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Moonlight, Midnight, Spring

Moonlight, Midnight, Spring

Chamber Music by Wolf, Berg, and Schubert

Gavin Plumley

Although he was both a prolific and well-known lied composer, Hugo Wolf profoundly wanted to be an operatic force. Sadly, he was not helped in those ambitions by his old student friend Gustav Mahler, whose refusal to produce Der Corregidor at the Hofoper in Vienna was arguably one of the deciding factors in Wolf’s final breakdown, before he died in an asylum in 1903. Eleven months later, further evidence of Wolf’s operatic projects came to light, with the first performance of the composer’s single-movement Serenade in G major. Penned in just three days in May 1887, this work for string quartet (subsequently arranged for string orchestra with the title Italienische Serenade) was a vessel for ideas for a comic opera, as Wolf explained to his friend Oskar Grohe: “Wagner has, by and through his art, accomplished such a mighty work of liberation that we may rejoice to think that it is quite useless for us to storm the skies since he has conquered them for us. It is much wiser to seek out a pleasant nook in this lovely heaven. I want to find a little place there for myself, not in a desert with water and locusts and wild honey but in a merry company of primitive beings, among the tinkling of guitars, the sighs of love, the moonlight—in short, in a quite ordinary opéra comique without any rescuing spectre of Schopenhauerian philosophy.”

The abortive opera, and the Serenade that was its instrumental pendant, were likely inspired by Joseph von Eichendorff ’s 1826 novella Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts, which Wolf had recently read. He may well have seen himself in its protagonist, a young musician who leaves home to seek his fortune. The eponymous “good for nothing” ends up not in Vienna, however, but in Italy, where he hears a serenade played by a local orchestra.

They are tuning up at the beginning of Wolf’s work, with its open strings and “wrong” notes, before sallying forth with a jolly, unaffected theme. Cello drones indicate a bucolic setting, though the second section, moving towards the subdominant, proves more sophisticated. This in turn tees up further modulations, as if the act of imploring the imagined beloved in another key might well melt their heart. Throughout, although keen not to upset the prevailing atmosphere of this “merry company,” Wolf provides various asides, none more fervent than the cello’s seeming allusion to Wagner’s Tristan—so much for music “without any rescuing spectre of Schopenhauerian philosophy”!—which triggers yet more bruised responses, before returning to the tonic and the initial blithe theme.

Like Wolf, Alban Berg was a prolific songwriter, so much so that when he became Arnold Schoenberg’s pupil in 1904, his teacher found that he “was absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.” Schoenberg was determined to broaden Berg’s horizons and, following his instructions, Berg duly published a piano sonata as his first official opus in 1910. Four highly expressive songs followed as Op. 2, with a String Quartet providing their successor, before Berg returned yet again to song with a series of settings of postcard texts by the Café Central habitué Peter Altenberg. Following this instrumental-vocal-instrumental scheme, Berg then gave his fifth opus over to Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1913.

In many ways, these pieces mirror the four movements of a late Romantic sonata, though their aphoristic quality—akin to the Altenberg postcards—means that they are compressed into the timespan customarily occupied by just one sonata movement. The Four Pieces are, in many ways, prognostic of the mood and manner of the Three Orchestral Pieces, which Berg also began in 1913, though there are, as Adorno later noted, “none of the tonal references usually incorporated by Berg.” Perhaps, this avoidance of a tonal anchor was a way of paying homage, maintaining a link, to Schoenberg, who was away from Vienna at the time and whose friendship with Berg was becoming increasingly overwrought, thereby having a detrimental effect on the young composer’s welfare. Perhaps the intensely brooding quality of these Four Pieces is the artistic upshot of the strained separation. Certainly, after scurrying, trilling gestures, a melancholy mood is firmly established, not least in the elegy, before the third movement prepares for a somber finale.

The Four Pieces eventually had their premiere on October 17, 1919 and were dedicated to the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, as well as to Schoenberg, its founder and president. Also dedicated to Schoenberg, marking his 50th birthday, was the Chamber Concerto of 1925. It was, Berg wrote, “a small monument to a friendship now numbering 20 years” and contained musical ciphers for Schoenberg’s name, as well as that of Anton Webern and Berg himself. “That in itself already suggests a trinity,” he wrote to Schoenberg, as does the casting of the Chamber Concerto in three movements, with a threepart Adagio, described as a “da capo song form,” at its center.

Here, Berg employs a series of twelve-note melodies, rather than an official row or rows, showing that, at least gradually, he was adopting Schoenberg’s new compositional technique. This middle movement was originally subtitled “Love” and alludes to Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, as well as providing a cipher for his (previously adulterous) wife Mathilde. The music also has kinship with the sound world of Mahler’s symphonic elegies but proves much more threatening as the piano tolls 12 deep C sharps, marking the point of midnight at the heart of this palindromic Adagio and the Concerto as a whole. A decade after completing the Chamber Concerto, just a few months before his early death, Berg adapted the slow movement for violin, clarinet, and piano.

There were equally dark moments in the music and life of Franz Schubert, not least the winter of 1823–4. Schubert had been ill for more than a year, likely due to venereal disease, and was hospitalized twice over that period. His close friend Moritz von Schwind, writing to Franz von Schober, who was living in Breslau (Wrocław) at the time, explained that the Schubertiade gatherings had been curtailed during the winter months, detailing only one at Franz von Bruchmann’s that November and another at Ludwig Mohn’s residence in January.

The following month, Schwind wrote again. “Schubert now keeps a fortnight’s fast and confinement,” he explained. “He is much better and is very bright, very comically hungry and writes quartets and German dances and variations without number.” By the end of February, Schubert was no longer wearing a wig—hair loss being the result of the mercury treatment for syphilis—and was described as being “quite well.” But while Schwind gives the impression that Schubert was only just getting back into its stride, the composer’s energy for work had been entirely undimmed over the previous six months.

He had completed the incidental music for Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern and his opera Fierrabras in October 1823, before finishing Die schöne Müllerin during his November confinement. And 1824 began in similarly unflagging style: the Introduction and Variations (mentioned by Schwind) for Flute and Piano on Trockne Blumen (from Die schöne Müllerin) were written in January; the A-minor “Rosamunde” String Quartet was completed in February; and the D-minor String Quartet (“Death and the Maiden”), as well as many songs, followed in March. Schubert had also completed his Octet by the beginning of that month, composed “with the greatest zeal,” according to Schwind, which like many works from the period draws on material from Schubert’s songs and wider output.

The inspiration for the Octet’s structure, however, came from Beethoven. Indeed, it was a commission from the chief steward of Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph, one Count Ferdinand Troyer, who was a proficient clarinetist. He had asked Schubert to write a new piece modelled on Beethoven’s Septet Op. 20. Schubert added a second violin to the original lineup, but followed the serenade-like form of that 1799 work, providing further parallels by means of a slow introduction to the first movement, a wonderfully fluid Adagio, a scherzo—as well as a minuet—and a set of variations. And like the earlier Septet, Schubert’s Octet was conceived on an almost symphonic scale. When, finally, it was performed in public on April 16, 1827, following a private premiere at Troyer’s home in 1824, it was duly programmed alongside music by Beethoven.

The premiere was well received and, despite Beethoven’s recent death, the critic of Vienna’s Theaterzeitung was positive in his response to Schubert’s music. “Herr Schubert’s composition is commensurate with the author’s acknowledged talent, luminous, agreeable and interesting,” he wrote. Only the length of the piece troubled the journalist, for it made “too great a claim… on the hearers’ attention… If the themes do not fail to recall familiar ideas by some distant resemblances,” he continued, “they are nevertheless worked out with individual originality and Herr Schubert has proved himself, in this species as well, as a gallant and felicitous composer.”

The Octet certainly opens in courageous terms, with a strident tutti. But before the feisty Allegro itself begins, the introduction turns more reticent, casting the first of many shadows in this otherwise sunny work. Once its tentative dialogue has been ejected, the clarinet (Troyer’s instrument) takes charge of the first subject, before its successor, in the relative minor, is given to the horn. The development is then altogether more fragmentary, with the two themes passing between the various instruments in the ensemble. Schubert employs a sextet-like texture at the opening of the songful Adagio, the most obvious vehicle for Troyer. As in the introduction to the first movement, the theme is often undercut by darker harmonies, as it passes via the bassoon to the horn, before all the forces join together for a final iteration of the material. The third movement constitutes the first of the Octet’s two dances, with a rhythmically quirky opening section and a second again trailing in the shadows. The trio, on the other hand, is much less vigorous and offers a premonition of its oddly exhausted counterparts in Schubert’s late works, not least his final Quintet.

A duet from Schubert’s unsuccessful 1815 singspiel Die Freunde von Salamanka then provides the theme for the fourth movement and its dazzling series of variations. Mirroring his third movement, he provides another ternary structure for the fifth, albeit inverting the character of its precursor: the minuet, like the previous trio, stumbles along; while the fifth movement’s second part, a ländler, is warmly flowing.