Sunday, October 29, 2023

The Amernet Quartet: For Kristallnacht, the 85th Anniversary

Wednesday's program by the Amernet Quartet at Temple Ohev Sholom observes the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht. 

You don't have to be following the news today – the past few weeks with another horrific war in the Middle East; or the fact Friday, October 27th, was the 5th Anniversary of the murders at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue – to know why such an observation should not merely be a historical ritual trying to keep alive a memory fading from the world's consciousness.

Kristallnacht was an attack on Jews across Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish-born Jew two days earlier.

Adolf Hitler was in Munich when the news arrived and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, after conferring with Hitler, “harangued a gathering of old storm troopers, urging violent reprisals staged to appear as 'spontaneous demonstrations'.” Orders were telephoned from Munich throughout the country to initiate a vast pogrom against Jews, Jewish-owned buildings and businesses, and synagogues by various Nazi paramilitary forces and the Hitler Youth with participation from private German civilians who joined in the attacks.

The Gestapo chief sent directives to all the police units in Germany that these operations were not to be interfered with, and that fire departments should stand by and let the synagogues burn, only stepping in to keep the fires spreading to “neighboring Aryan buildings.”

It was called Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” literally) because the shards of broken glass littering the streets glittered like shattered crystals. The standard English translation is the less poetic “Night of Broken Glass.” This went far beyond mere state-supported vandalism and looting: the government immediately put a halt to the publication of Jewish-run newspapers, suspended Jewish cultural events indefinitely, and barred Jewish children from attending state-run elementary schools. Over the next few nights, the Nazis began arresting 30,000 Jewish men, mostly wealthy or well-to-do citizens, leaders in the Jewish community, who were then deported to concentration camps like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen where they were detained for several months (this was referred to in one source as “protective custody”). The Nazis began a systematic “parole” program, starting with those under 16 or over 50, “front fighters,” even teachers, so that by January 1st, only some 2,500 were still in the camps. Many were released who had already started making plans to leave the country; others, when they promised to make such plans. It's estimated around 500 of them died in the first two months.

The Times of London reported on November 11th, 1938, that "No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."

And yet the world stood by and said nothing.

The composers on this program – as it was originally intended – are all “associated” with the Holocaust. And I use the word “associated” because, looking at various sites on-line, one fact about their lives is sometimes overlooked. If you glance down the program page, look at the (birth–death dates) on the right side:

Viktor Kohn (1901-1944)

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944)

Pavel Haas (1899-1944)

Notice all four of them died around the same time, three in the same year. This is not a coincidence. While the place of their deaths may be mentioned three of them were interred at the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp but then died at Auschwitz, one of the most notorious locations in human history – but sometimes the manner of these deaths was overlooked and, quite often, the causes behind them ignored (perhaps because of space, perhaps because it's "complicated"). It is uncomfortable to talk about. But then, so much of history is.

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Viktor Kohn, born in Prague (most sources say Jan. 16th, 1901, but I found two sites including a Czech Holocaust database that includes images of “official documentation” saying he was born on June 6th, 1910), was primarily a violist who'd studied at the German Academy in Prague. Little can be found about his life beyond his having been a member of the Egon Ludeč String Quartet until November of 1941 when he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt (or, in Czech, Terezin) Concentration Camp along with his brother, Paul, a cellist, and Egon Ludeč (presumably along with the rest of their quartet).

A year later, Kohn wrote a brief Praeludium. It's listed on the manuscript as Praeludium (EDElstein) because, having dedicated it to Jakob Edelstein and Otto Zucker, the two Elders of the Jewish Community there, he used the musical notes E-D-E as a motive throughout the short piece. Chillingly, the final page includes the date and place of its completion: “4 XII 1942 Theresienstadt.”

Terezin Still Life, Bedřich Fritta, 1943

More information about Kohn can be found in entries about the better known Ludeč who had been a concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic under conductor Karl Ancerl. But because he was Jewish, after the Nazi invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, he lost his position and was moved to the back of the 1st Violin section. Once at Theresienstadt, he formed a “new Ludeč Quartet,” with the two Kohn brothers and an amateur violinist who was later replaced by a violinist from the famous Rosé Quartet from Vienna. Letters mention their playing Haydn, Beethoven and Dvořák; later, he also played Beethoven sonatas with newly-arrived pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer (she was able to survive the camps and died at the age of 110 in 2014!). Mostly, however, he played popular songs and ballads in the prison courtyards with an accordionist in order to help keep up his fellow inmates' spirits.

At this point, a propaganda film was produced to represent Theresienstadt as a place with “supposedly happy and healthy Jews, ...part of a larger Nazi program to use Theresienstadt as a tool to discredit reports of the genocide of Jews reaching the Western Allies and neutral countries.” Unofficially known as “The Führer Gives the Jews a City” (the original film has been lost but fragments were found in various archives to reconstruct about 20 minutes of it), it showed scenes involving a sham coffee house and sporting events, being enjoyed as if Theresienstadt were a holiday resort. It also showcased performances by a jazz band called “The Ghetto Swingers,” and a full symphony orchestra conducted by Karl Ančerl, with Egon Ludeč as concertmaster (one would assume the Kohn brothers were also members), playing works by other prisoners like Viktor Ullman and Pavel Haas. It opened with a children's chorus singing from Mendelssohn's Elijah (a Jewish composer writing an oratorio about a Jewish prophet) and ended with a performance of Hans Krása's children's fairy-tale opera, Brundibár.

On October 16th, 1944, shortly after the film's production was completed, Ludeč, Ančerl, Ullmann, Krása, and Viktor Kohn were among the 16,000 prisoners (including hundreds of those in the children's choir) transferred to Auschwitz where most of them were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Jakob Edelstein, one of the dedicatees of Viktor Kohn's Praeludium, was transported to Auschwitz on December 15th, 1943, barely a year after Kohn's piece was composed. He was kept largely in isolation until his wife, son, and mother-in-law arrived the following June. Then he was forced to watch as the Nazis murdered first his mother-in-law, then his wife, then his 12-year-old son before they shot him in the head in the crematorium of the gas chamber.

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Not all of these pieces were composed in the camps. Both Erwin Schulhoff's 1st String Quartet, a short work that lasts about 15 minutes, and Pavel Haas' 2nd String Quartet were composed in the mid-1920s and so mirror more the time they were coming of age: Schulhoff was 31; Haas, 26. A lot had already happened in their lives and both seemed destined to become significant voices for their generation.

As a child taking music lessons at the Prague Conservatory, Schulhoff, a native of Prague, earned encouragement from Antonín Dvořák. He would later study piano briefly with Claude Debussy (I'd be curious to find out more details about that!), continuing his studies in Vienna and in Germany before joining the Austro-Hungarian army (Prague was the capital of the Austrian province of Bohemia), then fighting on the Russian Front. By the end of the war, he'd been wounded and (somehow) ended up in an Italian POW-camp, after which he settled in Germany, eventually returning to Prague in 1923.

In 1919, having become “radicalized” following the Russian Revolution, Schulhoff wrote:

“Absolute art is revolution, it requires additional facets for development, leads to overthrow (coups) in order to open new paths...and is the most powerful in music.... The idea of revolution in art has evolved for decades, under whatever sun the creators live, in that for them art is the commonality of man. This is particularly true in music, because this art form is the liveliest, and as a result reflects the revolution most strongly and deeply–the complete escape from imperialistic tonality and rhythm, the climb to an ecstatic change for the better.”

Erwin Schulhoff in 1924
His 1924 “Five Pieces for String Quartet” had been reviewed by the famous critic Olin Downes, reporting from Salzburg: “The idiom has enough modern pepper in it to constantly stimulate the ear; but the music is not forced, any more than it is portentous. A young composer of talent disported himself in these pieces, and his audience was duly grateful. Not all composers, old or young, have the good sense not to take themselves, now and again, too seriously.” Afterwards, he reported, Schulhoff played American ragtime at the piano of a nearby inn “until the walls tottered.”

