About this Recording
8.223868 - WOLF-FERRARI: Sinfonia da Camera / STRAUSS-SCHOENBERG: Kaiserwalzer / BLOCH: 4 Episodes
English 

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876 -1948)

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876 - 1948)

Sinfonia da camera in B Flat Major, Op. 8 (Chamber Symphony) (1901)

 

Johann Strauss II (1825 - 1899)

arr. Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951)

Kaiserwalzer Op. 437 (1888, arr. 1925)

 

Ernest Bloch (1880 - 1952)

Four Episodes

 

Centennials are symbolic occasions that draw our attention. Their occurrence causes us to scrutinize surrounding events critically, perhaps more in relation to the calendar, the "thought" of a new century, than to themselves. The thought of a new century acquires a quite metaphysical dimension, filling us with both hunger for what the future will bring, and fear of it. Just now, as it happens, we can perhaps identify more closely with some of the feelings people had at the time of the last centennial, in a moribund Europe, where it was clear that something new was waiting to be born. The promise of science and technology was grounds for considerable optimism that quantitatively and qualitatively, improved circumstances for the majority were in the offing. Some few short years into the new century, however, that optimism was rudely displaced by events of unparalleled brutality, in a confirmation of the direst angst of the new time. The mass-destructive potentiality of technology thus loosed was a de facto default of human rationality, and the incomprehensible, four-year long "World War" effectively and brazenly churned to pieces an inconceivable number of individuals and reduced the great European empires to fragments. Individual daily-life became onerous and uncertain at a stroke. Humanity's capacity to order its own reality, to dam up the loosed insanity, seemed illusory. Its former toast to the new time as the best "of times", a bad joke. The first two decades of the twentieth century effectively established the political and aesthetic agenda for all those that followed. The generation spawned there was one that was homeless. Homeless in a painfully concrete sense for millions, and in a metaphoric sense hardly less jarring, for all.

 

Where to place the artist in such a situation? What orientation when the solid ground of tradition and the home culture crumbles? How to chart out new ways forward? These dilemmas are not the artist's only, but concern us that experience music as well. Of course music can be experienced as a world unto itself- an oasis of self-sufficiency, a refuge from reality in chaotic times. We obtain, however, a richer and deeper understanding of both music and our own culture when we contemplate it as historical document, consider its genesis with all strings attached.

 

The three works in this recording might seem unpretentious and entertaining to a fault. Yet precisely in terms of a broader perspective there is much to be learned from them about our own near past, quite apart from their intrinsic integrity as objects of purely musical discourse. Common to all three composers is the fact of their highly cosmopolitan perspectives. More than an abiding curiosity about the surrounding world, these perspectives were those of individuals very much on the move. Driven by private or political forces to uproot themselves and seek viable situations abroad, their struggle to fix their world and their time is one we recognize as our own. Thomas Wolfe expressed it directly, and existentially, in the title of his novel: "You Can't Go Home Again".

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948): Sinfonia da camera (1901)

Wolf-Ferrari's background and life are illustrative of the cultural complexity of the Old Europe. Beneath the established geopolitical divisions lay tangled webs of far less overt alliances and interests. The extent of ongoing cultural, economic and political exchange between distinct lands and regions was enormous, far greater than might be imagined. Wolf-Ferrari grew up in Venice. His mother was Italian and his father, a painter by profession, was from Bavaria. This two-cultural background is reflected in the name, though it was not until 1895 that Wolf-Ferrari himself fixed his mother's name to the German one. Wolf-Ferrari's native city itself was over the course of several hundred years an extremely important international crossroads, the essential hub of economic and cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. Venice in its Golden Age impinged mightily on world economic conditions. In time, however, this remarkable city built on water has stagnated. Contemporary trends have little affected the city's architecture or core. The wear and tear of the centuries, shoddy upkeep, and a steadily shrinking population have contributed to produce, from the majesty of the former city-state, a living museum, resonant with echoes of its former glory. Wolf-Ferrari's childhood Venice undoubtedly influenced his mature sensibilities profoundly, and his search for an artistic discourse rooted in an older, rich and heterogeneous culture whose accent was traditional.

 

With his clear aptitude for painting, Wolf-Ferrari appeared destined to follow in his father's footsteps as artist. Art studies were pursued first in Rome, and later in Munich. Wolf-Ferrari soon transferred his attentions to music, however, and returned home to Venice in 1895. The expected musical career did not really take off there, or in Italy generally, and an opera, Cenerentola, received a rather poor reception. His reaction was noteworthy; hypersensitive, Wolf-Ferrari virtually fled Italy and retreated to Munich. Germany became his new homeland in all particulars thereafter. Despite regular sojourns in his motherland, Wolf-Ferrari never did become an "Italian" composer. Some essential thing in the Italian-Venetian opera taste remained elusive. Wolf- Ferrari's appeal was more international, and he enjoyed considerable acclaim both in Germany and abroad. During the course of the First World War Wolf- Ferrari sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland. Deep sensitivity and a mixed cultural background made him particularly impressionable for the war's horrors, and his musical production was virtually nil. His situation changed in the 1920s, and from being a composer in relative isolation, Wolf-Ferrari ended in 1939 as Professor of Composition at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.

