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GP784 - PFOHL, F.: Strandbilder / Suite Élégiaque / Hagbart (Gerl)
English  German 

FERDINAND PFOHL (1862–1949)
STRANDBILDER • SUITE ÉLÉGIAQUE • HAGBART

 

Ferdinand Pfohl was renowned chiefly as a music writer, particularly for his long years spent as music critic for the Hamburger Nachrichten (‘Hamburg News’). However, he never lost his passion for composition, which he had first felt as a young man. Pfohl was born in 1862, spent his musical childhood and schooldays in the Bohemian town of Loket on the river Ohře (Elbogen an der Eger, in German) and after taking his Abitur (school leaving exams) at the Benedictine grammar school in Broumov (Braunau) in northern Bohemia, was set to have had a ‘solid grounding in classical education’. He was initially persuaded by his father to begin studying law in Prague, in 1881, but shortly afterwards he appears to have undergone a kind of epiphany. At the first performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth after Wagner’s death in 1883 Pfohl heard ‘a distant voice’ speak to him in a moment of high emotion ‘You belong to music, to music and music alone, and music belongs to you: it is your lifeblood, your soul…’

In the autumn of 1885 Pfohl fled parental influence, making his way from Prague to the musical hub of Leipzig, where he planned to enrol at the university’s philosophical faculty. Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Liszt, arranged for the performance of Pfohl’s symphonic poem Die Apsarase, now lost: it was reportedly a ‘resounding success’. Professor Oscar Paul subsequently took him on as a theory student, free of charge. Leipzig was also the city where Pfohl made his first real friendships with the great artists and scholars of his time, including Ferruccio Busoni, Hans Sitt, Adolf Ruthardt, Wilhelm Rust, Hermann Kretzschmar and ultimately Edvard Grieg, who was also a regular visitor to Leipzig after his studies there.

Since his father refused all financial support after Pfohl had abandoned his legal studies, Pfohl had to make his living in Leipzig on his own. This he achieved through his work as a critic for the Leipziger Tageblatt (‘Leipzig journal’). Pfohl continued to compose to a limited extent, while everything he wrote served purely as a subsistence occupation—‘the cow that kept me in milk and butter’.

1892 proved to be a critical year in Pfohl’s life. On 31 August the distinguished music critic Dr Paul Mirsch had succumbed to cholera in Hamburg. His position as editor of the arts section of the Hamburger Nachrichten was promptly offered to Pfohl—thanks to the recommendation of no less than Hans von Bülow. The handsomely remunerated position required a correspondingly substantial amount of work: Pfohl was required to report on all the musical activities at Hamburg’s Stadttheater, while also giving talks on premieres at venues outside the city and writing reviews of books that were submitted.

He estimated the total number of his major reviews and essays over the years at up to 10,000—works relating to 100 new operas and 80 living composers whom he had covered as a journalist, ‘including Humperdinck, Busoni, Charpentier, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Debussy, Spinelli, Giordano, Franckenstein, Pfitzner, Schillings, Bruneau, Weingartner, Woyrsch, Klose, Puccini, d’Albert, Julius Bittner, Wolf-Ferrari, Brandt-Buys, Alexander Ritter, Siegfried Wagner, Waltershausen, Kienzl and Richard Strauss—the latter being the one constant factor among figures that came and went…’ In addition, from 1889 Pfohl took charge of the Hausmusik supplement in the weekly family publication Daheim (‘At Home’), in which he published hundreds of biographical sketches of up-and-coming musicians. Pfohl also wrote a number of noteworthy books on music, with his biographies of Richard Wagner and Arthur Nikisch undoubtedly the most successful among them.

Alongside his work as a writer, Pfohl also became joint director of the Vogt Conservatory in Hamburg in 1908. Here he gave his own idiosyncratic brand of lessons in musical theory, later also giving lectures in musical history. From 1924 to 1933 he also made a number of radio broadcasts. In 1914 he was given the honorary title of ‘Ducal Professor of Anhalt’ and in 1923 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Rostock. After moving several times within Hamburg, Pfohl finally settled in the district of Bergedorf in 1937, where he did a great deal of work for the Hasse society, which is still successful today. Pfohl died on 16 December 1949.

Pfohl’s training as an executive musician and abilities as a pianist were evidently insufficient for him to be able to make a career as a soloist; that being said, his mastery of the instrument was more than enough for him to be able to perform all the requisite musical examples on the piano when teaching at the Vogt Conservatory. The compositions by Pfohl on the present disc are further evidence of his deep familiarity with the technical aspects and capabilities of the instrument.

