Thursday, 3 September 2009

Schoeck, Shaken and Stirred

This month sees the publication of Chris Walton’s superb Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works. As in all good biographies, Walton’s book brings Schoeck’s endearing, irritating, charming, frustrating, magnetic personality to life, as well as the rather turbulent times in which he lived. He also demonstrates why we should pay his music – increasingly available on CD - more attention than we have until quite recently. No mere academic butterfly pinned inside a glass case, Schoeck lives and breathes in this compelling biography. In this extract, we see how the composer dealt with lost love. The first paragraph sets the scene:

In August 1923, Schoeck was abandoned by his lover of the past five years, Mary de Senger. That same month, he encountered the musical avant-garde for the first time at the Salzburg festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. The loss of Mary, plus the realization that musical progress had left him far behind, had an impact on him that resulted in a stylistic shift as sudden as it was drastic: within a few months of finishing the song cycle Elegie with its neo-Brahmsian tonality, he was writing the atonal first scene of a new opera, Penthesilea.

How does one cope with losing the love of one’s life, the woman whose very existence seems to define one, and without whom the mere fact of being seems to lose its purpose? The answer, felt Schoeck, was to have lots of sex with lots of other women as soon as possible. That is precisely what he did within a fortnight of losing Mary. In compensation for his loss, he also began to display a heightened sexual bravado among his (male) friends, once more claiming that fidelity was different for men and women: women remained faithful by remaining faithful, while men could sleep around without being unfaithful per se. Furthermore, he claimed, not one of his friends’ wives had ever failed to make a pass at him, with the sole exception, he remarked pointedly, of Stefi Geyer. He now boasted for weeks on end of how many women he was sleeping with, and of how many came to beg him for sex. All this macho posturing was presumably to compensate for the fact that the one woman he really wanted was the one he had lost—through no one’s fault but his own—and would never win back. And while he might have somewhat exaggerated the number of his conquests, he nevertheless was indeed consoling himself in the arms and orifices of several women. The least fleeting of them was Annie Gottlieb-Sallenbach, whom Schoeck called “Angelie.” She was Swiss, was married to a Dane, and had two children. Although resident in Dresden, she frequently visited her mother back in Zurich, into whose care she had placed her children during the inflation years in order to spare them the economic privations inevitable in Germany. Angelie’s family knew the local music scene well. Her mother’s home on the Bellerivestrasse was used as a rehearsal venue by de Boer’s Zurich String Quartet, and Angelie had probably got to know Schoeck through one or both of their mutual friends Ilona Durigo and Stefi Geyer. She had been in love with Schoeck for some time—she would later claim that he had been the love of her life—and when she appeared at his apartment two weeks after the break with Mary and found him in need of consolation, she bestowed it amply.

At about the same time that Angelie appeared, Schoeck composed the song “Die Entschwundene” (“The Girl Who Disappeared”), a setting of the first poem in Gottfried Keller’s cycle Erstes Lieben (“First Love”). If it was meant as a farewell to Mary, its obsessive two-measure ostinato accompaniment and its vocal line hovering around the notes of a broken chord make it just as much a farewell to the sound-world of the Elegie. But it also points the way forward, inasmuch as Schoeck’s songs for the next five years would be to poems by Gottfried Keller alone—a poet whom he had long avoided. While we must be suspicious of spotting all-too-convenient parallels between biography and work, Schoeck’s life “post-Mary” undeniably coincides almost exactly with a phase in his compositional life that was breathtakingly new. It is not really “the girl” who disappears, for it is the Schoeck of the Elegie who is “der Entschwundene.” The first signs of the new direction in his music are to be found in a “Lento” movement that he added in early September to his suite for string quartet (soon to be renamed simply “Second String Quartet”), in which sustained dissonant chords in parallel motion suspend tonality for much of the time; he called it an “Abendbild” (“Picture of Evening”).

This summer also brought Schoeck in closer contact with one of the leading proponents of modern music, Hermann Scherchen, conductor of the Winterthur City Orchestra. To judge from a letter that he sent his wife at this time, Scherchen seems to have been somewhat swept off his feet by the strength of Schoeck’s personality: “I love Schoeck. . . . The fellow has all the marks of the exceptional in his overflowing personality, in the fire of his eye. A highly robust chap, but without being crude. Talented down to the tips of his fingers. Full of eroticism, wit, and with it all, above all, likeable . . . not intelligent in the sense of ‘clever,’ but at times almost enlightened in his physical/emotional intelligence. That’s the source of his marvellous judgments and insights.” A performance of the Elegie that Scherchen had scheduled in Frankfurt in September 1923 had to be cancelled because of a lack of rehearsal time, but his passion for Schoeck and his music would remained undimmed over the coming decades.

