As it was in the beginning…

Although opus numbers and catalogue entries aren’t always to be taken at face value, I thought we could take a look at some composers who have had new Naxos releases this month, putting the music on these discs into the broad context of both their Opus 1 and the last work in their catalogue.

viennese-ballroomJohann Strauss the Elder (1804-49) notched up a good quantity of his sociable music; not all of it, however, was written in response to the genteel environs of glittering Viennese ballrooms. This month’s release of his Opp. 231-240 (Marco Polo 8.225344) covers the darker period of the 1848 European Revolutions. Part of this turmoil included factions and countries attempting to sever the grip exercised on them by the Austrian Empire. Strauss’ music provided the diversion certain sectors of Vienna needed, as one newspaper editor observed:

“Yes, yes, the time has become something else, something serious, and now we have more important things to do than to argue about waltzes. Even Strauss must feel the pressure of the time just as much as so many others, and he is still the only one in his field in whom one seeks refuge when the cup of sorrow is overflowing.”

Strauss died the following year, his last listed work being Melodische Tändelein (Tuneful Trifles), Op. 251. Written when he was 22, his Op. 1 is titled Täuberln-Wälzer (Little Doves’ Waltzes), similarly suggesting a much more idyllic provenance.8.557534

Unlike Strauss, whose output hardly strayed from waltzes, quadrilles and the like, the music of fellow Austrian Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) underwent a complex makeover. His Op. 1, Zwei Gesänge (Two Songs) dates from 1898 and is dedicated to the arch-romantic Alexander Zemlinsky; the harmony is rooted in a traditional, albeit highly chromatic, tonality and is emotionally powerful stuff. His catalogue’s last entry, Psalm 130 op 50b De profundis (1950), is altogether much more edgy. The works on this month’s new release (Naxos 8.557534) date from the turn of the 20th century and show how the master’s language was on the cusp of changing, especially in the way his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7 (1904-05) sounds more barbed than Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), written just 5 years previously.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) died two years before Schoenberg penned Transfigured Night. His final catalogue entry reflects how the elder statesman’s music also became transfigured, turning more mellow in his later years. Written in 1896, his 11 Chorale Preludes for organ Op. 122 (Naxos 8.550824) sound gently valedictory and, if you need an example of how Brahms related to fellow German composer J. S. Bach, listen to the Prelude and Fugue in A minor on the same disc.8.572996

Much more assertive is his Piano Sonata No. 1 Op. 1, written in 1853 (Naxos 8.550351). Championed by Robert Schumann and dedicated to Joseph Joachim, it couldn’t have wished for a better launch-pad. By the time of his A German Requiem, featured on one of this month’s new releases (Naxos 8.572996), Brahms isn’t out to prove anything. Written in 1868 as a comfort for the living who grieve the departure of their loved ones (and almost certainly inspired by the death of the composer’s mother), Brahms again links back to the Germanic tradition of composers such as Bach and Schütz, rather than court the Italian-style Requiem with its Day of Judgement wrath.

In a way, there’s a certain frustration that links the works of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). This month’s release of his Symphony No. 1 (Naxos 8.573234), written in 1895, reminds us of its tepid reception at the first performance (it’s generally held that the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was inebriated) and how this sent Rachmaninov into a fit of depression that lasted for years. The creative block he suffered was eventually lifted with the sustained help of hypno- and psychotherapy from the Russian physician, Nikolai Dahl.sergei-rachmaninov-5

His Op. 1 was the Piano Concerto No. 1 (Naxos 8.550809), written in 1891 when Rachmaninov was only eighteen. His Second and Third Piano Concertos were to find much more favour with the general public, however, prompting Rachmaninov to considerably re-work his Op. 1 in 1917. Dating from 1940, his last work, the Symphonic Dances Op. 45 (Naxos 8.550583), similarly failed to find its initial target. This was as the score for a ballet by his friend Michel Fokin who, like Rachmaninov, emigrated from Russia and made the America his final destination. Initially titled Mid-day, Twilight and Midnight, the three movements had to be repackaged when Fokin died in 1942. Rachmaninov followed Fokin to his final resting place a year later.

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