Victorian Secrets

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“It is imperative therefore to convince the German people that its enemies of yesterday and today, the foes of its superiority, will remain its enemies tomorrow—eternal enemies! Let us take a closer look: the Englishman in principle and in practice—the Magna Carta for himself, the noose around their necks for the other nations; his house is his castle, but everybody else’s house is his as well—offers no insight into this arid, depraved breed of mankind. England and true culture are as inimical as venality and probity. There is nothing more loathsome, nothing more nauseating, than the Englishman who, his prey safely in his lair, changes his tune and protests allegiance to humanity, culture, and religion…having only yesterday bitten the hand generously outstretched to him by German scholars…Oh what a miserable toad the Englishman is!…Let the German people be guided by history and what history has to tell us through our superior thinkers, artists, and historians; let them especially learn the lesson of the World War and so construct a true picture of the other nation, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon…then they will discover that these peoples all lack power of creativity at the highest level of genius. Genius is possessedness, demonic nature…No Anglo-Saxon…could ever carry in her womb…a Bach, a Mozart…Of all the nations living on the earth today, the German nation alone possesses true genius…”

These startling words were published in 1921 by Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935), the most influential and original music theorist of the twentieth century, in an essay entitled “The Mission of German Genius.” The rest of Schenker’s essay is even more virulent in its attack on the culture and institutions of the non-German western world. The French take the most sustained beating, and Americans are dismissed as being unable to “attain the intellectual and moral ascendancy needed to contribute to the higher goals of mankind.”

The nationalities surrounding Germany, particularly to the east, and the French to the west, were keenly aware of this form of German cultural arrogance before 1914. But there had always been the appearance of greater respect between the Germans and the English if for no other reason than that the royal house in England was of German origin and that Shakespeare had been appropriated as a nearly German classical author. Americans are certainly unaccustomed to viewing England as a peripheral nation in terms of culture. Anglophilia has been a dominant feature of American literary and intellectual traditions. It is also unsettling to realize that Schenker’s views are perilously close to those of the Nazi ideologists of the 1920s and 1930s. The fact that Schenker, an observant member of the Viennese Jewish community, adhered to these views and propagated them indicates how deep-seated the sense of German cultural superiority was and how widely it was internalized, particularly in the field of music. For Schenker and for Schoenberg, German music was universal. All other national traditions were marginal and derivative. Of all the non-German composers Schenker discussed, he found positive words only for select pieces by Chopin and Smetana.

Lest one think that these outrageous polemical views were confined to Germans, one needs to recall that the English and the Americans, until World War I, were themselves enthralled with the idea of German superiority in music and accepted it. American composers and performers routinely traveled to Germany for their training. During the nineteenth century the English also looked to Germany first for musical inspiration. For Edward Elgar (1857-1934), hearing Parsifal and listening to Brahms were seminal experiences. One of the most influential figures in turn-of-the-century English concert life was Hans Richter, Wagner’s disciple and the first Bayreuth conductor. It was England that bestowed honorary degrees on Max Bruch (the teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams) and Johannes Brahms. Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) deeply admired not only Richter but Hans von Bülow. Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) had his first success as a composer during his stay in Leipzig as a conservatory student.

In France, the sway of German music focused on two figures: Beethoven in the time of Berlioz, and later in the century, Wagner (after Baudelaire’s embrace of Wagnerian aesthetic). In England, the dominance of German influence can be dated far earlier. Nineteenth-century Britain was captivated by Felix Mendelssohn. He was without question the most beloved composer of the young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert. But even before that, the eighteenth century in England was dominated by the rivalry between the Italian and the German musical influences. Even the Italianate style was partially mediated through Germans like Handel and Haydn.

The irony of all of this is that among the audiences and amateur performances of music in Europe, England possessed perhaps the most lively, extensive and engaged. Music had a central role in English culture as far back as the Regency. There is not a Jane Austen novel in which music does not figure. The English middle classes embraced music education and concert life with an enviable enthusiasm. England developed one of the most extensive and enduring choral traditions. Great works such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah to Dvořák’s Requiem owe their existence to the English public of listeners and vocal amateurs. Even Beethoven toward the end of his life toyed with the idea of moving to London. The great violinist Joseph Joachim toured England regularly with his quartet and regarded his visits among the most satisfying experiences of his career. In contrast to France, the power of the Mendelssohnian tradition and non-Wagnerian music from the late nineteenth century (the more conservative tradition of German composition) flourished in English concert programs and in domestic music-making. Wagner, as Bernard Shaw’s advocacy suggests, had his staunch English admirers, but so did Brahms, for whom the French never felt great enthusiasm.

