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.


New Work by Sooke Composer and Soloist in March 22/23 Sooke Philharmonic Concerts

Strife and Harmony is the theme of the Sooke Philharmonic concerts Sat. March 22 at 7:30 PM (Sooke Baptist Church) and Sun. March 23 at 2:30 PM (New St. Mary’s Church, Metchosin), marking the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I. The program consists of the Mass in Time of War by Haydn, with the Sooke Philharmonic Chorus; Song of Flanders by Sooke composer Brent Straughan, with Sooke’s own soprano Nancy Washeim; The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra by Vaughan Williams, with soloist Ceilidh Briscoe; and Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio/Agnues Dei, performed by chorus and orchestra.

This is an exciting concert for Straughan, who will also be playing in the second violin section, and whose first musical love is composing. He is glad to be able to contribute to the memory of that “first” terrible war. “I had an uncle in Victoria who lied about his age at 17 to become a stretcher bearer at the battle of Vimy in 1917,” he said.Brent_Straughan

Straughan started his composing early. “I can recall at age two, in Mayerthorpe Alberta, regularly getting out my mother’s pots and pans from under the oven and happily thrashing them about,” Straughan said.

He has grown musically since then. Song of Flanders, written for a large choir, soloists and full orchestra, has been recorded with the Philharmonica Bulgarica Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Valeri Vatchev. Canadian soloists Megan Skidmore, soprano, and Bill Kelly, bass, were added to the mix. This recording is available on Apple iTunes® and came in 5th “in the world” at the Just Plain Folks music awards in Nashville. “People like it, because they can hum bits of it. It makes sense. There is something anyone can take home from it in their head,” Straughan told us.

The March concerts will be the first time the work is performed live in Canada. The well-known Sooke soprano, Nancy Washeim, is a featured soloist, joined by Tashi Meisami Farivar (mezzo soprano), Josh Lovell (tenor) and Nick Allen (bass).

Ceilidh Briscoe, the violin soloist in The Lark Ascending, was the 2nd prize winner in the Sooke Philharmonic Don Chrysler Concerto Competition for Young Musicians in April 2013. This work, inspired by George Meredith’s poem by the same name, was written at the beginning of the “Great War” and is a favourite with audiences everywhere.

Tickets are available online at, at the door, and at the usual Sooke/Metchosin outlets.

New St. Mary’s Church is located at 4125 Metchosin Road. Sooke Baptist Church is at 7110 West Coast Road.

— Submitted by Sonja de Wit

Tea & Symphony, February 16, 2014

What a superb concert. Thanks to everyone involved.
I was going to mention my favourite soloists but my wife Margaret said it wouldn’t be fair.
The selection of music was excellent.
How lucky we are to have so many talented musicians performing in Sooke.
The subject of acoustics came to my mind.
Each performer was crystal clear to the audience yet in such a bizarre space.
Room extensions going off in different directions, corridors, a high roof, concrete and no baffles .
Why did it sound so clear?
Sound experts say good acoustics are still more of an art than a science, or just plain luck.
Builders often don’t get it right even after spending millions on a new concert hall.
Was it the way the tables were arranged or was it because they cut the crusts off the sandwiches ?
Who knows ?
— David Lintern (former Sooke Philharmonic Society President)

The Greatest Composer?

When I was playing in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra nearly 60 years ago, Sir Thomas Beecham was still conducting, and many of the players had known him for years.  Sir Thomas was surrounded by stories. He had a great wit, much off-colour (there were only male members in the orchestra) and perhaps some apocryphal. One story, to do with the young lad, was that when his tutor stated that “Beethoven is the Greatest”, young Thomas said he thought Mozart was the greatest.  The players knew that what Sir Thomas wanted was what Sir Thomas would get.

Flash forward 30 years, and I was teaching the English music curriculum to Cayman Islands students.  I was required to state “Beethoven is the greatest composer”.  The students may have wondered why I had a smile on my face when I complied with the curriculum.  The concept of a “greatest” composer is one I leave with you, but could you advise me what the greatest fruit is? — Larry Hobson

Musical Friends

Pamela, Norman and Ann examining the Brahms Double Concerto scoreOur next two concerts, June 24th and 25th, are entitled Musical Friends and feature Ann Elliott-Goldschmid and Pamela Highbaugh Aloni, the leader/first violinist and cellist of the Lafayette String Quartet. Don’t expect tea and crumpets from these friends: they are playing Brahms’ Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, and it is a wild ride.

The Lafayette String Quartet has been together for 25 years. High Notes asked our two soloists whether the Quartet is anything like a family.

Ann Elliott-Goldschmid responded like this:

We are a family for sure. We have grown up together! We have had to find ways to make our working lives compatible. Like a marriage, this has taken a lot of work on the part of every individual. For the most part, however, we get along well even though we are all extremely different. Continue reading