26 years’ occupation with the editing of Niels W. Gade’s complete works has given me a considerable insight into his music, an insight through which the idea that his music did not fall into two stylistic strata but rather into three gradually emerged. The classical-romantic style, which he learned during his years in Leipzig might be subdivided into two substrata, one with a focus on the classicistic aspects, the other focusing on the romantic aspects of this realm of musical expression.
I aired the idea to some of my colleagues, and – I have to admit – it was not positively received by everyone. I was encouraged, however, by the fact that the late professor Finn Mathiassen found that the idea was worth following up on.
In November 2011, I gave a paper at the symposium “Carl Nielsen – Inheritance and Legacy” at the Royal Library, extending my idea into the 20th century and neoclassicism. The paper was not published at the time, but the director of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, the late Erland Kolding Nielsen had it printed as a prelude to the celebration of Gade in 2017 in the Royal Library periodical Magasin no. 3 of September 2016.
It is generally accepted that the term classical or classicistic denotes ‘stability, repose, clarity, balance, self-reliance, objectivity, traditionalism’, whereas romanticism expresses the meaning of ‘unrest, exaggeration, experimentation, ostentation, diffusion, subjectivism etc’.
As a scholar of humanistic subjects, I am of the opinion that one should adhere as closely as possible to Karl Popper’s dictum about falsification, which implies that for a statement to be scientifically valid, it must be falsifiable. The reason for this ambition is of course that I consider it a shield against unsubstantiated allegations, gobbledygook and downright bullshit.
Musical subjects, such as that of my own doctoral thesis about the tonality of Gregorian chant, individual musical elements like harmony, melody and others, and even structures such as the musical style of Palestrina as described by Knud Jeppesen, are uncomplicated enough to be handled in a quasi-statistical way making it possible to falsify statements. But the structure of the music of the second half of the 19th century, which encompasses a very large number of interacting elements, is too complex to be described in a simple mathematical way.
To cut this Gordian knot, I have decided – at least for the time being – on quite another approach. In this approach the musical ear is the final judge. The method is as follows: I select two musical sequences from two different works – both expressing themselves in what is generally accepted to lie within the stylistic spectrum of the classical-romantic style – and of which my ear (I repeat my ear) tells me that one belongs in the more classical, the other in the more romantic end of the spectrum. In other aspects, the two sequences should be as similar as possible: approximately the same length, draw on the same musical forces etc.
But instead of further theorizing, let us proceed to my first example. Gade’s op. 48, 49 and 50 form a cantata trilogy with Kalanus op 48 as the first, The Crusaders op 50 the third with Zion op 49 in the middle.
Zion opens with an Introduction, a short piece of a little more than 2 minutes with the following text:
“Hear, O my flock Israel, words from the Lord God.
For aloud my sayings shall be sounding,
I will tell you dark and mighty words
from of old, from the bye-gone ages
of the wonders that were wrought by His arm.
He heard the groanings and cries of the children of Israel;
He broke the chain of their bondage,
and He brought them home for His people.”
And let us confront it with the corresponding section of Kalanus, which has almost the same length and draws upon the same size of orchestra. The text is sung by Indian women and young men:
O mild light,
which opens the river’s lotus-flower,
o varm sun,
which from the smallest seed
forms the shelter of gazelles,
thou spring of life!
Take as our thanks
the sweet odour of flowers
and the wood of the sandal-tree.
O mild light, o varm sun,
thou spring of life.
Music example 1, Opening of Zion op. 49:
(CD, Kontrapunkt 32149, track 9, 0’00’’ – 2’22’’)
Music example 2, opening of Kalanus op. 48:
(CD, Kontrapunkt 32072, track 1, 0’00’’ – 2’20’’)
One really must be tone-deaf not to appreciate the stylistic difference between these two pieces.
However, a sceptic might object that the difference between the two pieces is largely or even solely due to the different contents of their texts. If so, we have to find a piece from Kalanus with at text more like the one in Zion’s opening.
I have chosen a section of no. 2 of Kalanus, where Greek warriors sing:
Forward He moves, our victorious King,
only the eagle follows the track He has trod.
Nothing stopped Him, not mountain nor river,
the King af Persia He laid at His feet.
The wide World must obey His sword,
throw yourself in the dust, your ruler is near.
Music example 3, Kalanus no. 2:
(CD, Kontrapunkt 32072, track 2, 1’00’’ – 5’02’’)
To my ear the stylistic difference between Zion and Kalanus is still striking.
Gade did not often write about the stylistics of his music. However in a letter to Raymond Härtel he writes the following: “Zion, for choir, baryton solo and orchestra (text after motives from the Old Testament) op. 49. […]
It belongs between Kalanus and the Crusaders as middle-section, although of quite another character than the two (their title-pages, however, must correspond)”.
“Of quite another character” may refer to more than one thing, but it will not be inadmissible to interpret it as referring to musical style.
