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Listening Group selection # 29: Gernsheim, Piano Quartet no. 1 in E Flat Major

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Initial post: Nov 2, 2012 3:28:47 PM PDT
Aleksey says:
Last week's thread by Skaynan presented a work which is in many, many ways similar to Wagner; for this week's selection, I've selected a work by Friedrich Gernsheim, who was one of the many German romantics who had the misfortune (in his time period) to be overshadowed by Brahms.

The brief Wikipedia entry for Gernsheim gives more information than I could hope to, and very concisely at that., copied below for easiness's sake.

"Friedrich Gernsheim (17 July 1839 - 10 September 1916) was a German composer, conductor and pianist.

Gernsheim was born in Worms. He was given his first musical training at home under his mother's care, then starting from the age of seven under Worms' musical director, Louis Liebe, a former pupil of Louis Spohr. His father, a prominent Jewish physician, moved the family to Frankfurt am Main in the aftermath of the year of revolutions, 1848, where he studied with Edward Rosenhain, brother of Jakob Rosenhain.[1] He made his first public appearance as a concert pianist in 1850 and toured for two seasons, then settled with his family in Leipzig, where he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles from 1852. He spent the years 1855-1860 in Paris, meeting Gioachino Rossini, Édouard Lalo and Camille Saint-Saëns.

His travels afterwards took him to Saarbrücken, where in 1861 he took the conductor post vacated by Hermann Levi; to Cologne, where in 1865 Ferdinand Hiller appointed him to the staff of the Conservatory (his pupils there included Engelbert Humperdinck and Carl Lachmund); he then served as musical director of the Philharmonic Society of Rotterdam, 1874-1890. In the latter year he became a teacher at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, and in 1897 moved there to teach at the Academy of Arts, where he was elected to the senate in 1897.

Gernsheim was a prolific composer, especially of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, and songs. Some of his works tend to Jewish subject-matter, notably the Third Symphony on the legend of the Song of Miriam. His earlier works show the influence of Schumann, and from 1868, when he first became friendly with Brahms, a Brahmsian influence is very palpable. Gernsheim's four symphonies (the first of which was written before the publication of Brahms' First Symphony) are an interesting example of the reception of Brahmsian style by a sympathetic and talented contemporary. Gernsheim's last works, most notably his Zu einem Drama (1902), show him moving away from that into something more personal. He died in Berlin."

The work in question is a fairly recent discovery for me; it's a youthful work, written by a 21-year old Gernsheim in 1860. The first movement is more-or-less melodic and serenade-like, with a very lovely primary theme that reminds me of something from Schumann's work in the same format; the other highlight of the work to me is the opening and first few minutes of the third-movement andante, which has a Brahmsian melonchaly about it to my ears, without sounding like a mere imitator.

Anyway, my poorly worded impressions aside, I hope you enjoy it! Sorry that I couldn't post until late in the day.

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 8:30:23 AM PST
When describing music that we hear for the first time, it is often done by comparison with the familiar. With Gernsheim, Aleksey mentions Brahms and Wiki concurs. While listening to this Piano Quartet, it does remind me of Brahms in some respects. There is a strong melodic element and at times some of the density of sound one recognizes as "Brahmsian". Sometimes, the resemblance is pretty strong. The ending of the opening movement is very Brahms-like. The 2nd movement is even more reminiscent of Johannes, enough so that it would likely fool me in a "blindfold" test.

I imagine this would be a double edged sword back in the mid 19th century. On the one hand, Brahms' popularity would have probably helped Gernsheim be heard and accepted but would also preclude him reaching the highest levels of success. There just isn't enough newness there to excite audiences and allow Gernsheim to be thought of as a standard bearer or innovator.

Moving beyond that, what about the music? I hear very strong melody throughout this congenial quartet. I also don't think Gernsheim's music is quite as dense as Brahms and I like that aspect of it. His accompanyment doesn't cloy and he seems more concerned with making beautiful interesting music than proving his genius. That genius proving thing is something that I think sometimes hurt Brahms. Gernsheim should be glad he didn't have to carry that burden along! I also think that in describing this music, I would say there also is a Dvorakian element to it. The melodies seem to fly out easily and perhaps we can also add Bruch as a possible descriptive.

