Julius Reubke, actually he really was a tragic genius


In the history of art there are so many romanticised stories about young geniuses torn away before their time. The talent that wasn’t allowed to flower. All that kind of thing.

In this world of cliche, where every artist who dies young is a genius, Julius Reubke is something altogether different. For a start, most of you will never have heard of him.

Which is, of course, the point.

Well, of course a lot of composers died young with who knows what great works lying ahead of them. Mozart, obviously, and Schubert too. At least they wrote promiscuously and left us a sizable enough collection of works, enough, in fact, to make anyone very happy indeed if they were stranded with them on that proverbial desert island.

Some out-lived their welcome too.

Mendelssohn who still died young (ish) but who apart from maybe that late String Quartet wrote all of his best stuff before he had started to shave and then carried on writing a load of music specially for insomniacs.

Sibelius, who lived to be positively ancient, won a state pension in mid-life to encourage him to write lots of Finnish masterpieces but instead spent it all on drink – can you blame him?

And let’s not forget, woops, you already have, Louis Spohr, who was rated amongst the very greatest in his day and went on to offer us many too many symphonies and other things well into his old age. The only thing ever played today is a youthful piece of chamber music.

There are a few rock stars performing these days, well into their post creative dotage, who we could happily swap for a slightly longer-lived Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison and Jeff Buckley.

Not that I wish Elton John, Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger any harm….hmmm….well maybe not. No, you are ancient monuments all and we love you boys but I would gladly exchange all your recent concerts and most of your later albums for a bit more time with Buckley, Morrison and Holly.

So it is a funny old world, you win some, you lose some, and other wise old sayings.

I, for one, would have swapped quite a lot of people for the thin, consumptive young man, full of talent, genius even, with bad taste in neck ties and hair cuts but who wrote two massive pieces before that great murderer of young Nineteenth Century talent, tuberculosis, struck him down in a provincial German inn at the cruelly early age of just 24 in 1858.

He was, everyone who met him agreed, a prodigious talent. His father was a distinguished organ builder who knew a thing or two about music so the boy was nurtured surrounded by music and he absorbed it to such an extent that he would eventually become a pupil of that great show-off genius, pianist, composer and sexual athlete Franz Liszt.

Liszt was not always known for the profundity of his friendships but he was genuinely impressed by the young man’s abilities and equally sincerely moved by his outrageously premature death.

I have been listening to Reubke’s Piano Sonata all week (Julius Reubke Piano and Organ Works – Guild GMCD 7137). It is a long piece – well about half an hour – like an episode of a soap opera or a comedy show on television. There is nothing soapy or comical about this piece though. It is a big youthful statement in the style of Liszt’s own giant Piano Sonata which the younger man had studied in great detail.

It is not a wallowing piece of self-indulgence though even if some people, not me, would accuse Liszt’s great work of being just that. Reubke can certainly write look-at-me cascades of notes in the manner of his teacher but, where Liszt can, at his worst, just throw out clusters of notes that are not really going anywhere, in Reubke’s Sonata, there is a fiercely focused brain making sense of every semi-quaver.

You have to listen of course. It is in one movement, like the Liszt, which is invisibly designed as a traditional three part work but also as a single sonata movement with the middle section as the moodily Romantic slow movement with the athletic fireworks reserved for the two outer sections.

It takes a small amount of work to fully appreciate this music and to see where it is going but it really is worth the perseverance. Not only is there that tight concentration but the young man had advanced harmonic ideas as well. In this work you really can hear someone pushing forwards the frontiers to somewhere, maybe even beyond Richard Wagner’s experiments. He certainly has a more adventurous heart and a more original harmonic mind than, say, Coldplay demonstrate 150 years later.

When getting to know a new piece of music, I adopt a rule for myself where I always listen three times before allowing myself to decide that I don’t like it.

I am more spontaneous with people but that is another story.

Often, the first hearing can be boring and effortful, the second can feel like the last time you ever want to go through this rubbish ever again and the third time…..well sometimes on that third hearing, your work is rewarded. Pennies drop, clouds part and you may just be at the beginning of a life-long relationship with the music and its composer.

I suggest that you try this on young Julius’ sonata, say an hour and a half of your life devoted to this man in your, I hope, much longer life. Don’t think this piano sonata is that difficult though. It is full of exciting sounds, piano virtuosity and romantic melody but it is also a bigger and deeper piece than that.

If it works for you then move on to his other great work, the Organ Sonata on the 94th. Psalm.

It is more famous than the piano piece, well organ buffs know it but you can imagine what they are like, the stamp collectors of the musical world. Often they say it is the greatest piece of organ music written in the mid-19th. Century. You might just have to have a heart of stone not to be blown away by it but, just to please me, listen to the piano work first, it is a tougher cookie but it won’t ever be upstaged by the organ sonata if you get to know it first.

That essential ingredient in any pre-modern music is there in Reubke’s piano sonata, a bloody good tune which the young composer uses with real class. It is the kind of melody that became tarnished by many later composers but, listened to with open ears, you will be carried away, believe me.

So let’s hear it for Julius Reubke.

It is genuinely quite awe-inspiring to imagine what this young man might have achieved in the sixty or so years he, and we, lost.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: