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ClassicsOnline Home » FUCHS, R.: Serenades Nos. 1 and 2 / Andante grazioso and Capriccio (Cologne Chamber Orchestra, C. Ludwig)
After his death in 1927, Robert Fuchs all but vanished from public consciousness. Yet here is a composer whom Brahms held in the highest esteem, and who could count Mahler, Wolf and Sibelius among his many talented pupils. This selection of music for string orchestra, written between Fuchs’s late twenties and early fifties, gives us an opportunity to reassess a neglected and influential figure of Austrian Romanticism. Under young German-born conductor Christian Ludwig, the internationally renowned Cologne Chamber Orchestra revives these delightful works with characteristically polished ease.
Robert Fuchs (1847–1927)
Works for String Orchestra
Johannes Brahms was not generally noted for his effusiveness. Rather he tended to hide his emotions behind a mask of pungent sarcasm. Many were the hopeful young composers who, on seeking Brahms’s advice, were sent off with the following words ringing bitterly in their ears: ‘My heartiest thanks; go on amusing yourself in the same way.’ Max Bruch—just a few years younger than Brahms—once sweated his way through a whole piece only to be asked, ‘Tell me, where do you find such beautiful manuscript paper?’ It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find Brahms alluding to anyone as a distinguished composer, yet this is how he described the music of Robert Fuchs: ‘Everything is so fine, so skilful, so charmingly invented, that one always has pleasure in it.’ Brahms and Fuchs met in the late 1870s and soon became good friends. Indeed, Brahms was often the first to hear and play through his protégé’s music, which follows in the tradition of the richly lyrical composers who bridged the transition from late Classicism to early Romanticism—especially Schubert. Rhythmically, Fuchs’s music became considerably more complex as it absorbed the increasing influence of Brahms. Its tonal framework also became rather more fluid as time went on, and, as if echoing Richard Strauss, Fuchs even remarked that music without plenty of key changes sounds ‘very old’, no matter how beautiful the sonorities might be.
Robert Fuchs, the youngest of thirteen children, was born on 15 February 1847 in the Styrian village of Frauental an der Lassnitz, not far from the present-day border between Austria and Slovenia. Like his older brother, Johann Nepomuk (who enjoyed a distinguished career as an opera conductor throughout Austria-Hungary and Germany), Robert was a very musical child. He soon became proficient on the piano, organ, violin and flute, and he also received a thorough grounding in harmony and counterpoint in addition to displaying promise as a composer. When he was eighteen he moved to Vienna, where he eked out a living as a rehearsal pianist, itinerant piano teacher and church organist. At the same time, he took composition lessons at the Conservatoire from Otto Dessoff, who would later be on the panel that awarded Antonín Dvořák the Austrian State Stipendium for artists. Fuchs’s first un-numbered Symphony in G minor was not particularly successful, but two years later, in 1874, his Serenade No. 1 was a great hit. Critics responded kindly to its ‘regular and pleasing’ form. In particular, the conservative-minded Eduard Hanslick admired the work because it did not attempt to plumb great philosophical depths or to indulge in the current vogue of trying to express psychological states through music.
In 1875 Fuchs joined the teaching staff at the Vienna Conservatoire. The impressive list of pupils who passed through his composition classes over the years includes George Enescu, Erich Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schreker, Jean Sibelius, Hugo Wolf and Alexander Zemlinsky. Among other composers of a lighter kind to have been taught by Fuchs are Leo Fall and Richard Heuberger (who succeeded Hanslick as critic of the Neue Freie Presse).
After his death, Fuchs all but vanished from the public’s musical consciousness, and the few articles and dictionary entries that mentioned him invariably repeated the same few facts: that he did little to promote his own music; that his music is Brahmsian; and that he was known as ‘Serenaden-Fuchs’ because of the popularity of his serenades. It is easy, therefore, to succumb to the idea that music by a composer of the second rank, like Fuchs, must necessarily be of little consequence. Yet if that were the whole story, then one is bound to ask why a discerning composer of the first rank, like Brahms, held Fuchs in such high esteem, and also why the authorities at the Conservatoire should have entrusted their best composition students to his care. Sibelius, for example, whose youthful waywardness must have been taxing, remained a favourite of Fuchs. Indeed, the Conservatoire even offered Sibelius his old teacher’s post upon Fuchs’s retirement in 1912.
Striking a well-bred balance between Classical elegance and Romantic passion, Fuchs’s music is tastefully urbane, a factor that no doubt did much to commend it to Brahms, whose own influence on Fuchs’s style is clear. But in matters of orchestration, Fuchs’s limpidity reminds listeners irresistibly of Mendelssohn, while his harmonies bear comparison with Schumann’s. It has even been said—by those who do not wish the charms of music to soothe the savage breast too completely—that Fuchs’s music is, if anything, too beautifully made.
When Fuchs finished the Serenade No. 1 in D major, Op. 9, in 1874, it seemed natural that he should dedicate it to a fellow Schubertian, Nikolaus Dumba, a Greek-born industrial magnate who had provided the necessary financial support for publishing a collected edition of Schubert’s works. Lyricism and contemplation are perhaps the two most distinguishing features of this five-movement piece for strings. After a concise prelude, the graceful minuet invites comparison with similar elements in Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony. The animated scherzo is characterized by some delectable modulations to remote keys that are reminiscent of his future pupil, Hugo Wolf. The romantic slow movement unquestionably forms the heart of this serenade, which is rounded off by a high-spirited finale that unexpectedly begins in the minor rather than the major. Maybe Fuchs was following in the footsteps of Haydn whose ‘Emperor’ Quartet is another work in the major that has its finale in the minor. Arnold Schoenberg is known to have admired this serenade, and a heavily annotated copy of it survives in the Schoenberg Institute in Vienna.
The Serenade No. 1 was a resounding success at its first performance, so Fuchs followed this up by composing another string serenade a couple of years later, in 1876. He dedicated this Serenade No. 2 in C minor, Op. 14, to Count Tamás Nyáry, a member of the Austro-Hungarian nobility and an entirely forgotten amateur composer who set a number of Heine’s verses for voice and piano. The first movement of the serenade is characterized by its vivacious jumping bass line. The emotional centre of the work is the expansive and sweeping Larghetto, which bears a certain stylistic resemblance to Dvořák’s String Serenade of 1875, though there is unlikely to have been any direct influence because the Czech composer’s piece had yet to be published. The energetic third movement, which modulates through several keys, is followed by a spritely finale in the rhythm of a tarantella. Its joie de vivre brings to mind Wolf’s famous Italian Serenade, though this work by Fuchs’s pupil was still a decade into the future.
By the time Fuchs came to compose the Andante grazioso and Capriccio, Op. 63, in 1900, his old lyricism had become tempered with emotions that are altogether darker and more acute than those expressed in his youthful serenades, and his thematic material was now rather more angular in outline. It is interesting to compare this earnest and autumnal music with that of his younger and more famous pupils, for at times its intensity approaches that of Mahler, and its pathos is similar to that of Sibelius’s Valse triste.
When Fuchs died in 1927, the new serialism of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern signalled the future of Austrian music. Fuchs’s familiar world of polite, bourgeois music-making was now as passé as the faded imperial and royal splendours of Franz Josef’s defunct Austria-Hungary.
© Anthony Short, 2010
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