 

For us today, works for the stage are those with which we most associate Wolf-Ferrari. In terms of his opus these dramatic works are framed by chamber works, written either right at the beginning or at the end of his career. The chamber-works cannot be described as innovative; they are in essence extensions of the romantic absolute-music line extending from Mendelssohn and Schumann to Brahms, and while the influence of Wagner may be observed, their genius is not programmatic. The internal development of the music generally may be said to be looser and more rhapsodic than that of the composers named. This broadly characterizes the Chamber Symphony that was written in Munich in 1901, right after Wolf-Ferrari's abandonment of his native city .There is, as suggested by the title, a symphonic breadth to the temporality of the piece. Considering the relatively small ensemble, the musical gestures are expansive. At the same time, traditional chamber-musical resources with respect to articulation and soloistic instrumental writing are fully exploited, and romanticism's considerable harmonic and melodic arsenal effectively harnessed.

 

Wolf-Ferrari first began to orient himself somewhat more in towards contemporary trends in the period after the Chamber Symphony, but also in subsequent dramatic works, the aesthetic is conservative. Wolf-Ferrari remained a consolidator of established traditions, and towards the end of his career found himself increasingly out of step with the dominant and more radical musical discourse.

 

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) I arr. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951):

Kaiserwalzer (1888/arr. 1925)

 

The Kaiserwalzer is unquestionably Strauss, and it is exactly this that gives one pause. What made Schoenberg bother with this music? And why an arrangement? No matter how cleverly done, something just happens to that full orchestral 'schwung' when the relatively spartan chamber ensemble begins to play.

Arnold Schoenberg's career is fascinating: the bank functionary with an irrepressible curiosity about music, mostly self-taught, who ended up as one of the century's indisputably greatest, both as a theoretician, teacher and composer. The circuit of Schoenberg's aesthetic path was vast; from a romanticism of the most full-blown cut to a dark and existential expressionism and so to the development of a twelve-tone technique used in a more neoclassic style. During the course of the First World War Schoenberg wrote little. The writing became darker and darker. Military service and sickness also combined to steal concentration. The composer was on the way into a longer period of productive stillness.

 

In many of the arts, the nightmare of the Great War resulted in the perceived necessity of an internal revolution, the establishment of a new aesthetic foothold in reality. A new foothold based, by all means, on materials from the time "before everything went to hell". The emotional instability of both Expressionism and Romanticism were now experienced as inappropriate; the new ideal was that of a music whose form firmly restrained the emotional content. Classic and Baroque forms thus became a source of inspiration for much of the music of the 1920's and 1930's, in a sort of musical tonic, in which such individual "eruptions" as occurred were to occur within established frames.

 

In the beginning of the 1920's, things loosened up again for Schoenberg. He had evolved a style that enabled him to write more energetically and fluently than at any previous stage of his career. The tool was twelve-tone technique. The myths surrounding this technique are many and not always well-founded. Twelve-tone is not a style, but a technical aid that can be utilised in many ways. Schoenberg used the technique in a relatively traditional manner, and the rows devolve into recognisably melodic and thematic units, which are framed, as noted above, in well-known classical forms. His first thorough-going twelve- tone work, the Opus 25 Piano Suite from the beginning of the 1920's, is in the tradition of the Baroque suite. We now perceive that Schoenberg was no iconoclast, but a rejuvenator of the Tradition. His work, however, had enormous contemporary consequences.

 

In 1918 Schoenberg and some of his students established a Society for Private Performances. Its purpose was to give new music suitable study and performance conditions. Its members were to grant center stage to the music at all times -there was to be neither applause nor expressions of dissatisfaction. The music was to be given an appropriate room and respect, that listeners might fully focus their critical faculties. Not only new music but also arrangements of well-known classics were solicited, to better analyze and appreciate these classics, and to further understanding of the canon relative to other discourses. The society was discontinued in 1921, uncontrollable inflation had made it impossible to sustain economically. This all happened at about the same time that Schoenberg was emerging from his period of quiet as a composer. The Kaiserwalzer arrangement is dated 1925, and therefore was never part of the Society for Private Performance's repertoire, so it may be supposed that it was used in the course of Schoenberg's own teaching. In addition, this arrangement may be also regarded as his musical farewell to Viennese culture and the whole of his life to that point. Schoenberg had been offered, namely, the position of Professor of Composition in Berlin after the recent death of Busoni. This was an unexpected recognition that presented new career possibilities and the end to uncertain personal circumstances. The offer was duly accepted, and in 1926, Schoenberg moved to Berlin. The Berlin years that followed became the best in his life artistically, scholastically and economically. In time, however, the Nazis' persecution of Jews reached such a pitch that Schoenberg was forced to escape to the United States.

