieder to poems by Eduard Mörike within just three months in early 1888. After a productive interlude in September dedicated to lyrics by Joseph von Eichendorff, he composed 10 further Mörike settings in October and then almost immediately turned to the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and created 50 lieder by February 1889, adding one more in October. It was in those two large collections devoted to the lyric output of a single poet, Mörike followed by Goethe, that Wolf “found himself”, observed Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his biography of the composer. That supreme Wolf interpreter elaborated: “In striving to unify meaning, diction and music, it cannot satisfy Wolf merely to grasp the poem’s content. For him, the poet’s personality is the key that opens up the musical horizon along with the poetic.” (In 1890, Wolf prepared most of the orchestral versions of the songs heard in these concerts.)
Commencing his intensive exploration of Goethe with poems from the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), Wolf set the three desperately sad songs of the mysterious Harper haunted by an incestuous relationship. Wolf depicts his harp with arpeggios in the accompaniment of the first setting. He also breaks up Goethe’s three strophic poems with text repetitions and interludes and turns them into something approaching monologues. The doleful basic tone of these three lieder corresponds to Goethe’s description of the old man as an “unfortunate character, who feels himself on the verge of madness.” In contrast, Wolf deploys gaudy, almost operatic instrumental colours in the orchestral version of his setting of Goethe’s amusing, occasionally creepy ballad Der Rattenfänger (The Ratcatcher), originally published in 1804. Anakreons Grab (Anacreon’s Grave) is among the composer’s most touching lyrical creations.
Wolf treasured Mörike’s lyric poetry for “the variety of forms and moods...and took special pleasure in rendering the hair-raising and fantastic verses, their aspects of profundity as well as their cosiness, but also the frequently veiled confessions of sadness and pain” (Fischer-Dieskau). In the brief Gesang Weylas, Wolf self-effacingly defers to the poet in his straightforward declamation of the text, accompanied by harplike figuration. The accompaniment of the irregularly expressive, harmonically richly nuanced lied In der Frühe suggests the chiming of distant bells. Wolf’s setting of the demonic ballad Der Feuerreiter (The Fire-Rider) is one of his most dramatic.
Franz Schubert: The “Great C major” Symphony
At the home of Franz Schubert’s brother Ferdinand in 1839, Robert Schumann discovered the score of an apparently unperformed C major symphony composed in 1825-26. He entrusted the manuscript to Felix Mendelssohn, who performed the work that year in Leipzig. Schumann’s review of the concert has become legendary: “I must say at once, that anyone not yet acquainted with this symphony can know very little about Schubert,” he wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. “Here, besides a sheer mastery of the techniques of composition, we find life in every fibre, the finest shadings of colour, meaningful expression everywhere, the most acute etching of detail, all suffused with a Romanticism we have already encountered elsewhere in Schubert. And the symphony’s heavenly lengths, rather like one of Jean-Paul’s thick novels in four volumes that is never quite able to come to an end, and for the best of reasons: in order to allow the reader to carry on romancing in the same vein... No symphony since Beethoven's has had such an effect on us.”
Unlike Schumann or Brahms, Schubert – thanks to temporal proximity – had nothing to fear from the comparison of his music with Beethoven’s. Thus, in his last completed symphony, he was able to forge new paths, not so much looking back to Beethoven’s creations in this genre as foreshadowing those of the two younger composers. As in his late piano sonatas, Schubert is not aiming for dramatic compression of the forms. His focus, rather, is on their melodic and motivic elaboration. The slow introduction to the first movement, developed from a horn call and merging almost seamlessly into the Allegro, which in turn concludes with a paraphrase of the horn motif, surpasses all previous examples of this particular formal section. Schubert also takes his time in the second movement, whose folk-tinged melodies – adumbrating Gustav Mahler’s – he discloses at times as moments of both silencing and helpless agitation. No composer before Schubert and only a few after him undertook to produce this sort of existential atmospheric upheaval out of identical material.
If the finely chiselled yet sometimes rough-seeming Scherzo, though not lacking in typically Schubertian features, recalls comparable movements by Beethoven, the Finale demonstrates that its creator could also draw inspiration from the music of a completely different composer. Rossini perhaps? The “Swan of Pesaro” must have been a thorn in the side of Schubert, who throughout his life also had ambitions as an opera composer. Could he nonetheless have paid his ungrudging respects to Rossini in certain passages of the last movement? Though purists would be aghast, the hunch is not entirely to be dismissed. The tone of jubilation struck by Schubert in the closing movement of his last symphony is, in any case, miles away from the sometimes clamorous humanist appeal of Beethoven’s Ninth – it is too buoyant, bright and unburdened. A utopia that the Viennese composer had absorbed from the mannerisms of the Italian Rossini, incomparably successful with the musical public of the day? One can listen to Schubert’s Finale again and again without coming up with an answer...