Recorded on 02/03/2005, uploaded on 04/02/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Notes by Bonnie H. Campbell
The works on this recording were written
in an extraordinary time and place: Vienna on the brink of the 20th
century. A visit to the "golden city" at the fin-de-siècle would
have been the experience of a lifetime. Vienna was the major crossroads of
Europe and among the five largest metropolises on the globe. Her residents were
incredibly diverse, encompassing over twenty nationalities, five religious
traditions, and twelve major languages.
With such a multiplicity of currents, it
is little wonder that the "city of dreams," as it was also called, was the
locus of unprecedented cultural activity, where luminaries from virtually every
arena of life interacted and informed each other's work. Prominent
personalities in art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, psychology,
and science tipped their hats to one another on daily noontime strolls along
Vienna's most famous thoroughfare - the Ringstrasse, toasted varying causes in
her beer gardens, and sat side by side in her theatres and concert halls.
A few names will remind readers of the
explosion of talent in Vienna at the time: Gustav Klimt in art; Adolf Loos,
Josef Hoffmann, and Otto Wagner in architecture; Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl
Kraus, and Arthur Schnitzler in literature; Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler,
Arnold Schönberg, and Richard Strauss in music; Martin Buber in philosophy;
Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud in psychology; and Ernst Mach in physics. This
confluence of cultural stars helped all the players polish their positions and
created a cauldron of divergent ideas that would ferment and rise to change the
In music, as in other realms, the promise
of a new century was accompanied by an acceleration of change and the birth of
new ideas. The major defining ideals of romanticism - such as the supremacy of
individual expression and the concept of organicism, which held that musical
works had their own self-contained meaning - were beginning to lose currency.
The heated debate about the course of music that had ignited in the 1860s
following the arrival in Vienna of its two principle protagonists - Brahms and
Wagner - was yielding to another, modernist discourse.
But as the shadows of the 19th
century grew long, there came a final brilliant shimmer of
romantic spirit. Brahms was drawn out of a self-imposed retirement by the
superb playing of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. Upon hearing Mühlfeld in March
1891, Brahms immediately pledged to write new chamber works for clarinet. By
the end of that summer, Brahms had finished both the Trio for Clarinet, Cello,
and Piano, Op. 114 and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115. Two years
later, following the completion of the sublime piano pieces Opp. 116-119,
Brahms again wrote for Mühlfeld. This time the result was the two Sonatas, Op.
Unfortunately, these four magnificent
works constitute Brahms's entire output for clarinet. The pieces on this disc,
however, could well be considered the finest examples of Brahmsian clarinet
chamber music not written by Brahms. Both Rabl and Labor would have been well
acquainted with Brahms's late chamber works and quite possibly even heard them
performed by Mühlfeld. Thus, it is probably no coincidence that both Rabl's Quartet
and Labor's Quintet feature the clarinet as the only wind addition to the more
established instrumentation of piano trio and piano quartet.
Given the ingratiating Viennese style and
first-rate craftsmanship present in both pieces, it is natural to wonder why
they fell into obscurity. The precise reasons are unclear, but probable causes
can be hypothesized based on known circumstances. In the case of Rabl, his
short career as a composer may have played a role. Rabl gave up composing at
age thirty, turning his attention toward conducting and vocal coaching. As for
Labor, his blindness may have limited his ability to disseminate and promote
his works. Whatever individual factors may have been at play, both composers
were eclipsed by Brahms - the standard bearer for "conservative" or "classical"
romanticism. So, lacking Brahms's reputation, the rise of modernism likely
caused Rabl and Labor's work to be relegated to the back shelf as "last year's
Today, the modernist style that obscured
these works has itself yielded to post-modernism. It therefore seems fitting,
with the benefit of hindsight at the beginning of yet another century, to
review the life's work of Rabl and Labor and rediscover their forgotten chamber
In 1896, eighteen compositions were
submitted to a prestigious composition contest sponsored by the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein
(Musicians' Society), a group whose aim was to foster musical culture and whose
honorary president was Johannes Brahms. The esteemed composer played an active
role in this competition, donating prize money and serving as head of the
According to critic Eduard Hanslick,
Brahms "was a zealous promoter of competitions, especially chamber music
competitions, to bring young talents to the fore. When it came to the
examination of anonymous manuscripts that had been submitted, he showed
astonishing acuity in guessing from the overall impression and technical
details, who the author was, or at least his school or teacher. Last year
Brahms was very interested in an anonymous quartet whose author he was quite
unable to identify. Impatiently he waited for the opening of the sealed notice.
On it was written the heretofore entirely unknown name: Walter Rabl."
As it turned out, Rabl's Quartet in
E-flat major for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano, Op. 1 caught the attention
of the other judges as well and was awarded first prize. (The second prize went
to Joseph Miroslav Weber, the third to Alexander Zemlinsky.) Brahms was so
taken with the piece that he recommended it to his own publisher, Simrock, who
released it the following year along with three other Rabl works: the Fantasy
Pieces for Piano Trio, Op. 2, and two sets of Four Songs, Op. 3 and Op. 4. In
1899, Simrock published four additional pieces: Four Songs, Op. 5; the Violin
Sonata, Op. 6; Three Songs, Op. 7; and the Symphony, Op. 8.