His String Quartet No. 1, completed on September 10th, 1924, but published in 1925, is a work in four short movements, and may seem a more serious work, divided into the standard four-movement structure with an opening Presto con fuoco (extremely fast and fiery), an Allegretto marked “with grotesque melancholy;” then a Slovak-inspired scherzo and, rather unexpectedly, ending with the slow movement, Andante molto sostenuto

(The woodcut of Erwin Schulhoff (see above) was made by Conrad Felixmüller in 1924.)

Here is the Amernet Quartet performing the 1st and 3rd movements for a radio broadcast in 2018:

Here's the complete quartet (with score) performed by the Kocian Quartet:

It must be difficult listening to Schulhoff's music here, knowing – as who would, at the time – where his life would take him.

Between his musical aesthetics and his increasingly more committed political leanings – he even set the Communist Manifesto to music in 1932! – he got into increasingly hotter water where his jazz-influenced style had already earned him a place on the Nazi's list of Degenerate Artists. Once the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Schulhoff realized, as a Jew and a Communist, he needed to get out of Prague. Between trying to find passage to America for his now ex-wife and their children, he himself applied to the Soviet Union for citizenship which was finally approved in 1941. Unfortunately, he was arrested by the Nazis in June, 1941, before he could get on the train and leave for Moscow and freedom.

He was transported to the Würtzburg Prison in Bavaria where, on August 18th, 1942, he died of tuberculosis.

Recalling how “the walls tottered” after the premiere of his 1924 quartet pieces, you might be curious to hear his 1926 “5 Etudes de Jazz” complete with a toccata-finale inspired by “Kitten on the Keys.” The second etude is dedicated to Paul Whiteman who, two years earlier, had organized a cross-over concert of “classical jazz” which has coerced George Gershwin into writing a little something called “Rhapsody in Blue.”

His last major completed work is his 6th Symphony, completed in 1941 and clearly designed to appeal to war-time Soviet officials, a considerable style-shift from the jazz-inspired pieces of the 1920s! Written in the midst of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia when he was hiding under an assumed name and desperately trying to make arrangements to escape, he subtitled it “Liberty.” He would be arrested within a short time of its completion, leaving a 7th Symphony, subtitled “Eroica,” incomplete in piano sketches.

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Ullman's 1939 passport photo

Viktor Ullmann was born in what was then Austrian Silesia, once part of Prussia but now part of Poland but just across the river from Bohemia or the modern-day Czech Republic. His parents had “assimilated” before he was born – that is, converting to Catholicism which then enabled his father to become a colonel in the Austrian army and to later be ennobled, neither of which would've been possible for Jews. Young Ullmann went to Vienna to study music in 1910 around the time Schoenberg was composing his first atonal works like the Five Orchestral Pieces and Pierrot Lunaire and became acquainted with his circle of students. Though he studied with Schoenberg only from 1918, after having been deployed to the Italian Front during World War I, to 1919 (during a slow period when he was developing a new, more neoclassically-lined style that eventually came to be called “serialism”), he remained closer stylistically to Alban Berg who would complete his ground-breaking opera Wozzeck in 1924.

Ullmann abruptly ended his studies in Vienna to pursue a career in Prague, working with Schoenberg's friend and mentor, Alexander Zemlinsky (btw, born into a staunchly Catholic family, they eventually converted to Judaism, the faith of Alexander's maternal grandfather) who'd become the director of the German Theater there (it is now the Prague State Opera). In the late-'20s, he became the music director of a small German opera company where his choice of repertoire proved a little too daring for local tastes and he was soon let go. In the 1930s, he worked with Alois Haba who was experimenting with a system of quarter-tone tunings – in 1936, Ullman even composed a sonata for a quarter-tone clarinet and a quarter-tone piano which was premiered in Prague but the music has not survived. Two years later, he completed an opera begun 11 years earlier based on Ibsen's Peer Gynt, as well as a number of songs, choral works (including an Easter Cantata), three piano sonatas and two string quartets by the time the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, occupying Bohemia and Moravia even before the start of World War II (so much for “Peace in Our Time”).

Then everything changed.

Schoenberg, aware of the Nazis increasingly dangerous anti-Semitism, had already left Berlin in 1933 (where he'd been teaching since 1926) for Paris where he reclaimed his Jewish faith as an act of defiance (born a Jew, hoping to avoid an increase in anti-Semitism during the 1890s, he'd converted to Lutheranism mostly out of self-defense in 1898).

Ullmann's newly developed “mature style,” partly inspired by Schoenberg and his circle, included “dissonant harmonies, highly charged musical expression, and masterly control of formal structures,” none of which gained him any favor with the aesthetics of the German occupation. He had completed a piano concerto nine months before the Nazis marched into Prague and suddenly Ullmann found himself scrambling to ensure the safety of the music he had self-published during the past decade: many of these works disappeared except those he was able to entrust to a friend for safe-keeping.

Still, he wasn't arrested until 1942, deported in early-September for Theresienstadt, a prison located in northern Czechoslovakia. He became part of an inner artistic circle, serving as a piano accompanist, an organizer of concerts and lectures about New Music (there's an irony, here), wrote reviews of camp performances and above all composed – in fact, he composed some 20 works in Theresienstadt, including his 3rd String Quartet (apparently completed “not later than January 23rd, 1943”), two piano sonatas, a number of songs and choral music, some incidental music for plays, all of which were performed by and for his fellow prisoners.

It's ironic that Ullmann, raised by “assimilated Jews” in a secular household, never thought of himself as Jewish. But the state-supported anti-Semitism fell upon not only Jews but also “those of Jewish descent.” And Ullmann fell firmly in that category. It wasn't until after he arrived at the camp in Terezin (known in German as Theresienstadt) that he began to identify as “Jewish.” His art music aside, he also realized prisoners, less sophisticated than his usual “New Music” audience, needed consolation and cultural affirmation. Even though he spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish – in fact, he knew nothing of Jewish culture – he composed a series of songs and choruses the prisoners (and especially the children) could perform for themselves.

In his prison-published essay “Goethe & Ghetto,” Ullmann wrote, "I have written a fair amount of new music in Theresienstadt…. All that I would stress is that Theresienstadt has helped, not hindered, me in my musical work, that we certainly did not sit down by the waters of Babylon and weep, and that our desire for culture was matched by our desire for life."

To go further into the importance of this impact on his creativity: “Thus, Goethe’s maxim: 'Live within the moment, live in eternity' has always revealed to me the enigmatic meaning of Art… Theresienstadt was and is for me the school of Form. Earlier, when one did not feel the impact and burden of material life, because they were erased by comfort, this magic accomplishment of civilization, it was easy to create beautiful forms. Here, where even in daily life one must overcome matter by the power of the form, where anything connected with the Muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings, here is the true school for masters, if one, following Schiller, perceives the secret of every work of art in the endeavor to annihilate matter by the means of form.”

Randall Coleman, who quoted this passage in his 2022 post on Medium, added, “For me, this passage highlights the centrality of form in a work of art. Anyone who has written a haiku or a sonnet has had to wrestle with the words to make them conform to the literary structure. Paradoxically, the limitations imposed by the form propel the artist to discover depths of meaning that had been hidden from view.”

The Dover Quartet performs Ullmann's 3rd String Quartet at the Rockport Music Festival in 2018: For me, it was impossible to listen to this music without noticing the emotional disconnect between the setting in which it was composed and first heard with the idyllic view behind the performers... What would the impact be of listening to it in the setting of Temple Ohev Sholom on the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht?

There are the traditional four movements, played without pause: an opening Allegro moderato, a scherzo (Presto) and slow movement (Largo), before ending with a lively and rhythmic finale.

