Joseph Marx, Eine Herbstsymphonie (Autumn Symphony)

By John Wood, Poet and Art Critic

Written for the concert Against the Avant-Garde: Romanticisms of the 1920s, performed on Dec 7, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

We are fortunate to live in a time of broadminded musical rediscovery. Doors that once had slammed shut on the careers of many brilliant composers have reopened, especially on some early twentieth century ones who got caught in the middle of the Tonal Wars. Those battles are over today, and without the slightest twinge of schizophrenia it is now possible to admit to enjoying both Berg’s Lulu and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. The return of the music of Schreker, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and other tonal-modernists has not only created a more accurate picture of the past century’s musical history but has also enriched our musical lives. This is particularly the case in the on-going rediscovery of Joseph Marx (1882-1964).

Marx was a famous teacher of theory and composition, founder and rector of Vienna’s first Hochschule für Musik, and a powerful critic, until 1938 when he was dismissed from the Neues Wiener Journal. He resumed his activities after the war and continued to make enemies by expressing his aversion to the music of the Second Viennese School. But most importantly, he was one of Austria’s leading composers.

He has rightly been labeled both an Impressionist and a Romantic. He was influenced by Scriabin and Reger but evolved his own unique sound. It can be heard in the first bars of “The Song of Autumn” that opens Eine Herbstsymphonie. By superimposing yearning melodies and bi-tonal effects, and by unexpectedly changing keys, he develops a level of ingeniousness that he had already demonstrated in his Lieder and in his single-movement cantata Autumn Chorus to Pan (1911). “The Song” continues as a transfigured evocation of Autumn. The second movement depicts the “Dance of the Midday Spirits” while “Autumnal Thoughts,” the third movement, grows more serious as Marx proceeds toward the deeper meanings implicit in his theme of Autumn.

Eine Herbstsymphonie is big music, not just large in terms of orchestration, but immense in its metaphysical outlook. It is a work deeply consonant with four other symphonies roughly contemporary with it, three by Austrians and one by an Englishman: Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909 ); Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony (1909); von Hausegger’s Natursinfonie (1911); and Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Sinfonie (1922). Ostensibly they deal with five of the great fundamentals of human existence: the earth, the sea, nature, autumn, and love. But their true subject is the meaning of our relationship with those fundamentals.

For Marx the seasons were the great symbols of transience and the cycle of life. Autumn was his favorite, even though it is about change, about death and decay. What we hear in Eine Herbstsymphonie, however, is not the heartbreaking farewell at the conclusion of Mahler’s 9th. For Marx Autumn also symbolized wisdom and the rightness of Nature, even in what She takes away. It may not be joyful resignation we hear in the last movement, for it is tinged with melancholy, but it is a contented resignation, one that acknowledges the richness, the rightness, and the wisdom of Nature’s cycles.