(b. Zdunska Wola, Poland, 11 October 1888; d. nr. Pasewalk, Pomerania, 11 May 1928)
Symphony for Full Orchestra, op. 16 (1927)
Emil Bohnke is one of the great might-have-beens of Germany's moderate avantgarde. At the time of his early death in an automobile accident his works were being performed both in Germany and abroad and had entered the repertoires of such sterling musicians as the pianists Edwin Fischer, Artur Schnabel, and Rudolf Serkin and violinists Georg Kulenkampff, Max Rostal, and Carl Flesch. Flesch even went so far as to include Bohnke's Ciacona for unaccompanied violin, op. 15, no. 2, in his standard violin method (1923, rev. 1929).
After completing his training in Leipzig and Berlin Bohnke taught for two years at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, played viola in the famous Adolf Busch Quartet (from 1919), headed the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra (1923-6), succeeded Oscar Fried as principal conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra (1926), and led a special masterclass in viola at the Berlin Musikhochschule. At the same time he brought forth a body of sixteen instrumental compositions ranging from the late-romantic First String Quartet op. 1 (1913) to the brooding, deeply contemplative personal idiom of his Violin Concerto op. 11 (1920) and his Piano Concerto op. 14. Being situated between the avantgarde currents of his esteemed colleague Schoenberg and the traditionalism of a Max von Schillings or a Paul Graener, his music soon fell into oblivion and had disappeared from the German concert stage by the early Thirties, doubtless partly because of the emigration of many of his former champions and his marriage to a Jewess. His Symphony op. 16, generally considered his masterpiece, was premièred posthumously on 9 November 1928 by the Orchestra of the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden conducted by Erich Kleiber. The program booklet contained an introductory essay by the distinguished musicologist and later Harvard professor Hugo Leichtentritt which, with its detailed analysis and passionate advocacy, deserves to be quoted here in full:
The first movement is filled with tragic pathos, dark and ponderous in sound and character. Even a quick glance at the score reveals its underlying mood in its expression marks: "brooding" near the opening or, later, "heavy," "energetically and broadly arched, broad and flowing, passionately agitated and strictly in time." It departs from the standard symphonic design mainly by declining, in the development section, to juxtapose and contrast sharply differing moods, as in a primary and secondary theme. Instead, the movement actually consists entirely of transformations of a single basic mood and dispenses with a contrasting lyrical secondary theme. It thereby attains an overriding unity of expression characterized by a rich and varied treatment of the orchestra and a riveting and imaginative symphonic transformation of the basic motifs. These motifs rarely congeal into broadlyconceived unified themes in the traditional sense, thereby again lending the movement an aura of violence, turbulence, and excitement. This is music rooted in the pathos of declamatory speech.
The basses open with a monologue – "brooding," hesitantly expanding, frequently interrupted by rests - beneath a soft tremolo shimmering in the uppermost register of the strings. The mood is one of agitated questioning interspersed with touches of timid sorrowfulness and gloomy contemplation [Music Example 1]. We find ourselves in psychic regions bordering closely on many of Bruckner's moods.
The urgent question in the basses is answered by the violas and clarinets with yet another, more broadly stated question. We hear a brief upsurge to an instant of loudly eruptive sound, after which the entire monologue is repeated in a different key. An essential new motivic element is now introduced by the horns in a rhythm resembling a death march [Music Example 2]. This is followed by a symphonic development of motifs 1 and 2, which, in a few instants, engulfs the entire orchestra in a mighty culmination of sound. The prevailing key of C minor now proceeds with ponderous gait, "energetically and broadly arched."
The further progress of the movement cannot be captured in a brief explication. It makes no use of the familiar sonata-allegro design. One might refer to it as a symphonic fantasy that adds a number of closely related secondary motifs to the two aforementioned principal motifs, knitting them tightly together and unfolding in a timbral argument filled with extremes of passion. Forte, fortissimo, and sforzato predominate to such an extant that there is not a single expanse of piano to be heard in the entire movement until just before the end, when the turbulence suddenly subsides and the pent-up energy comes to an exhausted standstill.
Indeed, the true climax and focal point of the movement occurs precisely in this final section, where for thirty-five bars a pedal point on the C-major chord gradually drags the entire orchestra down into the depths, gradually breaking the force of the sound and introducing the aforementioned piano passage to extraordinary effect. Here, in outline, is the opening of this truly inspired passage, with its strange harmonic effects in the chromatically descending eighth-notes of the inner voices [Music Example 3].
