The name and personality of Niels Wilhelm Gade are well known among music specialists, but unfortunately largely ignored by the mainstream concert repertoire and its audiences. And this is an unfair and regrettable situation, since Gade is an important figure under both the historical and the artistic viewpoint.
Historically, he occupies a prime place in the so-called “music nationalism” of the nineteenth century and indeed can be considered as one of its founders. While today the word nationalism has acquired some negative connotations, at Gade’s time it was a rather praiseworthy and commendable stance. In fact, “music nationalists” believed in the value of the traditional musical heritage of their countries, and attempted to disseminate it by employing tunes, rhythms and sounds of folk music in works conceived on the basis of “classical” principles, i.e. those regulating the ”cultivated” repertoire. This can, and should, be seen as an effort to affirm the value of the local over a monolithic and self-referential tradition, and thus as an appreciation of what the local minorities can contribute to the musical repertoire.
In the nineteenth century, as a matter of fact, the German tradition imposed itself as “the” reference model for instrumental music – whilst the Italian tradition remained authoritative in the operatic field. Whilst neither tradition was without its competitors (the French one, to name but one; but also the rise of German opera as opposed to the Italian tradition), both enjoyed an unsurpassable success and became reference models for a plethora of imitators from all other countries. However, if it was said that “English Italianate is devil incarnate”, the same could be said of, for instance, Russian Italianate or French “Germanate”. It is true that the Italian and the German tradition had not only been inhabited by some of the greatest geniuses of music history (from Beethoven to Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms, to Wagner and his school; from Rossini and Bellini to Verdi and Puccini, to name but few), but had also established paradigms of musical composition at both the microscopic and macroscopic level. These geniuses had in fact invented, practised and codified new musical forms and genres, harmonic and textural innovations, new perspectives on instrumentation and vocality, and so on. It was impossible to write music in the nineteenth century without somehow referencing what had been created and done by these giants of music.
But, at the same time, misplaced reverence toward their legacy could mutilate the possibility of finding alternative ways; or, at least, personal and fresh ways which could complement what the Italian and German tradition had established. The folk music and the local heritage of the European countries surrounding the Italian- and German-speaking territories had much to give; and precisely for having been largely ignored by the “cultivated” repertoire until then, it had preserved musical gestures, rhythms, melodic and harmonic turns, and intonations which the mainstream repertoire had unavoidably flattened or forgotten.
This intuition would give rise to the so-called “national schools”: the Scandinavian, headed by Gade and including the likes of Grieg and Sibelius; the Russian school, with the Mighty Five and their numerous epigones; the Spanish school, with Albeniz, Granados, De Falla, Rodrigo and many others; other Eastern schools, with Dvořák, Smetana, Szymanowsky, Janáček, up to Bartók and Kodály who would give scholarly systematicity and a recognizable identity, under the name of ethnomusicology, to the rediscovery of the musical heritage.
Thus, Gade’s importance as one of the pioneers of this movement must not be underestimated. Along with it, however, he had and has also a genuinely artistic importance, which was acknowledged, at his time, by the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Significantly, in spite of his belonging to a tradition “other” than the mainstream German school – or perhaps precisely for that reason – the most important names of the German school were ready to recognize Gade’s status as a major artistic figure of their times.
Gade was born in Copenhagen on February 22nd, 1817. He grew up in a musical family, since his father was an instrument maker. The child studied violin and composition, although he was also a proficient piano player, and owed his musical education to C. Weyse and A. P. Berggreen. His first steps in the musical world saw him as a violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra; however, the same ensemble acknowledged his value as a composer by premiering his Efterklange af Ossian (1841), a concert overture. Soon afterwards, Gade finished his First Symphony, and had it sent to Mendelssohn, who was, at that time, the conductor of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn was deeply impressed by the work and premiered it; after that, Gade moved to Leipzig where he befriended both Mendelssohn and Schumann, and where he obtained prestigious appointments (including a teaching post at the Conservatory). Schumann, who was always ready to promote musicians of value, wrote enthusiastically about Gade; he found it suggestive that Gade’s family name was formed by the letters indicating the violin strings, and employed the corresponding notes in a composition of his own, found in the Album für die Jugend op. 68.
Indeed, the genre of the short and not-excessively-demanding piano piece, as found in Schumann’s Album and in others among his piano collections, was one in which Gade found a valuable outlet for his creativity, as is testified by some of the works collected within this Da Vinci Classics album.
