About this Recording
8.559324 - TOCH: Piano Quintet / Violin Sonata No. 2 / Burlesken / 3 Impromptus
English  German 

Ernst Toch (1887-1964)
Chamber Music


When I was around ten years old, my grandfather, the Austro-German modernist émigré composer Ernst Toch, told me about something that had happened to him when he was about ten years old, one of the greatest days of his life, as he described it, the afternoon he happened to pass a newsboy roughly his own age shouting out the headline, COMPOSER BRAHMS DIES! “Then and there,” he explained to me, “and for the very first time, I came to understand that one could aspire to do this thing, composing, for a living!”

It was hardly a notion he would have picked up from his family. Born in Vienna in 1887 into the distinctly unmusical household of a humble Jewish leather merchant, from the very start, this peculiar infant had mystified his parents with a near fanatic curiosity about the universe of sounds. Vienna being Vienna, it was perhaps only natural that such a fascination quickly evolved into a passion for music, one that was hardly encouraged in his earliest years and actively discouraged as he grew older, and his father began to fear for the boy’s eventual livelihood. Indeed, young Ernst was forced to pursue his investigations in secret.

Somehow the boy procured miniature scores of several Mozart string quartets, and, lining his own paper—it would still be several years before he learned of the existence of music paper—he began to copy them out under his bed covers at night, thereby intuitively discerning the structure of the individual movements. One night he thus copied out Mozart, but only up to the repeat sign, thereafter improvising his own development: “Then I compared with the original,” he would record in a sheaf of autobiographical notes, years later: “I felt crushed. Was I a flea, a mouse, a little nothing, when I compared what I did with what Mozart did: but still I did not give up and continued to grope along in this way and to force Mozart to correct me. And he not only replaced for me every living teacher but outdid them all.”

He would have no other. “At the same time,” Toch’s notes continue, “the irrepressible urge to write string quartets of my own arose and possessed me.” By age seventeen, Toch had already composed six quartets, along with several chamber pieces. Nevertheless, continually insecure in his lack of musical training, he had apparently abandoned hope of a musical career when, suddenly, in 1909, it was announced that he had received the Mozart prize, the coveted award of a quadrennial international competition for young composers, which he had entered three years earlier on a lark (Max Reger had been the jury chairman). The prize included a fellowship to the Frankfurt Conservatory. Elated and eager for his first official lesson, Toch rushed to Frankfurt and reported to Ivan Knorr, the head of the composition department. “But I was going to ask you,” stammered Knorr, “if you would allow me to study with you.” And indeed, Toch had already achieved full maturity as a composer. Meanwhile, Toch took up intensive study of the piano; in later years he would be acclaimed for his virtuoso performances of his own often extremely difficult piano works.

Toch’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 21, composed in 1912 (and not included on this recording), bears full-bodied and hearty witness to the vibrancy of the first period in Toch’s lifework. Intensely lyrical and unabashedly romantic—in later years, Toch dubbed it “Brahms’s Fourth Violin Sonata”—the piece clearly testifies to the Viennese roots of the composer’s inspiration, and was typical of much of Toch’s early work.

World War I, during which the composer served with the Austrian army on the Italian/Slovenian and then Galician fronts, largely silenced Toch for almost five years, but the silence veiled a profound inner transformation. As his creative energies resurfaced, Toch moved to the vanguard of the modernist Neue Musik movement. Soon established in Berlin, he generated a steadily expanding reputation through a massively prolific production, including bold new concerti, operas, chamber works, solo pieces, and experimental innovations (such as the celebrated Geographical Fugue, the first such piece ever fashioned for spoken chorus). No longer bound to his early romantic idiom, Toch nevertheless insisted on nurturing the organic interpenetration of innovation and tradition. (“Although I pass for a modernist and even an atonalist,” he once explained, “my music is in no way atonal. It is rooted in tonality, which is, however, treated in hovering, gyrating manner, gravitating always towards definite tonal centers.”) One of the Schott publishing powerhouse’s leading composers throughout the Weimar years, Toch’s works were regularly performed by the likes of Walter Gieseking, Emanuel Feuermann, Otto Klemperer and the young William Steinberg—and “The Juggler,” in particular, the rollicking final movement of the Burlesken, Op. 31 (1923) piano pieces featured on this recording, proved a perennial encore favorite. Similarly successful was Toch’s Second Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 44 (1928), featured on this recording. The poignant melancholy of the middle movement suggests what remained perhaps the dominant mood throughout Toch’s oeuvre: indeed the variously Puckish good humor and surging, pounding vitality that animate much of his later music can only be fully appreciated in the context of the profound melancholy that remained the composer’s first home.

Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, ruptured Toch’s life at mid-career. For his escape he took advantage of the fact that he had earlier been selected to represent Germany, alongside Richard Strauss, at a musicological conference in Florence, Italy. He simply never returned, traveling instead to Paris (from where he cabled his wife with their pre-arranged all-clear signal: “I have my pencil”) (as if that was all he was going to need); then to London (where he served as composer for the Berthold Viertel film production that would feature, just barely veiled, as backdrop to Christopher Isherwood’s novel Prater Violet); on to New York (where he figured in the founding faculty of the University in Exile at the New School); and finally on to Southern California, where he arrived in 1935, summoned by Hollywood. And at first it seemed that that pencil was indeed going to be all that would need, certainly on the basis of the powerful and defiantly vivid Piano Quintet, Op. 64, he produced a few years later (1938), under a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the premiere American patron of chamber composition. But the fact is that, whereas back in Germany his work had regularly communed with a vividly engaged audience and musical scene (a scene now completely closed off to him), in America it fell largely on deaf ears (the Quintet, for example, would not find a publisher till well after the war). He taught (Andre Previn, among others); he scored for Hollywood, where his acerbic modernist manner was thought ideal for horror effects (Doctor Cyclops) and chase scenes (as in Shirley Temple’s sleigh ride in Heidi). Bit by bit however his own creative impulses dried up. (“For quite some time,” he wrote his by-now dear friend Mrs. Coolidge in 1943, “I am not in a very happy frame of mind. Disappointments and sorrows render me frustrated and lonesome. I become somehow reluctant to go on writing if my work remains more or less paper in desks and on shelves.”) By war’s end he would learn that fully half of his extended family (over thirty souls) whom he’d been desperately trying to rescue had perished in the Holocaust. He seemed a broken man, or at any rate a composer with a shattered pencil.

But then, in 1948, he was felled by a devastating, near-fatal heart attack, from which he somehow emerged on the verge of a stupendous regeneration. He gave up teaching and Hollywood, and over the remaining fifteen years of his life—perhaps his most productive—he composed seven symphonies (the Third of which won the Pulitzer Prize), countless new chamber works, a new opera, in addition to the sorts of solo pieces represented in this collection by his Impromptu for Cello, Op. 90c, originally fashioned as a birthday offering for his dear friend Gregor Piatigorsky in 1963: lean, sinewy, elegiac, and powerfully moving. Toch died the following year, wistfully convinced that he had become, as he often told his friend Nicolas Slonimsky, “the world’s most forgotten composer.”

And so it seemed for many years that he might indeed have been, often dismissed as way too modernist for traditional audiences and too traditional for their modernist counterparts.

“I believe that we can only be the product of a long line of ancestors,” he once declared, “and that each creating artist, involuntarily, is placed as a link in that chain. He cooperates on the continuity to the degree in which the timeless is more important to him than the time-bound.”

And indeed, in recent years Toch has been being rediscovered—there have been over twenty recordings issued in the last ten years, including splendid new renderings of all the symphonies and all the string quartets, and now here the Piano Quintet and that early Violin Sonata—and Toch’s work is indeed being reassessed in terms he would have preferred, as but a single link in that long chain. And as such, Toch’s music is being prized for the mastery of its craftsmanship and the depth of its inspiration.

Lawrence Weschler


Lawrence Weschler, a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker and the current director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, is the author, among others, of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Everything that Rises, Vermeer in Bosnia, and the biographical preface to his grandfather Ernst Toch’s The Shaping Forces in Music.

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