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8.220417 - GOLDMARK: Symphony No. 2, Op. 35 / Penthesilea, Op. 31

Karl Goldmark (1830–1915)
Symphony No. 2 in E Flat, Op. 35 • Overture: Penthesilea, Op. 31


The Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark was born in Keszthely in 1830, one of the twenty children of a synagogue cantor. In 1834 the family moved to Deutsch-Kreuz and it was there that, in 1841, he was able to receive some elementary musical instruction from a village teacher. The following year he entered the music school at the neighbouring town of Ödenburg, and two years later he moved to Vienna, where he continued his study of the violin under Leopold Jansa, supporting himself as well as he could, until forced by poverty to return to Deutsch-Kreuz.

In 1847 Goldmark entered the Conservatory in Vienna, after first having qualified for entry to the Vienna Technical School. He became a violin pupil of Joseph Böhm and studied music theory, but returned home in 1848, after the closing of the Conservatory in the revolutionary disturbances of that year, in which, through a mistake of identity, he narrowly avoided execution as a rebel. This marked the end of his formal musical training, which was followed by work as a violinist in various theatre orchestras. He taught himself to play the piano, and gave lessons in Vienna, where he returned in 1850 to work at the Josefstadt Theater, continuing to develop his practical knowledge of music and to display this in a series of compositions that attracted little serious attention.

On 20th March, 1857, Goldmark gave a concert of his works, including a piano quartet, an overture, a Psalm for solo voices, chorus and orchestra and some songs. The first of these received a favourable notice, but so little general interest was aroused that he decided to move to Budapest, where he remained for two years, teaching the piano and studying standard contemporary text-books and the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. A further concert of his works was given in 1859 and in 1860 he returned to Vienna, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

At first supporting himself by giving piano lessons, Goldmark gradually began to achieve fame as a composer. His String Quartet, Opus 8, won high praise, and even Eduard Hanslick was favourably impressed by the Sakuntala overture, first performed in Vienna in 1865. He wrote as a music critic for the Konstitutionelle Zeitung, and became closely associated with the supporters of Richard Wagner, particularly in the establishment in 1872 of the Vienna Wagner-Verein. The influence of Wagner was to become increasingly strong in his own work as a composer.

In 1875 Goldmark won considerable success with his opera Die Königin von Saba, a work of lavish orchestral colour, which was first performed at the Vienna Court Opera under Wilhelm Gericke, and thereafter by many German and Italian opera companies. In 1910 the opera received its first English performance in Manchester by the Carl Rosa Company. Its composition had taken the composer some ten years, and in 1886 after four years’ work, a second opera was completed, Merlin, to be followed by four subsequent operas, two of them, Das Heimchen am Herd (“The Cricket on the Hearth”) and Ein Wintermärchen (“A Winter’s Tale”), on English subjects, adapted from Dickens and Shakespeare respectively.

In Vienna Goldmark occupied a position of honour. He enjoyed the friendship of Brahms and of Johann Strauss, and his abilities received official recognition at home and abroad. At first an obvious successor to the traditions of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Spohr, he later succumbed to the pervasive influence of Wagner, shown in his Ländliche Hochzeit Symphony, a work that remains marginally in current orchestral repertoire, and in the Overture Penthesilea. His practical experience as a musician and his own studies made him a proficient composer, with a mastery of musical effects, well demonstrated in Die Königin von Saba, and his skill and inventiveness suggest that his music deserves more attention than it has generally received since his death in 1915.

The second of Goldmark’s two symphonies was completed in 1887 and published two years later. It is in many ways a work of classical craftsmanship, its first movement showing the influence of Mendelssohn and his precursors, yet without anachronism, since the deft handling of orchestral colour hints in passing at the world of Mahler, a composer who was to receive encouragement from Goldmark in later years, after earlier rejection.

The second movement of the symphony couples a dramatic element with the lyricism that was always a strong feature of Goldmark’s work. It leads to a Scherzo and Trio, the first recalling a slightly sinister fairy world, in contrast to the hymn-like trumpet melody that opens the latter.

The finale opens with a slow introduction, soon replaced by a lively Allegro, its tendency to rapid perpetual motion occasionally interrupted by episodes of a more lyrical nature, clear in texture and, in spite of apparent simplicity, always avoiding the merely commonplace.

Heninrich von Kleist planned his tragedy Penthesilea during his imprisonment in France as a spy in 1807, after an early career as an officer in the First Foot Guards at Potsdam, an unsuccessful attempt to join Napoleon’s planned invasion of England and a subsequent abortive conspiracy against Napoleon, after the defeat of Prussia in 1806.

Penthesilea, a tragedy in 24 scenes, was published in Kleist’s periodical Phoebus in 1808, and was submitted to Goethe in Weimar. It was rejected by the latter, who did stage Kleist’s one-act comedy, Der zerbrochene Krug, its failure ensured by slow performance, lengthened intolerably by the inclusion of a one-act opera, as a curtain-raiser, thus taxing the patience of the Weimar audience beyond endurance.

Penthesilea, which had to wait for public performance until 1876, was far more controversial. Here Kleist reversed the legend of the Amazon queen Penthesilea, traditionally said to have been killed by Achilles during the Trojan War. The queen leads her Amazons against the Greeks, their defeat a necessity for the continuation of the race. Penthesilea has broken Amazon custom by singling out Achilles, whom she at first fails to win, in an otherwise successful campaign. He defeats her, but she loses consciousness, and imagines herself victorious, until Achilles, in love with her, tells her the truth. To win her love in accordance with Amazon tradition he offers himself, unarmed, in single combat. Penthesilea, thinking herself thus scorned, sets her hounds on him helping them tear him in pieces. The tragedy ends with her repentance and death, as she looks forward to rejoining her beloved Achilles in the Elysian fields.

Kleist’s play is one of savage intensity, a juxtaposition, as he wrote, of Schmutz und Glanz, squalor and splendour. There is little of the first in Goldmark’s overture, published in 1879, a programmatic work that stresses other aspects of a drama that had, in any case, been considerably abridged in its first stage performance. The work shows again the qualities of its composer’s craftsmanship, his skilful handling of orchestral effects and his melodic invention, the influence of Liszt and Wagner to be seen in the choice of literary subject and to some extent in the treatment of thematic material, although it lacks the grandiose ambition of Wagner and the originality of Liszt at his best.

Keith Anderson

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