Given the richness of English music life before 1914, it is fascinating to consider the ongoing perception of the apparent absence of great composers in the many decades that followed the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. Indeed the first Englishman to gain significant international recognition after Purcell was Sir Edward Elgar, and only quite late in his career. Even so, despite the acknowledged greatness of Elgar’s music in the accepted pantheon of great composers, he still occupies a subordinate place. His music is celebrated as the best of fin-de-siècle English music, but still overshadowed by contemporary German parallels.

Therefore with the exception of Elgar, most American audiences remain unfamiliar with the achievements of English musical composition from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is only in the twentieth century with Benjamin Britten that English music regained some of its prominence on the concert and operatic stages. Even Gilbert and Sullivan, who enjoyed phenomenal success in the musical theater, have now been relegated mostly to amateur high-school and college productions. How many are aware that Arthur Sullivan wrote music independently of W.S. Gilbert? Stanford was a close contemporary of Elgar; their relationship was delicate and strained. Stanford’s position in English musical life was extremely powerful, yet none of his music is really present in the repertory. Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is held in high esteem among connoisseurs, but to many his is a name even less known than that of Stanford.

This traditional, condescending assessment of Elgar and his contemporaries suggests a problem of national perception. No matter how good English music may be, it cannot approach the heights of German music. Whether we like it or not, we think more like Schenker than we might wish. But precisely this persistent Schenkerian prejudice gives us an interesting insight into the tradition of British music. Tonight’s program suggests that England was not exempt from the search by composers from most non-German European countries in the late nineteenth century for a distinctive national voice in music. English composers, like their compatriots in other lands, often incorporated what they believed to be distinctly native sources and traditions in their art. In the English case, it was Anglo-Saxon and Irish. Stanford’s “Irish” Symphony is comparable to the symphonies of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. In the effort to construct a distinctly national style, Frank Bridge’s Isabella is akin to the work of his French contemporary Claude Debussy. Elgar’s Sea Pictures can perhaps be set alongside the orchestral songs of Gustav Mahler, who, although German-speaking, understood himself as not essentially German. English music experienced the same impulse as other European musical movements of the time—to try to express in music a distinctive national heritage. In this sense, English music during the later nineteenth century took the same path as its continental counterparts outside of Germany. But in all these efforts, as the music on tonight’s program reveals, the compositional tradition and strategies identified by Schenker as German, left their indelible mark.

However, the English view of English culture—its perception of its national heritage—was exceptional. Consider the other cultural accomplishments in Britain that are contemporaneous with tonight’s works: the innovations of William Morris, John Ruskin, and the pre-Raphaelites in the visual arts and essays; the outstanding achievements in prose and poetry of Arnold, Browning, Tennyson, Hardy, and Wilde. England was also a dominant economic and imperial force, at the height of its power and conquest even though the rivalry of the French, Germans, and Americans was considerable. As Schenker slyly implied, the English, precisely because of their empire, appropriated everything in the world as their own. What he perceived as the derivative and imitative elements of British culture indicated for him a British impulse of absorption and mastery. Indeed, if Sullivan’s superb treatment of Mendelssohnian and Italianate traditions, or Bridge’s engagement with the Lisztian and post-Lisztian forms of symphonic essays inspired by poetic narratives are an indication, the British were indeed masters. But no British composer more quintessentially represented the British outlook than Elgar, whose work, despite its debt to German influences, reflects an idealized British character and optimism that perhaps never really existed but remains recognizable and resonant.

