Tradition & Future – David Popper’s Cello Concertos
Cellists form a family. Among musicians it is true that a common elective affinity carries greater weight than a mere shared gene pool. And so in the preface to Steven De’ak’s standard David Popper biography from 1980, the cello legend János Starker hardly seems to be surprised to find himself on a certain cellist family tree that once had been published in The Strad music magazine. Through Adolf Schiffer, his teacher at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, Starker, a United States citizen of Hungarian birth, could stake a claim to grandson-pupil status in relation to the Prague native Popper. According to his own testimony, while receiving instruction he usually sat under a portrait of Popper. Fortunately, educational relations among musicians have always transcended national, religious, and even continental borders. Artists’ family trees continue to function even today not only as an international network; it is also true that the knowledgeable listener will always be able to recognize in the pupil the maxims of the teacher.
Let us turn to our point of departure, to one of the main branches on the tree next to Bernhard Romberg (1767–1841) and Adrien-François Servais (1807–66) – to David Popper (1843–1913). When the twenty-one-year-old Popper skyrocketed to fame, Hans von Bülow praised his "magnificent tone, great technique." Popper’s young mastery in what was cello playing that was just as powerful as it was sonorous was based on the tradition of the "Hamburg school" transmitted by his teacher Julius Goltermann (1823–76). Drawing on this solid foundation, Popper continued to work on the perfection of his technique.
It is hard to believe that Popper, given the splendid virtuosity and agogics required of the cello soloist in his own compositions, is known as a performer who did not use an endpin on the lower end of his instrument. His models for the finishing touches of his recital were the violinists Charles-Auguste de Bériot (1802–70) and Henri Vieuxtemps (1820–81). It was his aim to transfer the precision and charm of the Franco-Belgian violin school to his instrument.
Popper was born in Prague’s Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, on 7 December 1843 and studied with Goltermann at the conservatory in the city of his birth. His father Angelus Popper served as a synagogue cantor. The young Popper’s musical talent must have been stupendous. Accordingly, his career immediately took him to the top. Already in 1861, when he was near to concluding his studies, he concertized with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. In 1863 the twenty-year-old became a member of the ensemble of the Princes of Hohenzollern-Hechingen in Löwenberg, Silesia.
The cello concerto no. 1 op. 8
Popper’s Vienna debut was followed a few years later – on Hans von Bülow’s recommendation – by an engagement as the solo cellist of the Vienna Court Opera beginning in 1868. It was during this time that Popper also wrote his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra No. 1 op. 8. This is astonishing indeed; after all, in addition to his "opera drudgery" in the orchestra pit, Popper continued to journey throughout Europe as a traveling virtuoso, living more or less in trains and hotels, and was also still a member of the Hellmesberger Quartet.
The ambivalent effect produced by the Cello Concerto No. 1 may possibly find its explanation in the restless circumstances of the composer’s life. On the one hand, it involves academic music at its best – finely polished, technically extremely demanding, and aesthetically full of deeply felt romanticism meeting a high Central European cultural standard. On the other hand, many ideas come across as much too flat and tame.
The solo phrases such as those in the secondary theme of the first movement have not turned out quite right for Popper and are very longwinded, and those in the second movement are quite iterative. Might it have occurred to him, as one of the greatest virtuosos of his time, while he was premiering his first concerto on the stage, that he himself was operating at the limits of his technical capabilities? Or is what we have here simply a "typical case of youthful light-headedness" – thus the view of the interpreter on the present recording, Wen-Sinn Yang.
When Popper’s solo appearances began to gain the upper hand, he decided to give up his permanent post at the Vienna Court Opera in 1873. During the meantime he had made a great many important artistic contacts: for example, with Anton Bruckner, to whose third symphony he had still been able to lend his strong support with the Vienna Philharmonic, with Johannes Brahms, with whom he later also performed together, and with Franz Liszt. His relationship with Richard Wagner, oscillating between mutual respect and admiration, would remain problematic: Popper had committed the "unpardonable error" of having favorable things to say about Brahms to the Bayreuth master!
