Symphony No. 2 in C-minor, Op. 134 “Håkon Jarl” (1874)
- Andante “Thora”
- Intermezzo: Allegretto moderato “In Olin’s Grove”
- Finale: Allegro/Più animato/Allegro molto “Olaf’s Victory”
German pianist and composer Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) is recognized as a bastion of the ideals of a “classicistic romanticism,” the transitional style of (among others) Mendelssohn and Schumann. He is also one of the most fascinating characters in 19th Century music, one whose style as a composer and pianist was a link between the 18th Century and the 20th. He is the only pianist born when Beethoven was still alive to make a recording, and his piano rolls recorded in 1905 at age 80 are musicological treasures.
His style of playing, learned from his father who taught an approach to the piano that was virtually identical to the way that Beethoven had been taught as a child, was anachronistic even as he began studying in the 1820s. The style is a complete revelation – no one, even the other 19th Century pianists who recorded (and there are lots of them) – sound anything like him. His style was archaic even then, so it’s like having a link to the early 19th century, and when he plays Mozart and Haydn you are hearing an approach that might not have been strange to the composers themselves! This roll is fascinating because it has the score scrolling and you can see that he is improvising all over the place. But there are lots of rolls, and in the ones where he plays Schumann you can think about the fact that he knew Schumann and played for him. Reinecke was proud of his traditionalism, and famously said “I have no objection to being called an epigone” (an imitator of a great artist or artistic tradition).
An active performer and conductor in his youth, Reinecke earned appointment as the Danish court pianist and, on the recommendation of Franz Liszt, was invited to Paris by Hector Berlioz for a series of concert performances. Later appointments in Cologne, where he befriended Johannes Brahms, and as music director in Barmen and Breslau (now Wrocław), led to professor of piano and composition at Leipzig Conservatory where his students ranged from Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and) to Edvard Grieg, Leoš Janáček, and scores more. His compositions included operas, comic operas, three symphonies, and numerous trios, sonatas and concertos for piano, strings, and winds.
As a composer Reinecke is best remembered today for a work for flute; the “Undine” Sonata is frequently heard on flute recitals. His Harp Concerto and Flute Concerto get some performances and his cadenzas to Mozart Concertos, including-not surprisingly, the flute and harp Concerto-are standard. His First and Third Piano Concertos seem to be re-entering the repertoire, and there have been occasional performances of them in recent seasons, and several other chamber works and the “Toy” Symphony are heard these days with some frequency. Although his day never really arrived, one could say today that he is a composer whose music is better known than his name. MusicaNova Orchestra’s performance of his Symphony No. 2 is the American premiere of the work.
What to listen for
Reinecke’s music is something of an enigma. It is superficially conservative, but in almost every work are moments of extraordinary harmonic imagination, completely logical and within the rules, but using sounds and voicings that no other composer ever thought of. He seemed to be working from different premises than other composers, and this gives his music a unique and gorgeous sonority. Nowhere is this clearer than the almost subterranean sounding opening to this Symphony. It is beautiful, startling, and utterly unique. The Symphony itself is based on a work by the Danish poet Oehlenschläger, based on the life of the Viking (Danish) lord and Norwegian noble Håkon Jarl (c. 937-995 CE), who allied with Harald Bluetooth – namesake of the modern communications technology – to overthrow his father’s murderer and become ruler or Norway in 970 CE.
The poem was popular in Denmark and had been translated into German and was well known there as well, so the reference would have been easily understood by the audiences at the first performances. The first movement, according to Reinecke, was intended to portray the character of Håkon Jarl and the impression he made on those around him. Reinecke obviously chose to portray him as a heroic but menacing character, in line with his presentation by Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger. The second movement is called “Thora” and depicts the graceful character of the heroine of the poem. Although she is a character in Norse mythology, there is no evidence that she ever really existed, and perhaps the lingering melancholy of this movement is a reference to that. The third movement “In Olin’s grove” begins with a transformed but immediately recognizable version of the chords that opened the first movement. The depiction here is of a pagan sacrifice, showing the pagan nature of Håkon, who vigorously rejected Christianity in favor of the old Norse gods. (Håkon battled Bluetooth’s efforts to Christianize Norway and was the last non-Christian Norwegian ruler.)
The last movement is called “Olaf’s Victory” and depicts the defeat of Håkon at the hands of Olaf Tryggvason. Although depicted here in heroic terms, the actual victory was hardly a battle at all. Håkon’s propensity for taking women of all social classes and marital status as temporary concubines, and his general awful personality, had made him extremely unpopular and he was killed by his slave before the battle even began. Olaf was welcomed as a ruler by almost everyone, so perhaps “Olaf’s Welcome” would have been a more accurate title. Nevertheless the music is stirring and beautiful, bringing this remarkable symphony to a satisfying close.