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Revival! The forgotten works of Karl Goldmark

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2's In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, we've got a contemporary of Brahms who fell from massive celebrity to abject obscurity in only a few decades: Karl Goldmark.

Who was Karl Goldmark?

Goldmark might be the most extraordinary almost entirely self-taught composer ever. One of the most successful opera composers of his day, he was one of the only musical figures of the late 19th century to straddle both sides of the "War of the Romantics" — he was admired by fans of both Brahms and Wagner. Quite the feat in those divided times.

Goldmark died exactly 100 years ago this month, and in spite of having spent the last century not being performed, his music has amassed a significant fan club of musicians and researchers — many of whom signed a 2014 open letter to "the world of music," in the hopes that Goldmark would receive his due some time in this next century. 

In that spirit, let's learn a bit about who we're dealing with. 

Károly Goldmark (he'd go by "Karl" later) was born in Hungary, into a family of at least 20 children. (He could never remember the specific number. Maybe 21, maybe 24.) His father, a Jewish cantor, could hardly provide for them all, and Goldmark grew up in deep poverty. Yet, somehow, his family managed to scrape together enough money to send him to violin lessons in a neighbouring town — a mere four-hour walk away.

Eventually he moved to Vienna with his brother to take violin lessons from a more prestigious teacher. The fees left Goldmark nearly penniless; he recalled living off of cucumbers and curds for an entire winter. But, his musical skills progressed, and he began to teach himself composition from textbooks (quite the feat, since he'd only learned to read at age 12, a few years earlier).

Goldmark's burgeoning compositional career hit a snag when he was tried as a dissident for his involvement in the Hungarian uprisings of 1848. He was sentenced to death by firing squad, and apparently the guns were loaded and aimed before an anonymous interloper convinced the presiding officer not to execute a harmless fiddler. 

Whoever that Good Samaritan was, "the world of music" owes them a great deal. Goldmark went on to become one of Vienna's leading musical figures. His opera The Queen of Shebacaused a sensation, and remained popular when most of Goldmark's other works were forgotten. Goldmark became a close friend of Johannes Brahms, in spite of the former's Wagnerian proclivities. Plus, no less a figure than Gustav Mahler sought Goldmark's approval when trying to make his own mark on musical Vienna. 

Goldmark was the man.

Why have I never heard of him?

Couple reasons. Firstly, it's amazing how much influence one critic can have. Eduard Hanslick was probably the primary critic in Brahms's camp during the War of the Romantics. And, in spite of Goldmark's personal friendship with Brahms, Hanslick was resolutely unmoved by his music. The bad reviews were widely read, and continued to be cited by critics and scholars for years after Goldmark's death.

Secondly, and this is by far the more important reason, Goldmark was Jewish. He lived at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise throughout Europe, and when Hitler rose to power nearly 20 years after Goldmark's death, Goldmark's music disappeared from central Europe's influential concert stages and opera halls almost entirely. Somehow, they never quite found their way back.

Why should I check him out?

It's easy to think of the music of the late 19th century in terms of the War of the Romantics: adventurous Wagner on one side, conservative Brahms on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Goldmark soundly contradicts that massive oversimplification. So, for those of us who see both sides (which is easier to do nowadays than it was back then), he's a welcome discovery.

And, his music is just so charming. Seriously, you won't believe how charming.

1. Rustic Wedding Symphony, mvt. 5

This symphony has always been one of Goldmark's most popular works, thanks in part to conductor Thomas Beecham's love for it. Beecham programmed the symphony concerts at a time when Goldmark had very little reputation at all. The lively counterpoint of the finale is the perfect introduction to this composer.

2. 'Magische Töne' from The Queen of Sheba

It's easy to see why this opera was such a smash, just by virtue of this knee-weakener, which was first sung by the legendary tenor Gustav Walter.

3. Piano Trio No. 1, mvt. 1

Most of Goldmark's chamber music has Mendelssohn's influence all over it. Who'd complain about that?

4. Sakuntala

This sumptuous concert overture helped cement Goldmark's reputation. It's based on a story from the Mahabharata, one of the major Sanskrit epics. 

Suite for Violin and Piano in E major, mvt. 1

A bit of Schumann in the chamber music, too. This tune is just effortlessly gorgeous. I don't think Goldmark was even trying.