Alone at the terminal with Julius Röntgen

About to leave. © Charles Thibo

The year is drawing to its end and I remember a singular scene in connection with classical music. It must have been over a year ago that I sat in an airport terminal waiting for my gate to open – and I was alone. I was like half an hour before boarding time at the gate – it was the right one – and the whole terminal was empty. A bizarre atmosphere. It gave my departure a solemn touch; I felt like being the last one ever to leave this place. Very strange. And since I had nothing to do, I put on my earphones and listened to a charming piece of chamber music: Julius Röntgen’s String Trio No. 5, performed by the Lendvai Trio.

A three-year project

The Dutch all female ensemble came together in 2004 and has been heard at major venues throughout Europe such as Wigmore Hall and Concertgebouw. The trio has recorded extensively to great acclaim; in 2016 the Lendvai Trio concluded a three-year project uncovering, performing and recording all sixteen string trios written by Röntgen. The magazine “Gramophone” wrote: “Röntgen’s inexhaustible fecundity of melody, musical charm and compositional craftsmanship combined in the most delightful manner…delivered with impeccable musicianship by the wonderful Lendvai Trio.” There is nothing substantial I can add to this.

The liner notes written by the Dutch musicologist Margret Krill finally gave me a better insight into Röntgen’s life. You may recall from earlier posts on Röntgen’s cello concertos that I had been unable to dig up comprehensive biographical details in English. The situation has changed now, and I will quote here Margret Krill extensively: “Röntgen’s professional reputation enjoyed a noticeably higher regard in other countries, and he earned accolades abroad that eluded him in his home nation. One such distinction was the honorary doctorate conferred upon him by the University of Edinburgh in 1930, presented by Sir Donald Francis Tovey.” Röntgen’s home nation were the Netherlands, but Röntgen was actually born in Leipzig, where his father, a violinist and an emigrant from the Netherlands, held a post at the Gewandhausorchester.

A precocious talent

Julius, the eldest child and only son, spent his youth in Leipzig. “His parents were well-connected within the highest musical circles, and regularly received musicians such as Felix Mendelssohn, Niels Gade and Joseph Joachim in their home”, writes the Dutch musicologist. “Julius Röntgen’s grandfather taught him the fundamentals of piano and violin playing, and his parents themselves took responsibility for his further training. Röntgen’s exceptional musical talent was apparent at an early stage, but his father seems to have done his best to prevent his son from leading the typical life of a child prodigy […] He began writing music at a young age, publishing his first composition in Germany in 1871. Only a few years later, he was invited to accept a teaching position in Amsterdam. After some hesitation, he settled there in 1877.

Light and sunny

The composer wrote Trio No. 5 in January 1920 and dedicated it to his old friend Richard van Rees. At the time, van Rees was Chairman of the Board of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Krill writes. “This trio has a light and sunny first movement. The second movement is strikingly tender, almost contemplative, and very moving. It brings us through a dense texture of voice-leading into the last movement. Here it seems as though Röntgen has set ten loose fragments on paper, each with its own tempo and character, but in fact the movement takes the shape of variations on the main theme, later re-introducing the theme of the first movement. The end of the movement seems to hesitate in choosing a theme, and the piece ends with no conclusion.”

The sunny character of the first movement – it struck me in that particular situation at the airport. It did not match my solemn mood, it made me feel a little like being in a surreal dream. And while I reflected that contradiction, the situation made me smile, I shook my head – and continued to enjoyed the music and the sunset being on my own.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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