The quartet was one of the first works he'd composed in Theresienstadt. But during the summer of 1944, he and a fellow prisoner created the opera, The Emperor of Atlantis which, judging it by the title, might seem to be some mythological tale. In reality, it was a fairly thinly veiled allegory “about the Nazi's disregard for human life,” with Hitler as the Emperor. According to program notes for a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic performance:

 “Death and Harlequin (who represents life) both no longer fulfill any function in the Empire of Atlantis, where Emperor Overall (an allegory for Hitler) values neither. As a result, the living have ceased to live and the dying have ceased to die. The Emperor tries to put a positive spin on things, declaring that his soldiers are now invincible, but in reality his armies lie wounded and bleeding, in an agony that Death cannot end. Death offers the Emperor a bargain: He will resume his work if the Emperor will be his first victim. The Emperor agrees, and the work ends with a reminder: “Thou shalt not take Death’s great name in vain.”

(This excerpt is from the opera's conclusion.)

“The SS banned the performance when they attended the dress rehearsal [in October] and realized that the Emperor, who is defeated by Death, represented Hitler. It is probably no coincidence that Ullmann, also a member of the cast for the propaganda film recently completed, found himself on a train to Auschwitz on October 16th. They arrived the next day.

Joža Karas, in his book Music in Terezin, 1941-1945, described their arrival:

“On October 17 the train came to a stop at its destination, Auschwitz. The much-feared Dr. Josef Mengele personally supervised the selection on the platform. Alas, damned were all those who happened to wear glasses or who had red hair! In danger also were men past forty years of age. [Ullmann was forty-six.] Upon seeing them, Mengele pointed his ominous finger to the right, from where there was no return. The majority of the newly arrived went from the station platform directly into the gas chambers stark naked, after all their belongings had been confiscated.”

According to official documents, Viktor Ullman was murdered in the gas chambers the following day.

Bedřich Fritta, "A Transport Leaves the Ghetto" (Terezin, 1942/43)

Pavel Haas was born in 1899 in Brno, then the capital of Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. His father, a shoemaker, was a Moravian Jew; his mother, a Jew from the Ukrainian port of Odessa. Growing up in the city that was home to Leos Janáček, now internationally recognized as one of the most acclaimed Czech composers since the days of Dvořák and Smetana, though at the time, he had still to write the pieces that would finally bring him world-wide recognition in his 70s (like the famous Sinfonietta); so, it was inevitable a musically precocious child would attend the Brno Conservatory and end up in Janáček's master classes in 1921. Janáček officially retired from the school's directorship in 1920 but continued teaching till 1925, when he'd turned 71. His two quartets were both written around this time: the first, Intimate Pages, in 1921, and the second, The Kreutzer Sonata (after Tolstoy's short-story), in 1928.

Haas did not write a great deal – which may not be entirely accurate because it would seem likely, as a fairly self-critical artist, he probably destroyed more works than he published (one could say the same of Brahms). And it's not giving anything away to say Haas did not have a long life in which his style (and confidence) could mature: he died, after all, at the age of 45 in his third year at Theresienstadt. He was, largely, an “amateur” composer: his day job for most of this period of his life was working in his father's shop.

Two of his earliest published works are string quartets: No. 1 from 1920 as Op.3; and No. 2, his Op. 7, the one represented on the Amernet Quartet's program for Market Square Concerts. This second quartet was composed in 1925 two years after Haas had finished studying with Janáček. For listeners familiar with Janáček's works, you'll easily recognize many of his stylistic fingerprints, not so much that Haas was imitating his teacher but rather that he was inspired by the same things that inspired his teacher, particularly the ostinato patterns and “modular” thematic ideas typical of Moravian and Slovakian folk music.

The title of Haas' quartet might give someone from outside Central Europe a false mental-image. “From the Monkey Mountains” has nothing to do with jungles and chattering monkeys but refers to an area of Central Moravia once popular as a tourist destination. In fact, the movements' individual subtitles might imply a medley of musical vacation snapshots: the second movement, “Coach, Coachman and Horse,” is built on these modular “cells” that build by repetition and block movement rather than unfolding as we'd expect a traditional 19th Century melody to evolve. Does it evoke a galloping horse or the movement of a coach on a country road? Or were the elements of the music inspired by these experiences? (Remember, the last movement of Beethoven's “Tempest” Sonata was initially inspired by the composer watching a man on a horse ride past him, but not so literally it's called the “Rider” Sonata instead!)

Pavel Haas' 2nd String Quartet is performed here by the ensemble taking its name from the composer, the Pavel Haas Quartet:

(clip is cued to begin with the 2nd Movement which is less than 5 minutes long, but you can listen to the whole quartet, complete with the score.)

As sometimes happens, reality intervenes and, given the world health situation, various viruses and periods of recuperation made it difficult for the Amernet Quartet to prepare the whole work, something new to their repertoire. As it's a very challenging work, they felt, with the lost rehearsal time, they would replace the work with Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet (see below) but agreed to perform the second movement, the one subtitled “Coach, Coachman, and Horse.”

Pavel Haas' career had begun taking off with the premiere of his 1938 opera, The Charlatan which won an important prize – one, by the way, he shared with another composer, Vítězslava Kaprálová who'd conducted her Military Symphony in Prague (and later with the BBC Philharmonic) before she died in 1940 at the age of 25 of typhoid fever. But with the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by the Nazis in 1939, Haas found himself trapped, having been writing to some of his wife's relatives who lived in New Jersey and to a former fellow-student of Janáček's in New York City. Any help coming his way came too late.

He was arrested in 1941 and deported to Theresienstadt where he became so depressed, he, unlike Ullmann, was unable to compose. Another composer there was Gideon Klein (he'd received a piano scholarship to study in London in 1940, but the German's anti-Jewish laws prohibited his leaving the country) who managed to coax Haas into composing again. While Ullman wrote some 20 pieces at Theresienstadt, only three of the eight Haas composed were completed or survived. One of them was the “Study for Strings” which the orchestra, under Karl Ančerl, performed for the Theresienstadt propaganda film.

Pavel Haas (left, in the light suit) taking a bow after the performance of his "Study for Strings" in the 1944 propaganda film, “The Führer Gives the Jews a City”

Haas and Klein were among those transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on October 16th, 1944, following the completion of the film project. Klein survived long enough to be removed to a satellite camp, a coal mine 19 miles away, where he was “murdered under unclear circumstances” in January, 1945, at the age of 25. As Haas stood in line upon the train's arrival at Auschwitz, he was immediately sent to the gas chamber. He was 45.

The Wikipedia entry on Pavel Haas quotes a Czech writer's account. It was customary for the prisoners to stand two-by-two and Mengele would point one of them to the right (to the gas chambers) and the other, to the left, could survive.

“According to the testimony of [conductor] Karel Ančerl, Haas stood next to him after their arrival at Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele was about to send Ančerl to the gas chamber first, but the weakened Haas began to cough, so the death sentence was chosen for him instead. After the war Ančerl met with Haas's brother Hugo and told him the story.”

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It is harrowing to read these stories, whatever the music brings to our minds as we hear it. The two quartets by Schulhoff and Haas have nothing, technically, to do with their prison experiences, though it's impossible to ignore their ultimate destinies. But to listen to Kohn's brief and emotional Praeludium and Ullmann's 3rd Quartet which sounds so life-affirming in its defiance of his reality, you can't ignore what would come shortly after these notes were written down.

How does one explain this, what happened to these composers among the millions of others whose stories have no one to tell them, or even to remember them? How does one explain this kind of evil, how one human could do this to another human being?

