Symphony No.1 in C minor Op. 40
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 40
(b. Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, 26 February 1875 – d. Erfurt, 16 January 1935)
Richard Wetz is a composer who is largely unknown today, both inside and outside his native country of Germany. Even when Wetz’s compositions manage to get a hearing nowadays their technical competence is mentioned and then they are dismissed as being the products of an epigone of Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). Although Wetz was far more daring than Bruckner in his range of compositions (including even operas), there is no denying that in his symphonic music Wetz was indebted to Bruckner’s style to an extraordinary degree.
Indeed, modernism seems to have escaped Wetz’s gaze entirely, and he never deviated from the well-established compositional norms and philosophical ideals of German Romanticism. Although he received formal music instruction from an early age, Wetz was by nature an autodidact. Leipzig’s famous conservatory held no charms for Wetz, who left disillusioned after only six weeks. Most of his formal education in musical composition came from private tuition at the hand of Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907) in Munich.
For a number of years Wetz was a musical journeyman, taking temporary jobs in Stralsund and Wuppertal before securing a permanent position in 1906 as the director of the Erfurt Musikverein. He went on to teach composition and music history at the Erfurt Conservatory and the Weimar Musikhochschule. Although Wetz never achieved a great level of fame during his lifetime, his works were sufficiently noticed that he was elected to the Berlin Academy of the Arts. Wetz died of a bronchial infection in 1935, just a month short of his sixtieth birthday. Due to his formal conservatism and stylistic resemblance to Bruckner, Wetz’s music was much in favor during the Third Reich, so much so that Peter Raabe (1872-1945), president of the Reichsmusikkammer of the Propaganda Ministry caused a Richard Wetz Society to be founded in 1943 in the composer’s hometown of Gleiwitz. After the War there was little interest in Wetz’s music until the 1990s when tonal music once again became critically fashionable. A Wetz renaissance of sorts has been seen in the last decade, inspired in great part by new recordings of the composer’s works by the German record label CPO.
Wetz’s Symphony No. 1 was composed during the years 1915 and 1916 and was premiered in 1917 in Weimar with Peter Raabe conducting. Stylistically it is a potpourri, and one can easily hear the influence of Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, and, to a lesser extent, Max Reger. Indeed, the symphony as a whole can be viewed as Wetz’s struggle to obtain a musical identity of his own, a struggle that he was never able to completely overcome.
The first movement, Ruhig bewegt (anfangs etwas gehalten) is an almost textbook example of musical composition in the late German romantic idiom. Several contrasting themes are developed motivically, and generally sections are connected by the use of sequence patterns. This may be a case of where Wetz’s compositional procedures are too transparent, for he seems be wishing to ensure that his audience is constantly aware of everything that he is doing. As such, the movement seems cobbled together from disparate parts.
The second movement, Scherzo. Leicht bewegt, aber nicht zu schnell, has all of the qualities and shortcomings of the first: incessant sequencing, motivic fragmentation, and an over-reliance on the grand pause. This scherzo has many of the hallmarks of Mendelssohn and Dvorák, but the constant alternation between the fast and slow sections prevents Wetz’s ideas from being developed completely.
Even less successful is the third-movement adagio, Sehr langsam und ausdrucksvoll, which is neither terribly slow nor very expressive. Here the sequencing becomes almost omnipresent. Indeed, Wetz appears to have little else as a motivation for his developmental procedures.
Concluding the symphony is the movement, Finale. Kräftig und entschieden bewegt. Episodic in nature, the finale seems to be an attempt by Wetz to unify and summarize the previous movements of the symphony. Whether or not Wetz had in mind cyclic form is impossible to ascertain with any degree of certitude. There are, however, enough surface similarities among the thematic materials of the various movements to make a circumstantial case for cyclic intent on the part of the composer.
The Symphony No. 1 is a curious work in that, in many ways, it represents a regression from the compositional promise Wetz displayed in his earlier single-movement tone poem, the Kleist Overture of 1908. The symphony is four times longer than the overture, and it may be that Wetz had difficulty adjusting to the longer format. The composer does appear to be acutely self-conscious of the musical forms and devices he employs, almost as though he is making sure, like a figure skater, that he utilizes all of the «school figures» in his routine.
But it is precisely Wetz’s stylistic idiosyncrasies that make his music so fascinating from an historical perspective. Wetz was a composer caught in the vortex between romanticism and modernism, but he lacked Max Reger’s will-to-chromaticism and Ferruccio Busoni’s transcendental formalism. It is the tragedy of Richard Wetz’s career as a composer that he sought not to appropriate the past – to «make it new» in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase – but to remain part of the past. It still remains to be seen whether or not Wetz’s music will become part of the standard repertoire of the future. Nevertheless, he is a composer whose works deserve a respectful re-hearing.
William Grim, 2005
For performance material please contact the publisher Benjamin Musikverlage, Hamburg. Reprint of a copy from the collection Matthias Wiegand, Karlsruhe.
160 x 240 mm