in: News & Features

February 5, 2018

Two Orchestras and One World

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It all started with Bach

At a gala at the Boston Public Library Monday night, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra declared “Leipzig Week” underway. Lectures and performances throughout the week mark a new partnership between the BSO and the Gewandhausochester Leipzig (GHO), a major German orchestra hailing from the city once home to J.S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, and others. The partnership came about as the result of a job offer. BSO music director Andris Nelsons was extended GHO’s Gewandhauskapellmeister role, and while multiple positions (sometimes on multiple continents) are realities for many of today’s first-class conductors, the two storied orchestras decided to make a virtue of sharing him.

Professor Christoph Wolff (whose remarks begin below) spoke of the many similarities between the history of the GHO and BSO, as did directors of both organizations, Leipzig’s cultural mayor, and Nelsons himself. A performance of two movements of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 by the Gewandhaus-Quartett and sometime-Boston pianist Kirill Gerstein, showed that the GHO is a good match for Boston’s best.  The City of Leipzig seems to be taking the collaboration seriously; its mayor is even making a visit this week. (There was no word on whether Marty Walsh would make a reciprocal visit during an next year’s “Boston Week” in Leipzig.)

The partnership, which also plans joint commissions and exchange opportunities in the future, will continue with lectures on Tuesday and Wednesday at the library, and performances the rest of the week at Symphony Hall and at the Boston Athenæum. (see BMInt’s Upcoming Events and our article HERE for details).      (by Lucas Phillips)

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Two Orchestras and One World—I hasten to explain that am not trying to suggest an analogy to a well-known airline alliance by the name of “One World,” or else I would have chosen “Star Alliance” as more fitting for two real star orchestras. Nevertheless, the transportation metaphor is not entirely out of place for today’s musicians who travel around the world, especially for those who hold more than one job and, on top of this, in different countries. As a music historian I am supposed to ask: when, where, and who may have started this? The answer leads us directly to the Gewandhaus and to none other than Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. After having served as Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig for six years, he received the offer of an appointment from the King of Prussia in 1841. Mendelssohn accepted the Berlin offer on the condition that he would be able to keep his Leipzig position. What made this possible was the new railway connection between Leipzig and Berlin that had opened in the same year. “It appears you are fond of traveling,” the king repeatedly said to Mendelssohn. Hence, the Leipzig Gewandhauskapellmeister and Berlin Generalmusikdirektor for Sacred Music traveled by steam train regularly between his jobs in two different countries, the kingdoms of Saxony and Prussia—a trip that took almost as long as jet travel between Leipzig and Boston now.

Second Leipzig Gewandhaus ca 1884

Leipzig and Boston represented, of course, very different worlds, musical and otherwise, at Mendelssohn’s time. But at least the name Boston meant something to him because at age 14 he had composed a three-act comic opera by the title “The Uncle from Boston” (Der Onkel aus Boston) on a rather silly libretto involving a turbulent comedy of errors and mistaken identities. The charming work influenced by Mozart, Rossini, and Weber was first performed in 1824 in the family’s private concert hall. But besides the name in the opera’s title one learns nothing about the place where half a century later the Boston Symphony Orchestra was founded, nothing about the fact that toward the middle of the 19th-century no other American city played a comparable role in laying a solid foundation for old-world classical music in the new world.

Since we celebrate this week the Alliance of the BSO and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andris Nelsons’ very own idea, my remarks are intended to provide some background regarding the two orchestras and their home cities as it inspired planning for this unique five-year project of Leipzig Weeks in Boston and Boston Weeks in Leipzig.

At first glance, the seaport city of Boston (established in 1630) and land-locked Leipzig (which just celebrated its millennium) seem to have nothing in common. Despite the reversal of chronological occurrences, however, Leipzig’s decisive role in bringing about the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 that enabled the reunification of Germany may evoke the memory of Boston’s crucial role in instigating the American Revolution of the 1770s—events, of course, that have nothing to do with each other; they nevertheless shed light on similar motives and spirits of people of different worlds and eras.

Then there is another aspect that directly and uniquely connects Leipzig and Boston. I refer to the remarkable synergies derived from the combined effects of commerce, trade, and economic prowess on the one hand, science, technology, and education on the other. Beginning in the 15th century thanks to its location at the intersection of age-old major European trade routes, the connections between various pulsating commercial sectors and a university in pursuit of learning and creating new knowledge made Leipzig the premier German city to experience, and benefit from such fruitful interaction. After all, this also contributed significantly to an emerging civic culture of the arts during the 18th century, notably in open competition with the royal court and its aristocratic satellites in the Saxon capital of Dresden. When in 1743 a public concert series under the name of “Grand Concert” (Großes Concert) was established by Leipzig business men in the ballroom of a restaurant they built on a tradition of academic music societies going back to the 17th century. One such collegium musicum, directed for 12 years by none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, actually folded into the Grand Concert led by a former student of Bach’s. In 1781 they relocated to a newly set up concert hall at the top floor of what used to be a library but was later occupied by clothmakers and from then on called Garment Hall (Gewandhaus), which became the musical institution’s permanent name.

