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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

This week's composer is Walter Rabl (1873-1940), whose career as a composer was brief but memorable.

In the 1890s, Johannes Brahms, in conjunction with the Vienna Musicians' Society, established an annual chamber music composition contest that rapidly became quite prestigious because of its connection to the famous composer. Until the end of his life, Brahms himself sat on the jury that evaluated entries. Entries were submitted anonymously, but Brahms was so familiar with other composers active in Vienna at the time that he was said to be able to guess the identities of the composers or at least their teachers with impressive accuracy. So it seemed remarkable that, in the 1896 edition of this contest, Brahms was completely at a loss, unable to make any guess as to the winner's identity. After the results were tabulated, he waited as impatiently as anyone else for the unsealing of the composer's name; and when the envelope was opened, the composer turned out to be a total unknown named Walter Rabl. Brahms was so impressed by Rabl's piece, a quartet for violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, that he recommended it to his own publisher Simrock.

At the time, Rabl had been torn between two career paths for some time. He was in a doctoral program in musicology at the German University in Prague, but had wavered between that and law throughout his undergraduate years and was still contemplating jumping ship to become a lawyer. As a result of his unexpected success, he chose neither musical academia nor law. He finished his Ph.D in 1898 but by that point had already become a full-time composer and conductor. Other compositions followed; between 1896 and 1899 Simrock published Rabl's quartet as well as a piano trio, a violin sonata, four song cycles, and a symphony.

But Rabl did not have the long and distinguished career that Brahms and others predicted. After his only symphony was published in 1899, his output slowed considerably; he produced a few art songs, and one final major work, his opera Liane in 1903. Although Liane had a favorable reception, it was the end of his composing career. For the rest of his life, he continued to be well known in German and Austrian musical circles as an opera conductor, and as a vocal coach who taught a number of prominent singers, but he would never compose another piece of music in the remaining four decades of his life. Decades later, his son Kurt suggested that Walter Rabl was such a committed disciple of Brahms that he was dismayed by critics' comparisons of his opera to Wagner's, and quit composing upon the realization that his work was beginning to show the influences of Brahms's great rival. This theory seems somewhat questionable, as Rabl conducted Wagner's operas throughout his career, but it remains the only explanation anyone has given for his sudden retirement from composing.

This week's piece is the one that started it all, the Clarinet Quartet. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Rabl's quartet is its maturity; it sounds like the work of an experienced composer rather than the composer's first substantial work. The first movement's opening theme is reminiscent of late Brahms, but a distinctly un-Brahmsian, nocturne-like second theme follows, and the two slow themes rapidly build into an up-tempo, dramatic climax. The second movement is a set of variations on a slow, funereal march. The third movement, a brief intermezzo, begins in a languid Brahmsian fashion but quickly passes through a whole series of different moods. Finally, the fourth movement may be the most brilliant, beginning buoyantly and playing freely with tempo, meter, and rhythm to build intensity as the movement goes on.

Movement 1


Movement 2


Movement 3


Movement 4
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Andrew

September 2017

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