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8.223474 - FUCHS: Piano Sonata Op. 108 / Jugendklange / 12 Waltzes
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Robert Fuchs (1847–1927)
Piano Sonata Op. 108 • Jugendklange • 12 Waltzes


The last years of the nineteenth century in Vienna were marked by the rivalry of Brahms and Bruckner. Even today these two giants overshadow many of their contemporaries, who, in other surroundings, might have seemed particularly outstanding, among them the composer and teacher Robert Fuchs.

Fuchs was born in 1847 at Frauenthal, in southern Styria, and learned at an early age to play the flute, violin, piano and organ. In 1865 he moved to Vienna to study composition at the Conservatory with Otto Dessoff, earning his living by teaching and from 1866 as organist at the Piarist Church. These difficult early years were marked by the failure in 1872 of a G minor symphony. The success of his Serenade No. 1 in 1874 had a decisive effect on his career. The following year he was appointed conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Society and Professor of Harmony at the Conservatory, retaining the latter position until 1911, subsequently with further classes in counterpoint and theory. His pupils there included Hugo Wolf, Mahler, Sibelius, Franz Schmidt, Schreker and Zemlinsky. From 1895 until 1905 he was organist of the Imperial Chapel, occupying an important position as a composer, and benefiting from the initial encouragement and friendship of Brahms, a musician known for the general severity of his critical judgement. It was Brahms who recommended Fuchs to the publisher Simrock and expressed a particular liking for the younger composer’s First Symphony in C major, a work that earned its composer the Philharmonic Society Beethoven Prize in 1886. Brahms praised Fuchs as a splendid musician, a composer of music that was beautiful, skilful and attractive, the cause always of considerable pleasure, a verdict that could not but arouse the jealousy of Brahms’s friends Ignaz Brüll or Herzogenberg, whose work never received commendation of this kind. Brahms did not live long enough to know the important chamber music of Fuchs and his Third Symphony.

A prolific composer, Fuchs wrote music of all kinds, with a particular leaning towards chamber music. Here he made significant contributions to the repertoire available to skilled amateur players. His Piano Quartet, Opus 75, the Two Violin Sonatas, Opus 68 and 77 and the String Quartets, Opus 58 and 71, are at the forefront of a list of some forty compositions. He left three published symphonies, with two others unedited, five serenades, the fourth of which is comparable to the work in this genre of Brahms and of Dvořák, and an overture. Fuchs also excelled in the quintessential Viennese art of the Lied, where he was a precursor of Wolf, whose harmonic schemes owe much to the older composer. Of his two operas the first, Die Königsbraut of 1889, met severe criticism from the famous critic Hanslick, while the second, Die Teufelsglocke of 1892, remains still unpublished.

The piano compositions of Robert Fuchs constitute a summary of his musical development. The influence of Schubert, for whom he had particular admiration, is evident in the freshness and simplicity of his melodic inspiration and in a tendency to triple rhythms, as in the waltz, Ländler and Allemande. He left several collections of waltzes, the Viennese Waltzes, Opus 42, and Waltzes, Opus 110, which justified comparison with Johann Strauss.

This Schubertian inheritance is coupled with an impeccable mastery of counterpoint and of form, the foundation for an increasingly complex use of harmony, with a constant need for frequent modulation. His remark on a violin duo by Viotti that he was playing is revealing: “Very fine, but surely one of his early works: it does not modulate”. In a later work such as the Third Sonata, here recorded, the elaborate harmony of Fuchs is expressed in a series of remote and unexpected chords, suggesting the work of Gabriel Fauré. The influence of Brahms is evident on every page, parallel thirds and sixths, tonic and dominant pedal points, cross-rhythms, syncopation and contrapuntal techniques.

