An Italian Journey through German Romanticism

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.

The fascination for Italy among German writers, artists, and musicians can be traced back at least to the mid-eighteenth century. In the renaissance of German letters during that time there was a distinct and eloquent neoclassical strain. J. J. Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote his famous tract in 1755, “Thoughts on the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks.” The German rediscovery of classical antiquity extended to the field of architecture. Among the most influential aesthetic forces in German nineteenth- century culture was the achievement of the Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose neoclassic buildings were regarded as an embodiment of the rebirth of true beauty through the style of antiquity.

The glorification of a Greco-Roman ideal found an analogue in the German romance with the Italian landscape. The lure of Italy was not merely historical. Italy represented the world of light and warmth, an oasis of nature infused in a curious manner with the remnants of a great historical past. All this stood in contrast to the cold, dark, forbidding landscape of the North. If one thinks of the stage set of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz and the early nineteenth-century German romantic canvases of Caspar David Friedrich, one can think of few more evident counterpoints than the sunlight of Florence, Rome, or Naples. The German fascination for Italy as well was shared by the Swiss and the Austrians, who were in a position to forge an ideal synthesis between the best virtues of the German and the Italian. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be conjured up as evidence of this conceit. The Italian influence from as early as the time of J. S. Bach was never far from the minds of the leading composers of German-speaking Europe.

The most important literary reflection of the German obsession with Italy was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Italian Journey. Goethe’s sojourn in Italy from 1786 to 1788 offered a model that was followed by generations of young aspiring, musicians and writers from the North. Mendelssohn spent considerable time in Rome during the 1830s. Brahms was an inveterate traveler whose favorite place was Italy. Among his most treasured books was Jacob Burckhardt’s Cicerone, a descriptive guide to the art treasures of Italy. However, the most well-known Germans with an Italian obsession were the painters of the nineteenth century who lived for long stretches of time in Italy. Unfortunately, the names of these painters are not well-known among Americans. German nineteenth-century painting in general has never won much of an audience in the English-speaking world. Those Americans familiar with the Hudson River School and with the great monumental landscape painting of the American nineteenth century will appreciate readily the magnificent creations of the German nineteenth- century tradition of painting. There was a group of painters loosely called “The German Romans.” Among the best-known are Arnold Böcklin and Anselm Feuerbach. Both these painters are indirectly represented in this concert by the works of Brahms and Reger. Music lovers and concert-goers, however, will recognize immediately one of the last incarnations of the nineteenth-century German fascination with Italy in Richard Strauss’s tone poem Aus Italien. The suite by Joachim Raff from 1871 on this program, although less well-known, is a wonderful earlier example of that tradition of music inspired by the Italian landscape. It is therefore more than an accident that that quintessential figure of nineteenth-century German culture, Richard Wagner, died in Venice, where he had chosen to live.

What began in the eighteenth century as a celebration of the universal ideals of beauty, which recognized no national differences, ended in the late nineteenth century as a distortion of universal national self-aggrandizement. The self-proclaimed superiority of modern nineteenth-century German culture seemed to be vindicated by the idea that it had successfully integrated the surviving remnants of the classical past into itself through the movements of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. The absorption of the Italian strengthened and deepened the German self-definition of its own culture. From the perspective of the late twentieth century, the music and the art represented by the Reinhart collection at the Metropolitan Museum and the works on this ASO program bear testimony to the authentic inspiration generated by the strange and complex symbiosis between North and South evident in the German relationship to Italy during the nineteenth century.

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.

Oskar Reinhart: A Swiss Art Collector of European Stature

By Lukas Gloor

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

In 1922, Oskar Reinhart – referring not only to his hometown of Winterthur but to Switzerland in general – wrote to a friend: “Here French art rules supreme; the noted private collectors buy only French art and exhibitions of French art abound.” The trend thus described by Oskar Reinhart was indeed fairly recent; on a broader scale, Swiss industrialists and merchants had begun to form collections of contemporary paintings in the years immediately preceding World War I. Following the example of German collectors and museum directors, they had, however, readily focused on the art of the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists, whose works were then quickly gaining international fame and market value. Collecting German art of the same period – popular during the nineteenth century at least in the German speaking part of Switzerland – soon fell out of fashion.

Oskar Reinhart also had dedicated himself to French art at that time and had started to build up what eventually would arguably become Switzerland’s most important private collection of Old Masters and French Impressionists. It was later bequeathed to the Swiss Confederation and is still installed in Oskar Reinhart’s estate Am Römerholz in Winterthur. Nevertheless, while collecting French paintings, Oskar Reinhart kept his independence to state that “. . . there are also, German masters, and I hope to assemble, over the years, a small but select collection of German pictures.” Today, the small but select” group of paintings which Oskar Reinhart, the son of a wealthy merchant family in Winterthur, set out to bring together in the 1920s proves to be the most outstanding collection in nineteenth- century art from the German speaking area of Europe outside of Germany. In 1939, Oskar Reinhart split his collection apart and gave the German, Swiss and Austrian paintings to the city of Winterthur.

Obviously, an eye which had been trained to look carefully at the great French master of the nineteenth century such as G. Courbet, E. Manet, A. Renoir and P. Cézanne would select among their works In a similar spirit, landscape paintings clearly form the core of the collection, as do small oil sketches in which an “impressionist”” approach to painting prevails. The collection span almost two hundred years of art history. Apart from a group of painters active in Geneva shortly before 1800 such as W.A. Toepffer and J.L. Agasse, who later settled in London, the collection emphasizes the importance of the Alpine landscape for Swiss art through paintings by C. Wolf, A. Calame, G. Sengantini and F. Hodler. The collections main focus, however, lies on the German painters of the nineteenth century, including the foremost masters of Romanticism, Realism and Impressionism. Different artistic attitudes are thus represented in the collection: while for C. D. Friedrich, landscape painting assumed an almost religious importance, other German painters of the early 1800s set out in search of beauty in the “classical”” landscape of Italy. A. Menzel’s oil sketches give intimate insights into the modest daily life the artist led in Berlin, the capital of the newly united Germany since 1871. Munich, at that time still Germany’s artistic center, was hometown to a group of painters who followed their master W. Leibl and some French contemporaries whom they greatly admired. However, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Italy and Rome maintained their attraction, inducing innumerable painters to travel the country–or as was true for the mast famous amongst them, A. Böcklin–to settle there for many years.