Hausegger’s Magnificent “Barbarossa”

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HAUSEGGER: Barbarossa. 3 Hymnen an die Nacht / Hans Christoph Begemann, bar; Norrköping Symphony Orchestra; Antony Hermus, cond / CPO 777666-2

Siegmund von Hausegger (1872-1948), largely neglected today, was an Austrian composer whose instrumental works are imbued with the musical spirit of Wagner. This came naturally to him since his father, Friedrich, was one of the first to recognize Wagner’s genius and impressed it clearly on his young son.

The huge symphonic poem presented here, Barbarossa, was largely the result of political maneuvering. In 1897 the Austrian prime minister, Casimir Badenyi, instituted a “Language Equality Act” in which he tried to put Germany and Czechoslovakia on equal footing. The result of this law punished German-speaking people, trying to force everyone to speak both languages. This was, of course, by no means easy for the German-speaking Austrians, whereas many Czechs already spoke German. Demonstrations broke out across the country. Hausegger, then living in Graz, considered the most German city in the country, saw the agitators and was very disturbed. His reaction to what he considered an injustice led him to consider the old emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and the glory days of his reign. There was a legend that Barbarossa and his followers slept on stone tables inside Kyffhäuser Mountain and that, when his beard grew round the table three times, he and his knights would awake to save the German people in their hour of need. Hausegger depicted this legend in three movements: The Distress of The People, The Magic Mountain and The Awakening. The first movement’s slow introduction symbolizes the German landscape, followed by an allegro section representing the woes of the people. Amidst the strife, a vision of the emperor appears. But the time is not yet right and the movement ends in a mood of desperation. The Magic Mountain depicts the legend of a peasant boy lost in the mists around the Kyffhäuser. Wandering into the caves, he comes across on the sleeping emperor. After a radiant preview of what Germany might become, the mists return and the music dissolves into pessimism. The Awakening opens with an outcry of frustration; the distress of the people is at its most intense. Yet, we hear distant trumpet calls growing nearer till, at last, the mountain splits open and Barbarossa emerges, ready to do battle. He and his knights drive out the oppressors; at last, the people are free. The work ends with a reprise of the introduction to the first movement, now transformed into a hymn of victory and thanksgiving. Hausegger wrote Barbarossa between December 1898 and September 1899, and it became his most popular work, almost a signature piece for him.

Antony Hermus, a good, solid modern conductor whose work I’ve liked in the past, conducts this work with tremendous energy and good clarity of sound. To digress for a moment, I’d like to point out that I believe that this modern style of conducting, by and large, reflects the strong influence of such conductors as Erich Kleiber, Rodziński, Toscanini, Böhm and Reiner, perhaps also Ormandy and Leibowitz to a lesser degree, who forced their public to accept performances without the distortions, large and small, imposed on tempos and phrasing by Furtwängler, Celibidache, Bernstein, André Previn and other such conductors who were dominant in their era and a bit later. To some extent, this approach is detrimental at times; certainly, the most imaginative of these conductors—Rodziński, Toscanini, Böhm and Leibowitz—did indeed introduce moments of rubato and rallentando into their performances which added to the interest of an individual interpretation. The problem always was a matter of taste rather than the modifications themselves. In our time, only the great Michael Gielen and Klaus Tennstedt were almost always able to modify the musical line in such a way that was not only interesting but musically acceptable; too many others, trying to be novel, went too far. Perhaps the most rigid of the modern school (though he is now quite aged himself and on the back end of his career) is David Zinman, whose performances are unfailingly correct in tempo and phrasing but too often metronomic and clinical. I mention this not to come down on poor Hermus, who I’m sure was trained in this school; at least he, like some others, leads consistently exciting performances; but I mention it because it is a tendency of our modern musical world that has become a bit rigid in thinking.

OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review.

The music is evidently informed by the aesthetic of Wagner without sounding like a carbon copy. In this respect, Hausegger avoided the trap that Humperdinck, for all his good ideas, fell into. Like Debussy, who was working from an entirely different mindset, Hausegger absorbed Wagner into his own style. The first movement begins with a horn call and orchestral chords that suggest the German master, but quickly morph into something more tonal in a Straussian way (another composer who absorbed Wagner without imitating him outright), with a surprisingly lovely rising string motif that includes a brief break by the solo oboe and two bars by a solo violin before returning to the Strauss world. Considering the date of Barbarossa, I’m wondering if the two composers knew each other or at least each others’ work; it certainly sounds it. Nonetheless, the central, more dramatic episodes of the first movement depart from both Wagner and Strauss, giving us rhythmically incisive music with strong string tremolos over which wind and brass figures play, followed by punching chords from lower brass. Then comes a very fine development section, with the themes altered and embellished upon. One could easily play this first movement all by itself as a tone poem. There’s a magical passage at about 11:25 where the volume decreases and Hausegger uses scoring similar to a chamber orchestra before rebuilding the tempo and volume for the final section, with rhythmically-driven violas providing another interesting rhythm underneath.

