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.”