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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week IV

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Felix Draeseke (1835-1913)

Symphony no. 4 in G major ("Sinfonia Comica") (1912)

If Robert Radecke, the composer of last week's symphony, was modest, Felix Draeseke was nothing if not ambitious. In his early thirties, after what had seemed a rather unpromising apprenticeship, he impressed Liszt with a C# minor piano sonata in which he laid explicit claim to the mantel of Beethoven, thereafter proceeding to make weighty contributions to just about every musical genre of the time. His output includes sundry orchestral overtures and tone poems, three string quartets, several quintets, sonatas for clarinet and 'cello plus two for viola, concertos for piano and violin, and no fewer than eight operas. There is also a substantial body of choral music, including various cantatas and choruses, a Mass, and two Requiems (one of them unaccompanied). His magnum opus was Christus, a sort of sacred choral Ring Cycle in four parts, to be performed over three evenings. Having subjected myself to rather a lot of his music over the last few weeks, I can't say I'm jumping to hear it.

As the above might suggest, Draeseke aspired to bridge the gap between the two strands of German musical Romanticism - essentially, the exploratory theatricality of Wagner and the conservative instrumental mastery of Brahms. Much informed opinion of the time thought he had been pretty successful. In addition to Liszt, his admirers included Brahms himself (albeit somewhat grudgingly) and the young Richard Strauss, as well as the two leading German conductors, Hans von Bullow and Arthur Nikisch. Nor is he entirely without admirers today. Should you be inclined, there is probably still time for you to sign up for the International Draeseke Society's 37th Annual Conference to be held in his home town of Coburg in October. I'm sure a good time will be had by all.

That Draeseke should find his posthumous reputation shored up by such secular freemasonry is hardly a surprise; even in his time he was regarded as an artist whose appeal was to the serious connoisseur. (Von Bullow once told him that he would "never be popular with the ordinary".) And, of course, there is nothing wrong with a creative figure adopting a stance of aesthetic austerity challenging to popular taste. Clearly, there remain a very few who find the rewards of Draeseke's music worth the effort of attention it demands. I'm afraid, however, that on the basis of what I've heard, I must side - however regretfully - with the majority who find it all imposing facade, with little of interest lurking beneath.

Essentially, there are two reasons for the obscurity into which Draeseke's reputation was plunged after the Second World War - one extraneous to the music, the other intrinsic to it.

The first of these is that the Nazis - whilst banning the work of many Jewish and "degenerate" composers - energetically promoted Draeseke as just what a serious German musician should be. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that conductors such as Karl Bohm and Fritz Reiner, who had both included Draeseke in their repertoire, should have become reluctant to perform his work and that audiences should have become queasy about listening to it, but quite unfair to assume that Draeseke would have been in the slightest sympathetic to a political movement that didn't attain prominence until almost twenty years after his death. (If anything, he appears to have been the sort of German social conservative who despised Nazism.)

The second - and more significant - reason is the nature of the music itself. Stravinsky once somewhat carelessly commented that Beethoven lacked the gift of melody. Goodness knows what he might have said about Draeseke. Not only does the latter struggle to come up with melodies that don't evaporate in the memory almost as you hear them, but for the most part even to produce engaging thematic gestures or motifs. This is not to say that his writing is without a certain self-conscious quirkiness. The Overture to the opera Gudrun, for instance, opens with a slow introduction based on an oscillating figure in clarinets and strings that is certainly unusual. But it is also weirdly uninteresting. Nor, having stated it, does the composer seem to have much idea what to do with it over the course of a piece that has been described by the American blogger Dave Hurwitz (not entirely without justice) as "among the dullest 11 minutes of music yet conceived by the human mind".

