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“Up to the present, however, Brahms has maintained his place as the “last classical composer,” for no one has yet come to replace him.”
Hans Gál- writing in his biographical study, “Johannes Brahms”
Hans Gál (1890-1987) was, according to those who knew him, somewhat reticent in talking about his own music and career. Most say that his writings about Schubert, Schumann and Brahms probably say more about him and his music than anything he ever said explicitly about his life and work. Whether Gál could ever have admitted an aspiration to fill the void left by Brahms of a true “classical” composer is hard to know, but this comment and many others makes clear that he did feel the world needed a classical composer. (One gets the sense that for Gál, the phrase “neo-classical” was something of an oxymoron.)
Gál had an exceptionally long creative life- his First Symphony (written 18 years into his career as a composer) was completed in 1927, and his Fourth was completed in 1974. If there is one direction of development in his music over those many decades, it is towards ever greater economy of means, transparency, simplicity and directness of gesture. He was evolving toward a Classical ideal.
By the time Gál had entered his ninth decade, he was conscious that he was writing his “last works,” summing up his thoughts in the genres that mattered most to him, such as the string quartet, the symphony and, like Mozart and Brahms, the string quintet and clarinet quintet. In 1970 he composed Triptych (a symphony in all but name) in a blaze of inspiration over less than six weeks, and in the same year his 4thstring quartet.
When questioned about what he might still be composing, Gál tended to say that his ‘workshop was now closed.’ Not long before he began work on the Fourth Symphony, Gál’s long-time copyist in Vienna, Martinek, died. Gál had no intention of writing any more major orchestral works. Although Martinek’s death meant Gál faced the prospect of making his own fair copy of the score and parts of the Fourth Symphony, something he hadn’t done in over 45 years, inspiration could not be denied, and the octogenarian composer spent many long hours and tedious months producing the very performing materials used in this performance. Such an effort could only have been summoned in service of a piece Gál felt inwardly compelled to write. Why such an effort? What drove Gál to embark on a symphonic project of such scope? Perhaps it is because the genre of the sinfonia concertante offers a perfect medium for a composer for whom chamber music forms the nucleus of his entire output, even within a symphonic structure – a tendency present in all his orchestral writing, but here totally fore-grounded and allowed the fullest scope?
Gál himself wrote a very short programme note for the first performance of the work by the Reid Orchestra, Edinburgh in 1975:
‘This work is akin to a concerto grosso, combining a symphonic structure with the brilliant display and competitive spirit of four soloists who act both as a group and as individuals, emulating each other. In the first movement (Improvivisazione) the main emphasis is on the confrontation of soli and tutti; the following Scherzo Leggiero is a burlesque masquerade of Harlequin and Columbina; the third movement (Duetto) puts the lime-light upon the violin and ‘cello as the protagonists, singing a duet; and the Finale (Buffoneria), a rondo with various episodes, is opened, punctuated, and in the end concluded by a kind of wayward harmonic motto.’
One can’t help but guess that one reason that Gál’s music was so neglected for so long was because he seemed completely disinterested in cultivating novelty or innovation for its own sake. For Gál, music came from within, and that inner voice remained unfazed by changing fashions or the need to shock or impress. Still, it’s hard to think of a more strikingly original symphony from it’s time than Gál’s Fourth. The work is scored for chamber orchestra (2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani and strings) and four soloists: violin, cello, flute and clarinet. Unlike the Beethoven Triple Concerto or the Martinu String Quartet Concerto, Gál avoids using a “standard” combination of solo instruments- in fact, one struggles to think of any other work featuring those four instruments as soloists or as a self-contained chamber ensemble. It is telling that Gál uses the description “Sinfonia Concertante” as a subtitle, unambiguously declaring this work a Symphony (something he didn’t do with Triptych, which in many ways sounds and feels more “symphonic”). The great Sinfonia Concertante’s of Mozart and Haydn were concerti first and foremost. Not so this work- it is very much a Symphony, in the traditional four movements, but the work completely avoids the post-Beethovenian ideal of a symphony as goal-oriented musical drama. Instead, the work is very much “about” the dialogue between soloists and orchestra. It is a truly “classical” symphony.
Often in Haydn, it is music that on first encounter seems the simplest and most straightforward that proves to be the most sophisticated and complex. So it is in Gál’s Fourth. The surface level of the music is mostly gentle, pastoral and lyrical, even by the standards of this most lyrical of composers, but this is music of intense rigor and deep concentration. Gál’s economy of means is manifest in not just the work’s scale, but in the way he utilizes his modest instrumental forces. Each and every part demands a virtuoso technique, and yet Gál is content to have the solo clarinet and flute sit out in the third movement, instead using the oboe, and to a lesser extent the principal horn and bassoon as foils for the solo violin and cello.
