Thursday, December 19, 2013

JDCMB Guest Post: George Jackson on the music of Julie von Webenau

Please welcome to JDCMB the young British conductor George Jackson, who has been delving into the music of a fascinating and all-but-forgotten composer, Julie von Webenau (1813-1887). She was, incidentally, the dedicatee of Schumann's Humoresque, Op.20.

'Frag den Mond': Julia von Webenau's 'New' Orchestral Song Cycle

Edward Elgar's instruction to the London Symphony Orchestra during the famous 1931 Abbey Road session is an invaluable aid to a young musician: 'Play this tune as though you've never heard it before'.  Navigating the halls of the 'repertoire' museum is always controversial, particularly as a young conductor working with orchestras who have developed a culture of playing certain music long before you were even born.  Aside from a deep passion for new music, my solution has been to rediscover old 'treasures' and assume the joy and responsibility of sharing them with the world.

The culture of birthday celebration in concert programming is rife, and this year's BWV trilogy (no, not Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, but Britten-Wagner-Verdi, of course) has brought a lot of music to a wider audience. My attention was recently drawn to a lesser-known guest at the birthday party: Julia Baroni-Cavalcabò, better known during her days in mid-19th century Vienna as Julie von Webenau. The rather modest Grove entry places her on the musical map, as a student of Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart and a close friend of Robert Schumann. Webenau's compositional canon extends to a series character pieces for solo piano (à la Schumann) and a noteworthy selection of lieder: the latter - which are musical gems - are of special interest to conductors and singers. 

Continuing my pursuit of this forgotten character, I ended up negotiating a collaboration with Gesine Schröder, music theory professor at Vienna's University for Music and Performing Arts. We commissioned a series of Vienna-based composers to orchestrate several of Webenau's lieder, to be premiered by the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester (ASO) Wien, where I was principal conductor last season.

The four songs that we chose - from a very long shortlist - represent an important step in German text setting in the middle of the 19th century, and are certainly worthy of further study: Ludwig Bechstein (the same poet who inspired Mahler's own text for ' Das klagende Lied'), Johan Nepomuk Vogl (a great Schubert collaborator), Hermann Kletke (a poet often set by Schumann), and Robert Reinick (responsible for the libretto of Schumann's Genoveva).          

Terz Magazine described the song cycle as a work that should 'place a great composer into the limelight in a situation which, as with many of her colleagues, the gender aesthetics of the 19th century forced them to be forgotten'.  Without wishing to go into the obvious issues of gender (not least in Vienna both in the 19th century and beyond, but, as Jessica herself points out here, 'women composers are still climbing the Eiger', not least at this year's British Composer Awards): Julie von Webenau's music is stunning, enhanced by a unifying marriage to the gorgeous texts she chooses, and offering a differently-tinged perspective of the German romantic art song.  I hope that my conducting colleagues, singers, musicologists and cultural commentators alike will take note and explore this rich terra incognita in years to come.

Here is Julie von Webenau's Warum, to a text by Ludwig Bechstein, sung by Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger with the Akademisches Symphonie Orchester Wien conducted by George.