16 Feb 2012

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Claude Debussy
    Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (13 min.)

  • Antonín Dvořák
    The Golden Spinning-Wheel, op. 109 (24 min.)

  • Arnold Schoenberg
    Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), op. 4 (1943 version for string orchestra) (33 min.)

  • Edward Elgar
    Enigma, Variations on an Original Theme, op. 36 (36 min.)

There is a gallery of symphonic pictures to admire in this concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle. Strolling through this gallery is like a tour through Europe – with stops in France, the Czech Republic, Austria and England.

Just as in any collection of paintings, some of the pictures here are more abstract than others. Claude Debussy’s non-narrative Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, based on a poem by Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, is such an example. In this case, it is exactly the shimmering fleetingness of the music that gives it its charm. In contrast, the fairytale story in Antonín Dvořák’s tone poem The Golden Spinning Wheel is portrayed almost literally. The question is more whether one should rather focus on the spontaneous joy of Dvořák’s balladesque music which provides the more intensive pleasure.

Arnold Schoenberg’s distinctive early work Verklärte Nacht can also be seen to tell a story – a relationship drama in a forest at night – but for the composer, it was about something else, namely the representation of “poetic nature and human feelings.” With Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, we reach the “portrait” section of our musical gallery. One theme is followed by 14 variations, each of which represents a significant person in Elgar’s circle of friends. The musical portrait entitled “Nimrod” is particularly well known. Thanks to its perfectly measured emotionalism, it is a must at almost every state occasion in Great Britain.

Fairy Tales, Legends and Their Musical Transformation

Works by Dvořák, Schoenberg, Debussy and Elgar

When reading fairy tales, myths and legends one is invariably astonished by their inherent symbolic and even depth-psychological substance. For that reason alone, it is only natural that these literary works, which are so open to interpretation, have always inspired practitioners of other art forms. This was also true of the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben, who wrote ballads and poems which he then published in his celebrated poetry collection Kytice – A Bouquet of National Legends. Antonín Dvořák, who was in turn fascinated by these ballads and poems, composed a cycle of five symphonic poems under the opus numbers 107 to 111 from 1896 to 1897: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning-Wheel, The Wild Dove and A Hero’s Song. The compositional technique he used was described by the American musicologist Gerald Abraham as “verbal inspiration”. In particular, the metre of Erben’s poetry and its declamatory style strongly influenced Dvořák’s motivic and thematic ideas. We recall the words of Klaus Döge, who once described the composer as a “poetic symphonist”.

The accuracy of this description is already apparent at the beginning of The Golden Spinning-Wheel. The F major hunting motif of the young king resounds in the horns, representing the world of courtliness and chivalry. It is followed by a lyrical love theme, introduced by the English horn and then taken up by the violins. During this musical phrase the king meets the beautiful Dornicka when he stops in the forest. He is so captivated by the young girl that he asks for her hand in marriage only 50 bars later. Dornicka’s stepmother and stepsister will not return until the following day, so the king is forced to repeat his proposal. Horn calls accompany his order to bring his future bride to the castle. The stepmother is not happy about the situation, however, as we hear clearly in the clarinets.

A young king, a beautiful girl and a wicked stepmother

Nevertheless, during the following Andante the women set out. The low string notes in the minor mode do not bode well, however, and sure enough the stepmother and her daughter cut off poor Dornicka’s hands and feet and put out her eyes. The murderers leave the hideously mutilated body in the forest, take the chopped-off extremities with them and continue on to the castle. Misled by the resemblance between the two stepsisters, the king is deceived, marries the wrong woman and hosts a week-long wedding celebration. The happiness does not last long, however – the king has to go off to war. Dornicka’s soft, plaintive cello elegy joins in this Adagio of love and farewell. Before departing, the king asks his new wife to spin diligently, then leaves.

Meanwhile, an old sorcerer finds Dornicka’s body in the forest. He sends a boy to the castle with a golden spinning wheel and tells him to ask for two feet in exchange for it. Next, the boy is to trade a golden spindle for two hands and, finally, a golden distaff (the rod-like support that holds the fibres to be spun) for a pair of eyes. The false queen wants the golden spinning wheel so much that she agrees to the exchange. The old man puts Dornicka’s body back together with magic water, heals her eyes and makes her heart beat again. Her return to life is heard in the English horn motif from the opening of the symphonic poem.

The horn fanfare sounds again as the king returns victorious from battle and asks his wife to sit down at the golden spinning wheel and spin. As the wheel turns (symbolised by a motif in the flute which is repeated three times), it sings a song telling of the outrageous deed. The horrified king rushes to the forest and finds the real Dornicka there, alive and well. The familiar love motif is heard again, this time in an emotionally intensified form. The triumphal climax that follows depicts the joy of the reunited lovers in radiant major.

A woman and her lover

Dvořák’s ground-breaking works influenced composers of the younger generation, such as the youthful Arnold Schoenberg, whose early work contains numerous allusions to his Czech colleague. After 1897, Dvořák’s influence on Schoenberg diminished, however. In the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) Op. 4 from 1899, for example, it can no longer be heard. Instead, Schoenberg attempted to transpose programme music to a chamber ensemble. In other words, the idea of the symphonic poem is adapted for the more intimate acoustical realm of soloistic chamber music – in this case a string sextet. Schoenberg later arranged the work for string orchestra (1917, revised 1943), the version heard in this concert.

The one-movement work was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem Verklärte Nacht from the collection Weib und Welt (Woman and World), published in 1896, which describes two lovers walking at night. The woman confesses that she is expecting the child of another man. Her lover does not abandon her, however, but offers himself as father and husband: “He grasps her around her strong hips. Their breath mingles in the breeze. Two people walk through the lofty, clear night.”

An old faune and fearful nymphs

The fact that most composers are influenced by role models at the beginning of their creative activity is understandable – and was also true of Claude Debussy. After his return to Paris in 1887 following a three-year stay in Rome, Debussy took the opportunity to visit the Bayreuth Festival during the following two summers. His struggle with the music of Richard Wagner, which began there, would continue until his death.

His most important work from this period is the Prélude à l'après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), which Debussy began composing in 1892. The premiere took place on 22 December 1894 – at first against opposition from the orchestra, but then with great success. The composer commented on the concept of the work in the programme: “The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Stéphane Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. It does not claim to be a synthesis of the poem but rather a succession of scenes through which the faun’s desires and dreams pass in the heat of the afternoon. Then, weary of pursuing the fearful flight of the nymphs and naiads, he abandons himself to intoxicating sleep, full of dreams finally realised, of full possession amid universal nature.”

“My friends pictured within”

If we seek parallels to Debussy’s compositions in the works of Edward Elgar, we do not find many. In a roundabout way, however, the name Wagner provides a point of reference. The man who conducted the complete Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876 also helped the English composer achieve a breakthrough with his Variations on an Original Theme Op. 36 (the work’s original title). Hans Richter conducted the premiere of the Enigma Variations at St James’s Hall, London, on 19 June 1899.

The work is dedicated to “my friends pictured within”, which the composer explained in greater detail in a letter: “The Variations have amused me because I’ve labelled them with the nicknames of my particular friends ... That is to say I’ve written the variations each one to represent the mood of the ‘party’ – I’ve liked to imagine the ‘party’ writing the variation him (or her) self and have written what I think they would have written – if they were asses enough to compose – it’s a quaint idea and the result is amusing to those behind the scenes and won’t affect the listener who knows nothing.”

Christine Mellich

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

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