Psalm 130, “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich Herr zu dir” (1840)

Psalm 130, “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich Herr zu dir” (1840)

By Professor Otto Biba, Archivist, Society of the Friends of Music, Vienna

Written for the concert Beethoven’s Pupil, performed on Nov 14, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Among the unpublished compositions of Carl Czerny that ended up after his death at the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde [Society of the Friends of Music] in Vienna, and which are recognized today as highly valuable music, are settings of Psalms 113, 130 and 134—expressive choral compositions whose creative origins remain a secret. At the time they were written, Czerny composed some of his best works for the desk-drawer without any intention of making them public. He was already earning quite a bit of money with pieces the public expected: works and arrangements for piano. There was no one to commission these other works and no goal to perform them; rather, what mattered to him was to come to terms with the text. The autograph score of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord,” bears the date of 1840. To the best of our knowledge tonight’s performance is the first ever of this work. Czerny knows the traditions of musical rhetoric: at the beginning he briefly paints with the orchestra the depths from which humanity (in a melodically ascending line) calls up to God, but then lets the chorus speak, followed by the soloists in the middle section. The orchestra does not just provide accompaniment for them, but partakes in the musical event with spirited independence. The pizzicato section in the quiet middle part follows the waltz rhythm, but the way he makes us forget or not even notice this is brilliant: instead of turning towards the partner in the waltz, what the music expresses in the soloists’ trio, without even a hint of blasphemy, is a beseeching and trusting turning towards God.

Czerny knows the great choral literature from the baroque and the classical era; he knows how to loosen the choral homophony to heighten the text with repetitive intercalations. He knows how, in the end, one builds a large choral fugue, but on the whole he is much closer to Brahms than to Haydn, as when he lets a phrase from a single register of the chorus sing alone, and in addition keeps the orchestra strenuously busy. Is there a vacuum between Schubert and Brahms in the history of Viennese music? There is not, because Czerny stands exactly between them.

In July 1842, Czerny set to music Friedrich von Schiller’s poem “The Power of Song.” He calls this work “Fantasy for Chorus and Orchestra,” and leaves little doubt that what matters to him is the power of music in general. Thus the orchestra, which in the great prelude makes us envision rain and storms, is the carrier of the musical action. The chorus narrates the text and no more, and even then it is only just a four-voiced recitative. In this narration there is no repetition and no large choral fugue at the end. The orchestra embodies the power of music described to us by the chorus; the chorus remains a monodic narrator while the orchestra engages us greatly.

In his text Schiller compares the rush of the song with the torrent of rain from the heavens, flowing over rocks into the valley. He shows us through examples what song and voice are capable of, but Czerny surpasses this praise of song by recognizing the overall power of music. It was a daring task to write a fantasy for chorus and orchestra that is not a choral work, but actually music integrated into the text. This is made manifest by the voices of the chorus, while the orchestra’s task is to transfer the message of the words into the music. Everything we now know suggests this work too was never performed. Equally remarkable is the fact that here for the first time in Vienna the ophakleid, a familiar presence in military music, is absorbed into the symphony orchestra.

One of the pieces in today’s program was given public performance by Czerny himself: the Variations for Piano and Orchestra, op. 73 on Haydn’s hymn “Gott Erhalte,” (also the hymns of the Austrian empire or the hymns of the Habsburg’s domains, which only later became Germany’s national anthem.) Czerny debuted this work in 1824, probably shortly after completing it. It is a brilliant concert piece in the form of variations, one of the many variations of the same melody, the first of which derives from Haydn himself, the slow movement in his “Kaiser-Quartett,” op.76/3 (Hob. III:77).

What a strong artistic personality the young Czerny must have been! First an intelligent and attentive student, then a grateful and loyal friend and supporter to his teacher Ludwig van Beethoven. But when he composes he reaches far beyond his teacher, and always takes the lead, as in for instance writing the last movement of a piano sonata as a fugue, as we find in Sonata Op. 7, which Czerny performed in 1820, and in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110, which was written in 1820/22. This is also to be found in Czerny’s Second Symphony, written in 1814. This work remained unpublished and was probably never performed—but why? Likely out of respect and consideration for Beethoven, whose circle he did not want to disturb. So this 23-year-old composer writes a symphony that begins with a drum roll and that features a first movement, “Allegro molto quasi presto,” in 12/8. Its racing Scherzo plays with harmonies and intervals (comparable to the first movement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 from 1794, only more “modern” and reminiscent of the Scherzo of the “Eroica” in its dynamics, but more consistent and therefore more interesting) before it begins to develop a theme. A 20-measure drum solo leads the transition from the Scherzo’s D minor to the D major of the Trio. Then, finally a last movement emerges out of contained wind chords rising slowly and in which a filigree-like interplay of the violins finally leads to the main theme of a formidable sonata-form movement. That is quite a bit of innovation all at once in the symphonic landscape for a work written between April 21 and October 9, 1814. This was a time in which Beethoven’s symphonic endeavors were at a standstill, other composers wrote symphonies that were Haydn- or Beethoven-like clichés, and even the young Franz Schubert, in his first symphonies, did not dare to be as courageously different and original as Czerny was with this work. What is truly remarkable, however, is that nothing in Czerny’s Symphony feels self-consciously “different,” but appears completely organic and logical.

(Translated by Susana Meyer)