2018-19 …DREAM IN COLOR
STAY ON IT!
April 13, 2019
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Three Pieces for Drum Quartet (1974-75) - James Tenney (1934-2006)
De Profundis (1994) - Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938)
Solo (1981) - Lukas Foss (1922-2009)
Stay On It (1973) - Julius Eastman (1940-1990)
Undeniably, minimalism started in California. Some make a case for La Monte Young as the movement’s true father (Variations for string quartet, 1955; The Four Dreams of China, 1962; The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys, 1964), but a general and long-held consensus has it that Terry Riley birthed the movement in 1964 with a loose ensemble of players, including Steve Reich, performing his In C in the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a space housing KPFA and the Anna Halprin Dance Company.
This Life of Sounds
Also born in 1964 in less countercultural surroundings, despite intentions to be the ”Berkeley of the East,” was the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York in Buffalo. As Renee Levine Packer observes in her definitive firsthand book about the Center, “This Life of Sounds” (Oxford University Press, 2010) – to whom these notes are deeply indebted:
“Buffalo, New York, as it turns out, had a tradition of embracing challenge and innovation. There was pride in being first. The first elevator in the world was built in Buffalo in the 1840s. The first steam-powered grain elevator was developed there. In 1843, the railroad came to Buffalo. The town at theend of the Erie Canal became a city of increasing importance as a transportation center and the chief grain depot of America.”
Extensive vision planning and support from the Rockefeller Foundation helped create a new social dynamic for music that would bring eighteen performers and composers together without the necessity of teaching. Composers andperformers were called Creative Associates (CA) – a new model for collaboration. At the center of the Center, which lasted until 1980 (Morton Feldman directed the last six years, including a sabbatical), was the warm and charismatic personality of the pianist/composer Lukas Foss, a naturalized Jewish-American born in Berlin.
Under his decade of visionary leadership nothing quite like the Center in Buffalo, with its Albright Knox concert hall existed elsewhere – before or since. Within four years, the Center would play a key role in the rapid advance of minimalism, as we know it, and soon contribute important strands to the movement’s history – even if these stories are only now gaining proper perspective.
The Center deliberately avoided identification with any compositional method, style or ideology. Foss recruited the most progressive and accomplished young artists in America. The German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel, and the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur, who was closely associated with Germany’s Darmstadt school and electronic music, felt liberated by the arrival of so many fellow travelers. They had accepted professorships at the University with the understanding that Buffalo would become the most exciting American city for new music.
The first cadre of CAs included percussionist/composer John Bergamo, who would later become a leading figure at CalArts, and fellow percussion innovator Jan Williams who would remain in various capacities as composer, conductor and director until 1980. The avant-garde jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger and the LA-born soprano Carol Plantamura, who was active in Rome with Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) joined to collaborate. Pianist Fred Myrow, who had strong links to rock music, would become a prolific film composer. The violinist Paul Zukovsky, a child prodigy and competition winner, would first gain acclaim as Einstein in Einstein on the Beach. The 35-year-old composer George Crumb would soon find his voice with the now classic anti-Vietnam ritual Black Angels for amplified string quartet in 1970. This 1964-66 cadre also included the non-English speaking Italian experimental composer Sylvano Bussotti, a flutist, clarinetist, and trumpeter/composer, another violinist, a violist, guitarist, and another soprano, as well as a baritone, and the conductor Richard Dufallo.
The composer/pianist David Tudor, John Cage’s frequentcollaborator, followed in the second year, along with trombonist/composer and extended technique pioneer Vinko Globokar. With rock star looks, the formidable but elfin pianist Yuji Takahashi also stayed for two years. Cornelius Cardew, Britain’s notorious experimentalist and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen followed in 1966-67.
In the spring of 1966, Frederic Rzewski took a breakfrom MEV and Rome for a semester to explore the Buffalo scene. Meanwhile on the coasts the history of minimalism was being made, as we know it.
After five years of study at Juilliard, and subsequently with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, Reich’s first minimalist work, the tape piece Its Gonna Rain (1965), was made from live recordings of Brother Walter, a Black street preacher in downtown San Francisco. The next year, having returned to New York, Reich made the more famous tape piece Come Out from thevoice of Daniel Hamm, one of the “Harlem Six,” who would be imprisoned for nine years despite his innocence. Reich, like many composers of his generation, was deeply immersed in John Coltrane, and had an affinity for Black culture.
In 1966-67 Reich transitioned from process pieces for tape to instrumental phasing pieces — Reed Phase, Violin Phase and Piano Phase, followed by Four Organs in 1970. Phasing is a "continually adjusting" canon with mutable gaps between the voices that rely only on time intervals of imitation as, in these works, a given sonority is moved against itself through live performance with looped tape recordings, and then live only by careful calculation. The simplest and most popular of the works from this period was Clapping Music (1972). Drumming followed with structures capable of sustaining the music in large sections for well past an hour. The pivotal Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ increased Reich’s color palette and added melodic material that would open new vistas leading to his masterpiece Music for Eighteen in 1976.
Strung Out (1967) for amplified violin was the first work of minimalism by Philip Glass, who had just returned from two years of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, where he also worked as a novice assistant to Ravi Shankar notating Indian music. Riley and Young also studied Indian music in California at the same time with Pandit Pran Nath, who taught North Indian singing at Mills. Glass’s exposure to non-Western music would flower exponentially in the decades ahead, but his dedication to Boulanger’s core interest in the richness of canonic structures, and a new fascination with the additive rhythms of Indian musicyielded a series of three large works in 1969 – Music in Contrary Motion for electric organ, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion; and Music in Changing Parts in 1970 for the Philip Glass Ensemble. The culmination of this quest was the epic 4-hour Music in Twelve Parts(1971-74) for five players and ten instruments. A liberating new direction followed – including the vocal work Another Look at Harmony –that led to the New York premiere and six-city European tour of his masterpiece opera Einstein on the Beach in 1976.
Both composers of “downtown music,” as it was known, thrived in gallery, museum, and warehouse spaces attracting distinctly different audiences than those for traditional classical music. Mainstream recordings largely fueled the rapid reach into popular culture of so-called “minimalism” (renamed by a critic to align it with visual art and dance) and the extraordinarily parallel career paths of Reich and Glass as New Yorkers in the world.
John McClure, Director of Columbia Masterworks (aka CBS Masterworks, aka Sony Classical) launched the “Music in our Time” series of LPs to reach the emerging college educated, pot-smoking, anti-Vietnam, anti-establishment, pro-civil rights audiences. As something of a trial balloon, Columbia’s budget label Odyssey released Come Out in 1967 alongside music by Richard Maxfield and Pauline Oliveros. “Music in our Time” launched in 1969 with the release of Terry Riley’s In C and Berio’s quite different but no less thrilling postmodern mashup Sinfonia with the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers.
David Behrman, whom McClure had released from Columbia in 1968 for a sabbatical as a CA, had the idea of recording In C with an ensemble of CAs. Riley, who was not yet a CA, would lead from the saxophone and Behrman was to be the recording’s producer. He observed about In C, “the best performances will be made by musicians gifted with special ability to improvise and listen to one another.” Trombonist Stuart Dempster would organize the project with McClure’s blessing in recording studio and converted church in midtown Manhattan’s Eastside. The overdubbed ensemble included trumpeter Jon Hassell and his wife Margaret, who played the relentless piano pulse wearing a glove. David Shostac, flute; Lawrence Singer, oboe; Jerry Kirkbride, clarinet; Edward Burnham,vibraphone; Jan Williams marimbaphone; and David Rosenboom, viola were all CAs. Darlene Reynard, a non-CA member of the Buffalo scene played bassoon. Riley’s one-page score was reproduced on the cover of the LP insuring its wide dissemination. The San Francisco composer joined as a CA in the spring of 1969. Julius Eastman became a Creative Artist the following fall.
From an early age Julius was willful, obstinate and had an air about him that his father read as effeminate. His mother was protective and concerned only with the boy’s development claiming that before he was born she had a sense that he was special. At age ten he asked for a beginning piano book that seemed as easy to read on the piano as a textbook. He sang in St. John’s Episcopal Church choir, where he was a paid boy soprano, until his voice changed at age fourteen, darkening into an extremely resonant bass baritone. In 1968 four short piano pieces by the twenty-eight-year-old composer/pianist were performed in Buffalo’s Albright Knox Museum auditorium and in Carnegie Hall as a guest artist.
Eastman’s biographer Renee Levine Packer, the erstwhile administrator of the center and keen chronicler of its trajectory remembers, “Julius simply appeared in my office one day – a tall, slim, handsome black man dressed in a long Army-green trench coat and white sneakers carryingsome scores under his arm. ‘Lukas Foss said I should come over and talk to you,’ he said in a low, modulated voice. ‘I have a string quartet I’d like the Creative Associates to play.’ Foss hadn’t mentioned a thing to me, which meant that I hadn’t approached any of the musicians – some of whom could be quite surly about agreeing to do anything that might encroach on free time. I gave him the musicians’ phone numbers, suggesting that he could call them. ‘Good luck,’ I said skeptically.”
