Music Monday: Eckhardt-Gramatté: Bassoon Concerto

Even tho I will probably never get the chance to play a bassoon concerto with an orchestra, I still get very excited whenever I discover a new such work that I like, and usually hunt around for sheet music, sometimes going so far as to learn the solo part just for kicks. And that’s something I’m definitely going to do for this one, because even tho it’s a piece of new acquaintance, it’s pretty darn rad indeed.

Christened Sofia Fridman-Kochevskaya, Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté was born in Moscow in 1899 to a rather well-off family (her mother worked as a governess in Leo Tolstoy’s household), but she didn’t live there long. Her family moved to a commune in England, and Eckhardt-Grammaté entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eight to study violin and piano. She had already made her public debuts in Berlin and Paris by the age of eleven, frequently playing both instruments on the same concert program. She was already interested in composition, but her teachers at the Conservatoire discouraged her from pursuing that path, presumably because sexism.

Keeping on that career trajectory, Eckhardt-Gramatté had an active performing life, but she kept composing too, and dedicated more and more of her energies to it until deciding, in 1935, to devote herself to it full time. She spent the Second World War in Vienna with her second husband, Ferdinand Eckhardt. The (admittedly rather shallow) biographies of her I’ve been able to find online generally skim over this portion of her life completely, and I’m not entirely sure of her relationship to the Nazi regime. For years she was dogged by anti-Semitic rumors of Jewish ancestry, and her works and recordings were repeatedly removed from publishers’ catalogues as a result — she pushed back against these rumors aggressively and repeatedly asserted and sought to prove her Aryan-ness, but given the potentially fatal consequences of failing to do so, it’s hard to glean a clear political stance from that course of action. (According to this Google Book, her private letters offer little clarification, and her husband seems equally opaque: He signed a letter of allegiance to Hitler in 1933, but also commissioned a set of stained-glass windows designed by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, who had been branded as “degenerate”.) Ultimately, as far as I can tell, it seems like Eckhardt-Gramatté was neither a fierce critic nor an ardent supporter of the regime, and was simply doing what she felt was necessary to make a career in the arts in a city that had come to be her home.

How we should think about such people — ordinary Germans and Austrians who went about their daily lives and didn’t speak out against or flee their genocidal government — is obviously a topic that has been covered at great length in the 70 years since the end of the War, and it is not my intention to turn this post into yet another thinkpiece on the subject, but I do think it’s an important issue to be aware of, and I definitely don’t think it’s unreasonable to be a little uncomfortable with her repeated insistences on the “purity” of her heritage. (Alas that artistic capability isn’t in any way correlated with moral goodness!) Either way, she moved to Winnepeg in 1953, where she lived until her death in a car accident in Stuttgart in 1974.

As with many unfamous works, there’s not a lot of information about her bassoon concerto available online. I know that it was written in 1950, and . . . that’s actually it. I don’t know who it was written for, or where it was premièred, or literally anything else about the context of its creation. I only have access to the musical content. But what content! It opens with a short, assertive orchestral introduction before the solo bassoon enters with a playful running commentary over contrapuntal interjections from the orchestra. Several alternations of solo and tutti later and the tempo slows, the music slipping into a more lyrical, if also more unsettled, mood. It doesn’t last. The opening vigor soon returns, building to an impassioned climax. As the music comes back from that peak, there’s a reprise of the slower interlude, and the texture gradually thins, boiling away into ever more delicate and transparent gestures. Then, almost as an afterthought, the orchestra returns in full force to bring the movement to a rousing close.

Rousing tumults like that are instantly left behind in the next movement, which opens with a plaintive melody for the soloist. The horn and upper strings take a pass at this melody, and then the bassoon and strings, but it remains firmly in the realm of the tender and distant. As the strings continue on in much the same manner, the bassoon begins to elaborate on the theme with increasingly florid ornaments, commenting on it even as it unfolds. But in the next statement, simplicity is restored, albeit now with darker orchestral colorations, and the movement ends feeling vaguely unresolved. The finale bursts onto the scene with a reprise of music from the first movement, lightening the mood while intensifying the forward drive. Unusually for a concerto finale, the cadenza comes quite early in the movement, and occupies a considerable portion of its total duration. The orchestra’s re-entry is tentative at first, but it soon barrels forward with unrestrained enthusiasm, leaving room for a few last cheeky interjections from the bassoon before the breezy conclusion.