Of course, reading about music you’ve never heard (and this piece hasn’t been heard here in 55 years), can be off-putting. After all, much as I may try to describe what is going on in the score, you don’t yet know how it sounds.
Here is where technology comes to our rescue- there exists a historic radio broadcast of Gal himself conducting the Vienna Symphony in 1954. Wherever I’ve mentioned specific themes or musical events in the essay below, we’ve linked audio samples from Gal’s performance. If you’re not familiar with embedded audio, have no fear- it’s easy. Look for the hyperlinks in the text and scroll over to them. Chances are, in most browsers a little box will pop up over the text where you can play the excerpt without leaving the page. If not, just click on the link and something good should happen.
Hans Gál was born in the small village of Brunn am Gebirge, just outside Vienna. He studied with some of the foremost teachers in Vienna, including Richard Robert for piano (teacher of Rudolf Serkin , Clara Haskil and George Szell) and Eusebius Mandyczewski for composition, who had been a close friend of Brahms. In 1915 he won the K. und K. (Royal and Imperial) State Prize for composition for a symphony (which he subsequently discarded). In 1928 His Sinfonietta (which was to become his ‘First Symphony) won the Columbia Schubert Centenary Prize . The next year, with the support of such important musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Richard Strauss and others, he obtained the directorship of the Mainz Conservatory. Gál composed in nearly every genre and his operas, which include Der Artz der Sobeide, Die Heilige Ente and Das Lied der Nacht, were particularly popular during the 1920s. When Hitler rose to power, Gál was forced to leave Germany and eventually emigrated to Britain, teaching at the Edinburgh University for many years.
Gál wrote his Symphony no. 3 in A in 1951-2. Although the Symphony was not commissioned, the fact that Gál wrote such a large and ambitious orchestral work when he did is testament to the fact that his music enjoyed quite a lot of popularity and advocacy in the first years after World War II. His music was not only programmed often by his friends and champions like Rudolf Schwarz (then conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony) and Otto Schmidtgen. Eminent conductors including John Barbirolli and Gál’s old friend George Szell in Cleveland brought his music to a diverse array of musical capitals.. Perhaps, however, it was a sign of the neglect to come that Gál had to wait two years for a first performance, recorded under the composer’s baton for Viennese radio in 1954. After one further performance with Schwarz and the CBSO, the work languished unplayed for another 55 years.
Gál, whose compositional pedigree is so strongly linked to the Austro-German tradition going right back to the 18th C Viennese classical masters, was very conscious of the power of genre, and had great respect for the creative possibilities to be found in engagement with traditional uses of form. However, while his chamber works are often very true to traditional four-movement structures one would find in earlier works in the Germanic canon, in the genre of the symphony, that most sacred and tradition-laden of genres, Gál seemed compelled to bend the rules. Of his four symphonies, only the 2nd is a traditional four movement work without programme or soloists. The First was originally called “Sinfonietta” and is made of four character pieces (Idylle, Burleske, Elegie, Rondo) and the Fourth, subtitled “Sinfonia Concertante” is essentially a concerto grosso for four soloists: flute, clarinet, violin and cello, and like the First, the movements are conceived with rather whimsical characterizations: Improvisazione, Scherzo leggiero, Duetto, Buffoneria.
The Third Symphony is a different kind of departure from symphonic norms- a symphony in three movements, unified by a recurring motto theme which spans the entire work. Of course, there are many great symphonies in three movements: Stravinsky’s, and those of Franck, Chausson and Dukas. Even Debussy’s La Mer is in many respects a symphony in three movements. Of course, what all of these composers have in common is that they are not part of the Germanic tradition. Even Mozart dumped the “fourth” movement, usually a Menuet, then wildly popular with Viennese audiences, when writing for a Parisian audience. Prior to the Gál, the only major three movement symphonies in the Austro-German line were those left incomplete, such as Bruckner’s 9th.