As we listen to this music, as we remember the night of November 9th, 1938, and the events that followed and perhaps find out more about them, it is good to recall the words of a Survivor whom I'd mentioned earlier in the story, Alice Herz-Sommer, the pianist who, in addition to her own work as a performing musician at Theresienstadt, accompanied Egon Ludeč in Beethoven Violin Sonatas for their fellow prisoners. She survived the camps and died at the age of 110, and said this to Ed Vulliamy who interviewed her for The Guardian not long before her death:

"We who survived the ghetto have our suffering, and the music that lifted us out of suffering, and that makes us richer than any wealthy man."

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Due to those pesky “circumstances beyond our control,” the Amernet Quartet, as I explained above, decided to substitute a standard work in their repertoire to replace Pavel Haas' 2nd Quartet. While it breaks with the overall theme of the initial program – music by composers who died in the concentration camps of World War II following the events of Kristallnacht which took place 85 years ago this month – it is still a work with some deeper connections to the outcome of the war and to another period of persecution, in this case Stalin's Communists and a Soviet Artist named Dmitri Shostakovich.

The story behind his 5th Symphony is well-enough known – I've written about it here for a 2015 Harrisburg Symphony performance – and I copy most of this information from a previous MSC post about Shostakovich's String Quartet No.8.

In 1960, when Dmitri Shostakovich was in Dresden, Germany, working on a film score for a Soviet documentary, he wrote this intense quartet in just 3 days. The film was about the Allied bombing of Dresden where it was estimated 25,000 German citizens died (other sources suggest higher numbers), an attack which eventually brought down the Nazi Government and ended the war. 

Dresden after the Allied Bombing in February, 1945

 The reconstruction of the city would not have been any where near completion when Shostakovich visited in 1960. In fact, the famous Frauenkirche was not officially reconsecrated until 2005. According to the Wikipedia entry , “The reconstruction of the surrounding Neumarkt buildings continues to this day,” citing sources published in 2020.

The bombing of a city of such cultural significance as Dresden certainly remains controversial today. But how much of that – and its historical context – is part of Shostakovich's music? Or to be more precise, given the composer's often vague or contradictory statements about his music, part of his conception of the piece? Certainly, the incessant use of his personal DSCH motive – the pitch-names translated into German: D, S=E-flat, C, H=B-natural (in German, his initials Д Ш would be spelled out D Sch) – makes it sound like a first-person narrative. Or is it, in another sense, truly a work about himself? Did he see in the impact of man's inhumanity, here, a reflection of his own, more personal experience with the Communist regime? Like most art, what the artist intended is not always obvious; what the audience imagines is not always accurate.

Here is a live performance by the Emerson Quartet, recorded in 2018:

This is a harrowing work, even by Shostakovich's usually intense standards, from the opening four-note motive which is the composer's musical signature to the evocations of Jewish folk-songs quoted from his equally harrowing 2nd Piano Trio, not to mention its range of emotions from violent climaxes to the icy resignation at the end. 

DSCH in 1961
Keep in mind, it was dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war.” His son Maxim has said it would have read “totalitarianism” and that the composer considered himself such a victim, giving the DSCH motive even deeper emotions. His daughter Galina has said he had dedicated the work to himself but the printed dedication was “imposed by Soviet authorities.”

A friend of Shostakovich's said the composer considered this his musical epitaph (in fact, the DSCH motive appears on his tombstone) and that Shostakovich had told him he'd considered committing suicide around the time: not only had he finally (reluctantly) joined the Communist Party, he had just started experiencing symptoms of an extreme “muscular weakness” which would eventually be diagnosed as “Lou Gehrig's Disease” which would kill him in 1975.

In the liner notes for the Borodin Quartet's 1962 recording of the piece, music critic Erik Smith wrote, "The Borodin Quartet played this work to the composer at his Moscow home, hoping for his criticisms. But Shostakovich, overwhelmed by this beautiful realisation of his most personal feelings, buried his head in his hands and wept. When they had finished playing, the four musicians quietly packed up their instruments and stole out of the room."

– Dick Strawser

Monday, September 25, 2023

The Aizuri Quartet Opens The Season, Part Two: Meet the Schumanns

The Schumanns, 1846
This is a sequel to the previous post about a program featuring four works by two Mendelssohns and two Schumanns in which we met Felix Mendelssohn and his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. The Aizuri Quartet will perform the opening program for Market Square Concerts' new season, Wednesday at 7:30 at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg. 

So now it's time to meet the Schumanns.

In 1828, a teenager named Robert Schumann arrived in Leipzig to study piano with one of the more acclaimed teachers of the day, Friedrich Wieck. He was, according to his family, supposed to study law, but he had already dropped out of school, traveled to Munich (where he met Heinrich Heine) and decided he wanted to write novels or compose music (or both). Wieck turned out to be a difficult master – Schumann had already given up law after a brief attempt to focus on “something practical” – but he also had a pretty and quite talented daughter named Clara who, at 14, had already begun work on writing her own piano concerto. Young Schumann volunteered to help her with the orchestration (not the kind of “pick-up line” most guys can get away with...).

It's a long story. Friedrich was not keen on losing his daughter – more importantly, losing control of his daughter and her future income. Since 1837, the two young lovers considered themselves engaged, but her father, rather nasty piece-of-work that he was, put every obstacle in their path he could manage. In turn, Robert and Clara sued Wieck in court, the judge sided with Schumann, but Wieck counter-sued that Schumann would be an unfit husband (he had, after all, no career and would be unable to perform as a pianist due to a hand injury) because he was “a habitual drunkard.” When proof of this was not forthcoming, the case was dismissed, and the wedding finally took place in a small church near Leipzig on September 12th, 1840, the day before she turned 21.

Clara, Summer, 1840
Clara composed her setting of Heinrich Heine's Ich stand in dunkeln träumen at Christmas, 1840, part of a collection of six (the rest were written between 1842-43). It was a Christmas gift for her new husband, just three months after their wedding.

Heine's poem, published in 1826 as part of a collection called Das Heimkehr (The Homecoming), describes a young man who, staring at his beloved's portrait, imagines she has smiled at him; but with a tear, he realizes, alas, he has lost her.

Perhaps an odd choice of text for a Christmas present – though it might certainly reflect the long period of anxiety prior to their wedding – but several other composers have set Heine's poem as well, including Schubert (as “Ihr Bild,” one of his final songs, in Schwanengesang, written in 1828), Grieg, Hugo Wolf, and Amy Beach, among some 92 others mentioned in one on-line song archive's “not exhaustive” list!

As their struggles to get married dragged on through 1840, Schumann, who'd composed mostly only solo piano pieces before, suddenly turned to writing songs.

Among the 138 or so songs he composed that year, 20 songs were written in the last week of May, including Dichterliebe (Poet's Loves), and in two days in July, Frauenliebe und -leben (Women's Loves and Lives). But a month after the wedding, Schumann began something new, something Clara had always been kind of badgering him about: he wouldn't be a serious composer unless he composed some symphonies (because that's what most composers did in those days). In October, 1840, he began sketches for what would become his 1st Symphony, the famous “Spring” Symphony, eventually composed over a period of four days in January (hardly spring-like weather, that) and orchestrated by the end of February, 1841.

A year before the wedding had taken place, Wieck had left Leipzig – presumably to get away from so many of Schumann's friends – and re-settled in Dresden, not all that far away. So the Schumanns chose to base themselves in Leipzig which, one of the leading musical centers of Europe, had a very fine orchestra led by Felix Mendelssohn who'd taken on the conductorship in 1835, sharing his time there with a busy touring schedule and official duties in Berlin as court composer for Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV which included writing incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1844.

Schumann in 1839
It was Robert Schumann who uncovered the lost manuscript to Schubert's “Great C Major” Symphony which he promptly sent to Mendelssohn who premiered it with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in March, 1839. And in March of 1841, Mendelssohn premiered Schumann's “Spring” Symphony – an auspicious first performance for a first-time symphony-composer – but, truth be told, the premiere was sort of overwhelmed by the appearance of the piano soloist, Clara Schumann, making her first public appearance in her home town as Mrs. Schumann.

