“Hat dich die Liebe berührt” (If Love Hath Entered Thy Heart), 1908, Text by Paul Heyse
“Selige Nacht” (Blissful Night), 1912, Otto Erich Hartleben
“Zigeuner” (Gypsies), 1911, Max Geissler
“Barkarole” (Barcarole), 1909, Adolf von Schack
In the heaven-blessed pantheon of 19th-century composers of German Lieder, from Schubert to Wolf and Strauss, Joseph Marx is not included, inasmuch as his songs only appear in the first part of the 20th century. Yet in terms of musical style, he is a true romantic in the mold of his predecessors. When in his early 20s he began in earnest to compose (after receiving a doctorate in liberal arts — at his family’s insistence), he produced about 120 songs. These works brought him considerable recognition from a public that would have disdained them had they any intimations of the Schoenbergian atonal modernity that was rearing its dissonant head at that period. In addition to composing, much of his professional life was spent as an educator and for several years as a music critic.
Marx’s songs are distinguished by their keen sensitivity to the chosen texts, and by a generous and appealing lyricism. Clearly not satisfied that his fame rested on the popularity of his songs, however, he began in the early ’30s to concentrate on writing orchestral music, then chamber music. But his efforts in the instrumental field were unsuccessful and as a result the public lost interest in him, and even his songs didn’t maintain their early widespread popularity. Even so, as late as 1952, the famed conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler called Marx “the leading force of Austrian music,” a statement that seems now to have been stubbornly unrealistic. However, the composer has his champions still, as testified by the existence of a Joseph Marx Society and a very extensive website on the internet.
Marx’s genial and expressive melodies, direct and uncomplicated, are matched by the composer’s fluid orchestrations. Barkarole, the most extended and dramatic of this program’s selections, mirrors the model created by Schumann in having a prelude, interludes, and postlude, each conveying the poetic, picturesque elements of the text.
The sentimental, somewhat gushy poetry Marx selected to set is of secondary literary quality, which seems to bear out the thoughts of Jacques Barzun (highly regarded French-born American centenarian historian, born 1907): “Music’s same power to present the sensations missing from the verbal signs of an experience explains why as a general rule the text of the best songs and operas is inferior in its kind to the musical setting. A great poem is complete in itself and needs no additions from another art. Great music is complete in itself, and only a disagreeable overlap of intentions can result from its being harnessed to great literature.” One must add that Schubert and other great composers of Lieder did not sully the outstanding poetry of Goethe, Heine, Mörike, and others, which renders Barzun’s reasoning an interesting, but often true, generality.
After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.