Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Goldmark's Wild Amazons Drama and Exoticism in the Penthesilea Overture

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Goldmark's Wild Amazons Drama and Exoticism in the Penthesilea Overture

Article excerpt

The Penthesilea Overture, op. 31, is arguably Carl Goldmark's most controversial work. Its content is provocative. Consider first of all the subject matter: Goldmark transports us to the battlefield of Troy in the twelfth century BC. Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, a terrifying, ferocious warrior tribe of women, gallops onto the scene with her retinue. The Amazons are bloodthirsty and hungry for sex, anticipating the men they will capture to enact their fertility ritual. Passions run high when they meet Achilles and his troops. The scene is tense. We can feel the heat in Goldmark's music. It bursts with raw, savage energy. Accents, harsh timbres and dissonant chords make us sit up and listen. Penthesilea grabs us and draws us in. We are then engulfed in her erotic dreams in the atmosphere of the sensual, fragrant Rose Festival. Alluring, winding melodies played by wind instruments alternate with seductive, legato string passages. Finally, the destructive power of irreconcilable love overtakes the scene and we are back in conflict and ultimately, death. This was a plot guaranteed to arouse, to provoke and to shock and it certainly had this effect on some of the earliest recipients of Goldmark's new overture in 1880.

We must imagine ourselves in Vienna in the company of Eduard Hanslick and the surgeon and music enthusiast, Theodor Billroth in the year 1880. They have just performed the piano duet version of the overture and are reeling from the effect it had on them. A few days later, immediately after the Viennese premiere, the following review by Hanslick appears in the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna:

Out of curiosity and against our better judgment, we played through the work in the arrangement for four hands in advance, an operation, which we would only recommend to anybody after hearing the orchestral performance. Right from the first two chords, we felt as if we had fallen off the stool, for in our long experience with every year more dissonant practice, we have scarcely known someone enter the house through such a door. It sounds like a sharp whiplash with the accompanying outcry of the victim; Wagner's Valkyries enter more considerately than these Goldmarkian Amazons!1

It was common practice that full scores and piano arrangements of new works would be published around the time of the first performance. Audiences could thus get to know a piece before they heard it in the concert hall.2 Familiarity, through having seen a title in print, as well as by playing it through, could encourage audience attendance at concerts at a time when orchestral concerts were difficult to finance. This was often done, especially in England, where new repertoire mostly came from abroad, as can be seen in early editions of the Musical Times? According to a letter to his brother Leo in America, Goldmark hoped that this would be the case,4 but as Hanslick observed, it was not necessarily advisable! Hanslick and Billroth were simply not ready for the dissonances as they hit them straight off the page and felt them under their fingers. Hanslick's implication is that their impressions might have been more sympathetic had they merely heard, rather than performed the opening chords for their first encounter with Penthesilea. The orchestration changes the perception of the dissonance, and the orchestral timbre tends to have a stronger impact on the listener than the harmony at the opening.

The quality of piano duet arrangements was variable, and this one is not particularly special. The very best piano duets of Goldmark's orchestral works, such as Sakuntala, stand up as concert works in their own right.5 The arrangement of Penthesilea, although a competent and mostly accurate adaptation of the score, does not capture the more subtle spirit of the work. This is partly because the effectiveness of the work depends on "Klangwirkung". 6 Goldmark achieves this in Penthesilea through careful and complex orchestral colouring and from the sound dimensions, from the use of solo instruments to full, massive scoring and antiphonal effects. …

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