Charles Martin Loeffler was born in Schöneberg bei Berlin, Germany. By age 13, Loeffler knew that he wanted to be a professional violinist, and was accepted as a student of Joseph Joachim, a friend of Brahms and a major champion of his music. Loeffler studied with Joachim from 1874-1877, and when Loeffler moved to the U.S. at age 20, he brought along a letter of recommendation from Joachim. Loeffler first moved to New York, then eventually made Boston his permanent home, serving as the assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 20 years; he resigned the post in 1903 to focus on teaching and writing music until his death in 1935.
Despite his German nationality, Loeffler gravitated more toward the French tradition – so much so that he even claimed Alsatian heritage. He has sometimes been called a post-Impressionist composer, though Impressionism was not nearly the only influence in his musical development. Sounds as diverse as medieval music, Russian folk music, and American jazz entered his compositions. His style was difficult to pin down. He often created decadent pastiches of music that were light in structure and heavy in a mixture of rich romanticism and modernism. He was a meticulous composer and a frequent reviser (the Two Rhapsodies offer an example), and his catalog isn’t extensive. Written in 1901, the Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano are Loeffler’s best-known chamber music.
The Two Rhapsodies are revisions of two songs from a set of three Loeffler wrote in 1898 for bass voice, clarinet, and piano. They are settings of poems by the French symbolist poet Maurice Rollinat. Loeffler set many French symbolist poems to music, in addition to writing instrumental works inspired by poems. Loeffler attached Rollinat’s verses to the Rhapsodies as preface.
With influences ranging as wide as Brahms, Liszt, and Debussy, the Two Rhapsodies are a beautiful and mournful exploration of the three chosen instruments and their distinct sonorities. The piano often plays in the lower registers, dramatic and stormy. The oboe and viola play a mixture of simple, haunting harmonies and ornately flowing lines. The three instruments follow and copy each other throughout both movements, progressing in fits and starts.
In the first Rhapsody, “L’Étang” (The Pond), the listener can hear both brash kerplunks and slowly dying ripples in an Edgar Allen Poe-like soundscape. Although both rhapsodies are based on poems about death and lost love, there is sweetness and even cheerfulness throughout the music - even jaunty, skipping moments. “The Pond” comes to a close with the oboe playing a major/minor arpeggio and the piano and viola softly trading high and low notes. In the second Rhapsody, “La Cornemuse” (The Bagpipe), the oboe flecks the music with pastoral lines, and at moments the oboe and viola together have an almost ancient sonority (Loeffler studied medieval chant for a year in Germany) – with the viola acting as the drone for the oboe’s chanter.
The piano plays watery accompaniment to the oboe’s plaintive calls, and, like “The Pond,” “The Bagpipe” contains an extremely dynamic ebb and flow: quick-then-slow, loud-then-soft, delicate-then-aggressive. Both Rhapsodies end with respite, and perhaps, looking inward, an acceptance of what is. Loeffler’s ability to combine colors to create landscapes was remarkable; the sound of the Two Rhapsodies brings together both mysticism and folksong, French, German and American tradition, glassy, floating sonorities along with rich, Romantic harmonies. The first of the Rhapsodies was dedicated to Leon Pourtau, a clarinetist with the Boston Symphony from 1894-1898; the second was dedicated to Georges Longy, the ensemble’s renowned oboist from 1898-1925.
Jessie Rothwell is a composer, musician, concert curator, and writer.