The Music of Johann Rufinatscha
by Andrew Hartman
I first discovered the music of Johann Rufinatscha when a friend alerted me to an enthusiastic mention of him on a classical discussion board. Fond as I am of unearthing hidden gems from the obscure repertoire, I investigated the composer and wound up acquiring the recording of his sixth symphony that had elicited the enthusiasm. I’m very glad I did. Eventually I acquired the rest of the composer’s recorded output and became an admirer of this Tyrolean master.
Rufinatscha was born in the Austrian Tyrol in 1812 and lived till 1893. He was born in the small town of Mals, which today is part of Italy and straddles the Austrian, Swiss, and Italian borders. At the time of Rufinatscha’s birth however its citizens were German-speaking and were closer culturally to Austria, whose glorious capital both musically and politically was Vienna. Johann’s father was a farmer, and his parents wanted him to study for the priesthood. He had other ideas however as he longed for a career in music. Realizing that his birthplace afforded no chance for a musical education, he left it as soon as he could. He was recommended by the Benedictine monk P. Martin Goller to be admitted to the Innsbruck Music Society and at the age of fourteen he left Mals, only returning there for visits in the future. Rufinatscha studied composition in Innsbruck and graduated in 1832 at the age of twenty. He then taught at the Music Society for three years, and his first compositions date from this period. In 1835, desiring a fuller education he headed for Vienna to study with Simon Sechter, who had previously numbered Franz Schubert among his pupils. Sechter was to be a crucial influence on Rufinatscha’s music. When the young man arrived in Vienna he supported himself by teaching piano as he completed his composition studies and began making a name for himself as a composer. During the next three decades his symphonies and other works were performed in Vienna at prestigious locales such as the concert series of the Society of Friends of Music, and were well received by critics and audiences alike. In the 1860s, Rufinatscha came to know the much younger Johannes Brahms, as they were both members of the impromptu “Roundtable of Professors” that met in a Viennese restaurant to discuss the musical events of the day. A brilliant future seemed in store for the Tyrolean but it was not to be. Musically, his compositions were not only increasingly eclipsed by “New Music” composers including Wagner and Liszt, they were also overshadowed by younger composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Brahms. The powerful, visceral, exciting “heart-on-sleeve” emotional impact of these young composers came to dominate the high Romantic era and made the more classically orientated, impeccably crafted, but more emotionally restrained works of Rufinatscha seem tame by comparison. By the 1870s, Rufinatscha, with his music based on the classical models of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, seemed increasingly old-fashioned.
There were also personal reasons for Rufinatscha’s fall into obscurity. His lack of self-promotion skills and growing musical isolation caused the childless bachelor increasingly to withdraw from public life; some hints in his lieder, which we will discuss later, point to a lost love that broke the composer’s heart. He composed little in his last two decades and concentrated on teaching. The financial panic of 1873 impoverished him and he spent the last twenty years of his life in relatively straitened financial circumstances. In 1887, fearing that his life work might vanish, in the absence of family members to protect and disseminate it, Rufinatscha donated his musical manuscripts to the Tyrolean Museum in Innsbruck. It was this action that saved his scores from virtually certain destruction during the chaos of the twentieth century, and allowed his music to live again in the twenty-first century. The Tyrolean Landesmuseum has taken its stewardship of Rufinatscha’s musical legacy seriously and has safeguarded his works for well over one hundred years. Additionally, in the past two decades they have systematically recorded virtually all of the composer’s works and issued them on their own CDs, available through the
museum’s website. We owe the Tyrolean Museum a debt of gratitude for allowing music-lovers to hear this music again — music which had lain silent for so long. Rufinatscha left us with a small, but finely crafted corpus of works that includes five symphonies, a string serenade, concert overtures, concert arias, a piano concerto, five chamber pieces, numerous works for piano and approximately thirty lieder. His first works were written in the 1830s when he was a young man in his twenties and although his production slowed dramatically in his old age, his last work was written in 1892 when he was eighty. His most productive period as a composer was in the 1840s, when Schumann and Mendelssohn were at their peak, and the influence of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart was still strongly felt in Vienna.
How to describe Rufinatscha’s music to those unfamiliar with it? To my ears his music is in a direct line from late Mozart, through Beethoven, to Schubert, with the last two mentioned being the greatest influences. This is not surprising since he studied under composition teacher Simon Sechter in Vienna just a few years after Schubert had also sought him out, and Beethoven still cast a long shadow in Vienna. There is also some of Schumann’s influence, particularly in the piano works. Some commentators have mentioned Bruckner as being in a line leading from Rufinatscha’s music, but I confess that after hearing every Rufinatscha piece recorded, I do not hear anything of Bruckner in Rufinatscha, or vice-versa - which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Schubert of the “Great C Major” symphony and the symphonies of Beethoven would give one an idea of his symphonic sound-world in his maturity.
