About this Recording
8.573384 - RÖNTGEN, J.: String Trios Nos. 13-16 (Offenburg String Trio)
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Julius Röntgen (1855–1932)
The Late String Trios


Julius Rontgen was born on 9 May 1855 in Leipzig and grew up in a musical household. His mother Pauline (1831–1888), a gifted pianist, was a descendant of the famous Klengel musical dynasty in Leipzig, while his father, the violinist Engelbert Rontgen (1829–1897) who was born in the Dutch city of Deventer, was leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Julius, who never went to school, received a thorough education from private tutors and began to learn the piano at the age of four. Following musical tuition from his mother and his grandfather Moritz Klengel, Julius had violin lessons from his father and Ferdinand David (1810–1873). Among his theory and composition teachers were Moritz Hauptmann, Cantor of the Thomanerchor in Leipzig, Carl Reinecke and later Franz Lachner in Munich. Julius wrote his first composition, a violin duo, in 1864 at the age of eight. A meeting with Brahms in the spring of 1874 had a decisive influence on his compositional style, but Rontgen’s admiration for Brahms later brought with it accusations of second-rate imitation of the older composer’s music, a stigma which stayed with him for a long time. In 1877 Julius Rontgen decided to take up the post of a piano teacher in Amsterdam. He remained in that city until his death and became one of the most important personalities in Dutch musical life, not only as a teacher, pianist and conductor, but as a cofounder of the Amsterdam Conservatory, whose director he was from 1913 to 1924, as the promoter of concert series and as a driving force behind the design and construction of the Concertgebouw building. After the early death of his first wife Amanda Maier (1854–1894), a Swedish violinist and composer, in 1897 Rontgen married his piano pupil Abrahamine van der Hoeven (1870–1940). Five of his sons became successful musicians with whom he made countless concert appearances. His fifth son, Frants, was to become an architect. Among Rontgen’s friends were the composers Edvard Grieg, (after whose death he was not only the executor of Grieg’s musical estate but the author of a biography of the composer), Johannes Brahms (who used the main theme of the first movement of Rontgen’s Wind Serenade, Op. 14, in his Symphony No 2), Carl Nielsen and Percy Grainger. Julius Rontgen was also a soloist and an in demand piano accompanist of Carl Flesch, Bronisław Hubermann, Joseph Joachim and Pablo Casals. A few months before the composer’s death, on 13 September 1932, Casals paid his longtime friend a final visit and Rontgen dedicated one of his last works to him.

Julius Rontgen’s musical output comprises around 650 works, written in almost every genre. At first his music was deeply rooted in the romanticism of the nineteenth century but in later years Rontgen developed his own individual style. Latterly he experimented with bitonality, was influenced by elements of Afro-American music and wrote incidental music for several folkloristic films by the Dutch director Dirk Jan van der Veen. It was not until a few years before his death that Julius Rontgen received the public recognition that was earlier denied him. The University of Edinburgh conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1930 and shortly afterwards his native city of Amsterdam honoured him with a ceremonial gala concert in the Concertgebouw in which Rontgen was the soloist in performances of his last two piano concertos.

The String Trios

Of the sixteen surviving string trios, which were written between 1915 and 1930, only the first, in D major, Op. 76, appeared in print (Breitkopf & Hartel 1924) during the composer’s lifetime. The following fifteen trios suffered the same fate as the majority of Julius Rontgen’s works: they languished as manuscripts in the archives of the Dutch Music Institute in The Hague, forgotten by the music world. It was only in the 1990s, owing primarily to an initiative by his descendants, that a number of these works were published, performed in concerts and recorded commercially. These activities have notably intensified since 2005, the 150th anniversary year of the composer’s birth, so that today countless recordings, especially of the symphonic works, have become available. Julius Rontgen composed his string trios exclusively for domestic music-making with his sons, with the composer himself taking on the viola parts.

The Late String Trios

While the first of the trios exhibits a mainly divertimento-like dance character, the final trios are characterized by the late personal style of the mature composer and display an even greater mastery of musical profundity. These trios belong to the roughly 230 works which Rontgen produced between 1924 and 1932, an indication as much of his enormous creative power as of his enthusiasm for work. Like almost all of his works, each of the trios was written within the space of a few days.

