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ClassicsOnline Home » STRONG: Ondine / From a Notebook of Sketches, Suites 1-3
George Templeton Strong (1856-1948)
Ondine Suites Nos. 1 - 3
George Templeton Strong was born in New York on 26th May 1856. His father, a lawyer and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, was President of the New York Philharmonic Society. Strongs parents were both amateur musicians and encouraged their sons study of the piano, oboe and viola. Attendance at the Philharmonic rehearsals and concerts was another part of his education, although his father opposed his wish to become a professional musician. Against his fathers will, Strong occasionally undertook engagements as an oboist and English horn player for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In 1879 he travelled to Europe to study at the Leipzig Conservatory with Salomon Jadassohn, Richard Hofmann and Joachim Raff, and to earn his living as a viola player in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Afterwards, he settled in Wiesbaden, where he completed his Symphony No.2 "Sintram" in 1888. During his years of study in Germany he had frequented the circles of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner and his 1883 symphonic poem Undine was dedicated to Liszt, who approved of the work.
In 1891 Strong accepted the invitation of his friend, the composer Edward MacDowell, with whom he had lived and studied in Wiesbaden and who meanwhile had returned to the United States, to work as a teacher of counterpoint and composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston. For health reasons and because he found the work unsatisfactory, Strong returned to Europe two years later and settled in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. He lived there until his death, on 27th June 1948. Although in his Swiss years, Strong dedicated more of his time to watercolour painting than to composition (his wind quintet of 1933 bears the title Cinq Aquarelles and a song cycle of 1931 the title Three Watercolors for Voice and Orchestra), he took an active part in the musical life of Geneva, which was at that time focused around the concerts of the conductors Carl Ehrenberg and Ernest Ansermet. It was the latter who had directed the first performance of Strongs suite Die Nacht in 1913 and his symphonic poem Le Roi Arthur in 1918, besides the European premières of the revised version of Undine and of selections from his three Suites for orchestra, entitled Dun cahier dimages (1939-43).
The list of Strongs compositions includes further pieces for orchestra, with or without solo instruments, among which are Une vie dartiste and Americana for violin and two Suites and an Elégie for cello. His chamber music includes a considerable number of compositions for piano, both for two and for four hands, works for strings with piano and others for chamber groups of various kinds, including string quartets. His vocal compositions include four cantatas for soli, chorus and orchestra, songs with orchestra, such as Songs of an American Peddler and An Indian Chiefs Reply, examples of Strongs rare American-inspired compositions, and others with piano. Various arrangements of works by Bach, Haydn, Schubert, Raff, Weber, Mussorgsky and Stephen Foster may also be mentioned.
Like MacDowell, Strong should be considered an American composer, even though both musicians had their musical training in Germany. Their style is mainly inspired by those of their European teachers, or model composers, Raff, Liszt, Wagner, or even Grieg, César Franck and Tchaikovsky. Edward McDowell (1861-1908) had returned to his country to make a living as a pianist and teacher, but Strong decided to return to live in Europe because he had realised that America would not give him a secure chance as a composer. He may have followed the words of MacDowell, who had said that if his own music was to be performed only because he was an American, he would prefer not having it performed at all. Ironically, MacDowell would eventually win more success with his compositions in his own country than Strong in Europe. His return to America led him subsequently to write a greater number of works inspired by native subjects or music than Strong, so that today he is considered a more American composer, and this even after having officially shown his reluctance towards nationalism in music. Strong would eventually be forced to realise that in Europe, and especially in Switzerland, he could not make his fortune either. The years following the turn of the century brought marked changes in music, and after Wagner and Liszt, Romanticism with its effusive tone poems and symphonies seemed to have no further place, unless it could demonstrate sympathy with modern tendencies, as had been the case with Richard Strauss, whose astonishing early stylistic development is the best example of musical evolution in Germany between the 1890s and the 1920s. It should also be said that Strauss was a professional conductor and composer of operas, unlike either McDowell or Strong, and that may have also have handicapped the growth of their international reputation.
