German Romantics — Romantic Germans

By Michael Cochran, Sooke Philharmonic Principal Bass
Perhaps our 20th Century perception of German culture has cast a cloud upon our consciousness, overshadowing the wonderful work of writers, composers, artists and philosophers in 19th Century Germany. We can easily accept the distinctiveness of French Romanticism, Italian Romantic composers, the breathtaking sweep of Russian Romanticism – even (heaven forbid) English “Imperial” Romanticism; German Romanticism takes pride of place.

It starts with Beethoven. Take his Eroica Symphony No.3, for example: the initial heroic intention of the first movement dashed by Beethoven’s contempt for Napoleon in the funereal second movement. And certainly in his Symphony No.5 …dah dah dah…DAH: the voice of doom? The meaning of life? If Mozart, when light hearted, could be considered the first comedic romantic, then Beethoven, at practically every turn, must be considered the first tragic romantic.

Elegischer Gesang, “Gentle, as you lived”, is Beethoven’s elegy for Eleonore and opens our performance. Eleonore, who passed away in childbirth aged 24, the wife of Baron von Pasqualati, Beethoven’s patron and frequent landlord. The work is a somewhat shadowy yet sublime memorial for chorus and strings, with flowing, soaring tenors; voices rising only in the conclusion, “himmlischen geistes”: “spirit’s heavenly homecoming”.

Brahms, a restless, agitated, questioning Romantic, struggled with his natural melancholy in composing Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny). The first verse portrays the rapture of paradise, in contrast to the second verse with its unavailing torment: “Auf keiner stutte zu ruhn” (there is no place to rest for mere mortals on Earth). The work concludes with rising phrases in the woodwinds and horns, in a major key, perhaps suggesting that destiny is not essentially pessimistic.

Antonin Dvorak wrote of his friend Brahms, “such a great man…such a great soul…but he believes in nothing”. Nänie embraces the struggle of man on earth and the inevitable emptiness beyond. Brahms offers a touch of optimism, however, to assuage the fear of nothingness. Scored for chorus and orchestra, both of Brahms’ works are challenging, even tormenting, especially for the chorus. Our SPO Chorus, perhaps familiar with anguish from time to time, admirably performs these little known works. Enjoy!

Felix Mendelssohn [1809-1847], another short lived romanticist, composed five orchestral/choral psalms. Psalm 42 is considered to be the pinnacle of his inspiration for the church. Having travelled to Rome in 1829, Felix attended Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, but “it does irritate me to hear the most holy and beautiful works sung to such dull drawling music… and certainly one cannot find this mechanical monotony in the words of the scriptures”. Mechanical monotony is a wholly unsuitable description of what Felix is all about! Think of Fingal’s Cave or the Violin Concerto, for example: the creation of pictures, the flowing expression of emotions. In the Psalm there is counterpoint echoing Bach and classical form echoing the effortless mastery of Mozart. For a player, vocalist or listener, the lyricism of Mendelssohn embraces one’s soul. I know as a string player how the bow “fits” the phrasing, how the fingers of the left hand ride comfortably, logically on the fingerboard. Psalm 42, jubilant yet solemn; a glorification and a remembrance: ”Wait for the Lord”.

Nancy Washeim’s lieder choices display the full emotional range of Schubert’s work. Nacht und Träume, a calm and peaceful dream, floats in the strings. This song is pianissimo/legato throughout but, surprisingly, in the normally very bright key of B major. At the softest moment, the strings drift almost imperceptibly to the key of G major. This a somewhat more sturdy key but still a major key rather than minor. Somehow B major returns to conclude this flowing, gentle reverie.

If “prototypical” is a word, then An die Musik (To Music) fits the bill for Schubert admirably. Simple logical harmony, cantabile melody, and a strong structural baseline, is such a tribute that this song needs an encore! If Schubert had lived in another age, perhaps the 1960s, his music would certainly have rivaled that of the Beatles in popularity…and of the Stones.

When C.F.D. Schubart rearranged Die Forelle (the Trout) from its babbling brook in the piano to a version for strings and voice, he forgot about the string basses. In the version performed this weekend, the basses have added translucent beads sparkling erratically from the boulders in the brook. Pizzicato basses are good at this. The stream is pure, sparkling, catching diamond drops in the sunlight, in this, Schubert’s most loved song.