The Third Sonata was written about 1919. The first movement recalls the Intermezzi of Brahms, an impression reinforced by the use of sixths, syncopation and cross-rhythms. The lightly painted thematic content and subtle shifts in harmony give a meditative air, barely dissipated by the sound of a distant fanfare emerging from a halo of sound. The slow movement opens with a fanfare marked Andante maestoso. It takes on the form of a Lied and a troubled meditative episode brings back, after a threatening crescendo, the fanfare of the opening. Brusque and fantastic, the Scherzo in F-sharp minor bursts out like a sudden squall. With its imperious imitations by one hand of the other, its thirds over a pedal, it makes use of a technique developed from Brahms, an impression reinforced by the sixths of the Trio. It is, in contrast, with all the innocence of Schubert that the refrain of the D-flat major final rondo appears, marked Allegretto grazioso. A first episode, with its agile series of octaves, preserves this playful atmosphere. The second episode, more tumultuous, brings modulations and a passionate mood. It is, however, this motif, now in the major, that brings the sonata, attractive both in its contrasts and its refinement, to a lively D-flat conclusion.

Apart from the more demanding pages of the three piano sonatas, Fuchs made an important contribution to the literature of the domestic pianist: pieces of lesser difficulty, intended for the leisure of amateurs or to contribute to the technical progress of learners. This kind of music enjoyed great popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, with important precedents in the works of Schumann (the Jugendalbum) or of Schubert (Ländler and Waltzes). The greater part of this pianistic clutter has now been forgotten. Nevertheless great composers gave the genre a manner of respectability, as for example in the Lyric Pieces of Grieg, the Sea Pieces of MacDowell, or even the Danse Lente of César Franck, which, without going beyond the capacities of a moderately gifted amateur, raise it to the level of art and even offer in miniature a summary of the artistic character of the composer.

The example of Schumann and Schubert inspired Fuchs to write sets of miniatures of a high artistic level, little genre pieces such as Ländliche Scenen, Opus 8, or even his own Jugend-Album, Opus 47. The twenty-two little pieces grouped together under the title Jugendklänge (“Memories of Childhood”) belong to this category. The great mastery of Fuchs explains the equal quality and perfection of these epigrams in sound, not without humour. It may be asked whether this is music for the child or music for the adult seeking to find again the innocence of childhood. The answer is more difficult than in the case of Schumann. These little pieces are not so easy to play, bearing in mind the speed required and the wild staccato chords reminiscent of Mendelssohn, as in No. 19, Auf dem Hühnerhofe (“In the Hen-Run”), and No. 22, Eine lustige Geschichte (“A Jolly Story”), which evoke equally the farm-yard. Fuchs finds happily the exact music for his characters, landscapes and the events that pass before our eyes. The upper register crystalline sixths correspond perfectly to the evocation of Was der Mond erzählt (“What the Moon tells us”) in No. 5, of Der Regen rieselt (“The Rain drizzles”), No. 11, with its arpeggios, or the malevolent Wichtelmännchen (“Dwarfs”), No. 8, and, dare one suggest, of Brahms. The wild chatter of Plappermäulchen (“Little Chatterbox”, No. 15, is undeniably in the style of Schumann, as is the mystery of Grosses Geheimnis (“Great Secret”), No. 12, or the radiant innocence of Schmetterling im Blumenfeld (“Butterfly in the Meadow”), No. 17, with its fleeting dominant pedal, while Mailust (“Merry Month of May”), No. 20, in spite of hints of the music-hall, glances at the impressionism of Grieg. Schubert, however, remains the most constant source of reference and the innocent poetry of the whole breathes the spontaneity and touching grace of the Moments Musicaux.

It is equally the purest Viennese tradition that informs the twelve waltzes of Opus 110. Brahms had already celebrated the dance of Vienna in his Opus 39. The pieces by Fuchs are still miniatures. The ball is the chosen home of German romanticism; the first significant work of Schumann, Papillons, is evidence of this. Behind their apparent simplicity the waltzes of Fuchs do not escape this symbolism and a trembling intrigue seems to give rhythm to the series of contrasting moods and feelings. That these pieces must be considered to form a whole is attested by the relationship and return of thematic material, the last in the form of a recollection of the first. Fuchs uses for each piece a very concise binary form, following the example of Brahms.

With this combination of elements of post-romanticism and Schubertian lyricism, Fuchs appears in these works as an excellent musician whose attractive melodies and consummate technique are an essential element in the Viennese musical landscape at the end of the last century.

Michel Fleury
English version by Keith Anderson

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