Hyperion Records

Homerische symfonie

'Mortelmans: Homerische symfonie & other orchestral works' (CDA67766)
Mortelmans: Homerische symfonie & other orchestral works
Movement 1: Van de helden 'Of the heroes'
Movement 2: Herinneringen aan Patroklos' dood 'Memories of Patroklos's death'
Movement 3: Sirenengespeel en gezang 'Sirens playing and singing'
Movement 4: De genius van Hellas 'The genius of Hellas'

Homerische symfonie

Of the Homerische symfonie (‘Homeric Symphony’, 1898), Mortelmans wrote: ‘That title could give one the impression that this work is in Homeric style. That is absolutely not the case. The Homeric songs of the Iliad and the Odyssey had been favourite reading material for the composer for a long time, and the impressions created by these songs, under the influence of the composer’s own temperament, crystallized into moods and feelings which became expressed in a lyrical manner in this symphony.’ These may be pompous words, but they contain an apposite truth. Mortelmans’ Homerische symfonie is in essence an atmospheric succession of personal impressions. Once again Mortelmans, with his monothematic constructions, is very near to the young Sibelius although he lags behind in harmonic daring. He makes just a bit too much use of Wagnerian pastiche and this is particularly obvious in the opening movement, given the subtitle ‘Van de helden’ (‘Of the heroes’): ‘In this section feelings are expressed on everything heroic—bravery, combat, victory, but also feelings of a more tender nature.’ This is something of an overstatement, and anyone expecting classic bravery and combat in this rather pastorally coloured movement, will be disappointed. The movement opens with a heartfelt victory chorale which provides the melodic basis for everything that follows. The focus on the continuous unravelling of the main theme and the lack of a theatrical disruption (such as the Freyr passage in Mythe der lente) causes one to suspect that Mortelmans was writing a purely musical narrative.

The second movement, ‘Herinneringen aan Patroklos’ dood’ (‘Memories of Patroklos’s death’) is less abstract. ‘Patroklos was one of the Greek heroes that died outside Troy’, explains Mortelmans. ‘His death was a heavy blow for Achilles, who wept bitterly over the lifeless body of his friend and became moved by the memories of their mutual affection. The subsequent funeral ceremony was celebrated in ritual glory.’ Mortelmans takes the opportunity—like so many before him—to include a funeral march. Again, he unfolds a narrative with a minimum of thematic material. After the introduction (in which one is reminded of the tortuous figures in the notorious funeral march in Götterdämmerung), he introduces his own plodding march above a descending bass pizzicato. A halt is briefly called by a loving Andante, but this is rapidly trodden underfoot by a tumultuous return of the funeral march.

Allowing so much sadness to be succeeded by unconcerned naivety is one of Mortelmans’ less successful dramatic choices. The third movement, ‘Sirenengespeel en gezang’ (‘Sirens playing and singing’), sounds rather flippant when set against the previous movement. Mortelmans’ programme explains that this movement transports us ‘to the twelfth song in the Odyssey, in which sirens endanger the life of the sailor. Despite being repeatedly warned about the danger ahead, he throws himself into the arms of the sirens, succumbing to his fate and falling prey to the waves. The sirens then resume their darting capers and frolics and honour their victim with little more than a sneer.’ It is hard, however, to hear these merciless sirens in this well-behaved scherzo, and Mortelmans’ warning that he never ‘thought about painting scenes’ is nowhere more apt. The most interesting section is the trio, in which the more repetitive passages can be heard as harmonically polished-up prototypes of Sibelius.

Mortelmans finishes the symphony with a largely cheerful finale, which once more takes on the bravura spirit of the opening movement. ‘De genius van Hellas’ (‘The genius of Hellas’) can be experienced as ‘a lyrical song of praise for the genius of the old Hellenics: their liberally based, healthy approach to living only slightly hindered by the mysteries of religion and the oracle’. Between two jubilant passages, Mortelmans permits himself to take a strikingly dark and dramatic excursion. What should have been the promised Hellenic philosophy of life turns out to be a homage to Mortelmans’ own Germanic gods: Beethoven and Wagner. From the former, Mortelmans gets the idea of setting in motion the notorious stuttering motif familiar from the Fifth Symphony, while borrowing descending sixths and slumber-inducing hymns from the latter.

This symphony illustrates the problem of Mortelmans’ explanatory notes, and ultimately his ambivalence towards programme music. The promised ‘means of aiding comprehension’ create false hope, and anyone looking for heroic sagas, nymphomaniac mermaids, stoic drama or Greek mysticism will search in vain. Nevertheless, the composer had certainly provided Flemish music with a promising and beautiful orchestral work. Mortelmans noticed the discrepancy between the descriptions in the programme and the audience’s musical experience in reality. Whether the problem lay with the music or the programmatic descriptions, or a combination of the two, he drew his own conclusions and shifted his focus towards piano music and songs. For a full twenty years he wrote not a note of orchestral music.

from notes by Tom Janssens © 2009
English: Christine Davies

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