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ClassicsOnline Home » ALBERT, E. d': Symphony in F Major / Symphonic Prelude to Tiefland (Leipzig MDR Symphony, Markl)
Prolific as a composer and renowned as a pianist, Eugen d’Albert enjoyed a central position in European musical life and was nicknamed ‘Albertus Magnus’ by Liszt. Of his many operas, Tiefland is the best known, its Symphonic Prologue setting a pastoral scene for the torrid drama to follow. The ambitious Symphony in F major is d’Albert’s single work in this form, showing him as a gifted composer in the tradition of Brahms. His two piano concertos can be found on Naxos 8.553728.
By Nick Barnard
Eugen d’Albert (1864–1932)
Symphonic Prologue to the Opera ‘Tiefland’, Op 34 • Symphony in F major, Op 4
Eugen d’Albert’s father Charles, a pupil of the great pianist Kalkbrenner, grew up in London, where he later conducted at Covent Garden and wrote a series of popular salon and dance pieces. The family was of Italian and French origin, but Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert married a wife in Britain, Annie Rowell. His own father had worked in London as ballet-master at the King’s Theatre and Covent Garden. Charles and Annie d’Albert’s son Eugene was born in Glasgow in 1864 and first taught by his father. In 1876 he was awarded a scholarship at the National Training School for Music in London, studying there with the Vienna virtuoso pianist Ernst Pauer and also taught by Ebenezer Prout, John Stainer and Arthur Sullivan, perhaps to less effect. He claimed to owe much of his musical formation to Pauer. In 1879 he played for Anton Rubinstein and in 1881 for Clara Schumann. In the latter year Hans Richter, with whom d’Albert had appeared in concert, was instrumental in allowing him to study on a Mendelssohn Scholarship in Vienna, where he met Brahms and played for Liszt, who took him to Weimar as a pupil. There he became court pianist and in the same year made his successful debut in Berlin. By this stage in his career d’Albert had adopted the German form of his given name, Eugen rather than Eugene, and in the following years felt himself to be German, with German and French more familiar to him as languages than English had become, as he put his years in England behind him.
For the next fifty years d’Albert enjoyed an international career as a pianist, with concert engagements throughout Europe and in America. Something of his distinction may be seen in his appearance as soloist in the two Piano Concertos of Brahms in Leipzig in 1895 and the following year in Berlin in concerts conducted by Brahms himself. Although a pupil of Liszt and a member of the latter’s favourite entourage, nicknamed by Liszt ‘Albertus Magnus’, d’Albert also won the approval of Hanslick, the champion of Brahms against Liszt and the Music of the Future. In spite of his success as a pianist, d’Albert always had a desire to settle somewhere and to devote himself more completely to composition. The success of the first of his 21 operas, Der Rubin (The Ruby) at Karlsruhe in 1893 suggested the possibility of a career as an opera composer, although very few of his stage works remain in current repertoire. He played a considerable part in the editing of works by earlier composers, and was responsible for editing Liszt’s symphonic poems as part of that composer’s Collected Edition. In his private life he was the object of some criticism. He married six wives, including, as his second wife, the pianist Teresa Carreno, followed by the singer Hermine Finck, finally enjoying a liaison with his mistress Virginia Zanetti. In 1914 he had become a Swiss citizen, but he died in Riga, where he had hoped to secure a divorce from his sixth wife.
D’Albert’s operas include the comic Die Abreise (The Departure), staged in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1898 and Flauto Solo, first staged in Prague in 1905. Of his serious stage works Die toten Augen (The Dead Eyes), produced in Leipzig in 1916, remains in occasional German repertoire, while Tiefland (The Lowland) is more widely known, at least by name. The latter music drama in a prologue and two acts has a libretto by Rudolph Lothar, after the play Tierra Baixa (The Lowland) by Angel Guimera. It was first performed at the Neues Deutsches Theater, Prague, on 15 November 1903. Two shepherds, Pedro and Nando, are in pastures high in the Pyrenees. They are happy with their lot, but Pedro wants a wife. The village elder Tommaso arrives, bringing with him Marta, as a wife for Pedro, but Nando warns him of the dangers of the world below. In a mill in the village below it transpires that Marta is the property of the rich land-owner Sebastiano and now must marry Pedro, an ignorant peasant. The couple marry, while Sebastiano intends to continue his liaison with Marta and visit her that night, a meeting that the presence of Pedro eventually prevents. A little girl, Nuri, tells Pedro the truth about Marta, the reason for the villagers’ mockery of his marriage. Marta seeks Pedro’s forgiveness and a final open quarrel with Sebastiano, whose proposed marriage has been prevented by information given by Tommaso, leads to a fight and Sebastiano’s death. Pedro resolves to take Marta away with him to the mountain pastures.
Eugen d’Albert found in Tiefland a subject to be depicted with dramatic realism. The Symphonic Prologue of 1924 sets the pastoral scene, as a shepherd pipe is heard, following the original music of the Vorspiel. The first scene is set in a rocky meadow high in the Pyrenees. It is three o’clock in the morning and the stars can still be seen in the sky, while the countryside is clouded in morning mist, while the two shepherds call to each other. Above them loom the great snow-covered peaks and to one side is a massive glacier. The orchestral piece reflects the scene with which the opera opens, foreshadowing something of what is to come in this example of German verismo that later seems to move from the world of Cavalleria rusticana to the Wagnerian.
D’Albert’s Symphony in F major, Op 4, was completed in 1886, an early composition and his only attempt at this form. An extended and ambitious work, it makes finely judged use of the orchestra and is very much of its place and period, the age of Brahms, revealing d’Albert as a gifted if neglected composer, in addition to his generally acknowledged skill as a virtuoso pianist. The impressive and broadly classical first movement opens with an effective first subject, followed by a livelier transition and secondary material, with Brahms never far away. This leads to a slow movement, characteristic of conservative German musical language of the period, particularly in its orchestration and use of wind instruments. The Scherzo is full of vitality, with its contrapuntal opening and bouncing rhythms. It brings the expected contrasting Trio, introducing an interlude of protracted tranquillity, eventually interrupted by the return of the Scherzo. The last movement opens in an introduction of a certain foreboding, before the mood lightens, and the pace quickens into a spirited, ebullient and triumphant finale.
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