The ghostly songs of Othmar Schoeck

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Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck, who lived from 1886 to 1957, is little known outside of his native country, but his moments of fame were as striking as they were strange. On the one hand, Schoeck won the admiration of several great writers of the 20th century. Hermann Hesse ranked Schoeck’s songs alongside those of Schubert and Schumann; James Joyce considered him a rival of Stravinsky; Thomas Mann also had a high opinion of him. Another tremor of notoriety followed in the 1970s, when, as Calvin Trillin recounted in this magazine, students at Amherst College started an absurd organization called the Othmar Schoeck Memorial Society for the Preservation of Unusual and Disgusting Music. . The group is best known for precipitating the meeting of illusionists Penn and Teller. At the time of their fateful meeting, Penn was riding a unicycle and Teller was selling pencils bearing Schoeck’s name.

The work that prompted the formation of the Society was Schoeck’s orchestral song cycle “Lebendig Begraben”, or “Buried Alive”, composed in 1926. An Amherst student named Weir Chrisemer, the Society’s founder, is came across a recording of it and found it to have “no redeeming merit”. The same piece so excited Joyce that he knocked unexpectedly on Schoeck’s door in Zurich and said, in German, “Does the man who composed ‘Lebendig Begraben’ live here?” Most listeners, when first meeting Schoeck, will likely fall somewhere between the extremes of Chrisemer and Joyce. It is music of hidden and elusive beauty, although it has its moments of wildness and strangeness. Only exceptional performance can reveal its depths. The great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made the case convincingly for Schoeck a few decades ago. Christian Gerhaher, perhaps Fischer-Dieskau’s most formidable modern successor, made an even stronger case in the recordings of “Notturno” and “Elegie”, two cycles by Schoeck for voice and ensemble. The Sony Classical label released Gerhaher’s account of “Elegie” earlier this year, and I listened to it obsessively, a little more mystified and mesmerized each time.

Who was Othmar Schoeck? As often or rarely as the question is asked, it finds a superb answer in “Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works,” a 2009 biography by Swiss-based musicologist Chris Walton. Walton begins by noting that Schoeck’s personality resists stereotypes of Swissness. Far from being neat, thrifty or cuckoo in his ways, the composer was “notoriously unpunctual and messy, with holes in his socks, his manuscripts strewn on the floor and trampled on.” He went to bed late, got up late, borrowed money without paying it back, and had many affairs with women who found him strangely irresistible, at least at first. He sometimes wrote hastily; his creative energies were intermittently engaged. Music history tends to frown upon such messy and inconsistent characters, preferring those who put the stamp of genius on works large and small. But when Schoeck applies himself thoroughly, as in “Notturno” and “Elegie”, he competes with the best of his time.

Schoeck’s oeuvre is vast: five large-scale operas, a fair amount of concertos and chamber music, assorted choral pieces and, most impressively, hundreds of songs. Schoeck instinctively mastered the art of German lied, which had known its golden age at the hands of Schubert and Schumann and had seen a late flowering in the fin-de-siècle songs of Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. . . Although Schoeck was a composer of wide stylistic reach, opening himself to the harmonic jerks and rhythmic strokes of the early 20th century, he seemed most himself as he traversed the German romantic twilight, his alluring melodic inventions vaguely tinged with irony, quotation marks. His music is imbued with the feeling of having arrived too late in the day.

Schoeck’s mastery of late romanticism helped bring about the great disgrace of his career: the premiere of his last opera, “Das Schloss Dürande,” in Berlin in 1943. Not a reactionary, Schoeck had lamented Hitler’s rise. But when Nazi cultural officials began praising him as a guardian of heroic Germanic tradition, he succumbed to the offer of a high-profile premiere, at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Schoeck’s act of complicity clouded the rest of his career, and a heart attack in 1944 effectively ended his major creative phase. “Das Schloss Dürande,” a fable of the French Revolution based on a short story by Joseph von Eichendorff, is rich in inspiration, but its text, by Nazi-aligned poet Hermann Burte, is atrocious. (Even Goering thought that was silly.) Four years ago, Swiss conductor Mario Venzago presented a new version of the opera, with a revised and denazified text by writer Francesco Micieli. You can hear the fascinating and disorienting results on a recording on the Claves label: it’s an opera floating in historical limbo.