The university made him full faculty in 1971, and with extensive performing responsibilities, including touring with his newly composed Stay On It and Frederic Rzewski’s breakthrough vocal work Coming Together (1972). The three-week tour of Evenings for New Music concerts were givenin Paris, London, Scotland (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow), Lisbon, Barcelona, Rome, Perugia, Karlsruhe, and Berlin. The tour remains to be fully documented. Eastman stayed in Buffalo until 1975. His faculty bio at the time listed two ballets, songs, orchestral, and piano works.
Riley gained worldwide crossover appeal from this well-packaged recording. However, the Center’s role in fostering his rise, and that of minimalism, was largely eclipsed by his celebrity. Eastman’s fleeting moment of fame came from his matchless bass baritone performance of Eight Songs of a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1970, soon recorded by Nonesuch and released in 1973. His live performances were rapturously received and the recording was nominated for a Grammy.
Stay On It
The octet with voice Stay On It (1973) was Eastman’s first important work to survive as his clear entry to the history of minimalism. That there was a black voice with a significant gay African-American perspective at this important turning point of Western music is a topic of considerable interest today, even more so as the cultural dimensions of disco with roots in Motown and Funk are contrasted with minimalism.
Matthew Mendez, in his essay “That Piece Does Not Exist without Julius: Still Staying on Stay On It” from Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music edited by Packer and Mary Jane Leach (University of Rochester Press, 2015), elaborates:
“It is noteworthy that Eastman should emphasize rhythmic continuity (“the beat”) at the exclusion of the other building blocks of early minimalism, such as process, repetition, consonance, slow harmonic rhythm, and machine-like impersonality. For no matter the direction Eastman’s later projects would take, the truth is that Stay On It stood askew from these minimalist standbys: too haphazard for “process music,” too wild and wooly for ‘another look at harmony,’ too expressive for assembly line industrial precision. We could not be farther away from midcentury modernism, where complexity and richness of signification were implicitly valorized as desirable (straight) ‘masculine’ traits. And this is to say nothing of the abstractions of early minimalism: with [CA Benjamin] Hudson’s Diana Ross snippet, from [“Stop in the Name of Love” interpolated in some performances] Stay On It cited disco as a social entity, highlighting the genre’s associations with gay and ethnic subcultures.”
Packer, further observed the linkage of Eastman and Rzewski at this time when key works of Riley, Glass and Reichwere gaining ground in the public sphere:
“All in all, Eastman’s admiration for Rzewski’s workof this period makes considerable sense. If the modular structure of In C provided a manifestprecedent for questions regarding notation and ensemble coordination, Rzewski, for whom minimalism was merely a means to an end, offered an appealingly messy approach to pulsation andrepetition. In Rzewski’s hands, pulse-pattern minimalism was never rigidly non-referential. Unlike early Reich and Glass, the “outside world” of politics and the vernacular was readily embraced.”
Packer quotes a frequent performer of Stay On It who contrasted Rzewski as being “aggressive and hard-nosed” and Eastman as “malleable and sensual.” And summed up: “Eastman drew most of his musical conclusions by breathing the same air and feeling the same vibrations as his more commercially successful counterparts.”
Rzewski spent the spring semester of 1974 in Buffalo. His Coming Together was given the first of many shattering performances by Eastman as narrator, March 31, 1974, at Albright Knox, ten days later in Carnegie Hall, and on tour. Eastman had already performed some five times as a pianist in Les Moutons de Panurge (1970), Rzewski’s ironic response to Riley’s In C. Coming Together, however, was reaction to the Attica Prison Riot, September 9–13, 1971. The maximum-security penitentiary was only 35 miles from Buffalo.
Stage actor Steven Ben Israel, a member of New York's Living Theatre, premiered Coming Together in 1973. He may have better matched the racial identity of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman), convicted bomber, organizer, and Attica inmate, however Eastman embodied black empowerment that demanded humane conditions in a massive prison designed for a thousand fewer prisoners, than were actually housed in the brutal architecture. The inmates were 63% black or Puerto Rican. With uncanny stillness, Eastman’s reading Melville’s letter profoundly dwelled on how time is affected by place, and “a greater coming together.” Eastman took possession of the audience’s collective imagination in 1974 while Rzewski played a dizzying piano in an ensemble that numbered eight. The memory of what happened in Attica would not soon be alleviated. Twenty years later, De Profundis would return Rzewski to contemplate prison life.
Rzewski attended a concert by the Latin American folk music group Inti-Illimani from Chile in the Upper East Side’s Hunter College in 1974 with the pianist Ursula Oppens. Prodigiously talented with a formidable education, she had received numerous scholarships and awards including the 1969 gold medal of the Busoni International Piano competition, and had co-founded the new music series Speculum Musicae in 1971. Rzewski was a kindred spirit and an accomplished composer/performer of new piano music. He had returned from Italy in 1971 after studying with Luigi Dallapiccola, and co-founding MEV, the Rome-based collective in 1966 with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. MEV experimented with primitive synthesizers and performed daring, often riot-producing improvisations. That fateful Hunter College concert occurred just weeks after the resignation of President Nixon, August 8, 1974. Like the rest of the audience, Rzewski and Oppens left the hall singing The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a resolute earworm that lasted for days.
Rzewski’s epic hour-long protest classic of the same name that followed is often compared to J.S. Bach’s Aria and 30 Goldberg Variations. The composer Christian Wolff has written eloquently about this kaleidoscopic work. On its sources, Wolff observes, “It was about the time that Rzewski...began to associate himself with jazz musicians such as Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, and developed an interest in popular political music, including songs of the Italian left...the songs of Hanns Eisler and the new Latin American music form Cuba and Chile, the Puerto Rican folk music in New York and the songs of Mike Glick.”
After extoling the work’s resemblance to tonal Romantic piano music, its experimental harmony, and use of serial technique, as well as repeated notes and extravagant new sonorities, Wolff draws attention to, “the catching of harmonics after a chord attack, as well as the whistling by the pianist, crying out, slamming the piano lid, all techniques suggesting experimental music – and the free, informal kind of performing sometimes found in blues and jazz.” Considering all that came before and all that went into the work, it seems supremely poetic, and with no smallamount of irony, that Oppens gave the world premiere in1976 as part of the Bicentennial Piano Series at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. Like Einstein on the Beach and Music for Eighteen, The People United emerged as Rzewski’s masterpiece in 1976.
It would be too neat to have James Tenney join this coincidental group of 1976 career achievements, yet he was associated with a bicentennial commission from the dean of anti-masterpiece composers John Cage. The US premiereof Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, at the Buffalo Center on the 76-77 season’s Evening for New Music featured Tenney among twelve speaking parts. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned the piece to observe the US Bicentennial. Cage scored it for “preferably American men who have become Canadian citizens” – perhaps anti-Vietnam conscientious objectors who had moved to Canada to avoid the U.S. draft? Tenney had been one of the original performers while on the York University faculty in Toronto.
Prior to his years at York (1976-2000), he joined the new faculty before the 1970 opening of the Cal Arts campus,where he remained until 1975, the year he completed Three Pieces for Drum Quartet. A one-year stint at UC Santa Cruz led to locating across the U.S. border from Niagara Falls. His friend and admirer Morton Feldman, who many felt was not a natural leader or particularly comfortable with administrative duties, tapped Tenney, a rangy Westerner born in Silver Springs New Mexico, to fill in during the 1979 Spring Semester. Given York’s proximity to Buffalo, Tenney managed to become a CA in 1978.
Three Pieces for Drum Quartet
Three Pieces for Drum Quartet was begun in 1974. It is a triple homage while also being a superb example of the prevailing interest in additive processes and of reviving simple pre-classical forms in service to a new aesthetic. The centennial of Charles Ives was widely celebrated in 1974 with Leonard Bernstein as the most visible beater of the drum. Ives was Tenney’s hero, if he had one. The maverick composer embodied all that Tenney held dear as an American. The work opens as a wake for Ives performed on four evenly spaced tenor drums, sounding both somber for the composer’s passing twenty years earlier and suspenseful for some unknown future. The drummers then move to the four corners of the room where bass drums sound out a hocket for Henry Cowell, a California composer and Ives disciple, who spent time in jail for homosexuality.
Hocket is defined as a “spasmodic or interrupted effect in medieval and contemporary music, produced by dividing a melody between two parts, notes in one part coinciding with rests in the other.” Tenney’s “Hocket for Henry Cowell” roils darkly like the Pacific Ocean 30-feet below San Quentin Prison, where the young composer served four years of a fifteen-year sentence.
The final “Crystal Canon for Edgard Varèse” is performed in a loose configuration of snare drums. The flamboyant and strikingly handsome Varèse, a transplanted Frenchman,was in the public mind the father of the American musical avant-garde during the roaring twenties. He is credited with composing the first concert work for a percussion ensemble, Ionization, from which Tenney appropriated the snare drum part. Tenney, like his more prominent minimalist contemporaries, drills down on a particular canonic structure in this homage. He draws attention to the paradox of canons being the strictest types of imitation, which upon investigation opens up a surprisingly wide variety of possibilities. The crystal canon is governed by the same mathematical principles of crystal formation.
