Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was a true tone poet. His music emphasized color, nuance, atmosphere, and fantasy; it used untraditional methods, including free forms, exotic and modern harmonies, and innovative instrumentation. A master colorist, Loeffler was considered a mystic for his evocative and iridescent musical visions. Loeffler has been associated with the French, specifically with the Symbolist writers, from whom he drew inspiration for many works. He was drawn to textscharacterized by rich imagery, particularly if melancholy, macabre, exotic, unworldly, or bizarre. He himself became known as a Symbolist, or decadent (a term used synonymously with "Symbolist") composer. He was an eccentric and fascinating character, Not unlike Charles Koechlin. Listening to Loeffler's music one is always in for something fresh and unexpected. Here we have a collection of some of his earliest works.
We think of Loeffler as significant American composer of the generation who came into prominence before the First World War and were established names in the 1920s and 1930s. However, although he claimed he was born in January 1861 at Mulhouse, Alsace, his parents were in fact Berliners and it may be he was actually born near Berlin. Some childhood years in the Ukraine preceded his early musical studies in Germany, his teachers including Joachim at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. But his sympathies were French and he later studied in Paris and played in French orchestras. Loeffler first went to the USA in 1881, joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra the following year and became an American citizen in 1887. A brilliant violinist, he was second concertmaster and remained so for 20 years. As such he was featured as soloist, writing works of high virtuosity to show off his idiosyncratic technique. Subsequently, he was regarded as "the dean of American composers". Yet at a time when most of his American contemporaries were seeking an American idiom and exploring musical evocations of landscape, cities and jazz, Loeffler remained the most European of them despite two attempted jazz scores. This recording explores a variety of his earlier music, which exemplify his concerns with virtuosity as a violinist and explorations of childhood years in a village in the Ukraine.
The earliest music here is Une Nuit de Mai, the second movement of his "Veillees de l'Ukraine" (Evenings in the Ukraine) for Violin & Orchestra. The piece dates from 1891 and was played-as it is here-as a work in its own right in his day. Loeffler referred to it as a rhapsody, and on one manuscript it is inscribed to the Spanish virtuoso Sarasate. It became part of Loeffler's four-movement suite "Evenings in the Ukraine", which takes its program from Nikolai Gogol's stories "Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka." The four movements are: 'Introduction & Pastorale', 'Une Nuit de Mai', 'Chansons Russes', and 'Les Parobki s'amusent' (Carnival Russes). Gogol's depiction of the May night in the Ukraine engendered musical portraits by a variety of composers, notably Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "May Night" and Arnold Bax's piano piece "May Night in the Ukraine". The first performance with the composer as soloist, conducted by Nikisch, took place on November 20th, 1891.
Loeffler's piece is on a generous scale with an extended slow introduction, Lento, leading to a cadenza that introduces an Allegro molto middle section and then a Tranquillo close. Loeffler's score is suffused by elements of Ukrainian folk music including the Allegretto tune in 5/4 of the second section, which one commentator finds redolent of the folk hurdy-gurdy, and the the central Allegro molt, a wild Ukrainian dance.
Why Loeffler called his second multi-movement work-effectively a violin concerto in A minor-Divertissement in A minor for Violin & Orchestra-is difficult to fathom. It dates from 1894 and while he gave it no opus number (catalogs list it as Op. 1), with its endless succession of virtuosic passagework, leading violinists of the day are reported to have turned it down. It was primarily a vehicle for Loeffler himself and he played it on various occasions. The only performance by another important soloist appears to have been the Czech violinist Karel Halif who performed it in Berlin in 1905.