This certainty and security in Britain’s national identity may seem in the present era of post-colonial critique to express the arrogance often associated with imperialist nations. It has come to typify the popular perception of the Victorians. But in music it also had a related manifestation that suggests a more complicated relation to those cultures that presumed to eclipse British accomplishment. Elgar, for example, held a deep conviction that music was ultimately a universal language beyond national barriers. He may have been strongly influenced by Brahms, but in return he wished to impart the richness of his own heritage to the rest of Europe. Thus he himself commissioned translations of the English texts of Sea Pictures for French and German performances. Much of his greatest music was tied to Anglicanism and invested with considerable patriotism, but like many English contemporaries, he turned the pride of being citizens of the greatest empire on earth, the heirs of the language of Shakespeare, into a blithe embrace of the best of other national cultures and the offering of his own for others. In this respect, British musical culture in its eclecticism finds its real distinction. Unlike the composers literally on the periphery of Germany—the Czechs, the Polish, and even the French—as well as the American composers before the First World War, English composers were not concerned about the stylistic definition of their own identity as British. The political, economic, literary and scientific dominance of Britain made it, in the absence of a home-grown Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner, take Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner to itself. Thus alongside British conceit one can sense in these composers a surprising receptiveness to ideas and a desire for exchange that at the time distinguished them from many nationalist composers on the continent. With the fading of the empire, this certainty also faded, resulting in an intense questioning and fear of “foreign influence,” but at least at this moment in time, these Victorians revealed a secure and successful approach to global music-making. The music on tonight’s program may reflect a hierarchy of values in which originality is subsumed by command of craft and refinement. It is well to remember that an allegiance to this credo marked the ambitions and achievements of two of Schenker’s favorites: Haydn and Brahms.

Isabella (1907)

By Jeremy Dibble, University of Durham, England

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Bridge’s symphonic poem Isabella dates from what is regarded as the composer’s “first” mature period of creativity during the opening decade of the twentieth century. One of Stanford’s most prodigiously talented students, and a fine viola player (he played in the English String Quartet for many years), Bridge was essentially indebted to the intellectualism of Brahms’s instrumental works, filtered through the work of his teacher; but by 1904, with the performance of his first major orchestral work, Mid of the Night, it is evident that he had assimilated the music of other more contemporary Europeans, and as he completed his Phantasie Quartet in F minor (1905) and First String Quartet “Bologna” (1906), the influences of composers such as Scriabin, Delius, Bax, and Debussy are clearly divulged in contributing to the rich chromatic amalgam of his distinctive, melancholic voice. Bridge completed Isabella in January 1907 and it was first performed at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert on October 3 the same year, under Henry Wood.

Just as Holman Hunt had taken inspiration from Keat’s famous extended poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil,” in his renowned picture of 1867, so too was Bridge moved, with his dark, introspective yet generously romantic imagination, to create a narrative symphonic poem depicting the same lurid events of Boccaccio’s Florentine story. In brief, Isabella’s love for Lorenzo is discovered by her two merchant brothers who lure him into a forest and murder him. Visited at midnight by Lorenzo’s ghost, Isabella rides into the forest, exhumes her lover’s body and places his decapitated head in “sweet basil, which her tears kept ever wept.” Her brothers, finally learning of this deed, flee with the pot to banishment, leaving Isabella who “died forlorn, imploring for her basil-pot to the last.” The grave, solemn, yet powerfully erotic material of the opening yields eventually to Isabella’s tender, yearning oboe melody and this is combined with the heroic “horn call” of Lorenzo in a spacious climax in which Bridge demonstrates both his consummate skill as an orchestrator and as a composer who used the orchestra as a projection of his genuine polyphonic thought. The two melodic ideas of Isabella and Lorenzo, strong, fervent, and underpinned by a fabric of sonorous harmony and surprising modulation, form the basis of the work’s entire structure (along with secondary fragment, representative of the evil brothers which frames the central section). Transformed, they appear more chillingly in the Allegro vivo where Lorenzo is brutally murdered, and his ghostly appearance to Isabella and her midnight ride to seek the corpse of her beloved are dramatically illustrated. This discursive episode—effectively a scherzo—shows the unbridled advancement of Bridge’s harmonic palette and incipiently foretells of the composer’s extraordinary stylistic development throughout the war, the 1920s and 1930s (when he would finally discover a language infused with the dodecaphonic, yet post-romantically-conceived music of Berg). Arresting progressions, conveying a newer, “modernist” inclination, vividly portray the violence of the grisly narrative and of Isabella’s heart-rending discovery of her brothers’ treachery. As a foil to this high drama Bridge provides a poignant lament, using a reworking of Isabella’s theme in the minor mode. Though on a more uplifting note, the closing apotheosis (a transformed recapitulation of the opening material) gives us a redemptive, Tristanesque picture of Isabella’s reunion with Lorenzo in death.

