About this Recording
8.559716 - TOCH, E.: Violin Sonata No. 1 / Cello Sonata / Divertimento / String Trio / Adagio elegiaco (Spectrum Concerts Berlin)
English  German 

Ernst Toch (1887–1964)
Violin Sonata No. 1 • Cello Sonata • Divertimento • String Trio • Adagio elegiaco


Survey of the Life of a Creative Artist

This is Spectrum Concerts Berlin’s third recording of chamber music by Ernst Toch. Its musicians give concerts above all in Berlin and New York and are passionate about exploring and highlighting the cultural links between Europe and America. As part of this focus, they revive works by composers who had successful careers that were cut short when they were driven into exile by the Nazis. Spectrum has played a major part in bringing about the revival of interest in Ernst Toch in recent years.

This recording documents almost four decades of Toch’s artistic development, from his early Violin Sonata, written before the First World War, to the commemorative Adagio elegiaco, whose composition heralded the renewed creative impulse of the 1950s and 1960s. It shows a composer who maintained an intense dialogue with the world around him: with the musical trends current at any given time and with cultural trends, but also with the course and catastrophes of history.

Toch realised his ambition of becoming a musician against his parents’ wishes, teaching himself composition by transcribing Mozart string quartets and noting exactly how they were “made”, for instance, and by producing compositions based on themes by classical composers, then comparing the results with the works of the great masters themselves. Using this methodology, he made such good progress that in 1909, at the age of 22, he won the city of Frankfurt’s Mozart Prize, which included a grant for a year’s study at university. It was during this period that he developed an ability to absorb ideas quickly, adapting them to his own purposes and using them as a springboard for developing new ideas of his own. He approached tradition as Goethe urged his readers to in Faust Part I: “Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen!”—“Whatever you have inherited from your forefathers you must earn for yourself, if it is to be yours.”

From Toch’s Early Works: Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 21

The First Violin Sonata, which Toch’s friends used to refer to as “Brahms’s Fourth”, was a product of this understanding of tradition. Two reasons lie behind its jocular nickname. Stylistically speaking, Toch’s Op. 21 takes its cue from Brahms. But it also rounds off the latter’s three sonatas in G major, D minor and A major—keys whose tonics each correspond to one of the open strings of the violin—with one in E major, whose tonic corresponds to the uppermost open string of the instrument. The Brahms connection should not be overworked, however; Toch’s generation had no choice but to model its chamber music on Brahms. Who else was there? Apart from Bruckner’s String Quintet, the New German School around Liszt and Wagner produced no chamber music of any historical consequence.

Toch’s Sonata No. 1 is close to the violin sonatas of Max Reger (1873–1916), and perhaps also Karl Weigl (1881–1949). Like theirs, it observes classical structure quite strictly in its sequence of themes and their development, but introduces a greater internal freedom through the use of colouristic passages in the piano part (first movement), dramatic interjections (second movement), and interpolations such as the Andante central section of the finale. The Sonata was written shortly after the period of study that the Mozart Prize grant enabled Toch to undertake, and shortly before he took up a teaching post at the Musikhochschule (University of Music) in Mannheim, and it marks the end of his early-period work, which wears its nineteenth-century heritage on its sleeve. Fundamental characteristics of his future compositional style are just as much in evidence, however: formal clarity and liveliness, voice-leading that creates a network of equal parts, his understanding of light and shade in the tonal organisation of the piece.

Music from the 1920s: the Divertimento and the Cello Sonata

The duo Divertimentos, Op. 37, and the Cello Sonata, Op. 50 , were written in 1927 and 1929, during what was probably Toch’s most productive period. In them, he engaged in a creative dialogue with his artistic milieu in two ways: in the music itself and in the dedications of the pieces. The Cello Sonata he dedicated to Emanuel Feuerman and the Op. 37 duos to the Vienna String Quartet, which at that time still comprised Rudolf Kolisch (violin I), Fritz Rothschild (violin II), Marcel Dick (viola) and Joachim Stutschewsky (cello). All of these musicians left Germany or Austria. Most of them emigrated to the United States, as Toch did; Stutschewsky went to Palestine (which would later become Israel). The Divertimentos are composed in such a way that all the members of the quartet get to play: No. 1 is for violin and cello (the two outer parts), No. 2 for violin and viola (the two inner parts). When performed one after the other they ought, logically, to be followed by a quartet.

In the Divertimentos and the Cello Sonata, Toch engages with the classical three-movement form of the sonata. In the first movement of Divertimento No. 1 the urgent first subject with its moving triads is answered by a cantabile second subject. Both are stated at length then, in the following section (which corresponds to the development section in classical sonata form), they are extended, clothed in richer tone colours, transformed into disconcertingly beautiful polyphony, subjected to canonic tricks, and crossed over themselves. Each is kept separate and given its own space, however. In the third section, the recapitulation, Toch omits the return of the second subject, which was treated at length in the central section.

