Archives for March 2001

Symphony No. 3 in A (1949-1951)

By Hartmut Krones

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Egon Wellesz (born in Vienna1885 – died in Oxford 1974) was world renowned not only as a composer, but as a musicologist and scholar of Byzantine culture as well. He studied at the University of Vienna while taking private lessons from Arnold Schoenberg in composition. From 1913, he taught musicology, became professor and made himself a name as a specialist for Baroque and Byzantine music, specifically for his break-through in deciphering the middle Byzantine music notation. In 1932, he was awarded the title of honorary doctor by Oxford University. Aside from this, Wellesz became one of the most performed composers. His operas Alkestis (Alcestis), Die Bacchantinnen (The Female Bacchantes) and ballets Das Wunder der Diana (The Wonder of Diana) and Achilles auf Skyros (Achilles on Skyros) were shown on countless stages until 1933, when they were forbidden in Germany and then 1938 in Austria as well. On the day of Austria’s occupation by German forces (March 13th, 1938), Bruno Walter conducted his symphonic movements Properos Beschwörungen (Prospero’s Oath) in Amsterdam, and from there Wellesz emigrated to England where he taught at Oxford University and also composed mostly symphonies, sacred works and chamber music.

At first predominantly influenced by Bruckner and Mahler, Wellesz abandoned tonality under Schoenberg’s guidance and turned to an expressive, gesticulating musical language without ever adopting the harsh twelve-tone technique. His nine symphonies, written after his emigration, show a deliberate departure from the musical tradition of Austria. The Third Symphony was written between 1949 and 1951, but intrigues foiled its soon-to-be-slated premiere performance, and it was not until April of 2000 when the work finally premiered in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Music Society. And there was unanimous certainty that this was, next to Mahler, one of the most important Austrian symphonies ever heard.

Wellesz’ Third Symphony is reminiscent of Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler in regards to sonority, but remains independent, measure for measure, with its dominant tonality identified by the designation “Symphony in A.” While the four-movement structure follows the late Romantic tradition, the key is marked by contrasts from the first movement on, creating an irritating and disturbing effect. The sonata style is being used in a rather unorthodox way, since the two immediately introduced themes are varied continuously without giving heed to an organization into development, reprise and coda. The main theme, exposed in unison, is made especially poignant with its large intervals, whereas the side movement, which serves as continuation, has a more songlike character with its recurring triplets.

As he wrote the slow second movement, Wellesz states he “was carried along by the ideas of transfiguration in Austrian music,” which led to broad cantilenas and hymn-like brass chorales. With its 6/8 time, the joyous Scherzo presses on and again positions tonal elements against freely expressionistic passages, while the movement’s two trio segments feature melodic contrasts. The slow introduction already anticipates the finale’s dramatic structure by introducing the entire material: the poignant, sharply accentuated main theme as well as dotted eighth figurations which provide impulses for movement. Derived from the opening idea, the main section’s theme leads through a formal sonata structure. The equally hesitant hymn-like ending has the effect of man’s last wrestling with a harsh fate, unable to find lighthearted joy any longer.

(Trans. Gila Fox)

Looking Forward, Looking Backward

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

At the center of the musical universe that was Vienna in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the orbits of two minor but pivotal planets intersected to create some of the most inventive pieces in the piano repertoire. Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, seemed fated to abandon his fledgling career as a pianist when he lost his right arm in the Great War but, through sheer force of will, trained himself to perform with his one remaining hand and commissioned works from many of the rising stars of his era. The most famous compositions dedicated to Wittgenstein are the Ravel and Prokofiev concerti, but he also was the inspiration for Reger, Korngold, Britten and Strauss as well as several lesser lights. Franz Schmidt, himself a virtuoso pianist, developed a symbiotic relationship with the young man and composed three works for his unique talents. Schmidt, a vital link in the musical evolutionary chain, studied composition with Bruckner (whose influence is particularly strong in Schmidt’s opera Notre Dame) and performed as a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic under Mahler, with whom he publicly feuded primarily due to his acerbic relationship with the concertmaster (and brother-in-law of the great composer) Arnold Rose.