In conclusion (and I am hearing the Finale right now, which seems appropriate), I feel this is very well composed music, easy to listen to and it has a bit of a sweetness to it but again, not so much that it is cloying. Gernsheim seems to have a very well developed sense of proportion and time so he doesn't linger on anything too long or jump away from anything too quickly. The music has a pleasing naturalness to it, a gentle but constant energy and at appropriate times, singing beauty. The slow movement is especially engaging. This is Romantic period music through and through. I found it very enjoyable and recommend at least giving it a listen. It isn't overlong either and definitely worth the half hour of time it takes to hear it.

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 11:23:19 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 9, 2012 10:47:50 PM PST
Larkenfield says:
Considering that Gernsheim was only 21 when he wrote the Quartet, I feel that it's astonishingly good and shows a maturity and intelligence far beyond his years. That even his chamber music seems to have vanished from the repertoire may simply show how crowded the field for such works are rather than certain works lacking merit, though that his music was banned by the nazis because he was Jewish didn't help his continuing exposure in the 20th Century.

With some of his large-scale works, after listening to his first two symphonies, I can see his similarity with Brahms but find it of interest that Gernsheim wrote his 1st (1875) before Brahms did (1876) and believe it's possible to hear how both were highly influenced by the same high intensions that was behind the music of Robert Schumann. In other words, that may be the original source of the similarity between them with Gernsheim increasing going towards Brahms' way later on.

"Friedrich Gernsheim was never given to writing for the sake of writing and you will rarely, if ever, find unnecessary notes or passages that serve as mere filler. His goal was to create works of art in which one bar followed the other inevitably, and the whole was to form a unity in which no phrase should be associated with another except of set purpose. His output is distinguished by nobility of aim, well-defined, beautiful and assured proportions and complete mastery of form. His quartets, which certainly belong in the concert hall, present no unusual technical difficulties and can be strongly recommended to amateur players." - Wilhelm Altmann, famed chamber music critic

"He used his position as a conductor to advance the cause of Brahms' music. The two, while not close friends, carried on a correspondence for many years during which it was clear that Brahms had considerable respect and admiration for Gernsheim's work. An accolade which was, in Brahms' case, no mere flattery as Brahms only very rarely praised the works of other composers."

"Here is proof [Piano Quartet No.1] that even early on Gernsheim was producing masterpieces of the chamber music literature which deserved to be placed in the permanent repertoire. Certainly professionals should present it in concert but amateurs will not want to miss out on the chance to play this great work. Out of print for over a century, we have reprinted the first and only edition."

Additional details and background information on the Quartet:

List of eight other chamber works with historical background and descriptions (scroll down):
I thoroughly enjoyed Gernsheim's beautifully done Piano Quartet No.1 in E Flat Major. Excellent choice. Lark ♬

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 12:50:48 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 4, 2012 12:51:03 PM PST
Aleksey says:
Well, this turned out to be a bit more of a misfire than we might all have hoped, but thanks to everyone who has or is going to listen to this, participant or not.

Thank you for the quotes, Larkenfield-- the Altmann quote, in particular, seemed spot on as a description for what I've heard of Gernsheim. Speaking of the piano quintet mentioned in the last quote, you really should give it a listen if you have the opportunity. I've been too lazy to order the CD, but a recent-ish recording of it was uploaded to Youtube a while back. I can't find it now-- the channel may have been deleted, or something similar --but I thought it was a rather extraordinary piece of work.

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 1:26:41 PM PST
Dichterliebe says:

I promise I'll be listening to it within the next two days when I can give it my undivided attention.

Posted on Nov 4, 2012 11:21:05 PM PST
Skaynan says:
Aleksey (or anybody else):

Can you recommend a proper recording? I hate YouTube sound.

Posted on Nov 5, 2012 2:56:44 AM PST
Aleksey says:
The recording which I linked to is pretty much it for this repetoire, but it is available on CD if you're willing to spring for it.
Gernsheim: Piano Quartets No.1&3
I don't own it, but I imagine someone's made it available in the way you might be thinking of.

Posted on Nov 7, 2012 9:34:21 AM PST
Dichterliebe says:
I finally had some time* this morning to listen to this piece, a lovely work. Thanks for the selection and for introducing me to a composer with whom I'm completely unfamiliar until now.

