About this Recording
8.574213 - FUCHS, R.: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Hyejin Chung, Warren Lee)
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Robert Fuchs (1847–1927)
Violin Sonatas Nos. 1–3

 

The ‘Terrible’ Brahms is the rather eye-catching title of an article that appeared in the January 1937 issue of The Musical Quarterly. Its author, Alfred von Ehrmann, focuses on the correspondence between Brahms and his many associates (including Joseph Joachim and Max Bruch), and sets out to establish why Brahms was so unashamedly blunt in his personal relations. We are told that despite Brahms’s utter disregard for all social graces, there were two composers who largely escaped the worst excesses of his ‘terrible’ tactlessness. These were Antonín Dvořák, whose freshness of invention always captivated Brahms, and Robert Fuchs, whose unaffectedly sensitive style was also greatly admired. It was almost certainly the spontaneous nature of these composers that appealed to Brahms. Ehrmann says of Dvořák’s relationship with Brahms, ‘Here no mirror was held before him [Brahms], out of which his own earnest gaze could frown back at him.’ In other words, Dvořák, like Fuchs, was not trying to reproduce or ape the unique attributes of Brahms’ own work, and so he was spared the barbs that Brahms would unhesitatingly sling in the direction of many other colleagues.

Fuchs’s orchestral serenades were much enjoyed in their day, and so the composer acquired the sobriquet ‘Serenaden-Fuchs’. Another, less well-known tag that has been attached to Fuchs is ‘the Styrian Dvořák’. Indeed, Ehrmann even states (somewhat implausibly) that he was once able to foist some of Fuchs’s chamber music onto a Bohemian audience and pass it off as the work of Dvořák. Be that as it may, the music of both composers is refreshing and never cloying. The Vienna-based music critic, Eduard Hanslick, who for the most part was a faithful advocate of Brahms and Dvořák, was equally supportive of Fuchs, calling him ‘the master of small art’. In a similar vein, Fuchs’s friend and biographer Anton Mayr wrote: ‘The strength of Fuchs’s art lies in the fact that it applies the most modest means, is only interested in faithfulness and truth of expression and denies itself any merely outward flashy effect.’ But perhaps the most effusive compliment to Fuchs actually came from that ‘terrible’ man Brahms, who said of his friend’s work ‘… everything is so fine, so skilful, so charmingly invented that one always derives pleasure from it.’

Robert Fuchs was the youngest of 13 children. He was born in the Styrian village of Frauental an der Laßnitz, and was an exceptionally musical child, like his older brother, Johann Nepomuk (who enjoyed a distinguished career as an opera conductor throughout Austria-Hungary and Germany). The young Robert mastered the piano, organ, violin and flute, and also became thoroughly proficient in harmony and counterpoint. When he was 18, he moved to Vienna, and eked out a living as a rehearsal pianist, itinerant piano teacher and church organist. At the same time, he took composition lessons at the Conservatoire, studying under Otto Dessoff (who would later be on the panel that awarded Dvořák the Austrian State Stipendium for artists). Following the success of his Serenade No. 1, Fuchs joined the teaching staff at the Vienna Conservatoire in 1875.

If family legend is to be believed, Fuchs’s death in 1927 was partly caused by over-indulgence in the social and musical celebrations that had marked his 80th birthday just a few days earlier. By then, the cultural dynamism of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was seducing the global arbiters of musical taste with the radical allure of composers as varied as Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky and ‘Les Six’. The cosy Viennese world of polite, bourgeois music-making that had once epitomised Fuchs’s creative life was now as passé as the faded imperial and royal splendours of Franz Josef’s defunct Austria–Hungary. Fuchs’s name was fast slipping from the public’s musical consciousness, and anyone who did happen to stumble upon it would naturally suppose him to be a second-rank composer. Such an opinion is, of course, entirely subjective—and Fuchs’s modesty means he may not even have challenged the idea—but despite his place in the hierarchy of composers ultimately remaining rather lowly, his pre-eminence as a composition teacher is hard to overstate. Recognising Fuchs’s exceptional talent as a musical educator, the everperceptive Brahms promoted his friend warmly. During almost four decades spent at the Conservatoire, Fuchs cultivated a prodigious crop of pupils, many of whom would go on to make a mark on the music of the 20th century. Among these were George Enescu, Erich Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schreker, Jean Sibelius, Hugo Wolf and Alexander Zemlinsky. A fair number of lighter composers also passed through his hands, including Leo Fall and Richard Heuberger (who succeeded Hanslick as critic of the Neue Freie Presse).

Fuchs tried his hand at composing in most genres, including opera (not very successfully), but chamber music formed the largest and most fruitful outlet for his distinctly temperate strain of musical expression. In addition to his serenades for chamber orchestra, there is a clutch of works for solo string instruments and piano, including six violin sonatas, two cello sonatas, one viola sonata and one double bass sonata.

The violin sonatas were composed over a period of roughly 45 years between 1877 and 1923. The Violin Sonata No. 1, which is full of fresh, superbly crafted ideas, is dedicated to Josef Hellmesberger, who, as well as being the orchestral leader of the Vienna Opera, was a close colleague of Fuchs’s at the Conservatoire. The finale is notable for its ‘Hungarian’ colouring.

In 1883, Fuchs dedicated his Violin Sonata No. 2 to Baron Victor von Erlanger, a well-connected international banker with business interests in Vienna, London and Hungary, who also appears to have dabbled in composing, writing a number of songs. The energetic first movement of the Sonata contrasts with the calm and peaceful central Andante, while the heavy themes of the rondo finale are wholly characteristic of the Romantic precepts of its time.

The Violin Sonata No. 3, which was published in 1902, is dedicated to the great Hungarian-born violinist Joseph Joachim, who will forever be associated with Fuchs’s great friend Johannes Brahms. Joachim survived Brahms by a decade and lived into the early days of mechanical recording. His preserved performances give us some valuable insight into how the sonatas of Brahms and Fuchs might originally have sounded. After the rather yearning quality of the first movement we are transported into the world of wistful folk melody for the middle movement. The finale contrasts fiery textures with passages of more restraint.

Fuchs’s popularity had unquestionably waned to the point of virtual extinction by the end of 20th century, yet at the time of his retirement from the Vienna Conservatoire in 1912, his reputation as a teacher was still riding high. So, in order to effect what they hoped might be a seamless succession, the Conservatoire’s first thoughts for replacing Fuchs revolved around the idea of luring Sibelius to fill the shoes of his old teacher. Sibelius did not, of course, take up any position in Vienna, but his succinct summing up of Fuchs’s musical geniality is as good as anyone’s, and would probably have been seconded by the ‘terrible’ Brahms. ‘Fuchs is,’ said Sibelius, ‘a clever orchestrator, professional down to his fingertips, and very happy as a composer.’

Anthony Short


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