For the left hand, Schmidt wrote a solo toccata, a quintet for piano and strings and tonight’s Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (often referred to as the Piano Concerto No. 1). Although sympathetic to the avant-garde trends in Viennese music and capable of searing dissonances himself (particularly in the Symphony No. 4), Schmidt chooses in this piece to dwell within the ebullient Classicism of Beethoven, fashioning a set of variations on the thematic material from the Scherzo and Trio of the Sonata for Violin and Piano in F, known as the “Spring” Sonata. In the original, Beethoven is in a playful mood, presenting the joyous theme as a children’s game between violin and piano, a sort of musical tennis match. Schmidt contrasts the piano with the orchestra in much the same manner. After an atypical introduction, we are treated to fifteen variations inhabiting a highly interesting spectrum from the Bolero (variation VI) to the contemplative Fugue (variation XIV). An abrupt pause at the conclusion of the variations themselves allows the composer to end in the spirit of the original by charmingly presenting the melody once again as a game presented in a gently bipolar conclusion (compare the quiet ending of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Writing for Wittgenstein was not a guarantee of success (he refused to play the Prokofiev concerto for example, pronouncing it too difficult) but this particular work was a favorite of the pianist and he performed it many times throughout Europe, popularizing the music of Schmidt outside of Austria for the first time.

Bruckner begat Schmidt and Schmidt begat Friedrich Wührer, important in music history as a founder of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Vienna and responsible for the premieres of several important compositions of Schoenberg and his school. With his mentor’s permission, Wührer transcribed all three of Schmidt’s left-handed works for two hands and it is his version of the Concertante Variations to which we are treated this evening.

Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Beethoven, Op. 86 (1915)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Max Reger composed his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 86, during the summer of 1904. The work was originally written for two pianos (four hands), and in that form it became one of Reger’s favorite concert pieces. (The Beethoven Variations were on the program of his final recital in April 1916, in what was his 132nd performance of the work since its premiere.) The orchestral version of Op. 86 that the audience is hearing tonight is Reger’s own, completed in 1915. It is one of a series of orchestral pieces that Reger wrote during this late period of his life, when he was working toward the composition of a symphony–a goal he never in fact achieved, despite his enormous productivity.

More than many of his modernist contemporaries, Reger was deeply attached to the variation form, which allowed him both to pay homage to distinguished predecessors and to show his mastery of the most advanced techniques of thematic transformation, harmonic expansion, and counterpoint. Beside Op. 86, the great variation sets of Reger, each of which also comprises a fugue, include the Bach Variations, Op. 81, and the Telemann Variations, Op. 135, both for solo piano; and the Hiller Variations, Op. 100, and Mozart Variations, Op. 132, both for full orchestra.

Reger’s models may be said to include three monuments of the nineteenth-century, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (1819-23) and Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Handel (1862) and Variations on a Theme of Haydn (1873). Each of these earlier works ends with a contrapuntal tour-de-force–fugues in the case of the Diabelli and Handel Variations, and a passacaglia in the Haydn Variations. The relationship of Reger’s Beethoven Variations to Brahms’s Haydn Variations was especially close. The themes are in the same key and share certain melodic characteristics. Brahms’s work also began life as a two-piano composition and was then arranged for orchestra.

The theme of Reger’s Beethoven Variations is taken from Beethoven’s Bagatelle for Piano, Op. 119, no. 11, in B-flat. The melody is quite regular in structure, comprised of two eight-measure segments, separated by a two-measure transition and followed four-measure coda. In his orchestration, Reger highlights this sectional structure by alternating the segments among different instrumental groups.

The orchestral version of Op. 86 is no mere transcription of the two-piano original. Reger reduces the number of variations from twelve to eight, thus bringing it into line with the Mozart Variations and reducing the total time to under thirty minutes (so that, he hoped, it might be programmed more readily). Reger also reverses the order of certain pairs of variations, such that the original III-IV become II-III, the original VI-VII become IV-V, and the original X-XI become VI-VII. With such revisions, Reger seeks to maximize contrast between successive variations.

