About this Recording
GP726-27 - JACOBI, W.: Piano Works (Blome, Groschopp)
English  German 

WOLFGANG JACOBI (1894–1972)
PIANO WORKS

 

Exponents of the saxophone and accordion will be familiar with the name of Wolfgang Jacobi, a composer who delighted in exploring the expressive potential of these instruments. But for the vast majority of artists and concertgoers, Jacobi’s name remains, at best, marooned in the furthest recesses of their musical consciousness. They will encounter it only rarely—in a broadcaster’s fleeting aside, perhaps, or as a contextual footnote in an academic journal. Fate was unkind to Jacobi. He spent a decade consolidating his hard-earned position as a serious composer, only to find that his efforts counted for naught when the arbiters of Nazi taste unashamedly took against him and branded his work ‘degenerate’.

Karl Theodor Franz Wolfgang Jacobi was born in 1894 in Bergen on the island of Rügen, off Germany’s Baltic coast. Although music fascinated him from an early age, it was only in 1917 that he staked his future on becoming a professional composer. He made this difficult and rather brave decision as he was convalescing at a sanatorium in Davos. He had contracted tuberculosis while being held as a prisoner of war in Carcassonne following his capture at the Battle of the Somme. After recovering his health he studied composition at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin until 1922, and emerged as a composer of great talent. Between 1922 and 1933 he taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka-Konservatorium in Berlin and produced a string of notably successful works, including his popular Sonata for Alto Saxophone and some experimental pieces for modern electronic instruments like the theremin. He also took a keen interest in social issues and composed choral music for the trade union movement.

As the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany’s cultural life, the implications for Jacobi’s personal and artistic wellbeing were severe. Being half Jewish, he fell victim to the regime’s ‘racial laws’, which made public performance of his music impossible. In 1934 he and his family took refuge in Italy, but the introduction of new currency regulations forced their return to Germany a year later. Jacobi was fortunate to escape with his life, but the price of survival was a harrowing decade of lying low. Virtually invisible in his own country, he lived in constant fear and suffered tremendous privations. An additional blow came in 1942 when about a hundred of his compositions were lost in an incendiary raid that destroyed his Berlin home.

By the end of 1945 it was finally safe to appear in public again, which enabled him to resume his teaching career. He accepted a post at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich and was influential in re-establishing the city’s former glory as a vibrant and progressive musical centre. In the 1950s he found a niche for himself in the world of accordion music, and began writing what were to become his most widely performed works. These pieces raise the accordion’s status to the level of a highly demanding virtuoso concert instrument. Recognition eventually came Jacobi’s way, and in the last decade of his life he received many national awards and honours. After his death in December 1972 his stock fell again, and it is only in recent years that his music has begun to be rediscovered.

Although Jacobi’s stay in Italy during the 1930s was not long, he was greatly inspired by his surroundings, and the country remained a spiritual home. He lived with his family at Malcesine in the shadow of Monte Baldo on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. Invigorated by the region’s wonderful light and colours, he indulged his love of painting and demonstrated his facility as a highly accomplished watercolourist. In nearby Verona, he met the eclectic artist Pino Casarini, who specialised in a variety of genres including ecclesiastical frescoes and monumental sculptures for churches and public buildings. Casarini also created many of the stage sets for the opera productions performed in Verona’s famous Arena.

In 1936 Casarini became the dedicatee of Jacobi’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Its first movement is an active moto perpetuo propelled by constant triplet figuration. Two opposing moods compete for attention in the central Scherzo: strongly marked crotchets in the bass contrast with an innocent and lyrical melodic idea that is introduced after two bars. This movement concludes with an unexpected and mystical passage marked Lento, which fulfils the function of a slow movement. The finale is a vigorous toccata with a more contemplative central section that leads directly into a stormy ending.

