Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Marion Scott on British Music

Some reviewers of Pamela Blevins' otherwise acclaimed Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty have questioned the dual biography concept. One (male) critic seemed to wonder why Blevins was wasting so much space on a figure of 'modest interest' like Marion Scott. Another (female) wanted to know more about this remarkable woman and her numerous achievements. So for those in the latter camp, here is a piece on Marion Scott as critic and champion of British music.

Soon after Marion Scott embarked on her new career as the London music critic for the Christian Science Monitor, she began introducing readers throughout the world to British composers and performers in a way that no newspaper critic had done before. During her tenure from 1919 to 1933, the names Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Stanford (her teacher), Holst, Ireland, Delius, Smyth and the younger generation including Finzi, Howells, Gurney, Bliss, Bax, Gibbs and many others appeared with different degrees of frequency and intensity.

In addition to writing reviews, Marion also wrote numerous feature articles and in-depth profiles of musicians. The first among them was a three-part series on the musical and poetic wells-springs of Gloucestershire (July to August 1919), the home turf of her friends Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams. Her references to Gurney in this series were not the first time his name had appeared on the pages of the Monitor. In 1918, through her connections with the newspaper, she had arranged for the publication of excerpts from two of Gurney’s poems from his first collection, Severn and Somme - “Firelight” on 22 May and “Song at Morning” on 28 May.

Although Marion used her position to advance the careers of her friends (particularly Howells) and associates, she was a fair and discerning critic who possessed the remarkable ability to get right to the core of a composition that she was hearing for the first time often without benefit of a score to follow.

After attending the premiere of the Elgar Cello Concerto, she observed that the work was too big “to analyze or appraise quickly. The most that can be done after a single hearing is to record the salient impressions received.” Scott found Elgar’s conception of concerto form “totally different to that of the majority of composers. With him a concerto is not a public oration, nor a pyrotechnic display, but a psychological poem. He feels the solo instrument to be as much a person as Browning felt his characters to be real in the ‘Dramatic Romances and Lyrics’, and exactly as the characters speak for themselves – unfolding their ideas through his poems – so does the concerto deal with a subjective drama, the solo instrument expressing a sensitive, intimate train of thoughts in the language of music,” she wrote. “This necessitates a wholly different attitude in soloist, orchestra, and audience from that usually taken toward a concerto, and while Mr. [Felix] Salmond understood and acted upon it perfectly, one had a sense that the London Symphony Orchestra [conducted by Elgar] only partially apprehended their role in this work, fine as they are and well though they played”. (For the complete review published on 13 December 1919 look here).

Marion Scott was undoubtedly the first person to introduce her readers outside Britain to a young Gerald Finzi when she reviewed his Violin Concerto in May 1927. She and Finzi would eventually work together (not necessarily in harmony) to preserve Ivor Gurney’s musical and poetic legacies. Marion had attended the 4 May premiere of the second and third movements of concerto in a performance by violinist Sybil Eaton with Malcolm Sargent conducting the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra.

“Of late years composers have been chary in writing for solo violin,” she observed. “So, when a new violin concerto is announced…the mere choice of medium seems to promise independence of thought….Independence is certainly a quality of the violin concerto by Gerald Finzi. Finzi is among the younger men in British music. His work is uncompromisingly honest, yet restrained, disdainful of advertisement, unafraid of solitude,” she continued. Noting that the concerto was in three movements, she felt it unfortunate that the complete work was not presented as the opening “must surely be heard to give full meaning to the second movement…in the manner of an introit with its soaring phrases of melody for the solo violin against the liturgical counterparts of the orchestra…But even starting from zero the introit established itself as an individual and often really beautiful movement…Its youth, vitality and the natural independence of the moving parts produced harmonic clashes as crude, clear and attractive as blades of fresh spring grass.”

