Joseph Marx (1882-1964) was for decades the central figure of tonal music in Austria, ensconced in the Vienna Music Academy, which is the musical culture against which the “Second Vienna School” (Schoenberg, Berg. Webern) rebelled (sort of like the Paris Salon and the impressionists). In recent years, there has been a “return of the repressed,” and renewed appreciation for tonalist composers such as Samuel Barber (whose centenary is this year), Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Alexander Zemlinsky.
Marx’s music has not enjoyed a full renaissance, but there have been new recordings of some of it, including the 2009 recording with Jiri Belohlavek leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Trinity Boys Choir, and soprano Christine Brewer of some of Marx’s orchestral songs and choral works. Apparently it includes all the orchestral songs for high voice and all the six choral works, though Marx wrote lots and lots of lieder for vocalist and piano.
The BBC disc begins and ends with choral works: the e myth logically inspired, impressionistic single-movement cantata “Herbstchor an Pan” (Autumn Chorus to Pan) for mixed chorus, boys’ chorus, orchestra and organ, the miniature “Berghymne” (Mountain Hymn) for mixed chorus and orchestra, “Morgengesang” (Morning Chant) for male chorus and orchestra), “Abendweise” (Evening Melody) for male chorus, brass orchestra, timpani and organ, “Gesang des Lebens” (Song of Life) for male chorus and organ) and “Ein Neujahrshymnus” (A New Year’s Hymn) for mixed chorus and orchestra. Among these, I guess that what I like best sounds the most like Brahms or Sibelius choral music: the Morgengesang, the brief (and arguably bombastic) Berghymne, and the final movement (with prominent brass and organ) of Herbstchor an Pan. I am especially underwhelmed by the opening song and third one of “Herbstchor an Pan,” which sounds like a parody of Ravel or Debussy, but was not meant as parody. “Ein Neujahrshymnus” has a moment of drama, but mostly sounds to me like a parody of Fauré (with chimes and larger forces).
OK, this Austrian native mystic was influenced by the very French musical impressionists (but not enlivened by “Les Six”). Tonal nature-worship music was very congenial to the Nazis, and there are suspicions of any Austrian tonalist who remained prominent on the musical scene during the period in which Austria was an enthusiastic part of the Third Reich (which was headed by an Austrian would-be painter; one of the great jabs at Austrian opportunism is: “Only in Vienna could Beethoven [who was born in Bonn] be made Austrian and Hitler [who was born in Linz] German.”
There is no evidence that Strauss actively supported the Nazis, and he seems to have tried to evade any association with what he regarded as the conquerors (though Austrians voted to join the Reich) and not to have excoriated “Jewish music” (though defending tonal music both before and after the Nazi era). In music, was on the same side as the Nazis, though not Teutonic. His music was more than a little frenchified, which was suspect in the Third Reich.
The middle of the disc features the great American dramatic soprano Christine Brewer, showing her lyrical side. There is no drama, Wagnerian or otherwise, and these songs are like Richard Strauss orchestral songs, though not as good. (I don’t think this is just my opinion, but one shared by those who have heard Marx songs.)
Having stumbled on a review of Brewer singing these songs in concert (by Charles T. Downey) that I could not top in vividness, I will quote:
“Like Strauss [or Turgenev], the love of Marx’s life was a talented soprano, Anna Hansa (1877-1967), who remained married to another man the composer knew in Graz even during the many years of her liaison with Marx. The songs test the limits of the soprano voice without pushing it over the edge, well, at least with someone like Brewer. Her gorgeous melodic line soared over the perfumed harmonies of Selige Nacht, with not only a puissant top, deployed ecstatically on the word “Ganz” in Waldseligkeit, but a chocolate-rich middle and low register, heard in Marienlied, with its vaguely smutty chromaticism almost shocking for a devotion to the Virgin Mary.”
It would not have occurred to me to label “Marienlied” smutty-sounding. It sounds like Korngold (1897-1957), but perhaps it is that Korngold sounded like Marx (though Korngold was a protégé of Mahler).
The songs are not quite indistinguishable from each other. “Sommerlied” (Summer Song) is more up-tempo, but it comes out like operetta. I don’t like the fluttering flutes in “Zigeuner” and am bored by “Der Bescheidene Schafer.” Brewer sings beautifully, but the songs (soprano or choral) cannot hold my attention, as the Strauss “Four Last Songs” (and other Strauss songs) do.
The final three choral/orchestral works had (surprisingly) not previously been recorded.
There is a thick booklet with the texts in English and German and discussion I have not read of Marx. I’d say he has fallen into obscurity not because of unease about his prospering during the Nazi era but because his music is pretty but quickly bores me. This disc makes a large sample of his compositions for large forces available. (He wrote scads of chamber music, especilally after World War II ended.)
©2010, Stephen O. Murray
Tracks and Timings
Herbstchor An Pan –
Willst du es nicht glauben 3:53
Der Grosse Flurgott, Trunken Und Schwer 2:31
Herbstchor An Pan – Graemlich Dahinter Dehnt Ich Der Grosse Pan 8:36
Herbstchor An Pan – Kehr In Dich! Kehr Ein! 3:53
Der Bescheidene Schafer 2:12
Selige Nacht 2:32
Und Gestern Hat Er Mir Rosen Gebracht 2:38
Piemontesisches Wolkslied 2:12
Hat Dich Die Liebw Beruhrt 2:45
Ein Neujahrshymnus 9:30
Total: 1.1 hours