Sea Pictures, Op. 37 (1899)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Written immediately after the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar’s Sea Pictures have had a curious performance history. Well accepted by the public from the outset—when the striking contralto Clara Butt appeared at the Norwich Festival in October of 1899 dressed in a mermaid outfit and not in a corset (“guiltless of all confinement” was the contemporary description)—the songs have suffered from rather stuffy academic and critical commentary centering on the lack of profundity of their poems. Actually, however, in the era when Mahler was integrating the banal and the sublime in his Second and Third symphonies, and not too long before Berg would be setting lyrics from picture postcards in his Altenberg Lieder, these exquisite miniatures of Elgar are quite cutting-edge, ushering in a new aesthetic more inclusive of pop culture. Certainly in the age of Gilbert and Sullivan, the line between the opera house and the music hall was blurry indeed. Additionally, looking at the creation of these five lyrics, it is instructive to note that the first composed was penned by Elgar’s wife; perhaps her husband did not want to upstage her work with excerpts from Milton or Shakespeare.

The essence of these songs’ marine imagery is the overwhelming attraction of oblivion. A fitting metaphor for an island nation, the shoreline represents the boundary between the finite and the infinite, the careworn and the carefree, routine and escape. Elgar is extremely deft at bringing together the contemporary pastoral tradition, the Elizabethan view of the unison of love and death, the sentimental ballad, and the “goodbye to all that” nostalgia of the times. Fans of the film Gosford Park will recognize this uniquely British combination in the 1924 song “The Land of Might-Have Been” by the immensely popular Ivor Novello.

The cycle is a marvel of interwoven musical thought. One simple rising and falling motif from “In Haven (Capri)” is the sole building block for the five numbers. The ocean is the comforting, lullaby-singing mother in “Sea Slumber-Song,” peaceful and storm-tossed by turns in the Alice Elgar and the Browning. Perhaps the most remarkable three minutes in all of Elgar is the heart-wrenching “Where Corals Lie,” with verses by Richard Garnett the younger, a major Pre-Raphaelite figure of prodigious intellect. The mood is ecstatic and anticipatory, gay, almost cartoon-like, but the sought-after resolution is extinction (notice how the music of the orchestra gently pulls the listener under). The final song, “The Swimmer,” sets the poetry of Adam Gordon, a figure whose suicide would have been familiar to all in the original audiences. The intensity of its striving only increases the yearning for death. For the composer, Sea Pictures is a diving down to the depths of his soul, an antidote to the celebratory veneer of the “Enigma.” From this point forward, the sea would become a poignant thanatological emblem for English composers, from Gerald Finzi’s Channel Firing, to Arnold Bax’s Garden of Fand, to that most affecting of all British operas, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Symphony No. 3 in F minor, Op. 28, “Irish” (1887)

By Jeremy Dibble, University of Durham, England

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The reputation of Charles Villiers Stanford today rests principally on the enduring popularity of his music for the Anglican liturgy. He was, however, a highly accomplished symphonist and songwriter, and ultimately aspired to be successful in the theatre, though of his nine completed operas, only the Irish opéra-comique, Shamus O’Brien, enjoyed public acclaim. Born into the Protestant “professional aristocracy” of Dublin in 1852, during the Irish antiquarian revival, Stanford grew up admiring and cherishing the folk-song tradition of Ireland, and this veneration for the ethnic repertoire found utterance not only in numerous collections of folk-song arrangements but also in choral works, songs, the six Irish Rhapsodies, and in the most famous of his symphonies, the “Irish” Symphony. His third essay (of seven) in the genre, Stanford began work on the “Irish” Symphony in May 1886 shortly after hearing Hans Richter conduct the English premiere of Brahms’s new Fourth Symphony in London on May 10. In all likelihood, Brahms’s masterpiece provided a major incentive for the Irishman to produce a work of a similar epic nature. The need to complete other commissions meant that Stanford was not able to resume work on the symphony until February 1887, and the final two movements were written during the Easter vacation. Richter was delighted with the work and conducted it at St. James’s Hall on June 27. It was an immediate success and its promulgation was greatly assisted by its publication in full score by Novello as well as in an arrangement by Charles Wood for piano duet. Requests for Stanford to conduct it at the Norwich and Leeds Festivals and the Novello concerts quickly followed; Richter, who took the symphony to Vienna, also promised to program it in London again the following season. Hans von Bülow, whose gifts as a conductor Stanford admired even more than Richter’s, directed it in Hamburg and Berlin; Walter Damrosch produced it in New York; and Willem Kes, the Dutch conductor and violinist, included it in the first concert of the newly-formed Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on November 3, 1888 (it was the first of at least a dozen performances which Kes, Willem Mengelberg and Cornelis Dopper directed in the Dutch capital). It was also taken up by Mahler, who conducted two performances with the New York Philharmonic in 1911.