At the time, the Schumanns, now newlyweds, lived in a 2nd floor apartment of an imposing apartment block (see photo and map of Leipzig in the previous post) where Schumann composed his first two symphonies and a “Fantasy for Piano & Orchestra” which a few years later became the first movement of his famous Piano Concerto in A Minor – all in 1841. And then three string quartets, the Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet all during the summer and fall of 1842. It was here the Schumanns received guests like Mendelssohn, Berlioz (who visited twice in 1843) and Wagner who'd moved to nearby Dresden in 1843 with the premiere of his first lasting success, The Flying Dutchman.

Clara w/Marie, 1844
Meanwhile, a year after the wedding, Clara gave birth to their daughter, Marie, the first of their eight children. Two weeks before Marie's birth, Clara read through Robert's new Fantasie for Piano & Orchestra (not yet the Concerto) during a rehearsal; and then a month later, she performed solo works on the first half of a concert in Weimar with Robert's new Symphony on the second half. Between January and the end of April, she gave 15 concerts on tours through Germany and Denmark.

After several weeks on the road, Schumann became uncomfortable not only with the constant traveling but also realizing he was essentially regarded as “Mr. Clara Schumann.” He returned to Leipzig as she took off for Copenhagen – he had responsibilities with the magazine he'd founded, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1834 – but was instead challenged by bouts of melancholy, drowning himself “in beer and champagne,” and unable to compose. He filled his time with the equivalent of “creative crossword puzzles,” filling notebooks with technical exercises in counterpoint and fugue (the composer's equivalent, at the time, of a pianist's scales and arpeggios). Before they'd left on the tour, he'd been “visited by quartet-ish thoughts” and so began studying string quartets by first Mozart and Haydn, then Beethoven. Meanwhile, Papa Wieck was spreading rumors that the loving couple had already broken up, their marriage on the rocks.

When she returned home in late-April – talk of an American tour was put on hold – Clara joined in with Robert's studies, and then on June 2nd, he began what he called “quartet essays.” On June 4th, he began work on an A Minor Quartet and even before it was completed, he'd begun sketch a new quartet on the 11th, completing the A Minor on the 22nd. After finishing the 2nd Quartet – and becoming involved in a “a libelous onslaught” with a long-time rival which earned him no less than 6 days in jail!!! – he sketched out a third quartet between July 8th and the 22nd. After a short August vacation (which his nerves no doubt needed) and after hearing a run-through of all three quartets on September 8th, he then completed a new Piano Quintet by the end of the month, and a new Piano Quartet, begun after “constant fearful sleepless nights,” completed in November. There was also a piano trio completed in December which, along with another work, he was dissatisfied with and set aside to rework them later.

The first of Robert's string quartets shows the fruits of his studies, both of Bach's counterpoint and of the Classical Quartets of his predecessors. It opens with a slow, mysterious evocation of Beethoven's late style with a good bit of imitation between the different instruments (a.k.a. counterpoint), but otherwise the first movement is the expected traditional “sonata form” except for one peculiar digression: it's in the wrong key. (This has always puzzled me: in a realm that was careful to play by the rules, it seems an odd slip to make; but then, what does it matter when it's so pleasant to listen to and otherwise does everything required of it?)

The second movement is a scherzo (usually reserved for third place in the overall scheme of things) and in this case, clearly a bow to the elfin style of Mendelssohn's fleet-footed scherzos like those in the Octet or the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this case, I would say it's a very conscious hommage given Schumann ended up dedicating all three quartets to his friend and champion.

No one can fault Schumann's gift for melody. Perhaps it was having written all those songs two years back. Regardless, whether a skill or a naturally honed talent, this third movement is only the first of a series of “romances” to be written that year, climaxing in the gorgeous slow movements of the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet of only a few months later.

The last movement, then, opens in a burst of drama quickly scurrying off with the same kind of kinetic energy that propels the finale of Mendelssohn's Octet, an energy that isn't even dampened by the rustic stamping in the cello's drone. Surprisingly, this turns out to be an even more standard “sonata form” movement than the first movement, except this time, Schumann introduces something new for the “coda” (literally, “tail”) which wraps it up: while the country dance is never far away, suddenly we have a passage reminiscent – drone and all – of a musette or hurdy-gurdy (in this instance played without vibrato to heighten the impression). An even odder passage is a simple harmonic progression, all in whole notes, that brings the opening energy down to a sense of suspended animation, before returning to the main motive, bringing everything to an affirmative and certainly energetic conclusion.

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(you'll need to click on the square-ish icon in the lower right corner to view it full-screen in order to see the score)

  (though uncredited, a comment indicates it's performed by the Cherubini Quartet)

(my apologies if you've gotten hit by the gauntlet of YouTube ads that pop up in the most annoying places, sometimes in the middle of a phrase. Reminds me of that childhood "interrupting cow" knock-knock joke...)

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Aside from the obvious references, stylistically, to Beethoven and Mendelssohn, as well as the legacy of his recent studies of Mozart and Haydn quartets, consciously or not, the forensic musicologist in me also hears certain turns of phrase that distinctly belong to one of the most frequently performed composers of the day, Ludwig Spohr, though now largely forgotten and rarely performed. Spohr wrote over 30 quartets and you can, if interested, check them out with a search on YouTube.

It's also interesting to immediately go and listen to all three quartets in quick succession – binge-listening, for lack of a better name – to get a feel for Schumann's writing all of them in the space of only six weeks. Here's the 2nd String Quartet in F Major (a friend of mine, hearing it for the first time, said Schumann was “clearly ripping off Brahms,” except Schumann wouldn't meet Brahms for another 8 years and Brahms wouldn't be the composer we'd know, worth ripping off, for a few more years after that); and the 3rd Quartet in A Major.) 

The progress he'd made in his composing in general, from a technical standpoint, but his string quartet writing specifically is amazing. Somewhere, with the finale of the 1st – which presumably he hadn't written yet when he began the 2nd Quartet – the music begins to sound more effortless, more “sincere” for lack of a better subjective term. Most of all, the counterpoint sounds less self-conscious. The opening of the 2nd has an ease about it: perhaps, having broken the ice with this first “essay in quartet-writing,” he'd overcome whatever fear he'd felt, approaching his first piece of chamber music and discovered he really could do this. There's a self-assuredness with the 3rd Quartet that leads directly to the two chamber pieces with piano – he could now write something specifically involving his wife in the performance.

And is it too much to point out, recalling that summer vacation taken before he embarked on the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet, that nine months later, their second daughter Elise was born?

But then, after these heady months of intense creativity, suddenly he'd become exhausted by the effort; that and his creativity seemed to lose some of its steam as the months of activity wore on. He became ill and completely unable to work.

This set up a pattern that would eventually grow into one of the saddest stories of “tortured creative genius.” It has been called “manic depression” but more recently became classified as “bipolar disorder,” where periods of creative inactivity were followed by bouts of incredible and often “violent” activity – seriously, writing the rough draft of his 1st Symphony in four days?? – which, then leaving him exhausted, led to another extended period of depressive inactivity. He often found himself unable to engage in conversation, often sitting in a room, silent and withdrawn.

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In 1843, the year after Schumann's explosion of chamber music, Felix Mendelssohn began planning a new Conservatory for Leipzig, and Robert Schumann became involved in many of the preliminary discussions. However, it was Mendelssohn's energy and organizational skills – the extrovert to Schumann's introvert, perhaps – that established the school. Schumann was initially engaged to teach composition as well as piano and score-reading; Clara, despite being pregnant with their second child, was still busy with concert tours, and would become involved later, teaching when she could maintain a “more regular schedule.”

