From the late studio of the master of serenades Duos and chamber music by Robert Fuchs
Although he composed one symphony more – a total of ﬁve – than his immediate contemporary, Johannes Brahms, he went down in history with his ﬁve serenades for string orchestra and chamber orchestra: People still often talk about the “Serenade Fox” when the Austrian composer Robert Fuchs is mentioned. Today, his works are rarely seen on concert programs, whereas many of his pupils gained worldwide renown. Only recently, people have begun rummaging in Fuchs’ extensive catalog of works and unearthing one or another gem from it – especially in the chamber music area.
The life of the composer born on February 15, 1847 in Frauental an der Laßnitz in the Austrian state of Styria was consistent and quite unspectacular. He came from a very musical family: his father, Patritz Fuchs (1789–1867), was an organist and composed several sacred works. His older brother, Johann Nepomuk Fuchs (1842–99), was also a composer, a conductor at the Vienna Court Opera and a professor at the Conservatory of Vienna. After having worked as a teacher in Graz for a short time, Robert Fuchs also moved to Vienna in 1865 in order to study under Anton Bruckner, Felix Otto Dessoff and Joseph Hellmesberger. Already ten years later, he became a theory professor at he conservatory there himself, a position he held for 37 years. His pupils included, amongst others, George Enescu, Edmund Eysler, Leo Fall, Richard Heuberger, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Eusebius Mandyczewski, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schreker, Jean Sibelius, Robert Stolz, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf and Alexander Zemlinsky. In addition to his teaching activities, he also worked as conductor of the concerts by the Society of Friends of the Music in Vienna (the famous “Musikverein”), as organist at the Vienna Piarist Church and ﬁnally as Imperial-Royal court organist. Fuchs died on February 19, 1927, only a few days after his 80th birthday, in Vienna, where he was given a grave of honor in the Central Cemetery.
The reasons why Fuchs polarized already early on and why his works were in part – especially by the circle surrounding Johannes Brahms – highly esteemed, while others derided them, can only be discovered in a very limited way on the basis of musical parameters today. One incident, which Julius Korngold, the successor of Eduard Hanslick as Vienna’s “pope of critics”, recounts in his memoirs of a dinner with Anton Bruckner seems typical: “[…] Talk also went against criticism, particularly against Hanslick and certain new works. ‘Well, if I wanted to compose like this...,’ he said and hummed a parody of a theme of Robert Fuchs’ ‘Serenadenweiß’ which was popular then.” – Nonetheless, Korngold himself most likely showed great respect towards Fuchs; after all, he explicitly chose him for teaching his son, Erich Wolfgang, based on his profound theory expertise. In retrospect, he gives a very vivid and concise image of Fuchs:“
For him, the dear, quiet and gracious teacher, conceiver of no less dear, quiet and gracious serenades, I had preserved an almost tender admiration from my time at the conservatory […]. I was also fortunate to having been able to celebrate the 80-year-old, whom the silver crown of age suited so well. As a composer, he was rooted in that old Vienna School which tempted Franz Schubert, as if waving a branch of roses, onto the paths of grace and melodious sound, and taught the Non-Viennese Schumann the poetry of the small things. With ﬁne self-denial, Fuchs, the amiable Styrian, had striven past the steep high mountains of art and towards friendly hilly country, a music of rapture, of tender sentimentalism, of graceful conviviality, towards those serenades that modestly bow next to the symphonies like humble violets. His movement became more elaborate, the mood more serious, the thoughtful more pensive, after Fuchs, like other Vienna musicians, experienced Brahms’ inﬂuences. A pupil of Dessoff at the Conservatory of Vienna, he himself became a theory professor at the institute, remained in that position for almost forty years, spreading good seed, promoting the strength of his teaching through the benevolence of his character […].”
