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ClassicsOnline Home » FOERSTER: Symphony No. 4 / Festival Overture / My Youth
By the time of his death, at the age of 91, Foerster had become the grand old man of Czech music. Written under the spell of Bruckner and Mahler, the Symphony No. 4 is widely regarded as his masterpiece. This deeply religious work begins with a Mahlerian march, followed by a bucolic scherzo that would be at home among Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.The lovely slow movement provides yet more evidence of Foerster’s superb ear for orchestral colour while the finale, the longest and most complex of the four movements, builds inexorably to a majestic climax that has been likened to approaching the gates of heaven.
By Phil Vendy
Josef Bohuslav Foerster (1859–1951)
Festive Overture, Op. 70 World première recording
Meine Jugend (My Youth), Symphonic Poem Op. 44 World première recording
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 54, ‘Easter Eve’
Josef Bohuslav Foerster was born in Prague in 1859. He studied at the Prague Organ School, and upon graduation he was appointed organist at St Vojtĕch Church, taking over the post from no less a figure than Antonín Dvořák. In these years Foerster also had close contact with Bedřich Smetana, and received encouragement from Tchaikovsky and others. In 1888 he married the famous Czech soprano Berta Lauterer, and the couple eventually moved to Hamburg. It was here that Foerster met Gustav Mahler, a fellow German-speaking Bohemian, and the two became friends. The Foersters went with Mahler to Vienna in 1903, where they remained until they returned to Prague in 1918. By the time of his death, at the age of 91, Foerster had become the grand old man of Czech music, teaching many important young composers. In all this time he also composed prolifically. His writing was influenced both by his close connection with music for the church, including a complete mastery of Palestrina-style counterpoint, and by his love of the theatre. Music, and all art, was for Foerster an expression of the beauty of the human soul.
Foerster’s Festive Overture, Op.70, was written for the opening of the new theatre at Královské Vinohrady in Prague in 1907. It begins with an arresting kettle-drum solo, followed by an energetic main theme. The richly lyrical second theme combines Czech flair and Viennese elegance. All three of these ideas are soon combined contrapuntally, yet with the utmost naturalness and flowing momentum. In the development another theme is heard, also lyrical but with a striving, heroic character. In the recapitulation, after a dramatic pause, this heroic theme appears wistfully, before the kettle-drum solo returns to lead the music to a rousing conclusion.
The symphonic poem Meine Jugend (My Youth) is also a product of Foerster’s years in Vienna. The bounding 6/8 main theme suggests the stride of a confident young man, happy with the world. This soon gives way to another of Foerster’s gorgeously lyrical second themes, with a delicacy and radiance of scoring that here almost looks forward to Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. These two ideas are developed with a wide variety of mood and expression, including some meltingly beautiful tranquil passages, until a broad climax is reached. A new, song-like theme then appears, marked Andante religioso, which may represent the deep importance of faith in Foerster’s life. The recapitulation begins with a brief but fun fugato, perhaps a reference to his years of schooling. The second theme then returns even more richly scored than before, leading to a dissonant outcry, representing the sudden death of the composer’s mother. A passage of quiet stillness ensues, followed by the wonderful reassurance of the religioso theme. A brilliant coda rounds off the work, bringing the various themes together one last time.
The Fourth Symphony is perhaps Foerster’s masterpiece. It was written during his first years in Vienna, surely under the spell of Bruckner and Mahler. Like Bruckner, Foerster was a devout Roman Catholic, and the Fourth Symphony is a direct expression of his deep religious feeling. The first movement is a Mahleresque funeral march, with a sombre first theme that slowly tries to rise from the depths. Twice the music seems about to reach a climax, only to return to the ominous mood of the opening. Finally a sunnier second theme appears, and the music grows in warmth and radiance until a new, rather childlike theme is heard on the flute. The development sweeps in mightily, with the first and second themes combined in a stormy passage that eventually leads to a huge, wrenchingly dissonant chord in the full orchestra. This gradually dissipates and the opening music returns. The recapitulation soon reaches a climax, where the brass cry out with a version of the second theme as a descending triad, which will become very important later on. The coda begins with an even more contrapuntally elaborate version of the music of the development, the second theme given forth by the violins ‘with maximum exultation’. Despite the tremendous energy released by this passage, the music can only return to the opening theme, pounded out by the full orchestra. The music returns to the gloomy tread of the opening bars, closing with solemn chords.
The second movement brings a complete contrast. Here Foerster’s Bohemian heritage comes to the fore with a bucolic scherzo that would be right at home among Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. He then takes a cue from Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony by giving us a second theme in a markedly slower tempo, so that it sounds as if we have already reached the trio. This folksy Ländler has such elegance and affected manners, suggesting that it might be aimed at high society, but it is a beautiful one nonetheless. The real trio then comes at a slightly faster tempo, with a chorale-like theme in the brass decorated with snippets of the scherzo theme. The second part of the trio expands romantically, with great swells of sound from the whole orchestra that eventually fade away mysteriously. The scherzo then returns complete, with a very cheeky final coda.
The slow movement begins with the lonely sound of a muted solo violin accompanied by two bassoons, more evidence of Foerster’s superb ear for orchestral colour. What can one say about a movement such as this? It is pure, radiant melody, supported by lush harmony and fabulous scoring, all the more moving for its complete sincerity of utterance. The movement ends in a mood of meditative calm.
The finale, the longest and most complex of the four movements, begins with a menacing theme in the low strings and woodwinds. There soon comes a tender theme in the violins gently striving upwards, which is actually the main theme of the first movement appearing in a new guise. This process of gently striving upwards informs the entire movement. After we reach a broad climax, a solo violin then enters with a new theme, echoed by a solo cello. The music continues in this lyrical vein until we reach a climax on the dominant of A flat. Then a surprise: a drum-roll ushers in a powerful fugue subject in the strings. This is followed by the sweetly expressive sound of the second theme high on a solo violin. The music grows mightily, inexorably, until we reach a towering climax, the descending triad motif sounding again from the brass. Here begins what might be called the recapitulation, with the upward-striving theme returning in the winds, with floating counterpoint above in the solo violin. The fugue subject then bursts forth in the violins, combined with the striving theme in the bass. These two ideas and the lyrical second theme are combined contrapuntally to magnificent effect (again, shades of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony). The music surges ahead until the sound is suddenly cut off, revealing the distant sound of a church organ intoning the Easter song ‘On the Third Day Our Creator Rose’. The orchestra takes renewed energy from this voice from on high, and the music seems to build ever higher until we are nearing the gates of heaven itself. When we finally reach the home key of C major, the full organ joins the orchestra for a climax of unspeakable splendour and majesty, the descending triad motif blazing forth from the brass like a choir of angels praising God.
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FOERSTER: Symphony No. 4 / Festival Overture / My ...