Reception and Reputation

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

This concert explores shifts in the reputation and characterization of composers during their lifetime and after their deaths, generated by posthumous discoveries. As in the history of the visual arts (contrary to public opinion, the highest prices were paid for work during the artists’ lifetimes, not after), in music, composers have been best known and best understood while they were living, not after their death. The myth of the unappreciated and unrecognized genius is just that—a later romantic invention. The popularity of the image of the misunderstood artist gains momentum with Wagner, who, despite astonishing success, seemed to revel in spreading the idea that he was the victim of philistine taste, that he was held back and misunderstood. The advantage in doing so was that it enhanced his sense of self, reinforcing his belief that he was a visionary prophet of the future—a threat.

Wagner’s fame coincided with the spread of the practice of the arts during the nineteenth century; in a parallel fashion the affectations and mannerisms of the artistic temperament, and a growing affection for the notion of the great artist as “ahead of his time,” an outsider and an outcast, flourished. No one made more of this sensibility than Gustav Mahler, who despite great success and acknowledgment, felt unappreciated and predicted that “his time” would come, but after his demise.

The idea that Mozart had been buried in an unmarked grave presumably because no one cared and he was impoverished and obscure, or that Schubert was undiscovered, lonely and penniless, during his life has to be set side by side with the success and satisfaction acknowledged and experienced by Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, and Stravinsky in their lifetimes. Mozart was hardly obscure and his burial had to do with the rituals and mores of 1791 Vienna, and Schubert was famous and well-loved in his lifetime. What is more likely the case in music history is not the discovery of an overlooked genius but the forgetting of those once justifiably famous and the recalibration of the reputation of permanently well-known composers.

It is this last process that this concert examines. Schubert, for example was famous at the time of his death for the lieder, choral, and dance music he wrote. The Great C major symphony came to light only a decade after his death, and the most famous of all Schubert works—the so-called “unfinished” symphony—was first heard nearly 40 years after the death of the composer. The C major Quintet came to light in the 1850s (Schubert died in 1828). Schubert harbored ambitions to succeed in the theatre—but in that he did indeed fail; most of his operatic work remained unperformed. The overture that begins the concert points to a radical shift in the way posterity has understood Schubert, a shift made possible by the discovery of unknown large scale works for the stage and concert hall. Schubert’s fame was redirected in the second half of the nineteenth century by the encounter with new works that came to light. After 1870 he became an icon of late 19th century romanticism more than a proponent of the early Biedermeier aesthetic of the years between 1815 and 1828.

Bruckner is best known for his symphonies. But Bruckner is seen as a composer in the thrall of the Wagnerian—a Viennese figure opposed to a sterile classicism associated with Brahms. Bruckner is understood as having transformed the symphony into a monumental sonic drama. He was a world-famous man at the time of his death. Much as Brahms and Bruckner shared a mutual antipathy during the more than thirty years they both lived and worked in Vienna, they both shared a deep debt to and love for Schubert. The link between Brahms and Schubert is more familiar to classical music lovers. But as the “study” symphony on this program makes evident, Bruckner’s reputation as a link to Mahler and major figure in the post-Wagnerian world becomes tempered when we encounter the early works and recognize affinities between Bruckner and Schubert.

The most astonishing posthumous discovery on today’s program is doubtlessly the Dvořák first symphony. Like Schubert’s “unfinished” it came to light only decades after the composer’s death. It required a renumbering of the Dvořák symphonies and a reconsideration of the composer’s aesthetic trajectory. Dvořák revised many of his early works; we therefore rarely get a chance to hear what the young composer thought to do, unhampered by the wisdom of experience. This symphony is a case in point since the composer considered it lost. (One is reminded in how privileged a condition we live now. Imagine writing an entire symphony and having only one copy).

In the twentieth century, each of these three works became important as scholars and audiences revisited the life, career, and reputation of three famous composers, all widely honored and acknowledged in their lifetimes, but all too quickly categorized in too simplified and reductive a manner by posterity. It is unfortunate that these posthumously discovered works have not yet gained the place in the repertory that they deserve.

Franz Schubert, Overture to Claudine von Villa Bella, D. 239

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 31, 1797, in Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, in Vienna
Composed from July 26, 1815 to September 1815
Premiered on April 26, 1913 at the Gemeindehaus Wieden in Vienna
Performance Time: Approximately 8 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

The teenage Schubert tried his hand at all genres current at the time, from small-scale domestic music to Masses, symphonies, and operas. Most of these early pieces were meant to be played at home, at his school, or in community settings—they were projects through which he hoped to hone his craft (among his teachers was the formidable Antonio Salieri) and were not intended to generate public fame. He seems rarely to have looked back at these works as his ambitions became ever grander.

Although his Lieder, keyboard and chamber music, and symphonies eventually won a central place in the repertoire, Schubert’s name is rarely associated with dramatic music even though he wrote it over the entire course of his brief career. He composed his first operas and Singspiels (operas with spoken German dialogue) in his teens, and in 1820 Die Zwillingsbruder (The Twin Brothers) had a run of performances at a prestigious theater in Vienna. His incidental music for Rosamunde proved more popular than the dreary play it accompanied at its 1823 premiere in Vienna. In addition to short works and various unrealized projects, he completed two major operas: Alfonso und Estrella (1821–22) and Fierabras (1823).

