Towards the end of last year, Alex Ross included Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno, performed by baritone Christian Gerhaher with the Rosamunde Quartett on the ECM label, among his recordings of the year. It is indeed a stunning recording – a warmly expressive performance by Gerhaher with superb playing by the Munich-based quartet – which will certainly enhance Schoeck’s growing reputation. For anyone fortunate enough to have received this superb CD in their Christmas stocking, here is Chris Walton on the Notturno, extracted from his equally splendid Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works published last year by the University of Rochester Press:
Schoeck’s torrid, obsessive, on/off affair with the Genevan pianist Mary de Senger from 1918 to 1923 had been punctuated by intermittent infidelities on his part and by broken promises of marriage on both sides. But as Schoeck admitted himself, it had proven the engine for a surge of creativity resulting in his operas Venus and Penthesilea, the orchestral cycle Elegie and many songs. One melody in particular – taken from the final scene of Venus, used as the main theme of a piano piece dedicated to her and reused again in the Elegie – was associated by Schoeck specifically with Mary. Ten years later, trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage to the German singer Hilde Bartscher, Schoeck remembered his affair with Mary and the music it had inspired as a kind of lost “golden age” in his compositional career.
It is no coincidence that Schoeck told his friend and biographer Hans Corrodi, just at the time when he began work on the Notturno, that “at least that suffering with Mary had been fruitful,” for the Notturno seems to have represented for him an attempt to rekindle the creative spark that had led to his earlier works. To judge from the remarks he made at the time, he was aware that his recent music bore little trace of the white-hot inspiration that Mary had provoked. Conjuring up her metaphorical shade to help him overcome his present shortcomings might thus have been a perfectly conscious act.
It certainly worked, for it is generally accepted that the Notturno displays Schoeck at the very height of his powers (it would even impress Alban Berg in early 1935). But it is noteworthy that the “Mary” theme is never given in its original form. The Andante appassionato alone features some forty transformations of it [see above], but none of them identical to the real source. It is a musical expression of that trick of memory we all know, whereby a familiar tune haunts one’s mind but evades all attempts to notate its precise contours. This mirrors perfectly the motto of the movement. This interlude probably represented several intermingled desires on the part of Schoeck. Its mantra-like reiteration of the “Mary” theme in its multitude of transformations is on the one hand a quasi-shamanic summoning up of a former muse to aid him in the present. On the other, given that Schoeck was at the time in a deeply troubled relationship, this sudden obsession with Mary’s theme—“always drawing near her, but never reaching her”—is surely also an expression of loss, of regret that things had not worked out differently a decade before, of an ideal that can never more be attained. In this sense, the avoidance of exact quotation could signify Schoeck’s intention (whether subconscious or no) to “hide” these now illicit desires. Hilde, as yet, knew nothing of Mary. But for Schoeck this perhaps made the act of concealment even more necessary.
In the last song of the first movement (also the final poem that Lenau wrote before he descended into madness), the poet looks down into a river and sees his own soul flowing past, weighed down with sorrow. The second movement of the Notturno is an instrumental scherzo with trio, in which the narrator describes a nightmare. The recapitulation of the scherzo overlaps with the end of the trio in a superb dramatic stroke. The third movement, cast as a rondo, is highly chromatic, and perhaps the closest Schoeck ever came to the style of Alban Berg.
The brief fourth movement is a desolate depiction of autumn in 5/4 meter, which Schoeck later claimed to have written at the time of the Elegie, though in stylistic terms, with its chromaticism and the fragmentary nature of its quartet accompaniment, it firmly belongs here. The fifth and final movement opens with another version of the Mary theme, this time with its intervals expanded to span more than an octave. The first song (“Der einsame Trinker”—“The Lonely Drinker”) represents a lapse in quality, noticeable only because of the compelling nature of the music before and after. The second song comprises only a two line poem (“O solitude, how gladly I drink / From your fresh woodland well”), and there then follows an interlude in sonata form as a kind of parallel to that of the first movement (though here there is no development section).
The final song is a setting of one of Gottfried Keller’s last poetic sketches. When Schoeck’s friend René Niederer brought it to his attention, he sketched it on the back of a visiting card, though in doing so he missed out three words by mistake (and intuitively improved it in the process, as he thereby removed a repetition of the word “Auge,” “eye”). In this brief prose poem, the narrator addresses the “Heerwagen,” the constellation known in English as the Plough, and imagines his soul being carried along on it, “innocent, as a child; I shall look far into the distance to see whither we are bound.” This poem might even have appealed to Schoeck on account of its superficial similarity to the final text (by Stefan George) of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet—the work that in its combining of the genres of string quartet and lied was the Notturno’s most significant precursor. Both texts are cast in the first person, both tell of other planets or stars, and both end with the poet soaring away in a quasi-pantheistic merging with the universe.
Schoeck sets this final poem as a chaconne. A final transformation of Mary’s theme is heard at its opening, with expanded intervals, hovering above the long held whole-note chords of the accompaniment. It soon sounds again, in augmentation, in the first violin, accompanied by fragments of itself in even greater augmentation, repeated over and over in the lower strings. Its contours haunt the remainder of the song.
In its gradual process of transformation, the “Mary” theme has already left its original form far behind. On the final page of the score it seems to dissolve away altogether until at the end—as the narrator’s soul is carried away into the stars—barely a memory of it remains. Whether or not this “casting off” of Mary’s theme was for Schoeck an act of personal catharsis acted out in the very substance of his music, the overall effect of the final song is undoubtedly cathartic for the listener after all the conflict that has preceded it.
We do not know how Hilde reacted to the Notturno, though the manner in which it proclaimed to the world her marital strife must have caused her deep embarrassment. When Schoeck took her on a few days’ holiday to Paris straight after the premiere, it was perhaps meant to divert them both from the problems he had so directly depicted in his music. The Notturno’s first and third movements in particular are among the darkest creations to have come from Schoeck’s imagination, and their depiction of the abyss of depression surely has few parallels in their time. But the final Keller setting, with its predominantly white-note harmony, somehow succeeds in resolving all the torments that have gone before. Where Lebendig begraben had failed to carry through its dramatic trajectory to its close, the Notturno saves its finest moments till the very end.
Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works by Chris Walton is available from your favourite bookseller. The musical example, above, is taken from the first violin part of the opening movement of Notturno and is copyright 1933 by Universal Edition. The CD of Christian Gerhaher’s performance is released by the ever-inventive ECM.