Monthly Archives: March 2016

Before Nadia Boulanger, There Was Josef Rheinberger

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, April 2, 5-6 p.m.

George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931): Melpomene (1887)
Horatio Parker (1863–1919): Vathek (1903)
Josef Rheinberger (1839–1901): Organ Concerto No. 1 (1884)


Josef Rheinberger

After World War I, there was a trail of American composers to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. But in the years after the Civil War, early in American orchestral music, composers also went to Europe to study. Mostly, they went to Germany, and some of those, to Munich, at that time the second-greatest center of music in Europe, after Paris. After all, so many of the operas of the trend-setting Richard Wagner had premiered in this capital of Bavaria, and it was not all that far from Bayreuth, with its theater specially built for Wagner.

The Royal Conservatory of Munich attracted composers from around Europe. One of those was the extremely talented Josef Rheinberger. A church organist from the age of seven, and composer at eight, Rheinberger quickly impressed his elders so much that his father allowed him to enter the conservatory in Munich, 150 miles away. Josef was 12.

Upon graduation he was appointed professor of piano and composition. King Ludwig II, who helped build that Bayreuth theater for Wagner, had founded the conservatory in 1846. It changed names over the years (it is now the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München), and as the new Royal Bavarian School of Music in 1867 it welcomed Rheinberger as a professor of organ and composition.

He remained there for the rest of his life. Among his students were Engelbert Humperdinck from the Rhineland, Wilhelm Furtwängler from Berlin, the Italian Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, and a few Americans, including two New Englanders, George Chadwick and Horatio Parker.

One of the nine muses or goddesses in Greek myth is the muse of Tragedy, and her name is Melpomene. Romance and classicism combined in art and literature throughout Western culture in the 19th century, and American composers had their ears to the ground of the Zeitgeist, so Chadwick composed his dramatic overture Melpomene in 1887, a few years after returning from Europe (with some time spent in Paris soaking up impressionism).

The Boston Symphony premiered it the same year, conducted by its director, the Austrian Wilhelm Gericke, Chadwick’s friend and to whom the work is dedicated.

Horatio Parker had already studied with Chadwick in Boston before making the same trip to Munich and studying with Chadwick’s teacher, Rheinberger. Parker returned to America in 1883, and in 1893 he was appointed professor of music theory at Yale University. In 1904, a year after composing Vathek, Yale promoted him to Dean of Music. Vathek is based on the Gothic romance set in exotic Baghdad by the English novelist William Beckford.

But what of Rheinberger; what was his music like? A renowned organist who wrote much sacred and organ music, Rheinberger was deeply influenced by the clean lines of counterpoint as well as the churning harmonies of Wagner’s land. His first organ concerto is an excellent example of his craft and power of expression. The organist who premiered it in Munich in 1884? Horatio Parker.

With Chadwick as director of the New England Conservatory, and Parker at Yale, a long list of American composers—John Adams, Elmer Bernstein, Ives, Sessions, Babbitt, Diamond, Harbison, Rzewski, Zwillich, and on and on—can trace their lineage to Josef Rheinberger. A later generation would travel to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, but it’s not too much to credit a big part of American music to a teacher in Germany. But Rheinberger had something else in common with the foreigners who came to Munich to study.

Josef Rheinberger was from Liechtenstein.

Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths. Text: Psalm 130. SATB, 6-1/2′. Commissioned by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pa., Jeffrey Brillhart, music director. Premiered 13 March 2016.

outofthedepthsp1There are qualities in Anton Bruckner’s music that inspired both this setting of Psalm 130 and a work I composed a couple of months before, the O Antiphon O Rex Gentium.

As a choral bass I’ve sung Bruckner’s Ave Maria and Virga Jesse recently, and the qualities that come to mind in the middle of singing him are “audacity” and “belief.” Moments of sheer beauty and of passing strangeness, almost ugliness, appear. Certainly, odd harmonic juxtapositions and wide extremes of volume and register not only inhabit, but propel the music (the nine bars of loud, low E that conclude Virga Jesse will rivet any bass’s attention).

But this is not an audacity of effect. It is integrity itself. Bruckner writes this way not to impress the audience or to show off the voices. He writes this way because he is compelled to. The text drives him to this music. Simply, he believes every single word he sets. His music spades down into the depths of his belief.

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

So I thought I owed two things to this setting of Psalm 130: to believe the depths, and to believe the mercy. Balancing truths—of iniquity and forgiveness, of waiting and hoping, of supplication and redemption—is the life of the believer. Ignoring one side cheapens the other.

Musically, I balance the related four-flat keys of A-flat major and F minor, going from one to the other fairly quickly. At “Lord, hear my voice,” there’s a hesitancy in the women’s voices, depicting the awareness of unworthiness. The sweeter key of B-flat major colors “But there is forgiveness with thee,” which leads to the un-Brucknerish but important inspiration (to me) of early American fuguing-tune writing, at “I wait for the Lord.”

The Broad Street Review I wrote about a de profundis experience while composing Out of the Depths.

Discovering Beethoven?

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 5th, 5-6 pm

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Mödlinger Dances, excerpts (1819)
Beethoven: Music for a Knightly Ballet (1791)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 (1800)


Beethoven, 1803 (Christian Horneman)

It’s a composer we’ve barely touched on in Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, and with good reason. Beethoven isn’t a discovery to us (although, thankfully, people new to classical music discover him all the time).

But he most definitely was new to 19th-century America, especially to those American composers we’ve looked at who blazed the trail back to the old country, to Germany, for music studies. In the last half-dozen or so Discoveries we’ve been looking at American composers, with the most recent shows visiting the earliest stirrings of orchestral music in the United States with George Frederick Bristow and John Knowles Paine.

We’ve delved into this time before in our 14 seasons of Discoveries, but the question naturally occurs: What did Paine and later composers discover in Germany? A large part of the answer is Beethoven.

Beethoven was still revered by everyone—whether they were traditionalist or cutting-edge—long after his death. Brahms and his followers loved Beethoven: Brahms said on more than one occasion that the master’s nine symphonies and their irrevocable logic shook him as he attempted, over many years, to compose his first. The Wagnerites, too, looking to the music of the future, loved Beethoven, his harmonic daring, and his revolutionary place in music history.

Beethoven was not unknown in the States, but until the mid-19th century and for well after, American orchestras simply did not exist to play his symphonies. In fact, the New York Philharmonic, begun in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society of New York, at its first concert performed the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. It gave the U.S. premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a fundraiser for a new hall in 1846, but the $2.00 ticket price kept many people away. The hall would have to wait.

Tellingly, the impetus behind the drive for full-time American orchestras was to have ensembles trained well enough to negotiate a Beethoven symphony.

This put American composers behind the eight-ball, of course, because the new orchestras wanted to prove their mettle with the latest and greatest from Europe, with Beethoven at the top of the list. And with no European training, American composers could hardly keep up. So, off to Germany they went, to breathe the air Beethoven breathed, and to study in the great line of Western classical music.

Three works of Beethoven comprise our program today. Two of them have catalog numbers with the odd prefix of WoO. This stands for Werke ohne Opus or “works without opus numbers,” meaning they were discovered after the main cataloging was finished. Rather than re-numbering the complete works, these became addenda and are therefore often overlooked. So: perfect for Discoveries.

To this we add what may be the least-played of the symphonies, the First. Within a few generations, American orchestras often became the benchmark for orchestral technique, and European musicians of all kinds—composers, performers, conductors—would flock to the States. The Discovery continues.