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Schoeck, Othmar

Othmar Schoeck was born in Brunnen, a village on the banks of Lake Lucerne, on 1 September 1886. He studied at the Zurich Conservatory and with Max Reger in Leipzig. In 1908 he returned to Zurich, where he remained until his death in 1957. Besides conducting, Schoeck was active as accompanist and conductor; in the latter capacity he directed the symphony concerts in St Gall from 1917 to 1944, when a heart attack caused him to retire from the podium.

Schoeck’s oeuvre includes eight operas, three of which have enjoyed successful productions in recent years: Venus (1919-21), Massimilla Doni (1934-36) and, above all, Penthesilea (1923-27). Schoeck is, however, primarily known as a composer in the German lied tradition. More than three hundred lieder for voice and piano, composed during a period of over fifty years, form the backbone of his output. Schoeck composed relatively little instrumental music. Although he was himself a gifted pianist, his oeuvre even contains but few works for the piano. The instrument that seems to have fascinated him more than any other - at least in his younger years - was the violin.

Schoeck’s earliest instrumental work that he still recognized in later years was his Violin Sonata Woo 22 in D major. He composed it in 1905, just a few months after enrolling at the Zurich Conservatory, and it was his first essay in absolute music on more than a small scale. While it is not as personal in tone as some of the songs that he composed at the time, it nevertheless has a youthful freshness and a carefree melodic quality that can still charm us today. It was first performed on 28 October 1908 in Thun, at the first-ever concert devoted entirely to Schoeck’s music. It was organized by Thun’s music director August Oetiker, who had been a friend of Schoeck’s since their youth. The first violinist of the Basel Symphony Orchestra, Hans Kötscher, was accompanied by the composer himself. Over forty years later, in early 1952, Schoeck decided to revise the sonata. He made the piano accompaniment more transparent, made certain revisions to the harmony, and imposed several minor cuts. This new version was first performed in Zurich on 6 March 1954, with Stefi Geyer accompanied by Walter Frey. In 1956, it was published as a gift from the Canton of Zurich on the occasion of Schoeck’s seventieth birthday. The first version of the sonata, which today lies in Stefi Geyer’s estate in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Zurich Central Library), has apparently not been performed since 1908 and is here recorded for the very first time.

It was in the year of the composition of this sonata that Schoeck first heard a concert by the Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer (1888-1956), then a celebrated Wunderkind. Since the Sonata was by all accounts written in the summer of 1905, while Stefi did not appear in Zurich until the following autumn, it is hardly likely that she provided the inspiration for it. There is no doubt, however - as Schoeck wrote two years later - that she already ‘thrilled me to the depths of my being’. When he heard her again in Leipzig in 1907, his enthusiasm knew no bounds. ‘My heartthrob, the lovely Stefi Geyer, was here recently; she played wonderfully and enchanted me more than ever’, he wrote to his parents on 5 December. He finally made her acquaintance the following July, when she performed once more in Zurich. Fifty years later, he reminisced in conversation with his friend Werner Vogel: ‘It wasn’t surprising that people fell in love with her. She was a pretty, charming girl who had beauty in the way she moved, and who knew how to walk so gracefully’. Two weeks after meeting her in 1908, Schoeck wrote an Albumblatt for violin and piano (Woo. 70) that he dedicated to her, and which they premièred together when they went on a brief concert tour to Central Switzerland shortly afterwards. It has not been published and is here recorded for the very first time. In the winter of 1908-09, Schoeck composed his Violin Sonata op. 16, then in 1911-12 his Violin Concerto quasi una fantasia op. 21, both of which he dedicated to Stefi. Many years later, Schoeck maintained that he and Stefi had written ‘rapturous love letters’ to each other, but that their physical contact had been restricted to a single kiss, for it was as if Stefi’s body were ‘covered by a coat of armour’. Schoeck even maintained that she was the only woman he had known who had never submitted to his charms. At the time of the Violin Sonata op. 16, Stefi became engaged to a Viennese lawyer by the name of Erwin Jung (‘a worn-out, fashion-mad Viennese pimp’, scoffed Schoeck), whom she soon married.

As with the Sonata Woo. 22, the Sonata op. 16 immediately betrays the song composer in Schoeck, for it too is highly lyrical in character. However, it is a marked improvement in terms of form and harmony. As with many works he wrote after his studies with Reger, this Sonata shows Schoeck’s heightened interest in the possibilities of counterpoint. In the final movement, there is even a canon; it is noteworthy that canon is also used in the song Peregrina II that Schoeck also composed at this time - a song that he in fact quotes in the central movement of the sonata (though only indirectly). This is hardly a coincidence, for the song apparently reflects Schoeck’s state of mind after his rejection by Stefi. He even referred to his Sonata privately as the ‘Job Sonata’, presumably on account of the trials and tribulations to which he felt Stefi was subjecting him. The fact that his suffering was not yet at an end is proven by a surviving sketch for the Violin Concerto, written two years later, that he tore in two and angrily inscribed ‘Die chaibe Stefi!’ - ‘Bloody Stefi!’. Stefi’s husband died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War. She subsequently married the Zurich composer Walter Schulthess and moved with him back to his native city. Stefi naturally came into frequent contact with Schoeck there, and established their friendship on a purely platonic basis. Thus it was that she was entrusted with the world première of the new version of his early Sonata Woo. 22 in 1954.

Several of Schoeck’s works of the 1920s and ’30s bear witness to his wish to combine instrumental and vocal forms (a desire that is incidentally manifest in the works of Alban Berg at this time), and his instrumental works sometimes seem to be a testing ground for new ideas before he would employ them in his vocal music. Thus, for example, Schoeck experimented with aspects of cyclical form in the Bass Clarinet Sonata before employing it in the song cycle Wandersprüche (1928). And while it would be wrong to treat the Violin Sonata op. 46 (composed in the summer and autumn of 1931) as a mere study for the masterly song cycle Notturno that was begun shortly afterwards, there is no denying that the two works bear strong similarities, both in their part writing and in their turn of melody (one could also interpret the opening of the Sonata as a variation of the opening of the song cycle Wanderung im Gebirge that Schoeck had composed one year earlier). The Sonata op. 46 resembles the others recorded on this CD in being cast in three movements, though here the second movement is a scherzo. When compared with the two earlier sonatas, op. 46 is stark and linear in style, the Romantic spirit of its forbears having given way to a tentative Neo-Classicism. This makes this work less easily accessible than the others to both performer and audience alike, and no doubt accounts for it never having attained the popularity of op. 16. However, we believe that the attentive listener will not fail to be fascinated by its melodic and formal riches.

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