Symphonies and Orchestral Works
Before proceeding with a discussion of Rufinatscha’s symphonies, let me mention something about their numbering. When they were recorded, it was thought that there were six symphonies. To avoid confusion among the CD-buying public I will use the numbering listed on all the recordings, not the attempted re-numbering undertaken after the fact, when further research revealed that he only actually completed five symphonies.
Rufinatscha’s Symphony No. 1 was written in 1834 while he was still in Innsbruck. It reveals a startling craftsmanship for such a young man who had never studied at a major musical centre, and brings to mind the early symphonies of Beethoven and Franz Schubert. The first movement opens with an introduction marked Grave, dominated by an obsessive, rhythmic seven-note motif vaguely reminiscent of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. An Allegro con spirito follows which blends the motif from the introduction with a more lyrical theme. The themes are stated separately, then combined and developed at length before an exciting coda ends the movement. A lyrical, Schubertian melody dominates the lovely Adagio revealing Rufinatscha’s gifts. Rufinatscha’s choice of a minuet as the third movement was already old-fashioned by 1834 and shows the young student sticking closely to his classical models. It is a brief dance however, lasting only about three minutes. The composer then launches into his Allegro finale which perhaps is the least successful movement of the symphony, as building exciting momentum takes precedence over memorable melodic ideas. Rufinatscha is not the first nor the last symphonic composer to deal with the “finale problem”.
Rufinatscha’s Symphony No. 2 dates from 1840 and was composed in Vienna after the composer’s lessons in composition with Sechter. The influence of Schubert is much more apparent, as is the assurance of the musical craftsmanship. An Andante introduction to the opening movement begins with a dramatic drum-roll and massed chords reminiscent of many Schubert orchestral works. At the two minute mark a jovial Allegro con brio leaps forth followed by a saucy second subject. Rufinatscha is in high spirits here, no doubt a reflection of the positive developments in his career since coming to Vienna. His works were being noticed and a glorious future seemed in store for the composer. The following Adagio con espressione reveals a lovely melody leisurely spun out by the composer. The mood is tender, not sad or tragic. A second melody follows, slightly darker, but the mood is quickly dispelled. Altogether this is one of Rufinatscha’s most beautiful slow movements. For the third movement, Rufinatscha once again follows the classical model of a minuet and trio. This graceful and attractive piece sounds as if it could have come right out of one of Mozart’s or Haydn’s late symphonies. The concluding Allegro molto bursts upon us with untrammeled high spirits and a memorable tune that will have you tapping your foot. Altogether Rufinatscha’s second symphony is a huge advance on his first. The latter was the work of a student, the former is a finely polished piece by a mature composer who has found his voice. A truly delightful work.
The Tyroler Landesmuseum disk containing the Second Symphony also contains two of Rufinatscha’s symphonic overtures. The first, dating from 1838 and titled “Innerer Kampf” (Inner Struggle) begins with a brooding slow introduction which leads into an Allegro section. Two main themes dominate here, a bustling rushing melody and an upwardly striding, more purposeful, second theme. There is certainly “struggle” here but for the twenty-six year old composer who had yet to experience real tragedy, it seems more melodramatic than personal. The second overture dates from four years later. It opens with an introspective slow introduction. Rufinatscha then interestingly keeps the same melody and merely picks up the tempo to launch the Allegro section. A second theme is heard consisting of a rising and falling phrase which is developed at some length before the first theme returns, leading to a heroic conclusion.
The last Rufinatscha symphony to be issued on CD by the Tyroler Landesmuseum contains his Symphony
No. 3 and three concert arias. It should be mentioned at the outset that the third symphony exists only as a set of string parts. The rest of the instruments are missing. Thus, the producers had to commission a reconstruction of the piece. To accomplish this task they chose the modern Tyrol composer Michael F.P. Huber. Reconstructing another composer’s work is obviously an extremely difficult and often thankless task. To succeed one must first have an intimate knowledge of the composer’s style. Second, one must be totally self-effacing and keep one’s own compositional style out of the mix. In this case, Mr. Huber was not faced with orchestrating a piece in piano reduction (which is difficult enough), but literally had to compose all the wind, brass and percussion parts, guided by the string parts. So how did he do? I would answer that he was only partially successful. Familiar as I am with all of Rufinatscha’s orchestral works, I had the distinct feeling listening to the symphony that the composer would not have written it this way. Mr. Huber put some of his own compositional personality into the piece, and the strings sometimes feel like they are working at cross-purposes with the remaining instruments. This is not to say it’s a bad job. Mr. Huber made a valiant effort with a difficult task but it could have been done better.
