Concerto (Quasi una fantasia) for Violin and Orchestra in B-flat major, Op. 21

By Chris Walton, Head of Music Section at the Central Library of Zurich

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Othmar Schoeck was born in Brunnen, a village on the shores of Lake Lucerne, on September 1, 1886. His father, Alfred Schoeck, was a noted landscape painter in his day. His gifts were inherited by a son to the extent that he, too seemed destined for the same career. The music gifts of Schoeck Jr. proved stronger, however, and so in 1904 he abandoned his painting studies and enrolled at the Zurich Conservatory. In 1907, he was discovered by Max Reger, whose composition class at the Leipzig Conservatory he subsequently joined. In 1908, Schoeck returned to Zurich, where he spend the rest of his life. Besides composing, Schoeck was active as an accompanist and as a conductor. In the latter capacity he directed the symphony concerts in St. Gall from 1917 until 1944, when a heart attack caused him to retire from the podium. Schoeck suffered constantly from ill health thereafter; he died of heart failure in 1957.

Schoeck’s oeuvres include eight operas, three of which have enjoyed several successful productions in recent years: Venus (1919-21), Massimilla Doni (1934-36), and Penthesilea (1923-27), all currently available on CD. Schoeck is, however, primarily known as a composer in the German Lied tradition. More than three hundred Lieder for voice and piano, composed over a period of more than fifty years, form the backbone of his output, and are currently being recorded in their entirety on the Swiss CD label Jecklin.

Schoeck wrote three concerti, of which two (the concerti for cello and strings and for French horn and strings) are products of his old age. The Violin Concerto, Op. 21, however, was composed in 1911-12. It owes its conception, at least in part, to the composer’s youthful infatuation with the Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer. Stefi had come to prominence as something of a Wunderkind whose talent was paired with great physical beauty. Just a few months before Schoeck began his prolonged but unsuccessful attempt at seduction, Bela Bartók had attempted the same with equal persistence (and equal lack of success). Schoeck was accustomed to rapid conquests, but the voracity of his sexual appetite was more than matched by Stefi’s prudishness. He later claimed that he and Stefi had written each other passionate love letters (which was apparently more than Bartók could have claimed), but that physical contact had been limited to a single kiss. It was, he said, as if Stefi’s body had been protected by a coat of armor. (Schoeck even maintained in later years that she was the only woman he knew who had never submitted to his charms.) After having been snubbed, Bartók had poured his unrequited feelings into a violin concerto, and this action was repeated by Schoeck, albeit quite independently, some two years later. There is little doubt about the source of Schoeck’s inspiration; a discarded sketch for the fourth movement bears the angry inscription “Dic chaibe Stefi!” (“Bloody Stefi!”).

Although Stefi received the dedication of the Concerto, it was first performed in its entirety by the concertmaster of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Willem de Boer, on March 19, 1912 in Bern (he had premiered the first movement on its own some months earlier). Stefi remained on excellent terms with both Schoeck and Bartók, while their admiration for her remained undimmed over the following decades. Stefi never allowed the Concerto Bartók had given her to be performed in her lifetime; Schoeck’s Concerto, however, became a mainstay of her repertoire. She not only performed it many times, but in the late 1940s made its first recording (now deleted), under the renowned English recording engineer Walter Legge.

When written, the Violin Concerto was Schoeck’s longest work, and only the fourth he had written for orchestra. Stylistically, it owes much to its Romantic predecessors, in particular the concerti of Brahms and Bruch, while Schoeck’s lack of confidence in dealing with large-scale forms is reflected in the subtitle Quasi una fantasia. The emphasis is altogether on broad, flowing melody rather than on motivic development (as one might expect from a composer whose oeuvre had hitherto consisted mostly of songs). And yet, the strength of Schoeck’s melodic inspiration more than compensates for the relative “formlessness” and no doubt accounts for this concerto’s sustained popularity (there are currently three recordings available on CD). Schoeck’s later works may show greater maturity and formal subtlety, but few capture the freshness and innocence of expression he achieved here.