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Friedrich Gernsheim

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Friedrich Gernsheim (17 July 1839 – 10 September 1916) was a German composer, conductor and pianist.
Gernsheim was born in Worms. He was given his first musical training at home under his mother's care, then starting from the age of seven under Worms' musical director, Louis Liebe, a former pupil of Louis Spohr. His father, a prominent Jewish physician, moved the family to Frankfurt am Main in the aftermath of the year of revolutions, 1848, where he studied with Edward Rosenhain, brother of Jakob Rosenhain. He made his first public appearance as a concert pianist in 1850 and toured for two seasons, then settled with his family in Leipzig, where he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles from 1852. He spent the years 1855–1860 in Paris, meeting Gioachino Rossini, Théodore Gouvy, Édouard Lalo and Camille Saint-Saëns.
His travels afterwards took him to Saarbrücken, where in 1861 he took the conductor post vacated by Hermann Levi; to Cologne, where in 1865 Ferdinand Hiller appointed him to the staff of the Conservatory (his pupils there included Engelbert Humperdinck and Carl Lachmund); he then served as musical director of the Philharmonic Society of Rotterdam, 1874-1890. In the latter year he became a teacher at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin, and in 1897 moved there to teach at the Prussian Academy of Arts, where he was elected to the senate in 1897. In 1877 he married Helene Hernsheim from Karlsruhe.
Gernsheim was a prolific composer, especially of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music, and songs. Some of his works tend to Jewish subject-matter, but Gernsheim rarely made explicit references in his music to Jewish heritage. His third symphony, for example, was based on the legend of the Song of Miriam, but directly inspired by a performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt. His earlier works show the influence of Schumann, and from 1868, when he first became friendly with Brahms, a Brahmsian influence is very palpable. Gernsheim's four symphonies (the first of which was written before the publication of Brahms' First Symphony) are an interesting example of the reception of Brahmsian style by a sympathetic and talented contemporary. Gernsheim's last works, most notably his Zu einem Drama (1902), show him moving away from that into something more personal. He died in Berlin.
Due to his Jewish background, his work was banned in Nazi Germany, and his papers and a biography written about him by Karl Holl were removed from music libraries.
According to the few who have studied Friedrich Gernsheim’s music, he is usually categorized as a Romantic composer heavily influenced by Johannes Brahms. While he certainly did learn from the great composer, Gernsheim began his composition career prior to hearing Brahms and his influence was only discovered later. Christopher Fifield suggests that Gernsheim owes his “instrumentation, thematic shapes, accompaniments, and orchestral textures” to both Brahms and Max Bruch. In fact, some believe Gernsheim’s symphonic work to resemble Bruch more than Brahms, but homages to both masters are present in his music. Unlike Bruch, however, Gernsheim is described as having his own “personal melodic language” and was more daring in his harmony, whereas Bruch was largely inspired by folk songs.
After the premier of Gernsheim’s first symphony, which predated Brahms’s first symphony, Gernsheim’s themes were praised for possessing an “abundance of beautiful details,” many of which pass by the listener unnoticed in the first hearing. The same critic claimed that his treatment of instrumentation “reveals a very talented hand,” and many listeners preferred Gernsheim’s symphonies to those by Brahms. Bruch, for one, considered Gernsheim’s first symphony a work that “ranks without question among the best that has been written in this genre in our time.” He even called Brahms’s symphonies overrated and agreed with critics in that Gernsheim demonstrated a great advantage over those of his contemporaries: “its excellent orchestration.”
On the other hand, some of Gernsheim’s critics and even his teacher, Ignaz Moscheles, said he fell into the same trap Bruckner did by composing short melodies or themes that were already too complicated to develop further. Granted, some of Gernsheim’s themes can seem fleeting and disconnected since he often inserts short, transitional motives, but he achieves a high degree of contrast between themes through his use of transitions and silence. Moscheles also admitted, after playing Gernsheim’s first piano quartet, that he composed “with great agility in the manner of Schumann” and the Romantic style of the time, but thought his clear motives were often sacrificed to “artificial counterpoint.” Many theorists and music critics today agree with this evaluation of the composer, saying his symphonies and other works tend to be discursive, but all admire his talent in orchestration and achievements in chamber music. In chamber settings, he wrote particularly well for strings and presented his most focused ideas and logical developments. His late orchestral works, such as his fourth symphony and the tone poem Zu Einem Drama, demonstrate the maturity reached in his chamber music but on a larger scale.
Throughout his career, Gernsheim proved himself a somewhat conservative composer and a faithful student of Classical form. He composed under the belief that every measure should be “essential and inevitable,” which is undoubtedly present in his later works. The discursive ideas with small-scale developments that brought him criticism are often used to add variety within traditional structures. His music that follows sonata-allegro form, for example, usually include at least three expositional themes that establish structural patterns and allow him to undermine them. Common threads and relationships can be traced through his many themes, however, and Gernsheim uses them to achieve a certain balance in his music. Alexander Ringer calls this virtue “Gediegenheit,” or “decency and solidarity,” a principle that served as a constant guide in Gernsheim’s musical and personal life.
Of these works, the symphonies, the cello concerto, the first cello sonata, the piano trios, two of the piano quartets, the two piano quintets, the violin sonatas, and the second string quartet have been recorded.