Draeseke's "Symphonia Tragica"
Alan H. Krueck
The scherzo of Draeseke's Symphonia Tragica was the first movement of the symphony's movements to be composed. It opens Allegro vivace (C major, 3/4) and with a theme derived from, or at least related to Ex. 5 of the first movement, with rhythmic displacement a major factor in the relationship (Ex. 13):
The contrasting lyrical subject, an admirable example of chromatic extension of melodic units and subtle rhythmic phrasing, cleverly incorporates the three-note tritone clash of Ex. 4 and the association with Hegelian formula (Ex. 14):
The scherzo is reasonably uncomplicated as far as formal procedure is concerned but it is a marvel of piquancy both in harmonic surprises, deftness of orchestration and arresting agogic relationships: the conductor Udo-R. Follert demonstrated to this writer that this scherzo proper could actually be conducted in 5/4, though it was not recommended. It is the trio section of this movement (un pocchetino piu lento, D flat major, 3/4) which should perhaps interest us most: it opens with a steady pulse somewhat reminiscent of the opening of the slow movement in its contrast to what precedes it. The main theme suggests in its contours rhythmic permutation of Ex. 14 through augmented note values and dotted rhythm, though it admittedly reflects motivic twists identifiable in Exs. 3 and 6 (Ex. 15):
Taken simply as a melody, it is evocative of a type encountered in songs sung at wine festivals along the Rhine (or in Franconia or along the Elbe, not to slight the biographical here) and when it reaches its grandiose, sweeping peroration, memories of Wagner and Siegfried's Rhine journey are inescapable, but Draeseke's purpose is not one of heroic dramatic pose but lyric gesture. And where does the octave symbol figure in this movement? At the end of the trio there is the delightfully discreet appearance pizzicato in the strings of three octave G's which may be considered dominants leading to the C major return of the scherzo proper (da Capo senza repetitione) - but they also stand in tritonal opposition to the D-flat major tonality of the trio. The repetition of the scherzo concludes without coda.
The finale of the Symphonia Tragica has no truly set form in terms of traditional symphonic outlook up to the time of its composition and this may be said of the finale to Bruckner's 8th Symphony as well: both works were written in 1886. Writing in his Führer durch den Konzertsaal, Hermann Kretzschmar had these remarks concerning the movement: "Regarded in its totality, the finale of the Symphonia Tragica is one of the most complicated instrumental compositions ever placed before human comprehension. The difficulties are implicit in the construction of the movement, which follows none of the customary models, such as that of sonata or rondo; it seems comprised more of a surcharge of themes piled up without regard to clarity, undoubtedly determined by poetic intentions which the composer has unfortunately chosen to withhold. On the other hand, problems arise from the peculiar style of Draeseke, a composer who usually tries to add at least one secondary though to each primary idea, but usually winds up adding several."[xiii]
Kretzschmar avoids settling on any pronouncement of form for the finale and, in so doing, reveals a prudence not indulged by Erich Roeder, who declares the finale to be a Grossrondo[xiv] - a meaningless term, since there is no recurring "A" section per se. Neither Kretzschmar nor Roeder (nor others who have published analyses of the symphony such as Carl Bayer, Karl Blessinger and Otto zur Nedden) perceived the formal-cum-philosophical principles behind the work: the concepts of static, generative and transformative in the music which mirror the Hegelian formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis and suggest selection of mythological embodiment of the type of tragic resolution Draeseke may have imagined but never articulated, for which Prometheus seems a prime consideration. Nor did these earlier commentators pay much attention to Draeseke's comments to Eugen Segnitz when Draeseke stated that he had found no satisfying resolution of the tragic in Beethoven's Eroica or C minor symphonies, nor in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony - but it is in regard to this last work that the clue to the form of Draeseke's finale in the Tragica may perhaps be found.
For many the finale with voices of Beethoven's Ninth is envisioned as a sort of microcosmic symphony within the macrocosmic four movement outline of the entire symphony. It is this concept which seems assuredly the basis for Draeseke's finale except - as Draeseke clearly indicated to Eugen Segnitz - he is dealing with tragedy, not joy, and is rejecting the affirmative endings of Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Ninth symphonies as resolution of the tragic in symphonic thought, a step not even encountered in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. Draeseke said that he wanted to project concepts of tragedy and "... in the Tragica I had the wish to try and see whether success might be possible in a purely orchestral manner, and it is due to this wish that the finale owes its origins."
