Draeseke's "Symphonia Tragica"
Alan H. Krueck
The following analysis of Draeseke's Symphonia Tragica is not intended to invalidate this writer's insights concerning the work found in his dissertation, The Symphonies of Felix Draeseke (University of Zürich, 1967)[xii] but rather to amplify them and broaden their application, particularly from the standpoint of musical semiotics, for it is the analyst's conviction that Draeseke selected his musical materials to organize his symphony to reflect a symbolically Hegelian-Schopenhauer-Promethean interpretation of the tragic.
Draeseke employs a number of unifying principles which otherwise stand in opposition to one another. One should consider first the interval of the octave: it is the most perfect interval in scalar progress and encompasses all tonal chromatics. Draeseke's symphony opens Andante (C major, 4/4) with three octave G's, dominants of the symphony's home key (Ex. 1). The octave hovers over the symphony like some stern force, a constant, omnipotent threat. It is by nature an idée fixe, but only from the standpoint that it manifests no melodic contour, remaining static and non-generative. It is Draeseke's symbol for the tragic, the necessary Hegelian thesis.
Following these chords is a transitional chromatic passage leading to the main melody of the introduction played in clear C major by clarinets and horns (Exs. 2 and 3):
The interval of a 4th launches the melody; as the symphony progresses one understands that this is the characteristic interval for most of the symphony's thematic material, standing in opposition to the octave as its exact half, midway in the scale: as a generative element it may be regarded as the element of anti-thesis in the Hegelian concept.
A rhythmic Entwicklungsmotiv arises from Ex. 3 and animates the music and at the ensuing climax the orchestra presents Ex. 4 which, as one may observe, is already imbedded in the second measure of Ex. 3.
The tritone plunge C-F# provides the final segment of the Hegelian formula, with F# providing an element of synthesis, the element of the transformational, both harmonic and melodic. Static, generational and transformational act upon one another from now until the conclusion of the symphony. It is only after Draeseke presents this tritone motive (Ex. 4) that the main body of the first movement, Allegro risoluto (C major, 4/4) begins with announcement of its main theme (Ex. 5), the generative outline of the perfect 4th in clear evidence.
As the music moves toward B minor, a secondary, lyrical theme is introduced incorporating both 4th and augmented 4th; when the music moves into G major it is transformed with genial simplicity (Exs. 6 and 7):
After some development of these materials the listener is brought to a delicately sonorous cadence in E major, at which point Draeseke introduces his third and final major melody of the Allegro section: it is presented harmonized primarily in thirds and represents a particularly exquisite moment of respite. The ear easily picks up on the final segment of this melody and its reliance on components in Ex.2 of the introduction (Ex.8). Just before the close of the exposition there is a sudden interjection of A# major within E major which produces a jolt and serves to remind the listener of the tritone's implied symbolism.
Words concerning the development and recapitulation shall be limited to consider that moment in the Allegro proper where the octave symbol casts its shadow over the proceedings. It arrives unobtrusively at the end of the development section and appears in the guise of a harmonized 3rd (E flat-G) which loops downward four times from flutes to violas and bassoons, twisting upward once. Static is countered by generative as the melody of the introduction (Ex. 3) returns. This leads directly into the somewhat abbreviated recapitulatory section with coda featuring a trumpet fanfare announcing the movement's conclusion in triumphant C major.
The second movement of the Symphonia Tragica is marked Grave (Adagio ma non troppo, A minor, 3/2 and is a form unto itself, a music of perfectly controlled passion and clear direction in which echoes of the Baroque underpin Draeseke's realization of unendliche Melodie. Is the measured pulse which permeates this movement an indication of sarabande, or chaconne, or passacaglia, admittedly all closely related terms? One takes one's choice, for the rhythmic tread undeniably appears throughout, even though it may not always be constant. The movement is not, however, a variations movement in the sense of the finale to Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor (a little more than a year older than the Symphonia Tragica). The Adagio begins in clear A minor with trombones intoning the tonic triad. In the next measure they are answered by woodwinds with the cortege-like motive which is the movement's main theme. Ostinato and lyrical melody at the same time, it is derived from the rhythmic outline of the C-F#-G element in Ex. 4 of the first movement, here all modified of course, by triple meter proportions (Ex.9):
The A minor triad is sounded a second time and is answered by the outlines of the melody of the first movement introduction with its characteristic interval of a major 4th (Ex. 3, third and fourth measures); again the doleful trombone triads and Ex. 4 is metamorphosed into the following melody, (Ex.10), signified by Draeseke himself as the second major theme of the movement.
The music is developed into an anguished outcry from the full orchestra and after a brief subsidence; a short modulatory passage leads to the sharp interjections of an harmonically unstable and dichotomous Entwicklungsmotiv which plays a major role in the movement's central climax (Ex. 11). When the tonality turns to F major a new section ensues and stands in clear contrast to its predecessor.
The opening melody for clarinet (Ex. 12) seems to combine elements from Exs. 4 (opening gambit changed to a minor 6th) and Ex. 6 (altered by the addition of the chromatic C#); the second half of the melody is perhaps traceable to the transitional material in Ex. 2 at the very beginning of the symphony. This theme is developed with seemingly effortless lyrical endeavor and worked to a chromatically engendered climax. At its apex, the music seems to rally for yet another climax, urged forward until it is halted by the hammer-blow onslaught of the octave symbol, after which the movement expires.
With the exception of the quotation from Richard Wagner's My Life, all quotations from other German sources are translations from the original by the author of this article, Alan H. Krueck and, as such, are to be given appropriate reference citation.
© Copyright by Alan H. Krueck: 1996, 2004