Marcel Rubin’s Symphony No. 4, “Dies irae”
Notes by TŌN violinist Judith Kim and TŌN violist Sydney Link
In his early years, the Viennese composer Marcel Rubin (1905–-95) called many places home, collecting influence from the cultures he encountered. After brief studies with Franz Schmidt, he fled the Nazis by emigrating first to Paris, where he studied with Darius Millhaud, and later to Marseille. After his time in France he went to Mexico City, where he was a rehearsal coach at the opera while also using the opportunity to direct and perform his own compositions. Rubin returned to Austria in 1947, once the war had finished, and he continued to compose and critique music. His creative output was prolific and diverse. Unlike other German composers of his time, Rubin’s style focuses on rhythmic sequences and melodic lines instead of intricate harmonies.
A Reflection of War
During his time in Mexico, between 1943 and 1945, Rubin composed his Fourth Symphony, which would later bear the title Dies irae, or judgment day. The “Dies irae” is a sequence of the Roman Requiem Mass for the dead, and is commonly included in musical Requiems, such as those by Mozart and Verdi. This symphony became a reflection of his World War II experiences. In early versions of the symphony, its first two movements depicted the horrors of war, while the subsequent two movements evoked the dream of peace, thus earning it its original title, War and Peace. He would later discard the two positive movements and replace them with a subdued pastoral movement, concluding contemplatively. The new title, Dies irae, draws a parallel between the war and the end of the world, invoking the Gregorian chant as the basis for the second and third movements.
The first movement is a funeral march inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s heart-wrenching ballad “Kinderkreuzzug 1939,” recounting the tragic story of lost and starving children facing a harsh winter. In the score Rubin included four stanzas of Brecht’s poem, which can be found below. A solo viola voices a melancholic theme that crescendos into a sweeping orchestral entrance. After the main theme, a lively section unfolds as a central episode. The movement concludes with a nearly inaudible reprise of the main melody. The “Dies irae” second movement recollects the horrors of war. The movement begins with fanfares which precede the Dies irae-like main theme. This theme gradually fractures rhythmically, and brief moments of tranquility emerge through the solo violin’s melody, offering fleeting glimpses of peace interrupted by dissonance. The influence of the Dies irae continues in the symphony’s muted pastoral ending. Variations lead to a serene flute passage concluding with a lingering question, inviting contemplation and the possibility of a brighter future.
Four stanzas of “Kinderkreuzzug 1939” by Bertolt Brecht
English translation, “Children’s Crusade 1939”, by Hans Keller
Schnee fiel, als man sich’s erzählte
in einer östlichen Stadt
von einem Kinderkreuzzug,
der in Polen begonnen hat.
Da trippelten Kinder hungernd
in Trüpplein hinab die Chausseen
und nahmen mit sich andere, die
in zerschossenen Dörfern stehn.
Sie wollten entrinnen den Schlachten,
dem ganzen Nachtmahr,
und eines Tages kommen
in ein Land, wo Frieden war…
Wo einst das südöstliche Polen war
bei starkem Schneewehen
hat man die fünfundfünfzig
Snow fell as they told one another,
there in an Eastern town,
about a children’s crusade:
deep in Poland, wand’ring round.
Lost children were scuttling, hungry;
in little formations were seen.
There they gathered with others,
standing where villages once had been.
They wanted to fly from the fighting,
let the nightmare cease;
and one fine day they’d come
upon a land where there was peace.
Where once the south-east of Poland was,
in raging blizzard keen,
there were our five-and-fifty
last to be seen.