Ludwig Thuille, Romantic Overture

By Byron Adams

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

“Those whom the gods love die young.” With this familiar quotation from Menander, the composer Edgar Istel began a concise but perceptive article that was published in a 1934 issue of The Music Quarterly on the all-too-brief career of his teacher, Ludwig Thuille. As Istel relates, Thuille was born in the Tyrolean town of Bozon; orphaned at an early age, he was dispatched by an Austrian uncle to Kremsmüster, where he sang in the choir and received instruction in both piano and violin. Happily, the boy’s evident musical abilities brought him to the attention of a wealthy widow who paid for Thuille’s education. In 1877, Thuille met Richard Strauss in Innsbruck and the two young musicians became close friends. The letters that passed between the two testify to their enduring mutual affection and sympathy.

Two years after meeting Strauss, Thuille was admitted to the Royal Music School in Munich, where he studied with the organist and composer Josef Rheinberger. Rheinberger was a formidable pedant whose method was predicated on an exhaustive study of counterpoint. Perhaps Rheinberger’s conservatism led the young Thuille to harbor an initial distrust for Wagner’s compositional methods, which he dismissed as “fundamentally false.” At this time, Thuille was far more enchanted with the music of Robert Schumann, whose style had a lasting influence on Thuille’s own development as a composer; as Istel forthrightly declares, “Thuille was by nature a romanticist.”

Like Strauss, Thuille was converted eventually into a worshiper at the Wagnerian altar through the efforts of Alexander Ritter, a minor composer, writer, and violinist. Married to one of Wagner’s nieces, Ritter was an uncompromising adherent of Wagner’s music and theories and thus a highly effective proselytizer for the Master of Bayreuth. Thuille’s enthusiasm for the Mage of Bayreuth was further quickened by his marriage in 1887 to Emma Dietl, who was a passionate Wagnerite. Even so, Thuille retained a certain ambivalence towards Wagner; he once remarked approvingly to a student that “[T]he astonishing thing is that you have kept yourself entirely free from the Wagnerian influence!”

As with Schumann, the years following Thuille’s marriage prompted a burst of creative activity. Among the scores that Thuille completed during this joyous period is an attractive Sextet, op. 6, for woodwind quintet and piano, his only composition to secure a modest place in the current repertory. Premiered in 1889 at the Wiesbaden Festival, this Sextet exemplifies Thuille’s style at its most graceful, fluent, and polished. As Istel rightly observes, the Sextet is “facile in invention, remarkably clear in form”; as he also notes, “it affords the wind instruments a grateful opportunity without allowing the piano to overplay its role as accompanying instrument.”

Thuille’s charming Romantische Ouvertüre (“Romantic Overture”) was the result of a much more ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful project. Thuille’s first opera, Teuerdank, is hobbled by Alexander Ritter’s feeble libretto; most of the music is a pale imitation of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wisely declining to publish Teuerdank after its initial production in 1897, Thuille rescued its sparkling introduction by separating it from the opera and giving it a new title. In the rechristened Romantische Ouvertüre, Thuille casts an affectionate backward glance towards the more innocent pre-Wagnerian romanticism of his beloved Schumann.

In addition to his accomplishments as a composer, Thuille was a highly respected composition teacher at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich; his students included Ernest Bloch and Walter Braunfels. Istel bears eloquent testimony to Thuille’s gifts as a pedagogue: “Instead of rules and prohibitions [,] Thuille offered meticulous criticism, criticism that consisted solely of the composition at hand, so that each pupil was sure to receive what he needed . . . [A]ccordingly almost every one of his pupils has gone his own way.” Along with his widow and his friend Richard Strauss, Thuille’s students mourned their kindly teacher’s sudden death at the early age of forty-six on February 5, 1907.