Felix Draeseke’s String Music

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DRAESEKE: String Quartet No. 3. Scene for Violin & Piano. Suite for 2 Violins / Constanze Quartet; Emeline Pierre, Esther Gutiérrez Reondo, vln; Irina Frisardi, pno / CPO 555 350-2

Who the heck is/was Felix Draeseke? I’ll bet that most of you never even knew he existed—I sure didn’t. Draeseke (1835-1913) was considered, in the late 19th century, to be as important a composer of chamber music as Brahms. Hans Merian, after hearing a performance of his String Quartet No. 2, wrote that

Draeseke is, along with Brahms, one of the most impor­tant composers of chamber music. He is a thorough­ly unique individual, reserved, severe, even almost somewhat standoffish on a first impression, but [with] a gen­uine artist’s disposition that absorbs itself with its whole person in its own works and even becomes engrossed in them with a certain pensive tenacity. One has to hear him repeatedly and occupy oneself more thoroughly with him in order to appreciate him in full.

And such is the impression I got from this marvelous CD, listed as String Quartets Vol. 2 although only one quartet is present on the album. The music closer resembles Czech music of the period than German with its unusual minor harmonies, and unlike Brahms, Draeseke had a way of sliding in and out of the basic tonality within a phrase and even within a single bar. Two years younger than Brahms, he outlived him by 16 years, yet even by the time he died his star had fallen in favor of the younger, more modern German composers of his day. But as I’ve always said, you have to judge older music not by how much it is like the more modern style that followed it but by how modern it sounded in its own time, and in this respect Draeseke clearly qualifies as an unjustly neglected composer.

Those who have followed my blog know that one of the major complaints I have with older composers—not all of them, of course, but most of them—is that they wasted (in my view) a lot of time in their compositions creating and developing tunes that people could hum on their way out of the concert. Brahms only did this to a point, however—he was too serious and fastidious a composer to really waste a lot of time on melodies for the sake of melodies—and Draeseke did this even less, and this is probably why his music fell out of favor. What Merian so clearly and aptly described as his “somewhat standoffish” musical personality was undoubtedly based on the fact that Draeseke didn’t waste time milking melodies, not even in the slow movements where they are clearly more prolonged. Moreover, these melodic lines are always, and I mean always, underpinned by that moving harmonic base, which doesn’t quite leave the listener in the lurch but also doesn’t coddle or pacify his or her need for something “safe” and unchanging un the lower lines.

Interestingly, these performances by members of the Constanze Quartet differ radically from those of most historically-informed groups nowadays. For one thing, they play their sustained notes with a light, fast vibrato, not straight tone, and for another, they use a surprisingly broad portamento in their phrasing. And I hate to tell all of you folks this, but this is what late 19th-century string quartets probably sounded like in reality, so what you get here is genuine HIP practice.

The liner notes add this about Draeseke:

Even a stub­born ear ailment that made him hard of hearing dur­ing his early years and almost completely deaf at the end of his life did not dampen the young Draeseke’s resolve to become a musician. In 1852, when he was not even seventeen years old, he became acquainted with the entire spectrum of German music life: shortly after he had begun receiving instruction from conser­vative academics like Moritz Hauptmann, Ernst Fried­rich Richter, and Julius Rietz at the Leipzig Conserva­tory, he witnessed a performance of Lohengrin under Franz Liszt during a Pentecost visit to Weimar. Draeseke absorbed this first contact with Richard Wagner as his artistic “Pentecost experience.” He became an impas­sioned Wagnerian, which soon brought him into conflict with conservatory authorities and eventually led him to neglect his studies. In 1855 he left the conservatory with what on the whole was a devastating final report, from which, pars pro toto, Richter’s evaluation may be quot­ed: “Mr. Draeseke was diligent only by turns and as a consequence of a peculiar view of art could not benefit from a solid comprehensive education.”

The infatuation with Wagner clearly explains the constantly shifting harmonic base, but all in all Draeseke’s music is much more rigorously constructed and not as amorphic as Wagner’s. One might say that be combined the aesthetics of Schumann, Smetana and Wagner in his own personal approach to composing.

And if you think the string quartet is unorthodox, wait until you hear the opening of the violin-piano duet with its odd syncopated rhythms and a melody line that feeds off the syncopation. Throughout the piece, Draeseke continually jumps in and out of different keys, even at moments when they seem to be superfluous to the musical progression…but it was all part of his personal style. The Duo for 2 Violins starts out in a more conventional mode, but by the second movement Draeseke is undermining your ability to follow the harmony, it seems, every two beats. In the last movement, he subverts your expectations by suddenly slowing the tempo down drastically near the end rather than in the middle, but then returns to the rapid tempo for the coda, which ends suddenly in the middle of nowhere.

Clearly interesting music by a composer who deserves to be much better known, and the performances are excellent.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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