The Kennedy Center

Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola, and Piano

About the Work

Charles Loeffler Composer: Charles Martin Loeffler
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

French by birth, German by training and American by choice, Charles Martin Loeffler was one of the most prominent and cosmopolitan musical figures of his generation. Loeffler was born in Mulhouse, Alsace (then part of France) in 1861, and moved with his family to the small Russian country town of Smyela in the province of Kiev before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The boy received a violin as a gift for his eighth birthday, and some lessons with a member of the Russian Imperial Orchestra followed. From 1871 to 1873, the Loefflers settled in Debreczen, Hungary, and then moved on to Switzerland. By the age of thirteen, Charles had decided to become a professional violinist. He showed such promise that he was accepted as a student by Joseph Joachim, an intimate of Brahms and one of the half-dozen greatest virtuosos of his day, with whom he studied from 1874 to 1877 at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik; he continued his education at the Paris Conservatoire. Loeffler found work for a season as a violinist in the Pasdeloup Orchestra before it folded in 1879, and then joined the musical establishment of Paul von Derwies, a Russian baron whose nearly immeasurable wealth allowed him to maintain a private orchestra, an opera company and a Slavic choir for his church services at his seasonal palaces in Nice and Lugano – three trains were required to transport the Baron and his household on their semi-annual shuttle. When Derwies died in June 1881, Loeffler moved to the New World, arriving in New York armed with a letter of recommendation from Joachim. He joined the just-established Boston Symphony Orchestra as its assistant concertmaster in 1882 and became a favorite soloist with the Boston public, appearing with the orchestra annually and giving the American premieres of works by Bruch, Saint-Saëns and Lalo. During his years with the BSO, Loeffler also pursued a parallel career as a composer, and in 1903 he resigned his post to devote himself to creative work. He remained active in the musical life of Boston, teaching, advising, serving on the boards of several music organizations, supervising performances of his works, and composing at a measured pace until his death in 1935.

Loeffler's catalog of compositions is small but finely crafted: one completed opera and two others that exist only in sketches; incidental music to three plays; a dozen works for orchestra, many including a part for a solo instrument (the most unusual is La mort de Tintagiles, which calls for two violas d'amore); some three dozen chamber works, most with programmatic titles; pieces for chorus; and a large number of songs. Loeffler's refined literary taste is reflected in his choice of authors for his vocal works – Whitman, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, Poe, Rossetti, Eichendorff, Yeats. His highly individual musical style, given more to French pastels than to German oils in its fluidity of rhythm and melody, opulent orchestration and sensitivity to harmonic color, has been classed as "post-Impressionist," and encompasses such diverse influences as Medieval chant (which he studied for a year in Germany in 1909), mysticism and folksong. "Loeffler believes in tonal impressions rather than in thematic development," wrote critic Philip Hale at the height of the composer's career. "He has delicate sentiment, the curiosity of the hunger after nuances, the love of the macabre, the cool fire that consumes and is more deadly than fierce, panting flame...."

The Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano are the 1901 reworkings of two songs Loeffler made from poems by Maurice Rollinat three years before. The first of the Rhapsodies was dedicated to the memory of Leon Pourtau, a clarinetist with the Boston Symphony from 1894 to 1898; the second was inscribed to Georges Longy, the ensemble's renowned oboist from 1898 to 1925. Loeffler appended Rollinat's verses to the Rhapsodies as preface:

The Pool

Full of old fish, stricken blind long ago, the pool, under a near sky rumbling with thunder, bares the splashing horror of its gloom between centuries-old rushes.
Over yonder, goblins light up more than one marsh that is black, sinister, unbearable; but the pool is revealed in this lonely place only by the croakings of consumptive frogs.
Now the moon, piercing at this very moment, seems to look here at herself fantastically; as though, one might say, to see her spectral face, her flat nose, the strange vacuity of her teeth – a death's-head lighted from within, about to peer into a dull mirror.

The Bagpipe

His bagpipe groaned in the woods as the wind; and never has stag at bay, nor willow, nor oar, wept as that voice wept.
Those sounds of flute and oboe seemed like the death rattle of a woman. Oh! his bagpipe, near the cross-roads of the crucifix!
He is dead. But under cold skies, as soon as night weaves her mesh, down deep in my soul, there is the nook of old fears, I always hear his bagpipe groaning as of yore.

Though these poems impress their bleak messages upon many passages of the Two Rhapsodies (the viola quotes the Dies Irae – "Day of Wrath" – from the Requiem Mass in a glassy, keening sonority midway through the first one), the dominant characteristic of the music is one of sweet (perhaps bittersweet) floating mysticism, a sort of inward-looking rapture produced by Loeffler's examination of what Carl Engel called "landscapes of the soul."