String Trio No. 13 in A major

Julius Rontgen committed the String Trio No. 13 to paper on 1 March 1925 in the Villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven. This building, near Utrecht, to which the composer had retreated after vacating his post as Rector of the Amsterdam Conservatory in order to devote himself intensively to composition, was built by his son Frants. The building, which is outwardly modelled on the shape of a grand piano, today houses the Gaudeamus Foundation. After the melodically serene and at times dance-like first movement of the Trio in A major there follows a melancholy-seeming Andantino tranquillo, in which the violin and viola soar above the persistent throb of the cello, before the music fades away into the distance. The following Allegro vivo e giocoso, in D major, is like a joyful folk dance. According to Dr I. Schuster the final movement constitutes ‘an art work in itself’. After three opening chords comes a sostenuto reminiscent of a funeral cortege, followed by a poignant cello cantilena which prefaces a long development leading to an almost symphonic climax. The composer subsequently altered the trio’s ending: just before it, instead of heading purposefully towards the close, he returns to the beginning of the movement and thus blends the separate components into a unified whole.

String Trio No. 14 in C minor

The String Trio No. 14, in Beethoven’s C minor ‘key of Fate’, was written between 21 and 24 February 1928, presumably also in the Villa Gaudeamus. The first movement Allegro (originally Allegro un poco sostenuto) begins with a mysterious theme in unison which is further developed harmonically and is passed around all the parts until the movement comes to an impassioned conclusion. The Andantino con tenerezza is wistful and dance-like, with the violin and viola engaging in a tender dialogue, until all three parts come together in a peaceful conclusion in F sharp major. After a harmonically daring Scherzo, a variation movement follows attacca, followed in turn by a Finale fugato in 6/8. The movement’s main theme appears again towards the end, this time in octaves on the violin. Here again Julius Rontgen altered the ending of the piece in favour of an expansive reworking, culminating in a final chord in C minor.

String Trio No. 15 in C sharp minor

There is a particular story behind the Trio No. 15 in C sharp minor, whose fourth movement is given the somewhat out of the ordinary title of Finale automobilistico. Julius Rontgen wrote in the score of the work: 1st and 2nd movements ‘Aosta, 31.7.1929’, 3rd movement ‘Bellagio, 4.8.1929, 4th movement ‘Aeschi, 9.8.1929’. On the title page are the words: ‘Dedicated to our master-chauffeur Engelbert’. What is this all about? Rontgen’s second son from his first marriage, Engelbert (1886–1958), held the post of solo cellist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the summer of 1929 the favourable exchange rate of the US dollar allowed him to book a cruise to Europe for himself and his wife Helena and then to buy a car after their arrival. He acquired a mid-range top model: a Fiat 509A Torpedo, 990cc. So it was that the 74-year-old Julius Rontgen, accompanied by his wife Abrahamine (who in her own catalogue of her husband’s works gave it the title ‘Auto-Trio’), his daughter-in-law, and with his son as chauffeur, set off on 25 July 1929 on a five-week round trip from Holland through Germany, France, and Switzerland to northern Italy and then back to Bilthoven.

Abrahamine kept a record in her diary of each leg of this trip and reports an adventure-filled time: flat tyres, an accident in Meiringen in Switzerland and on one occasion someone even had to get petrol ‘with a bucket’, because the car had come to a halt. On 3.8.1929 Abrahamine Rontgen notes ‘…delightful, dangerous drive; frightening bends’ which probably provided Julius Rontgen with the inspiration for the final movement of this Trio. There is a quaint detail at the beginning of the movement. Under the viola part the composer writes: ‘like a hooter’. Even the place and date of the first performance, given en famille, are listed: 12 August 1929 in Reichenbach BE/Switzerland. The occasion was the 43rd birthday of the work’s dedicatee, Engelbert. The violin part was undertaken by his son Joachim (1906–1989) who had driven up from Winterthur where he was concertmaster of the oldest orchestra in Switzerland. They all celebrated with Asti Spumante and punch. A second performance followed on 20 August 1929 in Winterthur.

String Trio No. 16 in C sharp minor

Julius Rontgen’s sixteenth and last string trio, in the once unusual key for string instruments of C sharp minor, was written between 19 and 21 May 1930 in Bilthoven, a few weeks after the conferment on him of an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh. The first movement begins in a gloomy and melancholy manner, heightened in the development section before dying away in a pianissimo. The genial scherzo-like second movement leads without a break into the third movement. The viola begins with a song-like theme which is taken up by the violin and developed further. Towards the end the cello climbs to its highest register before the movement fades away gently in the key of G sharp major. With the final chord of that movement still ringing in one’s ears, the listener will be taken aback by the unexpectedly powerful pathos of the last movement, which was to bring to an end Julius Rontgen’s oeuvre of string trios. On the score of his final work, the Piano Quintet in G major, written in July 1932, Rontgen writes ‘Sentendo nuova forza’ (Feeling renewed strength), a reference to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132. Two months later the life of one of the last great Romantic composers of the twentieth century came to an end.

Martin Merker

English translation by David Stevens

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