Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Raff, & Reger

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert An Italian Journey through German Romanticism performed on March 11, 1994 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Brahms, Nänie

One of Johannes Brahms’s friends was the painter Anselm Feuerbach. Feuerbach’s biographer and closest friend, Julius Allgeyer, introduced Brahms to Feuerbach in 1871. Not a particularly adept politician, Feuerbach finally secured a position in Vienna but ran afoul of the local Viennese politics of painting. He was seen as an unwelcome rival to the lionized Hans Makart. Feuerbach’s troubles in Vienna were a source of concern for Brahms. Anselm Feuerbach died in 1880. Brahms was inspired to write this work in his memory. The work is dedicated to Feuerbach’s mother, who devoted her life to sustaining the reputations and memory of her son. What attracted Brahms to Feuerbach was the unerring elegance and beauty of Feuerbach’s self-consciously neoclassic painting. If Hans Makart’s grandiose and historicist tendencies made him the painterly equivalent of Richard Wagner, Feuerbach’s self-conscious restraint, spirituality, luminosity, and refinement might be compared to Brahms’s nearly neoclassic compositional strategies. Indeed, Makart, Feuerbach’s rival, was deeply admired by Richard and Cosima Wagner. It is not surprising that when Brahms decided to write something in Feuerbach’s memory, he chose a text by Schiller. The poem is explicitly neoclassical in its references. Within the eloquent Greek mythological framework, Schiller speaks of death and beauty in a way that Brahms found a fitting tribute to Feuerbach’s painting. This work is among Brahms’s most intimate and intense in spirit. The composer brought to bear his extensive experience as a choral conductor and a writer of choral music. few pieces have achieved as adequate a linkage between text and music, and in this case the shared aesthetics of music, poetry, and painting. The work was first performed in 1881 by Brahms in Zurich.

Beethoven, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Mendelssohn, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

These works have been chosen and placed together because they were both inspired by a well-known Goethe poem. The Beethoven is among the least known of the composer’s works. There is an enormous amount of mythology surrounding the relationship between the two best-known figures of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century German-speaking culture, Beethoven and Goethe. They met once, and according to various accounts, the encounter was not entirely successful. Beethoven long had harbored hopes of writing music to Goethe’s Faust. Goethe, whose musical tastes were not always reliable, seems not to have understood Beethoven’s greatness and was put off by the composer’s less than refined self-presentation. Beethoven’s setting was written in 1822 and is dedicated to the poet. In contrast, the work of the same name by Felix Mendelssohn was written by a composer who was a decided favorite of Goethe. Felix Mendelssohn’s teacher was Karl Friedrich Zelter, who was close to Goethe. Zelter was also Goethe’s musical adviser. Their three-volume correspondence is among the most interesting and revealing documents of musical culture at the turn of the nineteenth century. Zelter was so impressed by the young Felix Mendelssohn that he introduced the boy to the great poet. Despite his not inconsiderable prejudice against Jews, Goethe was enchanted by Mendelssohn’s talent and intellectual brilliance. Few encounters were as important to the young composer as his friendship with the great Goethe. Mendelssohn visited Goethe’s house frequently and played for the poet and corresponded with him. Therefore it comes as no surprise that among Mendelssohn’s finest works is a setting of Goethe, the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. This overture, like the better know Fingal’s Cave, was designed as a free-standing work. The name “overture” therefore is somewhat of a misnomer. It was written in 1828, when Mendelssohn was nineteen years old. Unlike Beethoven, Mendelssohn displays the new agenda of Romanticism in music. He chose to express the poem exclusively through instrumental sounds. He did not set Goethe’s text; rather he provided a mixture of evocation and illustration. This overture is a magnificent example of a synthesis of neoclassical and Romantic sensibilities. The musical strategies of thematic development and variation are placed in the service of a rather novel sense of the relationship between music and narration and representation with respect to nature and emotion.

Raff, Italian Suite

Joachim Raff is the composer on this program whose life and work are least known. He was born near Zurich in 1822 and dies in 1882. His early work attracted the attention of Mendelssohn. Later on in his career he became more allied with the so-called New German School of Liszt and Wagner. In his own day he was extraordinarily famous and well respected. Among his pupils was the American composer Edward MacDowell. In more recent times Raff is remembered mostly through his association with Franz Liszt. Among his compositional work are eleven symphonies, seven of which bear subtitles relating to nature and landscape. In addition, Raff wrote a series of shorter works inspired by places and nature. The “Italian” Suite later served as a model for Strauss. It ends as does Aus Italien with Neapolitan material. The work is in six movements. The “Italian” Suite is one of four works bearing the name “suite”; the second is subtitled “In the Hungarian Manner,” and the fourth is a musical essay “From Thuringia.”

Reger, Four Tone Poems after A. Böcklin

Most concertgoers today will associate the name Max Reger with that of Rudolf Serkin. The great pianist and the family of Adolf Busch, into which Serkin married, were ardent advocates of Reger’s music. Reger was born in 1873 and died in 1916. His work is marked by an intense and virtuosic command of counterpoint and a harmonic ingenuity reminiscent of Spohr, but in a modern form. Reger was an organist and a tireless composer. Hew saw himself as continuing a tradition exemplified by Schumann and Brahms. He was also the conductor of the court orchestra in Meiningen, a post made famous by the tenure of Hans von Bülow. These tone poems are among Reger’s most lasting works. They were written in 1913. The work of Arnold Böcklin inspired many composers. In his time, Böcklin was the most sought-after and famous painter in German-speaking Europe. Perhaps the best-known piece of music inspired by Böcklin is Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. The painting by that name is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Another admirer of Böcklin’s was Johannes Brahms. In this work, Reger, using the vast resources of the orchestra, attempts, like Mendelssohn, an orchestral instrumental equivalent to the canvases of Böcklin. Reger’s strategy is not narrowly illustrative.

Each of the four movements is tied explicitly to a single canvas: “Der Einsliedler” (called by Reger “The Hermit Playing the Violin”); “In the Play of the Wave”: “The Isle of the Dead” and “Bacchanale.” These four paintings show only part of the iconographical range of Böcklin’s work. These are based on mythology. They were chosen by Reger in part because as a sequence of four they suggested a formal pattern which struck him as a variation of the traditional four-movement symphony–a welcome compromise between the symphonic form and the Lisztean and Straussian tone poem.