Felix Woyrsch: Symphony No. 1 in Cm, op 52

performed by the Hamburg Symphony under Miguel A. Gómez-Martinez


Last week’s symphony moved a bit out of the realm of that deep rabbit hole of associations among Mahler and Rott and Bruckner and Brahms that all started with Beethoven. It was still in keeping with the progression though, with Weingartner having some relationship and professional interaction with Mahler (quite a lot actually), but we move even farther away this week.
Felix Woyrsch was born the same year as Mahler was, but he lived a lot longer. I saw a passing mention of him being a friend of Brahms somewhere online (Wikipedia, I believe), but nothing elsewhere about that. It’s there that the rest of the association between the long string of pieces we’ve been on for six weeks ends. That’s not to say that there’s nothing similar about them, but these people’s lives, at least as far as my research has shown, don’t intersect at any other points.
Also, he is German, not Austrian. We’ve had a long string of Austrian composers, but we’re back to Germany here.

This symphony (or perhaps Woyrsch’s works in general) has been referred to as Brahmsian
or post-Brahms, inasmuch as the piece is in a very late romantic style. There’s also surprisingly little online about this guy. I even did my best to look through his German Wikipedia page, but that got old. 
The first thing I noticed aside from Woyrsch sharing his year of birth with Mahler is that his first symphony was published around the same year that Mahler was working on his eighth, although that work wasn’t actually premiered until 1910. I suppose Mahler isn’t the greatest barometer for what’s going on or ‘mainstream’ in the classical music world, but his eighth was his greatest success during his lifetime. So it seems like he was a bit late to the party for symphonies. Granted, I know nothing of the rest of his oeuvre, if he was just a late bloomer, or composed a ton of other pieces before this one (it’s opus number 52!) or spent decades finicking over it like Brahms did with his first. I don’t know. It’s just worth mentioning that he was almost fifty before he finished his first symphony.
In any case, I guess I should confess something: this piece is primarily on our list for one reason, and it’s not a musical one. In this nine-part series, as I hope you have noticed, there have been many many intertwined connections and tendrils between composers and movements and people and themes and ideas, and that’s really what fascinates me about music. It was no less than thrilling to kind of… discover this long thread of works by composers that I could, in one way or another, string together by some means or other and show a really cool part of history. With one exception (Bruckner 4 before Rott 1) they are also all in chronological order. I needed one more piece to fill the gap between last week’s and next week’s, so I started scouring the interwebs for symphonies by German or Austrian composers written between 1900 and 1910 or so. And this guy’s name came up, and I was intrigued. It seems, however, that not many people have heard of this guy, and there’s not even a lot of information about him on Wikipedia. All of this was interesting, and I found it curious until I started listening to the piece. 
I’ll start by saying it’s kind of the opposite of last week’s piece in a lot of ways. While Woyrsch is at least unknown to me and the handful of professionals I asked, he may be better known elsewhere, but I haven’t seen that, so in my mind, he’s kind of the opposite of the other Felix (Weingartner), who had a wonderful conducting career. He may not have been known as much for his compositions, but he was certainly well known.
Also, Weingartner’s first is instantly pleasant and catchy, as negative a term as that may be in some ways. Its melodies pick you right up and whisk you along for just about the entire piece. Even the third movement, which I wasn’t terribly fond of, still has its charms. The entire thing makes a good impression at almost every turn, and while it may not be brooding, overdramatically emotional Romantic music, it is certainly expressive and pleasant and memorable.
Woyrsch’s first, on the other hand, is different.

It’s rather dark throughout, but perhaps the greatest thing I notice about the piece is that the focus, or the…. Most memorable thing about the piece is not melodies. The opening is dramatic and confident and charismatic, and that stuck with me, but there isn’t really much of a melody in the whole thing that really makes me gasp or stop what I’m doing. It’s mostly in harmonies and rhythms where this piece makes its mark. There are places, many really, that feel close to greatness, or a breath away from a great idea, but they still somehow just miss the mark. 

The first movement is sufficiently action-packed, and even exciting in some places. It has its roaring moments of Romantic energy and drama, with contrasting passages of quiet and suspense, like a little section of solos starting with a (bass?) clarinet (I forget), flute, and horn a few minutes in. This first movement isn’t too terribly long, and I would generally describe it as… crunchy. It has moments of heavy, punctuated rhythms that are satisfyingly powerful, especially toward the end of the movement, and by all accounts, it should be more enjoyable than I find it to be. I don’t hate it, but there’s just nothing terribly memorable about it. The rhythms are more gripping than the melodies are captivating. But it kind of got my hopes up for the subsequent movements. 
The second and third movements ran together for me at first, to be honest, for my first few listens if I wasn’t really paying attention. They’re almost…. kind of both slow movements, but they’re the shining gems of this symphony, in my opinion. They contain what I find to be the most charming, moving moments, those passages that capture my interest. 
The second movement has some beautiful string passages, and builds to an exciting climax before cooling back down to yet more beautiful writing for strings. There are some trumpet calls over these strings in a few more dramatic moments, and it reminds me very much of some of the imagery from Bruckner’s ‘Romantic’ symphony… Knights and castles and the lot. It’s the more peaceful, brighter of the two slow movements, and it ends gracefully with flute and plucked strings. 
The third is perhaps even more beautiful. It’s almost funereal, but not quite marchy. Perhaps ‘dirge’ is the right word. It sounds positively tragic and sorrowful, which is welcomed at this point, something expressive rather than textbook and generic. Each of these first three movements is only around ten minutes or so. 
Woodwinds enter a bit after strings and they brighten the mood a bit. Perhaps that’s due to a key change. It builds slowly to a contrapuntal, dramatic and passionate climax before jumping back to a very intricate busy passage with strings. The latter part of the movement feels more impassioned and… Persistent. It too slowly and eerily does away under a low rumble. Sadly it is the shortest movement, and doesn’t end on a sad note. 