Some of Strongs published views on modern music can be considered as extremely honest, but also as too candid and dangerous for the time when they were written. He loved Richard Strauss, Glazunov, Mahler and Ravel, since they were "able to draw lines", and their music was "not cubism". For Stravinsky, for example, Strong had no time at all, since dissonant chords were generally "too easy to set", and they should be used only "in a way cayenne pepper is used in culinary art", and, again of Stravinsky, "a page consisting of nothing but such chords is paralyzing and congealing, and at bottom anti-melodic, and music without melody is but half-music".
What Strong could be reproached for today is that after having written some highly ambitious and valuable earlier works, he did not venture to produce others on a similar scale, or to allow his style any further development. All his orchestral works written later, most of which were conceived for smaller instrumental forces, lack the strong and impetuous personality of Sintram and Le Roi Arthur. Some other orchestral works of the later period, such as the Cahiers dimages, are mainly orchestrations of earlier piano pieces. In any case, looking at Strongs lovely watercolour paintings, produced during the last thirty years of his life, one can hardly imagine that they were coming from the same hand as that which had many years earlier written such powerful music. And what if Strong had returned to Germany instead of Switzerland? Or if he had accepted MacDowells second invitation to settle again in New England? Either of these might have been perhaps better decisions, since, as we learn from his letters, he never really felt at home in Switzerland, where he thought that people always considered him a foreigner, so that he could never really make close friendships there.
It might be added that a very useful biography of G.T. Strong by William C. Loring, Jr., An American Romantic - Realist Abroad was published in 1996 by Scarecrow Press, Inc., as part of the series Composers of North America.
Friedrich de la Motte Fouqués famous Romantic novella Undine, inspired by a text of Paracelsus (1493-1541), was published in 1811. Two years later, the composer and writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) completed his opera Undine, with a libretto adapted by Fouqué himself. In 1843, the year of the authors death, Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) delivered his own Undine, an opera which would become more popular than Hoffmanns. German composers would not abandon this subject until 1957, the year in which Hans Werner Henzes magnificent ballet Undine was completed, with choreography by Frederick Ashton. An obscure quantity of ballets on the same subject from the nineteenth century apparently remain dormant in music archives. It should also be remembered that surviving parts of Tchaikovskys second operatic attempt, his Undine of 1869, were transferred into his ballet Swan Lake, his stage music The Snow Maiden and to his Second Symphony. In 1900, Antonín DvoÞák composed his own version of Undine, under the title Rusalka, a magnificent opera based on a mixture between Fouqués tale and Gerhard Hauptmanns drama Die versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell), the latter of which, in its turn would inspire in 1898 and 1927 operas by Heinrich Zöllner and Ottorino Respighi. A most original adaptation of Fouqués novella is Carl Heinrich Reineckes Flute Sonata,Op.167, entitled Undine (1867), perhaps the most beautiful Flute Sonata of German Romanticism.
The romantic tale of a water-nymph trying to regain her lost human soul by marrying a human being, who unfortunately does not understand her and breaks his faith, but is finally reunited with her in death, is highly original and it is no wonder that it found in music an ideal medium.
George Templeton Strongs own approach to Undine, in the form of an extended, programmatic symphonic poem in the romantic style, was written in 1882-3 and revised in 1939 at the request of Ernest Ansermet, who gave its new première in Geneva on 24th March, 1940, with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The original première had taken place at Steinway Hall, New York, on 30th March, 1885, with an orchestra conducted by Frank van der Stucken. American critics did not fully appreciate this youthful work. While working at his revision, which turned out to be nothing else but a shortening of some passages, the composer realised that he had forgotten it totally and that it had been written before he had studied enough harmony or even any counterpoint at all. After having attended Ansermets performance, he felt that "the water-nymph Ondine (now given a French name) was more familiar with dark beer than with her natural element". As a 23-year-old student in Weimar he had submitted his symphonic poem to Franz Liszt for examination, after having dedicated it to him. The old composer gave Strong a piano performance at sight, and finally wrote on the top of the manuscript his thanks, judging this composition "ausgezeichnet".
