Fusing the Ideas of the Romantic Past

An evening walk. © Charles Thibo

Music can be misleading, oh yes. Take this symphony – listening to the first 20 or 30 bars, my first idea was Debussy. Painting with sounds, impressionism etc. Or perhaps Ravel. Wrong on both accounts. The piece was written by an Austrian composer of the name of Johann Nepomuk David, born in 1895. He died in 1977 in Stuttgart and is probably best known for his church music. But he wrote no less than eight symphonies, three concerts for string orchestra and chamber music. And I bet you have never heard of him.

I doubt that one can put a specific label on David’s music. His Symphony No. 1 in A Minor (op. 18), composed in 1936, begins as I said in a Debussy-like cacophony evoking in my mind images of birds singing in the evening, the crescendo builts up tension however and one could imagine that with the setting sun, a mysterious landscape comes to life, animals that you do not see during the day appear and vanish again. This of course is what I read into the music and has most likely nothing to do with David’s inspiration.

This first and the following three movements have a late Romantic ring with a touch of French impressionism and a hint of early 20th-century Russian irony. But what does that mean then? I tried to come up with some late Romantic composer matching David’s musical language. I found none. Not Strauss, not Mahler. Neither Dvorak, nor Bartok.

No label then. Or plenty of labels. David seems to have developed a style of his own, a fusion of elements defined by the aesthetic principles of the 19th century and the early 20th century. David did not intend to make a revolutionary step forward with his music. He was in contact with Arnold Schönberg, but you will find nothing in this symphony that suggests having been inspired by Schönberg’s wish to transcend tonality. The symphony is an inspiring piece of music though. I had to listen to it several times to identify the melodious gems, the witty orchestration ideas. It was worthwhile.

Perhaps David simply was a conservatice man and remained loyal to the taste of the time. He started his composer’s career in the 1930s in Austria, and both Austria and Germany had already embraced to some degree the aesthetics of National Socialism: It was supposed to be conservative in taste with Mozart and Beethoven being the reference points and meant to be used as a political tool, as a propaganda instrument, whenever possible.

This symphony is not suited for Nazi propaganda. I doubt it has been to Joseph Goebbels’ taste. And David doesn’t strike me as an ardent Nazi. He taught composition and theory at the Musikhochschule in Leipzig between 1934 and 1945. He was a member of one of the numerous Nazi organisations, the Reichsbund Deutsche Familie, promoting families with many Aryan descendents. During the war he kept to liturgical music, composing a cantata based on a Nazi slogan and was deemed important enough by the Nazis to be inluded like the pianist Elly Ney on a list of the 1040 most important artists.

Johann Nepomuk David. Terra incognita. Terra exploratura. His first symphony has been recorded by the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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