 

Schoenberg has retained in his arrangement the essential musical contents of the Kaiserwalzer as given form by strauss, while the instrumental forces consist of a string quintet, flute, clarinet and piano. Some chords are altered, and he in addition wove in the Emperor's Hymn (Gott erhiilte Franz den Kaiser}, Haydn's popular composition that in 1922 became the national anthem of the new Weimar Republic.

 

Strauss wrote the waltz in 1888 on the occasion of the Emperor Franz Joseph's 40th year on the throne. It is interesting that the end of this same monarch's long reign - from 1848 to 1916 and the thick of the terrible war that shattered the ancien regime, occurred just some few years before Schoenberg’s arrangement. Franz Joseph's reign was marked by a succession of political and personal defeats. Any outward reflection of this gloomy personal reality, however, inimicable to imperial form, was strictly repressed. Thus the Emperor became emblematic for a regime, and ultimately an entire culture, devoid of the dynamism required to comprehend emerging new paradigms. The Emperor Franz Joseph's facade was the unbending outer shell of Europe's inner disintegration.

 

The Viennese have always loved their dance, and the waltz in particular achieved a dizzying popular status there during the course of the last century. No musicians contributed more than the Strauss family, furthermore, to the waltz's triumphal progress from the more robust and rustic Landler, to the renowned floating elegance of its maturity. The significance of the waltz has an historical aspect too; more than a mere bourgeois diversion, in it can be glimpsed a reflection of the ethnic melting-pot that was the Empire in its heyday. The typically lopsided down-beats betray a family resemblance to East European dance forms such as the csardas, mazurka, polka and the Slavic kolo. In its final (as exemplified by the Kaiserwalzer} form, stylized, polished, a pure symphonic concert-piece purged of all the riotous tendencies native to it, the waltz became a wholly distinctive artistic emblem for Empire, a meeting-point for society's different classes and ethnic cultures. On the other hand, the waltz proved a perennially congenial host for temporal experimentation and musical 'special-effects', whose results sometimes were pretty complex and not very danceable. A good example is the waltz Accellerationen. Brahms and Wagner were only some of the composers who admired Strauss's music greatly, and thus the source of Schoenberg's particular interest is perhaps partially answered. The waltz's relatively firm internal development was also perhaps amenable for Schoenberg and his contemporary's neo-classic project as noted above; the reinstitution and adaptation of more appropriately vigorous forms.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959): Four Episodes (1926)

Like other composers of his generation, Ernest Bloch was a cosmopolitan. His Jewish background made this a necessity, in a Europe more and more infected with anti-Semitism. Bloch was already composing as a fifteen-year old, and was a promising concert violinist. He studied both therefore; initially in his Swiss home-town of Geneva, with Jacques-Dalcroze and Louis Rey, and later in Brussels, where Ysaye instructed him in violin and Rasse in composition. Further studies took him to Frankfurt and Paris before he set course for home again. Bloch's earliest music shows the influence of Debussy, Strauss and Mahler, among others.

 

A change in his style is noticeable from about the time of the outbreak of the Great War. During the course of the war, Bloch visited the United States and there he in fact remained, working as a composer, teacher, administrator and conductor. An increasingly personal style began to emerge, fluent and flexible, and he began to acquire a reputation as an interesting “jewish" composer. An anchoring in things Jewish did become more important to him in his writing, but this is not to say that traditional Jewish elements or orientalisms dominate the music. Bloch's studies of the Old Testament were undoubtedly influential in the appearance of that special fervour that is characteristic of his writing at this time. Typical are the constant shifts of rhythm, tempo and tonality, the use of ostinato and a tendency towards dark tonal colour.

 

In 1924 Bloch was granted American citizenship, yet Switzerland remained his base throughout most of the 1930s, and the origin of his several tours and various engagements around Europe. Switzerland declared itself neutral during the Second World War, but increasing anti-Semitism made everything difficult for Bloch, and in 1941, partially to fulfil his citizenship requirements, he returned to the U.S.A.

 

Already in the 1920s, Bloch began to move away from programme-music thinking in the direction of absolute music. His practice fell in line with the dominant neo-classic subordination of extra-musical discourse (literary, visual, philosophical) to motivic development and structural sobriety. This aesthetic programme can be realized in different ways; more abstractly as with Schoenberg, or through the establishment of a musically concise frame of reference, as in the case of Bart6k's folk-music. Here, despite the semantic suggestiveness of the titles, an attentive listening to Bloch's investigation of four distinct aspects of character will reveal that the discourse is a purely musical, and exciting one.

 

Morten Eide Pedersen

Translation: Paul Arlidge

 

 


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