Nachhall, Op. 70 (1955)

By Michael Baumgartner

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The song cycle Nachhall [Echo], Op. 70, first performed at the Tonhalle Zürich on December 6, 1955 with the alto Elsa Cavelti, and under the direction of Erich Schmid, marks a culmination, in many respects, of the oeuvre of the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957). Written between October 1954 and February 1955 and orchestrated in May and June 1955, Nachhall was Schoeck’s last major achievement. With Nachhall he once again focused his efforts on the genre in which he had written a major part of his compositions, the German Lied. From his earliest youth until his final years Schoeck wrote more than 400 Lieder, most of them for voice and piano. Of particular interest are his song cycles. Some were conceived for voice and piano, such as Der Sänger, Op. 57 (1944/45) and Das stille Leuchten, Op. 60 (1946); some for orchestra, like Lebendig begraben, op. 40 (1926), Befreite Sehnsucht, Op. 66 (1952) and Nachhall; one for voice and chamber orchestra: Elegie, Op. 36 (1921/22); and one for voice and string quartet: Notturno, Op. 47 (1931-33).

Some song cycles are connected by a common theme, and for others Schoeck used poems only by a single poet (mostly of German, Austrian, or Swiss origin from the nineteenth century). Nachhall is based on the theme of the faithlessness of friends. In a world drenched in sorrow, melancholy, solitude, and death, nobody knows the other, and everyone is ultimately lonely. This pessimistic Weltschmerz attitude is present in the first eleven of the twelve poems that Schoeck chose for the cycle. They reflect the unstable psychic state of the poem’s author, the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50). After Schoeck suffered a heart attack in 1944, which forced him to give up his busy conducting career, he was more receptive to such poetry. Having felt increasingly lonely, despite the presence of his wife Hilde and beloved daughter Gisela, he believed his music was not being performed and appreciated any longer and that his friends had abandoned him.

Accordingly, after his withdrawal from public life, Schoeck altered his compositional style considerably, treating the musical material with economy and austerity. The twelve songs of Nacchhall are presented like a soliloquy with the content being highly personal and inward looking. Schoeck lets the voice dominate over the instrumental accompaniment and often employs alternative vocal techniques, such as parlando and quasi Sprechgesang. He does not link the songs with a general tonal scheme, nor with a common motif, but rather depicts the introspection and depressed mood of the poems through dark orchestral sounds and by keeping the voice in the low register. Then, an unexpected break happens: Schoeck ends the song cycle with the poem, “O du Land,” by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). The choral “O you land” brightens up the gloomy tone of the previous songs: the individual is removed from worldly sorrows and cares. Schoeck clearly struggled with the ending of Nachhall, a fact borne out by the three different versions of the choral. The one that he eventually selected emphasizes the contrast not only in the lighter treatment of the voice, but also in the use of an intricate contrapuntal voice-web, which is absent in the rest of the cycle. Nachhall ends with words of consolation and hope, words which later were engraved on Schoeck’s gravestone.