Herbert Blomstedt conducts the “Symphonie fantastique”

08 Feb 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert Blomstedt

  • Paul Hindemith
    Symphony “Mathis der Maler” (33 min.)

  • Hector Berlioz
    Symphonie fantastique, op. 14 (61 min.)

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    Herbert Blomstedt talks about Paul Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler” (19 min.)

Herbert Blomstedt is one of those conductors who modestly withdraws behind the musical work. “It is the music that should speak. My task is to make the music say a lot, I as little as possible.” Blomstedt has fulfilled this task impressively as, among others, chief conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle, music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the NDR Sinfonieorchester, and as Kapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig.

He has regularly given guest performances with the Berliner Philharmoniker, often as a major advocate of Bruckner symphonies. For this concert at the Philharmonie, the maestro included Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in the programme – a “drame instrumental” in whose third movement an offstage oboe and bells widen the musical space before the music reaches a conclusion in its brilliant dramatic finale: “Compared to the Witches’ Sabbath,” wrote the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1843, “... Weber’s Wolf’s Glen is a lullaby.”

This is preceded by the symphony Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith, which was premiered by the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler on 12 March 1934. This multicoloured iridescent work was inspired by three pictures of the famous Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald: “It is an attempt through musical means to approach the same emotional state triggered in the viewer by the images,” according to the composer in the programme book for the premiere.

Between Heaven and Hell

Matters of art and humanity in works by Paul Hindemith and Hector Berlioz

It seldom happens: a composer admits to having a creative crisis. “It would all have been easier if I’d thought of something earlier, but you can’t force that to happen.” So wrote Paul Hindemith to his publisher Willy Strecker at the firm of Schott in Mainz on 27 February 1934, admitting his inner disquiet just a few days before the premiere of the symphonyfrom Mathis der Maler. Indeed there were phases in his work on the opera itself when Hindemith found the whole undertaking arduous. He initially had trouble finding a suitable subject, and plans for music-theatre collaborations with the writers Gottfried Benn and Ernst Penzoldt came to nought. It was Strecker, having already expressed concern over the composer’s state, who in late summer 1932 proposed the painter Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475–1528). After some hesitation Hindemith took up the idea and developed a scenario dealing with the difficult relationship between the artist and changing political circumstances, with rebellion and back-stabbing, and with the artist’s inner doubts. During a period of intensive work on the libretto he received a request from his friend, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, to write a new orchestral work for the Berlin Philharmonic. Hindemith agreed and decided to create a suite-like symphony out of the instrumental preludes he had been intending to write later for the new opera.

Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony

The symphony’s ideas and movement titles – Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert), Grablegung (Entombment) and Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) – derive from three panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Grünewald in Colmar between 1512 and 1516. Hindemith translated the visual images into music using a language at once symbolic, colourfully atmospheric, tradition-bound, accessible and occasionally archaic. He also quotes historic melodies: the old song “Es sungen drei Engel ein’ süssen Gesang” in the opening movement and the Gregorian sequence “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” with concluding “Alleluia” in the third.

The Mathis der Maler Symphony was given its premiere by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic on 12 March 1934. Hindemith wrote the programme note for the new work, in which, among other topics, he emphasized the subject’s universal significance: “The opera Mathis the Painter deals in the person of Matthias Grünewald with questions of humanity’s contact with the elements of art that are as old and important as the practice of art itself. The symphony comprises pieces from this opera – preludes and interludes and portions of scenes – which have been reconceived for the concert hall and rewritten for orchestra. The three movements refer to the respective panels of the Isenheim Altarpiece. It is an attempt through musical means to approach the same emotional state triggered in the viewer by the images.”

The reactions to the work were tremendous and highly ambivalent: overwhelming musical force contrasted with political intrigue. The National Socialist regime and its cultural functionaries denounced Hindemith and his music, as they had in the past. Furtwängler came out in support of the composer with his newspaper article “Der Fall Hindemith” (“The Hindemith Case”), whereupon the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels responded in a speech at the Berlin Sports Palace, publicly vilifying Hindemith as a “charlatan” and “atonal noise-maker”. Hindemith’s fate in Germany was sealed: in 1936 the Nazis placed a ban on all performance of his music. After several periods in Ankara and Istanbul, where he was commissioned by the Turkish government to oversee the reorganization of the country’s musical institutions, he settled in Switzerland in September 1938. In February 1940 he emigrated to the USA, obtaining American citizenship in 1946. The premiere of the opera Mathis der Maler was given on 28 May 1938 in Zurich; the first German performance took place in Stuttgart on 13 December 1946, a year and a half after the end of the World War II. Hindemith returned to Germany for the first time in spring 1947 when a number of his works were performed as part of the “New Music Week” given under the auspices of Radio Frankfurt – among them, the opera Mathis der Maler.