The cello concerto no. 2 op. 24
Together with his first wife, the Liszt pupil Sophie Menter, as his piano accompanist, David Popper again went on a grand concert tour. The experience garnered by the traveling cello virtuoso is heard in the more mature Cello Concerto in E minor No. 2 op. 24 of 1880 as well as in the "masterstroke" formed by the one-movement Cello Concerto No. 3 in G major op. 59 of 1888. What is involved is again the task of mastering technical difficulties on the highest level!
The Concerto No. 2 has power as well as plenty of drive. Here we glimpse Popper operating on the highest creative level of his epoch. Here he succeeded in producing an early masterpiece. A genuinely brilliant success! His temperament and romantic feeling are particularly beautifully expressed in this work – especially when one bears in mind the absolutely operatic dramatic quality of the first movement. The "Andante maestoso" second movement is marked by great emotional depth. On this recording it was registered on the silver disc practically in a single take at the end of the first recording day! The last movement is marvelous: a wonderful blend of virtuosity, pomp, and stylistic intuition. The euphoria of the second theme continues to echo in the ear for a long time.
The cello concerto no. 3 op. 59
The Concerto No. 3 is thought to have been composed for a private event. Popper’s dedication of it to "His Excellency, the Imperial Russian Councilor von Ogarev," points to such a situation. In addition, the ensemble size of the orchestra is somewhat smaller than it is in the Concerto No. 2. Nevertheless, the compact swing, what is essential to the message, is moving.
Welcome melodies pervade the work. One gladly gets over the fact that Popper’s genuine musical imagination cannot completely unfold within the prescribed brevity.
Popper's late years
It was not until 1896 that David Popper settled down in Budapest and established ties as a professor to the conservatory founded by Franz Liszt. He swiftly advanced to the status of one of Europe’s most sought-after teachers. However, this did not keep him from pursuing an active concert career. Along with his experience as an orchestra musician and a soloist, he now increasingly occupied himself with work as a chamber musician. With Jenö Hubay, his violinist colleague at the academy, he founded the Hubay-Popper Quartet – which for thirty years was one of the leading quartet formations worldwide with guest musicians such as Brahms, Dohnányi, Paderewski, Backhaus, and Godowsky.
On the basis of his knowledge in the field of chamber music and the increasingly higher demands that contemporary solo concertos, sonatas, and virtuoso pieces brought with them, Popper may have moved toward the decision to develop new étude material for his instrument. At the beginning of the twentieth century he therefore wrote the Hohe Schule des Violoncellspiels (High School of Violin Playing) in four volumes, each with ten études – which even today continues to rank as a standard work in the instructional literature.
The circumstances of David Popper’s death display the features of a sensational social drama. His appointment to the post of a Hungarian Hofrat was celebrated in Baden, near Vienna, in a circle including family members and friends. The weak spell suffered by the honoree was wrongly interpreted by those in attendance – not as a preliminary symptom of a fatal heart attack but merely as a sign of "joyful excitement." Apparently, despite his clearly advanced age, nobody believed that the tireless musician and teacher might be suffering from total exhaustion. As far as his later family history is concerned, it is terrible that Popper’s second wife Olga, like many other members of his family, fell victim to the Holocaust and was murdered in the gas chamber of a death camp.
Popper’s legacy lived on through his many pupils, who became prominent teachers in their own right. A great part of his oeuvre continues to await rediscovery. It is sensational, just to think what other wonderful things were offered to the public during the 1880s in addition to the main works of Bruckner (b. 1824), Brahms (b. 1833), Tchaikovsky (b. 1840), and Dvórak (b. 1841). David Popper (b. 1843) may very much be named as the youngest member of this band of composers.
Translated by Susan Marie Praeder