Rufinatscha’s Symphony No. 3 starts with a restless Moderato introduction and then launches into a stormy Allegro. This is followed by a more lyrical second theme. In the development, the composer plays with fragments of both themes, interweaving and juxtaposing them in ingenious ways, before storming to his conclusion. The second movement begins with a very Schubertian melody which is eventually interrupted by a martial theme reminiscent of Beethoven, before the gentle melody returns. The third movement is a classic Beethovenian scherzo, complete with a lengthy trio that unfortunately overstays its welcome. It is in this trio that Mr. Huber perhaps committed his greatest faux pas, with odd brass and percussive effects that Rufinatscha would hardly have used. The powerful finale is a driving and memorable allegro with stabbing rhythms. The movement briefly turns to a more lyrical melody, but this is interrupted and eventually overwhelmed by the driving rhythms which take us to an exciting conclusion.
The disk is rounded out by three dramatic concert arias, two for soprano and one for bass that are well sung by Belinda Loukota and Andreas Mattersberger. Throughout, the Orchestra of St. Blasius, conducted by Karlheinz Siessl, give their all. What they lack in polish they make up for in enthusiasm.
Rufinatscha’s Symphony No. 5 is the composer at the height of his maturity and mastery. Written in 1846 when his career was taking off in Vienna it is a splendid work. The opening Allegro begins with a yearning, ascending melody that reaches an emotional climax. A second more relaxed theme follows and after a brief climax the memorable opening theme returns. Rufinatscha develops both themes thoroughly before returning us to the recapitulation after a brief pause. The opening theme parades by magisterially and is followed by the second theme before the movement ends with a disquieting statement of the opening melody. The clear influence here is Beethoven. An exciting Beethovenian Scherzo follows with a driving rhythm and stormy interjections. The Trio is more relaxed with a lazy melody that evokes a tranquil scene before the Scherzo proper returns to drive us to a thrilling conclusion. The third movement Adagio might be the loveliest slow movement Rufinatscha ever wrote. A long seamless melodic line plays out with increasing intensity, reminding us somewhat of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A swinging melody opens the Allegro finale and is followed by a dancing second theme. Rufinatscha has clearly solved the “finale problem” with this brilliant movement which almost anticipates Dvorak’s early finales from two decades later. The Symphony
No. 5 is paired on disk with the Symphony No. 1 in admirable performances by Edgar Seipenbusch and the Cappella Istropolitana.
Rufinatscha’s Symphony No. 6 from 1865 was his last essay in this genre. It came nearly twenty years after his Fifth Symphony and is definitely a summing up of the composer’s thoughts on the symphony. The lengthy opening movement, lasting over twenty minutes, starts with the composer’s typical slow introduction before moving on to an Allegro at about minute 2:40. The introduction like many of Rufinatscha’s symphonic openings begins with a portentous drum-roll and massed chords. In the introduction a critical four-note motif is quoted that will be repeated several times later in the movement, in the Largo third movement, and again in the finale, reflecting Rufinatscha’s effort to make his final symphony a unified whole. The movement soon evolves into a leisurely development of two major themes. The first theme is a long-lined seamless melody, while the second theme is a jerky five-note motif. These are shown in numerous guises that explore various permutations of each melodic idea, are combined, separated and combined again.
A Scherzo movement is placed second, featuring a dance-like theme that bounces along happily. A wistful trio intervenes, first stated by the winds and horns then picked up by the strings before the dance like theme returns. The Largo third movement opens with a brooding tragic air that prevails throughout. Now in his fifties, the composer has personally experienced the struggles he tried to portray in his earlier youthful overture, and it shows in this heartfelt movement. A heroic theme leads off the Allegro Moderato finale and is followed by a much lighter subsidiary theme. The heroic theme returns several times as the movement progresses, with martial drums and brass whipping up quite a bit of excitement as the theme is developed. After a pause a majestic coda ensues with the return of the four-note motif that has been the unifying theme of this symphony. Gloriously stated by the full orchestra it reveals itself as the successor to the famous four-note theme of the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony. Then the martial theme of the finale returns to close the work. In this weighty, hour-long, symphonic essay, Rufinatscha stakes his claim to being the last link in the chain of the Viennese symphony stretching back to Mozart, and through Beethoven and Schubert. Indeed the case can be made that this wonderful symphony is the last link in that chain, before Brahms and others would shortly write a new chapter in this most Viennese genre. There is no doubt that Rufinatscha’s Sixth Symphony, along with his Fifth and his Second, belong in the mainstream repertory.
