The Musical Romance of Childhood

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In today’s concert, several historical threads work in conjunction with one another. All three works mark the apogee of the nineteenth-century tradition of so-called program music. Until recently it been an accepted premise of music history that during the nineteenth century a great divide took place within European music. On the one side stood composers such as Brahms who supposedly believed in the autonomy of musical expression and meaning, and who chose to stress the continuities in instrumental music between the work of Haydn and Mozart and that of the first Romantic generation of Schumann and Mendelssohn. On the other side of the divide were Liszt, Wagner and their followers, who saw in not only the early Romantics but in Beethoven as well an essential dramatic and narrative logic in music. For them contemporaneity and modernity meant the fulfillment of a logical compatibility between music and poetry and music and drama. Instead of believing a storyline, an emotion, or a visual description as being extraneous to or at odds with “pure” musical expression, this group of nineteenth-century composers and aestheticians believed that modernity required an integration of disparate art forms, using music as the fundamental unifying factor. Their belief in music’s supreme ability to represent and divulge human experience stemmed from the striking philosophical prestige accorded to it as the highest of the arts by Hegel and Schopenhauer earlier in the century.

As we proceed to revise our understanding of the nineteenth century, what seemed to have been irreconcilable differences on a philosophical plane turn out in hindsight to have been more narrowly political and personal. We have now come to appreciate the narrative dimension in what were once regarded as models of pure musical expression in Mozart and Haydn. Formalism no longer seems so absolute, and conversely, narrative music no longer seems quite so structurally dependant on extra-musical logics, as the successful misapplication of Strauss to diverse modern contexts, such as film, have made apparent. Brahms and Wagner seem to possess affinities which would have never been considered by previous generations.

But when the works on today’s program were composed, the rift between program music and absolute instrumental music had not yet been called into question. The employment of large-scale orchestral forms in the service of telling a story, describing a scene, or illustrating an emotion was controversial. For many of the most sophisticated advocates of musical culture, this kind of post-Lisztian orchestral music was a telling sign of the vulgarity of the age and the decline in standards of taste. The symphonies of Tchaikovsky, for example, even though they lacked precise literary programs, were derided as hysterical and bombastic outpourings of human sentiment, unrefined by the formal discipline which was considered indispensable to beauty in music.

The collapsing of the opposition between Brahms’s symphonies on the one hand and the tone poems of Richard Strauss on the other derives from a line of inquiry that was rarely pursued in the nineteenth century but which has become important in the late twentieth century. If we consider the musical culture of the past not from the point of view of the composer but of the listener, and approach music’s reception as a historical process, we realize that in the nineteenth century–an age without the phonograph or the moving picture–audiences (aestheticians not withstanding) listened visually and narratively. A composer may have offered up something called a symphony identifiable only by its formal structure. But that did not mean that audiences flocked to symphony concerts merely to respond to formal achievement. The intensity with which the nineteenth-century audience listened reveals the extent to which music pervaded and inspired the full range of daily experience and feeling. Audiences saw pictures, heard stories, and experienced deep emotional responses, conjuring deep personal associations from instrumental music, no matter the composer, without apology. What the advocates of program music sought to do was to harness this ongoing process more effectively.

When the young Richard Strauss left the Brahmsian model behind him and began writing orchestral tone poems he became an enfant terrible for conservative critics and audiences, but his craftsmanship was so astonishing that even his worst detractors had to admire his command of musical form. All of the tone poems reveal a debt to symphonic writing and classical procedures in their explicitly literary programs (Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Also Spoke Zarathustra). But even Strauss pushed the tolerance of his critics, first with Ein Heldenleben, and then with Symphonia Domestica in 1903. In this work, which has been vilified and ridiculed, Strauss pushes the possibility of description and narration through instrumental music to the extreme. But rather than see this as an extravagant and self-indulgent display of narcissism as some would have it, the Symphonia Domestica may be one of the most ambitious though admittedly perverse challenges to smug assertions of good taste. This work is radical in a way that we generally reserve as a description for modernist experimentalists. Strauss uses irony to extend something self-evident in the work of Robert Schumann: the use of music as the expression of subjective and highly personalized emotion. What is really the difference between Schumann’s private fantasies and illusions which dominate his early piano music and the first person narrative which Strauss offers us? The mundane and precise nature of the program in fact forces us to do more than look for illustration, but to transcend evident illustration and respond to a musical experience–precisely the objective of the opponents to program music. Strauss joins the company of some of his literary contemporaries, such as Henry James (whose masterpiece The Ambassadors was also published in 1903) and later James Joyce, who struggled to represent human psychology through using an astonishing wealth of seemingly trivial and mundane detail. In the cases both of Strauss and his contemporary writers, the quandary was the same: how can one convey interior human responses to life through an aesthetic medium. Rather than escape into abstraction Strauss went the other way.