End of an Era
Throughout the seventies funding for the Center dwindled after Rockefeller ended support and the University responded as demands to establish culturally specific programs grew. When Feldman returned from sabbatical, only three CA of the original eighteen positions remained. The Center for the Creative and Performing Arts lasted until 1980.
Foss became music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1971, overlapping the last three years in Buffalo, and continuing until 1988 as among the world’s most daring programmers. His earliest works for solo piano dates from 1938. Short pieces followed fitfully until the Scherzo Ricercato in 1954. His pianistic chops were formidable enough for Columbia to team him with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Roger Sessions for the legendary 1958 recordingof Stravinsky’s Les Noces scored for four pianos, percussion and chorus. His masterpiece Time Cycle (1960) followed with Leonard Bernstein conducting soprano Adele Addisonwith the Columbia Symphony.
Foss would return to the keyboard as a composer with a personal preoccupation – reconciling minimalism with its perceived polar opposite serialism. The work begins with a 12-tone row, but defies the rule of non-repetition. According to Daniel Felsenfeld’s linernote to Scott Dunn’s recording of the complete pianomusic of Foss on Naxos, the composer’s “favoring the motoric notions of Bach over the motoric notions of, say, Reich or Glass … Solo … is more than a stretched out fugato; it is a true piece of minimalism, which develops (or does not) in the same way, but yet does it with the Bartók-cum-Bach [that] Foss has always favored.“
In a memorial tribute to actor Luke Theodore of the Living theater, Rzewski composed De Profundis in 1991 for the pianist Anthony de Mare. Oscar Wilde’s letters from prison to Lord Alfred Douglas were excerpted for the pianist to speak wearing a microphone that can pick up other body music. The Wilde text is 150 pages in the 1981 Viking Penguin Edition. It was originally written longhand margin-to-margin as fast he could to fill the short period of time that writing materials were available in his cell. He was sentenced to two years hard labor and emerged in May 1897 from Reading Gaol suffering from bad health. Wilde would die in Paris at age 46 three years later.
Music critic and writer Mark Swed deftly describes the work and the composer’s struggle:
“The eight text selections are chosen to follow Wilde’s Zen-like search for inner peace within the awfulness of prison, which means transcending both the psychological humiliation and the physical deprivation of incarceration. Each text setting is preceded by a piano prelude, but the astonishing opening, the pairing of piano gestures and the body, means, of course, that the piano becomes heard as an actual extension ofthe body. Rzewski, however, also uses the piano to represent the psyche. It ticks time. It travels through music history: At one point a Bach-like invention seems to take on stylistic accretions of Beethoven, then Liszt – perhaps as comment upon Wilde’s desperation to maintain his identity. The piano’s rhythms become the body’s, and the instrument mirrors the prisoner’s lapses into hysteria. But all the while the piano’s connection with the utterly physical nature of the body makes it all the more effective as an agent for the ultimate transcendence of the body into the spirit, that familiar realm of pure music, into which Rzewski follows Wilde at the end.”
Rzewski’s fascination with incarceration and resisting political oppression can also be seen as his central aesthetic challenge. While all great composers give themselves restrictions and knotty puzzles, Rzewski’s life work seems to be expressed in the conflict between freedom and constraint. Improvisation butts against strict composition. He said recently that his music “is about being as free as possible in an extremely confining situation.”
PATRICK SCOTT © 2019
March 23, 2019
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Piano Sonata in E Minor (1932) - Florence Price (1887-1953)
Ennanga (1958) - William Grant Still (1895-1978)
“Single Petal of a Rose” (from The Queen’s Suite, 1958) - Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Lyric (“Molto Adagio” from String Quartet No. 1, 1935/1948) - George Walker (1922-2018)
“In a Sentimental Mood” (arr. Art Tatum, 1935/1948) - Ellington
New World A-Comin’ (arr. Scott Dunn, 1943/2019 world premiere) - Ellington
Invited to play chamber music in a festival, Althea Waites was in Geneva, Switzerland, during the summer of 1985 when a package arrived from the U.S. Library of Congress. Wayne Shirley, its music librarian and a walking encyclopedia of American music known for his pioneering work in Negro spirituals, had already served two decades in the job as an active presence at conferences, and was the founding editor of the Society for American Music’s quarterly journal. Apparently, Shirley made it his business to know who was where, and when.
Out of Mothballs
The package contained a manuscript copy of a late Romantic Piano Sonata by Florence Price that had recently come into the Library’s possession. A note expressed, his eagerness for a public performance. Waites used the long flight home to memorize the score, as she would soon attend a symposium on Black American Music at the University of Michigan. The work received first prize in 1932 from the Wanamaker Foundation. Given the composer’s subsequent difficulty as an African American woman to be taken seriously, it may be safe to assume that Waites gave the Piano Sonata its first modern public performance in Ann Arbor.
Listening today with a more open-minded attitude about influences and a more widely shared interest to learn about African American music history, the inherent conservatism of the work gives way to hearing an authentic voice. Price’s debt to Grieg and Dvorak, not to mention the German models promoted at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano, organ and composition under the leadership of George Whitefield Chadwick, make a strong first impression. But, the attentive listener will soon detect a fine-grained language rooted in Black spirituals and other indigenous sources.
Chadwick was a self-taught organist when he entered the New England Conservatory (NEC) as a “special” student, which is to say he was gifted, but would have not been able to pass the rigorous entrance requirements. After extensive study in Europe, he would eventually return to NEC, where he transformed it according to European standards. Regardless, NEC became the first – and for a long time, only – conservatory where Blacks could aspire to a formal classical music education. Nonetheless, Price’s mother insisted she hide her race by using a false birthplace: Pueblo, Mexico. Chadwick would later teach Price’s contemporary and fellow Little Rock resident William Grant Still at Oberlin Conservatory.
Price graduated in 1906. She is the first African-American woman composer to gain national stature. According to Rae Linda Brown (1953-2017), who Waites met at the UM symposium, Price “was born into one of the most prominent black families in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her father, Dr. James H. Smith, was a very successful dentist, an inventor, and a published author. Price’s mother, Florence Irene, was an elementary school teacher and an enterprising businesswoman.” The governor was believed to be her father’s secret patient.
Brown had just completed her dissertation on Price’s Symphony in E Minor, the even more newsworthy Wanamaker prizewinner of 1932. Fredrick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony took notice and promptly programmed the work’s premiere at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. The bond that developed by the scholar and Waites resulted in program notes (edited by yours truly) for the 1993 CD release of the sonata paired with music by Still and Ed Bland. Brown gives a cogent analysis of the sonata’s structure and character:
The sonata-form first movement begins with a stately, chordal introduction in dotted rhythms. The first theme in E minor is a confident and uplifting spiritual-like theme. After a short transition, the three-fold statement of the lyrical second theme, in C major, follows. Both the first and second themes are aptly treated in the development section. The recapitulation leads to a whirlwind of harmonies before the movement is brought to an exuberant close.
The second movement is in rondo form. The main theme is another lyrical spiritual-like theme, treated with characteristic syncopated rhythms and simple harmony. The two secondary themes are reminiscent of Chopin and Schumann, respectively.
The third movement, a scherzo, provides a virtuosic and rhapsodic close to the sonata. Technically challenging, the movement is divided into two sections. In the first section, the main theme, a descending E minor scale, gives way to a lyrical cantabile theme, before it returns to a close the first half of the movement. The second section is based on a syncopated dance theme. A real tour de force, the dance theme and its complementary themes are taken through a series of meter and tempo changes to bring the movement to a triumphant close.
Price never really received this kind of attention again until recently. She wrote three more symphonies, although the second was unfinished. If one Googles her name, at least four stories from major news publication appear. The most compelling is by Alex Ross, “New World” in The New Yorkerprint edition February 5, 2018:
“In 2009, Vicki and Darrell Gatwood, of St. Anne, Illinois, were preparing to renovate an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. The structure was in poor condition: vandals had ransacked it, and a fallen tree had torn a hole in the roof. In a part of the house that had remained dry, the Gatwoods made a curious discovery: piles of musical manuscripts, books, personal papers, and other documents. The name that kept appearing in the materials was that of Florence Price. The Gatwoods looked her up on the Internet, and found that she was a moderately well-known composer, based in Chicago, who had died in 1953. The dilapidated house had once been her summer home. The couple got in touch with librarians at the University of Arkansas, which already had some of Price’s papers. Archivists realized, with excitement, that the collection contained dozens of Price scores that had been thought lost. Two of these pieces, the Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, have recently been recorded by the Albany label...
The reasons for the shocking neglect of Price’s legacy are not hard to find. In a 1943 [the year Duke Ellington composed New World A-Comin’] letter to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, she introduced herself thus: “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex I am a woman; and I have some Negro blood in my veins.” She plainly saw these factors as obstacles to her career, because she then spoke of Koussevitzky “knowing the worst.” Indeed, she had a difficult time making headway in a culture that defined composers as white, male, and dead. One prominent conductor took up her cause—Frederick Stock, the German-born music director of the Chicago Symphony—but most others ignored her, Koussevitzky included. Only in the past couple of decades have Price’s major works begun to receive recordings and performances, and these are still infrequent.”