For all of Rufinatscha’s symphonies (and his other works as well), the Tyrol Museum recordings are the only ones, with the exception of the Sixth Symphony. This was also recorded (along with the overture “The Bride of Messina”), by Chandos with Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic. Which recording to get? Although they are both fine, I prefer Edgar Seipenbusch and the Cappella Istropolitana on the Tyrol label due to their commitment and obvious enthusiasm.
Rufinatscha’s Serenade for Strings was presumably written during his most productive period in the middle years of the century, though we have no exact date. It is a relaxed work, more reminiscent of the serenades of Robert Fuchs than the more ambitious works in this genre by Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Nevertheless it is a charming composition. The opening movement brings us a leisurely and very un-militaristic march, more like a forceful stroll. This is offset by a trio section of a more meditative complexion. The second and third movements bring us a gentle dance-like Moderato and a heartfelt Adagio with occasional pizzicato accompaniment. A lively, rhythmic Scherzo is next which includes a lazy trio. This sequence is repeated twice more before the scherzo tune closes the movement. Rather than moving right on to the finale, Rufinatscha next inserts an Allegretto “Slumber Song” which takes us right to dreamland. The composer then wakes us up with a lively finale dominated by a rising motif but which also includes the brief return of the march from the opening movement. The Serenade for Strings is available on a two-disc set that also includes two works by Michael F.P. Huber, the same composer who reconstructed Rufinatscha’s Third Symphony.
The Tyrol Museum has issued another orchestral Rufinatscha disk containing two more of his concert overtures, and his piano concerto (as well as the Schumann Piano Concerto). The “Bride of Messina” overture from 1850 based on the Schiller play opens with a portentous slow introduction which leads into a heroic march-like theme. A darker theme emerges which is developed at length, followed by a more hopeful melody highlighted by the winds. The darker melody returns and is interrupted by a harsh climax. The overture concludes with the return of the earlier material and ends on a tragic note with two quiet chords. One can see the influence here of Beethoven’s dramatic overtures such as “Coriolanus”.
The “Overture Dramatique” from 1878 was Rufinatscha’s last orchestral piece. A wistful horn-call dominates the slow introduction before a tragic, obsessive melody for full orchestra leads off the Allegro section. A cheerier tune provides a brief respite before the tragic melody storms back at full power. The secondary melody reappears but it is the tragic melody, at an accelerated tempo that has the final word, which once again is two quiet chords.
Rufinatscha’s Piano Concerto is his only concerto. It is a major work lasting about thirty minutes and dates from 1850. The first movement, which is longer than the subsequent two movements combined, contains lengthy tutti passages for the orchestra without the soloist. The prominence of pianistic trills again points to Beethoven’s influence. The movement is dominated by two major themes, a weighty heroic theme, and a secondary yearning theme. The piano develops both tunes at length after their statement by the orchestra, and then trades the themes back and forth with the orchestra over a lengthy development section. A standard cadenza leads us to the stormy conclusion. The Adagio begins with a lovely melody which is developed by the piano and orchestra together. The composer will re-use this theme in the adagio of his Piano Trio. A darker episode briefly interrupts but the tranquil mood of the opening returns to close the movement. The finale Allegro con Brio begins attacca with a rhythmic chordal melody followed by a more lyrical second subject. These are developed in turn and repeated before the concerto heads for its upbeat ending. Michael Schoch is the soloist with The Orchestra of the Academy of St. Blasius conducted by Karlheinz Siessl.
Rufinatscha composed about thirty lieder over his career. While the output was small, there are many gems among them. It is also the case that Rufinatscha’s lieder was close to his heart and most likely expressed some of his most personal and heartfelt emotions. The Landesmuseum has issued a representative disc of twenty one of the composer’s lieder that gives a good overview of his achievement in this genre. The songs are sung by soprano Maria Erlacher and baritone Andreas Lebeda, accompanied by Annette Seiler on a Conrad Graf piano from the mid-nineteenth century that is in the Museum’s collection.