The Cello Sonata opens with an apparently innocuous theme stated simply by the piano. This is taken up by the cello, before finally appearing in the lower register of the piano as well. The movement has various layers of narrative, through which the theme makes its way. It is structured like a fugue, but also like a sequence of variations—everything revolves around the one theme: the passages of heightened motion and power, the ebbing away, the way in which the movement dissolves at the end. Classical forms are here no longer normative; they have become the subject of the composition.

Toch headed the central movements of both works “intermezzo”, but they are anything but short intermezzos or interludes. Toch employs the term in the late Brahmsian sense, as a deliberate understatement, indicating a particular limitation of the musical material. The pieces grow out of a short initial idea, which Toch immediately makes more complex, turning it, paradoxically, into a kind of open circling; the basic motifs rotate, changing in length, structure, proportions and inner propulsion.

the third movements. In the finale of the Divertimento, Op. 37, No. 1, a hyped-up march rhythm morphs into a perpetuum mobile, which suddenly breaks off with amusing arbitrariness. The last movement of the Cello Sonata is reminiscent of music for a ballet mécanique. In its strict tempo, its subtle allusion to dances then in vogue and in the way he plays with classical forms, Toch unites characteristic traits of the kind of urbane music cultivated in France by composers such as Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and the American George Antheil, in Germany by Stefan Wolpe and in Hindemith’s early work, and in Russia above all by the young Shostakovich. The Nazis declared war on it when they coined the term “Asphaltkultur” (“asphalt music”).

Exile and in memoriam: the String Trio and the Adagio elegiac

On 1 December 1942 Anneliese Landau, who had once been the leading light behind the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Foundation) in Berlin and had emigrated to London in 1939 and to the United States at the beginning of 1940, sent a letter to Ernst Toch, asking him about various biographical matters and questions of principle. With regard to the former, Toch replied on 18 December 1942: “I left Germany in April 1933 and went to London where I lived until September 1934. […] I came to USA upon a call of the New School of Social Research in September 1934 and taught composition there for two years. In August 1936 I went to California. I am teaching composition (occupying the Alchin-chair) at the University of Southern California.” (The two of them corresponded in English.) That year (1936), with his first Hollywood film score under his belt and a second in the pipeline, Toch wrote his String Trio, Op. 63. It is the work of an exile in that it both helped its creator to regain his sense of equilibrium and in the way in which it went unheeded. It was not published until 1955, and was Toch’s first experience of what Ernst Krenek once described as “the unresponsiveness (Echolosigkeit) of the American milieu”, and it affected him deeply. But above all it bolstered the composer’s confidence in his own approach to composition. Anyone who had been driven into exile by the Nazis had every reason to hold fast to their style and not give it up, even if it didn’t meet with any immediate positive response.

Like the Divertimentos and the Cello Sonata, the String Trio is in three movements. As in the other works, the form of the first movement grows out of varied circulations of its basic motif. But Toch’s music is more emotional, harsher, more passionate. In places, the thematic development threatens to break out of the circle, as though there were centrifugal forces at work. The second movement is no longer headed “Intermezzo” and is almost as long as the first. Toch develops it out of a fabric of cantabile lines, some long-spun, others almost shoe horned in. He brings them to a climax of excited activity, where the parts seem to go their own ways. Here, too, there are centrifugal forces in play. In the finale, passages of suspended motion make the vitality of the 1920s feel broken, while on the other hand it is rendered more intense by a greater compositional complexity. In the middle the music almost fades out, withdrawing into the depths of a cello solo. After this, the reprise of the opening motif begins almost like a film edit.

In 1948 Toch suffered a severe heart attack. “Once he had recovered, he began to write with a fresh sense of purpose”, writes Charlotte Erwin. “For the first time in his life, he essayed a symphony.” The first work he completed, however, in Zurich on 15 October 1950, was the Adagio elegiaco. It is headed “Greetings to Grete and Hans Fuchs”. The entire piece is based on a motif derived from those letters of the family surname that could be rendered in German musical notation: F, C, H, Es (pronounced “S”)—English F, C, B natural, E flat. The sequence is quoted verbatim eleven times, and Toch flagged it eight times in the printed edition. The Adagio is a commemorative piece whose title recalls other musical hommages like Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque or Ferruccio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque. It was written by a composer who suffered greatly from having been unable to save many of his relatives and friends from the Holocaust.

Habakuk Traber
English translation by Susan Baxter

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