The sequence of keys in the orchestral version is radical. After the theme, the tonic B-flat does not reappear until variation VI. The scheme is: B-flat (theme); G major (var. I); C minor (var. II); F major (var. III); D minor (var. IV); E-flat major (var. V); B-flat major (var. VI); D minor (var. VII); B-flat major (var. VIII and fugue). The contrast of meter and of tempo between variations is just as extreme. After the theme and variation I, both in 4/4, Reger shifts to 9/8 (var. II), then 4/8 (var. III), and so forth. Reger’s variation technique is equally advanced. The original tune–one of Beethoven’s most hummable melodies–becomes atomized or broken down into motivic particles such that it is often unrecognizable.

Reger’s Beethoven Variations, though rarely performed today (in either version), are true harbingers of an important feature of twentieth-century music, one that is being emphasized in this year’s ASO programs. The past, in this case represented by Beethoven’s sweetly innocent theme, becomes subtly but profoundly filtered through the musical techniques and ideologies of the present.

The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

During the first decades of the twentieth century Claude Debussy’s music was introduced into Germany. When it began to exert serious influence, some nationalist critics noted that, while it was all well and good for Germans to follow in the footsteps of French painters–since painting was never a field in which Germans dominated–when it came to music, to emulate a French composer was a travesty. Standing at the very center of the conceit that German culture defined music universally and normatively was the figure of Beethoven (in whom, not surprisingly, Debussy showed little interest). By 1900, the appropriation of Beethoven as a claim to legitimacy by subsequent generations of German composers had become an honored tradition. Not only did Wagner declare himself as the true successor to Beethoven, so too did the advocates of Brahms. Their master had become the “third B.” Later, Schoenberg and radical modernists in the 1920s also claimed a connection to late-style Beethoven as the harbinger of their own new aesthetic. Invoking the authority of Beethoven was one means of defending one’s approach to the future of music in the troubled early years of this century, when issues of modernity, innovation, and the interpretation of the past framed an intense debate about the purpose, nature, and future of music. Battle lines were drawn when both twelve-tone composition and a new brand of neoclassicism emerged in the context of the cataclysmic political transformation of Europe after World War I.

All three of the composers on tonight’s program were prominent figures in the musical culture of German-speaking Europe at the juncture between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Only one of them achieved historical superstardom–Richard Strauss (1864-1949)–although that superstardom was associated with music written before the War. When Strauss undertook this arrangement of the music of Beethoven, he was already considered a great composer well beyond his prime, though he would experience what subsequent generations termed a glorious “Indian summer” as a composer after 1945. This standard view of Strauss as an anachronism in his own time (that is, after 1912) has only recently come under sustained reassessment. In 1924 Kurt Weill wrote on the occasion of Strauss’s sixtieth birthday that he is “for me–at the threshold between the nineteenth and the twentieth century–a glance backwards and a challenge.” However, most critics in the 1920s considered both Franz Schmidt and Strauss to be conservatives in a world characterized by many incarnations of an avant-garde espousing either a break with the past or a radical shift. Schmidt (1874-1939), despite his personal regard for Schoenberg, was notorious in Vienna for his open hostility to Mahler, in whose orchestra Schmidt once played cello. Schmidt composed four fine symphonies, numerous sets of variations, a famous left-hand concerto (performed by the ASO in 1994), and his masterpiece, The Book With Seven Seals (performed by the ASO in 1997). In an era characterized by the Bauhaus and Surrealism, the music of Schmidt and Strauss could easily be dismissed as conservative echoes of the past designed to function as challenges to surface progress and innovation.