The musical programme of Undine conforms to the tragic, sometimes complicated plot of the original novella. Strongs choice of its crucial episodes is often indicated between the staves of his manuscript. The work opens with an introductory section describing Undines peaceful forest-life under the tutelage of an old fisherman and his wife, and her encounter with the knight Huldbrand. A foundling of obscure origins, she had thrown herself into the water as a child and had returned sixteen years later to the forest as a young woman. Her yearning for love and total dependence on the world of water-spirits is expressed by a melancholy and child-like, playful clarinet solo. It is interrupted by the arrival of Huldbrand, whose march-like horn motif gives the composer the opportunity to display precocious skills as an excellent brass writer, bringing the orchestra to its first dramatic outbursts.
Huldbrand tells us about his falling in love with Undine, a development section in which the ruler of the water-spirits Kühleborn, Undines uncle, plays also his part, creating by his warning-calls a dramatic situation, threatening Huldbrands theme. A sweeping love-theme finally appears, overpowering the struggling motifs of the two lovers, and even Kühleborn cannot any longer fight against this passion. An aborted wedding-march follows, interrupted by the arrival of Berthalda, Huldbrands actual fiancée. Her theme is joyful, but very formal and extensively repeated, making her appear a rather superficial, talkative person. Berthalda, however, is jealous and therefore clever: she offers Huldbrand a drink, containing a love potion, whose effect we are musically witnessing, since the lovers theme is in counterpoint against Berthaldas. Nevertheless, Undine invites Berthalda to follow her and her new fiancé to their castle and, in Fouqués story, it is revealed shortly afterwards that Berthalda is none other than an abandoned child of Undines own adoptive parents.
The following section describes Huldbrands, Undines and Berthaldas journey on the Donau river, in which Wagnerian string murmurs and a pre-Wagnerian, romantic undulating motif are occasionally interrupted by outbursts of Huldbrands motif, leading to a temporary destruction of the love theme. This is the quarrel between Undine and Huldbrand, after which the latter decides to leave her and to marry Berthalda. The desperate girl returns to her uncle: the love-motif echoes in hopelessness. A triumphant reaffirmation of Huldbrands motif, with Berthaldas theme as a trio, makes us guess which couple is now marrying, but Berthalda starts again to chatter and the love-theme reappears, repressing Berthalda for ever. During the wedding ceremony, a fountain is being solemnly unsealed. Undine rises from its waters, and Huldbrand falls into her arms and dies. Strongs music, here describing love finding its fulfilment in eternal waters, is almost a quotation of Tchaikovskys opening and closing water music in his tone poem The Tempest, Op.18 (1873), which first fascinated Rimsky-Korsakov fifteen years later, while he was composing Sheherazade. Undine ends with a reminiscence of its harmonic E minor introduction, telling us that from now on the old fisherman and his wife will remain alone for ever.
Tchaikovsky, Wagner and even Schumann and DvoÞák are composers without whom Strongs Undine would not have been possibly conceived, but it still must be admitted that there are composers who were able to deliver works of such technical maturity only after having completed studies of harmony and counterpoint, and not before, as is apparently here the case. The instrumentation, calling for normal symphonic orchestral forces, is equally skilful.
Strongs activities as a watercolour painter may have inspired the title of the three suites, Dun cahier dimages, which were orchestrated in the early 1940s, but based on piano duets of the early 1890s. These orchestrations often involved considerable melodic and harmonic changes and reflect an old composers nostalgia and smiling detachment from his early work. The pieces were extracted from collections entitled Two Marches, Three Village Scenes, Three Pieces in an Old-Fashioned Style and Three Pieces for Piano Four Hands. Excerpts from the first and third suites, performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet, were first broadcast in 1941. On 12th January, 1942, the complete Suite No.1 figured in a concert by the same artists and it seems that Ansermet was never persuaded to perform complete versions of the two remaining sets. Therefore, the present première recording is, at the same time, a complete world première performance.