The musical language of Pfohl’s piano cycles is highly individual, showing remarkably early affinity for impressionism. Roughly in parallel with the development of Debussy’s unique tonal language, Pfohl uses similar techniques and in some passages reveals himself to be some way ahead of his time. His harmonics hover between major and minor, and there no longer seems to be a tonal centre in his music. He has a preference for the use of pedal points, often in syncopated form, which are then overlaid with sequential themes, very freely constructed, sometimes with a modal colouring and sometimes consisting simply of a mixture of sounds. This leads to the creation of tonal surfaces and makes it impossible to discern a clear harmonic flow in the music. Pfohl thus shows himself to be a composer who largely insists on going his own way, impossible to categorize as part of a particular school or tendency. Emerging out of the spirit of late Romanticism, he moves far beyond the constraints of the 19th century and could be most easily described as an isolated representative of ‘Nordic Impressionism’. Pfohl is evidence that the oft-repeated claim that unknown composers generally tend to be lacking in originality is very far from always being the case.

Pfohl wrote his Strandbilder, Op. 8 (’Beach Pictures’) in 1892 in Leipzig, where they would also be published later that year by the Constantin Wild publishing house. The dedicatee Hedwig Freiberg (1872–1945) was the second wife of the physician and microbiologist Robert Koch.

The Strandbilder are closely linked to Pfohl’s Meer-Symphonie (‘Sea Symphony’), a monumental symphonic fantasy whose score is assumed to be lost. It seems clear that even while composing the piano cycle, Pfohl was already thinking of subsequently orchestrating the work. From the six movements of the Strandbilder he created five new symphonic movements, in which he—to judge by the newspaper reviews—re-arranged the thematic material, giving it a masterful new orchestration. The premiere of the two pieces Wellenspiele (‘Play of the Waves’) and Friesische Tanzscene (‘Frisian Dance Scene’) was given on 24 March 1897 in Karlsruhe, with Felix Mottl conducting.

Pfohl’s music contains numerous pictorial and dramatic elements that deliberately echo and recreate dynamic, natural events, which are nevertheless transmuted by Pfohl into musical forms. The first part of Meeresleuchten Wellenjagd (‘Sea Luminescence—Hunting the Waves’) is an example of tonal painting in the best sense. Solitary F sharp octaves and an unresolved seventh/ninth open the piece. It is impossible to discern a linear harmonic structure. Furious strings of demisemiquavers depict the breaking waves, and with a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’-like brilliance—a cambiata motif, hardly discernible as such—suggests the gleaming of the sea evoked in the title.

The second movement In den Dünen (‘In the Dunes’) has the tempo indication Andante malinconico. A sighing motif leads to melancholic strings of quavers that become increasingly full-bodied. Pedal points and syncopated accompaniments remain implacable, and still… melancholy. It seems likely that Pfohl is seeking to portray the feelings of a solitary walker gazing on the vastness of the sea from afar, while remaining entirely lost in his own thoughts and cares.

The Heide-Idyll (‘Heath Idyll’) bears the additional note ‘Nordic’ beneath the title and is thematically reminiscent of Grieg. Typical here are the numerous grace notes with which Pfohl adorns the theme; the accompanying syncopations create a certain sense of estrangement from the otherwise purely folkloric musical style.

The movement Auf dem Friedhof der Namenlosen (‘At the Graveyard of the Nameless’) alludes to the ‘Friedhof der Heimatlosen’ (‘Graveyard of the Homeless’) on the island of Sylt, where the bodies of dead, unidentifiable sailors are buried having washed up on shore. The final verse of the poem Heimat für Heimatlose (‘Home for the Homeless’) by the Protestant theologian Rudolf Kögel, engraved on a memorial stone in the graveyard, is quoted before this movement:

We are a people, washed up by time’s current
on this earthly island;
rent by mishap and heartache
till our saviour brings us home.

Our parents’ home is always near,
as our fates are ever-shifting;
it is the cross of Golgotha:
home for the homeless.

With its key of A flat minor and indication Grave misterioso, Pfohl creates a sombre underlying mood. However, with the second theme an urgent movement is unleashed, expressing inner conflict and disquiet. The stranded nameless sailors still have not found their home and are still waiting for their final resting place.

The Taat-jem-Glaat (actually Taatjem-glaat) depicts a canyon of dunes at Hörnum on Sylt, which had a reputation as a haven for lovers. The expression, taken from the local Frisian Sylt dialect (Taatj = kiss; Glaat = canyon) is translated by Pfohl as Tal der Küsse (‘Vale of Kisses’). Pfohl, who married Alwine Rösing, a native of Wangerooge, loved to take holidays on the North Sea, as we can see from the theme of the whole cycle. He may well have had specific personal experiences of his own in mind when composing this movement, to which he gave the tempo indication Andante amoroso.