A year ago at First Congregational Church, the Southeast Symphony, under the baton of Anthony Parnther, gave the west coast premiere of The Oak, a tone poem that could be compared to Chadwick’s works in that genre, but for its fascinating moments of Wagnerian chromaticism. Otherwise Los Angeles awaits hearing in live performances Price’s three viable symphonies, two violin concertos, and her piano concerto.
The most encouraging development for her gaining wider appreciation is the recent acquisition by G. Schirmer of her catalog of more than 300 published and yet-to-be published works. Again, Ross puts into appropriate perspective what we can look forward to:
The anachronisms in Florence Price’s music are, in the end, no flaw. Listening to her, I have the uncanny sense of hearing the symphonies and operas that women and African-Americans were all but barred from writing during the Romantic heyday, when the busts on the piano were being carved. She seems to speak from an imaginary past, from an alternative history of an America that lived up to its stated ideals. Frederick Douglass, in his great speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” said, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future.” In music, too, we can use the past to build a less imperfect world.
Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University, and heir apparent to Rae Linda Brown observed in a 2018 interview,“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artistliving within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm.” He adds, “How do we, through that, create a sound that sounds our culture, sounds our experience, sounds our embodied lives?”
Florence Price was eight when William Grant Still was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. A partner in a grocery store, his bandleader father died before Still’s first birthday. His mother taught English for more than three decades, and his stepfather nurtured the boy’s musical interest with concerts, operettas, and RCA recordings. Spirituals sung by his maternal grandmother grounded him in Black culture on a weekly basis. By 1910, he was studying violin with a teacher, and soon after taught himself the viola, cello, and double bass. Soon he branched out to the winds learning oboe, clarinet and saxophone. To please his mother, Still enrolled in Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio to pursue a Science degree program. Nearby Oberlin Conservatory offered a scholarship to study with the likes of Chadwick and the leader of the avant-garde Edgard Varese, who exerted a liberating influence, but one Still would have to shake off to find his voice.
Just as it was ending, Still joined the navy to battle in WWI. For three years he worked for WC Handy, the father of the blues, as an arranger. The most significant fruit of his compositional labors was an orchestra suite Africa, not as he had experienced it but as he imagined it. The work was premiered October 24, 1930, in Rochester conducted by Howard Hanson, thus setting the stage, a year later, for his Afro-American Symphony, the first symphony written by a Black American and performed by a leading US orchestra – the Rochester Philharmonic.
As Still describes Africa, which was a sensation with the audience, “An American Negro has formed a concept of the land of his ancestors based largely on its folklore, and influenced by his contact with American civilization. He beholds in his mind’s eye not the Africa of reality but an Africa mirrored in fancy, and radiantly ideal.” He thought it would be his first work to endure, but a publishing foul-up lasted into the 1980s sadly reducing it to a curiosity. The revised edition was performed in 1935 – that nether region between his leaving New York with a Fulbright and gaining his first major Hollywood film arranger credit – Pennies form Heavena 1936 comedy with music starring Bing Crosby. That summer he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. The following winter the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski premiered his Symphony No. 2 in G minor “Song of a New Race,”December 10, 1937. It was a harbinger of a transformation of Black consciousness underway in Los Angeles.
Art Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio with cataracts that made him nearly blind. The year was 1890, just between the births of Still and Price. At age sixteen Tatum attended Columbus School for the Blind to learn more about music by using Braille. Classical training followed with a visually impaired pianist. By nineteen he had his own radio show “Arthur Tatum-Toledo’s Blind Pianist” on WSPD. Multiple surgeries improved his one partially sighted eye, but the gains were undone in 1930 by a physical assault.
His ascent to fame happened in a way that would seem extremely unlikely to white musicians, but for Black musicians, just one of the ways available. Since the Twenties, Black pianists competed in home concert showcases that doubled as rent parties. Like the competitive cutting that goes on with ballroom dancing, pianists would “cut” by taking over the piano bench to elaborate on the tune laid down by the displaced player. This was where stride piano first took hold. The cutting contests became larger and more formalized by 1933, when in New York City, making his debut at Morgan’s Bar, Tatum triumphed over the greatest players of the day: Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Tatum was totally relaxed and un-histrionic in his playing. His style was very fast, freeing the hands to have a life of their own. His face was calm, bemused, and slightly detached. Having cut these elite pianists decisively, his solo career was launched.
Ellington followed Tatum’s progress since he first heard him in Toledo. In 1935, Ellington’s band introduced his signature tune In a Sentimental Mood. It is unclear when Tatum set to making his celebrated arrangement of the tune, but he first recorded it in 1948. Midway, with elegant irony, Tatum interpolates a quote from Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River) written for the Christy Minstrels — a wry critique of minstrelsy and Foster’s pervasive construction of Black life.
Several months after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, joined by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and other Black luminaries, appeared on a CBS broadcast from Columbia Square on Sunset Boulevard, March 30, 1941, called The Negro and National Defense.The show was produced by the National Urban League.
Never before had an all-black cast appeared on television for a full hour. The Urban League advocated for wartime fairness in factory employment of Black Americans and for equity in the San Pedro and Long Beach shipyards, as well as on the battlefield. Patriotic messages were expressed along with interviews and live music. World heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis mused on his experience as a factory worker. Elmer Carter, editor of Opportunity: A Journal for Negro Life, strongly decried inequality. The versatile singer and actress Ethel Waters, the first black woman to integrate Broadway's theater district entertained. Contralto Marion Anderson, who hadperformed on the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1939 after being denied a Constitution Hall recital by the Daughtersof the American Revolution, may have eloquently reprisedthe finish of her famous recital, Florence Price’s arrangement of “My Soul’s Been Anchored in De Lord.”
In an interview from the same time, Ellington challenged “offensive stereotypes instilled in the American mind by whole centuries of ridicule and degradation.” On behalf of Black society he rejected subservience as a tactic for survival. “Dissonance is our way of life in America.”
On Wilshire Boulevard, just a year earlier, February 29, 1940, the 12th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was held in the Cocoanut Grove ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel. Bob Hope made his debut as its host and Hattie McDaniel beat her co-star Olivia de Havilland as Best Supporting Actress. With her witty and nuanced performance as Mammy in Gone With The Wind, she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
Unsurprisingly, a separate table was set for McDaniel and her escort – athwart the famous grove of arching palm trees at the back of the ballroom.
Gone With the Wind dominated movie houses everywhere. In an open letter about depictions of Blacks in the film, Carlton Moss, an African-American screenwriter, actor and director of the 1953 documentary Frederick Douglass: The House on Cedar Hill,criticized its stereotypical black portrayals: the "shiftless and dull-witted Pork," the "indolent and thoroughly irresponsible Prissy," Big Sam's "radiant acceptance of slavery," and Mammy’s "constant haranguing and doting on every wish of Scarlett."
Walter Francis White, the light-skinned leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,NAACP, piled on calling McDaniel an “Uncle Tom.” With Ellingtonian dissonance, she countered, “I would rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one." Opportunity congratulated her success at exposing prejudicial limits. Black audiences, sometimes organized as non-violent rallies, decried the film as insulting, and a “weapon of terror.”After its four year run, Gone With the Windsold close to sixty million tickets, or nearly half the U.S. population at the time, handily becoming the most profitable film.
Against this background, Ellington devised a response to galvanize the Los Angeles Black community in at ground zero for the issue of segregation. With a grand entertainment at the Mayan Theater with his orchestra in the pit, he would address the powerful forces driving Black migration, and largely put an end to blackface. A song was cut in the first week that underscored the danger of pushing boundaries. “I’ve Got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m Going to the U.S.A.)” riled the local KKK Chapter enough to threaten the show with force.
The Green Book listed 224 Black-friendly businesses in Los Angeles in 1941. They offered safety, and for many desperate migrants, a warm meal at the miraculous Clifton’s Cafeteria. Of course, when traveling professionally to Los Angeles, or for short and extended stays, Black entertainers, ballplayers, intellectuals and dignitaries could lodge in only one place – the striking Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue.
In brick and brownstone, an exasperated Black dentist built a Moorish art deco hotel with 115 rooms. Two years after it opened, the hotel changed owners and was renamed for the poet, novelist, and playwrightPaul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). Although associated with Maya Angelou, it was Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” set to music by Price, that introduced the famous phrase that could well have describe Price herself: “But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings/I know why the caged bird sings,”
Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald stayed there. Some of them performed next door at Club Alabam and patronized the adjacent beauty parlor and liquor store. Paul Robeson, the actor and political firebrand, stayed there. W.E.B. DuBois, the great sociologist, civil rights activist, founder of the NAACP, and the first African American to receive a doctorate, stayed there. That year the Dunbar was the undisputed epicenter of Black cultural life and, not coincidentally, the Dunbar was Duke Ellington’s home base. He often composed his show in the bathtub after a breakfast of fresh peaches.
Jump for Joy was a turning point in Ellington’s merger of music and activism. The legendary review was not well documented – only a soundie of Ivie Anderson singing, “I’ve Got it Bad (and That’s Ain’t Good)” with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. No complete score survived as it was constantly in flux, no film was shot, despite 101 performances, and lines out the door. The few song recordings were affected by wartime restrictions, but worst of all for its legacy, the 60-member show didn’t make it to Broadway. Some powerfully worded songs do survive and a vein of oral history was opened up in the Black community and liberal white Hollywood that sustained Ellington’s message of radical pride.
