Subscription Concert No.864 A Series


Franz Schreker: Born in Monaco, March 23, 1878; died in Berlin, March 21, 1934

Had Franz Schreker chosen to remain in the land of his birth, he might have become Monaco’s most famous composer. But there was little reason to return there after musical training at the Vienna Conservatory, so he spent his career in Vienna and Germany. Initially it looked as if Schreker were going to become one of the shining new stars of Austro-German music. His first major opera, Der ferne Klang, was premiered in Frankfurt in 1912, and was accorded a public reception of a sort “not even lavished on our deified Rosenkavalier” (first heard there the year before), reported one journal. When Der Schatzgräber, a later opera, was first heard in the same city, Paul Bekker, one of the most highly respected critics in Germany, announced in print that a successor to Richard Wagner had finally been found: “the same phenomenon only in an entirely different incarnation.” But by the mid-twenties Schreker’s music was already being regarded as old-fashioned, and by 1927 performances of his operas were rare. The final nail was driven into the coffin that held his career by the Nazis, for he was a Jew. He died of a stroke two days before his 56th birthday.

Like Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 for Fifteen Solo Instruments (1906), Schreker’s work is written as a large-scale single movement for a specific number of layers (no parts doubled) ̶ in Schreker’s case 23, though he indicated that the string parts could be augmented for performances in large halls. Schreker composed the Kammersinfonie in December of 1916 “for the faculty of the Imperial and Royal Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Vienna.” The occasion was the upcoming one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Academy. Schreker conducted faculty members of the school, supplemented by members of the Vienna Philharmonic, in the first performance on March 12, 1917. Stylistically the music is suffused in the late-Romantic world of Richard Strauss, early Schoenberg, and Zemlinsky.

Commentators differ widely in their assessment of the symphony’s form. A number of themes appear, some return, some are developed. Alert listeners should have no difficulty in identifying the Adagio section (later repeated), which arrives about five minutes from the beginning, then the quirky Scherzo, the outer portions of which are, most unusually, in duple rather than triple meter, but otherwise adherence to traditional formal outline is vague. Perhaps the best advice to the concertgoer would be to accept these words from the unnamed author of the liner notes for the recording led by Michael Gielen: “Schreker’s music is strangely shimmering, capricious, seemingly diffuse, constantly shifting and flowing, not apparently disciplined, straying near the borders of tonality without quite daring to overstep them.”

Zemlinsky:Lyric Symphony(Lyrische Symphonie)
- Seven poems by Rabindranath Tagore for soprano, baritone and orchestra, op. 18

I     Langsam mit ernst-leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck

II   Lebhaft

III  Sehr ruhig und mit innigem, ernstem Ausdruck - Adagio

IV   Langsam

V     Feurig und kraftvoll

VI   Sehr mäßige (Andante)

VII  Molto Adagio

Alexander Zemlinsky: Born in Vienna, October 14, 1871; died in Larchmont, New York, March 15, 1942

Alexander Zemlinsky was a contemporary of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, and for a time was one of the most important figures in European music. He was active in Vienna as a teacher, conductor and composer, and no less a figure than Schoenberg pronounced him the greatest living conductor and “a great composer.” The reputation and esteem Zemlinsky enjoyed in his day, as well as the high quality of his music, make his long neglect all the more puzzling.

In 1938, in the face of Nazi aggression, he left Vienna, eventually settling in the New York City area. He wrote no more important works, and died a few years later in seclusion. From then until the 1980s, Zemlinsky remained barely a footnote in music history, a little-known figure obscured by the more innovative and attention-grabbing figures.

The rediscovery of this amazing composer probably began in 1978, when the LaSalle Quartet performed his four string quartets in Cologne and later recorded them. The enthusiastic critical response to this Deutsche Grammophon recording stimulated further recording ventures, including most of the eight operas, the Sinfonietta, the tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), and the extravagantly opulent, lushly romantic Lyric Symphony.

The Lyric Symphony is often compared with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Both works are song-cycle symphonies (Mahler deliberately avoided calling his work a symphony – it would have been his Ninth ̶ in superstitious hope of tricking Fate), and both date from the early twentieth century ̶ Mahler’s from 1908-09, Zemlinsky’s from 1922-23. Both are large-scale works in which six (Mahler) and seven (Zemlinsky) songs alternate male and female voices that never sing together, or even in dialogue. Both set poems from Asian sources in translations twice removed: Mahler used a German adaptation of a translation into French of Chinese poems, while Zemlinsky set pomes by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) translated into German from Tagore’s own English translation. (Tagore, incidentally, was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.) And finally, both works end in farewell ̶ Mahler’s to life, Zemlinsky’s to love. The obvious main difference between the two works is that Mahler’s songs are separated by pauses while Zemlinsky’s are continuous.

Zemlinsky conducted the Festival Orchestra of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Prague in the first performance on June 4, 1924.

The great wall of sound that opens the symphony immediately sets the tone of passionate, restless yearning and emotional intensity that will characterize the Lyric Symphony. This also serves as the motif that returns at important moments throughout the score. The hyperemotional, intensely yearning character of the baritone’s role once more brings comparison with Das Lied von der Erde, whose opening song for the tenor likewise requires a voice of heroic power and stamina in the upper range.

The second song, lighter in mood, also speaks of almost inexpressible longing. A young woman is prepared to toss her ruby chain under the wheels of the Prince’s chariot, which is about to pass by her window. Even if no one notices her gesture, she will feel fulfilled that she came so close to this handsome stranger. The music reflects the sensitivity of her feelings with delicate tracery from woodwinds, harp and celesta. A violently tempestuous orchestral interlude built on the score’s initial motif leads to the next song.

The baritone returns, now in a totally different mood. The terrible longing is past, for the two lovers have obviously met somewhere between songs two and three, but passion is far from spent, with the baritone lyrically proclaiming phrases like “You are my own, dweller in my endless dreams” and “I have … wrapped you, my love, in the net of my music.”

In the fourth song the orchestral writing takes on chamber music delicacy as the soprano sings to her lover of the splendor of the night and nocturnal stillness. An otherworldly beauty hovers over the idyllic scene.

The frantic fifth song is brief ̶ barely two minutes ̶ but it is enough time for the baritone to change direction: he now feels trapped in this all-encompassing love affair he once sought so intently.

In the sixth song the soprano too foresees an end the relationship, at least in its present form. The restlessness/longing motif from the symphony’s opening pages returns as a kind of epitaph.

By the final song the pain of separation looms large. Following the baritone’s last words (“I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way”), the music rises to a great climax, then subsides into quiet resignation.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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