Send ’em home….. baffled?

I’m wearing my cellist hat for much of the month of May, doing runs of concerts with my string trio, Ensemble Epomeo this week in Pennsylvania then in the UK later in the month.

We’re learning a stack of new repertoire this week, including the second string trio of Vftp favorite Hans Gal. Last year, we did a run of performances of the first trio, the “Serenade in D major op 41,” which included what we believe were the first documented performances in the US and Canada.  That piece was written in the early 1930’s- Gal was in his early 40’s, at the peak  of his considerable fame in pre-war Germany. Over forty years, and countless changes, traumas and upheavals separate the Serenade from the second trio,  op. 104, originally written for violin, cello and viola d’amore. Once again, we can find no record of previous American performances. * (see update below)

Referring to these two works as part of an early and late style is probably misleading- Gal had already outlived Schubert by 10 years when he wrote the Serenade, so it is hardly an “early work,” but a mature masterpiece by a composer with a vast experience already behind him. A work like the 3rd Symphony, written half-way between these two pieces, is already the work of a man well into his 60’s. Then, a nearly contemporary work like the Triptych, also written in the 1970’s, seems to not be the work of a man nearing the end of life at all- it is anything but autumnal or “late” sounding. It’s more a thrilling tour-de-force of compositional technique and creative energy.

But “autumnal” the op 104 trio certainly is (even though Gal continued to composer prolifically for another 10 years after it was written). It’s in the very unusual key of F# minor, with large stretches in F# major and D major (in fact, the piece ends in D).  There is some question as to how integral to the work’s conception the use of viola d’amore is, or whether he was more inspired by the idea of this ancient instrument (see below). The viola, d’amore or not, is certainly the star of the show- each movement begins with the significant viola solos.

Between the austere tonality and dark melodic coloration of the soloistic viola part, it does, unlike Triptych, often sound like quintessential “late” music. As we got to work on this this week (remember, with no existing recordings, and only a tiny handful of known performances, we only got the full sense of the piece once we started rehearsing it), I was very struck by how much the mood of the outer movements reminds me of the late Brahms Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet. Some of the first movement is almost unbearably sad and deeply nostalgic.

After a witty and challenging Scherzo, the third and final movement is a large Theme and Variations.  The theme has two parts, a deeply melancholy first section in F# minor (with the melody in the dusky viola), followed by a radiant but somehow even more sad second section in F# major (with the tune soaring in the stratosphere of the violin range). The strong contrasts of the two parts of the theme create a structural dynamic something like the great double-variation movements of Beethoven and Bruckner (the slow movements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and op 132 String Quartet and Bruckner’s 7th Symphony are classic examples of double variation form).  This very particular form, which carries with it so much weight of history, reinforces the questioning and pensive character of the music. One feels like Gal is letting the listener in on something very personal.

Then, one reaches the final variation. Almost as an afterthought, Gal hops back into D major, a key he has flirted with throughout the piece. If one thinks this is something like Mahler’s use of progressive tonality to create a sense of profound spiritual transformation or illumination, well…..

It’s almost the opposite. After so much longing, so much dreaming, so much mourning, the final variation is quirky, goofy, awkward, funny and completely shocking.

Again, I was reminded of Brahms. I wrote back in January about his 2nd Piano Concerto. The slow movement of that work is one of the most personal things he ever wrote, but the Finale which follows it is neither cathartic nor flashy. It is a carefully and deliberately calculated anti-climax. It’s almost as if Brahms, having bared his soul, needs a whole movement to restore a sense of distance and privacy from the listener. I wonder if Gal was thinking the same thing- as if he’s slightly refusing to tell us all he knows at the end.

Anyway, all week I’ve been thinking about endings like this.  What does one make of an ending that is purposefully unsatisfying? Richard Strauss is generally considered less forward looking than his contemporary Gustav Mahler, but Strauss’s endings always seem to acknowledge that life is messy and difficult, and always will be. Don Juan, one of the most exciting pieces ever, has a completely nihilistic and frustrating conclusion. Of the tone poems, only Eulenspiegel really has a wham-bam ending, but it’s a  joke of a wham-bam ending because the protagonist is already dead. Mahler always looks conflict and ambivalence in the eye within pieces, but his endings are never anything but totally conclusive. Mahler seems to need to find complete closure at the end of every work, while Strauss and gal often need to avoid it.

Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet, op 95, seems similar to the Gal. The ending is just an empty bit of silliness after much anger and pathos. What other works end by pushing the listener away, rather than embracing, enthralling or overpowering them right to the last note? What do we learn from a work that hints at the answers to life’s most troubling questions, but ultimately tells us to sod off and look for them ourselves?



Update- After some investigations from the Gal archives, we have been able to slightly fill out the history of the works performing history:

“The performances listed on the web-site are the only ones that we have any information about. As you can see, they were all in Britain, and we have no record of any performance anywhere else. The piece was commissioned by, and dedicated to, the London-based Viola d’Amore Society. The first performance in 1972 was a private one at the Austrian Institute in London, and the first public performance in 1973 was at the Society. These two performances were with viola d’amore rather than ‘plain old viola’; the other two were with viola. The 1985 performance (again at the Austrian Institute) was only of the first movement, so it hardly counts as a performance. So it looks as though there have actually only been two proper public performances.”

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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8 comments on “Send ’em home….. baffled?”

  1. Elaine Fine

    I learned that Austrian Institute performance in New York was by Karl Stumpf, and it was on the viola d’amore.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Elaine

    Thanks for the information- surely you mean the Austrian Institute in London? If not, we’ll need to let the Gal archive know!

    The piece was published as for “viola d’amore (or viola).” There are separate viola and viola d’amore parts, but the score is just the viola part. That said, there are very few differences- mostly just a few double stops left out of the viola part. So, the question here wasn’t so much whether it was written for viola d’amore, because it clearly was, but how much the character of the viola d’amore affected the nature of the piece. The 2nd Janacek quartet has kind of the same issues- he wrote it for viola d’amore, but later realized it had to be viola. In that case, the viola d’amore was purely symbolic.

    I’d be very curious to see what it feels like to play it with viola d’amore- what kinds of adjustments do the other players have to make? On viola, it feels like pure string trio music- I wonder how the balances work on d’amore?

    Do let met know if you hear any more!!!!!

    Many thanks


  3. Erik K

    I talked about it a little bit on my interminably long countdown of best symphonies no. 4, but I can’t imagine a more striking ending to a piece than Sibelius 4. After all the really profound music before it (and some fairly upbeat music in the finale to boot), the cynicism of the final bars is a bitter pill to swallow. Kinda like the Coen Brothers’ ” A Serious Man” of music.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    Amen, Erik. The Sibelius is way more disturbing than it would be with an ending that was directly tragic or cathartic. Cynicism is a good word. It’s a piece that leaves you thinking and struggling for a long time afterwards.

  5. Myron Rosenblum

    @Elaine Fine

    @Elaine Fine

    For Kenneth Woods: I am a professional violist and viola d’amore player and have two Hans Gal works in my library. I had a Fulbright Grant to study viola d’amore with Karl Stumpf, who introduced me to this music. Stumpf gave a viola d’amore concert at the Austrian Institute in New York City, c. 1970 and he performed a Gal work with viola d’amore. He was a passionate spokesman for Gal’s music. It was either the trio or a duo for viola d’amore and cello. I’ll look for a program (if I have one) and also pull out my music to refresh my memory. Music for viola d’amore is not easily transferable to other stringed instruments, if idiomatically written.
    Myron Rosenblum

  6. Myron Rosenblum

    Dear Kenneth,

    I am a co-director of the Viola d’amore Society of America and know that Gal has never been performed at any of our 14 International Viola d’amore Congresses.

    Myron Rosenblum

  7. Thure Adler

    the Trio op.104 was played with viola d’amore in a remarcable public performance the 7th of february 2010 by concert with the concertmaster of the munich philharmonics, Julian Shevlin, Julia Rebekka Adler (viola d’amore) and Thomas Ruge (Cello). Adler and Ruge also perform as Duo, and there is one CD ‘Keepsake of Modern Age’ where the quality of their playing is evident. Unfortunately, there was no recording of the perfomance of the Gal Trio done.
    greetings, Th. A.
    A link to the program of that event is here:

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