In the second movement, we begin with what sounds like a Scherzo, very softly at the outset with a strange undercurrent of apprehension. This quickly builds into a swirling mélange of sound, somehow combining the worlds of Berlioz and Mahler, then quietude as the peasant boy comes across the sleeping emperor and his retinue. A radiant theme ensues as Hausegger depicts the mental image of a great future Germany, which of course never happened in reality thanks to the Weimar and Nazi eras. The third movement continues the melancholy vein of the last part of the second, but then moves into a more positive and semi-martial mood as Barbarossa awakens, leading his knights to victory over the oppressors. Lots of festive if heavy-handed Teutonic music is heard. So much for German learning Czech!

Since I was deprived the ability to download liner notes for this CD, I didn’t have a clue as to what the Three Hymns of the Night are all about, but thanks to Emily Ezust’s LiederNet Archive (http://www.lieder.net/lieder/index.html)—which I urge every reader of this review to go to and donate a few dollars to help her with her ongoing work to keep this site up, which is an invaluable research tool for all those who love French chanson and German lieder—I was able to find the German lyrics by Gottfried Keller, which I then translated into English using Google Translate. This is an entirely different world from the symphonic poem just heard; it is gentle, exquisitely-scored lieder with orchestra in the style of of Schumann, Wolf or later (post-1910) Strauss. Here are the words in Google English:

Stille der Nacht

Welcome, clear summer night,
which lies on verdant corridors!
Hail me, golden stars,
playing in space while playing!

The Urgebirge around me
is silent, like my night prayer;
Far behind him I hear the sea
in the spirit and how the surf goes.

I hear a flute sound,
that brings me the air from the west
but already up in the east
the day quietly penetrates.

I think, where else in the world
Now a human child may die –
and whether perhaps the entry holds
the much-longed-for hero child.

But like in the dark earth valley
an unfathomable silence rests,
I feel so easy
and how the world is so quiet and good.

The last quiet pain and ridicule
disappears for the heart’s sake;
it is as if the old god were doing
finally told me his name.

Unruhe der Nacht

Now I have been unfaithful
the sun and its appearance;
the night, the night shall be lady
be of my heart now!

She is of dark beauty,
has pale norse face,
and a star crown
her dark head surrounds.

Today she is so worried
restless and full of pain;
she probably thinks of her youth
that must be a memory!

It blows through all the valleys
a moan, so mournful and bang;
like tears flow
the sources of the mountain slope.

The black spruce trees whiz
and weigh each other
and over the wild heath
lost lights fly.

The sky brings a serenade
the dull roaring sea,
and above me is a thunderstorm
with sounding games therefore.

It may want to numb
the night the age-old pain?
And even older sins
thinks her repentant heart?

I want to chat with her,
how to talk to the darling –
in vain, in her grief
she does not see and hear me!

I would like to ask you
and I’m always disturbed,
whether she’s before my birth
where my name belongs?

She is an old sibyl
and hardly knows himself;
she and death and all of us
are dreams of a dream.

I want to go to sleep,
the morning wind already draws –
her weeping willows at the churchyard,
my slumber song agrees with me!

Turn, you little star,
Earth! where I live,
that my eye ‘, far from the sun,
lift yourself upwards!

Holy is the star time,
opens all the tombs;
radiant immortality
walks through the air.

Does the sun like it so far?
other zones,
Here I feel connected
with the All ‘and One!

High desire, in the dark valley,
unseen,
through the majestic hall
to go along breathing!

Swing, o green round,
in the dawn!
Divergent backwards, my mouth sings
cheering prayers!

The songs are exquisitely sung by baritone Hans Christoph Begemann, who has a voice of not only intrinsic beauty but of liquid tone and perfectly-controlled dynamics. As a pupil of the great Swiss tenor Ernst Häfliger, however, I would have expected no less. And it is here, moreso than in Barbarossa, that I felt Hermus pressed the tempo a bit too much and could have benefited from some relaxation of pacing, but the performances do capture the atmosphere of the delicately-shaded orchestration.

Overall, then, a fascinating disc presenting the music of an unfortunately-neglected composer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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