In August 1912, a quarter of a century after the composition of his symphonic masterpiece, the Tragica, and only six months before his death, Felix Draeseke completed a fourth symphony to which he gave the title Symphonia Comica. It is this title Comica over which much ink has been spilt and which requires considered exploration if the listener is not to misconceive the work as a whole.
The matter is complicated by the fact that the second movement of the symphony contains a section entitled Fliegenkrieg (War of the Flies) to which the composer himself attached a clear programme referring to an episode from the previous summer of 1911. During this episode a plague of flies at the Draeseke residence had evidently provoked a furious attempt on the part of the visiting children of relatives (represented by the Enkelmotiv) to beat off the pesky insects with a swatter (represented by the Klatschenmotiv).
This complication, of course, need be no such thing if we (a) resist the temptation to see programmes elsewhere in the symphony which simply do not exist, and thus (b) refuse to conceptualise the work as merely a humorous programme symphony. However, if the symphony’s character is to be understood, a fundamental question must be faced: to what does the title Comica really refer?
The present writer is strongly of the opinion that it is to the final decade of Draeseke’s life and his experiences as a composer in the Germany of that era that we must turn if we are to understand the essence of this symphony. Interestingly, in June 1912, during the composition of the Comica, Draeseke wrote to conductor Bruno Kittel: "To be a musician in Germany belongs to a chapter which isn’t in Dante’s Inferno. However, I haven’t allowed my sense of humour to be spoiled, as my most recent opus proves."
In what sense, then, did Draeseke understand himself to be active as a composer in the equivalent of musical hell? And what was his considered response?
One major source here is surely Draeseke’s critique of new trends in music, Die Konfusion in der Musik, published in 1906 and famous (erroneously!) for its disparagement of Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Not that Konfusion is the only manifestation of his concerns; in his Lebenserinnerungen he also wrote in these terms about Strauss’ Don Quixote: "While reading the score I had certainly been rather taken aback by risks and experiments in sound which seemed to me to be far removed from the noble art (of music)."
Similarly, about Ein Heldenleben he complained: "Here I experienced a great sense of disappointment because I came across fairly lengthy passages in which I couldn’t discover any music - or what we have called music up to now…"
Of course, Draeseke had been an admirer of Strauss’ earlier works, notably Don Juan, and the extent of the influence of the older composer upon the younger is evident, although as yet not properly explored or documented. However, by 1906 Draeseke’s former enthusiasm had certainly cooled and turned into horrified apprehension as to what the future might hold for his art.
The essence of Draeseke’s apprehension lies in the term Konfusion, in other words in his sense of the dissolution of the musical aesthetic whose terrain and boundaries he understood, but which was being challenged by new paths leading to new aesthetics which he neither comprehended nor recognised. Alan Krueck has helpfully characterised Draeseke’s stance in this period as that of a ‘disgruntled Hans Sachs’, i.e. a musician doggedly dedicated to the preservation and transmission of (in his own words) the ‘edle Kunst’ - a term surely reminiscent of Hans Sachs’ phrase ‘die heil’ge deutsche Kunst’ from the final scene of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Of course, to the innovators such as Strauss, Max Reger and Max von Schillings, the words of a disgruntled Hans Sachs would have sounded like those of a pedantic Beckmesser - a pedagogue rather than a true artist. But to Draeseke, there was no other path save that which traversed the aesthetic which he knew. All else was Konfusion - something so awful that it was not even to be found in hell itself.
And Draeseke’s response? It seems that it was this little symphony, the Comica, not even half the length in performance of its predecessor. The composer may have been confused by the new musical currents of his day, may indeed have been found himself ignored and rejected, but his response was to preserve his sanity, even his sense of humour through the act of composition. What may surprise us is that his response was a comic symphony when what he must actually have been feeling was tragedy. Yet we should recognise that to scratch the surface of the comic is often to uncover the tragic, that the smile may be as much forced as genuine, that the humour may in fact mask tears.
So do we find this in the music of the Comica? Does it possess a certain tears-behind-the-smile character?
It is clear straight away that the 4th symphony does not represent a further attempt to continue the re-thinking of symphonic form which had reached its apogee in the Tragica. Instead, what we encounter is a symphony without any attempt at the thematic unity achieved in its predecessor - in short, a fundamentally classical work. It is also emphatically not a piece of programme music, despite the Fliegenkrieg (and pace Roeder). In fact, as Krueck has suggested, the Fliegenkrieg may well be intended as a take-off of an episode such as the Wiegenlied of Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica - a piece of programme music which takes itself all-too seriously. And the Fliegen may be not so much real-life flies, as the swarm of critics whom Draeseke gleefully, yet with underlying sadness (because of his sense of impotence?) is able to swat away, at least in the world of his own creation.
Yet, in stating all this, we may find ourselves ignoring the quirky originality of the Comica. The music is spiky, ironic, fast-moving - even brittle and hard-bitten. Into this classical symphonic form, Draeseke has poured invention which pushes at his own limits of harmony, rhythm and melody. There is certainly a tension, therefore, between backward-looking form (classicism) and forward-looking content (innovation). It is as if the composer is at one and the same time affirming the tradition while maintaining his lifelong commitment to originality - shouting a defiant ‘nein’ at the ugliness of the new aesthetics while saying ‘jawohl’ to newness of expression within the bounds of the tradition.
Maybe we can understand it this way: while the Tragica had been Draeseke’s great contribution to the symphonic tradition, containing no personal programme, no reference to personal tragedy, the Comica was the opposite - a personal statement couched in the only terms which he could permit himself, the only terms appropriate to the situation of his final years: a classical symphony which included a programme which was merely incidental, which poked fun thereby at his merciless opponents and which throughout hid the truly tragic behind the apparently, even genuinely comic.
Comedy is a serious business, with a serious intent. Of this Draeseke must surely have been aware. It is significant, as we have seen, that Wagner’s comic masterpiece Die Meistersinger concludes with a hymn to Hans Sachs’ heil’ge deutsche Kunst. So the Comica may show in its manic invention and capricious contrasts the nervy apprehension of its composer concerning the direction of the edle Kunst - even, perhaps, his determinedly good-humoured swatting-away of the pesky creators of the new Konfusion - but in its embrace of the classical symphonic tradition it stands firm in the face of the threat.
In comedy, the 'hero' may lose his equilibrium, may suffer many a fall, may grapple with the apparently absurd; but thereafter he will dust himself down, thumb his nose at the world and defy its follies. It seems that this was Draeseke’s considered response in his Symphonia Comica.
© 2005 Alan Howe