Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Draeseke - Symphony No. 3 'Symphonica Tragica'

Felix Draeseke was born in 1835 in Germany. He came from a long line of theologians, but at the age of 16 he turned his studies to music. The music of Richard Wagner made a huge impact on him and he became an unabashed Wagnerian, to the consternation of his teachers at the Liepzig Conservatory.  His devotion to the music of Wagner led to friction between the director of the conservatory and himself, so he decided to leave the conservatory in 1855.

Having placed himself firmly in the 'New Music' camp of Liszt and Wagner, he traveled to Wiemar and was introduced to Liszt by Hans von Bülow in 1856.  By this time he had written some pieces for orchestra and part of an opera. He remained in Wiemar until 186. In 1862 he went to Switzerland and remained there for 14 years. He returned to Germany in 1876 and resided in Dresden whee he was appointed to the faculty of the Dresden Conservatory in 1884. He died in 1913.

Draeseke composed in most all musical genres. During his life his music was held in high regard, even though von Bülow (who promoted his works) called his music a "hard nut to crack." Draeseke's music can be dense, contrapuntal, and especially early in his career could be labeled 'bombastic' in a Wagnerian sense. His style evened out somewhat later in his career, but he remained the 'tough nut' to the end, as witnessed by his massive choral work Christus: Mysterium in a Prelude and Three Oratorios , a work that took him thirty years to prepare, five years to compose, and three days to perform. His music remained popular for a time after his death in 1913, but it soon fell into neglect. The rise of the Third Reich in Germany saw a renewed interest and official promotion of  Draeseke's music, but after World War II it fell into neglect once again.

Symphony No. 3 'Symphonica Tragica' was composed in 1885-1886. The composer had this to say concerning the subtitle Symphonica Tragica:
"The Tragica is not related to specific impressions, nor is it bound to the fact that I wrote it in the last months of 1886, partially while my left arm, which I had broken while traveling through Neustadt on my way to Schrigiswalde, was still in a sling. The scherzo had been finished earlier, but the introduction to the first movement and the form of the fourth movement had caused me much doubt; it was rather a long time before its final plan was complete. The final movement was originally conceived with a gigantic development section (and the movement is even now not one of limited proportions); however, I recognized more and more that such an idea [i.e. a huge development section] would cause the relationship of the movements to one another to suffer, and, inasmuch as I am now satisfied with the work's present form, I am happy. I have constantly noticed - and have referred to it in my music history lectures - that the concept of tragedy, as introduced to instrumental music by Beethoven, has never found a completely satisfying resolution, neither in the Eroica nor the C minor symphony (and much the same can be said of Schumann's Second); as a consequence Beethoven had to seek different means once again in the Ninth, though in that instance, success was supposed to be determined through vocal means. In the Tragica I had the wish to try and see if such success might indeed be possible through purely orchestral means and it is to this consideration that the finale owes its genesis."
The symphony is in C Major and is in 4 movements:

I. Andante - Allegro risoluto - The symphony begins with three octave G's by the orchestra, an attempt to establish a key is a failure and the music descends into chromaticism until the first theme is heard some 21 bars later in the home key of C major. This theme acts as a link between all of the movements of the symphony except the scherzo. It appears in the of the four movements in various guises. The first theme of the movement appears allegro risoluto in a double forte. After some transitional material the second theme is heard, also in a double forte. The first theme reappears, is slightly developed and more secondary material is introduced. The first theme weaves in and out of the proceedings until the music grows softer and the development section begins. This section works, reworks, and recasts the main themes as well as some of the secondary ones. Draeseke shows his skill by keeping things moving and making musical sense. There is a lot of activity in this section, and the composer pulls it off magnificently. The recapitulation contains only slightly less than what was in the exposition. Unlike the tonal ambiguity of the opening of the movement, the movement ends in the home key of C major and the orchestra finishs up with three C's in unison.

II. Grave (Adagio ma non troppo) - A solemn, controlled tragedy, one of the reasons for the symphony's subtitle. The beginning is in A minor with a theme that is built from the rhythm of the main theme of the first movement. Immediately after the repeated chords in the trombones the second theme is heard in the strings, which is built from the second theme of the first movement. The first theme of the movement is heard with different instrumentation. After a short section there appears a terse motive in sixteenth triplets, quarter notes and rests. This is repeated and answered by the full orchestra in what first seems like new material but is in fact a reworking of the main theme of the introduction to the first movement. this gives an idea of how Draeseke uses cyclical form in this symphony, as much of the music grows out of themes and motives heard from the start. There is a new section ushered in by the clarinet and the music turns lyrical. The passion grows, themes reappear in different keys, the tension grows and ebbs. The orchestra plays in octaves up and down, trying to regain some of its vigor but the music slowly dies down and ends in key of C-sharp major.

III. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace - A less complex movement, at least on the surface, that begins in C major. Draeseke's music seems to always have much going on. It is the usual form, with a rhythmic scherzo consisting of two main themes (of course both are derived from material heard elsewhere in the symphony), and a trio section that has a folk song feeling to it that is in the key of D-flat. After the trio the scherzo is repeated.

IV. Finale : Allegro con brio - This movement is a form unto itself. Draeseke transforms previous material, piling section upon section. The complexity doesn't hide some very good melodies, and it is hardly necessary to go into a highly detailed analysis of this movement.  To me, some of it sounds familiar, some of it sounds new.  Draeseke flexes his countrapuntal muscle in the middle of the movement, themes continue to appear, and the music grows as ominous as a growing storm pierced by rays of light, more counterpoint, the brass punctuates the tension. The orchestra blares out a climax, octaves in the orchestra bound up and down while the brass have their say. The music grows quiet, the opening theme of the introduction of the first movement reappears, Draeseke has taken the listener back home after quite an earful of a symphony. The music gently grows, then ebbs into a serene end.

Draeseke's music can be quite complex. Some musicologists have put him somewhere between Brahms and Bruckner, and while that may have some validity, like all the great composers he is many times a law unto himself. During his lifetime his music was played often by orchestras, but his music fell into neglect shortly after his death. There was a resurgence in his music in Germany during the Third Reich as his music was officially sanctioned by the Nazis. That fact hasn't helped his music to be heard in present day concert halls. But there are recordings of his works available, and his music deserves to be heard.

There is a Felix Draeseke Webpages website that has much more information about him and a much more in-depth analysis of all 4 of Dreaseke's symphonies by musicologist Alan H. Kruek who founded the International Draeseke Society of North America and has done much to educate listeners about the composer. He has also written a remarkable essay Felix Draeseke's "Symphonia Tragica": Wagnerian "Geist" or Symphonic "Zeitgeist"? that also contains an analysis of the Third Symphony.


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