Indeed, by the time of Joyce’s generation, Strauss’s outrageous experiment had become more commonplace. Charles Loeffler might have been the object of some proper Bostonian’s ire and contempt because of an absence of austerity and rectitude in his music, but no one could accuse Sir Edward Elgar of bad taste. It is also easy to forget that even earlier, in the 1890s, Antonin Dvorák , upon his return from America, wrote a series of tone poems including one called A Hero’s Life. At the end of his career, the great protégé of Brahms recognized the potential in the new forms put forward by the young radical Richard Strauss. The conductor of the first performance of Dvorák ’s tone poem (performed by the ASO five years ago) was none other than Gustav Mahler. The distance between Mahler’s Fifth symphony and Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica is perhaps narrower than we might like to admit.

If program music became as obsessed as literature at the turn of the last century with the representation of internal realities through an extension of illustration, one would expect that the subject matter would move away from the historical and mythological to the personal and autobiographical. That is exactly what happened. This turn inwards was firmly grounded in alarming observations of the changing exterior world. By the end of the century, the transformation of the European and American landscape was unprecedented. The prominence of urban centers with their subsequent social problems and the effects of industrial growth were the external factors that gave rise to an obsessive reflection on the meaning of history and the direction of these radical changes. Whether literate Europeans and Americans turned to Marx or Darwin, the question “Where are we headed?” in response to the runaway pace of societal development was matched by an equally logical question: “What have we left behind?” It is not surprising that childhood as a part of a self-conscious examination of the human psyche became a compelling subject for many artists and thinkers at that time, and that just then Lewis Carroll came along to encrypt children’s desire and terror in complex rhymes and imagery, and Freud sought to reveal a startling picture of the beginnings of mental life.

Children, no longer perceived as merely unfinished adults, were idealized by some as being in a state of nature and innocence, much as the countryside was idealized as a pastoral landscape undefiled by the city. The process of their corruption in the course of maturity constituted the record of the adult’s current psychological state. An examination of memory and perhaps a return to or preservation of childhood therefore became, and remains today, an important part of the interior psychic struggle among adults to live in the world. The three works on today’s program use three different approaches to the question of how one preserves or discards memory and how one assesses the cost of growing up. What differentiates, however, the musical treatment of childhood and childhood memory in the early twentieth century from, for example, the evocation of childhood in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is that the sense of distance and loss is more profound and the desire to preserve the child in oneself more apparent. Maturity has been found unfulfilling and as a result childhood idealized. As listeners left the daily routine of their lives behind and chose voluntarily to flock into concert halls to be transported by sound alone away from the routines and burdens of their daily life, they welcomed music’s capacity to evoke the nostalgic charm, the intensity, confusion, and tumult as well as the poignancy of youth.

The Wand of Youth, Suite I, Op. 1a (1907)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“What remains for ever a wonder is Sir Edward Elgar’s want of youth,” said a review in those dangerous days when critics would call their copy in to the paper by telephone. Nothing could be further from the truth either about this enchanting suite of incidental music or about Elgar’s artistic character in general. Even in such works of his fifties as the First Symphony and Falstaff, maturity finds space for episodes that hark nostalgically back to childhood. And the Wand of Youth pieces wave the magic implement of their title with unmistakable freshness.

Where the expression of innocence and childlike wonderment are concerned, there are two kinds of music: music of childhood, and music about childhood. Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica and Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood fall essentially into the latter category. In the Wand of Youth, by contrast, Elgar did what Benjamin Britten was to do in his Simple Symphony, taking music created in actual childhood and giving it a finished form that profits from later technical and artistic experience. Britten was only twenty and Elgar exactly twice that age when they did their revisions, but the principle is the same, and the materials in both cases were in existence by the time each composer was twelve years old.

