Classical Music | Music for Oboe

Charles M. Loeffler

Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola, and Piano  Play

Alex Klein Oboe
Richard Young Viola
Kuang-Hao Huang Piano

Recorded on 09/26/2012, uploaded on 01/09/2013

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Of all the works on today’s program, this one comes closest to occupying a place in today’s “standard repertoire.”  It turns up with surprising frequency, not only on mixed chamber music programs that have become the norm at so many summer festivals, but also at conservatory concerts as well as viola and oboe “congresses” all over the world.  In fact, violists and oboists have probably played this piece more often than any other chamber music work that combines these two instruments – with the possible exception of the Mozart oboe quartet. 

Until fairly recently, it was widely believed that Charles Martin Loeffler was born in Alsace (France) to German parents.  Throughout his long and successful career, his “cosmopolitan” upbringing and the “typically Alsatian character” of his music were often mentioned.  Loeffler himself did little to discourage these misleading impressions.  He rarely admitted that his actual birth name was Martin Karl Löffler, that he was born in Schöneberg (not far from Berlin), and that both sides of his family were of Prussian origin.  It was some years after the Prussians imprisoned and tortured his father that Loeffler turned his back on his true ancestry and “became” Alsatian.  This helps to explain his musical style that was far more French than German. 

At age 13, Loeffler resolved to be a professional musician.  He studied violin in Berlin with Joseph Joachim, and composition in Paris with Ernest Guiraud.  At age 20, he emigrated to America, where only one year later he become the assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a post he held for over 2 decades.  This prestigious position enabled him to have a number of his compositions performed by this great orchestra, and also to be a frequent concerto soloist.  In fact, it was Loeffler who gave the American premieres of violin concerti by Saint-Saëns, Bruch, and Lalo.  He used these valuable opportunities to cultivate personal relationships with many influential individuals, including Gabriel Fauré, Ferruccio Busoni, Eugène Ysaÿe, and even George Gershwin.  Simply put, Loeffler was in the right place at the right time, with direct access to the highest echelons of the music profession. 

The Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola, and Piano date from 1901.  However they were originally conceived in 1898 as a set of Three Rhapsodies for Voice, Clarinet, Viola, and Piano.  But when the clarinetist for whom they were intended was tragically killed, Loeffler reworked the material so it could be performed by an oboist whom he had befriended.  Based on evocative poems by Maurice Rollinat, the Two Rhapsodies are reminiscent of Fauré and Chausson.  The 1st rhapsody (The Pool) expresses a vivid fantasy-world of “aged fish stuck blind… goblins… and consumptive toads,” all under the glow of the moon’s “ghostly face, with flattened nose and weirdly vacant jaw, like death’s head lit from within.”  The 2nd rhapsody (The Bagpipe) imitates the characteristic sounds of that primitive yet hauntingly expressive instrument, in a lush setting that could not be more “Romantic.” 

Loeffler embraced a musical philosophy which post-Romantic literature called “decadent.”  He and other composers like Frank Bridge believed that one could not fully appreciate happiness without first confronting the depths of sadness.  The promise of “enlightenment” comes only to those who first navigate “the darkness.”  In these Two Rhapsodies, Rollinat’s sometimes morbid images should therefore be seen in a larger context – as part of the harsh and shocking landscape that can line the path which ultimately leads to a more serene and fulfilling destination.  Loeffler’s musical expression of this poetry is even more powerful than the words alone.  Not unlike a mini-opera, it presents colorful and dramatic tone-pictures that capture the spirit of French Impressionism, but which are also imbued with a wide-eyed New World freshness. 

The New World had a similar effect on Antonin Dvořák when he settled in the United States around the same time.  But unlike Dvořák, whose “American” musical language always reflected his Czech heritage, Loeffler rarely allowed the flavor of his music to be influenced by his true Prussian origins.  Yet if his heart still carried any bitterness towards those who took away his father when he was 12 years old, there is no hint of it in his music.  For what is so compellingly expressed in these Two Rhapsodies is the wondrous exhilaration, curiosity, and rapture of a young person’s private imaginary realm.  Despite all the comfortable trappings of Charles Martin Loeffler’s very successful and satisfying adult life, could this realm have been a still-necessary escape from the nightmares of Martin Karl Löffler’s childhood?      Richard Young