Jump for Joy closed at the end of September, just two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would cast the die for war with America. Ellington’s self-possession, elegance and rectitude provided a central focus for preparation
In Benjamin Cawthra’s extensively footnoted article “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joyand the Fight For Equality in Wartime Los Angles” (Southern California Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 98, No 1; Historical Society of Southern California) to which these notes are indebted, Cawthra reveals that the true and lasting legacy of Jump for Joy, musically speaking, is the piano rhapsody New World A-Comin’:
“In 1943, Ellington composed a long-form work that debuted at Carnegie Hall called New World A-Comin’, named for Roi Ottley’s book, a recent work of social criticism that had impressed the maestro. ‘I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future where there would be no war,’ Ellington later recalled, ‘no greed, no categorization, no nonbelievers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.’”
Over the years, Ellington’s brilliant piano solo would take on various orchestral garbs, and navigate changing concertante balances. The great arranger Luther Henderson first took on orchestrating New World A-Comin’ for symphonic orchestra. Maurice Peress scaled his orchestration to the leaner American Composer’s Orchestra, with the hope that the work would enter the symphonic repertoire. That may yet happen, but arranger/conductor/pianist Scott Dunn, who had reconstructed the Vernon Duke Piano Concerto and played its premiere at Carnegie Hall, agreed with Jacaranda, that an arrangement for an ensemble of fourteen players might better meet the economic needs of progressive curators eager to program a major concert work by Ellington.
“Ellington's ambitions to write music that spoke to Negro history and present-day political concerns were a significant element in the discussion surrounding his early 1940s period” writes Cawthra. “While Ellington had been put on the defensive in the Jazz press about whether his orchestra’s evolving music was truly ‘jazz’ – that is, whether it was true enough to the music’s ‘folk’ roots – discerning black listeners agreed with Ellington that it was a moot point.” Today, listeners of all sorts can agree, as the classical music framework has changed enough to embrace Ellington’s ambitions to defy categorization.
An Immigrant’s Son
Arriving from Jamaica, George Walker’s father pursued medicine at Temple University and became a practicing physician while his mother would nurture the musical talent – apparent at age 5 – of their boy, George Theophilus (sharing a middle name with Mozart) born in Washington DC in 1922. While still attending Dunbar High School, Walker studied at Howard University that hosted his first piano recital at age 14. Oberlin Conservatory immediately enrolled him in piano and organ studies. By age 17 he was organist for the Oberlin College Graduate School of theology. Curtis Institute of Music enrolled Walker, who had graduated highest in his class, to study piano with Rudolf Serkin, as well as the chamber music courses with William Primrose and Gregor Piatigorsky, and composition with Samuel Barber’s teacher.
Walker’s 1945 New York recital debut at Town Hall was the first appearance of a Black instrumentalist in the prestigious venue. Two weeks later, he performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy
The String Quartet No 1 followed the next year. Like Barber’s Adagio from his string quartet, Walker’s affecting second movement lent itself to an arrangement for string orchestra namedLyric. Also, like Barber’s Adagio for strings, the popularity of Lyric overshadowed the rest of Walker’s substantial body of work until fifty years later. In 1996, Lilacs for voice and orchestra received the first Pulitzer Prize bestowed upon a Black composer. Seiji Ozawa conducted soprano Faye Robinson singing poetry of Walt Whitman, accompanied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
George Walker died this summer in July at age 97. The original 1946 quartet version of Lyric is performed tonight in his memory.
Like his suite Africa twenty years earlier, William Grant Still was inspired more by the idea of an African harp, than what limited ethnomusicology could provide a composer to hear in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. The ennanga is a Ugandan harp that strongly resembles ancient Egyptian harps, their bowed shapes strung across the void with up to eight strings. The strings have tiny noise-makers attached to color the sound – a rhythmic buzz intended to blend with the male singing voice.
Had Still been given access to the recordings, videos, and photos available today, he might have been even more inspired by the sound of the 23-string African Kora harp, with its tall neck, gigantic resonator and tuneful bright metallic sound. Interestingly, Ennanga, the harp sextet (harp, piano and string quartet) he composed in 1956 sites his imagination closer to the kora sound’s alternating rhapsodic lushness and rhythmic liveliness in an evocative way that seems wholly singular. Certainly, the dominance of French chamber music for the harp could be renewed by the energy and drive of Ennanga.
In the postwar years following Jump for Joy, Ellington toured most of Western Europe in 1950, with the orchestra playing 74 dates over 77 days. That year, Harlem, perhaps his most successful quasi-classical tone poem, was in the works. The clarity of the piano writing and exuberance of the orchestra interruptions in New World A-Comin,’ steeped in Southern California sensuality, was countered by a brash complexity that evolves from chaos to stride with emphatic confidence. Ellington was gaining fans in high places. He eventually presented President Harry Truman, a music lover, with the score to Harlem.
Postwar economics and changing tastes were making tours by jazz orchestras seem outmoded. Yet in 1952, the late André Previn said, "You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, Oh, yes, that's done like this. But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!" This inherent mystery and elusive quality was part of what kept people coming back. That being said, sometimes a gem of such simple inspiration emerges from his inspired muddles. Such is the centerpiece of The Queen’s Suite – “Single Petal of a Rose.”
Because of commodious tour dates, Ellington was available for the 100 Jubilee of Leeds Hall and a reception for the occasion by Queen Elizabeth. There remain marvelous photos of his preening in the mirror beforehand, and the electric flirtation that seems to spark between them after much anticipation. Several years after he presented Her Royal Majesty with a single exclusive pressing of The Queens Suite, Ellington recounts the experience:
"As a matter of fact I was the last person on line and she [Queen Elizabeth II] was sort of relaxed when she got to me, and we talked about her family, her father King George, her uncle Prince Edward and the Duke of Kent, whom I had an occasion to meet. The Duke of Kent and I used to play four-hands at the piano at night, and Prince Edward was at several parties where we played when we were there in 1933. Then one night, we had to hold the show for him in Liverpool. At another party he sat in on drums…. Then she told me about all the records of mine her father had. Then she asked me when was your first time in England? Oh I said, oh my first time in England was in 1933, way before you were born. She gave me a real American look; very cool man, which I thought was too much. I told her that she was so inspiring that something musical would come out of it. She said she would be listening, so I wrote an album for her."
It would seem that a new world had already come across the pond. Yet in America, the birth pangs of progress, however difficult, resulted first in the landmark unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision that struck down laws establishing segregation in public schools as unconstitutional; and then the foundational 1957 Civil Rights Act to ensure that all Americans could exercise their right to vote. When once we were admonished to keep our eyes on the prize, every once in a while granted the rarest of dreams, the flying dream, the prizes have now multiplied to such a degree that we must look for and work for a new world a-comin’.
PATRICK SCOTT© 2019
PREMONITION I & II
Sunday, February 3
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
String Quartet No. 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” (1925) - Pavel Haas (1899-1944)
String Quartet No. 2 (1998) - Georg Friedrich Haas (b.1953)
String Quartet No. 3 “The Hunt” (2003) - Jörg Widmann (b. 1973)
Symphony No. 6 “Tragic” (Piano four hands arr. Zemlinsky) (1904/1906) - Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
From where we stand — nearly two decades into the twenty-first century — it is difficult to fathom the world view of a genius who started life in 1860 as the first of only six surviving children among fourteen. Harder yet is to comprehend the many ways his influence would proliferate across that expanse of time including three seemingly random and lesser-known composers: Pavel Haas, Georg Friderich Haas, and Jörg Widmann.
A Forested Park
Linguistically like most local residents, the Mahlers were German speakers within Slavic-speaking Bohemia. Religiously they were modestly observant Ashkenazi Jews in a Catholic stronghold known for the military and silver mines. With the expeditious use of his wife Maria’s dowry, Bernard Mahler pulled his family up out of street peddler poverty, first as a coachman, then as an ambitious innkeeper who would eventually build a distillery and a tavern in what is now called Jihlava in the Czech Republic. Bernard’s overbearing personality clashed with the sensitivity and sickliness of his perpetually pregnant wife. The boy often escaped the noisy, stifling, and argumentative atmosphere to a forested park nearby.
It has been said that child-sized coffins were as common-place in the Mahler household as any piece of furniture. Unique, however, was the piano — perhaps the only asset of any value his humble grandparents left behind. At age four, Mahler discovered the instrument stashed in the attic. Six years later, the same year that the German Empire was established — his first public performance was given in the town’s gothic-inspired Municipal Hall. Iglau, the German name for Jihlava, was founded in 1100 AD near a river separating Moravia and Bohemia — now a city of over 50,000. Iglau was the word for the hedgehog adorning the town’s medieval coat-of-arms.
Musically, Iglau was also a border town. Gypsy music had deeper roots than the region’s famed 13th century St. Wenceslas Chorale, but their lack of a written cultural history doomed the Gypsies to persecution. They had been liberated from Romanian slavery in 1856, and so became a marginal and transient part of the regional culture at the time of Mahler’s birth. The ever present military bands with their trumpeting marches, the ethnic street ensembles with their home made instruments and roving folk singers, the fiddle quartets, a smattering of Jewish Klezmer music, rousing tavern songs, and peasant women dancing the polka and furiant with their elaborately ornamented headpieces and vivid red accessories made an enormous impression on Mahler.