We shall now turn to a purely instrumental composition, the first movement Allegro moderato of the string quartet in D-Major, op. 63.
Practically all Gade’s chamber music was published immediately after it was created. With the string quartets as a striking exception. Gade wrote three quartets, in f-Minor, e-Minor and D-Major plus a couple of juvenilia. Of these only the D-Major quartet was published before Gade’s death in 1890.
The genesis of the D-Major quartet is long and complicated. In 1887 Gade finished the draft of a string quartet in d-Minor in four movements. Apparently, in February 1888, he set to work again to give the quartet a final polishing, in the course of which he decided to give it a new first movement. He prepared a sketch of the new first movement in piano score (dated March 1888), whereupon he immediately recopied the whole quartet. The new first movement is in D-Major, which radically altered the tonal plan of the quartet:
first movement, Allegro moderato in D-Major
second movement, Scherzo in Bflat-Major
third movement, Andante poco lento in F-Major
finale, Moderato sostenuto / Allegro con brio in D-Major
In a letter of 20 April 1888, Gade invited the cellist Fritz Bendix to attend a private run-through of the “new quartet” by the Neruda Quartet. In a letter of 30 April 1888, the existence of the quartet is announced to Breitkopf & Härtel, who immediately replied that they wished to publish it. However, it was not until a year later, in july 1889, that Gade allowed the young Louis Glass to bring the score to Leipzig to be published. In the meantime, Gade had undertaken a revision of the Scherzo (dated June 1889).
Gade did not, however, discard the original first movement, but transposed it a whole tone up to e-Minor and reused it as the opening movement of his e-Minor quartet.
The new D-Major movement is a clearcut, pastoral movement in 6/8 meter, and appears so classicistic that one of my colleagues (Niels Martin Jensen, as it were) found occasion to remark that he found Gade’s D-Major quartet a fine work, its time of composition, however, totally wrong.
Let us take a closer look at the D-Major movement:
Needless to say, it is cast in sonata-form. The main theme goes as this:
It is repeated, and after a short concluding ‘tail’, it appears once again as from the beginning, this time modulating to A-Major, which in bar 53 leads to the second theme, actually not very different from the main theme by way of general expression.
As ‘opposition’ to this movement, I might choose between three other opening movements – that of the f-Minor quartet, that of the final version of the e-Minor quartet, and that of the original version of the e-Minor quartet.
It is tempting to choose the opening movement of the e-Minor quartet’s final version, that which started its life as part of the d-Minor quartet. This might at the same time help us to understand why Gade shifted this movement from one quartet to another.
It was obviously not because Gade considered it an artistically poor movement – had he done so, he would hardly have reused it.
Whereas the opening movement of the D-Major quartet is a clearcut, straightforward sonata form, the opening movement of the e-Minor quartet displays a considerable amount of atypical characteristics. As expected, the exposition presents a main theme in e-Minor and a second theme, a song-like melody, in the relative key of G-Major although the relative key does not emerge very clearly. The bridge-passage between the two themes has a considerably self-contained character. The exposition is not repeated. The development section is relatively long and uses material from both the main theme and the second theme. Now follows – somewhat surprisingly – a presentation of the second theme in B-Major. The ensuing presentation of the main theme might be percieved as the beginning of the recapitulation, but is in fact the beginning of the Coda.
Music example 4, Opening movement of D-Major Quartet op. 63:
(CD, Da Capo 8.224015, track 9 in extenso)
Music example 5, Opening movement of e-Minor Quartet 1877/1889:
(CD, cpo LC 8492, track 1 in extenso)
It is not at all farfetched to suggest that Gade removed this movement from its original position as the opening of the later D-major quartet to the more freely composed, more rhythmically ragged, more dramatic, more unconventional e-Minor quartet exactly because of its less formal, more romantic character.
In addition, the genesis of the D-Major and the e-Minor quartet provides evidence to the fact that Gade was very conscious about the stylistic apparel of his works. And not, as suggested by some, a composer on automatic pilot with a fixed compositional procedure and an output of varying quality.
We are about to conclude.
Let us for a moment accept that our investigations have documented – to a degree at least – that the classical-romantic style of Gade manifests itself in works some of which tend to fall into a more classical, others into a more romantic category. But are they really categories, willfully aimed at by Gade, or do they simply constitute a continuum along which the position of the individual works is more or less random? With the relatively small number of works we are talking about, we cannot hope to obtain any quantitative indications to lean on. And with Gade being so reluctant to write about his stylistic preferences, it will be close to impossible to give a valid answer to our question. Nonetheless, it is my firm belief that Gade was conscious about the position of some of his works at the classicistic end of the stylistic spectrum, a position which I shall tentatively coin retro-classicistic. In the years to come, I hope to be able to follow the retro-classicistic style and its encounter with the neo-classicistic main stream of the 20th century.
Thank you for listening.