The originals reworked in the two Wand of Youth suites were originally composed for a play devised by Elgar and his brothers and sisters back in the 1860s. Since they survive only in their 1907 and 1908 orchestral incarnations, we cannot be sure how close these are in musical character to their juvenile source. But the sheer personality of the music suggests that Elgar, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, came into being fully formed. The ardent cantabile theme in the First Suite’s overture foreshadows the mature Elgar’s taste for wide melodic leaps of a sixth or seventh; the gnomic brass utterances depicting the giants in its last movement belong in the same expressive world as the concert overture In the South, with the baleful grandeur of its “ancient Roman” episode.

The sheer orchestral mastery throughout, moreover, while doubtless owing much to thirty intervening years of experience, had its foundation right back in Elgar’s teens and even before. Though self-taught as a composer, he had good teachers on several instruments: he mastered piano and violin as a small child, picked up knowledge of the organ from his father’s professional work, and had begun to add viola, cello, and bassoon to his conquests before he was ten. This was the basis for the phenomenal orchestral technique that led the English orchestral violist Bernard Shore to observe: “In one respect no composer has ever matched Elgar. None other has fully exploited all the orchestral instruments and at the same time written nothing impossible. In this latter respect Strauss frequently sins, and so did Wagner. Most latter-day composers set entirely unnecessary problems of execution . . . Elgar was unerring.” In this respect as in others, the child was clearly father to the man.

Memories of My Childhood (1925)

By Carol J. Oja, College of William and Mary

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Few escape the politics of their time, as Charles Martin Loeffler’s Memories of My Childhood vividly shows. Seeming on the surface to be a series of innocent snapshots, the work is framed by painful behind-the-scenes episodes.

Subtitled, “Life in a Russian Village,” the work looks back on three years of Loeffler’s childhood (1869-1972), when his family settled in Smela in the Ukraine. He was eight years old when the residency began. Following a tradition for tone poems, Loeffler provided an introductory statement about how he sought “to express” through music the vision in his “heart and memory” of “Russian peasant songs, the Yourod’s Litany-prayer, the happiest of days, fairy-tales and dance-songs.” The work ends by commemorating “the death of Vasinka, an elderly peasant, a Bayan or story-teller, singer, maker of willow pipes on which he played tunes of weird intervals, and the companion-friend of the boy who now later in life, notes down what he hopes these pages will tell.”

True to his word, the composer shaped a series of lush impressions, opening with the sound of church bells, alternating between pensive and playful scenes, and delivering vignettes of a distant time and place. There is no question about where this tale unfolds. The reeds deliver plaintive minor tunes with an Eastern European cast, the strings soar, the surfaces glimmer, and the work fades off into hazy retrospection-until, that is, Loeffler delivers obligatory power chords at the end.

As it turns out, Loeffler carefully selected a memory to capture in music. His father directed a sugar factory in the Ukraine, and after leaving that post, he and his family returned to Germany. The timing turned out to be fateful. One year earlier Otto von Bismarck had become chancellor of the German Empire, and Loeffler’s father joined the resistance against him, protesting especially the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. According to Loeffler’s biographer Ellen Knight, the nature of his father’s political activities is not fully known. But the elder Loeffler ended up in prison in 1878, when his son was seventeen, and he probably died there. The young composer kept this episode carefully hidden, sharing it with only a few friends over the years. It came to represent, as he confessed at one point, “the most dire distress” of his life. Against such a backdrop, Loeffler’s years in the Ukraine must have seemed “happy” indeed.

Ironically, Memories of My Childhood faced political hurdles after it was composed in 1924. By then, Loeffler was living in Massachusetts, where he had settled after emigrating to the United States in 1881. He was a much-respected violinist, performing first with Leopold Damrosch’s orchestra in New York and then with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was second concertmaster for over twenty years. He also established a strong reputation as a composer, especially as an exponent of French impressionism. Soon after completing Memories of My Childhood, Loeffler submitted it to a competition sponsored by the North Shore Festival Association in Evanston, Illinois. There was to be a cash prize, together with a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Although Loeffler ultimately won, the jury’s proceedings became mired in political paranoia, as one of the judges later recalled. “You may remember,” wrote Deems Taylor in Of Men and Music (1945), “that in the early twenties we enjoyed a witch-hunt in this country . . . [against] Communists.” When one of the judges saw the subtitle of Loeffler’s score, he “suddenly smelled tainted gold,” as Taylor recounted. “Did we actually mean that we were going to sit there and award this prize to some Russian immigrant, presumably unwashed, probably with whiskers, and indubitably in the pay of Lenin and Trotsky, some insidious alien who was adopting this dastardly means of taking the bread out of the mouths of honest American composers? A thousand…oh, fifteen hundred times…no!” Taylor remembered that when Loeffler’s identity was finally revealed, the suspicious member of the jury ended up with a face that “turned the color that is usually associated with Communism.” Frederick Stock conducted the premiere of Loeffler’s work on May 30, 1924, and it was subsequently performed by orchestras around the country.

