Friedrich Gernsheim

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Steve Jones

String Quartet No.5 in A Major, Op.83

“Gernsheim's Fifth Quartet, dating from 1911, is a really astonishing work, especially in view of the fact that the composer was then 72 years old. The first movement, Allegro non troppo, is built on two very melodious and engaging themes. A very original scherzo, Molto vivace, follows. It has the aura of program music in that it strongly brings to mind ghosts and spirits and breezes whispering through leaves. The trio section, a vigorous march, comes as a great surprise and provides excellent contrast. The slow movement, Andante, is quite fine. The themes have real distinction. The finale, Allegro vivace, is a dashing movement. The first subject resembles a whirling, playful arabesque. The second subject is even more original with its unusual rhythmic and tonal effects."---Wilhelm Altmann writing in his Handbook for String Quartet Players.


Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916) is a composer whose music was held in the highest regard by critics during his lifetime. No less an authority than Wilhelm Altmann, perhaps the most influential chamber music critic of all time, has written that Gernsheim’s chamber music is poetic and of a high intellectual content. But Gernsheim had two misfortunes, which led to his music not obtaining the reputation it might have. The first was to be born within a decade of Brahms. A misfortune because, in what is surely an extraordinary phenomenon, virtually every composer in the German-speaking countries born within a decade either side of Brahms were so eclipsed by him that their reputation and music all but disappeared when that era was over. Names such as Rheinberger, Reinecke, Kiel, Bruch, Dessoff, and Herzogenberg, among many others, come to mind. The second misfortune was that being Jewish, his music was officially banned during the Nazi era, which insured that it would fall into oblivion. It is only now, close to a century after his death that it is being rediscovered with great delight.


Gernsheim, somewhat of a piano and violin virtuoso as a child, was eventually educated at the famous Leipzig Conservatory where he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles and violin with Ferdinand David. After graduating, he continued his studies in Paris, getting to know Saint Saëns, Lalo, Liszt and Rossini. Despite his admiration for France and the French, he returned to Germany and during the course of his life, he held academic and conducting positions in Cologne, Rotterdam and finally Berlin. He used his position as a conductor to advance the cause of Brahms’ music. The two, while not close friends, carried on a correspondence for many years during which it was clear that Brahms had considerable respect and admiration for Gernsheim’s work. An accolade which was, in Brahms’ case, no mere flattery as Brahms only very rarely praised the works of other composers.


With this work and his Fourth Quartet, Gernsheim shows that his quartets are equal of anything being written by his contemporaries. They very deserve revival and a chance to enter the repertoire as well as take their rightful place on the music stands of amateurs.


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