As follows not least from this, the branding as “serenade composer” took place early on (probably already with the premier of the extremely successful serenade op. 9 from 1874) and evidently largely precluded any recognition in other areas. Not a word is mentioned that Fuchs after all won the Beethoven Prize for a piano concerto and in addition to the already mentioned symphonies (among them a student work and a fragment) and serenades composed for almost every genre. Of his two operas, “Die Königsbraut” (“The King’s Bride”) was performed seven times at the Vienna Court Opera in 1889, whereas “Die Teufelsglocke” (“The Devil’s Bell”), composed shortly thereafter, remained unperformed. He composed several masses and organ works, lieder, piano music for two and four hands, as well as a large number of duos, trios and string and piano quartets. The Brahms inﬂuences described are unmistakable in the later chamber music. It may be precisely this lack of originality which causedposterity to rather go to Brahms himself or to Fuchs’ pupils, who broke new paths. Especially when searching for the “tone” of those times, the typical sound in the bourgeois salons and concert halls of Vienna at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century until the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the change of civil structures, one should deﬁnitely spare a glance and both ears for the music by Fuchs.
This certainly applies to the three works recorded on this CD, which have in common the emphasis on the viola, to which most composers pay rather little attention. The title “Phantasiestücke” (“Fantasy pieces”) runs through all of Fuchs’ chamber music works and represents a popular expression in Romanticism which describes the character pieces, the content of which is left to the imagination of the listeners. The selection of the Sechs Phantasiestücke für Viola und Klavier (Six Fantasy Pieces for Viola and Piano) op. 117, published for the ﬁrst time in 1927, the year of Fuchs’ death, and possibly only composed shortly before then, is opened by a Ländler appearing almost retrospective. The second piece (Ruhig und ausdrucksvoll – Calm and expressive) is a contemplative song, the middle part of which conveys hectic disquiet. The third piece (Leicht bewegt – With some movement) builds the contrast to this: two fast pieces frame a section that is to be performed “dolce” and “espressivo”. Fuchs bases the fourth piece (Andante sostenuto con espressione) on a melodic thought that is at once simple and magniﬁcent and which in its simple, optimistic D Major gives absolutely no indication of the almost simultaneously occurring tendencies such as the twelve-tone music in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” or the jazz in Ernst Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf”. The ﬁfth piece (Mäßig bewegt – Walking pace) begins as a melancholy waltz, and after it subsides, the sixth piece (Allegretto con delicatezza), which in its main part seems almost like a cheerful children’s song, brings up the rear.
The Sonate für Viola und Klavier d-Moll (Sonata for Viola and Piano d minor) op. 86, completed in the fall of 1899, appears signiﬁcantly more meaningful than the short fantasy pieces.The relatively high opus number is most likely due to the ﬁrst publication that didn't take place until ten years later. Traces of Brahms are noticeable here even more clearly than in the fantasy pieces. In accordance with Fuchs’ profession as a teacher, which he practiced for decades, the ﬁrst movement is a sweeping sonata that was written under the rules of the art of counterpoint (Allegro moderato, ma passionato). The second movement (Andante grazioso) with its alternating voices of viola and piano, like a type of question and answer game, is probably the most enchanting idea of the work. The dance continues softly swaying in three-four time, dies away, makes room for a trio rushing past in pizzicato, and then sounds a new from the beginning. The third movement (Allegro vivace) ﬁnally forms a powerful ending including a stretto-like coda conclusion.
The Trio für Klavier, Violine und Viola ﬁs-Moll (Trio for Piano, Violin and Viola f sharp minor) op. 115 was composed between the two duos for viola and piano and was ﬁnished in February of 1921. This is already Fuchs’ third piano trio, yet while the two sister works were composed in the “classical” instrumentation for violin, violoncello and piano, this late piece allocates the function of the second string instrument to the viola instead of to the cello, resulting in a combination that is very rare in music literature. It is known as an alternative version of Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio KV 498 for clarinet (or violin), viola and piano and Robert Schumann’s “Märchenerzählungen” (“Fairy Tales”) op. 132. One may suspect that Fuchs knew the early Trio b minor for Violin, Viola and Piano op. 2 (1891) by Max Reger, but it is highly unlikely that he gleaned any ideas from it. Rather, the trio reﬂects in its four movements once more the virtuoso mastery of the art of counterpoint, starting with its expansive, yearningly singing ﬁrst movement (Allegro molto moderato), continuing with the playful Andante grazioso that cannot deny a certain “Vienna” sound and the Allegretto scherzando ﬂitting by in cheerful alternation, on to the ﬁnale (Allegro giusto) that is at once expressive and energetic.