The Friesische Tanzscene über ein Originalthema (‘Frisian Dance Scene on an Original Theme’) appears folkloric in character. The theme, within a large-scale, tripartite song structure, is subjected to a range of different variations, abridged, extended and rearranged. The piece’s rustic, dance-like nature is initially emphasized by the tempo indication Presto giocoso, con fuoco, with stresses on the third beat in 3/4 time, as are frequently found in traditional Frisian dances.

The Suite élégiaque, Op. 11 is Pfohl’s last work for piano and was probably composed in 1894 in Hamburg. On the title, Pfohl wrote in a letter of 1 February 1949 ‘I called the five piano pieces “Elegische Suite” [Elegiac Suite] in German. And as ever, the publishers translated the title into the more elegant French, to make it “modern”!’ The individual movements are dedicated to various ladies from Pfohl’s circle of friends.

The Suite élégiaque consists of a collection of character pieces that form a cyclical unit through their compositional style and recurring motivic elements. Brief core motifs, pendulum and wave movements and at times impressionistic harmonics with few cadences, creating states of uncertainty over long passages, form the primary characteristics of the Suite, which provide the ‘elegiac’ tone. Despite this compositional unity there is a clear national atmosphere in some of the movements: unmistakably Bohemian and Russian in the final two movements, and Nordic in the Élégie.

The Prélude arises out of small units of two-bar motifs which in turn give rise to a quiet, steady pendulum movement, reminiscent of Satie but with a self-contained character quite its own.

The Élégie features the clearest impressionistic relationship within the suite. This movement also has at its heart an initial two-bar motif, that as in the first movement creates a basic rocking motion. Shortly before the end of the movement there is a passage that seems to point far beyond the work and its time, anticipating certain elements that came to characterize the impressionistic movement: the opening major theme is underlaid with an accompaniment almost impossible to describe in a functional sense. It consists purely of six-five chords first over A, then over D, that are shifted around. It is only the tonal colour of the chord that is now relevant; the chord itself no longer serves any function.

In the Moment musical the harmonies change from bar to bar, but resist any kind of cadential progress, so remaining suspended, seeming to meander aimlessly. Chromatic passages in the right hand and a sequence of descending fifths enrich the mood with restrained exuberance. A two-movement transition—consisting of a one-note motif, as in the second movement—leads to the second theme, which is dominated by a sarabande rhythm. The accompaniment is garlanded with musical ornaments and swells to produce a wave movement that recalls the final part of the second movement.

The Scherzo bohémien can probably be accurately heard as a homage to Pfohl’s Bohemian origins. There is an unusual prevailing tone, that uses rapid, complicated harmonic sequences, abrupt shifts and so-called gypsy scales that ensure that the music, for all its dance-like high spirits, at times seems oddly lost in reverie. Occasionally there is an overwhelming feeling of melancholy, but blended with elegance, not, as with Gustav Mahler, with tragedy.

A simple, unaccompanied folksong-style melody in pentatonic mode forms the initial motif of the Fantaisie russe. Metre seems to have been suspended, an impression further underscored by the shifts between 3/4 and 4/4 time. A similarly folkloric motif in fifths follows, in the melodic style, creating the impression of a responsory (verse and response).

Hagbart is the title of Pfohl’s first large-scale piano work, written in Prague in 1882. Hagbard (also Hägar or Habor) is a hero of Nordic mythology who features in a love story with Signe not dissimilar to Romeo and Juliet.

Pfohl described the work as a ‘Nordic Rhapsody on a Theme of Edvard Grieg’—a testament to his early admiration for the Norwegian master, whom he would later meet in Leipzig. Stylistically speaking, all the themes could have been penned by Grieg himself. There are numerous characteristic elements of Hagbart that allude to Grieg’s composing style: triplets are ubiquitous; melodies often begin with repeated notes or orbit a central note; the accompaniment in the piano part is often syncopated or made up of a shifting motif with a solid chordal basis; transitions between sections are often organized around quietly inflected passages in unison; intensification is often achieved by the shift of accompanying themes from quavers to triplets to tremolos.

Although Hagbart is already a fully autonomous composition, far more than a simply derivative facsimile of Grieg, with a stylistic coherence indisputably its own, it is clearly differentiated from the personal style Pfohl would go on to develop in his later piano cycles.

Simon Kannenberg
Translation: Saul Lipetz


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