Austrian composer Robert Fuchs was one of the last of the great romantic composers and his life spanned the period from the death of Felix Mendelssohn in 1847 to the composition of Irving Berlin's Broadway song 'Blue Skies' in 1927. Fuchs was a great friend of Johannes Brahms but was completely overshadowed by the genius of his friend and, although much of his music has survived to the present day, particularly his string serenades and chamber music, he is still primarily remembered as the teacher of more famous composers such as George Enescu, Leo Fall, Erich Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Franz Schmidt, Franz Schrecker, Jean Sibelius, Hugo Wolf and Alexander von Zemlinsky.
Robert Fuchs was born in Frauental an der Laßnitz (Styria, Austria) in 1847, the youngest of thirteen children, and studied at the Vienna Conservatory with Felix Otto Dessoff and Joseph Hellmesberger amongst others. He eventually secured a teaching position there and was appointed Professor of music theory in 1875, a position he held until 1912. He was a prolific composer and was highly regarded during his lifetime but apparently did little to promote his own music, preferring a quiet life in Vienna. He had many admirers, Brahms amongst the most positive, and this from a composer who rarely praised others: ‘Fuchs is a sterling musician; everything is so polished and skillful, so charmingly invented! One is invariably delighted!’ Famous conductors of the day, including Arthur Nikisch, Felix Weingartner and Hans Richter, also championed his orchestral works but his chamber music was considered his finest work. Robert Fuchs died in Vienna in 1927 at the age of eighty.
Fuchs composed in most genres producing a varied and impressive worklist which includes three symphonies, operas, choral works, a wealth of chamber music and works for piano, organ and harp. Most of his chamber music was for strings including six sonatas for violin and piano, one sonata for viola and piano, and two sonatas for cello and piano, alongside string duos, trios and quartets. More importantly for double bassists are his Op.96 and 97, both for double bass and piano. Three Pieces for double bass and piano Op.96 was dedicated to Professor Anton Mayr (who wrote his 'Memories of Robert Fuchs' [Erinnerungen an Robert Fuchs] in 1934) and was first published in 1913 in Vienna by Adolf Robitschek. His next opus number featured his second and final work for the instrument, a Sonata for double bass and piano which was composed in March and April 1913 and was published the same year, also in Vienna by Robitschek. Why two works for double bass when the composer apparently had no interest before or after these works for the instrument? Frantisek Simandl (1840-1912) had taught and played in Vienna for many years, as had his equally illustrious students and colleagues, so it is unlikely that Fuchs had no knowledge of the thriving double bass community in and around Vienna at this time. Did Fuchs decide that the double bass also needed a few works for its meagre repertoire and, having already composed solo works for violin, viola and cello, it was finally the turn of the double bass? No matter, these are works of great quality which deserve to be much better known. Composed in 1912/13, just after his retirement the previous year, may also have been a deciding factor as he was 'tidying up' his list of compositions. Robert Fuchs's Sonata for double bass and piano Op.97 is in three contrasting movements and at around fifteen minutes would fit easily into any recital programme.