The melodic poverty of Draeseke's music is fatal, not just in that it robs it of easy memorability and decorative appeal - (as in the would be spectacular Piano Concerto, full of thunderous double octaves, rippling arpeggios, banging orchestral tuttis, and with not a singable tune within earshot) - but in so far as it undermines its pretensions to profundity. Melody, after all, is tonal music's principal carrier of emotion, and without a strongly articulated discharge of emotion, there is no real access to the profound. Aristotle wrote that after a good tragedy the viewer should feel "purged of pity and terror", but I doubt that many listeners to Draeseke's interminable Third Symphony, which he subtitled Sinfonia Tragica, feel any such thing. The piece - severe, unsmiling and (like much of Draeseke's music) exhaustingly contrapuntal - comes across as an arid synthesis of Brahms and Bruckner, arguably rivaling those masters in technique, but without an ounce of their humanity. The Finale's climactic catastrophe (marked by the work's only cymbal clash) registers, not as the inexorable enactment of fate, but as a puny and self-congratulatory gimmick.

The Third was almost certainly intended by Draeseke as his testamentary symphonic utterance, before he turned his attention to Christus and various (one suspects, impenetrable) theoretical prose writings. Fortunately, however, his final year saw him produce a Fourth - Sinfonia Comica.

I say fortunatley, because it is an astonishing exception to the rule and, I'm pleased to say, a work of unexpected exuberance. Though still melodically unmemorable, it shows real flair and concentration of effect - all the more remarkable in that it appears to have grown out of a late life sense of bitterness and disillusionment. By the time Christus was premiered in 1912, the 77 year-old Draeseke was too deaf to hear the result and was evidently starting to feel as though fashion had passed him by. In particular, he must have realised that an ill-advised written attack he had launched against Richard Strauss' Salome in 1905 had very much backfired.

Relations between Draeseke and Strauss had initially been mutually admiring. Musicologists have identified Draeseke's influence in the younger composer's work whilst, for his part, Draeseke responded with warmth and enthusiasm to such early Strauss masterpieces as Don Juan (1888). As Strauss' reputation continued to grow, however, things started to sour. Draeseke, who had always seen himself as representing the vanguard of the Austro-German tradition, found himself at least partially eclipsed. The success de scandale that Strauss enjoyed with Salome - a work that made his own fustian attempts at opera appear musically and dramatically moribund - was the last straw. In his essay, Confusion in Music, he lambasted the cacophony, wilful eccentricity and exhibitionism that he regarded as gradually submerging Strauss' talent. The reactionary tone he adopted did him no favours and failed to disguise the underlying envy.

The Sinfonia Comica is partly conceived as a parody of Strauss. Ironically, however, the very act of hostile derision seems to free up something in Draeseke's own creativity. Cast in four compressed movements, it bursts with bold orchestral ebullience, especially in its uninhibited use of the brass, of instruments in widely separated registers and of groups of solo strings, possibly recalling similar effects in Strauss' Don Quixote - a work Draeseke disliked.

Another Strauss work he seems to have disliked even more lies behind the programmatic Second Movement, to which he gave the sub-title "Fliegenkrieg" (War of the Flies). This allegedly depicts children swatting proliferating pestilential insects. A repeated note motif on solo violin represents the buzzing of the latter and increasingly frantic cymbal clashes the action of the swat. You may or may not find this hilarious, but what rather strikes me is the curious kinship to Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. Aren't the flies Draeseke's equivalent of the sniping critics with which Strauss' hero does battle? Draeseke appropriates, even pays grudging homage to Strauss, under the guise of dismissal.

The symphony lacks a conventional slow movement, thus sparing us the protracted Beethovenian funeral march that Draeseke's tended to default to as the centre-piece of his multi-movement works. The Third Movement Scherzo with boisterous drone trio and the romping Finale sustain a mode of genuine, if heavy-footed, good-humour until the end, the whole over in little over 20 minutes, uniquely in my experience of Draeseke leaving one wishing for slightly more.

The Sinfonia Comica is no neglected masterpiece. Place it alongside, say, Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel and its limitations are rather cruelly exposed. Yet, if there is one Draeseke orchestral work that deserves to be readmitted to the active repertoire, it is surely this one - a one off esay in levity that may not be a bundle of laughs but is vitally alive in a way everything else I've heard of his is not and which certainly keeps you listening. Why, one wonders, did he not manage to let himself go more often in this fashion over the course of his long and strenuous career?

Oh well, at least he did it the once.

Try it here:

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