The assessment of Max Reger (1873-1916) in the conventional history of twentieth-century music and modernism is more difficult to describe. Since his death at age 43, widely viewed as a tragedy, occurred before the end of World War I, Reger as a composer and personality became part of history before the bitter controversies about the future and nature of modern music in the post-War era erupted. Reger was part of a generation of extremely talented composers who probably more than any other nineteenth-century group felt the awesome weight of history. Almost ten years younger than Strauss and thirteen younger than Mahler, Reger was always overshadowed by towering figures just a bit older than himself. Given the shortness of his career, it is startling to think that the distance between the death of Brahms and Bruckner and Reger is fewer than twenty years. But Reger’s fame and reputation in Germany during his lifetime were strong enough for him to be hailed as the hope for the future for the classical music tradition. Reger, the composer of numerous chamber and orchestral works including the Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin (performed by the ASO in 1995) possessed an extraordinary command of music compositional facility. Although regarded as a kind of neo-conservative deeply indebted to Brahms and an anti-Wagnerian figure, when one considers works such as An die Hoffnung and Eine Romantische Suite, both written around the time of the orchestration of the Beethoven Variations, one hears an expansive neo-Wagnerian romanticism which one would not usually associate either with a follower of Brahms or with Reger’s too-often cited reputation for academicism. Reger had many disciples and admirers, among them the brothers Adolf and Fritz Busch and the generation that carried on the Busch tradition, particularly Rudolf Serkin. From today’s perspective, it is reasonable to suggest that Reger’s time may now have come. He is no longer overshadowed by others and we now have the distance to rediscover the wealth of power, inspiration, and variation contained in his remarkable output of compositions.

It is fitting that Reger’s is the oldest piece on this program, because in Reger’s music his own contemporaries identified the finest realization of the German tradition of musical literacy and culture. His meteoric rise catapulted him to prominence as a symbol of the continuity of high culture in the guise of “absolute music” against philistinism, cultural decline, and the spread of operetta culture–the superficialities associated with modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century and traceable in the eyes of cultural pessimists in large part back to Richard Wagner. The reaction of German-speaking Europe against Wagner was not only motivated by an aversion to his theatrical enterprise. There were those who considered his musical strategies as corruptive not only of taste but of basic standards of musical literacy. Although Wagner claimed to be the true heir of Beethoven, he was considered by many as the ultimate bowdlerizer, who appropriated only Beethovenian gesture and abandoned the fundamentals of Beethovenian composition. Gone were thematic development and variation–the kind of transformation of musical material that Beethoven both pioneered and perfected. In their place was endless repetition and coloristic effect sustained not by musical logic, but by dramatic spectacle. This view was strongly propagated by the followers of Brahms (although not by Brahms himself). The anti-Wagnerian Romantics saw in Reger the ideal candidate to contain the dangerous direction that Richard Strauss, for example, had taken in his compositional evolution in the 1880s and well into the next century. Strauss, who had been brought up in a household with conservative musical taste, fashioned his earliest allegiances to Brahms and that reconverted Wagnerian, Hans von Bülow. But by the late 1880s a new Richard Strauss had emerged who had embraced the music of Liszt and Wagner. What few contemporary critics realized, however, was that Strauss’s conversion to the “enemy” was not pervasive. Classical form and techniques–the kinds associated with Beethoven–are integrated into all of Strauss’s music, even the most radically narrative such as Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and the Symphonia domestica (1903). And Strauss returned to the symphony later in life with Eine Alpensinfonie (1915). Likewise the scores to Elektra and Salome owe a debt as much to the musical strategies of Beethoven and Brahms as they do to Wagner. Ultimately, at the heart of Strauss’s aesthetic credo was neither Beethoven nor Wagner, but Mozart, one of Reger’s key sources and inspirations as well.

In the case of Reger and Schmidt, it is not surprising that they chose for their themes ones that were widely recognized by the amateur listening and performing public. Beethoven was at the very core of middle-class tastes and expectations vis-à-vis music. Likewise, when Strauss adds his melodrama and invokes themes from the best-known symphonies, he too acknowledges a conception of musical communication shared by Reger and Schmidt that allied itself with the middle-class, urban, well-educated audience of the last third of the nineteenth century. There were literally in Germany tens of thousands of amateur pianists and violinists who played the Bagatelles and the Spring Sonata. Any moderately educated adult could identify the themes of the Third and Fifth Symphonies (critics and the lay public would have to wait for the generation of Thomas Mann and T.W. Adorno to award an equally privileged place to Beethoven’s later works).