Anke Zimmermann writes: "...Neoclassical in conception, with Romantic vernacular, in places obviously influenced by Johannes Brahms (who was his friend and patron) and often possessing zeal in performing reminiscent of Schubert, the sonata can be called a work of the twentieth century only because of when it was composed." The influence of Brahms and Mendelssohn were never far the Fuchs musical vocabulary and his style has been described as "distinctive in a low-key way...derivative of his predecessors Schubert and Brahms, and sometimes strongly hints at the music of his pupil Mahler." (Manfred Muessauer)
The music is understated and never histrionic, but also beautifully written, although it doesn't test the technical prowess of the soloist as Adolf Misek's sonatas did a decade before. My instinct tells me that the piece was written with a composer's knowledge and experience of the double bass rather than with the input of a fine player. There are a few simple harmonics but nothing to challenge either player which may be its saving grace or downfall, although the accompaniment is far more virtuosic than the solo part. The double bass does venture into low thumb position, but for most of the time tends to sit happily in its orchestral register and is written for an instrument in orchestral tuning. The first movement (Allegro moderato molto) is in the bright and optimistic key of B flat major with a simple and effective first theme and its syncopated rhythm acts as a unifying figure through the entire movement. Fuchs treats the double bass as he would a solo cello, the lyricism and serious intent is there from the start, and here is a composer who knows the sonorous and cantabile qualities of the double bass. The second movement (Allegro scherzando) is in the relative minor key, in ternary form, and the music is gently playful and rhythmic. The opening music contrasts an orchestral pizzicato accompaniment against music of a more lyrical and dramatic nature. The soloist dominates the trio section with a sustained and beautiful lyrical melody before the return of the opening section, ending gently and successfully as the music dies away to a tonic chord of G minor, strangely but in second inversion. The last movement (Allegro giusto) returns to the key of B flat major and is more dramatic and energetic, but still full of great character and life. The rhythmic energy propels it along until a brief and lyrical episode interrupts the flow but quickly the music returns to its original buoyant character and the movement is propelled to the end with a strong and definite perfect cadence, bringing the music to a sudden and successful conclusion. Strangely there is no slow movement in the sonata but the three movements still work well together and there is sufficient style and contrasts to maintain interest for performers and audiences alike. Although composed in 1913, when tonality was certainly being challenged on many fronts and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris a few months after Fuchs had completed his two works for double bass, it really is from a different century and the composer was obviously happy to plough the romantic furrow that he had followed throughout his composing career, leaving the younger generation to tear down the traditions of the past. Having said that, this is still a work of great quality and beauty, and here is a composer who certainly knew his craft, but why has it not become part of the standard repertoire? My hypothesis is that both the tessitura of the work and the use of orchestral tuning have worked against it. Bassists who have slaved away to develop a confident solo technique throughout the range of the instrument want, on the whole, to demonstrate these skills hence the popularity still of Bottesini and Koussevitsky in recitals today. Fuchs has written a work which is both sophisticated and serious, but which isn't technically too demanding and could be too easy for the greatest players but too musically challenging for the less advanced bassists. At 102 years old what can we do to resurrect this sonata for the 21st-century? part by transposing some passages into a higher register. This would open out some of the textures and timbres which would contrast even more against the bright and breezy piano accompaniment. An even more radical solution would be to transpose the piano part a tone higher so that solo tuning can be used, possibly also changing the octaves of some solo passages? Would this be too radical a step? I don't think so... We already use solo tuning, orchestral tuning, Viennese tuning, have basses tuned in 5ths, four string basses, five string basses, different types of strings, different tunings for 'A' and so much more. I'm certain that Robert Fuchs would have been quite relaxed about all these issues and would be delighted that after a century the music is still here, although only hanging on by a thread. My task this summer is to produce a piano accompaniment for solo tuning which will be available free of charge as a download to any bassist who is interested, or available as printed sheets for a small fee plus postage costs. Interested? I rather like this piece and hope this short article whets the appetite of many enterprising and open-minded bassists. David Heyes [3 June 2015]
Since publication of the article I was very pleased to hear from Chun-Shiang Chou that both works for double bass were composed for Karl Schreinzer(1884-1960). From 1900-1904 Schreizer studied at the Vienna Conservatoire with Frantisek Simandl and from 1913-1949 was a member of the Wiener Staatsopernorchester and.Wiener Philharmoniker, and from 1923 also Solo-Kontrabassist with the orchestra. From 1938-1950 Karl Schreinzer was Professor of Double Bass at the Vienna Music Academy. This information was included in Alfred Planyavsky's Geschichte des Kontrabasses (Tutzing 1984.).
|Category||Double Bass & Piano|
|Difficulty level||8, Advanced|
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