Exploring Wellesz, Part 3: The Symphonies

Wellesz cover

WELLESZ: Symphonies Nos. 1-9 / Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Gottfried Rabl, cond / CPO 777 1832, also available for free streaming on YouTube

Unlike his String Quartets, which span almost the whole of Wellesz’ creative life, he didn’t write his first symphony until 1945; after doing the first four in fairly rapid order, he then spent another 18 years or so writing the remaining five.

The reader may be surprised—I certainly was—to discover that his first two symphonies and the fourth, dedicated to Austria, are not only quite tonal but rather placid and uninteresting. One online critic has likened several movements in these symphonies to film music of the period. Perhaps, in the wake of the end of World War II, Wellesz was feeling a bit nostalgic for the old days and perhaps wanted to write something that appealed to a general audience rather than be complex, interesting music, but whatever the case, these are the symphonies I am not going to review here.

The third symphony vacillates between a strong tonal bias and more advanced harmonies, but he managed to keep things relatively simple. One can indeed hear the atonal moving string figures played against the low brass and winds in the first movement, but nothing moves so quickly that the average listener is left behind, There’s even a brass chorale near the end of the movement that sounds for all the world like pre-1910 music. Nonetheless, this is a much better-written symphony than the Second or the Fourth. In the slow movement Wellesz walked a tightrope between tonality and atonality once again, combining his forces in such a manner that one could hear the music either way if one chose. Smack in the middle of the movement we suddenly hear a late-Romantic theme, unapologetically tonal, but still interesting music.

The third movement is a quick-paced, scurrying “Scherzo,” again primarily tonal but skirting the edges of spikier harmony—and at the 1:42 mark, another lovely melody, thought it doesn’t stick around very long. In the last movement, we even get some passages that sound like late Mahler, though later on he veers in the direction of Schoenberg. Wellesz obviously had the entire history of music up to his time in his head and could draw on as much or as little of it as he liked at any given moment. The ending, however, is just a bit formulaic-sounding, though tidy.

Perhaps as an antidote to the ultra-Romantic fourth symphony, the Fifth is much spikier and more advanced in terms of both the harmony and the themes, which flit by one’s ears at a fairly quick clip. Yet he also changes moods and tempi at will, not as mercurial as Langaard but clearly a composer who feels restless staying in one musical frame of mind for long stretches of time. This movement, paradoxically, ends quietly, and the following “Scherzo” is fast and modern-sounding but, again, not forbidding.

The slow movement, on the other hand, is a rather complex sort of dirge in which the underlying harmonies grind slowly but mercilessly against the bitonal upper lines with occasional outbursts by the strings and brass (the French horns). The last movement almost has a scherzo-like tempo and drive, but is set in more ominous harmonies and orchestral colors (again with French horn outbursts, and quite a bit of tympani). There are also several pauses in this movement, shifts downward and upward in tempo, and again sections where the music seems to grate its way forward.

In the Sixth Symphony, Wellesz is very much in the modern mode, churning out grumbling atonal figures in the low brass and basses to start with, then moving into a thorny musical argument in the strings. A bit later on, he also breaks up the rhythm in irregular patterns and ties the orchestra into knots of complex interlocking figures, which are then developed. This is not music for light or casual listening, but suddenly, at about the 6:30 mark, he relents in his attack and gives us a surprisingly lyrical theme which slowly but surely rises to a menacing climax to continue the attack.

The second movement is a quirky scherzo, fleet but not at all jolly. In the middle we get a lower theme, quasi-Romantic, played by the strings, particularly featuring solo violin and cello, before returning to the scherzo. The third and last movement opens as an “Adagio,” featuring an aching, heart-rending theme in bitonal harmony played by the strings. About 2:55 in, the tempo slowly increases as strings and winds begin playing a rotating, grinding theme underpinned by the tuba. Then it’s back to slower, more mysterious music, now somewhat less ominous, for the finale.

The Seventh Symphony, subtitled “Contra Torrentum,” dates from 1967-68 and is similar to the Sixth, but uses different rhythms and thematic material. By this time Wellesz was clearly committed to post-Romantic musical idioms, ad also by this time we note that he has developed his own personal way of using the orchestra. He apparently had little interest in the “new” avant-garde of the late 1950s/early ‘60s such as electronic music or the heavy and consistent use of the 12-tone method. Although he greatly admired Schoenberg and the breakthroughs he pioneered, he, like many composers, saw the dodecaphonic school as a musical dead end, not a liberating force as it was initially. The second-movement “Scherzo” is here even more complex and less scherzo-like than in the Sixth Symphony. By now, too, Wellesz’ symphonies had taken on the aspect of a more modern, bitonal version of Mahler—listen particularly to the last movement—or some of the early symphonies of Leif Segerstam. The one weakness in this work is the very ending, which sounds a bit bombastic and formulaic.

His Eighth Symphony (1970), opens with a theme that is both lyrical and grinding, using quite congested harmonies and very knotty thematic material that becomes somewhat fragmented as it goes along. We then move into a quicker pace as the music continues its knotty progression. This almost sounds like some of the modern German music of his time, i.e. Zimmermann. Indeed, the consistently abstract nature of this work marks a break for Wellesz from any attempts at lyricism or popular appeal. The same is true for the Ninth Symphony (1970-71), which is in fact his densest and most compact work in this genre. Although he lived until 1974, Wellesz had to stop composing in 1972 due to a stroke which debilitated him. Here, however, occasional lyricism creeps in, but such moments are more sharply curtailed than in the past as he almost impatiently moves on to denser, quicker figures.

Interestingly, Wellesz’ move towards denser, tauter structures in his last two symphonies also marked a decline in emotional communication. With such closely-argued music he was either unable or unwilling to attempt to lure the listener in with much in the way of softer interludes, which puts these symphonies on a similar plane with the late works of Havergal Brian. Yet the music, forbidding as it is, is still interesting listening because he was such an intelligent composer and thus had something to offer even in his most abstract moments, and the second-movement scherzo, with its darker, more angst-filled sound, is one such.

As a whole, then, these symphonies Nos. 3 and 5-9 are an important part of Wellesz’ output and should not be ignored.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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