The disk begins with “Sangers Morgengang” whose author is unknown. It portrays the artist, a singer in this case, strolling through a dew-filled meadow of flowers in the morning. A gently rocking accompaniment at a walking pace follows our artist for three stanzas as he wonders and exults in the beauty of nature and wishes to sing its praises. In the last stanza, as the artist stops walking the piano stops as well, and a brief recitative section describes how he sits down in the meadow. As the rocking melody resumes we are told that the artist himself is the fairest flower of all those surrounding him. Rufinatscha obviously subscribed to the “artist as hero” view prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century. “Kehr Ein Bei Mir”, with poetry by Rückert, is a tender paean to a beloved who is all the world to the singer. The source of all peace, the object of all longing, the beloved is invited metaphorically to come inside and close the gate, shutting out the rest of the world. “Winterlied”, again by Rückert, also uses nature as a metaphor for the composer’s feelings about love. Each of three stormy sections encouraging the winter to rage and storm and denude every flower, is followed by a tender remembrance of seeing that flower in autumn scattered on the breeze. However in the last tender section we learn that the flower that the composer is referring to was his beloved, who left him in autumn. Hence his rage and despair, and wish to have the storms of winter drive her from his heart as completely as they obliterate the flowers. Byron’s “Bitte der Liebe” comes next. A lover speaks of a deep, secret love that burns unseen but eternal in his soul. His one wish is that the beloved will remember him when he is gone, and shed a tear at his grave. Rufinatscha sets this sad poem to a disquieting accompaniment that appropriately is unrelieved by any ray of light. Goethe’s “Fruhzeitiger” shows a lover celebrating the amazing transformation in nature as flowers, streams and birds awake. But what has really brought on this early spring? The arrival of the poet’s beloved. Rufinatscha captures the eagerness and excitement of the poet with a joyously restless treble over galloping chords in the bass. Grillparzer’s “Verwandlugen” begins with a sepulchral melody on the piano as the singer intones how gruesome is the dark night. The singer muses over how night makes all beauty disappear, yet the following morning as the sun rises it is still there. Only on one occasion is this not true. The night his lover died. Here Rufinatscha cleverly depicts the groping of the poet for the things he knows are there but are shrouded by the night, with halting, hesitant chords on the piano.
In “Drang in Die Ferne” the poet Karl Gottfried von Leitner speaks to his parents of his longing to leave the constricting rocky valley of his birth which is too small to contain his ambitions. He wants to be like the clouds and the stream, always moving on to a better country. The poet consoles his parents with the thought that the same moon, stars and blue skies of his valley also shine elsewhere, and should he never return, they should imagine it is because he has found his better land. This poem must have appealed to Rufinatscha particularly as he was eager to leave his birthplace of Mals for the greener pastures of Innsbruck and Vienna; indeed he never returned to his provincial birthplace. The composer fills this song with the yearning and hopefulness of youth setting out on life’s journey. In “Lied des Troubador”, the unknown poet sings the praises of holy nature. The streams, the birds, the soft breezes and the shimmering stars are all imaginatively portrayed by the composer on the piano as the singer exults. The Troubador loves nature but there is one thing he loves still more. The lovely ladies who are enchanted by his songs. The lied “Der Wildschutz” whose poet is unknown, is a hunting song. It follows the hunter through the Alps in search of the chamois, and chronicles the joys of the protagonist, from leaving his gloomy lodging to tramp through the glorious Alps, to his delight in successfully felling his prey and bringing it back home. Rufinatscha illustrates both the text and the emotions of the hunter with periodic piano interludes capturing the appropriate mood and scene. In “Viel Sorgens und Sehnens”, also to a text by an unknown poet, the singer states that in this world of worry, longing, pain and convulsions there is only one thing that keeps us from yearning for the end. What is this one bright spot? It is the happiness that comes from love, something that someone with true wisdom understands, and which is far above riches and honours. For Rufinatscha, who was to remain unmarried, childless and who was die obscure and without riches, this song must have been of particular resonance in his old age. In “An Emma”, Rufinatscha sets a poem by the great Friedrich Schiller that was also set by Schubert. The poet laments his abandonment by his beloved Emma. He declares that if she had died, he would still possess her with his grief, but she lives and is with another. Could it have been real love if it ended so soon? Could a love blessed by heaven be so fleeting? The poet has no answers. Rufinatscha accompanies this song with a melancholy melody that captures the emotions expressed, and a wistful yearning that is most affecting.