By using some of Beethoven’s most famous themes, these three composers cut to the very center of what the musical debate at the time was really about. Mahler and later Schoenberg and many other modernists possessed anger and hostility toward the middle-class audience that reveled not only in its recognition of the themes chosen by Reger and Schmidt but in their capacity to follow the transformations indulged in by these composers in their sense of variations. Going to a concert was for most a delightful exercise cutting across generations in the timeless assertion of connoisseurship, the achievement of culture and taste, and the capacity for making discriminating assessments. Strauss too wrote for that public and never abandoned it even with Elektra and Salome. But much of modernism in the 1920s was an explicit act of rebellion and revolt precisely against the conservative middle-class culture and its construction of a cultural “establishment.” Thus late Beethoven, which like contemporary music was hard to grasp and had traditionally been far less popular, seemed a willing ally in the attack on the covert philistinism and ignorance masquerading under a veneer of education and culture, worn by the concert-going public. The source of the Beethovenian echoes in tonight’s music is the Beethoven loved by the lay public that radical modernists believed the public never really understood properly.

These three composers, cast reluctantly by history into the role of conservative standard-bearers intent on demonstrating the continuities between Beethoven and modernity, celebrating the centrality of Beethoven for modern times, helped define a struggle over the soul of Beethoven in the early twentieth century. The dimensions of that struggle as it existed are perceived now only by implication in the music like a ghostly shadow. But the point of the struggle retains its relevancy. These works are an affirmation of the value of continuing a tradition of composition and music education, amateur music-making and concert-going that Reger and particularly Strauss and Schmidt considered endangered not only by the transformation of contemporary life but by the aesthetic consequences of modernity. These works show more than a debt to the past. They are not only acts of homage, they are creations characterized by an aggressive counter-attack against the perceived insurgency against standards of taste and culture represented by the two most radical dimensions of twentieth-century culture: experimentation in the forms and materials of music and the rise of the commercial entertainment music directed at the brave new world of mass consumerism. They are an admonishment not to forfeit or distort history so readily.

The Ruins of Athens (1924)

By Bryan Gilliam, Duke University

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For all its obscurity, the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborative reworking of Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens – their first mutual effort since Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918) – is rich in historical context. This Beethoven project also exemplifies how much these two artists (despite their different temperaments) had in common: their mutual interests in Greek culture, in dance and gesture, and a particularly idealized reverence for the work of Beethoven. Indeed, throughout the history of modern Germany, ancient Greece would serve as an archetype for cultural change. For the early German Romantics the model was that of perfection, for the later Romantics, such as Nietzsche, it was a paradigm for the rejuvenation of a complacent contemporary culture. In the 20th century, for a writer such as Hofmannsthal, Greek myth was a means of connecting the individual to society and ultimately to civilization at large. The interpretations varied widely over the years, yet in each instance the German attraction to Greece was the same: this ancient culture was seen as an authoritative alternative to a culturally impoverished present-day society.

Music occupied a privileged space in German culture, and it is hardly coincidental that, at those very same moments of contemporary crisis, German artists and intellectuals embraced another model: Ludwig van Beethoven, who was idealized as a Promethean figure who could restore fire to the German soul. This focus on Beethoven was as true for the German youth movement of the 1830’s as it was for Richard Wagner with his utopian designs for a new type of music theater in the second half of the century. For fin-de-siècle Vienna, Beethoven’s image was a literal centerpiece in the form of Max Klinger’s Beethoven stature which, at a 1902 exhibition at the anti-establishment Secession, was surrounded by Gustav Klimt’s frieze depicting moments from the finale of the great 9th Symphony.

In the wake of World War One, a defeated Austro-German culture searched yet again for a sense of identity and found it once again in Beethoven. It is in this context that we can better understand the impetus behind the Beethoven project of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. This reworking of Beethoven is admittedly a pastiche, taking textual and musical selections from both The Ruins of Athens and The Creatures of Prometheus. But Hofmannsthal adds a new character, giving coherence and continuity to this mixture: the Wanderer, and idealized, Goethean German artist who ponders the ruins of an Athenean marketplace.