 

The fourth opens triumphantly, perhaps regally, with a trumpet. It again sounds gothic and chivalric. This is the longest movement of the symphony, but it doesn’t need to be, and my thoughts about this movement summarize my feelings toward the whole symphony. I listened to this final movement once more while walking the dog earlier, and I didn’t hate it, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed it. There are undoubtedly parts of it that are truly gorgeous, but even those are just glimpses. It almost feels like he gets in his own way here. 
Now, let me be completely honest. I’m entirely willing to concede that my lack of understanding or appreciation for this piece could be that I’m just a terrible listener and don’t hear the underlying structure or what the dear composer is doing in this movement (or the symphony), but I don’t get its logic. I feel if this movement had been ten minutes instead of fifteen, and some of the extra material had been hacked out and we’d been given a(n even more) concise ten minute movement with a few clear subjects and some tension or contrast and solid logic, I’d have been thrilled, but I feel like some of the themes or ideas here don’t play enough of a role to have around, and get in the way of what I feel are wonderfully-written other themes that could have been given more room to shine. But that’s just me. 
My original few drafts for this piece were very negative, but I will say the more I listened to it, the more I appreciated its moments and understood it. I still feel, though, that if it’d been a 35 minute symphony instead of 45 and condensed some of the material into a real tightly-knit little (big-sounding) Romantic symphony, it would make more sense in my head. A condensed, slightly more edited version where the shining moments I love take center stage… I will say too that in these few months that this playlist of nine pieces we’re almost done doing, not once did I look forward to listening to this one. That’s just…. an opinion, which is surprising considering I usually love pieces like this.

It feels like it should be grand, like it has all the ingredients and the pieces of what makes a great symphony. But somehow… in this setting, all the ingredients of a cake have been mixed together and we haven’t gotten a cake. All the checkboxes have been filled, all the components are there from what I love about other symphonies, but maybe it’s just lacking… personality? I don’t know. 
I’m always inclined to think that when I don’t like a piece it’s because I don’t understand it or appreciate it enough, but even Schoenberg’s piano concerto and Webern’s op. 21 (and Babbitt’s first piano concerto!), as challenging as they were to listen to at first, intrigued me from the very beginning. The first of those three I have really come to adore, and I’m warming up even more to the others. But everything in this symphony is familiar. There’s nothing earth shatteringly different like there would be in a Mahler symphony: a chorus or a klezmer band or a folk-tune funeral march or anything; it’s all pretty standard, but I just can’t get there with it. At all. (The following paragraph is mostly uninformed speculation, so read it with a grain of salt, or skip to the next, and more important paragraph below it…. right….)

Could it be that the piece is simply too pedantic? It seems the composer claimed Brahms as an influence to the composer, and friend, as mentioned earlier. I can definitely hear the similarities to Brahms. But if Woyrsch made  conscious effort to ‘write like Brahms’ like Brahms had written in the context of Beethoven, could that have negatively influenced Woyrsch’s work? Could an attempt to write something ‘like that’ override any personality or individuality a piece would potentially have? This may be especially problematic for young composers, but Woyrsch wasn’t young in 1907. He was 47 years old. By that time, Mahler had written most of his symphonies. Perhaps he was less experienced, but it’s already his 52nd published work. I don’t know. And again, I haven’t explored his other works. Perhaps what’s to be gained from this is to see potential, that perhaps once he finds a voice, or a unique way of expressing himself, his pieces will come to life. I haven’t checked out his other works. Among them are six more symphonies. Perhaps he found his voice in those, honed his style into something that worked better for him. There are so many moments in this piece that feel….. so close. 
(… here)
That aside, what I think is more interesting (seeing as the above is mostly speculation; welcome back) is that perhaps the system IS right. I’ve wondered before about great lost works of composers, or lost composers, and what we’re missing out on and if the ‘peer review’ system of the successful greats judging the up-and-comings and all that is true to the greatness of the works. I question that, as I did with Brahms’ judgments of Rott, and I still wonder what else we’ve missed. Who is the next Mahler? And that’s partly why I included this piece before I really even listened to it. It fit, sort of… but after listening to it more than a few times, I have to say… it’s the first that makes me think… Maybe we’re on track. Maybe those symphonies that got brushed under the rug or fell through the floorboards belong there. That’s an evil thing to say, but I’ve spent the past few months here and there trying to like this piece, and I will probably not give it another listen for a very long time. There are certainly those who would grant it a much greater status than I have, but for now, I am not chomping at the bit to see anyone anywhere perform Felix Woyrsch’s first symphony (although I’d probably still go in hopes a live performance would convert me). 

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