Marion featured Gurney occasionally in Monitor reviews but never wrote a long profile on him as she did for Howells, Thomas Dunhill, Vaughan Williams and others. She did not let friendship cloud her opinion. If she believed a work was flawed she said so. Upon hearing the first performance of Gurney’s War Elegy in 1921, she wrote: “…a war elegy by Ivor Gurney is comparatively short but produces an impression of great aims. The themes are heartfelt and sincere, their treatment is grave and sensitive, and the opening and closing sections of the work are eloquent. Toward the middle, the music loses its grip and wanders around rather than holds the direct onward flow. It will probably gain by being rewritten.”

She found much to praise in Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme in a review published on 25 December 1920. “There is a fine, clear, out-of-doors ring about the setting of ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’, she wrote, ‘and one could well imagine the tune upon the lips of any ‘young yeoman’ as he ‘strode beside his team’; while the second song, ‘Far in a western brookland,’ is a pure efflorescence in music of that poetry of the ‘windless night time’ alluded to by Housman, and expressed here by the composer with tender truth and beauty of melody.’ ‘The lads in their hundreds’ and ‘On the idle hill of summer’ are equally rich in imaginative qualities: also virile in style (as the words demand), while ‘When I was one and twenty’ is a good little thing in the folk style as one could wish to meet anywhere. The unexpected and fascinating run of the tune delighted the audience. ‘The Lent Lily,’ with its beautiful melismatic passages, brought the cycle to a close, and the composer to the platform.”

From an early age Marion Scott willingly entered into the spirit of contemporary music. She never shied away from writing about “radical” composers nor did she dismiss new trends. She believed that “time alone” would render the final judgment but she always stood ready to enlighten doubters. In 1929, she wrote a comprehensive study of the young Paul Hindemith, probably the first of such depth to appear in Britain. Later she would write insightfully about the music of Webern, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Tippett and many other “new” voices.

In a future post, Pamela Blevins will share some of Scott’s comments on the music of composers who were quite different from Elgar, Finzi and Gurney, including one Scott described as a “genuine composer who gives off music as a piece of radium throws off energy”.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Richard Strauss' Kometentanz

As promised at the end of Wayne Heisler Jr’s post, Mr Mlakar and Richard Strauss, here is an excerpt from The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss, recently published by the University of Rochester Press:

In addition to tone poems, numerous songs, and nearly perennial operatic musings, several dance scenarios passed over Strauss’s desk (or may have done so) in the years leading up to Kythere. Here, a brief survey of this composer’s encounters with ballet in the 1890s is in order.

As early as spring 1895, the litterateur Otto Julius Bierbaum had his sights set on Strauss to compose the music for his ballet scenario Pan im Busch (Pan in the Rose Bush). However, whether or not this plan was presented formally to Strauss at that time remains unclear; in the end, Felix Mottl created a score for Pan, which had its premiere in Karlsruhe on March 20, 1900. Bierbaum was not the only writer who desired to collaborate with Strauss on a ballet during the 1890s. In February 1896, Frank Wedekind wrote to the composer proposing a ballet entitled Die Flöhe oder Der Schmerzenstanz (The Fleas, or The Dance of Pain), a text that had been in the works for several years. Although Strauss apparently took this prospect seriously (Schuh reports that the composer even began sketching music for it), he abandoned Die Flöhe shortly thereafter. Next, in March 1898, the writer Richard Dehmel offered Strauss Lucifer. From Dehmel’s surviving correspondence with the composer, the latter seems to have found the scenario promising. Strauss may even have begun one short musical sketch for Lucifer: on page 68 of the composer’s Sketchbook No. 7 (ca. 1900–1), there is a passage labeled “Ballet. Solo mit Chor. II. Akt Schluss” (Ballet. Soloist with choir. Act Two finale). The music, in C major and 6/8 meter, is not fitted to any text, but Dehmel’s project is the only one of the ballets that Strauss took into purview in the 1890s that employs choruses at the end of each of its seven acts. Nevertheless, like Wedekind’s scenario before it, Lucifer languished after initial enthusiasm.