Schubert composed Claudine von Villa Bella, a three-act Singspiel, in the summer of 1815, the most prolific period of his short life. He was immersed, at the time, in the poetry of Goethe, which inspired his first masterpieces: Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) the previous October and Erlkönig later that year. Like most of his early large works, Claudine was never presented in public during his lifetime, although there were plans for performances of the overture in 1818. Schubert’s older brother Ferdinand informed him that the piece “comes in for much criticism . . . The wind parts are said to be so difficult as to be unplayable, particularly those for the oboes and bassoon.” The first documented public performance of the first act of Claudine had to wait until the twentieth century as most of the opera had been destroyed. Schubert had given the manuscript to his friend Josef Hüttenbrenner, whose housekeeper burned the second and third acts during the 1848 revolution. The charming overture is scored for an orchestra of Classical proportions and begins with an intense Adagio introduction followed by an Italianate Allegro vivace.

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 00 (Study Symphony in F minor)

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, Austria
Died October 11, 1896, in Vienna
Composed in 1863
2nd movement premiered on October 31, 1913 in Vienna
1st and 4th movements premiered on March 18, 1923 in Klosterneuburg, Austria
3rd movement premiered on October 12, 1924 in Klosterneuburg, Austria
Performance Time: Approximately 41 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Anton Bruckner was a late bloomer among eminent composers. He completed his first numbered symphony in 1866 at age 41. (To paraphrase the Tom Lehrer song: by that age Schubert had been dead 10 years.) His path to the piece included the “Study” Symphony heard on the concert tonight. Sloth was not a reason for Bruckner’s late start, but rather a combination of insecurity and a desire to master various technical elements of composition before presenting himself as a professional symphonist.

In 1855, at age 31, Bruckner took up a position as cathedral organist in Linz and began meticulous study of counterpoint with the noted Viennese theorist Simon Sechter (with whom Schubert sought council in the last weeks of his life). Sechter forbade free composition and for some six years Bruckner ceased his own serious work. (Sechter remarked that he never had a more diligent student.) In 1861 Bruckner sought out Otto Kitzler, a conductor a decade his junior, with whom he worked for some two years on form and orchestration. After writing keyboard music and a string quartet, he turned to bigger projects, including an Overture in G Minor, a setting of Psalm 112, and the Symphony in F minor.

Bruckner composed the symphony over the course of three and a half months in early 1863 and labeled the score a Schularbeit (school exercise). He began writing the manuscript in pencil and as he gained confidence switched to ink. Since his goal was refining his compositional technique rather than producing a recipe for actual performance, he noted relatively few dynamics, phrasing, and other interpretative markings. One can nonetheless already perceive some of the distinctive characteristics of Bruckner’s mature symphonic style, a complex alchemy of liturgical influences, Baroque organ sonorities, and his recent revelatory exposure to Wagner’s music.

Nearly two years later, in January 1865, Bruckner began his First Symphony and four years after that (the chronology is not entirely clear) wrote at least parts of another unnumbered one, in D minor, now known as “Die Nullte.” Neither this Symphony No. 0 nor the F minor “Study” Symphony was performed during his lifetime. The second movement of the F minor was heard in Vienna in 1913 and the first, second, and fourth movements premiered in Klosterneuberg in 1923 with the third movement, which had previously been thought lost, first performed in the same city the following year.

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.

Antonín Dvořák, Symphony No. 1 in C minor

by Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Opus Posthumous, performed on March 26, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia
Died May 1, 1904, in Prague
Composed from February 14 to March 24, 1865
Premiered on October 4, 1936, in Brno, Czech Republic conducted by Milan Sachs
Performance Time: Approximately 50 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

During his early teens Dvořák lived in Zlonice, a small town northeast of Prague where he received his initial musical training. At age 16 he moved to Prague to study at the Organ School; he began playing in orchestras, teaching, and composing (he later destroyed most of his early pieces). A career path that eventually changed his fortunes was to enter competitions. Although the details are not clear, it seems he tried at age 23 to enter a German competition with his Symphony No. 1 in C minor, which he composed in less than six weeks during early 1865.

Dvořák did not win (although ten years later he was awarded an Austrian stipend that launched his international career) and the symphony was never returned. Decades later, when some of his students at the Prague Conservatory asked him what he had done about it, Dvořák supposedly replied: “I sat down and wrote another.” And indeed the Symphony in B-flat major, now known as the Second, dates from just a few months later in 1865. That symphony was the first which Dvořák numbered and assigned an opus number—he later revised it to premiere in 1888. But he never heard the First Symphony performed and said that he had destroyed it. The piece had, in fact, survived. In the 1880s a young scholar named Rudolf Dvořák (no relation) bought the manuscript at a second-hand bookstore in Leipzig. Only in 1923 did word of the lost symphony emerge, although the work was not premiered until 1936 in Brno (in an abridged version) and the score remained unpublished until 1961.

The symphony is known as “The Bells of Zlonice,” although that title appears nowhere in the manuscript. Dvořák supposedly referred to it as such and commenters often point to bell-like passages, especially in the first and final movements. Dvořák originally planned a three-movement work to which he added the third movement scherzo. The ominous key of C minor is that of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, to which the work owes various debts, not least, as František Bartoš observed, in the overall trajectory from darkness to light, doubt to affirmation. Dvořák wrote the symphony during a period of intense infatuation with a young actress named Josefina Čermáková who performed in a theater where he played and to whom he gave piano lessons (he eventually married her sister). Although Dvořák thought the symphony lost, he did not forget its music, various ideas of which he later recast in his first orchestral Rhapsody, Op. 14 (1874) and piano cycle Silhouettes, Op. 8 (1879).

Christopher H. Gibbs is James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College.