Within this intensely musical milieu, Mahler’s public validation as a young artist grafted onto the model of his father’s ambition, drove the boy past a lackluster academicstint in Prague to enrollment in the Vienna Conservatory at age fifteen. He doubled down on piano studies and played percussion in the conservatory’s orchestras. There he met the would-be song composer Hugo Wolf, a passionate fellow admirer of Anton Bruckner, who embodied Wagnerism in a battle pitting Wagner against Brahms.
Together, Wolf and Mahler attended the calamitous premiere of Bruckner’s Wagner-drenched Third Symphony, conducted by the hapless composer and church organist as a last minute substitute. To console their self-doubting professor — a most unlikely representative of the avant-garde – Mahler and Wolf presented Bruckner with their piano four hands arrangement of the 1877 symphony.
Mahler left the Vienna Conservatory at age eighteen barely qualifying to enroll at the University of Vienna, where he lasted just a year. He read Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, among the German philosophers Wagner embraced, and like Wagner was interested in the emerging German Nationalism.
Das Klagende Lied (The Song of Lamentation, 1880), employing a large chorus, massive orchestra, offstage band, and six soloists, was Mahler’s first important work. While stunningly original, the cantata drew from Liszt’s Faust and Dante symphonies, as well as the Bavarian composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana. The Brothers Grimm-derived fairy tale of fratricide resonated with the composer’s survivor guilt over the 1874 death of his talented younger brother Ernst. While operatic in a way possible only after hearing Wagner’s music dramas, this fast–moving story bore all the hallmarks of Mahler’s style, his voice, and the promise of worlds to come.
Mahler’s early conducting ambitions were unrewarded as he failed to become Hans von Bülow’s assistant in 1884,a year after Wagner’s death. Von Bülow had married Liszt’s daughter Cosima before she left him for Wagner. The first important conducting assignment Mahler secured was a six-year contract with the Leipzig Opera, a post he shared with the highly competitive Artur Nikisch, five years his senior. A battle over conducting duties for the new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle was resolvedwhen the Hungarian maestro became ill. Mahler’s triumph was total except with his musicians. Long rehearsals and strictly enforced standards became a source of tension that dogged the rest of his career.
In Hungary, the First Symphony “Titan” would be unfavorably premiered in 1889. The title related to a four-volume novel (1800-03) of the same name by Jean Paul. The beginning of Beethoven’s Ninth can be heard in the first movement’s opening as though to signal Mahler’s sense of his own confident destiny. What would ultimately serveas the symphony’s third movement was inspired by a well-known childhood fable describing a funeral march for a hunter by all the animals upon which he preyed.
The volcanic final movement firmly established Mahler’s originality, not that of newness per se but through ingenious recombination. His whirlwind of childhood sources would underpin Mahler’s mastery of the canon: Beethoven’s striving formal innovations, Schubert’s intimacy and lyricism, the weight and pathos of Brahms, the vivid tone painting and drama of Liszt, as well as Bruckner’s magisterial synthesis of Wagner. Furthermore, the Bohemian national spirit of Smetana and Dvorak was validated and absorbed by Mahler.
The 1889 landmark year of his first symphony was again clouded by tragedy. Between February and October both parents and his oldest sister died, leaving Mahler’s four younger brothers and sisters solely in his care. He erected gravestones in Iglau and never returned. Two years later, Mahler accepted the music directorship of the opera house in Hamburg, where von Bulow directed the symphony orchestra. The elder conductor’s reputation for bitterness softened as their friendship grew. He marveled at Mahler’s originality upon hearing him play on the piano Totenfeier (Funeral Rites), a symphonic poem that would eventually become the first movement of his next symphony. Confounded by the music, von Bulow was said to have compared Totenfeier to Tristan und Isoldeas the latter to a Haydn symphony! When the older man’s health failed Mahler was increasingly called upon to substitute at the Hamburg podium. Von Bulow’s death in 1894 was a devastating blow with a silver lining.
The ultimate position — an appointment available only to a Christian — would loom large. The germinating Second Symphony provided a vehicle to express Mahler’s affinity for Catholic mysticism. After the opening Toten-feier movement, a leisurely Andante nostalgically looks back to happier times. The darkly ironic scherzo was based upon Mahler’s concurrent song setting of “Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes” before the penultimate movement, an alto solo setting of Urlicht (Primal Light). Mahler’s informal credo was drawn from The Youth’s Magic Horn, a collection of folk materials so widely admired that Goethe suggested it be a companion to The Holy Bible in every home. How to finish the work remained obscure.
Upon hearing Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (Resurrection), an ode recited at von Bulow’s funeral, Mahler wrote to a friend explaining the genesis of the final movement, “It struck me like lightning, this thing, and everything was revealed to me clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for – ‘conceiving by the holy ghost’.” Klopstock was primarily known for the epic poem The Messiah. Mahler set the poet’s first stanzas and added his own verses expressing thoughts about redemption and rebirth.
The 1895 premiere of the “Resurrection“ Symphony brought Mahler fame and fortune, and helped him climb socially. However, a law forbade any Jew from holding that critically important position — Director of the Imperial Opera of Vienna. Conversion then to Catholicism was inescapable. In 1897 Brahms would die, the Second symphony would be published, his sister Justine and he would be baptized in Hamburg, and Mahler would achieve the pinnacle of his conducting career.
Using miraculously unbalanced movement structures,the Third and Fourth Symphonies continued Mahler’s Wunderhorn obsession while alternating Pantheistic nature worship with text settings of Nietzsche, and cataclysmic perorations with childlike visions of heaven.
The Fifth Symphony shifted to a more cosmopolitan and program-free symphonic argument in four more traditionally balanced movements generally moving from dark to light.The Sixth symphony achieved an even greater thematic integration with powerful emotions deeply wedded to a case for the human condition as tragic — relieved fleetingly by transcendent love.
The term femme fatale suited Alma Schindler like no other. Raised Roman Catholic, she was twenty-three, pregnant, and two decades younger than Mahler when they married in 1902. Her affair with the thirty-year-old composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (her composition teacher, 1871-1942) was two years in the past, as was a dalliance with the forty-eight-year-old theatre director Max Burckhard.
Alma was raised among artists. She was thirteen when her father Emil Schindler, a renowned landscape, painter died. Her dubiously faithful mother promptly married her husband’s former student, the painter Carl Moll, a contemporary of Mahler. Alma receiving her first kiss from the painter Gustav Klimt, who was also Mahler’s age. Klimt, famous for the painting The Kiss, and the contested Woman in Gold, established the Vienna Secession movement with Moll, who would later become a Nazi sympathizer only to end his own life as the Third Reich collapsed.
The marriage imposed a total curtailment of Alma’s compositional ambitions. But, limiting her self-expression exacted a price that Mahler would regret. She flirted with the composer Hans Pfitzner and spent occasional afternoons making music with her former lover Zemlinsky.
Mahler’s unrelenting life on the podium was fraught with management disputes, musicians’ threats, attacks by the critics, vicious caricatures in the press, and grueling rehearsal schedules. Furthermore, Alma's need to be the center of attention and Mahler’s need for quiet and predictability to relax between performances, or compose during the summers, would erode the marriage further.
None of that seemed to be so in the summer of 1903 when Mahler began work on the Sixth Symphony in a bucolic lakeside setting. He enjoyed prosperity, escalating career successes, and an apparently happy home life married to the most beautiful woman in Vienna with a second child on the way. During work on the symphony, Mahler completed his interrupted song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).
Alma was confounded that he hadn’t set the cycle permanently aside when they married. She feared Mahler was tempting fate by setting more of Friedrich Ruckert’s (1788-1866) private poems written when he was 46 after the death of his two childrenfrom scarlet fever. These 428 poems were a process for coping with his fate and not intended for the public. Their outpouring of grief attempted to resuscitate his loved ones while consumed by anguish and the struggle for solace. Nonetheless, they were printed in 1871, five years after Ruckert’s death, and found a reader inextricably drawn to their pathos.
Several important precursors cannot have been overlooked by Mahler when eventually choosing this subtitle “Tragic.” The anguished introduction of Schubert’s 1816 Fourth “Tragic” Symphony in C minor — which waited to 1849 for a premiere — offers some shocking harmonic modulations for its time. The propulsive rhythms that follow are always infused by worry and agitation. In capable hands, the darker colors of the minor key can sustain a hovering mood of angst despite the otherwise jovial rhythms throughout. The Brahms Tragic Overture (1880) ups the dramatic ante and deepens the emotional affect.
Two penetrating D minor chords start a stormy sonata structure in a key associated with sadness. The often-jagged journey ends with glowering horns, biting trombones, emphatic tympani, and turbulent strings, yet Brahms retains the distance of an overture unattached to a drama.
In both cases the “tragic” appellation relates more to a set of feelings associated with material from which romantic age composers had to chose, and less from personal motivations or narrative intent. By 1904, Mahler was given the empyrean distance and had experienced tragedy so often and so intensely that his Sixth “Tragic” Symphony encompassed every historical, circumstantial and personal meaning of the word.
