Hebraism and Hellenism.
Born in 1889 to a family of middle-class Danish Jews,
Rudolph Simonsen exhibited superior musical abilities early. His parents didn't
stand in his way, exactly, but his father insisted that his son study things
other than music, so that he wouldn't wind up a "mere musician." Simonsen read
in several languages, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.
He studied piano with Agnes Adler and theory with Otto Mailing at the Copenhagen Conservatory (1907–09). He then entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music completing his piano studies with Teresa Carreño and Anders Rachlew.
He made his debut as a concert pianist in 1911 and a year later graduated with a law degree from the University of Copenhagen.
In 1916, he was appointed to the faculty of the Copenhagen Conservatory and in 1931 succeeded Carl Nielsen as head of that institution.
Simonsen has a rather small catalogue, and he didn't push his work. Indeed, most knew him as a teacher and as a general lecturer and writer on musical subjects. Prior to the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Simonsen fled with his family to neutral Sweden. A previous admirer of German culture, its debasement by the Nazis shook him. Indeed, the entire war, even from a relatively safe haven, broke his health and spirit, and he died in 1947 in Copenhagen.
If not a student work, the Overture in g, from 1910, certainly sounds like one. Its chief virtue is clarity, but the clarity exposes the triviality of its second-hand and second-rate late Romantic gestures. Calling the work clear is a bit like saying someone has a nice personality.
I'm not sure how deeply Simonsen observed Judaism, but he did have a large interest in its history and culture. He also read deeply classical philosophy, Spinoza, and Goethe. As I mentioned, he read Greek and Hebrew. Ten years after the Overture, the First Symphony appears, and what a difference! It has the distinction of being the first Danish symphony of explicitly Jewish inspiration. By this time, Simonsen has left the minor leagues of Scandinavian music and has decided to follow Carl Nielsen's example. Although it doesn't reach Nielsen's level, his music has leapt in interest. The symphony has two formal movements: "The Struggle Against Slavery" and "The Covenant." "The Covenant" runs about four times the length of "The Struggle" and in fact breaks into four large sections. The first movement discusses a bunch of short motives, all of which express effort, struggle, and stress, including a variant of what I call the "Jewish riff (rhythmic figure)" (G-Ab-C-B-Ab-G), which has long-term consequences throughout the symphony. "The Covenant" begins with a vision of peace, whose unmistakable ancestor is the slow movement of Nielsen's Third, the Sinfonia Espansiva. Here, as there, time is suspended, symbolized by long, long pedal points countered by fragmentary motives in slow, spare counterpoint. We seem to glimpse something unimaginably wonderful on distant horizons. To my ear, Bloch also gets introduced into the mix. The "Jewish riff" appears in a diatonic variant, as well as sporadically in its original form. Gradually, we arrive at a minor mode, perhaps a lament, an acknowledgment of suffering, which turns into a triumphant climax, a little reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Amazingly, Simonsen has confined the musical foundation around two main pedal points. This music doesn't really modulate for about ten minutes. A peaceful chorale follows, leading to another long build and then a fade. A brief pause, and we find ourselves in the midst of a vivacious contrapuntal, very Nielsen-like dance, then a second encounter with parts of the chorale before the dance kicks in again. The dance in turn runs into a final grand appearance of the chorale, and the symphony ends in a blaze.
Simonsen wrote his second symphony, "Hellas," a year later, inspired by a trip to Italy, where he came into contact with classical sites. Of course, he had read deeply in ancient Greek, as well as in Latin. The symphony contains three movements: "The Oresteia," "Loneliness Before the Temples," and "Pallas Athena." It has the distinction of winning a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympics, back when the Olympic Committee, following the ancient festival, awarded prizes to artists as well as jocks. Incidentally, no gold or silver medals in music were awarded that year. The symphony amounts to less of a travelogue and more of a meditation on the Idea of Classical Greece. "The Oresteia" takes off from Aeschylus's trilogy of murder and revenge, not as a tone poem, but as a study in atmosphere. It seems to take a contemporary view of Greek myth as a window on an essentially savage time, just as the Hofmannsthal-Strauss Elektra did decades before. Think of a soundtrack to a classier Road Warrior. Jens Cornelius's liner notes try to argue for it as a successor to Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, but succeeds only in drawing attention to the fact that it doesn't reach the level of either. "Loneliness Before the Temples" isn't particularly melancholy. Cornelius describes it as "a symbol of the ruins' own loneliness." To me, it sounds more "out of time" than lonely, remote yet still affecting, like classical Greek culture itself. "Pallas Athena" is a joyful march. Cornelius tries to relate it to the goddess of victory, but "victory won by high ethical means." Athena, however, was also the goddess of wisdom and arts. Here, I believe Simonsen has tried to capture the joy of ancient Greek culture -- again, with Nielsen's musical means.