First movement: He's using a long-breathed theme, scalar, in even quarters, and repetitive. Gernsheim has a way with musical conversation, handing the melodic material to individual instruments (favoring the violin), groups (piano vs. strings), and combinations. His writing for the piano sounds quite idiomatic: arpeggios, displaced octaves, repeated chords and broken chord figures, etc. The music flows easily with no harmonic surprises or sudden thematic/motivic changes; this is pleasant music, beautifully composed but lacking distinction. There is nothing at all that would indicate this to be an early work of an untested composer -- it's simply too polished for that.

Second movement: I'm enjoying this. This scherzo has more character and excitement, more interplay, and a wider dynamic range within shorter phrases. I definitely hear the influence of Schumann's Piano Quintet but this appears to be a through-composed movement (I haven't seen the score) without a definite trio/alternativo -- I'd have to give it another go to be sure. He relies heavily on doubling at the octave -- maybe a bit too much -- but I like how Gernsheim is varying the register of the piano, especially from the first movement.

Third movement: Rich and romantic, untroubled and songful. I'm in! Gernsheim is using a counter melody (counter to the main theme) and a subsidiary theme that is similar enough to the opening scalar theme of the first movement that if not a self-quotation or inversion, it is certainly related and unifying. It's a quiet movement with no instrument taking center stage for long, but maintaining the quartet texture for most of the duration.

Finale: Once again, I hear Schumann's influence but this time the Piano Quartet and in several places such as the opening, the upward leap of the main theme, the rising figure of building chords in the piano under the lyrical strings, and the quasi-tremolo, the use of the plagal, and the upward E-flat scales. It's a fitting conclusion -- joyful with lots of E-flat chords and cadences and deft keyboard writing.

Overall: A good piece. It's fairly modest in dimensions and in musical content. The piano writing in particular is well-done and Gernsheim's ability to write for the quartet isn't in doubt. I think it lacks a distinctive voice and I have to say that the constant quartet texture is fatiguing; had he used the strings alone and the piano alone or piano/violin or piano/cello etc. combinations more frequently, it would add freshness and interest. It's like so many well-written works: pleasant but unmemorable unless heard repeatedly. I enjoyed listening to it, though, and his obvious deftness and capabilities have me wondering what he achieved later on. That is perhaps the very best any early work can do for any composer. Well done!

*I'm having some renovations done which have added quite a bit of upheaval to my life -- more than I expected! I apologize for not being more prompt in my response.

Posted on Nov 9, 2012 8:59:04 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 9, 2012 9:00:48 PM PST
KenOC says:
I'm getting to this a bit late, sorry. I've never heard the work or even heard of the composer. But here goes, notes from a first listening.

1: Allegro ma non troppo -- Fine, expansive first theme. First rate technically, good open-sounding scoring. None of the turgidity we sometimes find in Brahms. But unlike much Brahms, neither the harmonic content nor the thematic materials are particularly striking or memorable. For somebody fond of this style, it will be rewarding.

2: Allegro vivace -- Exciting, fast whirlwind of a scherzo. Good tension in the build-ups. This would be a real winner in live performance.

3: Andante con moto -- An inspired-by-Beethoven hymnlike opening theme. Very beautiful throughout, but maybe with a certain lack of definition. In details, quite striking. The repetition of certain ideas, even turns of phrase, is very effective.

4: Allegro con brio -- Like the first movement, some fine music and scoring. But again, I'd love to see some more striking and original ideas and harmonies.

Summary: A fine piece by an obviously talented composer. It will lack popularity because it doesn't have the "wow" factor. I suspect that with repeated hearing my own opinion of it will improve (not that it's bad now). It's a welcome composition that doesn't storm the heavens or overstay its welcome, not in any movement.

Added: Just read Dichterliebe's comments, which are more detailed and more knowledgeable than mine. But our opinions seem to be similar.

Posted on Nov 9, 2012 10:36:10 PM PST
Aleksey says:
Well, thank you, all! I tend to agree with the opinions put forward by most everybody-- this is a fine work to my ears, but not one of the great ones. The work was a pretty recent discovery for me before this week, and I'm glad to have encountered it, even if I can't call it a favorite; I think most of us who participate in this group would agree that there's a purpose for music that doesn't quite rise to the top. Vareity in everything, I guess.

Anyway, glad to see that this thread finally took off! Dichterliebe's finally posted his/her thread, and I'd advise anybody who reads this to read it in turn. (Good selections, by the way!)
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Discussion in:  Classical Music forum
Participants:  6
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Initial post:  Nov 2, 2012
Latest post:  Nov 9, 2012

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