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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Symphony of the Week X

Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901)

Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Opus 10

"Wallenstein" (1866)

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, the Liechtensteiner, Josef Rheinberger, "[is] now remembered almost exclusively through his elaborate and challenging organ compositions", which were described in the 1908 edition of Grove as "characterized by ... masterly counterpoint and dignified organ style". This last is a verdict I am happy to leave uncontested, having long conceded defeat in my attempt to appreciate the organ as a solo instrument (apart from a few things by Bach, Liszt, Messiaen, Ligeti and Camilleri). I can, however, just about cope with it as a concerto soloist, and am a little surprised that Rhienberger's two organ concerti (especially the more dramatic 2nd in G minor) don't get aired a bit more frequently, as a change, say, from the Poulenc. I have also found my infrequent encounters with his sacred choral music - notably the Mass for Double Choir and the motet, Abendlied - rewarding, again wondering why British cathedral choirmasters so rarely programme it, instead of the usual dreary stuff by Anglican non-entities. I had him down as an amiable, vaguely churchy, mildly anachronistic windbag, and I'm afraid that acquaintance with his two symphonies - both over 45 minutes long - has done little to alter that opinion.

There can be no doubt that Rheinberger was an admirable man and a fine musician. A prodigy whose musical talents were already apparent well before the age of ten, he also impressed those who knew him as a cultivated man with wide-ranging literary and artistic enthusiasms. As teacher, he was revered by an impressive range of pupils (including Wilhelm Furtwangler and the young Richard Strauss) and, as composer, he was nothing if not industrious, with opus numbers extending into the high hundreds and including, besides his 20 Organ Sonatas (out of a projected 24 covering all the keys) and 14 Masses, operas, chamber music and orchestral pieces. Although his academic reputation and myopic appearance in photographs might suggest a man born with a beard, it should be noted that the 1st Symphony is a work of youth, completed when Rheinberger was in his mid -twenties. Until the appearance of the 2nd Symphony (The Florentine) about a decade later, it was designated, not as a symphony, but as the "symphonic tone painting", Wallenstein. I think it was wise to upgrade it. The piece is laid out in four big scale movements, totalling around 50 minutes, and entirely orthodox in it's adherence to mid-Nineteenth Century symphonic design. Also, it's programmatic aspect is it's least compelling feature - the composer is is too strongly inhibited by his Mendelsohnian conservatism to mirror Schiller's tumultuous Thirty Years War epic with appropriate fire and ardour. Local poetry is always subordinated to formal politeness.

Still, the piece bears enjoyable - if lengthy - witness to its creator's craft and integrity, seeming to me ever so slightly preferable to its successor (though that can be found on youtube and don't let me put you off trying it).

The expansive Sonata-Form opening movement, depicting General Wallenstein at the height of his warlike influence is a good indicator of Rheinberger's strengths and weakness. There is something appealingly forthright in the drive and flow of the music, with a generous range of thematic ideas pushed along by a decent sense of rhythmic variety and a clear, unfussy orchestral technique. (In particular, Rheinberger writes inventively and idiomatically for the strings.) This is clearly music conceived for the orchestra, and not organ music clumsily dressed up.

Unfortunately, however, as things unfold, a slight addiction to scale like progressions, both in melodic material, and as accompaniment becomes apparent as, more damagingly, does a certain aesthetic timidity. As happens with many artistic prodigies, thorough precocious mastery of a style in extreme youth appears to have left Rheinberger reluctant to explore further in adulthood - at least outside the organ loft. For all its fluency and charm, the music is surely just a little tame and harmonically bland, especially in the coda where, after a general pause and broken downwards scale in the bass, things build to a distinctly underwhelming chorale-like peroration, decorated with laborious string triplets and fading away with a pair of trumpets climbing quietly up the octave in thirds. This is all clearly intended to impress, but comes across as a thumping anti-climax.

The Slow Movement, depicting the general's daughter, Thekla (a historical personage, involved by Schiller in an unhistorical romance) is more successful. Again Rheinberger uses the strings to good advantage, in what amounts to a substantial and convincingly sustained "song without words". Until, that is a final triple forte climax of tremolo scales that again rings hollow.

Employing a small array of extra percussion, in a rather stiff nod to the conventions of "martial music", the Scherzo Third Movement is an agreeable, but fairly mild affair, supposedly depicting Wallenstein's War Camp, but actually sounding more like a well-behaved rustic dance - an impression reinforced by its many repeats. There are nice orchestral touches - such as the low clarinet trill leading into the trio - but it hardly generates the air of cumulative excitement presumably intended.

The Finale, covering Wallenstein's betrayal and death, is especially let down by Rheinberger's dogged tastefulness. By the time it comes round one might have noticed that, although nominally in D minor, the symphony has consistently gravitated towards major tonalities. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this in itself, except that it tends to betray the work's evident dramatic purpose. The Slow Introduction is pleasantly lyrical, rather than tense and expectant, whilst the busy triplet motive with distant trumpet signals that dominates the ensuing allegro, has an almost comic tone to it. Dismayingly, Rheinberger reverts to further empty and complacent-sounding chorale tuttis along the way to a final recollection of the quiet trumpets that ended the First Movement.

I know I have been hard on this piece. But, if I have, it's because I feel that, coming from a musician of Rheinberger's talents, it should have been better. In truth, compared to most conservative European symphonies by composers who took their guiding light from Mendelsohn, it's a quite sparkling production, clear-textured and tuneful; only lacking in that final degree of invention and excitement. Listening to it repeatedly, I must concede that it, if long-winded and sometimes under-powered, it is often engaging and never dull.

Here it is with score.

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