Friedrich Gernsheim – Forgotten Genius

Beginning this Wednesday, “Gamut” (6-9am Wednesday mornings) will be featuring a cycle of symphonies by German composer Friedrich Gernsheim.


Although Gernsheim’s reputation has lapsed into relative obscurity, it wasn’t always the case.

Friedrich Gernsheim (1838-1916) was a well-respected composer, conductor, and teacher in the latter half of the 19th century. Like Mendelssohn, Gernsheim was born into a wealthy Jewish family that valued the arts and supported his efforts.

Young Friedrich had a natural talent for the piano and studied with virtuoso Ignaz Molscheles. But rather than pursue a career as a performer, he chose to concentrate on composition and conducting.

In the late 1850’s he lived in Paris, where he associated professionally with Rossini, Lalo, and Saint-Saens. Returning to Germany, he joined the faculty of the Conservatory of Cologne, where he taught (among others), Engelbert Humperdink. He was a great friend of Brahms, whose style closely resembled Gernsheim’s own. Gernsheim championed Brahms’ music, and often programmed and conducted it.

And no wonder. Gernsheim and Brahms had very similar views about music and wrote in similar styles. Gernsheim’s First Symphony (1875) follows the same structure as Brahms’ First Symphony (premiered 1876), although the two men worked independently. Gernsheim, like his friend, would write just four symphonies. He also composed a piano concerto, two violin concertos, a cello concerto, as well as an extensive amount of chamber music — 5 string quartets, 3 piano quintets, 2 string quintets, and more.

But as good as it was (and most of his works were premiered to critical acclaim and widely performed), Gernsheim’s music was still overshadowed by that of Brahms.

While I’m not suggesting we should stop playing Brahms and play Gernsheim instead, I do think the latter’s music is of a quality that’s worthy of the time investment to listen to it — at least once. Which is why I’ll be presenting it to you over the next month or so.

And if I can track down some recordings of Gernsheim’s chamber works, I’ll share them as well. But for now, between 8 and 9 AM, we can enjoy the symphonies of a perhaps unjustly neglected master. You be the judge.

8/14/13 – Symphony no. 1 in G minor, op. 32 (1875)
8/21/13 – Symphony no. 2 in E-flat major, op. 46 (1882)
8/28/13 – Symphony no. 3 in C minor ‘Miriam’, op. 54 (1887)
9/4/13 – Symphony no. 4 in B♭ major, op. 62 (1895)

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