In “Pflicht und Liebe” to a text by Friedrich Gotter, a young woman tells the man hopelessly in love with her that she feels for him and asks him not to be angry with her coldness. Duty forbids her to respond. Rufinatscha treats this almost as an operatic scena with constantly changing melodic accompaniment and an almost recitative like quality. In “Ingeborg’s Klage” based on the Swedish Frithjof saga, Rufinatscha writes a tempestuous lied filled with orchestral touches in the piano illustrating both the storms at sea Frithjof is facing and the storms in the heart of Ingeborg, frantically missing him. She finds solace in Frithjof’s falcon whom she is caring for until his return, which she believes can only be certain if she dies of grief and he hears the command of her dying soul. The composer realized the operatic and orchestral potential of this song and also produced a concert aria version with full orchestra. In the beautiful lied “An L” to an anonymous text (perhaps the composer’s) Rufinatscha underpins the lyrics with a gently hypnotic, rocking accompaniment. As the poet describes all the places he has wandered while thinking of “L”, including flowery meadows, snow-filled Alpine peaks, and mountain lakes, he returns at the end of each stanza with the yearning cry “I thought of you”. In the final stanza he imagines drawing his last breath and bitterly asks “O speak, what more do you want?” Friedrich Rückert’s “Das Schänste Plätzchen” follows, as the poet describes an idyllic part of the garden that is only missing the beloved’s presence to make it the loveliest spot. The music is gentle and innocent, befitting the verses. In “Sanger’s Weissagung” the anonymous poet sings of his yearning for his pious, cold beloved. He believes that only when he is dead will he reach her heart and disturb her dreams. Rufinatscha starts this lied with a tender melody as the singer describes his love, but the music soon becomes darker as the poet’s mood darkens. In the end, the silent ghost of the singer will finally get the attention of the beloved. In the brief Rückert setting “An Den Sturmwind” the poet urges the raging storm to tear the soul from his stormy breast and take it to infinity. Rufinatscha illustrates the raging storm with a tempestuous piano accompaniment that excitingly portrays the storm in nature and the storm in the poet’s breast. In the enigmatic “Er Ist Ja Gekommen” a fearful woman waits on a terrace looking for her beloved’s return. He has gone away due to his mother’s death which, though it wounded him deeply, is looked on by his lover as making him now solely dependent on her affections. Each of the first five stanzas of this lengthy lied end with the intoning of the words “Hark! Deathly bells are tolling, muffled and dreadful, from afar.” Suddenly a funeral procession goes by and the woman realizes that the man on the bier is none other than the beloved. This spooky lied is admirably painted with tolling bells, a funeral march and other dark effects in the music capturing the mood of the anonymous poem.
In the Goethe setting “An Die Erwahlte” the poet sings of how he must leave his beloved to go on a journey to far-off places. He asks the Gods to punish him if he ever forgets her and declares that he travels by night and works hurriedly so he can return to her soon. In the last stanza he imagines his return to his valley home where he and his beloved will live in a little cottage behind the trees. The melody is gentle and wistful. The autograph manuscript of this lied has a woman’s photo attached to it, perhaps indicating Rufinatscha had a particular woman in mind when he wrote this piece. Perhaps it is the same beloved haunting several other songs Rufinatscha wrote chronicling his unrequited passion. Heinrich Heine’s “Das Traumbild” is a gentle lied as the poet with a twinkle in his eye asks if his beloved is a dream conjured up by a poet’s vision. No! The poet can conjure up monsters, dragons, vampires and other terrifying creatures but no poet can conjure up the mix of beauty, guile and mischievousness that describe the object of his affections. In Rückert’s “Nachtwache”, Rufinatscha beautifully captures the mix of love, longing, regret and resignation expressed by the poet as he sings of his beloved who now “lives for the world” but has “died to my heart”. The heartfelt sincerity of this setting again makes us wonder if this is autobiographical. Whether it is or not, it is a high point of Rufinatscha’s lieder output and a lovely end to the survey of his songs on this disc.
The piano was Rufinatscha’s favourite instrument and he wrote for it his whole career. From his earliest, unpublished piano sonata when he was a twenty year old student in Innsbruck, to his last composition, an Andante for piano written the year before his death, the composer always returned to the instrument. His only concerto was for piano and three of his five major chamber works include the instrument. He made a living teaching piano. So we are fortunate that the Tyrol Museum has issued a representative three-disc set of Rufinatscha’s piano works which gives us a good idea of the composer’s output in this medium. The disk features Marlies Nussbaumer as the admirable soloist.
Rufinatscha’s Piano Sonata op. 3 (which was his second piano sonata and the first to be published) was dedicated to his composition teacher Sechter and was published in 1847. Not surprisingly, Schubert is the biggest influence here. It is a four movement work with a Menuetto third movement that reveals its classical roots. A charming yet serious opening Allegro leads to a wistful, slightly melancholic Adagio. The Menuetto is more “grazioso” than dance-like and if not labelled a menuet would not immediately put one in mind of one. A passionate Presto finale dominated by chords rounds out this enjoyable work.
