Egon Wellesz: Symphony no. 4, ‘Sinfonia Austriaca’

performed by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gottfried Rabl

Egon Joseph Wellesz was born on October 21, 1885 to Hungarian Christians of Jewish ancestry. He grew up Protestant, but later converted to Catholicism. He studied under both Arnold Schoenberg, father of the Second Viennese School, and Guido Adler, musicologist, student of Bruckner, and scholar of the First Viennese School.

Around the time of the 1938 Anschluss, he moved to England. For an outstanding presentation of Wellesz and his work, check out this page on Forgotten Music. In short, he was a fascinatingly influential person, who, for as unfamiliar as his name might be to many, moved in social circles that comprised some outstandingly famous names; his work spans a variety of styles and ideas, and today’s symphony, his fourth is from 1953, sometime after his exile and relocation to England. The subtitle ‘Austriaca’ refers to Austria. I’ve gotten feedback that says this symphony is very English sounding, but his second carried the ‘English’ subtitle, and maybe we’ll get around to that at a later date.

Unlike Robert Simpson from Tuesday, I didn’t set out looking for Wellesz or this work, at least not that I recall. I have lists on notebook paper or sticky notes or my calendar that collectively cover the wall behind me as I’m writing, of composers to listen to, generations of composers, Hungarian or Polish or French or Czech or English composers of symphonies or string quartets or piano work, and Wellesz was somehow not on a big list of symphonies, so when I came across him earlier in the year, having heard his name, but none of his work, it was the fourth symphony. And it is wonderful.

This symphony, to me, sounds like bittersweet nostalgia. It’s important to know about Wellesz’s exile, his prison time, and having made it to England, where he apparently did quite well for himself. While the work sounds at times very English, it clearly calls to mind Austrian sounds, symphonic writing, and even the landscape, but it’s not all pastoral beauty and pretty mountains. There are light and shadow, some tumult, and even a bit of tragedy, but also moments of absolutely breathtaking beauty, and an overall unity to the fourth symphony.

It is presented in four movements with a total playing time (in Rabl’s recording) of about 27 minutes. The first movement is marked Maestoso, and it is indeed broad, rich, Romantic, dramatic-sounding from the get-go. There are moments of Brucknerian bigness and breadth, and I can’t imagine this not resonating with just about any audience. There’s nothing too challenging about this work from just over half a century ago: it’s not atonal or cacophonous, rather Wagnerian, richly expressive if not a little wandering at times. There are some moments that seem to stick out from the overall structure of the first movement, an uncharacteristic bounce here or there, but it’s a compelling very very late-Romantic sounding, yet identifiably modern sound; the first movement is the longest, and presents a well-crafted, compelling introduction, a magical, touching but perhaps troubled landscape that the rest of the work explores.

The second movement is the shortest, marked allegro vivace, the scherzo, which is buoyant and springy. It’s playful but has an unrelenting drive just below its surface. There are some delightfully crisp, crunchy moments in this movement, and in contrast with the light nature of the scherzo, the trio sounds almost melancholy; it’s heavy and slightly darker, but still with compelling spirit, and interesting to have the trio be the heavy element of the scherzo. It’s wonderful, and the brass writing in this symphony is proving to be very nice.

The third and fourth movements are the parts that really get me about this work, the most memorable, to me. The third is marked adagio, and is about as long as the first movement, but plumbs the depths of the more troubled expression only hinted at in the opening, perhaps homesickness, longing. It’s somber and solemn, but never torpid. The writing is magical, truly beautiful, something clearly rooted in the traditional Romantic sounds of Austro-German symphonic writing, with a heartwarming (or -breaking) tenderness, some supremely heartfelt brief passages of overwhelming beauty. It has and a clear relationship to the work overall. Sumptuous, engaging, brilliant writing, breathtaking strings, memories of home?

The finale is marked Allegro moderato, and begins brightly with snare drum and horns. It’s not heavy but there’s a seriousness to it. After the introductory passage, there’s a triumphant brass moment, followed by one of the most beautiful, memorable, shimmeringly gorgeous moments of this work, horns and strings, stunning writing, and expertly played. Satisfyingly, the end of the final movement quotes the opening gesture of the symphony, a moment of ambiguous tragedy, uniting the four movements of this work into a taut symphonic package, something that might be one of the most approachable of Wellesz’s output, a work that should easily resonate with anyone familiar with the vocabulary of the Romantic era.

Don’t go thinking that anything written after either of the first World Wars is hopelessly modern and errant; I find great joy in some extremely modern work, but take this symphony from a student of Schoenberg himself, studying alongside Berg and Webern; this work from nearly half a century after the turn of the century may call Webern’s passacaglia to mind in some of its textures or atmosphere, but it’s fascinating to see where those people took their music. Wellesz wrote a total of nine symphonies and as many string quartets, with much more chamber work, work for solo instruments, or stage works, or choral works, but have a listen at the fourth symphony and tell me it’s not instantly approachable and enjoyable, of high artistic merit. You’re welcome.

Surprisingly, November is already almost behind us, and I’m looking forward to December, but stay tuned for just a bit more new and very unrelated stuff; I’ve enjoyed this series of new folks, and want to do it again soon.

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