The tragic sound of this piano episode, with its death-march rhythms, yields to a new crescendo erupting into maximum fortississimo. This eight-bar interruption of the pedal point then reverts to pianissimo and completely dissolves into a barely audible conclusion. Finally it gives way to the rigid C-minor death-march rhythms of trumpets, trombones, and timpani, as if wafting into the score from far away. Two bars of fortissimo rudely force this moving episode aside and end the movement with steely hammerblows.
The second movement is a scherzo with that demonic, uncanny, savage, often bizarre sound that Mahler introduced to the symphonic tradition and that Liszt had earlier struck in his "Dance in the Village Inn," the Mephisto Waltz from the final movement of his Faust Symphony.
The form strictly adheres to the large-scale ternary design that has dominated the scherzo movements of symphonies and sonatas ever since Beethoven. An initial main section, a contrasting middle section corresponding to the earlier trio, and a repeat of the opening main section make up the larger architecture of this piece, which is quite straightforward and requires no further explanation of its form. Here, too, a constant rhythmic formula dominates the entire movement in a myriad melodic variants. This formula is solidified early in the movement through the even 3/4 meter of the accompaniment, the boldly leaping bass figure in the opening bars, and the suave, almost delicate response from the violins with their intermittent eighths [Music Example 4].
This opening briefly adumbrates the entire motivic argument of the first main section. It, too, is subdivided into three parts: a taught, terse opening section rising to a rapid culmination at the end, a middle section consisting of a varied symphonic development, and a free reprise of the opening, bringing the entire main section to a wild and pell-mell conclusion.
The second main section, corresponding to the trio-intermezzo, is more tender, bright, and delicate in its rhythm and sonority. Here, too, the opening suffices to form an acquaintance with the thematic material of the entire section. Note the leaping, gracefully undulating melody in the violins; the constant "ostinato" viola part in the middle, humorously reiterating the same sequence of pitches; the light pizzicato bass; and the leisurely counter-motif in the muted trumpets, expanding in an unhurried dance rhythm [Music Example 5]. Only toward the end does the sound of the trio become more ponderous and gloomy, thereby occasioning a transition to the reprise of the first main section, which brings the entire scherzo to a conclusion without further ado.
The third movement - "proceeding slowly, in sorrowful resignation" – is an expansive lamentation suffused with unutterable pain, ever circling its unchanging nucleus, now closer, now farther away, and giving reign to its feelings, now softly, now loudly. No sound of solace or redemption interrupts the progress of this outpouring of melancholy, but neither does the music congeal into a dramatic and climactic outburst of emotion. The music offers us a glimpse into the tragically darkened psyche of its creator - touching in its honesty of expression, unalloyed by any admixture of elegy.
The musical structure reveals hardly any unusual complexities. Although a number of contrasting motifs are employed, they all proceed from the same root and are so closely interrelated in rhythmic gesture and expression that we have no call to speak of different themes. As in the first movement, the entire piece is dominated by a single main theme that branches off in various metamorphoses. Listeners should pay special heed to the moving final section, striding upward in mighty steps after a brief fortissimo, pausing in shadowy and dolorous depths, and finally dying away in silence, as if with a gentle sob.
"Bursting in abruptly, passionately agitated": thus the opening of the final movement, shattering the trembling, expiring conclusion of the slow movement as if with truncheons. After a few moments a vivid shape emerges from the roiling tumult of notes: a continuation of the ostinato sixteenth-note figure in the violins against a powerful and sharply contrasting motif in the basses [Music Example 6], a characteristic transformation of a principal motif from the slow movement. This thematic material dominates the first main section of the movement in a wide array of variants.
As a second main section we hear a "turbulent march tempo; grim, defiant," in brittle rhythms and sonorities primarily accorded to the brass. This section gives way to a "wildly agitated" Intermezzo, followed by a "quiet" episode, a thematic development of the aforementioned motif from the slow movement in the low strings. The opening of the final movement again intervenes, "passionately agitated," swirling about and culminating in a powerful tutti before giving way once again to the march.
This time the entire orchestra is involved in the development of the march theme. Toward the end the tempo broadens; characteristic motifs from the first movement reappear; and the death-march motif of trumpets, trombones, and timpani that concluded the first movement brings to the entire symphony to its appointed end
Bradford Robinson, 2005
For performance material please contact Benjamin Musikverlage, Hamburg.