Rufinatscha’s Piano Sonata op. 7 from 1855 begins with a cheerful Allegro with an upwardly striving motif. The melody is developed including an episode in the minor and runs of brilliant passage work. The Scherzo is placed second and features a herky-jerky theme alternating an obsessively repeated two-note motif and rapid scales that is hard to pin down. A real contrast is provided in the trio by a stately, if rather dark chordal procession. After a return to the scherzo proper, Rufinatscha surprises us by bringing back the trio again for another full hearing before the mercurial theme returns to close the movement. The Adagio opens with a ponderous section full of melancholia which is followed by a more hopeful theme which strives upward as if reaching for the light. The two themes are paraded by for a second time before the quiet close. The finale begins with a slow hesitant theme that repeatedly struggles to emerge before finally bursting out into full bloom. A high-spirited section develops including rapid passage work which is followed by a secondary theme of constantly rising and falling scales. The two themes are alternated, combined, and played with before an emphatic conclusion.
The composer’s grand Piano Sonata op. 9 from 1857 is by far his longest one, clocking in at over forty minutes. Everything is on an orchestral scale here. This is Rufinatscha’s “Hammerklavier”. An improvisatory three minute long Largo introduction leads into the opening Allegro. Powerful bass chords support a flowing, ascending melody in the treble. A secondary theme of rushing scales makes an appearance but provides surprisingly little contrast with the first. The two themes are developed, combined and alternated at length before ending quietly. In the Adagio Rufinatscha offers a meandering flow of variations on a four note melodic germ from which all the material evolves. The Scherzo brings us a quirky rhythmic idea which is obsessively repeated. A three beat chordal melody provides contrast in the trio. For me, the finale is the standout movement here. It begins with a lovely, long-lined ascending melody. A choppier secondary theme follows, building in power. The two themes are then developed and combined in typical Rufinatscha fashion before the first theme returns to sing out. The second theme is also grandly reprised before the brief coda ends the piece. This sonata is a big, serious work that reveals its charms slowly and takes repeated hearings to appreciate fully. However, the time spent doing so is well rewarded.
Rufinatscha’s final work in the sonata genre is the Piano Sonata op. 18. It is his last major work and dates from 1880 when he was old, impoverished and isolated. It is no surprise that it is a dark work, shorn of brilliant display or happy emotion. Its Allegro opening movement begins with a four-note motif, accented on the third beat, which will be the basis of all the material to come. This melodic germ is soon expanded to a full-blown melody which is developed at some length. The Adagio’s mood is one of resignation. As with the Adagio from op.9, Rufinatscha uses brief melodic phrases instead of fully-stated melodies, and strings them together in an improvisatory way. The Scherzo obsessively repeats an up and down four note motif and expands it to examine its possibilities. The Moderato finale again uses short melodic germs, which are ruminated over in a melancholy fashion. As in all the movements there is no clear secondary theme. While a finely crafted piece this is not a work that will put a smile on one’s face.
In addition to the piano sonatas, the Tyrol collection also includes a disk of miscellaneous smaller pieces for piano. The Fantaisie du Printemps, while cheerful enough, is more reflective than exuberant, as if the composer is happily meditating on the meaning of spring rather than romping through a meadow of spring flowers with his beloved. The Andante for Piano is the last piece Rufinatscha ever wrote and dates from the year before his death. It is a curious piece beginning with a tender and reflective but not sad first section, followed by a lively middle section supported by thumping chords in the bass. The first section is then reprised and ends with a whisper. The Rondo Capriccioso op. 6 puts one in mind of Schumann’s piano music with its swirling arabesques. A piece entitled Allegro Agitato follows and mines a similar vein as the Rondo. It is more capricious than agitated. The Six Character Pieces op. 14 include a Pastorale Impromptu, an Eclogue, a Scherzino, a Romance, a Rhapsody and a Funeral March. Schumann is again the major influence here. Standout pieces are the jovial Rhapsody and the pretty Impromptu. The Fantasie op.15 is an enjoyable, substantial piece with plenty of bonhomie. The Three Marches op. 4 round out the disc. They include a cheery Festival March, a pompous National March and a Funeral March whose theme is borrowed from the op. 14 set.
Rufinatscha wrote five major chamber works: two piano quartets, two string quartets and a piano trio. His Piano Trio in A Flat from 1868 is a big work in four movements and lasts about thirty-five minutes. It launches right into its Allegro Energico opening movement with an upwardly soaring melody that is handed around from violin to cello to piano. The three instruments trade statements of the theme and exchange fragments of it back and forth during the development. One is put in mind here of the great piano chamber works of Schumann. An Allegretto Scherzando follows with a quirky off-beat rhythmic theme led by the violin, underpinned by the piano and cello. The Adagio Espressione is the emotional centre of the work. It features one of Rufinatscha’s most lovely and poignant melodies, borrowed from his Piano Concerto. A secondary episode briefly plunges us into the depths but is quickly lifted back up by a plaintive theme which mixes with the opening melody before the main theme returns in full. The finale is filled with high spirits including a bouncy main theme and a more lyrical second theme. This marvellous trio is worthy to be in the standard piano trio literature. The Tirol disk containing the Piano Trio also contains a version for two pianos of the composer’s Piano Concerto.
