Liner Notes, by Roger Benedict:
Hans Gál and Ernst Krenek were born in the right place at the wrong time. The right place because they both, in completely different ways, were inextricably linked to the great musical traditions of their city of birth, the wrong time because, just as they were reaching maturity as composers, they were forced to emigrate and start all over again; Gál as he was a Jewish composer, Krenek because he was considered a degenerate one.
Born in Vienna just ten years apart, they probably never met, and had little in common in terms of their musical taste and style, save for a shared love of the music of their Viennese predecessor Franz Schubert. They both however struggled to build on their early success as composers after they fled Vienna in 1938.
And that early success was considerable by any measure: Gál's symphonic works were being performed throughout Europe by such distinguished conductors as Furtwängler, Busch, Weingartner and Szell. By 1927 his opera Die Heilige Ente was in the repertory of 13 opera houses in Germany. In the same year Krenek's opera Jonny Spielt Auf was premiered and became an overnight success; it received 421 performances in various opera houses in its first season alone, and made its composer a household name.
Once exiled both men had to turn largely to teaching and writing to earn a living, but remained prolific composers into old age. All the works on this recording were written in the 1940’s as the two composers were taking their first tentative steps on new soil.
Hans Gál’s early musical studies were as a pianist – he was a student of Richard Robert, the eminent teacher of Clara Haskil and Rudolf Serkin. He also studied form and counterpoint with Eusebius Mandyczewski, who had been a close friend of Brahms and whom Gál always regarded as his “spiritual father”. He later worked as co-editor with Mandyczewski on the complete edition of the works of Brahms. Writing and scholarship were to remain an important part of Gál’s work for the rest of his life; his landmark books on Schubert, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi brought him wide recognition.
In 1929 Gál was appointed Director of the Conservatoire in Mainz, a prestigious position that attested to his leading position in German musical life. It was to be short lived though, for in 1933 he was sacked from the position shortly after the Nazis occupied the city, and he returned to Vienna, uncertain of his future. By 1938 it was clear that there was no future for the Gáls in Vienna and they needed to get out fast.
Initially intending to emigrate to the USA, the Gáls settled in Edinburgh, UK, through a lucky encounter with musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, and they remained there for the rest of their lives. Hans had a profound and lasting effect on that city’s musical life, not least through his co-founding (with Rudolf Bing) of the Edinburgh International Festival.
While Gál’s music shows the influence of the composers he loved – Bach, Schubert and Brahms especially – he nonetheless has his own clearly recognisable musical style, characterized by inventive harmony, transparency of texture and a love of long melodic lines. The music is also consistently optimistic.
He was unaffected by the changing fashions and trends that characterized post-war music, and felt there was still plenty to say using tonal language: “I cannot imagine music without tonality. In my consciousness, tonality is as firm as a rock. We are subject to gravitation, but we have learnt that weightlessness exists. So atonality may exist, but I cannot imagine it any more than I can imagine weightlessness. I am speaking of myself; I have accepted the fact that people can live without weight and without tonality. I am afraid I can’t”
The Sonata for viola and piano op. 101 dates from 1942. The opening Adagio unfolds gently through long flowing phrases and an unforced lyricism, underpinned by some delicately teasing harmonic twists and turns along the way. A cheerful minuet follows, though it suggests more the tone of a Viennese waltz. This may be the carefree Vienna Gál remembers from his youth, but in the wistful, dreamy middle section the gaze wanders far into the distance. The last movement is a march punctuated with playful, whimsical interludes, and ending with a muted viola returning to the material of the first movement.
The Suite for viola and piano op. 102a (1949) is a set of four character pieces in the mould of Schumann’s Fairytale Pictures. A pensive introduction over harp-like chords in the piano is followed by an angry march in which lilting contrasting passages seem to be trying to pacify the angry beast. A gently rocking minuet with a berceuse-like trio section at its heart shows Gál at his most delicate and transparent. The piece ends with a cheeky burla, or burlesque, demonstrating the humour present in so much of Gál’s music, and pauses briefly for a virtuosic viola cadenza before reaching the home straight.
The Impromptu was composed in 1940 for Gál’s son, Peter, who had just graduated from violin to viola. It is an affectionate and charming piece which exploits the viola’s open strings - making it ideal for a student learning to navigate their way around the instrument. It takes on an added poignancy knowing that a couple of years after the piece was composed, Peter, aged only 18, took his own life.
The son of a Czech soldier serving in the Austrian-Hungarian army, Ernst Krenek studied composition in Vienna and Berlin with Franz Schreker. Krenek was briefly married to Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav Mahler, and in his twenties got to know such leading artistic figures as Berg, Webern, Kokoschka, Karl Kraus and Theodor Adorno.
Unlike Gál, whose compositional approach remained more or less constant throughout his life, Krenek’s vast output ranged from a late romantic style, through atonality and jazz, to serialism and even avant-garde electronic music. He grew to be uncomfortable with the success of his “jazz” opera Jonny Spielt Auf, as he felt it overshadowed his more serious works. It also led to his being labelled a degenerate composer by the Nazis. From the late 1920’s Krenek embraced Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique and this was to be the basis of many of his best works, most notably the opera Karl V (the premiere of which was cancelled by the Nazis – it only received its first performance some 50 years later) and Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah, his masterpiece for a cappella voices. Krenek saw great hope in the twelve tone system – offering as he saw it an analogue of Christian humanism (a central theme of both Karl V and his own life) since both offered freedom under order, and diversity within unity.
Although Krenek was viewed as a modernist by the public and his colleagues in the U.S., he was never accepted as such by the younger generation of composers like Boulez and Stockhausen who sought to undermine him at every opportunity. Krenek was booed at the Darmstadt festival by these younger composers who viewed his music as outdated. Krenek pointedly observed that Boulez’s own treatment of twelve tone technique in the 1950’s was remarkably similar to the developments Krenek had himself suggested ten years before. Krenek was also conscious that all new music was somehow connected to the past and could not be created in a vacuum – his lucid writings on subjects as diverse as Schubert and Okeghem show him to be an intellectual force to be reckoned with.
Krenek’s sonata for solo viola op 92, no. 3 was written in 1942 when the composer was at a particularly low ebb. He had no income, having lost his job at Vassar College, New York State, and because all his royalties from Europe had ceased, and there was little interest in his music. He was alarmed by developments in Europe and fearful of being drafted. After teaching at the University of Wisconsin for their summer session he retired to Bear Lake, Colorado feeling isolated and neglected. But there he wrote this sonata, a tautly constructed work in four movements that rivals the solo viola works of Hindemith. Krenek succeeds, through clever use of the tone row and its variants, combined with firm rhythmic control and a feeling for the expressive possibilities of the viola, in building a work of strong character and real dramatic thrust. The second movement pre-echoes Stravinsky’s later Elegy for solo viola and the last movement nods towards Bach with its brief chaconne.
Krenek’s sonata for viola and piano op. 117 was written in just four days in December 1948, when the composer had moved to California (where he was to remain for the rest of his life). By this time Krenek was writing with a freer twelve tone technique than previously, and the work is highly inventive and expressive in spite of its relative brevity. The first movement is in one long expressive arch, the second a violent whirlwind, the last marked by quirky humour. The piece was performed often by violist Michael Mann (son of author Thomas Mann with whom Krenek had had some contact when they were both living in California), occasionally with Krenek himself at the piano.
© Roger Benedict 2014