Like that of no other American orchestra, the origin of the BSO shows remarkable similarities. A group of Bostonians, most of them businessmen, all former members of the “Pierian Sodality,” that is, a collegium musicum at Harvard College and eager to continue cultivating their musical interests, established in 1837 the Harvard Musical Association (still alive on Beacon Hill). Boston’s second oldest musical institution after the Handel & Haydn Society (founded in 1815 and still in existence as well), the HMA established the country’s first music library, supported John Sullivan Dwight’s Journal of Music (one of the most respected 19th-century American periodicals), and was responsible for building the Boston Music Hall in 1852 (later the first home of the BSO) as well as the New England Conservatory in 1853, the first music school in the country. Henry Lee Higginson, a member of the HMA from 1869, had long been thinking about a new professional orchestra since he deemed the HMA orchestra not good enough. So, in 1881, having accumulated considerable wealth in his brokerage and banking firm, he founded and paid for an orchestra of sufficient quality, as he put it,“to reach the playing of the great German orchestras.” The initial membership of the new BSO comprised a core group from the HMA orchestra, but more and more true professionals were hired, also from abroad, and quite a few actually came from Leipzig. The first conductors Georg Henschel and Wilhelm Gericke came from Germany, too, and with Arthur Nikisch, then one of the most distinguished musicians around, took the helm for almost five years, 1889-1893. Nikisch returned to Germany in order to resume the post of Gewandhauskapellmeister and, simultaneously, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic from 1895 until his death in 1922—following Mendelssohn’s footsteps but after 50 years with faster and more comfortable train service.

Nikisch had been advising Higginson on his plans for a new Music Hall, which were realized in 1900 by McKim, Mead, and White, with acoustic advice from Wallace Clement Sabine of Harvard. Symphony Hall, considered one of the world’s finest concert halls, benefited quite a bit from the second Gewandhaus of 1884 built by Martin Gropius, great-uncle of Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus and later Harvard’s School of Design. The second Gewandhaus building was destroyed in World War II and, therefore, the Gewandhaus musicians of today feel especially attracted to the sound and surroundings of Symphony Hall as a vivid reminder of the past. The new partnership will provide opportunities well beyond next Sunday’s concert in Symphony Hall where the Gewandhaus Quartet joins the BSO Chamber Players for the Mendelssohn Octet and other pieces.

This first Leipzig Week program focuses on the Mendelssohn period at the Gewandhaus, truly formative years for the orchestra and particularly important because of Mendelssohn’s friendship with Robert Schumann. This musical relationship actually redefined the role of Leipzig as a place which, besides Vienna, set the tone for the German-speaking lands in the world of classical music for a long time. The Mendelssohn–Schumann friendship is underscored by the performance of movements from the Piano Quintet today. This piece, dedicated to Clara Schumann, was to be premiered in a house concert at the Schumann home in December 1842. But Clara unexpectedly fell ill and could not play, so Mendelssohn stepped in and sight-read from manuscript the devilish piano part. At Mendelssohn’s suggestion Schumann made a few revisions, added a second trio to the third movement, and a month later, Clara participated at the Gewandhaus in the first public performance.

Boston Music Hall interior in the 1880s

The BSO program later this week with Bach–Mendelssohn–Schumann reflects something like a signature package characteristic of that period. The Bach concerto for three keyboards and strings became the first Bach work ever performed at the Gewandhaus and featured as soloists the 16-year old Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), the 18-year-old Louis Rakemann, and the 26-year old Mendelssohn who only two months earlier had begun his Leipzig tenure. The Bach Triple Concerto, which Mendelssohn re-performed a few years later with Franz Liszt and Ferdinand Hiller, inspired him to establish several series of “Historical Concerts” (Historische Concerte) with programs not only containing contemporary works but featuring in the spirit of Romantic historicism music of the past with compositions by Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and others. He did (and could) not anticipate that such an idea, revolutionary at the time, would spread like wildfire well beyond the Gewandhaus and eventually lead to a situation we have come to consider normal, namely that either the entire program or at least the bulk of it contains music not newly written. This week’s concert puts at the center a new orchestral piece by Sean Shepherd, to be followed later this year by a work from the composer Jörg Widmann. Hereby the Alliance signals the launch of an extended and unparalleled series of joint commissions that will give the new compositions a special boost on both sides of the Atlantic when presented in Boston, Leipzig, and on tour.

To conclude, the Gewandhaus Orchestra happened to be the major commissioning orchestra in 19th-century Europe and premiered such important works as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, Schubert’s Great C-Major Symphony, three of Schumann’s four symphonies, the Brahms Violin Concerto, and many more. The BSO took over this function and became a world leader for the 20th century with commissions like Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, works by Hindemith, Tippet, Respighi, and others. However, the BSO concentrated on commissioning works from American composers including Copland, Carter, Sessions, Bernstein, Cage, and Schuller. Yet, American classical music has not really made it in Germany, or generally in Europe, but the Alliance expects to make a difference in this regard. Moreover, it wants to tell audiences that orchestras like the Gewandhaus and the Boston Symphony are deeply involved in the process of making music history. They have done this separately over many generations and will begin to do so in partnership, especially since what used to be old and new worlds has become one world—and not just in music.

Christoph Wolff is Adams University Professor at Harvard University. Born and educated in Germany, he studied organ and historical keyboard instruments, musicology and art history at the Universities of Berlin, Erlangen, and Freiburg. His website is here.                                                                                                                  

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for publishing Christoph Wolff’s excellent paper describing the historical and future relationship between the Gewandhausorchester and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This evening’s celebration of the collaboration between the orchestras at the Boston Public Library was both inspiring and exciting. Here’s a toast to the next five years of collaboration, new compositions, student exchanges, and all that is to come!!

    Comment by Martha Reardon Bewick — February 6, 2018 at 1:08 am

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