"Eine Herbstsymphonie" (Autumn Symphony)
by Joseph Marx
October 24 and 25, 2005 in Stefaniensaal/Graz
"recreation" - Großes Orchester Graz (Large Orchestra of Graz)
conducted by Michel Swierczewski
A REPORT BY BERKANT HAYDINAuthor and editor of www.joseph-marx.org
(Translated from the German by Alan Howe)
How the project came about
In 2004 Michel Swierczewski, the conductor of ‘Recreation - Großes Orchester Graz’ (‘Large Orchestra of Graz’), who at that point knew and greatly admired the 1st Violin Sonata by Joseph Marx, set off in search of a special rarity which would be worthy of rediscovery. Thus he had the score of the Herbstsymphonie sent to him by Universal Edition. The 280-page, giant-sized score was subsequently examined by him and a series of orchestral musicians - with great reverence, they told me. When it eventually became clear to everyone that they were dealing with a very extraordinary, mammoth work, they discussed the matter with Mathis Huber, the manager of the ‘Recreation’ orchestra and the 'Styriarte' organisation. Because this great composition of Joseph Marx, himself a native of Graz, had not been heard for about 80 years, Mathis Huber eventually gave the green light for a performance in the autumn of 2005.
A symphony of superlatives with a complex structure
Before one says a single word about the musical and compositional qualities of the Herbstsymphonie and about the technical quality of the performance by the ‘Recreation’ Orchestra and its conductor Michel Swierczewski, one must - even as experienced critics - understand that it is impossible even for the practised ear to fathom and grasp the Herbstsymphonie in its entirety on first hearing, for it is too sophisticated in structure and at the same time too rich in sound, too polyphonic and too gigantic. For this reason a live performance of the Herbstsymphonie would almost certainly represent a great challenge to any orchestra in the world.
Stylistic relationship with great contemporaries
In order to gain a rough impression of the Herbstsymphonie, we should imagine the operas and richly orchestrated works of Schreker, Strauss and Korngold, as well as the symphonies of Bax, Howard Hanson and Vaughan Williams, also the most dazzling passages from works such as "La Mer", "Daphnis and Chloé", "The Poem of Ecstasy", "Prometheus - Poem of Fire" and "The Firebird"; then finally we should mix all this with Marx’s own musical language and set it - in the manner typical of the composer - in a many-layered, logical and carefully designed structure. And so it must be evident that we are speaking here of a bewitching, sumptuous work of gigantic dimensions.
Masterly performed by conductor and orchestra
On both of the evenings, along with around one thousand people on each occasion, I was privileged to experience the lavishly scored 75-minute Herbstsymphonie played by an almost 100-strong orchestra under a conductor who combined ecstasy with absolute concentration and exemplary dedication. Even the most difficult, sometimes almost impossible passages in which the entire orchestra and percussion have technically to surpass themselves were mastered with great bravura. Yet the quieter, emotionally contemplative pages were also interpreted so expressively by the orchestra that significant numbers of the audience in the Stefaniensaal were quite obviously deeply moved. In the rows all around one could see many individuals sitting with eyes closed, smiling peacefully and allowing themselves to be swept along by the torrent of ecstatic music. Many must have realised that they had been witnessing a very special musical event.
A gigantic flood of sound
The sound world conjured up by Joseph Marx in his Herbstsymphonie - one which, with its countless majestic climaxes and examples of opulent symphonic development, is more like some breathtaking, awe-inspiring roller coaster ride through the Himalayas - plunged the Stefaniensaal into an almost unreal atmosphere. And so perhaps this is why the symphony is so difficult to fathom: even after several hearings of the entire work (the final rehearsal and the two performances of 24th and 25th October), it was virtually impossible for myself and those with me (all of us with long experience of listening to the lushly orchestrated large-scale works of the late romantic period) really to take in what was flooding, indeed shaking our very senses, so stunned were we by the great waves of sound. I would describe it like this: the Herbstsymphonie is so astounding in its power, intensity and lavishness, so brimming with passion, and is as a result in the truest sense of the word so overwhelming that, faced with this wild roller coaster of emotions, anyone who hears it must soon acknowledge his inability to come to an immediate understanding of the piece. And the impression which might arise at this point that the Herbstsymphonie is without structure and thus, despite all its beauties, of little consequence turns out, on a third or fourth hearing - to be a great mistake: The score, woven around just four main themes, contains in fact a clear sense of progression and tension which, in the course of the individual movements that describe autumn in all its phases and emotions, is built logically and stretches from the first to the last minute of the symphony. Furthermore, the many completely unexpected changes of key, harmonic turns and switches between minor and major are evidence of the composer’s unprecedented boldness and almost frightening powers of creativity - which took me, a Marx expert, entirely by surprise.
The journey does not end here
Thus, from a compositional as well as sonic and psychological point of view, the Herbstsymphonie turns out to be a most extraordinary phenomenon - one which I have never before encountered in such an unrestrained form in all my years of studying the large-scale late-romantic/impressionist works of many other composers. And therefore I find myself unable to describe in simple words the feelings which came over me during the two performances (of which the second of 25th October has remained in my memory as the “better one"). Deep emotions, set off by the virtually unending tone-painting and returning motifs which are hidden everywhere in the score alternated with thoughts and memories of the outset of my research into Joseph Marx which had begun five years ago with - and it must have been fate - my “quest of the Herbstsymphonie”. For me things had to some extent come full circle: the initial objective of being able to hear the Herbstsymphonie sometime in my life and to see it recognised by the public has now been achieved, and it seems to me at this point in time virtually impossible to find something else in the sphere of music which will satisfy my thirst for absolute perfection in sound better than the Herbstsymphonie. So the question that arises is this: what will be next and how shall I proceed? What direction will this musical journey take now? Standing at this turning-point, I direct my attention to the choral works of Joseph Marx which were written years before the Herbstsymphonie and are the only orchestral works by the composer still awaiting rediscovery.