Aside from his own Die Insel Kythere, the ballet that seems to have piqued Strauss’s interest most strongly in these years was Paul Scheerbart’s Kometentanz (Dance of the Comets). On February 25, 1900, the composer reported to his parents, “The author Paul Scheerbart sent me a very pretty sketch for a one-act ballet: Kometentanz, an astral pantomime, which I will immediately set to music. Because one at least does not have to worry about singers and can storm about in the orchestra.” This is an interesting comment given Strauss’s miserable operatic track record at the time. The composer also articulated his balletic intentions to Romain Rolland, who recorded an account of Scheerbart’s scenario as narrated to him by Strauss in his diary entry for March 9, 1900—the day on which he and Strauss visited the Louvre together. Rolland also recorded that “the maître de ballet in Berlin has turned down [Kometentanz] ‘as not serious!’” In light of this information, it is a further testimony to Strauss’s commitment to Kometentanz that he misrepresented (albeit lightheartedly) its fate in Berlin when pitching the ballet to Gustav Mahler, who was at the time director of the Vienna Court Opera:

I am in the course of writing a one- or two-act burlesque ballet . . . —naturally something departing wholly from the accustomed hopping-about—by Paul Scheerbart. Would you accept the ballet for the Vienna Opera, have the first performance and use some nice scenery? On the strength of my honest face? If there is a chance of doing it anywhere else, I should prefer not to put on the first performance here in Berlin. It will be ready to be performed about autumn 1901.

Mahler’s answer followed promptly:

Your ballet is accepted in advance!—If I seem to attach a condition, it is only an elaboration of my unconditional agreement: I must have a look at the scenario mainly on account of the cost of the scenery. Could you let me see it, and also allow our set designers, wardrobe master, etc. to make a very rough estimate? In a few days you will have my answer, which you can then take as a binding acceptance. . . . I regard it as a matter of honour for the Vienna Court Opera to have the première. That you will be pleased with the production I can guarantee!

Strauss appears to have taken the possibility of a Viennese premiere for his first ever ballet quite seriously. In his Sketchbook No. 6 (ca. 1899–1911) there are approximately twenty-five pages of musical jottings for Kometentanz as indicated by textual cues, including: “with kind queries and bows to the king,” the agent for the dance performances in Scheerbart’s scenario; “the poet,” also a central character; and “nightingales and among them the contrasting music of the spheres,” referring to the two principal acoustic motives that Scheerbart specified should recur throughout the ballet. Where these sketches are identified, they seem to correspond mostly to act one of Kometentanz, and unfold in chronological order vis-à-vis the narrative. Strauss’s music is, however, far from composed; it is no surprise, then, that in the extant correspondence between him and Mahler there is no further conversation about Scheerbart’s ballet. Perhaps it did not meet Mahler’s “condition,” proving too expensive an undertaking for Vienna.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Whatever happened to Reggie?

‘Even if you lived to be 150 years old you would still not discover all the secrets of the Ring,’ said Reginald Goodall, and indeed he continued to study the scores of this and other Wagner operas until the end of his life. And what a colourful life it was, as anyone who knows John Lucas’s biography of the conductor, Reggie, will confirm. Next month we will be reissuing the book for the first time in paperback, updated with a new Foreword by Sir Peter Moores, under the new title The Genius of Valhalla. Here is a short extract from the Introduction:

I first heard Goodall conduct in the 1950s. He was on the staff of Covent Garden, though his appearances in the pit there were sporadic. He gave performances of Manon, Turandot and Bohème that were cogent and illuminating, and he breathed life into Britten’s Gloriana after its unfortunate premiere under John Pritchard. His Meistersinger – “Not my Meistersinger,” I can hear him saying crossly, “Wagner’s” – won him glowing notices in the press, as did the performances of Die Walküre he conducted on tour. Yet by the end of the decade he had all but disappeared from view. It was puzzling, but I knew nothing then of operatic politics.

At a party at the 1961 Edinburgh Festival I was introduced to a Covent Garden stalwart, the baritone Geraint Evans, who regaled his fellow guests with tales of the Opera House. What, I asked him, had happened to Goodall? He adopted a solemn expression. “Ah, Reginald,” he said, rolling the initial R theatrically. “Poor Reginald.” He then changed the subject. Clearly, as far as Covent Garden was concerned, Goodall was a spent force. Yet seven years later, at the age of sixty-six, he made an extraordinary comeback, with a production of The Mastersingers for Sadler’s Wells Opera that demonstrated beyond dispute that here was a great Wagner conductor in a tradition stretching back through Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Muck to Hans Richter, conductor of the first Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876.

