By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Bruckner’s Divided Vienna, performed on Dec 1, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Asked what he did for a living by an old lady with whom he found himself traveling, Karl Goldmark (1830-1915) is said to have answered, “I am a composer-I am the composer of The Queen of Sheba.” “Ah yes,” the lady responded, “and does the post pay well?”
Apocryphal it may be, but the incident underlines the fate of a certain kind of composer. There are composers we celebrate for an entire oeuvre; and then there are those whose names have come down to posterity linked to just a single title. One such was Anton Rubinstein, long known at one time only for his Melody in F (and even that has largely disappeared from current view); another was Henry Litolff, whose Scherzo, from the Concerto symphonique No. 3, enjoyed warhorse status half a century ago among romantic pianists.
The Hungarian-born, Vienna-based Goldmark’s choice of The Queen of Sheba as self-evident calling-card may seem to put him in the sympathy-evoking category of the “one-work composer.” His case, however, is a little more complicated. There may be few music-lovers or even musicians today who can claim acquaintance with the whole range of his production. On the other hand, the category must be expanded in this instance from one work to three-though perhaps never all three at the same time. During the last forty years of his life, the Goldmark work of note was indeed that first of his six operas, premiered in Vienna in 1875. By the middle of the twentieth century, Sheba had been passed in popular esteem by Rustic Wedding, composed in 1877. A vividly atmospheric symphonic poem, it was one of those slightly off-the-beaten charmers that formed a major segment of Sir Thomas Beecham’s repertoire.
By now, with its other great champion Leonard Bernstein no longer among us, Rustic Wedding in turn has lapsed into relative obscurity. And so for practical purposes we are left with the piece that has, through all these vagaries, maintained at least a degree of currency thanks to the advocacy of such star soloists as Ruggiero Ricci and the late Nathan Milstein: the A-minor Violin Concerto, also dating from 1877, and sometimes referred to as “No. 1” though all trace of its putative successor seems to have vanished.
If he is to be relegated to “one-work composer” status, the Violin Concerto is as deserving of being that work as either The Queen of Sheba or Rustic Wedding. Indeed, it may be fairly described as combining Goldmark’s best qualities in the highest concentration. A skilled orchestrator, thanks in part to his experience of playing and also scoring other composers’ music during years of working as a violinist in Vienna’s theater orchestras, he achieved in the concerto a finely effective balance between solo and tutti, often reinforcing the pyrotechnics of the violin part by backing it with unobtrusive but firm woodwind lines in longer note-values. This technique is used with particular flair in the colorful finale, whose rhythms at once recall the “polacca” style of the last movement in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and foreshadow the bolero meter of the finale in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.
If skill in orchestration comes partly from training and experience, the gift for lyrical melody is essentially inborn. Goldmark possessed it in abundance, and it comes to the fore in the warmly expressive lines of the central Andante movement. Along with those two qualities, and reinforced by the enthusiasm for Wagner that marked Goldmark’s critical writings (and had led him in 1872 to take a leading role in the formation of the Vienna Wagner Society), was a taste for expanding the scope of his themes beyond merely lyrical proportions. Thus, in the first movement, after a brief orchestral exordium, the solo violin’s first entry spins a rapturous line, marked by turns “cantabile,” “dolce,” and “espressivo,” suggestive of Wagnerian “endless melody,” before dashing off on a flight of more conventional bravura.
The soloist’s subordinate theme is even more expansive in its melodic reach. And there is a nice touch at the recapitulation, where, after a vigorous orchestral fugato based on the spikier opening theme of the concerto, the violin enters after a short silence with a demonstration that she can play at that game too-but soon returns to her original expressive cantilena as if to say: “But this is what I am really about.” Clearly, that is also what Goldmark was about, and it is what has kept the appeal of this tuneful concerto fresh for more than a century.