Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin
Length: c. 24 minutes
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 1, 1951, John Barnett conducting
The composer Max Reger is best known for his organ works, even though he wrote for every genre except opera, with the majority of his music being works for voice (roughly one-third) and chamber ensemble (one quarter). His limited oeuvre for orchestra has yet to be appreciated in the same way as its organ counterpart; though Reger was considered one of his era’s greatest composers during his lifetime (alongside Mahler and Strauss), his orchestral music is rarely performed today.
Reger’s Four Tone Poems for Orchestra After Arnold Böcklin were written late in the composer’s life and musical maturity; by that time, he had produced well over 1,000 works (having begun composing when he was a mere 15 years old). The present suite is a programmatic representation of four paintings by the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) – here, the composer chose images of alternatingly contrasting moods (yearning – playful – meditative – festive) as inspirations for each respective movement.
The tone of “Hermit Fiddler” is one of quiet longing. In Böcklin’s work, an old man in robes performs alone at a shrine of the Madonna while curious cherubim look on. Reger’s hermit – solo violin – voices a reverent melody that is answered by the woodwinds and carried over richly sonorous chords in the strings.
After a sweeping introduction, the second movement bursts into a swirling triplet feel, embracing Böcklin’s portrayal of young humans and their satyr/centaur companions “In the Play of the Waves.” Churning swells in the orchestra evoke the crash of water to shore, while woodwinds dance, converse, and delight amidst the ever-shifting flow of a musical sea.
Reger’s somber third movement is based upon Böcklin’s most famous work, “The Isle of the Dead,” of which the artist created five versions between 1880 and 1886. The painting depicts a figure, shrouded in white, standing in a small rowboat that is moving towards the shadowy inlet of an imposing, desolate island. The haunting image also inspired Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who penned his own symphonic tone poem of the same name in 1908 (that piece will appear on an LA Phil program next month). In Reger’s interpretation, intense moments in the orchestra swell up and die away as the human spirit, in its final moments, struggles against Fate.
Not wishing to dwell on such melancholy themes (or perhaps looking to deny them), the final-movement “Bacchanal” bursts forth with delirious energy, taking the entire orchestra on a whirlwind ride that would befit the grandest of Pagan festivals. After a brief mid-movement repose, the revelry comes unhinged, going for broke in a full-on, tumbling gallop to the end.