Is it significant that ever-tradition-conscious Gál would break with symphonic norms he had grown up with in so drastic a way? Perhaps this is one subtle embodiment of his reaction to the horrors of the war years, which were only a very few years behind him? Or perhaps Gál was just writing what he heard?
Perhaps there is also an element of ambivalence in the choice of the Symphony’s key as well? If the title of “Symphony in A” is correct (Gál’s score, written in his own hand simply says “Symphony no. 3”), it could be significant that Gál doesn’t clearly designate it as work in A major (the key in which the symphony begins and ends) or A minor (the key of the largest proportion of the first and last movements). Gál was not usually given to long spells of musical melancholy and angst, but A minor is a key with a particularly intense heritage- it is the key of Beethoven’s op. 132, and of Mahler’s 6th Symphony, while for Beethoven A major was a key of gentle, lyrical tranquility, typified in the 3rd Cello Sonata and the Piano Sonata op 101.
“Lyrical tranquility” is a good description of the opening of the symphony-a long-breathed oboe melody of profound beauty over harmonically ever-shifting string crotchets . The entire opening Andantino seems suffused with longing and tenderness- a mood which is violently shattered by the Allegro vigoroso e passionato which follows. Where the Andantino is essentially song-like, the Allegro vigoroso e passionato is densely contrapuntal and highly rhythmically complex. Such violent contrasts are by no means the norm in Gál’s music, especially the music written after the 1920’s. Conceived on what is, for Gál, an epic scale, the movement builds a tremendous dramatic arc out of the contrast between these two ideas, and the lovely closing theme, first heard sung by solo flute over gentle string accompaniment. The movement ends tragically, with a single, bleak A minor chord scored for the lowest instruments of the orchestra playing near the bottom of their range.
The opening of the second movement, in G major, could hardly come as a greater contrast to the music that precedes it. Again, we are in the world of exalted song, and like the opening of the first movement, the Andante tranquillo e placido opens with another long and intricate oboe solo. Formally, this movement resembles some of the great French symphonists’ combination of slow movement and dance in a single movement. After this long and gentle reverie built from the oboe’s theme, the middle section is a marked contrast: faster, more dense, much more chromatic, and less obviously tuneful. Gál even marks this section “Piu mosso, quasi scherzando.” What would Gáls compositional forefathers from Haydn through Brahms have made of his borrowing a formal device from César Franck? After a return and re-imagining of the opening section, the movement ends with a mirror image of the first- a long, radiant G major triad scored for the highest instruments of the orchestra (flutes and solo violin) playing at the very top of their register.
The Finale is marked “Allegro molto moderato, pesante” and then, just 12 bars in, Gál reiterates “Sempre pesante.” It seems we are in for a movement of measured, glowering intensity. Again, one can see Gál’s relationship with tradition becoming more complex and nuanced- this movement has an exposition repeat, which would be an obviously conservative gesture in 1952, except that exposition repeats from Beethoven onward were generally used only in first movements. The main portion of the movement is in 6/8 and built around two main collections of ideas, one brooding and intense in minor, and a more nostalgic major-key theme. Unlike the 1st movement, the drama of the Finale proves inconclusive- the music winds down to a long, drawn-out musical question mark, then something completely unexpected happens: after so many battles, peace breaks out. Without warning, the solo clarinet launches the entire orchestra into a jocular coda in 4/4 time. The mood shift is quite abrupt and slightly off putting- where does this happiness come from after so much struggle? As if to underline how completely unexpected this turn of events is, the music quickly collapses back into 6/8 for one last statement of the “brooding” theme. The gear shift between 4/4 and 6/8 is achieved by a remarkable trick of skill- a sort of sudden metric modulation. However, Gál is not to be denied- a happy ending this piece shall have! He reverses his metric gear shift and launches us back into 4/4 for a final, jubilant codetta, and the piece ends triumphantly in the A major so long promised, the final chord this time scored for full orchestra, spanning the entire range of the ensemble.
Programme notes copyright Kenneth Woods, 2010
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