By this point, Gál’s harmonic language had reached a point of tremendous sophistication and intense, if unostentatious, complexity, and his contrapuntal skill, always formidable, is exploited to the fullest possible extent, utilizing not only the four solo instruments as contrapuntal protagonists, but involving every section of the orchestra as well in the perpetual interweaving of ideas and dialogue. This is most certainly virtuoso music of the highest order, and not just for the soloists. One can’t help but see this apparent musical paradox as a metaphor for Gál’s own life- by this time, he was very much at peace with himself, But this is a hard-won peace, not a denial of the turmoil that has gone before, but a stage of life where inner struggle can be integrated into a larger vision. If, on one level the work is about dialogue and rhetoric, and about the personality and temperament of the solo instruments, it is on another, perhaps deeper level, about tranquillity achieved at the cost of great, if gentle effort.
The Symphony’s first movement, titled “Improvvisazione” has a tempo marking of “Molto moderato.” The work begins with a rising theme that will become a unifying motto for the entire symphony, one that hints at modality with the use of a raised or “Lydian” fourth. The improvisational character of the movement comes through in the florid and decorative writing for the four solo instruments. Throughout the movement, there seems to be some conflict between the extemporaneous and decorative nature of the writing for the solo instruments and the tightly argued and highly symphonic nature of the working-out of the motto theme and other compact thematic cells in the orchestra. Listeners new to the piece might find in it echoes of the late works of Richard Strauss (comparing Gal’s music to others is usually a fruitless effort, but there are occasional movements and moments where he does seem to engage with a particular musical landscape for poetic reasons), particularly the Oboe Concerto and the Sextet from Capriccio. In both cases, master composers found themselves engaging with Classical models with a mixture of reverence, nostalgia, mischief and innovation.
The second movement, Scherzo Leggiero, marked Vivace ma non presto, is Gál’s whimsical evocation of the Commedia dell’arte characters of Columbine and Harlequine. In music of such gentle good humor, it is all-too-easy to overlook the music’s demanding harmonic and contrapuntal writing. Like so much of Gál’s later music, it sounds innocent and straightforward, but plays with the listener’s expectations in a rich variety of ways, and is full of layers of detail to be discovered and explored with repeated hearing. The Trio is only very slightly slower, but Gál changes from triple to duple meter. Interestingly, he develops at some length a motive that is almost identical to the fugue subject in his Concertino for Violin and Strings, one of his greatest wartime works. It is in the Trio that Gál begins to establish the first oboe as important new solo voice, acting as something of an instigator and commentator toward the four primary solo instruments. (Interestingly, the 2nd oboist does not play at all in the second or third movements of the Fourth Symphony.)
In the third movement “Duetto,” Gál allows his wind soloists, the clarinet and flute, a bit of a respite, instead, writing a rapt and deeply personal dialogue between the two string soloists. For the listener, this distillation from four soli to two creates an enhanced intensity of intimacy, while simultaneously evoking a sense of absence and longing. In the absence of the flute and clarinet soloists, the oboe takes becomes the primary foil for the two remaining string soloists. It may seem almost unfair that Gál would silence his two wind protagonists while working his oboist so hard, yet not according the oboe player a “solo” nod of their own. The differentiation is probably symbolic- the oboe speaks to and with the cello and violin from within the orchestra, reaching out, as it were from within the larger ensemble, simultaneously making the orchestra a more personal group and bringing the soloists more into the fold.
Not all symphonists had to grapple with the knowledge that the work they were writing could or would be their last symphony. Of those that did- Bruckner, Mahler (who wrote his last symphony three times, starting with Das Lied von der Erde, then the 9th and finally the 10th), Shostakovich and Brahms, among others- all seemed intent on crowning their last symphonic work with a Finale that represented some kind of a definititive summation of their aesthetics and beliefs. Bruckner became so overburdened with the challenge of writing his “final Finale” that he ran out of time before finishing the task. On the other hand, Schumann could have never guessed when he completed his last symphony, the Rhenish, that his time was running out- he probably intended to match Beethoven’s nine works in the genre, and, as a result, his “final Finale” is completely unburdened by the need to say everything he wanted to say about life and the great beyond. Gál did know that this would be his last symphonic movement, so what on earth can the listener make of his decision to crown his career not with a heaven-storming apotheosis ala Beethoven, or a transcendent Adagio ala Mahler, but with a “Buffoneria?”
The “wayward harmonic motto” Gál described in his own note is a pair of slightly enigmatic chords for oboe and horn, a most Gál-ian gesture, and one that reminds the listener of a similar device in the Third Symphony. Of course, in the Third, those high, slightly dissonant wind chords presaged an episode of extremely unusual (for Gal) violence and intensity. Do they still carry with them a sort of veiled threat? If so, the first violins’ cheeky retort is more than sufficient to calm any agitation. The mood throughout is lighter than air, but the language is sophisticated, and the solo writing highly virtuosic, culminating in written-out cadenza for the four soloists. Perhaps Gál was slightly suspicious of the Romantic idea of a final, definitive summing-up like those of Brahms and Mahler. Instead, like Haydn before him, he finishes his symphonic career with a smile and a bow, and reminds us that the human comedy continues, it is only the actors that change.
Recorded excerpts from 1977 radio performance, used under Fair Use provisions of relevant copyright law.