Goodall had watched Knappertsbusch at work during his visits to Bayreuth throughout the 1950s, and from him had learned how to build the acts in great, seamless arches, how to relate one tempo to another, how to balance the sound so that each individual strand in the orchestral fabric could be heard, how to ensure, through close attention to the dynamic markings in the orchestral parts, that singers were never drowned. Goodall complained that most conductors failed to observe Wagner’s dynamics; as a result, he said, singers were encouraged to sing stridently in order to compete with the orchestral flood. Big steely voices were not for him – he liked voices that were even in quality and sonority from top to bottom of their range. “Too much metal, dear,” he grumbled at even his favourite sopranos when they sang high notes – and he would stick his fingers in his ears to underline the point. In low-lying passages he demanded the rich characteristic of the violin’s bottom string – “More G string, dear” was a constant plea.

Not all singers could cope with Goodall and the demands he made of them. But those who could revered him. A Goodall regular, the bass Gwynne Howell, has written, “He could be infuriating and cuttingly critical with, at peak moments, a quick stamping of the feet. With luck the next singer would arrive – preferably female, he liked female company – and calm would be restored. I would return home on some exhausted high, but just as I felt I wanted to give up it would all fall into place. All those shaky gestures of his conducting style would become clear and meaningful.”

Goodall attached the greatest importance to Wagner’s final injunction to his singers before the 1876 Ring at Bayreuth: “Die grossen Noten kommen von selbst; die kleinen Noten and ihr Text sind die Hauptsache” – “The big notes look after themselves; the little notes and their text are the main thing.” All the semi-quavers, said Goodall, were to be given their proper sonority; they were not to be “snatched at”. Words had to be sung with the utmost clarity and attention to meaning. Notes had to be “coloured”, either to mirror the harmonies in the orchestra or to reflect the emotional mood of the scene or phrase. “Angel of death,” he would say to his Brünnhildes in the Todesverkündigung in Act 2 of Die Walküre, urging them to adopt a dark, grave sound; during King Marke’s long solo in Act 2 of Tristan, he would ask the singer to match the timbre of the accompanying bass clarinet. Goodall was responsible for a remarkable flowering of Wagner singing that led to a generation of British and Commonwealth Wagner singers he had coached taking leading roles at Bayreuth, stretching from Jon Vickers in the late 1950s to John Tomlinson and Anne Evans thirty years later.

Goodall was sometimes mocked for his painstaking rehearsal methods, yet he worked in a way that would have been considered natural by Wagner’s earliest interpreters. He was shocked by the fact that international conductors in the latter part of the twentieth century rarely took the trouble to coach the singers for their own productions: “Imagine Klemperer behaving like that! That’s one of the things I like about Barenboim – he works with his singers. He’s one of the few who does, and it shows. Most of the others are flitting here and there, conducting this and that. It makes me tired.”

The Chandos recording of Goodall’s Mastersingers has been nominated for a Gramophone Award. The Genius of Valhalla: The Life of Reginald Goodall by John Lucas, author of the acclaimed Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, will be available from all good booksellers from October.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Handel’s 'Orlando'

With the end of the Proms, BBC Radio 3’s
cycle of Handel’s operas resumes on September 17th with Orlando. In this extract from Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, Winton Dean looks at the composer’s introduction of the figure of Zoroastro into the opera:

Handel’s choice of this subject marked a sharp change of direction from the heroic/epic/historical plots that had occupied him almost continuously since Amadigi in 1717 towards magic and romantic subjects. It may well have been the discovery of Ariosto that governed not only the follow-up with Ariodante and Alcina but a more relaxed attitude to classical stories in Arianna and Atalanta. He was to revert to the epic-historical type, less successfully, for four more operas before modifying his approach towards a lighter, ironical manner in his last three.