Unfortunately, Robert, given Clara's “distance” (both emotionally as well as physically), was often in a “melancholy state” as he described it, finding it difficult to speak, and students complained he would sit through a lesson or rehearsal rarely saying a word. In December, 1843, however, his recently completed oratorio, Paradise and the Peri, was ready for its premiere and he reluctantly agreed to conduct it, something he'd never done before. Remarkably, with Clara as the rehearsal pianist, he got through it satisfactorily enough though he was not entirely an effective rehearsal technician.

Schumann, 1844
Then came another tour, this one to Russia begun in January of 1844. Clara thrived on the adventure and dealt remarkably well with the typical Russian weather. Robert, instead, suffered from colds, fevers, aches, and various pains, as well as the usual fits of anxiety and melancholy, diagnosed by a Russian doctor as “nerve fever.” Clara described him in letters home as being “weak, sick, sad, and angry.” By the time they arrived in Moscow, he was dealing with bouts of vertigo and, temporarily losing his vision, afraid he was now going blind. When they eventually returned to Leipzig, Robert took to his bed; Clara, now back in the domesticity of hearth and home, missed the excitement and glamor, the constant accolades and money her performing brought in – oblivious of how superfluous her husband felt – realized something had to be done.

In June, Robert resigned from the editorship of the Neue Zeitschrift and in August, Clara officially joined the faculty at Mendelssohn's conservatory. But soon Robert had a complete mental breakdown, so weak he could barely walk across the room. He now had pains, trembling and weeping, and was often unable to sleep. This time, pregnant with their third child, Clara canceled a concert tour and stayed home. Visiting Dresden, only a few hours away by train, they eventually decided, rather suddenly, to leave Leipzig behind and in December, 1844, moved into a new apartment in the Saxon capital.

But that would begin another chapter.

The remainder of this post takes the story of the Mendelssohns and the Schumanns a bit beyond the biographical coincidence of this program's music. Consider it “extra-credit” (there will be no quiz following the concert, however). I've also written other posts about both Mendelssohns and Schumanns which you can read here: Mendelssohn's Sister and Her World and Mendelssohn's Life, Mendelssohn's Death (both from a project for high school students); The Extraordinary Life of Clara Schumann; and And Schumann at the Close

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Felix Mendelssohn was 38 years old when he died in 1847 – file under “Composers Who Died Young” (why does that sound like a “Jeopardy” topic?). We often think of Mozart, dying at 35, and Schubert, at 31, but we tend to overlook Mendelssohn wasn't that much older. In fact, his sister Fanny, four years his senior, was only 41 when she died following a stroke that occurred during a rehearsal of Felix's Walpurgisnacht cantata, planned for an upcoming family Sunday musicale (yes, the family still gave them and, yes, they were still attended by many friends and visitors, just like their parents had done decades earlier). Taking the news of Fanny's death hard, Felix was often ill and distraught, taken off to a spa in Switzerland to recuperate and grieve. He struggled to complete a string quartet, his sixth, in the dark key of F Minor which is often referred to as his “Requiem for Fanny.” Not much later, he too had a stroke and died only six months after Fanny.

The Schumanns, 1850
Schumann was one of the pallbearers at Mendelssohn's funeral, but his health, meanwhile, had continued to deteriorate, occasionally alternating with intermittent bouts of creative activity that still produced some of his best works – like the last two movements of the Piano Concerto in 1845, the C Major Symphony in 1846. Living in Düsseldorf on the Rhine where he had, perhaps inadvisedly given his past experiences, taken the post of orchestra conductor, he wrote the “Rhenish” Symphony (his last symphony but published as No. 3) and the under-appreciated Cello Concerto both from 1851. But as he began to exhibit more concerning “symptoms of insanity,” a work like his D Minor Violin Concerto, written in the autumn of 1853 (completed just two days after a 20-year-old composer named Johannes Brahms showed up at the Schumann's front door) was considered “a disappointment” as a result of his health and, suppressed by Clara and its dedicatee, the young violinist Josef Joachim, never published.

Clara in early-1854
It was the next February when, in the throes of a series of “demonic visions” and other hallucinations, some of them brought on apparently by what would now be diagnosed as tinnitus, Schumann threw himself off a bridge into the Rhine River. Rescued and taken home by some boatmen who'd witnessed this, Schumann asked to be taken to “a lunatic asylum” (as they were called in those days) in Bonn. Before he left the house in Düsseldorf that last time, he requested to take this photograph of Clara (see left) with him, and kept it in his room at the hospital.

After he was taken away that evening, Clara, already pregnant with their last child, a son who would be named Felix (in honor of their friend Mendelssohn), never saw her husband again until late-July of 1856, two days before he died at the asylum outside Bonn. He was 46. She was 38.

Meanwhile, now, Clara was forced to support herself and her children – and later, after the deaths of two of them, several grandchildren she now raised – returned to the concert stage, touring frequently until arthritis and neuralgia made it more difficult even to practice on a daily basis much less perform. Among her final performances was Robert's Piano Concerto in 1885 with her half-brother, Woldemar Bargiel, a composer and conductor – as the son of Clara's mother by her second husband, this makes one wonder if Friedrich Wieck could take, as he did, all the credit for creating the genius that was Clara! – and then, at her last concert, Brahms' Variations on a Theme of Haydn in 1891.

As a composer, it might be understandable, looking at the number of children Clara was raising and the husband she was looking after, not to mention her performing and teaching career – and don't forget, she had been unable to use the piano to write or practice while Robert was composing his own works – it's not surprising she'd never had the “serious time” required to become a composer on a regular basis. Her last works to be published were a set of variations on a theme by her husband and the three Romances for solo piano written for his birthday in 1853.

Lenbach's portrait for her 60th Birthday
She would later write, "I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"

Her husband also expressed concern about the effect on her composing output: “Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

(Not, one could add in modern hindsight, that he ever seemed to offer some way to help her work this problem out...)

Clara Schumann died in Frankfurt in 1896 at the age of 76, following a stroke. Brahms, who'd received the telegram about her death too late, barely made it to the funeral in time, following problems with train schedules and mistaken directions, only meeting the procession on its way to the grave site. Brahms himself would die within a year at the age of 63.

Then finally, Clara was laid to rest beside her husband in a cemetery in Bonn.

- Dick Strawser

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Aizuri Quartet Opens the New Season: Meet the Mendelssohns


The Aizuri Quartet

Welcome to the New Season! Our first concert takes place at Temple Ohev Sholom on North Front Street in uptown Harrisburg this Wednesday at 7:30pm, with the Aizuri Quartet, the latest recipient of the coveted Cleveland Quartet Award which includes a concert-tour of various venues around the country. In addition to Harrisburg and Market Square Concerts, it will take them to New York's Carnegie Hall and presenters in Buffalo, Detroit, Urbana (IL), Kansas City, Austin (TX) and the Freer Art Gallery in Washington DC.

Known for their advocacy of new music since their founding in 2012, the Aizuri's program here of four 19th Century works might seem rather tame. Yet pairing Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny with Robert Schumann and his wife Clara – or, if you prefer, given the program order, Fanny Mendelssohn with her brother Felix and Clara Schumann with her husband Robert – examines creative relationships as well as personal relationships outside the immediate sound of the music. And it offers us a chance to explore the role of “Composers Who Happen to Be Women” before the mid-point of the 19th Century as well as more challenging and often more uncomfortable issues like Anti-Semitism with the Mendelssohns and the delicate balance of Creativity and Mental Health with Robert Schumann.

These are four works written within a span of nine years. Fanny Mendelssohn's rarely heard String Quartet from 1834 (once could just as easily say “rarely-heard Fanny Mendelssohn and her practically unknown String Quartet”) and one of Felix Mendelssohn's shorter works for quartet, written in 1843, form the boundaries of this program's world. While Felix wrote several quartets of his own, they get performed frequently enough, so lets, for the moment, focus on Fanny.

