Monday, 13 August 2012

Magical Tones?

The Jewish-Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark (1830-1915, b. Károly Goldmark) is one of those figures whose names are half-forgotten now, despite once being regarded as among their country's greatest composers. His music may not be as great as it once seemed but it is certainly worth remembering and has more angles to it than familiarity with just his most famous works might suggest.

One of his best-known works is the irresistibly easy-going Rustic Wedding (Ländliche Hochzeit) Symphony of 1875 - a piece in the picturesque tradition of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, though a far lighter and more suite-piece piece than either of those open-air masterpieces. The first of its five movements is a Wedding March with ten artfully-contrasted variations. This is the movement where Goldmark sounds (at times) closest to his friend Brahms, though there are foretastes of early Mahler in it too. It is followed by a rather Grieg-like Bridal Song, a pleasing Serenade (both movements featuring lovely writing for the woodwinds), a dreamy movement with a passionate heart called In the Garden and, finally, a Wedding Dance that mixes peasant revelry with a fugue. Critics have argued ever since the work's première about whether a piece as light as this (despite its 45-minute length) should really be called a symphony. I can't say the issue bothers me in the slightest. 

If you like the Rustic Wedding Symphony then you are bound to like the charming Im Frühling (In the Spring) Overture (1889), a tuneful and delightfully scored piece. It opens with an exuberant tune for the first violins, announced to a tremolo accompaniment - a tune with folksong-style pentatonic touches - and has a second subject of delicious sweetness. There are bird-call imitations to enjoy too, plus an idyllic coda! The overture is as light and genial as Spring itself. 

Goldmark wasn't just a composer of relaxed 'rustic' treats though - as we are now about to discover. 

The Sakuntala Overture (1865) sets a story from the Indian Mahabharata. (The tale is outlined here). The scoring of this highly likeable piece (which is more of a Lisztian symphonic poem than an overture) is highly skilful, as can be heard immediately when cellos, violas and bassoons play the the mysterious hymn-like opening bars (with their 'woodland murmur' trills) - a gorgeous piece of orchestration. Over open fifths on bassoons create a vaguely oriental drone effect while clarinets and cellos quietly introduce a flowing, lyrical melody. This dreamy theme is then repeated with oboe and first violins playing a warm counter-melody.  Masculine brass, with their forceful rhythms, enter this gentle scene and the pace quickens with a theme that has more than a touch of Schumann about it (though the way Goldmark scores it could hardly be less like Schumann). Another attractive lyrical melody appears (at 4.05 in the linked video) played by oboes and cor anglais and accompanied by harps and containing a couple of those little turning grace-notes that betoken the central parts of Asia for so many European composers of the time (most famously Borodin), nodding to the story's Indian setting. This supple melody is then repeated with fuller, warmer scoring before the section climaxes and winds down. (At 5.44 in the linked video) an Allegro section begins - another masculine Schumann-like theme scored with considerable charm. A fierier passage leads to a pause and then the return of the mysterious music of the opening and a full recapitulation. The dreamy theme carries us wistfully into the coda on various solo woodwinds as the strings play 'forest murmurs' in the background - a lovely passage - before things build up for a big finish. 

By the time of the Der gefesselte Prometheus (Prometheus Bound) Overture of 1889 you can hear that Goldmark's enthusiasm for the music of Wagner and the symphonic Brahms has given his music a new flavour. The piece is, however, less appealing than Sakuntala. I think that can partly be put down to its high-serious tone (which the tale of Prometheus always seems to bring out in Romantic composers), along with its occasional streaks of melodrama and the rather routine development section. The composer's skill as an orchestrator, however, remain much in evidence. The scoring of opening bars might well remind you of the start of Sakuntala were it not for their gloomier mood. Forcefully rhythmic, sharply accented themes (rich with dramatic brass chords) evoke the character (and situation) of Prometheus throughout. The overture portrays the opening soliloquy of Aeschylus's play and the Titan's unfortunate fate. Quite what the lyrical passages evoke I am unable to say. They are, however, the piece's most attractive sections, using flute, oboe and strings to charming effect.  

The other (fairly) well-known work by Karl Goldmark is his Violin Concerto No.1 of 1877, a work whose antecedents in Mendelssohn are clear, though its relaxed, intimate character is entirely its own. The work does contain quite a bit of conventionally difficult passage work and doesn't have the most memorable themes but it still has much to recommend it. A strong orchestral start leads to an attractive lyrical main melody from the soloist. There's a wistful tinge to the second subject, which is another lyrical theme. Listen out for the fugal writing in the development section, where the music of one J.S. Bach is evoked (in a scherzo-like fashion). The tender central Andante has a simple melody that grows ever lovelier as the movement passes. The finale is a light, lively dance movement of much charm, even though it is less engaging that its two companions.

I didn't know that Goldmark wrote a Second Symphony. It dates from 1887 and yet sounds as if it could have been written some decades earlier for, despite Brahmsian touches, it has more of Mendelssohn about than any other composer. It's a winning piece that I've enjoyed getting to know, with another of the composer's lovely, relaxed melodies as the main theme of its first movement - though there's plenty of energy at times in this movement too. The second subject is more purposeful but also lyrical and especially close in spirit to Brahms. The development section (less attractive) is full of gently swaying counterpoint (on an inversion of his theme), though it also grows energetic at its climax. The Andante has more of the composer's characteristic tender lyricism, though it combines it with dramatic writing that seems too sharply contrasted for its context. There are strong echoes of Mendelssohn's fairy scherzos in the endearing third movement (though Goldmark's fairies have clearly aged and put a few pounds on too) and a charming hymn-like trumpet melody in the trio section that seems to quote 'God Save the Queen'. (You'll like that!) The finale has less of the lyricism that Goldmark does best and, after a gloomy slow introduction, leaps into busy activity that passes the time pleasantly enough. It has occasional touches of interesting scoring, grants us  moments of lyricism and grows contrapuntal in the development section. For all its occasional faults, it's a symphony that's well worth listening to. 

Goldmark also wrote an opera, Die Königin von Saba ('The Queen of Sheba') - an opera about a love-triangle involving the lady in question (and a character called Assad - oh, how topical!! - and his betrothed). The exotic opening section of the overture (linked to above) gives yet more proof of the composer's gift for delightful scoring - a passage that sounds as if it has Beethoven's Lydian thanksgiving from the String Quartet Op.132 in mind. There are shades of Wagner's Tannhauser in the Nachtstück und Festmusik which opens the second act (again ingeniously scored), though the comparison cannot be carried too far, and if you want to hear some Goldmark ballet music then please that the Ballet from Act III. The opera's most popular aria is the rapt tenor aria Magische Töne. (For more Goldmark opera, both  the overture to Merlin and its Funeral March shows the composer digging into his Wagnerian impulses, though the Dance of the Ghosts is a long way from being Wagnerian.)

And for a piece of uncomplicated choral Romanticism please try Goldmark's Frühlingsnetz. It belongs firmly in the tradition of German part-songs and is scored for men's chorus, four horns and piano. Lovely.

Further listening:

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