Schäfer, Dirk

Rotterdam, 25 November 1873
Amsterdam, 16 February 1931

photo: NMI

Sonata in C opus 13
1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio, non troppo
3. (Finale.) Allegro assai agitato
duration: about 23′;
publisher: A.A. Noske, The Hague, 1916;
dedicated to Gérard Hekking;
location: Nederlands Muziek Instituut.

Dirk Schäfer studied piano at the music school of the Maatschappij ter Bevordering der Toonkunst in his hometown Rotterdam. Aided by a Dutch government scholarship, he was able to continue his studies with Max Pauer in Cologne. In 1894 he graduated with top honours and a year later he was awarded the Mendelssohn Prize in Berlin.
From 1904 he lived in Amsterdam behind the Concertgebouw, where Carl Flesch was his neighbour for a number of years. His relationship with the Concertgebouw Orchestra was strained. In 1916, when he was invited to appear as soloist with the orchestra for the first time since 1909, when he performed Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos on the same evening, he declined the honour, because ‘while my artistic views are not in harmony with those of the chief conductor [Willem Mengelberg], this in no way excuses the fact that the Concertgebouw management has totally sidelined me ever since, considering the fact that there are also other conductors who have been connected with this institution for years.’ (Quote from a 1929 interview.)
Schäfer’s moral and ethical artistic viewpoints were lofty. His book Aphorisme, published in 1911, contains statements such as: ‘Many of Beethoven’s later works in particular are beyond most people’s comprehension in a higher sense, because these works contain exceptional human qualities’; ‘The first thing required of an artist is self-abnegation’; ‘… As a result of the higher demands that the artist continually imposes upon himself, the audience becomes smaller…’ In his Psychologische aantekeningen [Psychological notes] he wrote: ‘The masses desire the victor. Perhaps no greater lie exists than the triumphant element. …’ He was wary of every form of outward appearance: ‘The greater the virtuosity – the greater the comedian’; ‘The appropriate playing gestures should come about as the spiritualised embodiment of a composition’s content’; ‘One can already fathom the artist’s nature from his choice of programmes.’
If this last statement is the case, then we should pay extra attention to the programmes compiled for Schäfer’s eleven ‘historical evenings’: a cycle that he presented in Amsterdam between 10 November 1913 and 25 January 1915. There is a superb album in the collection of the Netherlands Music Institute, presented by friends and admirers ‘to the brilliant artist DIRK SCHÄFER [in gilt lettering]’. The 130 odd signatures not only included eminent musicians such as Alphons Diepenbrock and Sem Dresden, but also the writer-psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden and the poetess-politician Henriette Roland Holst-van der Schalk. The album contains all eleven programmes. The first concert encompassed the period from Byrd to Mozart. The second was dedicated to J.S. Bach and his sons. Two concerts featured sonatas by Beethoven, while Schumann, Chopin and Brahms each also had an evening devoted solely to their works. Performed works included Goldberg Variations, the Appassionata and Hammerklavier sonatas, Kreisleriana, Händel and Paganini Variations, as well as Reger’s Bach Variations, works by Röntgen, Von Brucken Fock, Dresden and Schäfer himself, several pieces by Debussy and Schönberg’s opus 11 no.1. ‘How can one man’s brain unfalteringly absorb so much music?’ wrote Frederik van Eeden in his diary on 10 March 1914. ‘It is a never-ending stream of notes, all of which must be meticulously memorised.’
Schäfer made no bones about the fact that he played Schönberg purely from a sense of moral obligation. He viewed Debussy primarily as a composer at the end of a particular development and reproached him for having created an excessive degree of freedom. His viewpoints on the art of piano playing have been compiled in the book Het Klavier, to which he wrote the foreword just a few months prior to his death. The book was published by his widow Ida Dumstorff in 1945.

Those who knew Schäfer say that he was above all attached to the silence of his study room and that it was as if he brought the concentration of this small space to the stage, enchanting his audience with a feeling of great intimacy. They also said that upon leaving the concert hall he always looked forward to returning to this silent place, where he also did all of his composing.
Just as Schäfer ultimately excluded numerous pieces that he had studied from his repertoire, he likewise burned a great many of his compositions. His String Quartet Opus 14 and the Piano Suite In de stilte Opus 19 may probably be considered as the high points of his surviving oeuvre.
Like the string quartet, the cello sonata is characterised by a rich polyphony. However, the issue of tonality is more remarkable. The tonality of the first movement is a C major that could hardly be surpassed in its exuberance. This mood is strongly determined by the three signal notes opening the main theme and the rhythmically dotted third bar of the theme which takes on a motivic role. They make their unfettered appearance in a variety of forms and relationships and the simple second theme is little more than a short, tender moment of relaxation. However, in the final movement the tonality supported by the polyphony is a nervous and driven C minor. This in itself would not have been so extraordinary if the movement were ultimately to resolve in C major, triumphantly or otherwise. However, this is far from being the case: the movement, and with it the sonata, hastens irrepressibly irresistibly or even dramatically towards its end in C minor. This is something that one might perhaps encounter in an opera or a symphonic poem but practically never in the case of a sonata. It contains the hint of an underlying programme, one featuring a young, exuberant hero who meets a sorry end. Between these two movements the charming and amiable Adagio, non troppo provides an intermezzo in A-B-A’ form.
The first performance of the sonata was given by Gérard Hekking and Dirk Schäfer in the Kleine Zaal of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw on 3 November 1909. On 14 March 1910 Flesch, Hekking and Schäfer performed a programme in Amsterdam totally devoted to Schäfer’s works, featuring the two violin sonatas dedicated to Flesch and the cello sonata, a programme they repeated a few days later in Berlin.

See Discography

(October 24th 2012)