We find here, in fact, two series of Aquarelles, op. 19 and op. 57. As their very name reveals, they are intended as musical parallels to aquarelle paintings, sharing many of their features with their visual counterparts. Aquarelles must be painted quickly: and Gade’s Aquarelles are short and concise. Aquarelles are more modest than frescoes or statues, though this does not detract from their artistic value; and Gade’s Aquarelles are as beautiful as they are unpretentious under both the compositional and the technical viewpoint. Aquarelles frequently depict ordinary and daily scenes; and so do Gade’s Aquarelles. Aquarelles can be attempted also by amateur painters, and Gade’s Aquarelles are not outside the scope of a gifted amateur, although they reveal their full beauty when given to the hands of accomplished professionals, as in this case. Finally, aquarelles frequently decorate the walls of bourgeois households, or embellish their occupants’ albums; similarly, the primary destination of Gade’s Aquarelles was not the concert hall, but rather the private or semi-public enjoyment of the bourgeois society of his time. Here too, however, one should be aware that concert pianists would enormously profit from giving a closer look to these collections, at least in order to find delightful and appreciated encores with which they could treat their audiences. It should be added that, in spite of the “pictorial” inspiration of the collections’ titles, Gade’s Aquarelles are not descriptive pieces, but always refer to the established titles of small-scale piano works (such as Capriccio, Intermezzo, Romanza etc.). Only in the second opus number of Gade’s Aquarelles (op. 57 no. 1) the composer openly inserts the subject of “folksong” in a title, whereas many other pieces do include folk elements, but in a more subdued fashion.
By way of contrast, Gade’s op. 31 has a double title, which is very revealing as concerns his artistic outlook: on the one hand they are called Volkstänze (“folk dances”), on the other hand they bear the title of Phantasiestücke (“fantasy pieces”), which is a quintessentially Schumannesque title.
They are technically and musically more demanding than the Aquarelles, and display the same variety of inspiration and somewhat capricious nature of Schumann’s eponymous works. At the same time, they lack the darker side of Schumann’s inspiration, i.e. that disquieting fascination for the abyss of the unknown, and are decidedly more sunny and cheerful, corresponding to the “folk dance” inspiration of their composition.
The most important piano work written by Gade, however, is his Piano Sonata, whose gestation occupied him for no less than fifteen (!) years. Gade was not the only Romantic composer to feel the fatal attraction for the Sonata Form: to be fascinated by it and almost compelled toward it, but at the same time to feel always inadequate and unsatisfied when facing it.
What had remained as a private sketch, always awaiting revisions and always demanding further perfecting, eventually became Gade’s piano masterpiece after he heard Liszt’s Piano Sonata. To be honest, Liszt belonged in the opposite musical field with respect to Schumann and Mendelssohn. However, similar to Gade, Liszt was attentive to the traditional music of his own land, Hungary, and of other countries. Moreover, Liszt’s Sonata was the one masterpiece by the Hungarian genius against which even his harsher opponents had nothing to say. Gade partly borrowed from Liszt’s concept of cyclic Sonata, although on the plane of form, content and technique there are marked differences between their two Sonatas. Still, Liszt’s influence was openly acknowledged by the Danish composer, who dedicated his own masterpiece to the composer of the B-minor Sonata.
After his time in Germany, Gade went back to his homeland, where he actively and effectively contributed to the establishment of a local tradition in terms of both music education and performance, occupying prestigious posts at the main musical institutions of Denmark. Thus, he can rightfully be considered as the father of Danish music, but, beyond that, as a reference figure for European music and musicians in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
attended the Music Conservatory “Santa Cecilia” of Rome where in 2017 he got his master degree under the guidance of Maestro Elisabetta Pacelli. He took part to many Piano and Chamber Music Masterclasses, with musicians such as Paul Badura-Skoda, Claudio Martinez Mehner, Jeffrey Swann, Boris Berman, Maurizio Baglini, Andrzej Pikul. He has attended annual Masterclasses since 2015 with Roberto Prosseda and Alessandra Ammara whom he considers as his mentors. He has Chamber Music collaborations with Riccardo Schioppa, Livia Tancioni, Livia De Romanis, Maria Caturelli & Alessandro Pace. In 2018 he created as artistic director a Music Festival in Rome named “La Domenica Che si Nota”. He has recorded Leonard Bernstein Complete Piano Works in an album published by the record label “Piano Classics”. He has recorded Friedrich Kuhlau’s sonatas for flute & piano with Maria Caturelli in an album published by the record label “Brilliant Classics”. In 2021 he got his master degree in chamber music at the Music Conservatory “Licinio Refice” of Frosinone under the guidance of Maestro Francesca Vicari.
Niels W(ilhelm) Gade
(b Copenhagen, 22 Feb 1817; d Copenhagen, 21 Dec 1890). Danish composer, conductor, violinist, educationist and administrator. For his wide-ranging musical activity Gade ranks as the most important figure in 19th-century Danish music.
He had musical parents, his father being a cabinet maker who about the time of Gade’s birth began to specialize in making musical instruments. Gade showed a pronounced musical talent at an early age, and plans for him to join his father’s business as an apprentice were quickly overtaken by his desire to become a musician. At 15 he began to study the violin with F.T. Wexschall and theory and composition with A.P. Berggreen, a leading figure in the Danish folk-ballad movement. He made his début as a violinist in May 1833, and in the following year he was engaged as a junior violinist in the Royal Orchestra.