Walter Rabl was born in Vienna on
November 30, 1873. In childhood, he became an accomplished pianist and was
profoundly influenced by the works of the classical masters. Early on he moved
to Salzburg, where he studied music theory and composition with J. F. Hummel,
director of the Mozarteum, and graduated with honors from the Kaiserlich und
Königlich Staatsgymnasium (Royal and Imperial State School) in 1892. Rabl then
returned to Vienna in order to further his musical studies with theorist Karl
After a period, he enrolled in the
doctoral program at the German University in Prague as a student of noted
musicologist Guido Adler. In addition to his regular studies, Rabl assisted
Adler with research for the eighty-eight volume Denkmäler der Tonkunst in
Österreich (Monuments of Music in Austria), along with another young composer, Anton
was while he was a doctoral candidate that Rabl captured the composition prize.
This success led him away from previous thoughts about a career in law and
cemented his resolve to make his way in music. At twenty-five, he finished his
Ph.D. and began to volunteer at the opera house in Prague. Soon after, he
accepted a paying position at the Royal Opera of Dresden as coach and chorus
master. His next series of compositions, Opp. 9-15, consisted entirely of songs
and were published in Leipzig by Rahter.
Just after the beginning of the century,
Rabl turned his attention toward opera. Up to this point his work had continued
in the tradition of Brahms. But his opera, Liane, which premiered in Strasbourg
in 1903, took a different turn. According to A. Eccarius-Sieber, "In larger
circles of the musical world, conductor and composer Dr. Walter Rabl has made
himself known through performances of his romantic fairy
tale opera Liane. Since this opera in its entire design and setting follows the
Wagnerian artistic style while Walter Rabl - award-winning composer of a
beautiful clarinet quartet - previously had been considered to belong to the
Brahms faction, its appearance had to draw considerable attention."
Although this attention was highly
favorable, Liane was Rabl's last work. Based on comments made by Rabl's son,
Kurt, it seems that the critical comparison of Liane to Wagner's operas so
discouraged this Brahmsian disciple that he stopped composing and turned his
energies more fully to operatic conducting. From 1903 until 1924, Rabl held a
string of conducting posts throughout Germany and championed works by
progressive composers such as Mahler, Goldmark, Schreker, Korngold, and Richard
Strauss, and also directed many performances of Wagner's music. In 1905, he
married the Wagnerian soprano Hermine von Kriesten and conducted her in major
roles such as Brünnhilde and Elektra. After his retirement from conducting in
1924, he continued to use his impressive piano skills in collaboration with
many notable singers until his death in 1940.
Rudolf Felber states in Cobbett's
Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, "Rabl's chamber works are influenced by
both Schumann and Brahms, but they are fresh and enjoyable compositions of
considerable artistic worth, clear and simple in form, thoroughly natural and
unforced in expression." This description applies to the Quartet, which is the
only known 19th century work scored for this combination of instruments,
according to Rabl scholars John and Virginia Strauss. Rabl uses the myriad of
possibilities inherent in this grouping to great expressive effect, masterfully
combining a wide variety of textures into a cohesive, organic whole. Especially
notable are frequent sonata-like textures for piano and one other instrument, often
the clarinet. Like Brahms, Rabl employs traditional forms, but takes them
further and is freer in his "play," particularly with tempos, meters, and
Not surprisingly, the Quartet's opening
movement in E-flat major is in sonata form and contains mainly conventional key
relationships. The clarinet introduces the exposition's two main themes, both
of which are soft and lyrical. In contrast, the dramatic development, marked Vivo,
introduces more motivic material, uses hemiola and other rhythmic devices, and
quickly progresses through a wide variety of keys, eventually returning to the
original tempo and snippets of the first theme in E major. Following the
recapitulation in E-flat, the coda begins in D major and uses ascending melodic
fragments to build to a final climactic reiteration of the theme in E-flat.
The second movement is structurally the
most radical. It begins with a funeral march that
proceeds through a mazurka and a song, then morphs into a fugue, and ends with
a march of triumph. In spite of six different tempo indications, two meter
signatures, and a variety of textures, this movement is astonishingly cohesive.
The third movement, only sixty-four measures, is in a simple song form (ABA)
and epitomizes Viennese charm. Faint echoes of Johann Strauss can be heard in
the B section. The finale, also in sonata form, explores vast harmonic
territory even in the exposition. The development, using first theme motives,
builds intensity via rhythmic manipulation. Following a slightly abbreviated
recap, Rabl again creates energy through rhythmic means, this time with two
striking meter changes in the coda.
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What a lost gem this piece is...I'm grateful to whomever uncovered it.
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