In addition to teaching private composition students, Zemlinsky supported himself in the pit of Viennese Operetta houses as conductor, and at the new Schwarzwald School for mostly privileged Jewish girls. His affair with Alma began in 1900. She espoused a common and pervasive form of anti-Semitism, yet was drawn to the genius of Jewish intellectuals. Zemlinsky’s immediatefamily tree included Catholic, Jewish and Muslim branches that were braided together when Zemlinsky’s parents converted to Judaism, raising their son as Jewish. He did not pass muster with Alma’s social circle due to his unfortunate physical appearance, and more importantly his undistinguished standing, despite the championship of Brahms and his publisher for Zemlinsky’s early compositions.
Alma broke it off and quickly married Mahler. In 1904 Schoenberg founded the Society of Creative Composers with Zemlinsky. Mahler underwrote it to promote contemporary music in Vienna. It follows that creating a piano four hands transcription of the newly composed Sixth Symphony would fall to Zemlinsky, a task he embraced in 1905 with enthusiasm and skill, as attested to Alban Berg, who praised its playability.
Mahler gave the work its premiere in 1906 with the scherzo as the second movement. An influential voice chided Mahler for the similarity of the materials and the mirror-like transition from the Allegro to the scherzo. In the next performance he reversed inner movements, thus beginning a controversy that lasts to this day. The relentlessly energetic opening march is barely relieved by rushes of passion that cannot be mistaken for anything but Mahler’s besotted love for Alma. The andante is dedicated to her and unfolds as one of his most beautiful creations. The scherzo acts as a sardonic laboratory where the materials for the opening march and other themes are developed and parodied on the xylophone — a nod to the skeletal effects in Danse Macabre (1874) by Camille Saint Saens,the first symphonic appearance of the instrument — and the only usage of the instrument in a Mahler score.
The symphony’s other signature controversy rises from Mahler’s ambivalence about how many blows of fate are to be rendered by the hammer, a large box contraption invented for the sole use of the Sixth Symphony. He specifies a very loud non-metallic whack he compared to a huge axe striking a piece of wood. Alma’s superstitions extended to a later interpretation of blows of fate that began soon after the symphony had its premiere.
After five months of relentless anti-Semitic harassment by the Viennese press and savage criticism of the Sixth Symphony’s Vienna premiere in January, Mahler was forced from his position as director of the Vienna Imperial Opera in May of 1907. After two months of treatment and an emergency tracheotomy, Maria Anna, nicknamed “Putzi,” the couple’s first child and Mahler’s favorite, died of diphtheria: a complication of Scarlet fever on July 12, 1907. Alma collapsed after the funeral. While seeking medical attention, the doctor also examined Mahler and found a faulty heart valve, a murmur to which Alma adopted a morbidly fatalistic attitude. Mahler’s termination was finalized on December 1, 1907. Amidst bushels of flowers, eight days later Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Anton Webern, and Klimt bid farewell to the Mahlers as they boarded the Orient Express for Paris.
Regardless of his religio-philosophical interests, and conversion to Catholicism, Mahler did not just “change coats” as he once casually remarked. The press made sure that his Jewish identity was very public, and although this cost him the directorship of the Vienna Imperial Opera, and likely shortened his life, Michael Haas, in his book Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (Yale University Press, 2013) observes:
“Mahler was the musical personality who would provide hundreds of twentieth-century Jewish composers — whether religious or not — with the means to do more than just assimilate into Austro-German musical life. He broke down the barriers that subsequently allowed younger Jewish composers to surge forward with their own ideas and agendas. They no longer had to accept the conditions tacitly demanded by the unwelcoming environment of the nineteenth century. Mahler…had not only broken with previous conventions, but had, with his highly individual approach to the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition, placed himself in the pantheon of German Masters, uniting the ‘old’ and ‘new’ German schools.”
One such Jewish composer was Pavel Haas. Growing up in Brno Moravia, Haas became the most distinguished student of Leos Janácek (1854-1928) at a time when Janacek was spectacularly productive near the end of his life. During those two years of Masterclasses by Janácek 1921-23, the 20th century Czech genius would compose two operas, Katya Kabanováand Cunning Little Vixen, as well as String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata.” In the remaining five years of Janácek’s life, a companion chamber music masterpiece Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters,” as well as the great operas The Makropoulos Affair and From the House of the dead, and the singular masterpieces Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass.
How Janacek found time to teach Haas, and how Haas was able to genuinely reflect his master’s style while striking out in a remarkable new direction that embraced the Jazz Age is an impressive synchronicity. Carl Jung’s concept of non-causal connectivity, first floated in the early 1920s, may be a stretch as applied to two composers nearly fifty years apart in age pioneering new string quartets, but its worth contemplating.
Haas’s Quartet No 2 “From the Monkey Mountains” was apparently also influenced by Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat (1917), a revolutionary chamber ensemble work written in neutral Switzerland, but influenced by the Harlem Hellfighters who toured Europe during World War I performing Jazz. The subtitle refers to a tourist destination in the Moravian Highlands, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Steeped in the special Czech synthesis of language, folk sources and distinctive pictorialism, the quartet’s first three movements Andante-Landscape; Andante-Coach, Coachman and Horse, and Largo-The Moon and I seem to bloom directly from Janácek’s world, however the Vivace Wild Night takes us to a daring new place with little or no precedent in chamber music. By allowing a drummer to provide percussion licks with the bare minimum of specified notation as part of a string quartet texture, the Brno audience was fairly appalled and utterly resistant. The composer was urged to recant and publish without the trap set part, and so he did. Fortunately the part was restored over six decades later and it is slowly emerging into the public sphere.
Of course Pavel Haas — taking chances in the Weimar Republic bubble of daring creativity and optimism — was among his namesake author’s paragons of the unassimilated Jewish composer. He was one among many who would be rounded up to serve out his meager if valiant creative life in Terezin before being executed in Auschwitz.
Georg Friedrich Haas, a non-Jewish Austrian composer, grew up in an Alpine ski resort area that attracts hikers, mountain bikers and the kind of winter sports enthusiasts one might long ago have associated with the Nazi ideal of Aryan culture. He has maintained a complex relationship with musical modernity and cultural politics. Dark Dreams was composed for the Berlin Philharmonic after moving to New York in 2013. It is, among other things, a meditation on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Perhaps the contract Mahler signed with The New York Philharmonic between his ouster form the Vienna Opera and the death of his child should be considered a lifeline in the layers of meaning that link Dark Dreams with Mahler’s last year sand his flirtation with the New World.
The Second Quartet (1998) of Haas is an exemplar of spectral music grounded in computer analysis of sound color produced by acoustic instruments performing micro-intervals of the overtone series. This work seems to have culminated a period of seeking purity of experience through live produced sound in traditional settings in Haas’ growing and prolific output. Does a work that is so closely analogous to perceptual art of the 1970’s have an emotional effect?
In contrast, the Third String Quartet (2001) must be performed in absolute darkness demanding equal if different challenges of both the players and the audience. With this quartet, Haas added perception to his compositional quiver. It has proven to generate persistent and lasting interest. Performances are always sold out.
The Concerto for Four Alphorns and Orchestra (2014) was heard not long ago at the LA Phil. It requires specialists on those Brobdingnagian instruments resting their bells many feet away from the players elevated on stair units. The effect is enchantingly different and mesmerizing to look at. A year later he responded to the choking death of Eric Garner, a poor cigarette vendor in New York with a trumpet solo called I Can’t Breathe. Neither the audiencenor the critics can hear it as just another solo chamberwork. Yet, he has moved on from politics in music.
In the last several years Haas came out as a person whose sexuality is rooted in BDSM (Bondage and Submission), previously the source of considerable shame. Mollena William-Haas, a very public Black American writer, actor and former Miss Leather, is his fourth wife and muse. Since 2015, shame is no longer hidden or real. Haas’ newfound freedom and approach to life and creativity has changed. Among his stated goals is "to articulate a human being's emotions and states of the soul in such a way that other human beings can embrace these emotions and states of the soul as their own." Like his contemporaries in German painting, Haas now exemplifies Mahler’s definition of originality — not that of newness, per se, but through standing in history as an act of ingenious recombination.
Jörg Widmann, the youngest of these various masters, is poised to make his mark in this arena of deep history. Despite mixed reviews of the opening performance and subsequent ECM 2-disc release, including 300 performers, Widmann was the talk of Berlin and Hamburg when his massive 2017 cantata Arche (Ark) was commissioned by Kent Nagano for the new Elbphilharmonie Hall in Hamburg.The former principal clarinet of the Berlin Philharmonic thinks and works in large forms. His Hunting Quartet is the centerpiece in a cycle of five string quartets intended to be performed as an evening long work. The “Hunt”quartet is made of immediately accessible materials and its theatricality propels it to the rank of highly memorable works in the genre. That it has a predecessor in the Joseph Haydn String Quartet No. 17 “The Hunt” and joins a class of 18th century compositions themed with hunting (Haydn wrote Symphony No. 73 “La Chasse” as well) only adds to the curiosity factor and has made it individdually programmable and more popular than its mates.