Clara Schumann, who for various reasons, wrote little music and no string quartets, will be represented by an arrangement of one of her songs. Not just any song: despite its ominous sounding title, “I stand in darkness Dreaming,” it was written at Christmas as a present for her new husband. They'd been married just a few months earlier and had just moved into a new home together, finally, after a long and traumatic courtship (and in this post we'll briefly meet one of the more notorious Stage Fathers in Classical Music, Friedrich Wieck, who opposed his daughter's marriage and fought them in the courts). Robert, missing his wife while she was away on tour in 1842, found a creative outpouring on her return that resulted in a set of three string quartets – his only published quartets – which were first performed in a private reading on his wife's birthday. He'd also dedicated them to their friend, Felix Mendelssohn – the previous year, Mendelssohn conducted the world premiere of Schumann's 1st Symphony – and there any many instances in the piece, particularly the second movement, which show Mendelssohn's stylistic influence. It's seems odd, considering Mendelssohn is only a year older than Schumann, but Mendelssohn was, at this point in his life the better known and more productive composer, not to mention an extrovert to Schumann's introvert.

Most music-lovers may not realize the composers whose music they're listening to lived in Real Time and Space and may well have known each other in professional as well as social contexts. (This in turn makes me think of the first time I ran into one of my elementary school teachers in the grocery store and thought “wow, she eats food?), that they have lives outside of being marble busts or names emblazoned on concert programs and music appreciation textbooks.

And given the way my imagination tends to work, I started imagining all four of these composers, who were at one time or another all in Leipzig at the same time, in a setting kind of like “Friends.”

Before I get too carried away, I should point out, first of all, Felix Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, remained in Berlin where she and her younger brother had grown up and began their careers, even if hers was confined to the music room of the family home while Felix wandered the length and breadth of Europe as a much celebrated conductor and composer. While Felix was the conductor of Leipzig's famous Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1835 (he was 26 at the time), he did not live permanently in the city, commuting from Berlin or wherever he might have been touring at the time. (What would you call a mid-19th Century jet-setter...?)

Robert and Clara Schumann, recently married, were 30 and 21 years old respectively in 1840 when they moved into their new apartment in a building now known as “The Schumann House”, today currently a museum. But with Robert's health rapidly deteriorating and Clara's international career making demands on their domestic life, they moved out at the end of 1844 to settle in Dresden.

The Schumann House on Inselstrasse, Leipzig

Felix Mendelssohn, finally, moved to Leipzig full-time in early-1845, finding a 2
nd floor apartment in a comparable building now known as “The Mendelssohn House,” but only lived there for the not-quite three remaining years of his life. It too exists as a museum today.

The Mendelssohn House on Goldschmidtstrasse, Leipzig

Regardless, Clara concertized with Mendelssohn and the Gewandhaus Orchestra frequently in the 1840s, and Mendelssohn premiered several works of Schumann's at the time, including his 1st
Symphony in 1841 They occasionally held “read-throughs” (try-outs) of each other's newest compositions, including the set of three string quartets Robert composed earlier in 1842, a private reading intended to celebrate Clara's 23rd birthday and which he dedicated to Mendelssohn. And they were all involved, one way or another, in the founding of a new music conservatory – well, all except Fanny, back in Berlin...

Here is a map of modern-day Leipzig with the Schumann House and the Mendelssohn House marked, only 0.6 of a mile apart. It would be pleasant to imagine them making the 11-minute walk back and forth for a social evening now and then.

Still, the imagination (or at least mine) was fueled by seeing a restaurant two blocks south of Mendelssohn's home, just beyond the edge of the map, called “The Blue Zebra” which made me think of Brahms' favorite hang-out in Vienna, a tavern called “The Red Hedgehog” – except the Zebra is a modern pub specializing in African cuisine (complete with take-out). Well, if we're engaging in time-traveling, what would it be like to stop at the Trattoria Amici around the corner from Mendelssohn's – on the way to the Schumanns' – for a pizza? Sitting nearby, you might overhear them discussing, say, news from their latest tours and performances, or gossip from that immoral cesspool of Paris about Chopin and his affair with George Sand (“it's said she even wears men's clothing!”) or just trading anecdotes about the raising of toddlers in a home where you're trying to compose!

The stuff, perhaps, of Historical Fiction if not exactly Musicology: in actuality, Mendelssohn moved into his new apartment only months after the Schumanns moved out of Leipzig. Still, they had ample opportunities during the early-1840s to meet whenever Mendelssohn was in town; and then Dresden was only a short train-ride away whenever the Schumanns had reasons to be in Leipzig, professionally or socially. 

Mendelssohn's new place was conveniently located just a few blocks from the hall where his orchestra performed, the famous Gewandhaus. But Leipzig is also a city haunted by Bach who'd spent most of his career at the St. Thomas Church, located about a mile from the Gewandhaus as the crow flies. Just beyond the church is the famous Mendelssohn Monument, its statue erected in 1892 but pulled down and destroyed by Nazi sympathizers in 1936. It was only replaced by a modern replica in 2008. But that is, alas, one of the more horrible aspects of the History of Art and Humanity which would only make this post even longer and more complicated than it is.

With that, let's move on and Meet the Composers.

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Fanny Mendelssohn, long overshadowed by her little brother Felix, was born in Hamburg in 1805. Their father, a successful banker, running afoul of Napoleonic politics, returned to his native Berlin in 1811, two years after Felix was born. There, the two children both showed considerable musical talent and both were supported by their parents. It is often said that Mendelssohn was one of those rare creative artists who grew up in economic luxury, unlike the poverty or economic uncertainty that influenced many other famous composers' early careers.

One advantage certainly was the regular Sunday musicales the family presented for friends and visitors at their rather substantial house which benefited both Felix and Fanny, including the “gift” of a string orchestra hired to perform not only concertos with the brother and sister as soloists – Fanny as pianist, Felix as both pianist and violinist (he even wrote a concerto for violin and piano for them to play with the orchestra) – but also the thirteen “string symphonies” which proved to be Felix's real “on-the-job training” as both composer and conductor. There are reports of him standing on a chair to conduct so the players could all see him.

They studied composition and counterpoint together but apparently the little orchestra was only for Felix: during these years, 1821-23, when Felix was 12-14, Fanny (16-18) wrote nothing beyond her usual songs and short piano pieces except for a Piano Quartet in 1822. Initially, the parents considered Fanny the more musical of the two but their father changed his mind about music as a suitable career for Felix when he began to show not just an increased talent but a dedication to the work it would take to become a professional musician.

And then, as if from nowhere, Felix wrote his Octet for Strings in 1825 when he was 16 and, a year later, the “Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Many music-lovers are surprised to learn these works, clearly the work of a mature genius and often considered some of the most perfect pieces in the repertoire (admittedly a subjective reaction), were written by a boy in his mid-teens! (I remember one teacher telling me, when I was a student, “amazing works for a boy his age”; and I said, “amazing works for a man any age!”)

But already in 1820, Abraham Mendelssohn had written to his daughter, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament."

She herself did not receive any public notice as a composer until 1830 when John Thomson, who had met her in Berlin the previous year, wrote in a London journal praising a number of her songs Felix had shown him. Her public debut at the piano, one of only three known public performances... came in 1838 when she played her brother's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Between 1824 and 1830, Felix published 12 of Fanny's songs under his own name, part of various sets of songs he'd had published. Today, this smacks of plagiarism, but “back in the day” its was the only way Fanny's music was going to be professionally published and made available to a public audience, with or without recognition. When later visiting London and meeting Queen Victoria in London, she told the composer she would sing for him her favorite piece of his, the song Italien. Whether she was amused or not, Felix was delighted to tell her that one was actually by his sister, Fanny; he was delighted to inform Fanny of the anecdote.

