Woyrsch, Felix

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 52

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Felix Woyrsch

(b. Troppau [Opava], Silesia, 8 October 1860 – d. Altona [Hamburg], 20 March 1944)

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 52

I Moving very moderately (p. 3)
II Very slow (p. 45)
III Quietly striding movement (p. 61) – Fast and light (p. 67) – Tempo I (p. 70)
IV Very slow (p. 76) – Very agitated (p. 84) – Very calm – Moving moderately, without dragging (p. 115)

Appraisals of Felix Woyrsch’s music state time and again that he was a musical conservative. Yet we should bear in mind that he hailed from the same generation as Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek, Felix Weingartner, Richard Strauss, and Alexander Glazunov, not to mention younger contemporaries such as Hans Pfitzner, Hermann Hans Wetzler, Paul Juon, Hermann Suter, Alexander Zemlinsky, Siegmund von Hausegger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergey Rachmaninov, Franz Schmidt, and Richard Wetz. Judged by these standards, today Woyrsch seems by no means backward or underdeveloped; rather, he appears as a remarkably idiosyncratic and noteworthy symphonist in the tradition of Bruckner and Brahms, much like the Dresden composer Paul Büttner (ten years his junior) or the Frenchman Albéric Magnard (five years his junior). In his day Woyrsch was considered the leading musical figure in Altona (then the cultural capital of Schleswig-Holstein, now a district of Hamburg), and this both as a composer and as a conductor of large choral societies and orchestras.

Born in Silesia, Woyrsch first grew up in Dresden and later in Altona, which became his lifelong home. He went on to become head of the city’s Allgemeine Liedertafel (1887), church choir (1893), and Singakademie (1895) and played the organ first in the Peace Church and later at St John’s. In 1903 he founded the Altona Symphonic, Popular, and Youth Concerts, which elevated him to the rank of municipal music director in 1914, and in 1917 he was officially inducted into the Prussian Academy of Arts. He was an active conductor until 1931 and was awarded the Prussian Academy’s Beethoven Prize in 1938. As an elderly man, he did not, like so many others, offer his services to the Nazi régime, but continued in relative obscurity to cultivate his œuvre, which encompasses seventy-nine opus numbers and has attracted hardly any attention to the present day.

Although Woyrsch received lessons in Hamburg from Heinrich Chevallier (1848-1908), he was for the most part a self-taught composer who learned his craft from a ceaseless study of the great masters and a close observation of his contemporaries. Rather than seeking contact with his fellow-composers, however, he worked outside the successful currents associated with Strauss, Reger, Klose, Pfitzner, and Schoenberg. His first compositions date from 1884. All that survives from his pen until the 1890s are piano pieces, lieder (with piano or orchestral accompaniment), choral music, and two comic operas. In 1884 he wrote a Symphony in B-flat major that left him dissatisfied; he rewrote it completely in 1899 and left it unpublished. His Christmas cantata Die Geburt Jesu (op. 18) was followed in 1886 by his first stage work, the comic opera Der Pfarrer von Meudon, and in 1890 by the folk opera Der Weiberkrieg (op. 27). The first orchestral work he was willing to acknowledge was Symphonic Prologue to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” op. 40 (1891). He achieved great success with his Passion Oratorio for solo voices, chorus, organ, and orchestra, op. 45 (1895). In 1901 he finished his Sapphic Ode for soprano, women’s chorus, and orchestra (op. 49), followed in 1904 by the Skaldic Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (op. 50) and in 1906 by the mystery play Totentanz for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra (op. 51; premièred on 6 February 1906 in Cologne). Like Brahms before him, he had now gathered enough experience in handling an orchestra to finally step forward in 1908 with his Symphony No. 1 in C minor (op. 52). It was immediately followed in 1910 by Three Böcklin Fantasies (“Isle of the Dead,” “The Hermit,” “Playing in the Waves”) for full orchestra (op. 53). Then came Overture to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (op. 56) and a setting of Hölderlin’s Ode to the Dead for men’s chorus and orchestra (op. 57), after which he completed his Second Symphony in C major (op. 60) in 1914 and the mystery play Da Jesus auf Erden ging for solo voices, chorus, children’s chorus, organ, and orchestra (op. 61) in 1916 (premièred on 29 January 1917). Ten years were to pass before his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat minor (op. 70) saw the light of day in 1927 (it was premièred under Woyrsch on 10 February 1928 in Altona). In 1930 he finished his Symphony No. 4 in F major (op. 71). Then the Luther cantata Das deutsche Sanktus for chorus and orchestra (op. 73) was followed by Symphony No. 5 in D major (op. 75) in 1935 (premièred on 2 October 1935 in Berlin under the composer) and Theme and Variations for orchestra (op. 76). His final Symphony No. 6 in C major (op. 77) reached completion in 1939 (its first performance took place on 5 April 1941 in Hamburg under Woyrsch). The 1940s witnessed what was, to all appearances, the last piece he ever completed: Zum neuen Jahr for orchestra (op. 79). Today premier recordings exist of his first three symphonies, which have established his reputation as a major symphonist in the grand conductor-composer tradition. The last three symphonies, in contrast, still await discovery (the Fourth was premièred on 7 March 1931 in Aachen by the Municipal Orchestra under its music dicrector Peter Raabe [1872-1945] who also conducted the first performance of Woyrsch’s The Vision of Jesaia on 26 October 1932 in Aachen).