The first movement of the “Irish” Symphony confirmed unequivocally Stanford’s belief in Brahmsian organicism, a process already essayed with some thoroughness in the corresponding movement of his earlier and no less ambitious Piano Quintet, Op. 25. Here, however, the composer makes much play on the opening cell C–D-flat–F, which is ubiquitous throughout the first group, development, and coda (where its inversion is especially prevalent). The scherzo, perhaps the most engaging movement of the four (as well as the most technically demanding) with its modal flavour and compelling élan, is a pseudo-Irish “hop jig” where the metrical fluctuation of traditional meter and hemiola forms a central feature of the outer sections (in 9/8) and the central trio (in 3/2). At the head of his score Stanford placed the motto (originally in Latin) “Look with favour and mercy on the country and on the country’s bard, Phoebus, who yourself sing with crowned lyre,” which seems to evoke the nostalgic lyricism of the slow movement’s opening pastoral landscape.

Among the expansive thematic ideas inspired by the contours of the Irish folk-song is a fragment which Stanford claimed to be derived from a portion of the old Irish “Lament of the Sons of Usnacht” in Petrie’s manuscripts. (“The Lament of the Sons of Usnacht” may in fact be connected with the “Old Lament” at the end of “O where’s the slave” which appears as No. 62 in Stanford’s Moore’s Melodies Restored.) The prominence of this fragment at the climax of the slow movement had, as Stanford acknowledged, a marked similarity to the slow movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony—so much so that some critics thought it might even be a quotation. Stanford adamantly claimed in his autobiography, Pages from an Unwritten Diary, that it was nothing more than a remarkable coincidence and that both works had been “written simultaneously.” This claim was not entirely true, for Brahms’s symphony had in fact been written some time before, and Stanford had almost certainly attended Richter’s premiere before he had embarked on his own work. Yet whether this is concrete evidence for an “unconscious quotation” is still open to debate. Of the three principal thematic ideas of the finale, two were Irish folk-songs. The first, thoroughly modal in character, is the air “Molly McAlpin” (“Remember the glories of Brian the Brave”). This melody, repeated three times with increasingly generous orchestration, constitutes the first group of the movement’s sonata form, and sounds disarmingly prophetic of similar folk-song arrangements of Vaughan Williams (who, as a young man, knew Stanford’s work well through Wood’s duet arrangement) and Holst. A sonorous, overtly Brahmsian theme in the violins’ lowest register occupies the second group in A flat, while a further Irish air, “The Little Red Fox” (“Let Erin remember the days of old”) is introduced in the more distant key of A major as a central focus of the development. All three ideas are restated in the recapitulation, “The Little Red Fox,” acting as a peroration to the movement and to the work as a whole.

Overtura di ballo (1870)

By Jeremy Dibble, University of Durham, England

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It was always to be a source of regret to Arthur Sullivan that the huge international success of his “Savoy” operas would diminish or even completely conceal his reputation as a composer of “serious” music. The son of a distinguished Irish bandmaster, Sullivan grew up within a sympathetic musical environment and his gifts soon became apparent as a student at the Leipzig Conservatory (1858-1861) where his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest was performed in 1861, a work his fellow student (and later British contemporary) Edward Dannreuther was to consider one of his finest works. In the next nine years Sullivan produced a clutch of orchestral works, which included the “Irish” Symphony (1866), a cello concerto (1866), and the two overtures In memoriam (1866) and Marmion (1867). While these more “serious” instrumental essays contained music of undoubted craftsmanship along with moments of true inspiration, they also revealed a composer whose style was less at ease with the pathos of large-scale Romantic structure. Indeed, during the 1860s Sullivan’s career had already begun to plough that furrow of entertaining, exquisitely-wrought music of a lighter nature, as revealed in his ballet L’ile enchantée (1864) and the excerpts of his first opera The Sapphire Necklace (1863-4). It was a style he had assimilated through close study of Italian opera and especially the music of Rossini (whom he met in Paris in 1862), the French operettas of Offenbach, and the orchestration of Mendelssohn. The Overtura di ballo, arguably the composer’s most popular orchestral piece, dates from 1870 and was written for the Birmingham Festival. Unabashedly Italian in the rhetorical gestures of the slow introduction and “cabaletta” of the coda, the main body of the work foreshadows that instrumental pointillism deployed so effectively in the overture to Iolanthe (1882).