In 1846, having been approached by two different publishers in Berlin, Fanny decided, without consulting her brother, to publish a collection of her songs as her Op. 1, using her married name, "Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy." In mid-August, then, Felix wrote to her "[I] send you my professional blessing on becoming a member of the craft... may you have much happiness in giving pleasure to others; may you taste only the sweets and none of the bitterness of authorship; may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand." Two days later, Fanny wrote in her journal "Felix has written, and given me his professional blessing in the kindest manner. I know that he is not quite satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it." She also wrote to a friend, "I can truthfully say I let it happen more than made it happen, and it is this in particular which cheers me ... If they [the publishers] want more from me, it should act as a stimulus to achieve. If the matter comes to an end then, I also won't grieve, for I'm not ambitious.”

Her diaries curiously lack much reference to her musical life, especially her composing and certainly not in the context of her being frustrated at not being published, a sense I suspect often the result of more recent attitudes and assumptions (“how would you feel...?”) Today, we bristle at comments like her teacher writing to his friend Goethe, already acquainted with young Felix's accomplishments, that Fanny “plays [the piano] like a man.” In those days, it was considered a compliment and something, I guess, extraordinary.

Still, a friend of Felix's wrote, not long after her death: “Had Madame Hensel been a poor man's daughter, she must have become known to the world by the side of Madame Schumann and Madame Pleyel as a female pianist of the highest class."

(Keep in mind, along the lines of artistic context, Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights under the masculine pseudonym, Ellis Bell; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, as Currer Bell; and their sister Anne Brontë, Alice Gray, as Acton Bell, each in the year 1847, the year both Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and her brother Felix Mendelssohn died.)

While Lucy Miller Murray's program notes include a familiar portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn, painted in 1842 by a family friend – that would be the year before Felix composed the “Capriccio for String Quartet” on the program – for the blog, I've chosen Wilhelm Hensel's sketch, drawn in 1829, the year he and Fanny were married after an 8-year courtship (they met when she was 16).

Technically, I suppose, we should refer to her as Fanny Hensel or, at least, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. Given other traditions of the day, she would not have legally retained her maiden name after having married.

It was in 1829 that she composed two piano sonatas – or at least part of them. The second, listed as a fragment and sketched in early November, a month after the wedding, was in E-flat and may be incomplete or the last movement may just have been cut out of the notebook. Regardless, two of the three “sketches” for this sonata were later recycled into the finale of the String Quartet of 1834.

This work, No. 277 out of the 466 known works listed in a numerical catalogue, was written between August and October, and signed “F. Hensel.” It's in four movements: an opening Adagio, followed by the scherzo marked Allegretto (not too fast), a Romanze in the manner of a song but very “romantic” in more ways than one, ending with a lively finale in a traditional “bring-down-the-curtain” vein. While it may not strike one as a “great work waiting to be discovered,” it's certainly more accomplished than the work of a modestly talented amateur. However, after hearing a few too many lackluster performances on YouTube, this one, I think, is committed enough to present a compelling case for programming it. And besides, considering this is the only one we know of that she completed, think how her “on-the-job training” might have evolved into a higher level of achievement had she had the support of family and society inspiring her to compose several more?

= = = = = = = – performed by the Selini Quartet 

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It's interesting to imagine how one of the projects they discussed in their correspondence might've turned out. In 1840-41, they contemplated turning the old Norse legends about the Nibelungen Ring into an opera – Fanny thought “the hunt with Siegfried's death would make a splendid finale for the 2nd Act.” Richard Wagner, who'd begun The Flying Dutchman in 1841, only began putting together some ideas for what ultimately became his Ring of the Nibelung in 1848.

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Little needs to be added about the musical life of her little brother, Felix. Long considered one of the leading composers of the 19th Century, his career was, despite the “lap of luxury” he grew up in, not all that easy due to the rampant anti-Semitism of the day and the ensuing purge in the 1930s of the Nazi's attacks on what they considered “decadent music” (both anything too modern for their conservative tastes and anything created by a Jew).

While in this post I'm more interested in the interconnected lives of the Mendelssohns and the Schumanns, the role of Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as “women composers” is something of a contrast considering we wouldn't usually refer to Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann as “men composers.” Only in the fairly recent years I'd worked in the classical music radio business, we've gone from calling them “women composers” to referring to them as “composers.” At the time, Fanny Mendelssohn's and Clara Schumann's music (indeed, any music by a woman) would likely be dismissed by those who shared Samuel Johnson's 18th Century attitude toward the Lady Preacher, with the quip “no woman has yet matched the level of Shakespeare or Beethoven” to which I'd respond “indeed, few men have achieved that, either!”

Granted, given the opportunity of recognition and a career, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a lot more music we're aware of today. I'd already mentioned two of his teenaged accomplishments, the Octet and the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, but I also like to point out to music-lovers that one of his most popular works, his “Italian” Symphony – another work I consider close to perfection – was something he never published during his life time. Why? Because he didn't think it “good enough yet”!!! He kept meaning to get around to making some more revisions. Remember the old adage, “There's always tomorrow”? Well, and then one day, there isn't...

So what was Felix Mendelssohn writing when his sister was working on her String Quartet in 1834? In 1833, fresh off one of his many travels, this one to Italy and a stay in Rome where, among other things, he would go drinking and shop-talking with Hector Berlioz then working on his Symphonie fantastique (as Felix wrote home, he felt the need to wash his hands after handling the score). His own experiences became the inspiration for his “Italian” Symphony, the first draft written in 1833 (btw, his 4th Symphony was written after his 5th Symphony, the “Reformation” of 1832, like the 4th also published posthumously; his “Scottish” Symphony, written in 1842, officially the last symphony he wrote, was published as his 3rd Symphony – confused yet?)

Mendelssohn in 1846
The year he composed the Op.81 Capriccio for string quartet, 1843, was the year after he'd completed the “Scottish” Symphony and the year before he composed his Violin Concerto. While there were a lot of smaller works – piano pieces, choral anthems, various songs – there was also a set of incidental music written for the King of Prussia's court theater for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to augment the Overture he'd composed 18 years earlier.

Technically, the four pieces of Op.81 – again, officially a posthumous opus – were not intended to be a single work, a String Quartet in four movements. While the first three pieces (as published) might make a conceivable unit in E Major–A Minor–E Minor, the fourth, written much earlier in 1827, is in “the wrong key” for a finale: E-flat Major. The grouping is merely a convenient way of solving the problem of what do with four separate pieces found among his manuscripts after he died.

The first time I heard this, still a student and not quite familiar with Mendelssohn's personal story, I thought they were playing the wrong piece: what kind of “Capriccio” is this? First, it begins with a slow introduction – odd, for so short a piece – but once the “fast section” kicks in, becoming an intense sweep of hard-driven counterpoint, I realize it's more of a “Prelude & Fugue,” reminiscent of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier which had been such an important part of the Mendelssohns' childhood.

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A year after composing this “Capriccio,” Mendelssohn made a permanent move to a new residence, leaving Berlin, his official residence, to settle in Leipzig. He had been music director of the city's famous orchestra, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, since 1835, but spent much of his time touring, mostly as a conductor and usually including his own music. But as duties in Leipzig become more pressing and he was becoming involved with founding a new conservatory there, he decides to move his family into a spacious apartment in what to us looks like it must've been a palace in its early days. I remember seeing this and thinking “this was their house??” But it turns out Mendelssohn, his wife Cécile, and their three (eventually four) children lived in a 2nd floor apartment that included a spacious music room and a private studio where he could compose. It is now a museum, open to the public.

The Music Room in the Mendelssohns' Apartment

Fanny, her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, and their son Sebastian, continued to live in Berlin, but occasionally visited her famous and busy brother in Leipzig. There were two visits in early-1847 which included get-togethers with the Schumanns. At one of these, Fanny and Clara sat down and compared notes on their recently completed piano trios: Fanny had recently finished hers; Clara's was completed in Dresden the year before. Imagine what it must have been like for both of them to “talk shop” with another composer who was also a woman!

So now let's meet the Schumanns.

 - Dick Strawser