The fourth movement of the Symphonia Tragica begins with an urgent motive (Allegro con brio, C minor, 6/8) based on the generative interval of the 4th (Ex.16) but which manages in the second measure to insert the tritone of a diminished 5th and create a mild dissonance in the melodic sequence, thus preserving the Hegelian symbolism observed thus far. The movement attempts to get underway via Ex. 17 but is halted for thematic recall of Ex. 3 of the first movement, perhaps a gesture intended to parallel the opening of the finale in Beethoven's Ninth.
Further thematic recall is delayed until Ex. 16 introduces what seems to be the main theme of the finale (Ex. 18) but it is an aural dodge which simply exposes the more compelling (and seemingly) true main theme, the eerily chromatic Ex. 19 and this is given reasonable development before receding (L'istesso tempo, E flat major, 2/4) for Ex. 12 from the slow movement to be presented in several guises (Exs.20 and 21):
At the conclusion of this episode the major body of the movement gets under way. Ex. 18 returns to claim fuller development and one which is filled with sparkling orchestral effects, yet implanted in it (and actually present heretofore) is a chromatic scale sequence in 8th note triplets, developmental in nature and melodically unobtrusive, which grows in importance as the movement moves to its central climax. Ex.16 becomes an ostinato accompaniment to much of the development which now ensues as Exs. 18 and 19 are interwoven with exciting complexity until Ex. 22 bursts upon the scene, a stern canonic countenance in C minor and a metamorphosis of Ex. 4 (no tritone) which Draeseke uses in diminution as well, creating at one point the impression of a double canon.
This remarkable contrapuntal section is suddenly made to dovetail into a peculiar modulatory passage which chromatically gropes for a firm resting place. When it is found (grazioso, A flat major, 2/4) one encounters a disarmingly beautiful melody which is treated to one of the most ravishing moments in the symphony (Ex. 23):
The melody itself seems vaguely related to Exs. 6 and 7 in the first movement but since it is presented in peculiar isolation, its appearance is somewhat mystifying, an instance of almost gratuitous beauty. Be that as it may, as Ex. 23 leaves the scene, the ostinato function of Ex. 16 takes over and the music moves into a section (C major, 6/8) which, because of its playful trills and pizzicato effects, might almost be considered a miniature scherzo within the finale and, indeed, examination of the motivic interplay shows the material to be a clearly rhythmic alteration of elements from the third movement, particularly the trio section. The generative element of the perfect 4th is in such constant play that the thematic interplay seems even mildly pointilliste. The playfulness of this section comes to a sudden halt when a rumbling F# pedal point in the bass intrudes and alters drastically both mood and direction of the music: one should take into account that the two bass notes preceding the F# are G and C (in that sequence) and that the Hegelian presence is symbolically manifest. As the music searches for a firm tonal basis, elements of Ex. 2 (first movement introduction) and 12 (second movement) return momentarily, ushered in by the chromatic scalar sweep of the triplet 8th note Entwicklungsmotiv. The F#-C tritone conflict assumes the ostinato form of Ex. 16 and flashes of Ex. 4 charge about in preparation for the return of major thematic entities from preceding movements. There is no mistaking the thematic summary which ensues for Draeseke clearly indicates in his score the motives which are part of his contrapuntal resume: all major thematic material of the movement is now combined - a stunning demonstration of Draeseke's genius and one of the most compelling passages in late 19th century symphonism, paralleled but not surpassed even in Bruckner's Eighth Symphony.
In the turmoil of presentation wave after wave of lyrical melody breaks forth reaching its apex perhaps in Ex. 24, truly a moment worthy of Richard Strauss at the height of inspiration. The harmonic tension becomes unbearable, a tension emanating from the F#-C tritone conflict, and the conflict demands resolution. With a deafening crash of the cymbals (the only one in the symphony!) the music breaks asunder. The triplet 8th note motion, which has carried most of the finale forward, becomes a cascade of octave G's, the symbol of the tragic in the symphony. The listener is returned to the symphony's beginning; the cycle nears completion. The introduction to the symphony's first movement returns literally complete, altered only by the triplet motion and the implied agony of the harmonic coloration. The music slowly loses its impetus and as it does, the painful conflict moves to resolution. With a final reference to Ex. 3, the music rises to blissful transfiguration and the symphony concludes, pianissimo, in an air of tranquility. The agony of human effort is now past and the pain has momentarily ceased. Prometheus has been bound again and soon Sisyphus must renew his efforts for, as the final C major chord dies away, one understands that this C major tonality is but a temporary resolution and that those dominant octave G's await their resounding to begin again the cycle of conflict in Felix Draeseke's Symphony No. 3 in C major, his Symphonia Tragica.
[xiii] H. Kretzschmar: Führer durch den Konzertsaal, Bd. 1 (5th ed.; Leipzig, 1927), pp.730-731.
[xiv] Roeder: Felix Draeseke, Vol. 2, p. 186.
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