Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte, Book 8, Op. 102
Mendelssohn is inextricably associated with the genre Lied ohne Worte, described by Schumann as an art song abstracted for the piano, with its text deleted. Composed over the course of his career, the Lieder ohne Worte were published in eight volumes comprising six songs apiece, and provide an essential snapshot of Romanticism. They are an ode to the supremacy of melody and a reflection of the Romantic generation’s preoccupation with poetry, as expressed in the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, and others. Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words succeed in capturing the clarity and expressivity of sung texts, but they rely solely on musical character without the aid of poetry. Robert Schumann surmised that Mendelssohn originally composed them as songs with words and then withdrew the texts. Finally, the influence of Franz Schubert on the entire nineteenth-century lieder tradition cannot be overstated: indeed, it is Schubert who transformed the lied into such a vital medium for Schumann, Brahms and Wolf and of course, Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn wrote the first Lied ohne Worte for his elder sister, Fanny – the second musical prodigy in the Mendelssohn family - on the occasion of her birthday in 1828. But it was not until a few years later, in 1832, that he hit upon the idea of publishing a set of piano Lieder as a counterpart to a set of songs. Each “book” of Lieder ohne Worte offers keyboard simulations of different vocal types: solo lied, duet where the melodic line is doubled in thirds, and partsongs featuring homophonic textures in chordal style.
Mendelssohn never authorized the now-prevalent descriptive titles retro-fitted to the pieces in later editions by publishers. As the pre-eminent Mendelssohn scholar R. Larry Todd writes: “These accretions ran counter to Mendelssohn’s own aesthetic, to let the individual Lieder stand by themselves, and to trust the precision of musical expression over the ambiguities of words.”
The five songs on today’s program come from three different corners of the Goethe songbook: 1) Ballads and Stories: Der Rattenfänger & Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt; 2) Creativity, Love and Childhood; Genialisch Treiben & Der neue Amadis, and 3) Minstrel drinking songs inspired by the Persian poetry of Hafiz: Erschaffen und Beleben.
Der Rattenfänger takes up the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but this rat-chaser is an equal-opportunity abuser of rats, young children, and young women. The piano scampers mischievously, evoking both his magical powers and the line of bewitched subjects trailing behind him. In Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt, Kurt the knight rides to his betrothal with youthful swagger, while dodging temptation and debt.
Genialisch Treiben references the saintly Cynic philosopher Diogenes who was reputed to live in a tub. Goethe wryly uses this warped allusion to describe the artist’s way of life, compressed into a few pithy lines. Wolf provides a Chopin-like scherzo that is similarly crammed with fervor and magnitude in which the singer seems to be caught up. Der neue Amadis is a semi-autobiographical account of upbringing through fantasy, dreaming, and optical illusion.
Goethe imbues the creation myth of Erschaffen und Beleben with a fresh wit and spirit. Musically, Wolf goes even further with the humor, transforming the tradition of the Christian hymn tune subdominant to tonic progression (think “Amen”) into what Wolf scholar Susan Youens calls “an ironic tongue-in-cheek invocation of sanctity.”
Wolf String Quartet in D minor (1878-1884)
“There is scarcely anything more afflicting than to see ever so modest a wish never satisfied; and yet nothing so much occupies men as anxiety or confidence as to the fulfilling of their wishes and hopes. It makes men fools, or drunkards, or misanthropes, or astrologers, or misers, or treasure-seekers, or debtors, or exorcists, or lyric poets, or loafers, or unfortunate lovers, even journalists (like myself, for instance), and God only knows what other useful and delightful things. In truth, one should, in order to escape inconveniences of this kind, maintain as cool a relation as possible towards one’s wishes and hopes, . . . one should appoint hours of audience for such pretentious visitors, and keep these hours of audience so unpunctually that the proper respect which each rascal entertains for himself may not suffer thereby.”
This excerpt, from a letter published by the young Hugo Wolf in the “Salonblatt,” entitled “Music?” displays a wry humor, pierced with bitterness. In the fall of 1885, Wolf had submitted his new, large-scale D minor quartet in hopes of performance to the Rose Quartet Society in Vienna. Shortly before he heard the bad news that the quartet had rejected the piece, an article was published in Vienna, condemning Wolf’s work harshly, and presumably precipitating the quartet’s rejection. Severely discouraged by the quartet’s prospects, Wolf supposedly discarded the manuscript as trash and left it in a tramcar. Apparently the manuscript was eventually recovered, however, and it was published years later inscribed with an aphoristic motto from Goethe’s Faust, “Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren” (“You shall renounce, renounce you shall”).
A child prodigy, Wolf had from an early age earned a reputation for both musical brilliance and lack of academic discipline, which led to his dismissal from a number of secondary schools as well as the Vienna Conservatory. Firmly under the spell of Wagner, Wolf was determined to make a name for himself as a composer, embracing the new German style of intense chromaticism. The String Quartet in D minor, along with his symphonic poem of 1883, Penthesilea, represent Wolf’s first attempts at large scale form. His lack of critical success with these large works forced Wolf to earn his living as a music teacher and critic, his colorful and often scathing reviews (particularly of the music of Brahms) made him infamous.
Wolf’s first attempt at quartet composition certainly betrays the influence of late Beethoven. Given that Wolf began writing the quartet shortly after being diagnosed with syphilis (which would eventually lead to his tragic death at the age of 43), it is not surprising that Wolf would be attracted to the life-and-death seriousness of late Beethoven. The first movement is dark and dramatic, exuding a sense of desperation. The epic slow movement is composed on a scale that rivals Beethoven’s largest movements in both size and scope. The mercurial scherzo even begins with a direct quote of Beethoven’s “Serioso” quartet. The original final movement gave Wolf the most trouble, and he eventually scrapped it in favor of a new movement, composed a full five years after the earlier movements. In this light, it is not surprising that the finale foreshadows the jaunty style of Wolf’s popular Italian Serenade, the chamber work for which Wolf is most well known.