It is strange to think that in 1894, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced that “ever since 1875 Goldmark has been recognized as the only thoroughly successful German opera composer since Richard Wagner”.  It has to be said, however, that Karl Goldmark – who died 100 years ago today – is not a name that springs immediately to mind when discussing 19th century composers. Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi are only a small selection of those Romantics whose music has entered the classical music canon and are quite happy without any more competition, thank you very much. Concert halls and opera houses know from a hundred years of experience that these are the names that sell. It’s hard enough to squeeze in a perhaps lesser known post-1900 composer between these musical oligarchs in programmes, let alone any of those who came before. This is a situation, as bemoaned by many in the classical music world not responsible for running a concert hall, that can only make us poorer. Thankfully, however, it seems that Karl Goldmark, a composer whose life spanned the rise and immediate aftermath of Romanticism, is quite rightly once again wrestling his way into our musical consciousness.

One of 20 children, Goldmark was born into a large Jewish family in the Hungarian town of Keszthely. His violin studies with Joseph Böhm at the Vienna Conservatory were interrupted by the 1848 Revolution, and the first performance of his music ten years later in Vienna was poorly received. It wasn’t until twelve years later in 1860 with his String Quartet in B flat, Op.8, that he began to make a name for himself in Viennese musical society. His unique compositional voice is already apparent in the piece that really kickstarted his career.

String Quartet in B flat, Op.8

It wasn’t until the 1870s, however, that Goldmark really seemed to enter his stride. Composed in 1875, his Symphony no. 1 in E flat major, Op.26, known as the “Rustic Wedding” Symphony, was described by Brahms as “clear-cut and faultless, it sprang into being a finished thing, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter”. It is one of Goldmark’s most performed pieces, championed by conductors such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Leonard Bernstein. Highly characteristic of the style that he became renowned for, it suggests a composer not only revelling in the peak of his now refined abilities, but a musician who writes for the sheer love of his art.

Here is a recording of the joyous, triumphant, finale: 

His opera The Queen of Sheba, premiered in the same year in which his First Symphony was written, and that itself took 12 years to write, demonstrates how intensely productive this period was for the composer. That it has had a mixed history as a work is an understatement; it was hugely successful in Austria and Italy and ran in New York and even Buenos Aires, in many cases for several decades after the first performance. That most infamous of critics however, Eduard Hanslick, was far from complimentary. He described it as “plaintive, whining” music, with an “oriental-Jewish character”. Given the rife anti-Semitism of the time, this was brutal criticism. Happily, however, the Vienna Staatsoper didn’t appear to care, and it continued to be performed until 1938, at which point the tide of Fascism had well and truly begun to exert its vicious censorship of Jewish composers.

Overture to Die Königin von Saba

It is unfortunately the lot of composers such as Goldmark to be thought of in comparison to their contemporaries. In Goldmark’s case, this is often Richard Wagner. His orchestration and harmonies are at times reminiscent of the German composer, yet this is unsurprising given Goldmark’s knowledge of his music; indeed to avoid it would have been not only myopic on his part as a composer, but indeed almost impossible given Wagner’s dominance in the latter half of the 19th century. Goldmark’s music is, however, a wholly different animal to that of Wagner. His melodies are somehow highly individual, always startlingly beautiful, just as often for their proud simplicity as when they are at their more interestingly complex. He was clearly fully in command of the latest harmonic and technical developments, and he deploys them all with brave individuality. Goldmark’s comment that “unable to be a pioneer and unwilling to be a fellow traveller, I went my own way” seems overly self-critical.

The Violin Concerto in A minor is a final fascinating example of Goldmark’s inimitable voice that again has had a turbulent journey since its creation. Composed and premiered in 1877 in Bremen, its period of popularity soared following its first performance, at the time easily equalling those concertos of Tchaikovsky and Brahms. The rise of anti-Semitism, however, meant that for a long time it was suppressed from public view. Indeed, other than its recording by Nathan Milstein in 1957 on the Praga label, it has only recently begun to re-emerge and reassert itself as the brilliant work that it was once recognised to be.

Violin Concerto in A minor (1st movement)

Thankfully, Goldmark revival should be consolidated in 2015, marking 100 years since the composer’s death. The Queen of Sheba will be performed at the Budapest Summer Festival, and there will be several events, beginning this year, given by the Carl Goldmark Association and the Municipality of Deutschkreutz, and at the Ebrach Summer Music Festival.

It is hoped that Goldmark will soon once again be recognised as not only a contemporary of the likes of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner and Verdi, but more importantly, their equal.