At this moment of meditation, the Wanderer himself receives a creative Promethean spark and, in turn, becomes the reincarnation of Prometheus himself. This central moment is cast in the mode of melodrama, where the Wanderer speaks, accompanied by Strauss’s only real musical contribution, itself a fantasy on two themes from Beethoven’s 5th and 3rd symphonies, respectively.

During this period of Strauss’s compositional career (around the time of World War One and shortly thereafter), he had been preoccupied with dance. The ballets Josephs Legende (1914) and Schlagobers (1922) as well as the orchestral dance arrangements of Couperin (1923) are all part of this background. Yet there is another context as well, for in this revived collaboration between poet and composer, catalyzed by their mutual love for Beethoven, we also see a renewed interest in Greek drama. Their reworking of The Ruins of Athens would soon pave the way for the more substantial Egyptian Helen (1927), Hofmannsthal’s last completed, and favorite, libretto.

Nostalgia: The Past Idealized Through Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Nostalgia: The Past Idealized Through Music, performed on Feb 4, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1861, the Paris production of Tannhäuser changed the course of music history in France. Charles Baudelaire’s famous essay helped secure Wagner’s place in the forefront of French musical life. The Revue Wagnerienne became a source of inspiration not only for musicians but for poets, novelists, and painters. Throughout the 1880s, Ernest Chausson, a man in his mid-twenties, was obsessed with Wagner. Indeed, he spend his honeymoon at Bayreuth in order to hear Parsifal.

Great composers must confront the models created by great predecessors. No one would think of denigrating Beethoven because of his debt to Haydn, or Brahms because of his connection to Schumann, and certainly not Mozart or Bach for their borrowings from predecessors and contemporaries. However, for obvious political reasons particularly in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the search for a French national voice came into direct conflict with the embrace of Wagner. French composers in the Third Republic struggled to come to terms with Wagner’s achievement. More than a century later, the traces of that political struggle are still apparent in the whole generation of French operas that remain in obscurity simply because they do not sound like Debussy. There is no reason to revisit the tired opposition between the German Wagner and the French Debussy, unless it is to see how that false polarity made historical casualties of the extraordinary group of French operas which includes not only Chausson’s Le roi Arthus (1895) but Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907).

No one would have been more sensitive to this dilemma of identity than Chausson himself. He was a polymath. Born into a wealthy family, his life story defies all the clichés we associate with the struggling artist. Although his personal wealth has been exaggerated by some detractors, Chausson never had to work for a living and was able to support less fortunate colleagues including Debussy. Like Felix Mendelssohn, Chausson was very well educated outside of music. Like Schoenberg he was a gifted visual artist, and like Schumann, he had literary ambitions as well, authoring short stories and working on a novel. Beyond these accomplishments, Chausson also studied law, even earning a doctor of laws degree and obtaining admittance to argue cases in the highest courts of France. His highly cultivated upbringing persisted into adulthood in his famous salon gatherings, in which the most distinguished painters, writers, and musicians participated. Chausson’s special engagement with literature is evident in his use of a short story by Turgenev as the basis for perhaps his most famous work, the Poème Op. 25 for violin and orchestra (1896).

Chausson studied with both Massenet and Franck. If Massenet represented to a more serious, younger generation a tradition of pleasant superficiality (although this traditional disparagement is as questionable as the similar and yet-to-be-challenged dismissal of Meyerbeer), then César Franck provided an alternative. Imbued with a mystic spiritualism, Franck’s music seemed to promise an adequate alternative for French composers in a world suffused by Wagnerian profundity.

Chausson was among the most gracious and supportive of colleagues and was at the same time riddled with self-doubt and anxiety. Despite Franck’s admiration for him, Chausson was particularly sensitive to the charge of dilettantism. In 1886 he assumed leadership of the Societé Nationale de Musique and became a pivotal figure in French musical politics. As the 1890s progressed, he was increasingly aware of the talent and originality of Debussy, whose work would eventually eclipse his own.

Chausson labored on Le roi Arthus for more than a decade and believed that in this work he had successfully de-Wagnerized himself and achieved a new, transcendent musical voice. The premiere took place in Brussels on November 30, 1903, but Chausson did not live to see it. He had died in a freak bicycle accident four years earlier, at the age of forty-four. Despite some attempts to revive the opera in the last century, it has been left to languish in undeserved obscurity. German critics have repeatedly identified it as the culmination of the French Wagnerian obsession, following in the path of Chabrier’s Gwendoline (1885), d’Indy’s Fervaal (1897), and Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys (1888). The efforts of d’Indy and Lalo to mask their debt to Wagner with references to Gregorian chant or French folk melody have been viewed by critics as transparent. In contrast, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) is embraced as the first original French achievement. Whether Wagnerian or in some manner distinctly French, Arthus must take its place in this distorted historical narrative as a great and original masterpiece.

The choice of Arthurian legend as the opera’s subject is fascinating in terms of its ambiguous emancipation from Wagner’s heroic subjects. It explicitly invokes an Anglo-French past, thus identifying Chausson among the group of French composers who sought for a French mythic equivalent to Germanic epic as a way both of defining themselves against Wagner and of eluding the tradition of trivial and charming music and subject matter associated with the French light opera of Gounod and Massenet. This effort is similar to that of Max Bruch, who searched for Homeric and biblical subjects to serve the same elevated function as Wagnerian epic without sounding Wagnerian. There are no doubt clear parallels that today’s listener will find between Chausson’s music and original libretto and those of Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. But as Chausson himself noted, Arthus may possess dramatic elements akin to Wagner–betrayal of friendship, the tragic loss of love and friendship, an appeal to mystic Christianity–but these are generally features of high epic which need not lead to the same musical realization that Wagner envisioned. The choral sonorities, the harmonies, orchestration, and melodic usages make this music distinctly Chausson’s.

In his use of Arthurian legend, Chausson also finds a third way among even broader oppositions of modern culture and our memory of the past. In Arthus, a fictionalized account of the distant past is used to contrast sharply with the present. The modern world in which Chausson lived was one of rapid industrialization, dominated by an unprecedented obsession with progress, profit, and materialism. The reaction of nineteenth-century Europe to the far-reaching and uncontrollable social consequences of these changes was two-fold. On one hand, Victorian intolerance reigned. Puritan rectitude, middle-class values, and materialism masked the social horrors of extreme inequity and exploitation that fueled the industrial age. On the other hand, a younger generation rebelled against this ethic by indulging in an aestheticism and celebration of sensuality and amorality, which they saw as a means to escape from Victorian hypocrisy. France’s fascination with the “decadents” is evident in the tremendous popularity of Huysmans and Wilde. Against both of these social reactions Chausson invokes the figure of Arthur, ruler of a realm dependant not on material goods but on Christian virtues of solidarity and moderation. Chausson (whose alienation from Debussy was due in part to his disapproval of Debussy’s private life) does not allow Arthur to indulge at all in the ethos of Pelléas. There are few moments as poignant as the close of this opera, when Arthur, faced with the deaths of his dearest friend and his wife, transcends his worldly existence with undiminished commitment to idealized principles of Christian love, charity, and loyalty. As many have pointed out, the affair between Genièvre and Lancelot is not celebrated like that between Isolde and Tristan. The hero of this opera is neither of the star-crossed lovers, but the dignified and heroic title character. Chausson’s own commitment to these ideals is evident in the opera, but equally apparent is his nostalgic notion that such ideals are lost, possessed once but now departed with a passing age. Arthur’s closing lines and the chorus’s echo signal not only a critique of the present but the hope of redemption and the return of idealism. Debussy might question whether such ideals ever really existed or are pertinent, but for Chausson, the present moment is one of absence, sharply and painfully sensed through memory and its relentless capacity to imagine better times.

The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven

03/30/2001 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes