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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week III

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

Robert Radecke (1839-1911)

Symphony in F Major, Op.50 (1877)

What little I have been able to glean about the life of the German/Silesian composer Robert Radecke suggests he was a modest man. There is a rather appealing portrait of him in relative youth, with thick dark hair, carefully shaped moustache and striking pale blue eyes. The photographs taken of him in old age show a figure recognizably the same but with the air of Romantic ardour long since departed, standing upright and dignified in a conservative-looking suit, his eyes now deep-sunk and gazing out thoughtfully from over a mighty white beard. It is almost as though a natural shyness had gradually overwhelmed him. During his lifetime, and for a while afterwards, he was not without reputation, especially for his songs, which used to crop up in the repertoire of German singers on into the mid-Twentieth Century. (His setting of Ruckert's "Aus der Jugendzeit" can be found floating around online in various souped up orchestral arrangements.) His professional C.V. - two decades as director of the Court Theatre of Leipzig, two more as Royal Kapellmeister in Berlin - was certainly impressive, though not of the kind associated with most composers of his age whose work is still remembered. He was, apparently, an excellent and enthusiastic chamber player on piano and violin and a fine improviser on the organ, as well as a conductor held in high enough regard to be offered directorship of the New York Philharmonic (he declined). Most of his smallish acknowledged output consists of vocal music, despite his penchant for which and position as theatre manager, he never attempted a full-scale opera. His handful of instrumental pieces - chamber and orchestral - are largely scattered amongst the more than one hundred unpublished items without opus number he left at his death.

He made three attempts at a symphony, of which this is the only one he thought satisfactory. A juvenile effort in A major was evidently completed around the time of his 20th birthday, but never performed. Five years later a work in D minor was performed, but promptly withdrawn. In the immediate wake of the A major piece, however, he had completed a sonata form movement in F major and thought well enough of it to keep it in the drawer until providing it with three appropriate companions over quarter of a century later. I suspect it is no accident that the score bears the milestone opus number 50.

The prolonged gestation might lead one to expect unevenness and inconsistency of inspiration, but in fact this F major Symphony hangs together astonishingly well. It probably helps that Radecke was strongly resistant to any new musical currents swirling around in the 1860s and 70s and his style remained essentially static. By the time of it's 1877 completion, it's idiom would certainly have seemed a little quaint. Apparently, the music was intended to evoke the Alpine landscapes young Radecke had enjoyed on a memorable walking holiday, and listening, it's hard not to feel that he confined himself to the lower mountain pastures, rather than attempt the ascent of any craggy peaks. But I don't mean this cruelly.

The good news is that, unlike most conservative Austro-German symphonic composers of his time, Radecke's guiding light appears to have been not so much Mendelssohn, as Schumann, in fact, for this work rather specifically Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. I haven't been able to find any confirmation that he was present at the Dusseldorf premiere of the Rhenish in February 1851, but I think it unlikely he wasn't. The instantly memorable flowing melody that opens his own symphony is essentially Schumann's opening theme upside-down. Where Schumann employs a boisterous 3/4 time signature to depict the cascading Upper Rhine, Radecke allows things to unfold in an of unhurried 6/8 over a drone bass in an F major tonality clearly intended to echo Beethoven's Pastoral. Throughout the movement there is a certain subtle rhythmic teasing, most listeners surely likely to interpret one bar of six quavers as two bars of three crochets. There is a disarming naturalness and lyricism to the (repeated) exposition, which generates a fair sense of scale and momentum and includes a strongly appealing (and again memorable) second subject in the 'cellos. After a pretty eventful, far from mechanical, development the return to pastoral tranquility in the not quite literal recapitulation feels genuinely poetic. The final wistful recall of the second subject is one of several moments that rather strikingly anticipate similar effects in Dvorak.

The Scherzo second movement, in the unexpectedly dark tonality of D minor, is also highly effective. It's type and layout may be familiar, with scurrying string phrases interrupted by stabbing trumpets and timpani, but Radecke manages to avoid predictability of detail. Again, the intrinsic quality of his material is high and the movement gains gravitas from its restrained dynamics and un-fussy orchestration. (The symphony is lightly scored for a Beethovenian orchestra without trombones and, I must say, one doesn't really notice their absence.)

The tertiary form slow movement is perhaps a little weaker, it's long breathed themes somewhat weighed down with countermelodies but, nonetheless, it carries genuine feeling and provides satisfactory "downtime" in a work of largely fast tempi.

The Finale again harks back to Schumann, starting out with the sort of bright, compound time theme the senior composer favoured when wishing to convey sane optimism. Here it leads off into a sonata form movement where it's radiance endures a more vigorous assault than might be expected. Characteristically, (and admirably) Radecke keeps the return of the music to home-key safety economical and un-triumphalist.

This symphony didn't set the world alight in its own time and is hardly likely to provoke intense excitement in ours. There is nothing innovative or challenging about it. It is the work of a distinguished but consciously minor and frankly reactionary musician in thrall to the work of earlier masters of whose exalted achievements he would have seen his own as little more than a faint echo. But need that matter? From a perspective where much late Nineteenth Century symphonism - especially in the Austro-German tradition - is revealed as laboured bombast, Radecke's quiet craft and unforced lyricism stand out as humane and even lovable. His modest magnum opus is by no means obliterated by comparison with the symphonies of his idol, Schumann, and would make an appealing addition to the repertoire of any chamber orchestra looking for something substantial, fresh and approachable with which to enliven its programmes. I must confess to having grown very fond of it over the last couple of years and have found it stands up well to repeated listenings. There is much to delight on the lower pastures.

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