No apologies are needed for “Elegie,” which had its premiere in 1923, against the backdrop of Schoeck’s tumultuous affair with pianist Mary de Senger. There are twenty-four songs in the cycle, drawing on poems by Eichendorff and Nikolaus Lenau. It is no coincidence that Schubert’s “Winterreise” has the same number of songs: like Schubert, “Elegie” will be a psychological and spiritual journey to the end of the night. The opening setting, from Eichendorff’s “Wehmut” (“Melancholy”), sets the tone: “It’s true, there are times when I can sing / as if I’m joyful and happy / but the tears come spontaneously in secret / and then my heart is set free.”

From the outset, we are dropped into a bewitching nowhere: a B minor chord, surmounted by a B flat, followed by a phantom procession of harmonies that fail to resolve the shock of the opening. Most of these chords are major or minor triads with extra notes attached, giving the feel of a blotchy or fuzzy tone. Arnold Schoenberg, in his book “Harmonielehre”, called this music a “floating tone” – a tone without solid roots. The two opening phrases end on a B-flat minor chord, suggesting that B-flat will be the final destination. Yes, but the point of arrival is unstable and temporary: a hesitation between major and minor modes, a play of shadow and light.

The vocal line is dominated by quarter notes, in a regular movement, similar to that of a song. Gerhaher, born to sing such music, applies a burnished tone, precise diction and a hint of the arched eyebrows of a cabaret artist. The whole thing weaves black magic around itself. Perhaps surprisingly for a composer so identified with the voice, Schoeck was an orchestrator of genius, and the timbres he obtains from an ensemble of fifteen members – four winds, French horn, string septet, piano, timpani and gong – stop the ear at every turn. Heinz Holliger, who conducts the Basel Chamber Orchestra on the Sony recording, chooses to increase the string section, which only enriches the effect. The opening chord of “Wehmut” is voiced by winds and muted strings. An English horn then doubles the singer while the other winds deploy this lugubrious kaleidoscope of disconnected chords. When the strings come back, the violas play sul ponticello and tremolando – the spectrally quivering bow at the bridge.

The sonic wonders proliferate from there. The flute plays lunar songs; the horn cries sadly, like the last survivor of a vanished hunt. In “Nachklang” (“Echo”), a repetitive croak line for the clarinet made me think of Philip Glass. The piano has some weirdly loungey keys, for example, a fuzzy, off-center chord at the end of the second song. Percussion is used with extreme economy: the timpani play seven bars in total, and the gong has a few quiet hits. Perversely, the gong remains silent in “Vesper”, even though the text almost demands it: “The evening bells are already ringing in the silent valley”. Instead, chime sounds are relegated to the piano while other instruments dominate the texture with a relentlessly gliding serpentine figure. What does this represent? The text speaks of bells, of a rustling linden tree, of the lover’s desire to be lying in the tomb. I thought, reluctantly, of digging some worms.

In its cyclic patterns and fixed ostinatos, “Elegie” borders on emotional claustrophobia. Walton writes: “It is at times as if the very building blocks of melody and harmony recede into distant memory, the singer/narrator clinging obsessively to the only fragments to which he has any control.” It’s all the more surprising when a lush, expansive, lullaby-like melody surfaces in the final song, “Der Einsame” (“The Lonely One”). Just before, the lower strings introduce a quasi-quotation from Puccini’s “Tosca”, the gentle lament that accompanies the writing of Cavaradossi’s farewell letter. It all makes for a satisfying finale, even if in some ways it’s the most conventional aspect of a deeply unconventional work. The heart of “Elegie” is this music of tense stillness and serene unease.

Are members of the Othmar Schoeck Memorial Society for the Preservation of Unusual and Disgusting Music ready to reconsider the target of their contempt? At least one is. When I sent Penn Jillette a query and a link to Schoeck’s “Notturno,” he replied, “It’s so sad and beautiful.” He went on to savor the weirdness of the moment, “When I was seventeen in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I juggled toilet plungers and threw them around Wier Chrisemer and made them stick (much more harder than knife throwing) while an orchestra from Amherst University played Wier’s very strange and amusing instrumentation of the “saber dance”. “Now, he reported, he was in Melbourne, drinking a decaffeinated vegan white dish and listening to the once inaudible Schoeck. In summary: “You know it’s been a long, strange journey.” ♦

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