Besides finishing his new string quartet in autumn 1923, Schoeck now also planned a setting of Keller’s narrative cycle of fourteen poems entitled Lebendig begraben (“Buried Alive”). It proved intractable, however, and after considering having certain sections spoken, not sung, he put it to one side (he would return to it three years later). He turned instead to Keller’s Gaselen (“Ghazels”), a brief cycle of ten poems that mix erotic love lyrics with satire, and whose only real unifying factor is the verse form (aa–ba–ca–da, etc.). These poems are even more abstruse and awkward than those of the Lebendig begraben cycle, and Schoeck at first found them just as intractable. He considered setting them to an accompaniment of cello and piano, with the most difficult verses once more spoken, not sung; but he soon decided instead to have all the verses sung to the accompaniment of an ensemble of trumpet, flute doubling piccolo, oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and percussion. Derrick Puffett has suggested that this “top and bottom” instrumentation was influenced by Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, though the opening of the work, with its brash solo trumpet followed by the nasal, almost “vulgar” sound of the woodwind scoring, actually takes us into a sound-world that is perhaps most reminiscent of Kurt Weill. Once Schoeck had begun, the floodgates opened by themselves, for five of the ten poems were apparently sketched in the space of two hours, and the cycle was finished by early November 1923, with the exception of the very ending. Schoeck claimed to have been disturbed by a visitor just as his moment of inspiration came (his “Einfall”), and it took him till December to find an ending that truly satisfied him.

The opening poem of Gaselen runs: “Ours is the fate of the Epigones who live in the vast halfway-world; look how you squeeze one more drop from old lemon rinds!”. The final poem tells of the poet’s old hat whose rim is crumpled and attracts the mockery of passers-by; so he turns it round, but then people only laugh behind his back; and he then turns it round again, as he would rather face down his critics than have them mock him out of sight. Schoeck’s friends assumed that it was such satirical verses that had attracted him to the cycle, but if the strength of the music is a reliable guide, then it was the love songs that appealed to him the most. They contain some of the most blatantly erotic imagery that he would ever set to music. The central poem runs thus:

I hold you in my arms, tenderly you hold the rose,
And the rose holds deep within it a young bee;
Thus we arrange ourselves like pearls on life’s single thread,
Thus we rejoice as petal upon petal gathers round the rose,
And when my kiss glows on your mouth, a flame darts
Into the heart of the bee as it mates with the chalice of the rose.

—and its music is suitably erotic, the flute and bass clarinet weaving a canon around the voice to a background of luscious triplet figurations in the piano. The song climaxes on a top F for the voice as the flame darts into the heart of the mating bee before subsiding into “an expansive Straussian postlude” (thus Puffett), whose aesthetic effect is, obviously and intentionally, the musical equivalent of the post-coital cigarette.

Gaselen was also Schoeck’s first continuous song cycle. The model he chose, as Puffett has demonstrated cogently, was An die ferne Geliebte, “Beethoven’s continuous cycle with interludes, a recapitulation, and a well-balanced tonal scheme. All these devices [Schoeck] incorporated into Gaselen, almost as if he were afraid that the work would not stand up without them.” What Puffett did not know was that An die ferne Geliebte was the song cycle that Schoeck admired above all others and already knew well as an accompanist—he had played it just over a year before, on 30 March 1922 in St. Gallen, with Alfred Jerger as soloist. “Weisch,” Schoeck once said to his nephew Georg, “d’bescht Zyklus isch d’ferni Geliebti” (“You know, the best cycle is the Distant Beloved” ). The significance of the model might even go beyond the merely musical, given that Schoeck’s longings were still very much for his own beloved in distant Geneva. He had interrupted his composition of the cycle to go on a brief concert tour to Holland with Ilona Durigo and had summoned up the courage to write to Mary from The Hague. He received no answer.

In a later post, Chris Walton will tell us how he came to write about Othmar Schoeck. In the meantime, Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works will soon be available from all good booksellers. The photograph of the composer above is reproduced in the book courtesy of the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich.

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