The score is in three substantial movements: Allegro, Andante, and Moderato. The first movement ('Préambule'), launches with what at first sounds like an early venture into neo-classicism before the music slows and, now marked Lento-the romantic theme soars out on the violin, but only for eight bars. The onward flight of relentless semiquavers continue from the soloist leading to a second slow section in which the theme resumes at much greater length, now marked Molto tranquillo. More Allegro semiquavers follw underpinned with elements of the slow theme in the orchestra before eventually the Lento returns, the soloist now playing the theme two octaves higher, and then a quiet fade out. The slow movement's title of 'Eclogue' implies a pastoral and this is achieved as a delightful 'dream' in one continuous seven-minute span; at the outset the the atmosphere is colored by muted trumpet calls, which momentarily make one wonder whether Loeffler actually meant 'Elegy' rather than Eclogue. The cor anglais counterpoints the soloist's tune and the solo part becomes increasingly decorated and florid. Loeffler marks the finale, 'Carnaval des Morts' (Moderato), as being in memory of Franz Lizst. Essentially a 'dance of death' it consists of variations on the familiar Dies Irae motif heard at the outset. He boldly states the Dies Irae on the full orchestra and then the soloist repeats it in increasingly elaborate figuration. In an Adagio section we find the soloist's double-stopped presentation, extending it into a popular almost gypsy mood. A scherzando link has the soloist headlong up and down the scale, leading to what starts as a fugato but actually heralds the cadenza, which rushes into a ponderous foursquare version on the orchestra. This ends with the violins racing up and down, a treatment soon taken over by the soloist subsiding into more long-drawn thistledown passagework and the restatement of the motif before the violin, in the stratosphere, leads to the lightest gesture of dismissal.
|Oil painting of Loeffler by his close friend John Singer Sargent.|
The Divertissement Espagnol for Saxophone & Orchestra of 1900 is notable for the use of the saxophone as solo instrument at such an early date. The clue comes in its dedication to a wealthy Boston widow, Mrs R.J. Hall - Elise Hall. She was a significant organizer of the Orchestral Club of Boston. French by birth and musical education, she played the saxophone on medical advice to help with a respiratory complaint. A saxophone solo was an orchestral rarity at the time and so she commissioned repertoire for it, her composers including D'Indy, Caplet, and Debussy-though she never received the Debussy piece. Very much a divertissement, its approach is underlined by the concluding Allegro moderato for orchestra-without the soloist-where, with two very short sections, we wave goodbye via a marching introduction and concluding ebullient waltz. At its first performance by Mrs Hall on January 29th 1901 with the Orchestral Club of Boston, it was so well received it was immediately encored.
Dating from 1901, the symphonic fantasy La Villanelle du Diable Op. 9 (The Devil's Round) is dedicated to Franz Kneisel, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It illustrates a popular poem of the day by the French poet Maurice Rollinat (1846-1903), which is in 18 short stanzas and with the alternately repeated refrain "Le Diable rôde et circule" ("the Devil, prowling, runs about") and "L'Enfer brûle, brûle, brûle" ("Hell's a-burning, burning, burning"). The music sets out as a vivid scherzo (Presto), successively incorporating passages of marching and waltz-time. Occasional brief, spectral interludes are quickly supplanted by the ongoing rout. The familiar French revolutionary song of 1793, "La Carmagnole", is heard before the music fades and (my favorite part..) the timpani herald the stroke of midnight sounded on a brass chord, the tolling of the bell and the entry of the organ. A Gregorian plainchant is heard in the strings. All too soon however the scherzo resumes and the music dances away but Lucifer is never far away, and a ghostly interlude intervenes before the quiet close.
'My clock strikes midnight. If I should
go to see Lucifer? - Hell's a-burning,
burning, burning; the Devil, prowling,
"La Villanelle du Diable" was first performed on April 11th, 1902 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by their regular conductor, Wilhelm Gericke.
Track listing (world premiere recordings):
Divertissement Espagnol for Saxophone & Orchestra
1)Moderato - Andante - Allegro moderato (8:53)
La Villanelle du Diable Op. 9
2)Presto - Movimento marcia - Chanson Revoltionnaire (La Carmagnole) (7:25)
3)Grave - Andante - Presto (5:02)
Une Nuit de Mai for Violin & Orchestra (No. 2, "Evenings in the Ukraine")
4)Lento- cadenza -Allegro molto - Tranquillo (16:58)
Divertissement in A minor for Violin & Orchestra
7)Carnaval des Morts (Moderato) (13:53)
*Lorraine McAslan, Violin *Amy Dickson, Saxophone