Richard Wetz (1875-1935) as Composer
By Eric Schissel
(Somewhat paraphrased and quoted from, variously, Eckhardt van den
Hoogen's notes to the cpo recording of Wetz's symphony no. 2 and Kleist-overture,
various contemporary reviews and concert-reviews of Wetz's works in
the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik, and a quotation by the composer.)
The occasion of the recording, by Werner Andreas Albert and the Staatsphilharmonie
Rheinland-Pfalz on the cpo label, of the first digital recording of
Richard Wetz's 3rd symphony, offers an opportunity to give an overview
of the music of this interesting and often powerful composer. [not sent
for review yet but see]
Richard Wetz was born in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia (Austria) on February
26th, 1875, and died in Erfurt on January 16th, 1935. He began by self-teaching,
then enrolled in the Leipzig Conservatory but stayed for only six weeks.
He took instruction privately from Richard Hofmann, director of the
Choral Society of Leipzig. In 1899 he headed to Munich to study with
Ludwig Thuille, an instructor/composer perhaps best-known today for
a sextet, though it was Thuille's violin sonata overshadowed in the
concert at which Reger's somewhat scandalous fourth sonata had its premiere....
Felix Weingartner, another composer/conductor of repute, arranged a
theater conductor's post for Wetz in Stralsund the next year, which
lasted only a few months; after another try in Barmen - what is today
Wuppertal - Wetz returned to Leipzig. No work awaiting him there, he
used the opportunity to do some listening instead, to classical composers,
to Bruckner and to Liszt (on whom he was later, in 1925, to write a
He then wrote two operas to his own librettos before receiving a post
as the director of the Erfurt Music Society in 1906, and his career
might be said then to have truly been launched.
The next few years saw both the failure, unfortunately, of the second
of his two operas, but also the success of his Kleist Overture, op.
16, premiered in Berlin in 1908 under Nikisch in a concert with Elgar's
Enigma Variations, and given this rather lukewarm review by Adolf Schultze
in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik:
"Wetz's piece, clear and understandable at a glance, constructed
with a skilful use of sound elements, left but few impressions,
although it was interpreted resonantly and with passion. Serious,
gloomy and passionate, but also light and soft is this music. Much
in the way of inventive skills is not visible. At least the work
shows some important qualities, as in the melancholic-pathetic introduction
of the piece, the passionately moving main theme of the Allegro
and the virile warm-blooded melody of the subsidiary theme."
With increasing success came, of course, further compositions - one
singles out from the period before the 1917 premiere of his first symphony
in particular, his Gesang des Lebens (op. 29, just recorded on cpo with
the 3rd symphony,) Chorlied aus "Oedipus auf Colonos" (op. 31,) Hyperion
(on texts by Hölderlin) for baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra
(op. 32, 1912,) and his sonata for violin (op. 33).
Premiered by Liszt-scholar/archivist Peter Raabe, the first symphony
op. 40, in c, begins over a quiet and expectant rhythmic pulse, out
of which develops naturally the movement's long-breathed main theme.
Particularly notable in this movement is a dissonant clash around fifteen
minutes in, which leads to an expansive outburst of the second theme.
After the recapitulation subsides into the more active coda, we are
in a very different place. Frenetic downward scale fragments based on
one of the subsidiary themes dispel any leisureliness from the forward
motion of the work, and over them, increasingly urgent reminiscences
of that same theme provoke first a collision, then two maestoso restatements,
and ultimately resolution into several triumphant C major chords, and
a pause... followed by repeated, insistent, and very final minor-third
descents of Eb-C, the last C held unisono.
The scherzo, based on a theme reminiscent of the ostinato from the
scherzo of Bruckner's 7th symphony, encloses a lyrical and chromatic
trio, and has some wild moments. If it is too much of a cliche to say
that the slow movement, in A-flat, is melodic and lyrical then it is
at least worth remarking that the piece rises to some pointed and justified
climaxes, is very fine and inspires affection and even perhaps love.
The c minor finale is an impressive creation, continuing the tragic
atmosphere that has never really left the first movement and enhancing
it. Structural use is made, as in some Bruckner symphonies and works
by others as well, of the contrasting quantity of the chorale in this
piece, and most effectively; likewise, cyclic quotes from earlier movements
(which have not been lacking in the scherzo, for instance, either.)
All leads from the somewhat un-Brucknerian opening through well-placed
climaxes to a most memorable conclusion, as slowly gathering forces
hit a dissonant nolle prosequi and descend to one last and most eloquent
restatement of the first movement's main theme... after which four chords,
long, long, long, short!!! (also loud-loud-loud-quiet) end this - I
think stunning - symphony. There is an excellent recording on the cpo
label with Roland Bader conducting the Cracow Philharmonic.