A personal thank you
After all this - and on behalf of the several thousand Marx fans from all over the world of whose existence I am aware - I would now like to offer my most sincere thanks and admiration to the courageous manager of the Large Orchestra of Graz and the Styriarte organisation, Mr Mathis Huber, and also to the fascinating and incredibly versatile conductor Michel Swieczewski, and to all of the esteemed members of the orchestra. I wish the orchestra and its management many further successes in the future and hope accordingly that the orchestral and choral works of Joseph Marx will be performed not only in the place of his birth, but also elsewhere in Austria, as well as in many other countries.
HOW THE GRAZ PERFORMANCES OF THE HERBSTSYMPHONIE WERE RECEIVED
Voices from the audience:
“The courageous rediscovery of the monumental Herbstsymphonie carried conviction because the ‘Recreation’ Orchestra of Graz, which in this performance had developed into a hundred-strong professional band, managed brilliantly to bring out in sound the luxuriant and voluptuous colours of this gigantic seasonal painting.”
“…a 75 minute-long, four-movement tone poem, whose source of inspiration was the Lower-Styrian autumn landscape in its mythological, even existential aspects. In its best passages Marx unfolds cantilenas drenched in farewells, gloriously colourful, radiant arches of sound and literally intoxicatingly ecstatic sensuality.”
“…the composition lacks an inner peace, in Goethe’s words something like ”an empty centre” in which the listener may find repose.”
“The admirable conductor Michel Swierczewski gave a well-nigh perfect performance. He, the musicians who were in such wonderful form and the organisers all deserve an Oscar for their deserved success in rediscovering unjustly forgotten works of the Austrian symphonic repertoire.”
"Kronen Zeitung", 27.10.2005 (Martin Gasser): EXUBERANT EUPHONY
“The ‘Recreation’ Orchestra in the Stefaniensaal under Michel Swierczewski plunged into a hot-tub of almost unbelievably opulent and beautiful sound. The successful first performance for 80 years of the Herbstsymphonie by the Graz composer, Joseph Marx, made it just about the concert of the year.”
“In harmonies shimmering like gold Marx tells of a sun-filled autumn in sounds of almost incredible beauty. Melodies like ripe, sweet grapes signal a celebration of nature at its most opulent.”
“Marx created music which bewitches and intoxicates, which literally seeks to by-pass the intellect and conjures up in us nature and beauty in apparently continuous, polyphonic streams.”
“The music has such eccentrically wild features that it defies all ideological function. Marx is not creating some earthly reality, but at most building a dream world.”
“…a credible rendering of this sensual, almost endless fabric of musical poetry. Tension was sustained over virtually the entire 74 minutes of the piece. The ‘Recreation’ Orchestra gave what was just about the concert of the year in their rediscovery of the extraordinary work of a brilliant eccentric."
"Kleine Zeitung", 26.10.2005 (Ernst Naredi-Rainer): MARX’S EXUBERANT REVELRY
“A score was revived whose monumental proportions link it to Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler, but without their richness of contrast. Marx revels in his exuberance - for 70 minutes.”
“There can be no doubting the technical mastery of the composer. His handling of themes and his polyphony demonstrate more skill than is evident on first hearing.”
“…the Herbstsymphonie gives the impression that the task of this composer and undaunted advocate of late-romanticism was to surpass the orchestral mastery of a Richard Strauss. However, the score, with its many beautiful solos and its gently shimmering palate of colours, never misses the target and is unfolded to suitable effect by Michel Swierczewski and his hundred-strong orchestra.”
"Der Standard", 26.10.2005 (Peter Vujica): GURRELIEDER WITHOUT WORDS
“…occasionally almost deafening decibel levels.”
“Because you have to work your way into Joseph Marx’s sound world. Less than is the case with Korngold or Schreker, the kaleidoscopic harmony - mostly fluid in the ambiguous chromaticism upon which he builds his passionate melodies and through which he makes them sound continually new - offers the listener few of the traditional sonic clues.”
“…Marx’s unconventional compositional technique doesn’t go to extremes in its sonic effects, but in respect of its structural density and its labyrinthine form. It seems that there are only two sequences of notes on which this four-part hymn to the autumn Styrian countryside is based.”
“Anyone who is looking for idyllic folk music here is making a mistake. The sound world which Marx creates is trans-national in nature. He derives his vocabulary quite audibly from Debussy and in many nuances of instrumentation from Alexander Scriabin.”
“What is fascinating about the Herbstsymphonie is that, in spite of its massive dimensions, it consists of nothing more than four songs. And despite all its harmonic confusions, the way they are worked out through chord after chord which combine polyphonically with quotations from other themes, Marx always remains rigorous in the passages which only appear rondo-like and amorphous. The excesses which he permits himself with respect to the symphonic tradition are unprecedented.”
“The shimmering and hymn-like singing of the strings, the assaults by the percussion, the continuous noise into which Marx pitches the brass which never sounds bloated or insipid, and the sudden changes of colour unite into a continuous state of sonic intoxication with an endless series of ecstatic climaxes.”
“For any orchestra, performing this work naturally becomes a battle whose outcome is uncertain. The hundred-strong “Recreation” Orchestra under Michel Swierczewski was in every respect up to the challenge of the Herbstsymphonie.”
“Even if the sound world of Joseph Marx was not immediately comprehensible, either to performers or listeners, there was considerable applause and joy at its conclusion.”
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