Robert Fuchs, Serenade No. 1, Op. 9

By Byron Adams

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

In the seventh edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by the late Nicholas Slonimsky, an invidious comparison is made between the achievement of the Viennese composer Robert Fuchs and that of his more famous pupils: “[A]mong his students were Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Schreker . . . His own compositions are, however, of no consequence, and there is no evidence that he influenced his famous pupils stylistically or even technically; the only pieces that were at all successful were his 5 serenades for String Orch[estra].” Considering this entry in light of the facts will have one crucial result: the reader will learn once and for all to approach such declarations with a healthy skepticism. In point of fact, the fourth of Fuchs’ five serenades, op. 51 is scored for two horns and strings, while the fifth, op. 53, is not for string orchestra at all, but uses a small orchestra of winds and strings. Far from being inconsequential in their day, Fuchs’s cores were praised sincerely by Brahms, a notoriously severe and often dismissive critic of the music of his contemporaries. Indeed, Fuchs composed successfully in a variety of genres, making particularly distinguished contributions to the chamber music repertory.

Furthermore, a careful study of the early work of one of Fuchs’ famous pupils, Jean Sibelius, demonstrates decisively the vast importance of the Viennese pedagogues’ technical instruction on the young Finnish composer’s artistic maturation. Compare, for example, the awkward music Sibelius composed before his studies with Fuchs with the infinitely more accomplished scores he produced after submitting to his teacher’s strict tutelage. (For his part, Fuchs retained a distinct affection for his unruly Finnish pupil, writing glowing letters of recommendation on Sibelius’ behalf; indeed, Sibelius was offered his teacher’s position at the Vienna Conservatory upon Fuchs’ retirement in 1912.)

Putting aside inaccurate and dyspeptic dictionary entries, Fuchs was a polished and fluent composer whose attractive and often touching music struck a civilized compromise between fervid romanticism and poised classicism. Brahms has often been rightly cited as an influence upon Fuchs’ style, but Fuchs’ pellucid orchestration derives from Mendelssohn while his harmonic practice is often reminiscent of Schumann’s inimitable idiom. Furthermore, Fuchs’ counterpoint is extraordinarily elegant: the subtle interplay of his textures is invariably expert and assured. If anything, Fuchs’ music is too beautifully made: the surface perfection is so seductive as to obscure the romantic heart that beats beneath the exquisitely tailored vest.

Composed in 1874, Fuchs’ Serenade no. 1 in D major for strings, op.9, evinces the many virtues of his technical mastery while enlivening them with an winsome freshness. Dedicated to one Nicolaus Dumba, the Serenade is cast in five concise movements. After a lyrical opening prelude, the second movement is a graceful minuet that recalls the antiquarian spirit of the third movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony. During the playful third movement, Fuchs directs the players to make extensive use of tricky style of bowing known as spiccato; this little scherzo is replete with piquant modulations to distant keys. The slow fourth movement is the heart of this enchanting score, a contemplative adagio in which Fuchs’ innate romanticism is allowed to come to the fore. Fuchs unexpectedly begins his finale in D minor; his formal mastery is much in evidence throughout this high-spirited sonata that ends with a coruscating flash of D major.