The performances are good and, I think, faithful to the quality of the scores. They don't over-inflate the Overture, for example, or underestimate the symphonies. While you can't put the symphonies alongside the Nielsen cycle, they nevertheless have their own interest.
S.G.S. (August 2011)
Rudolph Hermann Simonsen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on April 30, 1889. After a career of composing and teaching music history and piano at the Royal Danish Conservatory, he became the successor to Carl Nielsen as the Conservatory’s principal. He had an evangelical zeal for spreading classical music among the people, which he attempted with lectures throughout the country and on the radio, in articles, and in books. Simonsen greatly admired German culture, so when the Nazi regime assumed power - which meant that Simonsen, who was a Jew, and his family had to flee to Sweden - he suffered a blow from sheer disillusionment. A blow, we are told, from which he never recovered after returning to his native Denmark, where he died in 1947 at age 58.
Between 1920 and 1925, Simonsen wrote four symphonies, which are subtitled “Zion,” “Hellas,” “Roma,” and “Denmark.” The first three are tributes to Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture and form a triptych. “Zion” and “Hellas,” three movements each, are included on the present disc with the Søderjyllands Symfoniorkester (providing concerts throughout Jutland, the part of Denmark attached to the continent). The 1910 Overture in G Minor is thrown in too. The unusually lucid liner notes (not by van den Hoogen, cpo’s regular contributor - and thankfully not in their damnable translations) mention Nielsen, but also Sibelius and Wagner as the main inspirations. Carl Nielsen is an obvious influence for the “Zion” Symphony (which he conducted at its premiere), with its movements “Against Slavery,” “The Promise,” and Allegro con brio.
My initial enthusiasm -“a second Bruckner!”- has cooled a little since first hearing these discs. The “Promise” movement, for example, grinds down to a pretty dark, dull vision of the future before a more pastoral mood lifts it from gloom at around the 10-minute mark. There is some tedium and a few very put-on Jewish-like colors that benefit from patience during the nearly 19 minutes of the movement. The following Allegro is a more engaging conclusion to the work that Arturo Toscanini once expressed interest in. (Can you imagine him in rehearsal? “Is-a not Moses; is-a not Ramses - is Allegro con brio!”)
The “Hellas” Symphony, a wonderfully curious aside, got Simonsen a bronze medal at the 1928 Olympic Games. Since neither a gold nor silver medalist, nor even a bronze medalist was named in the three composition categories, “Song,” “One Instrument,” and “Orchestra,” he could be said to have come in first. Until 1948, Art was part of the Olympics, with medals given in categories (and subcategories) of architecture, literature, painting/graphic art, sculpture, and music - so long as they were somehow related to the Olympics. Silver sounds about right: that portentous work doesn’t strike me as a gold medalist, either. The Symphony is motif-heavy (and the motifs are heavy) and solidly constructed. It even has touching moments, like the strings of the “Loneliness in front of the Temples” movement, which sweeps up with the feel of a Mahler Adagio and continues with a cool lament of the woodwinds and flutes. But the moments in which I remain fully engaged around the 10th time listening to the work continue to decrease, not increase. My sense of why I remain unconvinced by these two symphonies is a vague one, and therefore my description remains vague too. I only know that the performances cannot be faulted.
The G-Minor Overture is a wholly enticing 14 minutes of grandeur - probably the reason for my Bruckner analogy in the first place - melodic and sweeping bombast of the finest order and nothing to be vague about, only enthusiastic.
|Married 1915 in Berlin Käthe LÖWENTHAL|
|Married 1945 in Gentofte/ Dänemark Ebba Soelver HECKSCHER|
Pf Conc., 1915;
Sym. no.1 ‘Zion’, 1920;
Sym. no.2 ‘Hellas’, 1921;
Sym. no.3 ‘Roma’, 1923;
Sym. no.4 ‘Danmark’, 1925
Kyrie and Gloria, chorus, orch, 1914;
Vinter, S, chorus, orch, 1926
Pf Qt, 1908;
2 str qts, 1923, 1925;
Cl Qnt., 1929
4 sapphiske sange, 1v, pf, 1927