Hear it live for the first time in 25 years on the 31st of January here.
Four movements for small orchestra, Opus 79, (1958)
Serenade, Badinerie, Sarabande, Villanelle
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’s music enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity in the years immediately after World War II, and was featured regularly in broadcasts on BBC radio. However, by the 1960s, BBC director William Glock’s programming philosophy, sharply slanted in favour of strictly modernist music, meant that Gál and other tonal composers of the time found themselves unable to get their music on the airwaves of the “Third Programme.” Gradually, performances also became more and more scarce, and Gál was deeply affected by the death in 1964 of his friend and foremost champion, conductor Otto Schmitgen. There were personal tragedies as well- Gál’s younger son Franz died by his own hand during this period. Circumstances for new work in a tonal idiom were similarly bleak on the continent, and commissions for new works in standard genres or for traditional instruments were almost non-existent. Indeed, the main champions and patrons of Gál’s music at this time were recorder player Carl Dolmetsch and Vinzenz Hladky, Professor of Mandolin at the Vienna academy of Music and publisher of mandolin music, who had instigated Gáls’s writing for mandolin in the period back in Vienna between 1933 and the Anschluss in 1938. Now in the 60s, Hladky published and regularly performed Gál’s music with his mandolin ensembles, to which Gál responded with two Sinfoniettas for Mandolin Orchestra, amongst other works.
Gál’s “Idyllikon” was written in 1958- the sole major work to come out of what was for Gál a highly uncharacteristic period of a relative lack of compositional productivity. Even during the dark years of the 1930’s and 40’s, Gál had continued to compose prolifically. The exact reasons for Gál’s temporary drop off in output in the late 1950’s is, of course, unknown, but it was a period of great despair for Gál at the direction contemporary music was taking. Never given to experimental techniques or modern musical languages himself, Gál had always been a staunch supporter of revolutionaries like Alban Berg throughout his early career. Anton Webern and Gál struck up a friendship in the 1920’s when Gál proved to be the only chorus master capable of teaching Viennese singers to cope with Webern’s thorny dissonances. Gál’s sympathy for the modern, however, reached its breaking point with the emergence of aleatoric, or chance, music and total serialism, both of which he saw as a fundamental abdication of the composer’s responsibility to imagine, develop and realize music in the inner ear. The climate for Gál’s music, which had remained favourable even in the post-War years, now turned utterly bleak, too, and it was in these years that his music began to fall completely out of the repertoire.
For a work written in such troubled times, Idyllikon is a strikingly un-troubled work. It marks something of a stylistic breakthrough- the first major essay in Gál’s late, more pastoral style. The four character pieces which comprise the piece deftly balance orchestral virtuosity, sophistication of approach and a largely wistful atmosphere, although the piece ends in wildly extrovert high spirits.
Happily, Idyllikon was one of the few works of Gál’s late period to receive multiple professional performances. Sir Colin Davis, the President of the Hans Gál Society until his death in 2013, gave the last of several early performances with the BBC Symphony in 1976. Since then the work has been heard only once in a studio concert in Switzerland in 1990.