Suite No.1 opens with Eclogue, inspired by the Idylls of Theocritus. It suggests a bucolic sunset atmosphere, twice interrupted by distant, mysterious horn-calls. Les Elfes sonnent du cor (The elves sound the horn), a piece inspired by an engraving of Gustave Doré, transports us to the musical magic of Mendelssohn and Berlioz. The score has the marking toujours voilé (always veiled), an expression matching more than one miniature of these three orchestral suites. Le Cimetière - Sarabande de Morts (The cemetery - Sarabande of the dead) is a tense Totentanz-like episode, in which two hail-showers, as indicated in the score, surprise the dancing ghosts and give the listeners additional chills. A wailing ostinato figure from the bass clarinet accentuates Deaths inexorability. Au Cabaret: le Guet (At the tavern: the watch) suggests the tavern of Berliozs Damnation de Faust, or the composers own revels in his student years in Leipzig. The uncontrolled, noisy guests are brought back to reason by the appearance of the Watchman; they all step out into the night on tiptoe. The score has the tempo indication followed by the word tapageur (rowdy). Strongs excellent brass-writing is displayed once more and some effective percussion is heard.
Suite No.2 (Athènes) is the only suite bearing a title, and reference to the original piano duet title Vieillieries (Pieces in an old-fashioned style), shows that not all three pieces necessarily referred to Athens, and that only through its orchestrations would they reach a deeper level. La Jeunesse dAthènes (The youth of Athens) was originally entitled Babillages (Babbling). The orchestra, in fact, does suggest babble, but not uncontrolled: the young people are students in a high-class school and may even discuss serious topics. This is followed by a more reflective trio section, before the chatter is repeated literally. Danse du soir (Evening dance) had the original title Sarabande, and this short dance episode in the style of some Nordic composers serves as a charming intermezzo, with strings muted throughout. En entrant au Parthénon (Entering the Parthenon) is a Passacaglia-like finale, through his orchestration winking at Brahms. Those happy people who in the end reach the inside of the Greek temple are eventually prepared for a mystery or a revelation, as the music hints.
Suite No.3 starts with Jack, le Tueur des Géants (Jack, the Giant-Killer). It opens with evocative forest-music, subtitled La douce campagne (Sweet countryside), which, according to the composer, should be played drowsily. Jack wakes up and is involved in a Waltz, played by the solo flute, the central section of which is a trio full of staccati. Perhaps Jack tries to join in and imitate the ballerina on tiptoe, but here the composer does not help us with a programme. Jacks theme later provides a realistic, loud battle-music episode. After a "terrible fight" (as indicated in the score), Jack finally kills the Giant. The manuscript now suggests, but not completely clearly, that the first section should be repeated, but on this recording I have decided to go immediately into the following piece, into Cinderellas intimate world, as through the touch of a magic wand. Les Rêves de Cendrillon (Cinderellas dreams), in its orchestrated form, has more dissonances than the original piano duet version. Surprisingly, almost following Freud, the composer uses symbolic musical cells and does not even incorporate an echo of Cinderellas dance, but weaves a mysteriously caressing, transparent web, suggesting the innocent and floating dreams of a young girl who has just encountered the Prince of her dreams. Cortège Oriental (Oriental Procession), the last piece of Strongs Cahier dimages, has softer music, as if the procession is seen through a veil. Its oriental theme is fascinating, but still in the style of French composers of the second half of the nineteenth century. In its central episode a female chorus is imitated by the strings and we almost hear the full chorus and its male section answering it enthusiastically before the initial theme is heard again and the procession disappears into the distance. The orchestration is extremely subtle and discreet, although involving larger forces than the two preceding pieces. Strongs manuscript had to be edited, since it remained incomplete or hastily sketched out in various places.
In his later years, Strong had a rubber stamp made with the words LATMOSPHERE avant tout (ATMOSPHERE above all), apparently intended as a motto to guide interpreters of his music. The two first orchestrated pieces of this suite show imprints of this stamp. The third suite was never handed over to a publisher. Near the closing bars of the second piece we also read en attendant à chaque instant la déclaration de guerre! (awaiting at any instant the declaration of war!), showing us at least its year of completion. The rough copy, with partially sketched orchestration for Cortège Oriental, bears the date of 28th August, 1941. This is, in fact, Strongs last orchestral composition. It will be followed by only two little chamber pieces before his death in 1948. Strong would write nothing during his last six or seven years, testimony to his resignation in front of the musical world, aware that his sincere romantic style was no longer fashionable.
(edited by Keith Anderson)
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