Hermann Goetz, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

By Peter Palmer

Written for the concert The Remains of Romanticism, performed on Nov 15, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

From his early teens onwards, Hermann Goetz’s life was overshadowed by the tuberculosis which ended it in December 1876, four days short of his 36th birthday. Born and raised in the northern Germany city of Königsberg, he trained as a musician in his home town and Berlin, where his teachers included Hans von Bülow for piano. When the latter moved to Switzerland several years later, contact was renewed. On 6 December 1866 Bülow wrote to Joachim Raff in Germany commending his former pupil’s compositions: “A string quartet, piano trio, and sonata for four hands that he brought to me appear very mature, healthy, independent, and rich in sound.” A performance of the Trio in Basel was followed in early 1867 by an airing of Goetz’s Symphony in E minor, later destroyed.

Goetz embarked on a Swiss career for the sake of his health, but this was only postponing the inevitable. As the disease progressed, he showed considerable tenacity in carrying on as a performer, teacher and composer. He succeeded Theodor Kirchner as organist of the Stadtkirche, Winterthur, in 1863. Besides performing with the amateur players of the resident Musikkollegium, he established his own mixed choir, although it soon foundered for want of male voices. During his last years Goetz enjoyed the everyday support of Laura Wirth, his Swiss bride. They were married in 1868, the composition date of his posthumously published Violin Concerto. In 1870 the couple moved to Hottingen just outside Zurich, where Goetz was teaching piano privately. Two years later he resigned from his organist’s post. Goetz maintained a public profile through music journalism (he penned a thoughtful critique of Brahms’s Schicksalslied) and by appearing as a soloist with the Tonhalle Orchestra under Friedrich Hegar.

Joseph Viktor Widmann, the officiating clergyman at the composer’s wedding, played an important part in Goetz’s career. This highly cultured man was a friend of Brahms, whom Goetz met in 1865, and to whom he dedicated his Piano Quartet, opus 6. Widmann wrote the text for Goetz’s first dramatic composition, a New Year’s piece on the subject of the Magi. Subsequently – some ten years before Wagner began work on his final music drama – they discussed the idea of a Parsifal opera. In the end, however, the two decided on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. The resulting comic opera was to keep Goetz’s name posted on German billboards for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond. He lived long enough to witness the successful première of Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung in Mannheim, collapsing from exhaustion after the last curtain-call. Further productions were mounted in Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, and elsewhere. The work reached the London stage in 1879 and New York in 1886. Critics down the years have noted traces of Wagnerian harmony, but this is hardly a predominant feature of Goetz’s musical style.

After returning from Mannheim, Goetz began work on an unfinished Francesca da Rimini opera that would be completed by the conductor Ernst Frank. Apart from his Zähmung, major products of Goetz’s Zurich period were a Symphony in F, a piano quintet, and Nenie for chorus and orchestra – thought to have inspired Brahms’s setting of the same Schiller text. Modern times have seen the occasional revival of the Piano Concerto which Goetz composed in Winterthur. This work reveals a spontaneous melodic gift which is also evident, within a tighter structural frame, from the Violin Concerto in G major. In spirit, the latter piece harks back to the early Romanticism of Weber and Mendelssohn. Headed Allegro vivace, the concerto is in one continuous movement lasting some 15 minutes, the soloist entering dolce after four measures. There is a central Andante in the parallel minor key (G minor). The final section is prefaced by a short recitative for the violin, and a cadenza ushers in the 2/4-time conclusion (Vivace scherzando). Goetz’s idiomatic writing for the solo instrument owes its fluency to early violin lessons received from the concertmaster Georg Japha.

In the mid-1920s, at a time when Hermann Goetz was remembered solely by his comic opera, the Violin Concerto was introduced to New York by the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. A modern American printing was edited by Louis Kaufman, who played the solo part in a recording of the work.