Symphony No. 4, “Dies irae” (1943-45/1972)

By Hartmut Krones

Written for the concert A World Apart, performed on Dec 5, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Early on, the Viennese composer Marcel Rubin (1905-1995) became a citizen of the world both based on his education and his years spent in emigration. Following brief studies with Franz Schmidt, from 1925 to 1931 he became a private student of Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he had some success. In 1938, he set out on a restless journey. First, he emigrated to Paris, later to Marseille, and finally to Mexico City, where he became a rehearsal coach at the opera and accompanied or directed his own works. In 1947, he returned to Austria and became a music critic, but he focused primarily on his work, which includes among others the opera Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man), four oratorios, ten symphonies, concerti, other orchestral pieces, chamber music and song cycles.

Rubin’s style was highly influenced by Milhaud and other masters of the group Les Six, who vehemently railed against the German (specifically Wagner’s) so-called sauerkraut-pathos and instead nurtured its fantasy and wit by replacing complex harmonies with melody and rhythm. He also exhibited a superior grasp of form by making even the most artful structures clearly visible, as well as a penchant for humanitarian or social and political themes, which created an “engaged” type of music.

In Mexico, during the years of 1943-45, Rubin’s Fourth Symphony was created, reflecting his experiences during World War II: the first two movements tell of its horror, while two others (a pastoral segment and a jubilant fugue) initially hint toward the dream for peace, accounting for the original title, “War and Peace.” When Rubin later realized that the longed-for peace did not coincide with the proposed ideals, he destroyed the two positive movements and created a new, subdued pastoral piece with a deeply pensive ending. He chose the “Dies irae” as his new title, comparing the gruesome war with the horrors of judgment day and using the ancient choral sequence as basis of his second and third movements.

The theme of the first movement, a funeral march in the form of a freestyle Rondo, is based on the four stanzas of Bertolt Brecht’s deeply moving ballad Kinderkreuzzug 1939 (Children’s Crusade 1939), which recounts the story of lost, roaming children who slowly starve to death in winter. A solo viola intones a melancholy theme, which climaxes in a wide orchestral cantilena, until excursions into the major realm represent the dream of a “land where there is peace.” After a return of the main theme, a Vivo is heard as central children’s episode, before angry orchestral thunderclaps finally destroy all hope. The movement is rounded out with a pianissimo reprise of the distorted main melody.

The “Dies irae” second movement recalls the horrors of war in sonata form. Fanfares sound, followed by the increasingly faster moving main theme reminiscent of the “Dies irae,” which eventually becomes rhythmically truncated. Only the secondary theme played by the solo violin allows brief glimpses of a peaceful scenario, but is interrupted by dissonance. The development is fashioned as a double fugue based on the “Dies irae” and a new theme, while a variation of the first movement’s main theme appears before the reprise, where the original ancient “Dies irae” hymn is featured as climax.

The muted pastoral ending is a Passacaglia based on the “Dies irae,” until the variations give way to a flute passage – a melody from Rubin’s Marienliedern, symbolizing the possibility of change through religious meditation. Again, the piece ends with a question, leaving open the possibility of a bright outlook.

(Trans. Gila Fox)