About this Recording
8.572607 - FUCHS, R.: Serenades Nos. 3, 4 and 5 (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, C. Ludwig)
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Robert Fuchs (1847–1927)
Serenades Nos 3, 4 and 5

 

From time to time, almost all of us like to indulge in the fascinating game of ‘what if?’. Musicians are no less drawn to this kind of intellectual amusement than anyone else. An orchestral player, for instance, might suddenly think during a few bars rest, ‘What if Beethoven hadn’t lived? I probably wouldn’t be in this hall tonight enjoying the richness of this Brahms symphony.’ Or a musicologist might be studying an operatic score and think, ‘What if Cherubini hadn’t lived? It’s unlikely that I’d be at my desk this morning getting to grips with the lofty ideals of Beethoven’s Fidelio.’

Let’s try this game now, and ask, ‘What if Robert Fuchs had never lived?’ Somewhat to our surprise, perhaps, we will find that this far from familiar Austrian composer was a pedagogical giant whose influence unquestionably shaped the course of late Romantic music. If Fuchs had not impressed his benign stamp on the wide-ranging aspirations of his young pupils (among whom may be counted George Enescu, Erich Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schreker, Jean Sibelius, Hugo Wolf and Alexander Zemlinsky), their mature works would certainly have differed from what we are familiar with today.

Brahms, who remained a lifelong advocate of Fuchs, described the music of his younger colleague as being ‘so fine, so skilful, so charmingly invented, that one always takes pleasure from it.’ When we consider the tortured personalities of some of Fuchs’s well-known students—Wolf or Mahler, for instance—it seems remarkable that so much of his own music should be distinguished by such unruffled serenity. The amiable grace that is frequently manifest in the inner movements of his serenades reappears, quixotically transformed, in many of Wolf ’s more skittish utterances. It is one of music’s supreme ironies that Wolf should have squandered so many splenetic hours critically denouncing Brahms while simultaneously being inspired by the very same elements of Fuchs’s music that commended themselves so thoroughly to his great adversary.

By the time of his death in 1927, Fuchs’s popularity was waning, and for most of the twentieth century he was routinely ignored. How, one wonders, might Wolf and Brahms have reacted to this state of affairs? One hopes these two musical foes would have joined forces to condemn the confident assertion in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians that Fuchs’s output is ‘of no consequence’. Sibelius, too, is likely to have leapt to his teacher’s defence, for it was through Fuchs’s example that Sibelius’s own orchestral style was transformed from juvenile awkwardness to polished fluency. ‘Fuchs is,’ he said, ‘a clever orchestrator, professional down to his fingertips, and very happy as a composer.’

Born on 15 February 1847 in the Styrian village of Frauental an der Lassnitz, not far from the present-day border between Austria and Slovenia, Robert Fuchs was the youngest of thirteen children. Like his older brother, Johann Nepomuk (who enjoyed a distinguished career as an opera conductor throughout Austria-Hungary and Germany), Robert was musically precocious and soon became proficient on the piano, organ, violin and flute. He also received a thorough grounding in harmony and counterpoint, and displayed great promise as a composer. When he was eighteen he moved to Vienna and scraped a living as a pianist and organist while studying composition at the Conservatory. (His teacher, Otto Dessoff, would later be on the panel that awarded Antonín Dvořák the Austrian State Stipendium for artists.) Fuchs’s first unnumbered Symphony in G minor was not particularly successful, but two years later, in 1874, his Serenade No 1 was a great hit. Critics responded kindly to its ‘regular and pleasing’ form. In particular, the conservative-minded Eduard Hanslick admired the work because it did not attempt to plumb great philosophical depths or indulge in the current vogue of trying to express psychological states through music. In 1875 Fuchs joined the staff at the Conservatory, where he nurtured an impressive roster of serious pupils as well as teaching many lighter composers, including Leo Fall and Richard Heuberger (Hanslick’s successor as critic of the Neue Freie Presse).

Published in Leipzig in 1878, Fuchs’s Serenade No 3 bears a five-line dedication to Her Imperial Highness Elisabeth of Austria, which includes all the obligatorily fulsome phrases of obeisance that were typical of that particular historical period and place. Generally known to her friends as Sissi, this unfortunate woman, who would be assassinated by an Italian anarchist in 1898, was an obsessive equestrian, but she was also a patron of the arts. As befits someone of her rank, she would graciously have condescended to accept a musical dedication from someone with a cultural standing in Vienna as high as Robert Fuchs’s, even if—with her love of everything Hungarian—she might have preferred it if Fuchs had hailed from the Magyar part of the Dual Monarchy.

The plaintive melody of the opening Romance of Serenade No 3, initially played on the lower strings, is tinged with regret, bringing to mind the Valse triste from the incidental music that Jean Sibelius composed some 25 years later for Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema (Death). Some of the melodic ideas of the elegant Menuetto seem fleetingly to presage the third movement of Brahms’s Symphony No 3 as well as harking back to the spirit of Brahms’s own Serenade No 1, composed some two decades earlier. After a slow movement that masks its dignified theme behind an accompaniment of treading crotchets, the work is rounded off with a jauntily effervescent Finale alla zingarese, which would have done much to please Elisabeth’s pro-Hungarian predilections.

During the seventeen years that elapsed between Serenade No 3 and Serenade No 4, which appeared in 1895, Fuchs’s style of orchestration developed along bolder lines, and the newer serenade is distinguished by some beautifully idiomatic scoring that combines sonorous horn writing with a full-bodied string sound. Harmonically, too, Serenade No 4 is considerably more ambitious, for Fuchs has distanced himself to some extent from the cosy domesticity of his earlier years. It is probably no accident that Brahms professed his sincerest admiration for the work. The spacious opening movement is followed by an impish Allegretto in which Fuchs teases his listeners in a way that would surely have delighted his one-time pupil Hugo Wolf. A chromatically descending motif, which recurs throughout the Menuett, lends this movement a certain melancholy, but never does it detract from the general air of amiability. The Adagio is the emotional heart of this serenade. Its frequent modulations are executed in a manner that his Hungarian-born student Franz Schmidt would later adopt as one of his own personal trademarks. The serenade concludes with a vigorous finale full of rushing semiquavers and unalloyed joie de vivre.

The influence of his friend Brahms is very much in evidence in Fuchs’s highly expressive Serenade No 5 for small orchestra, which came hard on the heels of its predecessor. Yet, lurking not far below the surface of the broad opening Adagio are some darker hints of a distinctly Mahlerian hue. The radiant Allegro eschews all that is sinister, however, and despite the occasional harmonically pungent moment it remains a gloriously happy movement. After a winningly guileless Allegretto, the serenade concludes cheekily with what might be termed Réminiscences de Vienne, a movement that affects rather more than the occasional echo from the world of Johann Strauss.


© Anthony Short, 2012


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