Warm or cold? Hard or soft? Dolomite rock from the sedimentary basin I am living in. Basically it is a white-grey stone, but it often has light brown, orange or even red patches and strata. It quickly heats up in the sun and stores the energy. If you touch it, it feels hard, but you can chip of pieces easily with a shovel. Over time this specific rock has been covered by lichen and moss. There’s life on its surface and there’s life beneath it – insects and lizards.
The cello has a warm sound, full of passion and love. The violin by contrast can sound harsh, brutal, unforgiving. Julius Röntgen wrote in 1894 his Cello Concerto No. 1 in E minor, a piece that oscillates between warm and cold, hard and soft. When I listened to it for the first time, I was too distracted to appreciate the contrasts, its depth, its expressive richness, its flowing melodies and the abrupt changes in tempo and tonality. I had to retreat into a silent corner and immerge myself deeply into the music. And I had to repeat this several times:. In conjunction with the composer’s other cello concertos eachbtime I discovered new aspects.
The muse has gone missing
Röntgen’s cello concerto quickly fascinated me. Once I had decided to write about it and determined that the piece’s dual character was to be the central element of the post, I began to think about how to illustrate the text. A couple of false starts followed, many ideas swirled through my head, none for very long. At some point I settled for the picture of that dolomite rock. Then I realized that writing about the piece would be even harder, something that I do not often experience. I discussed Röntgen’s two other cello concertos and words did not fail me. The music usually sets free some ideas, they are in the air and I just need to grab them. Not this time. Intriguing.
Our local dolomite rocks are not easy to work with either. They are difficult to cut, they splinter easily. The difficulties a mason may encounter with those rocks are similar to those I encountered with this post. When I sat down to write it up, it was late, I was tired and the material I was working gave me a lot of trouble. The words sounded dull, stiff, bulky. I wrote a sentence, erased it, rewrote it, copy-pasted whole paragraphs from one place to the other and back… a struggle. When I had finished a draft, I wasn’t happy. The text still lacked a clear structure, and the transition from this fourth paragraph to the last was of little elegance. I had to wait for a few days, regularly worrying about that post, until the final version was ready.
Röntgen remains a mystery
How often did the muse not appear when Röntgen needed it most? Hard to say, his writings have been edited, but not translated from Dutch to English. The few biographic references I found do not mention his state of mind while he composed this or any other piece. I sketched Röntgen’s career as a composer spanning from Leipzig to Amsterdam in an earlier post, but the man himself remains a mystery to me.
Generally speaking Röntgen identified himself with the earlier generation of German Romantic composers, and this piece recalls to some degree Robert Schumann’s cello concerto in A minor. But did they share the same ideas, feelings, inspiration? Röntgen’s cello concerto in E minor has been recorded by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra and Gregor Horsch at the cello. Once you have become familiar with Röntgen’s piece, please try Schumann’s cello concerto and tell me about it. I will do the same; Schumann’s cello concerto definitely merits some struggling with words and pictures.
© Charles Thibo