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique

Change of scene: Paris, 5 December 1830, in the illuminated concert hall of the Conservatoire. On this evening an astonishing piece makes its first appearance, music whose impact will be strong and sustained. It is a work of genius by someone not yet 27, best described as a “symphonic poem”. Clearly we are referring to the Symphonie fantastique. Hector Berlioz has created a drame musical of Shakespearean furore welded to his own vivid imagination, extraordinary inventive powers and a remarkable sense of form. Its effect on listeners has never diminished from that day to this.

Five episodes from an artist’s life are depicted in dynamic musical forms, one more dazzling than the other, yet held together by classical principles – specifically, by sonata form. Heinrich Heine perceptively described the Symphonie fantastique as “a bizarre sort of night piece, now and then illumined by the sentimental whiteness of a woman’s robe fluttering to and fro or by a sulphur-yellow gleam of irony”. The entire piece is made up of the musical expression of undefined passions: most radically in the “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”, the fifth and last movement. Also fundamentally important are the introduction and establishment of an idée fixe running through all the movements as well as the work’s autobiographical literary programme.

The opening movement (“Reveries – Passions”) is derived from sonata form, with the idée fixe appearing as a main theme at pivotal points. It is left largely intact as a kind of obsession that haunts the imaginary hero throughout the entire work and leads “from this state of melancholy reverie ... to one of delirious passion” (Berlioz). The atmosphere of the second movement (“A Ball”) at first accommodates the idée fixe: imbued with grace, it appears in the context of a charming waltz. However, the calm is short-lived: the “beloved image” throws the artist back into a state of distress and turmoil. In the final climax the connection between the idée fixe and the waltz is broken up. The drama runs its course, highlighted by a virtuoso cornet part that was added later by Berlioz. A strange “mixture of hope and fear”, as Berlioz put it, pervades the third movement, the “Scene in the Country”. The ostensible peace suggested by the pastoral opening theme of this Adagio conceals a conflict that is brought to light with the sounding of the idée fixe. By the time that dark foreboding is evoked with the sound of thunder growling in the timpani, we are clearly headed for a cataclysm. That fear is confirmed in the following Allegretto non troppo, entitled “March to the Scaffold”. The melodious energy of the idée fixe stands little chance against the powerfully thrusting metre and is effectively shattered on the rhythmic reefs.

Berlioz draws consequences from the episode. From the outset of the final “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” he pits the two elements of sound and rhythm against each other. Out of this conflict the movement develops its attraction, its drama, its 6/8 rush. The music starts up three times attempting to establish a thematic exposition: following on one another are versions of the idée fixe (some so grotesquely deformed as to be almost unrecognizable), a wild witches’ dance, and a Dies irae sequence from the Latin Mass for the Dead that is finally combined with the witches’ dance. A vision of hell unfolds, constantly intensifying to the point of ecstasy – and finally leading to a bizarre and fantastic ending that almost sounds like parody.

Jürgen Otten

Translation: Richard Evidon

Herbert Blomstedt was born in the United States to Swedish parents. After early lessons at the Stockholm Conservatory and the University of Uppsala, he studied conducting in New York, contemporary music at Darmstadt and Renaissance and Baroque music in Basel. After working as an assistant to Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein, he made his professional debut as a conductor with the Stockholm Philharmonic in February 1954 and soon went on to become principal conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Dresden Staatskapelle, where he remained from 1975 to 1985. He spent the next decade as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, returning to Europe in 1996 as principal conductor as of the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, a post he held until 1998. From 1998 to the end of the 2004/2005 season he was music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Herbert Blomstedt is now conductor laureate of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Danish and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestras and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, which he has conducted on a regular basis since 1982. In 2007 the Dresden Staatskapelle awarded him its Goldene Ehrennadel. Among the orchestras with whom he has appeared as a guest conductor are the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, all the leading American orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony Orchestra of Japan. Herbert Blomstedt made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976 and has returned on frequent occasions since then, most recently in May 2013, when he conducted two concerts with symphonies by Beethoven and Nielsen. He is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and holds several honorary doctorates. He was awarded the “Großes Verdienstkreuz” (Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit) of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2003.

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