It was relatively late in life that Woyrsch turned to chamber music. His early Album Leaf for violin and piano (op. 22) was followed by String Quartet No. 1 in A minor (op. 55, 1910) and by Mors triumphans! (op. 58), a trombone quartet on the sacred folksong Es ist ein Schnitter, der heisst Tod. The year 1921 witnessed the first performance of his Second String Quartet in C minor (op. 63), followed in 1929 by the first print of his String Quartet No. 3 in E-flat major (op. 64). In 1927 he completed his only piece of piano chamber music after the Piano Trio in E minor (op. 65, 1919) : the Piano Quintet in C minor (op. 66, 1927) – while continuing his works for string ensemble with the String Sextet in B-flat major (op. 72) and the lost Fourth String Quartet in B-flat major (op. 74, written in the early 1930s). His experiences are gathered together in a final summation in his Fifth String Quartet in C minor, op. 78 (1938-40). His piano music, mostly of early origin and culminating in Metamorphoses (op. 48), consists of seven opus numbers, while three opus numbers are devoted to organ music, which he began later in his career and which ended in the beginning of the 1920s with a Passacaglia on the Dies irae.

Here is Siegfried Scheffler, writing in 1930 in preparation for Woyrsch’s seventieth birthday (Die Norag, no. 40, 1930): “We know of three symphonies […], character portraits of their creator, intrinsically related to the expressive world of his Passion settings and chamber music. Works that cast their vital forces in dramatic waves through their Allegros and pour out their deepest feelings in their Adagios. A juvenile symphony counts only as a fledgling effort, a memory; a Fourth, in F major, has just been completed and will receive its première in February 1931. […] Today Felix Woyrsch stands at the forefront of musical life in northern Germany. […] His music grows in secret, but without losing sight of its contacts to the world, to the feelings and developments of a new age.”

A short while earlier Woyrsch’s pupil Ernst Gernot Klussmann (1901-1975), later a symphonist as accomplished as he is ignored today, published an astute appreciation of his teacher in the Altonaer Nachrichten (14 July 1930) for his impending seventieth birthday: “The posture of this complete output of a lifetime is one of deepest religiosity […], finding its inmost fulfillment in the mystery play Da Jesus auf Erden ging. What the grand choral works express in biblical words and spiritual poetry is compressed into purely instrumental expression in the slow movements of his three symphonies and chamber music. […] A new style begins with the Second Symphony. It stands apart from the earlier works with its recourse to simpler harmonies, grants all the more priority to a linear treatment of the voices, and finds its temporary culmination in the Third String Quartet, the Piano Quintet, and the Third Symphony – works which betray certain thematic correlations while maintaining the same underlying style. The clearest indication of this new style, and of its organic emergence from the style of his works from op. 50 to op. 60, might be the ending of the slow movement of the Third Symphony, whose final chord (E major in the upper parts, C in the basses) brings to a logical synthesis what had been formed as antitheses in the slow movements of the First and Second Symphonies (the Adagio of the former ends with A-flat major over C major, that of the latter with E-major over C major). “The status of Woyrsch’s complete oeuvre in our age transcends the daily squabbles about opinions and styles. Nordic in its acerbity, akin to a Dürer woodcut in its religiosity, related to Bruckner in its ethos, it grows strongly and steadily in self-imposed stillness and seclusion. Its true moment will come when the value of stillness has surmounted the worthlessness of haste.” …

(translation: J. Bradford Robinson)


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210 x 297 mm






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