The libretto of Orlando poses a number of questions. Both the literary ancestor, Aariosto’s epic Orlando furioso, and the source libretto, Carlo Sigismondo Capeci’s L’Orlando, overo la gelosa pazzia, produced in the private roman theatre of the exiled Queen Maria Casimira of Poland in 1711 with music by Domenico Scarlatti, are known. But Handel’s libretto is no mere adjustment of the old text to suit local conditions in London, whether of taste or for a particular cast of singers. It takes a radically new direction. Although Ariosto’s poem is full of sorcery and sorcerers, the Angelica–Medoro–Orlando story is conducted on a purely human level, as it is in Capeci. Neither Zoroastro nor Dorinda appears in Ariosto, and Zoroastro is not in Capeci, or any other Ariosto libretto of the period. His commanding figure shifts the whole focus of the plot, introducing the element of magic and spectacle and controlling the destiny of the characters by acting as a benevolent deus ex machina. Where did he come from, and who brought him into Orlando?

Reinhard Strohm in a fascinating essay points out that Zoroastro figures in several contemporary operas on the Babylonian Semiramis story, generally as a rival monarch using his powers for his own ends; but in Johann Ulrich König’s Ninus und Semiramis, set conjecturally by G. C. Schürmann for Brunswick in 1730, he brings the plot to an end by acting as peacemaker. König was a friend of Mattheson and Brockes in Hamburg, a circle with which Handel may have been in touch. A contributory model could have been Ariosto’s Atlante, Ruggiero’s tutor, who casts plenty of spells in Orlando furioso, notably in the Alcina story. It may be more than a coincidence that Handel’s Orlando opens with a tableau showing atlas (Atlante) sustaining the heavens on his shoulders.

Capeci was an early member of the Arcadian Academy in Rome, the group dedicated to substituting a reasoned classicism for the extravagances of the seventeenth-century libretto. His Orlando eschews not only magic and spectacle but the mixture of comic and serious language so repugnant to the Arcadians. His Dorinda is very different from Handel’s; though a shepherdess, she uses the same elevated speech as the other characters, including Isabella and Zerbino, the chivalrous lovers suppressed in Handel’s opera. Orlando himself, it is true, was by tradition an ambivalent figure; Dent aptly likens him to Don Quixote. A hero who confuses the identity of the persons he meets, mistakes a shepherdess for Venus, rushes about invoking the ancient gods, and constantly expresses himself in the most extravagant language (though there is less of all this in Capeci’s libretto than in Handel’s) could be treated as a comic figure, and often was. A madman was fair game for laughs. It is possible to imagine a number of scenes in Handel’s libretto, especially the conclusion of Act II and Orlando’s confrontation with Dorinda in III.iii, as material for the eighteenth-century equivalent of an Offenbach farce. We do not know how Scarlatti coped with this, since his music is lost. It is only Handel’s music that converts these episodes into profound psychological drama.

We can surely credit Handel with the general plan of the opera and the introduction of Zoroastro. He presumably had a collaborator, and one of no little skill. Who was he? Strohm puts forward Nicola Haym, who adapted the librettos of Handel’s most successful royal academy operas. But Haym died on 31 July 1729, and Orlando was not composed till the autumn of 1732. Moreover if, as Strohm suggests, the inspiration for Orlando came from Handel’s visit to Italy in 1728–29, which ended with his return to England on 29 June, Haym would have had barely a month – the last month of his life – in which to confer with Handel and write the libretto. There is a stronger argument against Haym's authorship. The part of Zoroastro was clearly conceived for a powerful bass, such as Montagnana, who created it, and who did not reach London until autumn 1731, whereas in both the 1729/30 and 1730/1 seasons Handel had only mediocre singers for the bass parts, Riemschneider and Commano. Riemschneider was a failure in Lotario and allowed only one aria in Partenope, and in any case was a high baritone; Commano in Poro had no arias at all.

Handel’s collaborator remains a mystery.

More can be found in Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 by Winton Dean (Boydell Press 2006). The first volume of this monumental study – Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 – which Dean wrote with John Merill Knapp - will soon be available again in a matching edition and the two volumes as a set. An essential purchase for anyone who has rediscovered these marvellous works through the BBC season.

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.