Thus Memories of My Childhood demands a double-vision, taking in its overt nostalgia but remaining alert to the murky edges that surround it.

Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 (1903)

By Timothy L. Jackson, University of North Texas

Written for the concert The Musical Romance of Childhood, performed on April 5, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

By 1902-03, the years in which Richard Strauss composed his Symphonia Domestica, the idea of composing a symphony about one’s own love-life was not new. Schumann in his Fourth Symphony (1841-51) had represented the trials and tribulations of his difficult courtship of Clara, Brahms in his First Symphony (1876) had composed out the problems of his “friendship” with Clara, and Tchaikovsky in his Pathétique (1893) had recreated his homosexual “grande passion pathetique” for his nephew “Bob” Davidov. But in all of these symphonies, the autobiographical erotic aspect had been idealized and thereby universalized; what was new with Strauss was the blatant realism of the “domestic” scena, the inclusion of the screaming child Franz, the fights with the wife Pauline, and the sheer realism of the “love scene” between composer and wife, which Romain Rolland decried as one of the most audacious challenges Strauss had “hurled against at [good] taste and common-sense.” Strauss was evidently touched by Mahler’s “utter condemnation” of the program (Mahler had conducted the Viennese premiere of the Domestica in 1904); when he decided to complete the Alpine Symphony (begun in 1901) as a requiem for Mahler in 1911, he transformed its original programmatic depiction of the real-life affair between Lydia Welti and Karl Stauffer into a cosmic rather than particularized amour.

The Symphonia Domestica is a multi-movement symphony in six continuous and motivically interlaced movements, which describes a twenty-four hour life-cycle in the Strauss famille. The first movement introduces the three main protagonists: first the Papa (Strauss), then the Mama (Pauline), and finally the Baby (i.e. the Bubi Franz) as both the mediating factor between disputatious parents and the hymnic incarnation of their love. The second movement, the Scherzo, depicts the Baby paraded before admiring relatives and resisting bedtime; it is linked to the third movement, the Pastorale-Lullabye (“Wiegenlied”), by a developmental transition in which the Baby screams vociferously at being put to bed. A further transition, in which the clock chimes seven o’clock at night (Bubi’s bedtime), introduces the fourth movement, the Adagio/Development. Here, the music portrays Strauss working in his study, the entrance of Pauline, and a passionate sexual encounter in which the Pauline-motive is aggressively placed “on top” of Strauss’s. At the climax of the love music, grinding dissonance, motivic superposition, and texture graphically differentiate male and female orgasms: Strauss’s unpublished note in the short-score calls attention to “the woman’s motive in very excited figuration, the man’s quickly subsiding” (“Das weibliche Motiv in sehr aufgeregter Figuration; das maennliche sich schnell beruhigend”). “Dreams and worries” (as described by Strauss in another note) cloud restless post-coital repose, which is interrupted by the clock chiming seven o’clock in the morning. The fifth movement, an enormously complicated triple fugue combining the Father, Mother, and Child themes, (which initiates the recapitulation within the overall form), represents a colossal family feud.

In concluding this analysis of form and program, I wish to call special attention to the new (“break-through”) theme–the stepwise descending melody in the high winds and violins in parallel thirds and sixths–that introduces the “love-scene” proper, whose deeper significance has too often been overlooked by performers and the public. This new theme is not developed in the love scene/Adagio but eventually becomes the main subject of the Epilogue/Sixth movement. Through this very special act of “blessing,” the work transcends mere crass description to become a metaphysical hymn to domestic love: in the Adagio, this melody both heralds and sanctifies the composer’s otherwise rather graphic self-depiction in the act of love; its “release” in the Epilogue embodies the redemptive oneness and unity of the family. Perhaps it is fitting to conclude these remarks with an observation concerning the ingenuity of Strauss’s often astonishingly transparent but sometimes heavy orchestration for approximately 110 players (including eight horns and five saxophones!). As the famous conductor Hans Richter quipped, not all the gods burning in Walhalla could make one quarter of the noise of a single Bavarian baby in his bath.