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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week VIII

Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916)

Symphony no. 3 in C minor (Miriam) Op. 54


During his lifetime, and for about twenty years thereafter, Friedrich Gernsheim was a composer of some reputation, widely performed and personally well-liked, the subject of academic research and an admiring biography. His subsequent eclipse raises interesting questions about the ways in which artistic canons are formed.

During the 1930s, as part of their iniquitously grandiose experiment in social and cultural engineering, the Nazis not only expelled and murdered the living, but attempted to expunge the memory of the dead. The music of Mendelssohn and Mahler was outlawed, along with that of leading modernists, such as Schoenberg and Berg and many other Jewish composers whose canonical status was less settled. Performances were banned, scores and sheet music were destroyed, historical records altered or deleted. Amongst notable figures who fell foul of this ruling were Karoly Goldmark, Salomon Jadassohn, and Gernsheim. Also Max Bruch, who wasn't actually Jewish at all, but had written Kol Nidre on Jewish funerary themes and the evening-length oratorio, Moses. (It seems that his middle name of Christian was taken by Nazi officialdom as sure indication that he had something to hide.)

As I recounted in an earlier post (see Symphony of the Week IV), the redoubtable Felix Draeseke would ironically suffer a drastic and lasting dip in reputation precisely as a result of Nazi efforts to promote him. It is hard, however, for most of us to feel that - unfortunate though Draeseke was in his posthumous champions - such a decline wasn't already on the cards. Unlike Wagner, he didn't have genius on his side. More regretfully, much the same could be said for Jadassohn, a highly respected teacher and composer of good-tempered conservative music that goes in one ear and out the other. Bruch, at the end of his life, himself predicted that he would be remembered as a one work composer and, I'm afraid, wasn't far wrong. There are neglected good things buried in his large output - I was actually quite impressed by Moses when I heard it - but, even if he was being a little hard on himself, his stuff generally has a vaguely musty air about it, as though it had been salvaged from the capacious store rooms of some Victorian museum. (None of his three awkward and unconvincing attempts at a symphony, for example, struck me as worthy of inclusion in this series.) By contrast, Goldmark (see Symphony of the Week II) seems a joyous figure, whose lifetime popularity was clearly deserved and whose current obscurity is rather incomprehensible.

And what of Gernsheim?

Well, the short answer is that Gernsheim - at least on the evidence of what I have heard - is a composer of real skill and integrity, amply deserving of contemporary performance, whose name should be drawn into the mainstream discussion of late 19th Century musical culture.

The full answer is a bit more qualified.

Comparison with Goldmark is, I think, instructive. Though both men were mercifully free of the Leipzig academicism that blighted the creativity of most of their Austro-German contemporaries, both did fall strongly under the spell of Brahms. But where Goldmark proved equally open to Lisztian and even Wagnerian influences, Gernsheim's work - though not without individuality - seems almost consciously overshadowed by that of the Hamburg master. Like Brahms, he eschewed opera, wrote a substantial body of chamber and piano music, some choral music, and relatively little orchestral music, though that little including four concertos and four symphonies. His 1902 symphonic poem Zu einem Drama shows a certain late (post-Straussian?) evolution in expressive language and is a fine piece, though I do not go along with some of the more extravagant claims that have lately been made for it. Yes, it is admirably consistent and absorbing but - dare I suggest - just a little buttoned-up and unexciting. One can be thankful for Gernsheim's growing representation in the recorded catalogue - (there are now two excellent cycles of the symphonies ) - without quite being persuaded that he is a displaced master. As an orchestral stylist, he has some virtues that Brahms hadn't - notably an uncluttered sense of texture - but at no point does he gain access to the vein of uncompromising stoic asperity that raises Brahms into the pantheon. Nor does he quite have Brahms' gift for spontaneous lyricism. Despite having listened to them all several times, I struggle to recall the melodic material of the symphonies with any precision.

