performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Christopher Hogwood, or below by the Copenhagen Collegium Musicum under Michael Schønwandt (but I vastly prefer Hogwood)
Niels Wilhelm Gade was born on 22 February, 1817 in Copenhagen, to an instrument maker. He was a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra, who premiered a concert overture of his in 1841. His first symphony was refused performance, so, naturally, he sent it to one Felix Mendelssohn, who appreciated it and performed it in 1843 in Leipzig, to good reception, which ultimately prompted Gade’s move to Leipzig, where he taught at the conservatory and was assistant conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. He became a friend of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and conducted the premiere of the former’s violin concerto. He also served for a short time as chief conductor of the Gewandhaus after Mendelssohn’s death but returned to Copenhagen less than a year later because of war, and it seems he saw greater success in his homeland after his time in Germany.
Of his eight symphonies, we’ll today be discussing the sixth, in G minor. It’s in four movements, in a neatly compact 25-ish minutes.
The first movement, marked andantino then allegro molto vivace, begins thusly, with a slow, almost solemn introduction, but comes crisply life, spinning up to a lively, driving melody that instantly, to me, brings Mendelssohn to mind. There’s an innate musical-ness to Gade’s writing: the music moves together, comes to life and has a compelling momentum, no matter what they key or mood. There’s an urgency to the music, and it interests me that this symphony comes two decades before Brahms’ first symphony first graced concertgoers’ ears, and a decade after Mendelssohn’s death. The crunch and drive of this first movement seems maybe slightly more heavy-handed than Mendelssohn, and it’s a compact movement, but easy to follow, and a compelling start.
The second movement, marked andante sostenuto, is an obvious contrast to the first movement. It’s broad, idyllic and lyrical, and gives us a glimpse into how the composer treats a smaller, more delicate theme, something without the advantage of fireworks and timpani bangs to propel it. The orchestration may seem plain, but I appreciate the appearance of various instruments, maybe not quite as solos, but this added color is nice, and might even be more obvious in another recording. It’s warm and tender, and maybe not the most compelling thing ever written, but it’s sure pretty.
The scherzo might be the gem of this symphony. It’s light but also crunchy, spirited and vibrant, with passages that call to mind the first movement. There are calls from brass, shimmering strings, flutters from flutes, a good-natured, easily approachable scherzo, and the shortest movement of the work.
Finally, the finale, the longest movement of the symphony. It, too, begins quietly, with two markings, andante quasi allegretto followed by allegro vivace e animato, and it does turn rather lively, and we’re back to our minor key, sounding somewhat like the first movement, but in a more… a slightly wilder place. There’s more personality to this movement, a certain magic that suddenly appeared and swept us off our feet, contrasted with a softer, more lyrical passage, but finishes, appropriately, with the most powerful, heart-poundingly intense moment of the symphony to give a commanding close to a compact but rich symphony.
I’m not trying to make any argument that this symphony is one of the greatest works ever written. It is not. Those places are filled by works from Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, and maybe Mendelssohn himself. That’s not to say that this isn’t a wonderfully-crafted, very enjoyable work. It is full of energy, spirit, from the pen of a very talented composer. It is a shame that this idea of “the repertoire”, as if it’s some holy collection of sacred writings, by nature excludes works that don’t come from a small handful of composers. But we have the luxury of digital audio and YouTube and iTunes nowadays, so get to listening to some new stuff.
If at the very worst, the world gained nothing from Gade’s symphonies but eight more (some might argue substandard) Mendelssohn-esque symphonies, that’s still not a bad thing! And I wouldn’t say they’re substandard or (entirely) derivative anyway, but it does seem that Mendelssohn kept the spotlight long after his departure while Gade seems not to have been able to do so.
I do want to reiterate, though, how enjoyable it’s been to listen to all of Gade’s symphonies in preparation for this series. But I have a few other points I want to make.
One is my ‘Beethoven’s ninth symphony was, at least temporarily, bad for classical music history’ argument. While it was obviously a monumental work that literally changed the course of musical history, it was touch and go there for a while. Think of the people who were still writing symphonies in the wake of Beethoven’s choral. Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s associate, wrote one (the last of his eight). Berlioz busted out his Symphonie Fantastique. There were obviously Mendelssohn and Schumann, but them aside, up until 1850, there were only a handful of people still composing symphonies: the one lone symphony from Wagner in C, four from Onslow, a handful from Spohr, a few from Berwald, and one from Johannes Verhulst.
But Gade was in there too. And I admire that; he was a fantastic composer, but maybe not so unique or outstanding as to outshine (or even just co-shine) with some of his contemporaries, much less what came later. But to scratch that itch you may have for the adolescent period of the Romantic era, when it was just developing and becoming what it would ultimately grow to be, Gade hits the spot.
An interesting question to ask with the earlier symphonies would be if his natural, uninfluenced voice sounded as much like Mendelssohn as it does here, or if some small spark of similarity and common thought was nurtured through their friendship and his time in Leipzig. There are five symphonies before this one, among other works, and maybe in the future, we’ll spend some time digging around to find out.
We’re starting with Gade, though, because not only was he a talented composer, but an influential teacher, and we’ll see that many of the people in this month’s Danish series have connections to him, so stay tuned for what’s coming up. Hav en god dag!