Between these first two of his symphonies Wetz published his "Romantic
Variations on an Original Theme" for piano, op. 42. By then, a reviewer
"Richard Wetz is no more the unknown; he has his apostle, who often
and with cordial pressure stands up for him. And certainly this
serious, striving composer has earned, that we do not shove him
aside without reason. This is his first work of chamber music to
have crossed our path [the op. 33 violin sonata apparently hadn't],
and we may say with pleasure, that his craft is still in the ascent.
This piece requires proficient pianistic skill, to be safe of its
success. The simple, intimate theme (only the downturn in the third
line seems to appear to us all too brusque) becomes, with the finest
controlling technique, developed and reworked."
Also at this time he published his setting of the 3rd Psalm for baritone
solo, mixed chorus and orchestra (op. 37) (reviewed, like the Variations,
on page 340, 84th Jahrgang, NZM ; and, with its instrumentation perhaps
a good coupling for his Hyperion?)
The second symphony, op. 47,
finished in late 1919 (his next works were to be his third symphony,
op. 48 and his second string quartet in e minor, op. 49,) is in A major,
and separates into three movements- massig bewegt; langsam, mit klagendem
Ausdruck; and Finale: Bewegt (Ruhige Halbe). The first movement begins
I'd say deceptively calmly, though the storms within are, one comes
to feel, natural in origin and not artificially imposed by the composer.
There they are all the same. On brief acquaintance with this lovely
movement perhaps I find somewhat more Brucknerian than anything in the
first symphony, though perhaps those were those were my first impressions
of the first symphony as well - and it is hard to say just what in Bruckner's
canon it resembles. The slow movement of the symphony, in d minor, has
a sad dignity. The finale has something, perhaps, of the tarantella
about its minor-mode main theme. The second theme is also in minor,
though rather less jolly in implication!
The third symphony, in B-flat and in four movements, has had a previous
recording on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi which is now available on a Sterling
CD, with Erich Peter conducting the Berlin Symphony. I have not heard
that recording, regrettably, nor this new one on cpo, and cannot yet
comment on the work.
After Wetz's death, the ADMV (Allgemeine Deutsche Musikverein) played
the slow movement of the 3rd symphony in a church concert. (They had
previously played "Hyperion" in their annual concerts back in 1913.
See http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~admv/1913.htm )
The f minor string quartet, op. 43 (score at Loeb Library at Harvard,)
the first of Wetz's (at least?) two, earned these impressions from Otto
Dorn after a 1920 concert: "with a touch of melancholy, warmly and naturally
The e minor string quartet's score is at New York Public Library; I
recall from my one or two skims of the work, one of Wetz's late scores,
that like the first symphony, it alternates the Romantic and the chorale-liturgical
with effect. Both quartets should be worth hearing.
Those wishing to listen to Wetz's music are recommended first to the
exemplary recording of the first symphony on cpo, an excellent recording
of an astounding piece. The second symphony is very much growing on
this listener, as is the accompanying Kleist-overture, both very fine
music well-orchestrated- I cannot agree with the negatives in Schultze's
review of the latter. The composer's output extends to at least 57 published
opera, of which only five have been recorded, meanwhile, and if there
is an audience for these now-three cpo CDs then perhaps their fans might
hope for recordings of the string quartets, the (solo?) violin sonata,
the Christmas Oratorio, the violin concerto, Hyperion and the Third
Psalm, the Romantic Variations for piano and the Prelude and Fugue in
d minor for organ, Trauersommernach for womens' chorus and orchestra,
Those wondering at the sound of his music will find sometimes something
of a mix, melodically, of Bruckner, Liszt, and Wagner, and structural
and harmonic similarities from time to time as well. By no means, I
think, will they find a particularly derivative composer, particularly
in the first symphony; what gets said, how, in what order, why, and
such questions... the composer seems to have developed answers that
are at least partially his own. In the first symphony, though the mood
is by no means uniformly bleak (one ought not in any event confuse tragedy
in its classic sense, with bleakness,) the techniques are put to the
service of an overall tragic goal; the second symphony has a quite different
spirit, somewhat pastoral (as suggested by the booklet-notes to the
cpo recording) perhaps, quite positive overall even in its largely minor-mode
finale. I look forward to hearing the 3rd in Albert's new recording,
and any further Wetz recordings cpo or other labels should release.
© Eric Schissel