Niemann Conducts Mayer’s Symphonies




MAYER: Symphonies Nos. 6 & 3 / Bremerhaven Philharmonic Orch.; Marc Niemann, cond / Hänssler Classic HC22016

This very welcome CD presents two of Emilie Mayer’s symphonies. Since my first discovery of this remarkable and outstanding composer two years ago, a CPO release of her first two symphonies, she has been on my radar for anything and everything she ever wrote, and so far I’ve not been disappointed.

As luck would have it, this release fills in a gap in my collection. I have her Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7, but neither the third nor the sixth, so I was absolutely thrilled to be able to hear them.

Although the liner notes indicate that the third symphony (1850) was based on Haydn’s “Military” Symphony, No. 100, it is much closer in ideas, rhythm, and harmony to Beethoven, yet she takes it a step further than that composer’s music based on Haydn. More to the point, her musical concepts are entirely her own; despite using Haydn and Beethoven as models, she was very much her own person. Little bits of the theme are distributed among sections of the orchestra, starting in the trumpets, then moving to the violins and finally to the celli and basses. She continues this clever variation on hocket style into the “bridge” of the first theme, even after she makes some unexpected dips into the minor. This is a full-blooded symphony, built along traditional lines but with a great deal of imagination; although the first movement is not developed in quite as complex a manner as Brahms was to do, it is clearly good music. Interestingly, she applied the same bounce-around-the-orchestra style to the lyrical second movement, a very passionate, almost masculine-sounding piece.  By and large, however, the sprightly menuetto which starts in the minor and then moves to major, is the most tightly-knit movement so far, but the finale Mayer pulled some neat tricks, like starting it out as an “Adagio” before swinging into a brisk “Allegro vivace” with some light cymbal work in the background.

Mayer’s Sixth Symphony was written only three years later; unlike Beethoven, she worked fairly quickly. This one dispenses completely with Classical models; it is clearly based on the more advanced of Beethoven’s symphonies. One would say his Third, since the second movement is a “Marcia funèbre,” but that’s not the case in the first movement, where a slow introduction very quickly begins to morph into something livelier and more powerful. I also think a but of late Schubert crept into this one as well. The “punchy” rhythms and swirling string figures she used in the first movement remind one of both composers (but, interestingly, not of Schumann). Near the end of the first movement, Mayer gets into some fast key changes back and forth to raise tension as the music drives forward to the finish.

Mayer’s funeral march isn’t quite as simple a theme as Beethoven’s or Chopin’s, but it is effective. At the halfway mark in this movement, she does borrow one particular motif from the Beethoven “Eroica,” possibly as a small form of homage. Once again, her scherzo is quirky and uses a modified hocket form in the orchestration. The last movement is a quick-moving allegro that features French horns playing a motif against soft violin section tremolos and, again, that “jumpy” sort of rhythm that was apparently one of her trademark sounds (undoubtedly the influence of her first teacher, Carl Loewe, whose songs are full of such devices).

Emilie Mayer was not as transcendent a genius as some of her models, particularly Beethoven, but her music was scrupulously well written and solidly grounded in addition to being highly original in form. She didn’t need to beg any favors from the male musical establishment in her time except one, and that was that only her chamber works were published, not her excellent symphonies. Mayer clearly deserves to be remembered as well as heard more often, and if you don’t have any of her other symphony recordings, this is a good place to start.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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