Overture for a Tragedy, Op. 18 for orchestra
Overture for a Tragedy, Op. 18
As the half-brother of Clara Wieck-Schumann and brother-in-law of Robert Schumann, Woldemar Bargiel became part of Schumann’s artistic world right from the beginning. In the days when people were still writing about him, he was often called an ‘epigone’ – which ignores the fact that his early style was influenced not only by his ‘honoured brother-in-law’, as he called Schumann in his letters, but also by Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn and Schubert. In later years Bargiel moved closer to Brahms and a more classical idiom. He was a conservative composer who remained within his own self-imposed stylistic limits, but he was always inventive in developing musical forms and ideas, and his compositions represent a considerable artistic achievement. Indeed, it is fair to describe him as one of the best German composers of the middle of the nineteenth century. His continuing commitment as a performer to the music of J. S. Bach and other earlier masterpieces brought him closer to neo-classicism and inured him to the influence of late Romanticism.
Woldemar Bargiel was born in Berlin on 3 October 1828. His mother, Mariane (née Tromlitz), was married to Friedrich Wieck before divorcing him and marrying Adolph Bargiel, a teacher of piano and voice teacher. When the Wiecks’ daughter Clara married Robert Schumann on 12 September 1840, the eleven year-old Woldemar became Schumann’s brother-in-law. Clara was nine years older than Woldemar, but they maintained a close relationship throughout their lives and Robert fostered Bargiel’s musical development.
In 1846 Bargiel went to study at the Leipzig Conservatory on the recommendation of Mendelsohn; his teachers there were Moritz Hauptmann, Ferdinand David, Ignaz Moscheles, Julius Rietz and Niels Gade. At his last public examination on 20 December 1849, Bargiel attracted widespread attention with the first movement of an octet for strings which was performed with Joseph Joachim as first violin. It was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship and marked Bargiel’s admission to the circle of young composers promoted by Robert Schumann. He was mentioned in Schumann’s ‘Neue Bahnen’ (‘New Paths’) in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in October 1853, an article which is famous for launching Brahms’ career: ‘Many new, significant talents appeared, a new force in music seemed to announce itself
After his return to Berlin in 1850, Bargiel worked as a teacher, and his reputation as a composer grew. In this period he published more than half of his 49 works with opus numbers, including various orchestral and chamber scores and piano pieces. In 1859 Ferdinand Hiller appointed him to the staff of the Cologne Conservatoire, but he left in 1865 to take up the position of director and principal conductor of the music school in Rotterdam – where he went there with a recommendation from Hermann Levi after a successful performance of his Overture to Medea. In the Netherlands he gave the local premieres of numerous works, among them Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1870. In 1874 he accepted a position at the prestigious Königliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, which was then flourishing under the leadership of its founder, Joseph Joachim.
There he led a master-class in composition with several students who later achieved prominence in their own right, among them Waldemar von Baussnern, Leo Blech, Leopold Godowsky, Alexander Ilyinsky, Paul Juon and Peter Raabe. Bargiel enjoyed numerous accolades: he was, for example, an honorary member of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst in Amsterdam and the Società del quartetto coralo in Milan. He wrote music for the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm I and was also decorated 1883 and 1886 with the ‘Red Eagle commendations’, third and fourth class.
Bargiel’s orchestral works show a consistently high quality. They were well received by his contemporaries, and music encyclopaedias around 1870 confirm his standing as one of the most prominent composers of his day.
The concert overture after Beethoven and Mendelssohn remained an independent instrumental work, often programmatic, that presaged such genres in such as the symphonic poem. Bargiel’s overtures were his most widely played works in his own lifetime. Written for concert use only, they are miniature, single-movement symphonies in sonata form and deal with tragic, heroic, epic subjects – and only with the Overture to Medea was the title a foregone conclusion.
The most important concert in Bargiel’s early career was the performance of the Overture for a Tragedy, Op. 18, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by Julius Rietz, on 2 December 1858. The title was originally Overture to Romeo and Juliet, which was revised before publication in 1859: Shakespeare’s passionate love-story does not match the emotional content of the music.
In 1859 Hans von Bülow wrote: “By his recent works (we have in mind the noble ‘Overture for a Tragedy’, even though some resemblance to Schumann’s Manfred cannot be denied), Bargiel can claim the highest rank among Schumann’s followers after Joseph Joachim.”2
In comparison with Schumann’s Manfred, indeed, it can be seen that Bargiel’s succeeded in creating a commanding thematic and motivic development by simpler means. In the slow introduction he likewise uses the step of a semitone as a sighing motive between restless desire and resignation. The motives are colourfully orchestrated, and the melodic phrases ever fuller. The main theme of the Allegro begins in a rather sinister manner but rises to considerable heights. The second subject has its own charm and, its chromaticism notwithstanding, the progress of the music is informed with vigorous, even dance-like impulses in more straightforward harmonies. In the development section the motives, borrowed from the main theme, slide in and out like waves, interrupted by short, nervous asides until a false reprise unfolds over unstable ground in C minor. This moment leads to the true recapitulation in E minor, the main key of the overture. Finally, the hero’s death is expressed with much force by descending scales, dying away in an echo.
As an orchestral composer, Bargiel filled the gap in symphonic writing after Schumann’s death with clear and original sonata-form structures. His three printed overtures show a variety of influences, and his Symphony shows a rapprochement with Haydn. Since two-thirds of his works were composed between 1848 and 1864, it is fair to see him as a typical representative of the mid-nineteenth century, mediating between two epochs. His pluralist style should thus be seen not as derivative and eclectic but rather as a sophisticated and multifaceted combination of musical styles in a transitional period.
Dean Cáceres, 2015
Recording: Woldemar Bargiel, Complete Orchestral Music, Vol.1, Toccata Classic
1 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Neue Folgen, No. 1, 4 January 1865.
2 Hans von Bülow, Briefe und Schriften, Vol. 3: Ausgewählte Schriften, 1850–1892, Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, 1896; 2nd edn. 1911, p. 342.
For performance material please contact Boosey und Hawkes, Berlin. Reprint of a copy from the Musikabteilung der Leipziger Städtischen Bibliotheken, Leipzig.
210 x 297 mm