Another of Jacobi’s Italian musical acquaintances was the singer Pina Agostini Bitelli, who in addition to being a recitalist was also a choral director. Her repertoire embraced the contemporary and the old, and she made gramophone recordings of Monteverdi long before the dawn of historically informed performance practice. It was to Bitelli that Jacobi dedicated his Piano Sonata No. 3 in 1939. Its rhythmically exciting and bi-tonal opening movement is followed by a rather slow siciliano, which is defined by its lilting theme. Here, Jacobi is alluding to a dance form that was beloved of countless Baroque masters. The motoric Rondo that ends this sonata reminds us that the toccata was another musical style much favoured by Baroque composers, though Jacobi tempers its characteristic relentless drive by including a more tranquil central section.

Jacobi was not alone in pursuing a keen interest in music from the Baroque period and earlier. Among Italy’s enthusiasts for this ‘old style’ was Ottorino Respighi, whose suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, based on lute music from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had instant popular appeal. In England, the efforts of pioneers such as Arnold Dolmetsch had done much to enhance public awareness of obsolete instruments like the recorder. The didactic potential of the recorder was quickly recognised by German educationalists, who widely promoted its use in schools. They were encouraged in their endeavours by the imaginative programming of ensembles like the Munichbased Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, which from the 1890s to the late 1930s arranged and performed ‘unknown’ music by the likes of Monteverdi, Lully, Purcell, Vivaldi and Telemann. Both Jacobi and his friend Paul Hindemith composed a considerable quantity of educational music for the recorder. An additional consequence of Jacobi’s interest in reviving early instruments is his Harpsichord Concerto of 1927.

The first time we encounter unfamiliar music by a composer we know little about, we are apt to compare it to music by composers we are already familiar with. We are unlikely to approach Jacobi’s work any differently, though in actual fact he cultivated a broad and distinctively personal range of composing styles. For instance, when we listen to his piano pieces from the 1920s, it is not long before their use of Baroque structures brings to mind Jacobi’s older compatriot Max Reger, whose creative imagination owed so much to past models. Indeed, Jacobi even likened his own compositional process to Reger’s, remarking in 1967 that ‘I can only compose at home within my own four walls. But how I do it, I really cannot explain. Reger is supposed to have said that the notes emerge out of the manuscript paper. Something like that happens to me, too.’

The titles given by Jacobi to a pair of piano works composed in 1922—Passacaglia und Fuge and Suite im alten Stil—could both have been used by Reger, but another musical spirit also hovers benevolently in the background—that of Edvard Grieg. It manifests itself in occasional turns of phrase that evoke the ‘olden style’ employed by the Norwegian composer in his Holberg Suite. In Jacobi’s mind, the Passacaglia und Fuge and Suite im alten Stil both had strong associations with his parents. The first is dedicated to the memory of his mother, and the second is dedicated to his father.

More than forty years later, in 1968, Jacobi was prompted to compose the joyful Sonatine für Klavier as a way of celebrating the birthday of his grandson Andreas Ullrich, who is referred to in the dedication simply as Andi. Spare in texture, this three-movement piece has an underlying neo-Classical flavour that invites comparison with major figures from the pre-war musical world of Paris, especially Francis Poulenc of ‘Les Six’ and Bohuslav Martinů, the foremost member of the ‘Groupe des Quatre’ (an informal circle of central European composers living in France).

Music of a similarly light vein is to be found in the Miniaturen für Klavier vierhändig. These charming little pieces for piano duet make up a highly agreeable assortment of dances interspersed with slightly more learned forms such as the fugue. Ideal for educational use, this collection is at times reminiscent of Ravel, especially works like Le Tombeau de Couperin.

In 1951, while he was happily involved in supporting Munich’s post-war musical revival, Jacobi wrote a set of three pieces called Musik für zwei Klaviere [Music for two pianos]. The first of these is headed ‘Choralvorspiel über “Durch Adams Fall”’, an obvious reference to the chorale melody ‘Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt’ by the sixteenth-century Lutheran hymn writer Lazarus Spengler, which was later used several times by J.S. Bach. This tells the story of how human nature and character were completely corrupted through Adam’s fall. Jacobi repeats the melody of this chorale prelude throughout the movement almost in the manner of a cantus firmus, against which the pianists play contrasting material ranging in mood from violent to reflective. The second movement is an affecting Aria, and the jovial finale takes the form of an energetic Scherzo and Trio.

Anthony Short


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