The Twilight of Romanticism
Letter to unidentified recipient
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) was one of the titans of late Romanticism. Yale is a major center for Mahler scholars, because the Beinecke Library holds several important manuscripts. Mahler also appears in the Music Library’s holdings. In this letter, not all of which can be readily deciphered, Mahler states that Fuchs will be unable to substitute for him as a conductor. This may refer either of the brothers Johann Nepomuk Fuchs (1842–1899) or Robert Fuchs (1847–1927), both of whom were conductors. Robert was one of Mahler’s teachers.
Our letter belonged to the German music critic Paul Bekker (1882–1937). Bekker’s papers, which are held at Yale, consist chiefly of his own voluminous correspondence, but he was also a collector who owned letters by a number of renowned figures in music history, including Berlioz, Brahms, and Mahler.
We are grateful to Oliver Schowalter-Hay for his assistance with this letter.
New York Philharmonic
conducted by Gustav Mahler
Woolsey Hall, Yale University
February 23, 1910
Today Mahler’s place among the great composers is unquestioned, but during his lifetime he was esteemed more highly for his conducting. In his final years, he moved to the United States and served as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic did not always remain at its home base in Carnegie Hall, and in February 1910, it undertook a tour of New England that encompassed concerts in New Haven, Springfield, Providence, and Boston, described in Mary H. Wagner’s Gustav Mahler and the New York Philharmonic Tour America (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 2006).
The New Haven concert took place on February 23 in Yale’s Woolsey Hall. The program included Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, selections from Bach’s Orchestral Suites in B Minor and D Major (arranged by Mahler), Grieg’s Piano Concerto (featuring pianist Olga Samaroff), and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. Mahler conducted the Bach from the keyboard; he played a piano modified to sound something like a harpsichord, and his part was doubled on the organ by Harry Benjamin Jepson, a professor at the Yale School of Music.
Woolsey Hall, which is named after Theodore Woolsey (President of Yale from 1846 to 1871), was only nine years old at the time; it opened in 1901, on the occasion of the University’s bicentenary. More than a century later, it is still the home of the Yale Philharmonia, the Yale Symphony, and other groups.
Sketch for Arabella
In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, many observers considered Richard Strauss (1864–1949) the most innovative and influential composer of the age, and the heir to Wagner’s “Music of the Future.” With daring tone poems such as Don Juan, and shocking operas such as Salomé and Elektra, Strauss seemed to court controversy. But when a younger generation of composers—Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, and others—developed a variety of modernist techniques, Strauss chose not to follow their lead, instead continuing to compose in his highly chromatic but indisputably tonal late-Romantic style. By the end of his long life, the formerly radical Strauss had come to seem like a relic of a bygone era, but the extraordinary masterpieces of his old age, such as the Oboe Concerto and the Vier letze Lieder, written after World War II, showed that Romanticism still had much to offer.
This manuscript, dated January 1, 1930, is a sketch for a scene from Act I of Strauss’s opera Arabella.
Photograph by E. Mishkin
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was universally admired as one of the greatest pianists of his age, but his compositions have been more controversial. For many listeners, his soaring melodies and grand passions made him a beloved composer, a rightful heir to the legacy of Tchaikovsky. But more than a few critics regarded those very qualities as vices rather than virtues; instead of beauty, passion, and well-deserved popularity, they perceived nothing but stubbornly regressive sentimentality and pandering. These views did little to deter the concert audiences and record buyers who loved Rachmaninoff, but it rendered him persona non grata in more intellectual circles. But as modernism has itself passed into history, the modernist critique has faded, and Rachmaninoff is now widely appreciated for what he was, rather than condemned for his failure to be something he was not.
Dagmar de Corval Rybner-Barclay
August 30, 1926
This letter is striking because Rachmaninoff states that he hasn’t touched the piano for eight months, and at the same time he also reports that he finished composing a new piano concerto (his fourth) a few days ago. If true, it is an interesting commentary on his method of composition. To be sure, many composers work without the assistance of a keyboard, but it is perhaps surprising that a famous pianist, writing a piano concerto, would do so.
The recipient, Dagmar de Corval Rybner-Barclay (1890-1965), was a Swiss-born pianist and composer of Danish heritage. She taught at Curtis Institute and Columbia University.
For more information on the Opochinsky Collection, see the caption for the Weber letter in this exhibit.
“Die Heimkehr” [“Sehnsucht II”]
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Anton Webern (1883–1945), and Alban Berg (1885–1935) all began as late-Romantic composers, before turning to modernism. In their understanding of music history, each step along the path from intensely chromatic tonality, to free atonality, and then to serialism, was a logical and inevitable development.
The Gilmore Music Library has a manuscript of six of Berg’s early songs; they are believed to date from 1901–1904, when he was a neophyte composer in his mid- to late teens. (Unlike prodigies such as Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, Berg was a late bloomer.)
The song displayed here features a text by one of the greatest poets from a much earlier phase of Romanticism: Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). Heine’s poetry was set to music by countless other composers, including Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Most of these were many decades before Berg, but not all of them. The Gilmore Music Library even has a setting of Heine’s “Ich grolle nicht” (a poem famously set by Schumann) by none other than Charles Ives, who was a Yale undergraduate at the time.
Prelude in D Major
Vladimir Horowitz (1903–1989) was the most celebrated pianist of the 20th century. For much of his career, his only public ventures into the realm of composition were his extraordinary arrangements of Carmen and The Stars and Stripes Forever, and these were widely (and not inaccurately) perceived as vehicles for his unique virtuosity. As a teenager in Russia, Horowitz had aspired to be a composer as well as a pianist, but amidst the turbulence of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war, he decided that a career as a performer offered him more opportunities. Horowitz’s papers include manuscripts of many youthful compositions, including this prelude.
CD of music from the film
Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic
(Deutsche Grammophon, 1985)
A 1985 documentary film about Vladimir Horowitz was entitled Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic. (One of the producers was Horowitz’s manager, Peter Gelb, who is now the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera.) This CD features music performed in the film.
Thanks to the popularity of the film and CD, the phrase “the Last Romantic” became firmly attached to Horowitz. It appeared in countless articles, including many of the obituary notices that appeared after his death in 1989.