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Felix Draeseke

born: 7 October 1835
died: 26 February 1913
country: Germany

Felix Draeseke was one of the more interesting also-rans of Romantic music—a force to be reckoned with in his own right. He was even touted as a serious rival to Brahms as a symphonist, and boldly emulated Wagner with an astonishingly ambitious sacred counterpart to the 'Ring' cycle—a collection of choral works entitled Christus: A Mystery in three Oratorios with a Prelude. This mammoth undertaking was to be performed over several days, with a ‘preliminary evening’ thrown in for good measure. Its first performance in 1912 was a glittering triumph for its industrious composer, but the sheer length of the work, combined with the oratorio genre’s rapid falling out of fashion in the twentieth century, put paid to any chance of sustained success. Few have now heard a note of Christus, and it seems unlikely to overtake Wagner’s 'Ring' in popular affection any time soon.

But it was initially Draeseke’s orchestral and instrumental music that was most admired. His Piano Sonata ‘quasi fantasia’ (1867) earned plaudits from no less a figure than Franz Liszt, who considered it to be one of the most impressive of the modern era. (Those who are skeptical about this judgment should seek out a chance to listen to it themselves—it really is a fascinating work.) Draeseke had by then long been an adherent of the ‘New German School’ of Liszt and Wagner, despite his initial training at the notoriously conservative Leipzig Conservatory. Bowled over by hearing Liszt’s performances of Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar, he himself took up residence in the small town in 1856, there to imbibe the ‘music of the future’ and participate in the lively artistic life surrounding Liszt. His reverence for Liszt was typically manifested in the composition of symphonic poems after the model of his master. Almost needless to say, the shadow of Richard Wagner fell heavily over his first attempt at opera, the title of which—König Sigurd—immediately betrays its influences. It was, in fact, one of the earliest of those depressingly numerous Wagner-imitations that young German composers had to get out of their system before acquiring their own individuality. Even Richard Strauss went through his own copycat phase with his first opera Guntram, where a forlorn knight mooches around, predictably seeking some sort of ill-defined ‘redemption’ in a manner that suggests an all-too-close study of Wagner’s Parsifal.

Draeseke’s respect for Wagner was not reciprocated. The latter seems to have thought little of Draeseke’s music, describing the Germania March—perhaps the only work by Draeseke that Wagner had ever heard performed—as ‘pitiful’. Draeseke, for his part, became gradually more disaffected with the New German School, a process accelerated by his deep disapproval of Wagner’s affair with Liszt’s daughter Cosima. He noticeably began to plough a more musically conservative furrow after settling in Dresden in 1876. In 1884 he was officially enlisted to the staff of the city’s Royal Saxon Conservatory, and spent the remaining decades of his life there. His interests turned increasingly towards sacred choral music, often pervaded by ostentatiously contrapuntal textures of a more conservative style. Liszt was not impressed. On hearing some of Draeseke’s later church music, he commented acidly, ‘it seems our lion has turned into a rabbit!’.

from notes by Kenneth Hamilton © 2009

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