Rufinatscha’s Piano Quartet in C Minor is an early work from 1836. The composer had just relocated from Innsbruck to Vienna and started his lessons with Sechter. The work has all the upbeat energy and hopefulness of Rufinatscha’s early period. The opening movement begins with a dramatic three chord motif that gets one’s attention. It then launches into a galloping theme followed by a more leisurely second subject. The whole sequence is repeated and then followed by a development and recapitulation in classic sonata form. The Adagio comes second here and begins with a lovingly spun out melody which provides the material for the entire movement. It is the emotional high point of this quartet. The third movement is a Scherzo, the first time Rufinatscha has replaced the classical era menuet with a scherzo in a major work. It is a jaunty piece with an equally jaunty trio. The finale employs two themes. The first is a classic 'question and response' theme so characteristic of Rufinatscha’s classical era models — think the opening movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony. The second theme is a memorable, delightfully toe-tapping melody that brings a smile to the listener’s face. This is one of the finest piano quartets of its time, predating the great works to come in this genre by Schumann and others.
Rufinatscha’s second essay in the piano quartet genre is the Piano Quartet in A Flat. It dates from 1870, thirty-four years after the first, when he was a very different person and composer than in his youth. First it must be mentioned that the opening Allegro Energico movement and the Allegro Moderato finale share the same material from the corresponding movements of Rufinatscha’s Piano Trio from 1868, a piece that had itself reused the adagio from his piano concerto. So at this time the composer, whose production had declined precipitously as he got older, was also recycling earlier material more frequently. The Adagio second movement is one of Rufinatscha’s last great slow movements (along with that of his second string quartet from the same year), and shows the composer has not lost his melodic gift. It sounds like a heartfelt elegy to lost youth and hope. A rather dark Scherzo follows, with a disquieting trio which is repeated twice. While the finale shares themes from the piano trio’s finale, the mood is darker, lacking the high spirits of the earlier work. The two piano quartets are on a marvellous Tyrol Museum disk played by the Gasteig Trio accompanied by Marlies Nussbaumer on piano.
Rufinatscha’s String Quartet in E flat from 1850 opens with a genial Allegro Moderato that seems to stretch back to the early quartets of Beethoven or even the late quartets of Haydn and Mozart. No trace here of the innovations of the late Beethoven quartets, but then again what composer of this period was as advanced as late Beethoven in this genre. The Adagio that follows continues the laid-back atmosphere with an attractive and gentle theme that is devoid of angst or tragedy. The unusual third movement begins like a scherzo with a syncopated theme which quickly gives way to a gentler melody. The two themes are then repeated three more times before the first theme has the last word. The Allegretto finale flows from one theme to the next in an unusual explosion of ideas. Rufinatscha typically limits his movements to a maximum of two main themes, but here there are four. This gracious quartet from the composer’s high maturity is a delight.
The String Quartet in G from 1870 opens with a hesitant Adagio introduction which leads to a quicksilver rising main theme followed by a striding secondary melody. The sad, brooding Adagio full of resignation and despair is typical of late Rufinatscha. The Scherzo proper includes two restless themes strung together, while the more graceful theme of the trio provides a welcome contrast. The finale chatters along, cheerfully rounding out the work on a satisfying note. The Tyrol disk containing both string quartets has a nice cover painting of the composer’s birthplace of Mals from the time he lived there as a teenager. While it may have been a cultural backwater, it was certainly a beautiful place in which to grow up.
When considering obscure repertoire there is always the temptation to say if the music was forgotten, it must have been forgotten for a good reason. After all, the judgment of time, the winnowing process of generations of musicologists and music audiences, usually (but not always) gets it right. However there are many reasons besides lack of quality that impact on how well known a particular composer’s oeuvre becomes. The composer’s personality and self-promotion skills, career circumstances and changing musical trends all play a part as well. Some composers are such towering figures that nothing can prevent their works from being known and admired but in a second tier, under these towering figures, are innumerable talented composers with something to say and music worth hearing. One thinks of Rheinberger, Goetz, Volkmann, Kalliwoda and Draeseke, just to name a few nineteenth century examples. Johann Rufinatscha is assuredly one of these figures. Give yourself a treat and give him a listen.