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Othmar Schoeck, Trommelschläge

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 1, 1886, in Brunnen, Switzerland
Died March 8, 1957, in Zürich, Switzerland
Composed in 1915
Premiered on March 5, 1916 at Tonhalle, Zürich, with the Tonhalle-Orchester
Performance Time: Approximately 5 minutes

The horrors of the First World War intruded upon the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck personally: the only manuscript copy of one of his songs was destroyed when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. The song was lost at sea forever, along with over a thousand men, women, and children. Of course, Schoeck was far more horrified by the loss of life and the barbarism unleashed by the war than by the loss of a single song. He clearly understood that this cataclysm had changed everything, including, as it turned out, his own lush late-Romantic musical idiom.

Schoeck’s turn toward Expressionism can first be heard in his brief, violent, and harrowing Trommelschläge, Op. 26, for chorus and large orchestra. German-speaking composers who sought to comment musically on the First World War faced a paucity of German-language poetry that dealt with war, so Schoeck turned to the American verse of Walt Whitman. Sometime before August 1915, Schoeck’s friend, the painter and poet Gustav Gamper, introduced the composer to Whitman’s poetry through Johannes Schlaf’s 1907 German translation. Schoeck turned to “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” one of Whitman’s Civil War poems, finishing the score of Trommelschläge (“Drum Taps”) on August 16.

Schoeck wrote pessimistically to a friend, “I have vented all my anger about the present into a choral piece. It will perhaps break the neck of my position in Zürich.” The position to which he was referring was his conductorship of the Lehrergesangverein, one of Zürich’s leading choral ensembles. Predictably, the singers detested Trommelschläge, which they considered to be a bewildering example of musical ultra-modernism. Some of the singers ceased attending rehearsals as a protest. The choral society’s president begged the choristers to refrain from criticizing the score publically before its premiere. Despite these ill omens, the work proved to be a critical and audience success. Schoeck’s conception of a five-minute work that transformed both chorus and orchestra into a gigantic demonic drum proved overwhelming to its first listeners. In later years, Schoeck proudly asserted that Trommelschläge was his “first piece of modern music.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.