The first and longest of them, in G minor, has a natural sense of growth and scale,starting out with a quietly restless, dark-toned theme in the strings and culminating in a finale that sustains an expansive big tune convincingly against a variety of accompanying textures. It pre-dates Brahms' First of 1876 by a year; a fact that, if considered alongside the dates of Rijk Hol's first three symphonies (1863, 1866, 1867, see Symphony of the Week I), Bruch's First and Second (1868 and 1870), Draeseke's First (1872) and Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony (1875), suggests that - far from erupting out of nowhere to rejuvenate a barren symphonic landscape - Brahms' breakthrough masterpiece represents the culmination of a lively decade or so of Austro-German symphonic endeavor. And yet, none of the precursor works listed (with the notable exception of the Goldmark) can be clearly perceived outside of Brahms' shadow. In the case of Gernsheim, especially, I can't help feeling that the music sounds a bit like Brahms with the voltage turned down. It's formal outlines are appealingly clear, but its climaxes seem artificially engineered with the aid of a practiced technique.

This is less of a problem with the two middle symphonies, both of which are somewhat leaner and more compressed.

The Second, of 1882, is in a major key and has something of a suite like feel, enhanced by the unexpected deployment of triangle and tambourine in the tarantella second movement. Overall, the work radiates warmth and relaxation, in marked contrast to its predecessor. (This time, Gernsheim lagged behind Brahms, whose sunny Second had appeared five years earlier.)

Reverting to the minor, the Third Symphony of 1887 has a certain gravity of manner, appropriate to its Biblical inspiration. I have decided to offer it here in preference to the autobiographical Fourth - which some consider the best of the series - for two reasons. Firstly, its rare reflection of Gernsheim's faith and background. (Apparently deeply stirred by a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt and he felt impelled to approach the Old Testament from his own perspective, focused upon the ambiguously charismatic figure of Moses' sister Miriam.) Secondly, its remarkably extensive and idiomatic deployment of a harp in all but the first of its four movements.

Gernsheim's orchestration was evidently much admired by his contemporaries. Without wanting to get into the controversy as to whether Brahms' orchestration was simply inept or a singular vehicle, ideally devised to articulate the content of his own music, I think it is far to say that Gernsheim's use of the orchestra shows a richer appreciation of instrumental timbre. In addition to the percussion already alluded to in the Second, the Fourth Symphony allows itself a few cymbal clashes in its final stretch - not too many, mind. More notably, Gernsheim writes with confidence and flair for the woodwind choir, often highlighted in passages without the strings. The first two movements of number Three open arrestingly with such ensemble woodwind writing. Had 20th Century history been different, might we now hear the woodwind opening of the slow movement of Brahms' exactly contemporaneous Violin Concerto as sounding a bit like Gernsheim, rather than the other way round? Whatever, the less celebrated composer here creates a distinctive, un-showy and dignified soundworld and develops his material with a real sense of expressive urgency. The first appearance of the harp, half way through the slow movement, is not just decorative, but brings with it a decisive shift in tone. It helps that its part is so varied and unpredictable. What a pity Gernsheim didn't attempt a full scale concerto for the instrument! The third movement scherzo is a fleet 6/8 dance led off by quiet timpani and full of rhythmic life. Like the Finale of the Second, the last movement is let down by being based upon a "big tune", clearly intended to emulate the broad triumphal theme that drives the Finale of Brahms' First. At least here there is contrasting material to hold the attention and, again, the harp's sonorous chords enhance and elevate the orchestral tutti in the closing pages.

So, four more than decent symphonies by a composer who should be better known. Believe it or not, I did start out writing the above hoping not depict him as a sort of lesser Brahms, but soon found the effort impossible. For all his admirable qualities, Gernsheim almost seems to invite the comparison himself, especially in his Finales. By all accounts a happy man, he may have been content to be seen as a superior acolyte. This doesn't mean, however, that he should be completely forgotten. As Malcolm MacDonald wrote, "his four symphonies, though hardly the equal of Brahms, are an interesting example of the reception of Brahmsian style by a sympathetic and talented contemporary". I think that's fair.

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