Like Pavel Haas, Widmann has embraced the freedom to give string quartets an increased theatricality at odds with the purism associated with the core and dominant forms of chamber music in contraposition to how Georg Friedrich Haas has pushed purity to a new extreme.
If Mahler can be associated with fin de siècle conditions that led to WWI, as Pavel Haas reflects Weimar Republic “Entartete Musik”, the holocaust and WWII, Georg Friedrich Haas emerged across the last decades of the Cold War and the unmasking of Austrian diplomat and President Kurt Waldheim as, at least, a Nazi sympathizer, it falls to the timing of Widmann’s 2003 “Hunt quartet” to resonate with 9/11, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2019
SONGS OF STONES
November 2, 2018
Wende Museum of the Cold War, Culver City
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953) - Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969)
Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 5, Op. 53 (1953) - Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996)
String Quartet No. 2 “Quasi una Fantasia” Op. 64 (1991) - Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)
After decades of globetrotting celebrity, concert pianist and composer Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) unquenchable needto be recognized as a bona fide Soviet artist eventually brought him back home, once and for all, to compete with punishing mediocrity, and accommodate the soul-killing machinations of the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. Sadly, homesickness would prove fatal – but only after Prokofiev’s total degradation.
On February 20, 1948, Stalin had the composer’s estranged Spanish-born wife Lina kidnapped. Betrayed by a friend, the former singer was abducted by car and taken to a prison where she was accused of spying, sentenced to twenty years in a forced labor camp, then summarily sent to Siberia never to see her husband again.Their sons Sviatoslav and Oleg witnessed the all-night ransacking of her apartment justified as a search for evidence. After it was over the young men walked eleven miles across black ice to their father’s home. Stalin soon publicly attacked him for “anti-democratic” formalism. A few years later, the composer of the ballet Romeo and Juliet and Fifth Symphony was branded an enemy of the people, his support constricted. Prokofiev’s life would end at age 61 with a cosmic cadence.
On March 5, 1953, the celebrated artist died in an unheated apartment less than an hour before Stalin. They both suffered massive brain hemorrhages, but the extinguishing of Prokofiev’s lonely candle was utterly eclipsed by Soviet spectacle. Some 100 people were crushed to death in the surge to view Stalin’s body over three days.
Prokofiev’s funeral drew some forty close friends. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter placed a pine branch on his modest coffin – not a single flower could be found in Moscow.
How then does this striking moment in history bear upon the three Polish composers featured tonight?
To help inaugurate Music at the Wende Jacaranda selected Poland for its pivotal Cold War position, and for the historic importance of music in its cultural life and national identity. The 1945 Yalta Conference gave Poland to the Soviet Union. Poland’s position– west of the USSR, east of Germany, and ringed by the Satellite States – helped further the Cold War simply by existing where it did. Its borders were redrawn and its land mass reduced by twenty percent.
Despite allied promises, Yalta foreclosed on democratic elections for more than four decades. The name Polish People's Republic was imposed by the 1952 Constitution, based on the 1936 Soviet model. Poland became a member of the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Five of the most famous Nazi extermination camps were located in Poland, where about three million Polish Jews were killed.
The musical moods tonight range from agitated, defiant and brilliantly virtuosic to serenely mournful and intensely brooding, rapturous. The time frame of the concert is defined by the death of Stalin, and the final ceremonial dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, July 1, 1991, signifying the official end of the Cold War. While the three works on the program drew cultural breath from such epochal moments in Warsaw, Moscow and Katowice, they also resonate with a tenacious humanity that speaks to us today.
Song of Stones is a tribute to all artists challenged by conflict, constrained by bureaucracy, and confounded by absurdly jagged policy shifts from authoritarian whims.
Weeks before Stalin’s death, the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, age 34, was swept into the “Doctor’s Plot,” a trumped-up anti-Semitic purge emanating from Stalin’s paranoia. Weinberg’s uncle-by-marriage was Myron Vovsi, Stalin’s personal physician cast as a conspirator and fraudulently linked to the 1948 death of Andrei Zhdanov, the Minister of Culture. Furthermore, Weinberg’s father-in-law Solomon Mikhoels, the most famous Soviet Jewish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was murdered in 1948 on Stalin’s command as a "well-known Jewish bourgeois nationalist.”
On the day Stalin died, the Polish city of Katowice, a tragic pawn inthe struggle between Germany and the USSR – and future home of Henryk Górecki – was renamed Stalinogród. The Shostakovichs and Weinbergs soon celebrated the rapid unraveling of the sham “Doctors Plot” by burning the power of attorney papers previously drawn up to protect the children in the event they were killed in a camp, or in a faked car accident. How close to that fate Weinberg came is the subject of ongoing research.
The Nazis burned his entire family alive during the 1939 invasion of Warsaw. The close friendship with Shostakovich (1906-1975) began after Weinberg sent the score to his First Symphony to the great composer who was impressed enough to pull strings for him. Weinberg moved to Moscow in 1943 the year that Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony Op. 65 was composed at lightning speed in the summer and quickly premiered in the autumn – such was the anticipation after his Leningrad Symphony became an international propaganda sensation. The British conductor Mark Wigglesworth describes the official reaction:
“By the end of the war, the work was effectively withdrawn from the repertoire and in 1948 it was officially censored for its ‘unrelieved gloom’, and singled out for attack by Andrei Zhdanov…He declared that it was ‘not a musical work at all…It is repulsive and ultra individualist. The music is like a piercing dentist’s drill, a musical gas chamber, thesort the Gestapo used.’ The scores were ordered to be recycled to save paper and all recordings of performances were destroyed.”
Wigglesworth admires the consistenttruth and meaning of Shostakovich’s intentions: “The piece is inflated, mundane and chaotic at times. But this was intentional. This was Shostakovich’s view of the world.” By 1943 his sorrow was complicated and exhausted.
Winston Churchill was invited to Missouri after he lost his position as British Prime Minister. President Truman was with him on the podium. The incendiary “Iron Curtain Speech” provoked Stalin and offered a predicate for the Cold War. It was March 5, 1946 – exactly seven years before to Stalin’s death. Soon the U.S. diplomatic policy of Eastern Bloc containment escalated tensions between the Soviet Union with its Satellite States, and the U.S. with its European allies making up the Western bloc.
The resulting conflict, fought with proxy wars for forty-five years, was first established in a telegram from the Moscow Embassy responding to U.S. concerns that the Soviets were refusing to endorse the newly formed World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
In his fateful telegram George Kennan, the U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires, characterized the Soviets as "impervious to the logic of reason [and] highly sensitive to the logic of force.” He found them inherently weak but doggedly aggressive. A realpolitik attitude of friendly cooperation by the U.S. State Department to maintain a balance of power tempered Kennan’s cynicism. Using a pseudonym, Kennan’s long and detailed telegram was published by “Mr. X” in Foreign Affairs magazine in summer 1947. Given the complexity of his analysis, Kennan would later see fulfilled its potential for misinterpretation Nonetheless, he identified salient characteristics of the USSR that still hold true today for post-Cold War Russia – some strikingly relevant.
Kennan’s key concepts included: that the USSR is perpetually at war with capitalism; that left-wing non-communist groups are more dangerous to the Soviet States than conventional laissez fairecapitalism; that Soviet aggression is rooted in Russian insecurity, nationalism and neurosis; that a culture of self-perpetuating unreality is fostered by the system of government itself; and, that the USSR’s intelligence capacity mustalways be attuned to “diseased tissue” wherever they found it the world for their ideology to succeed.
By 1953, Warsaw was largely rebuilt from almost total devastation that started with the 1939 invasion. The Germans escalated the damage after the infamous failed Jewish revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in spring of 1943. The even larger Warsaw Uprising of Operation Tempest caused massive loss of life and property destruction the following summer. Stalin withheld his allied support to allow the Germans to vanquish the Poles and raze what would amount to 85% of the city by January. Upwards to 200,000 civilians and some 16,000 resistance fighters were killed in mass executions. In 1945, as the bleakest possible landscape remained, the Allied Forces considered forsaking the city and building a new capital in Lodz about 75 miles south-west of Warsaw. Uniquely, Warsaw was painstakingly reconstructed instead – not rebuilt in the prevailing manner – in just seven years with private funds administered by the stateand work powered by hordes of volunteers.
Grazyna Bacewicz, who organized and performed in underground concerts during the war survived to see Warsaw destroyed and rise again. Like her Romanian near-contemporary Georges Enesco (1881-1955) Bacewicz was a gifted child, becoming a highly esteemed concert violinist and pianist, composer and teacher. She was born in Lodz, Poland’s second largest city and a major textile producer, very densely populated and centrally located. Her musical father Wincenty and older brother (the more radical composer Vytautas Bacevičius (1905-1970)) identified as Lithuanian. He was her first piano and violin teacher. After brief study of philosophy, at age 19 she attended the Warsaw Conservatory to study violin and piano with distinguished teachers, and composition under Kazimierz Sikorski, known today for his arrangement of the Polishnational anthem. She graduated summa cum laude in 1932 and promptly moved to Paris where she studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and later violin briefly with the renowned and peripatetic Hungarian virtuoso and pedagogue Carl Flesch in 1934. A scholarship from Ignaz Paderewski made her advancement possible.
That year another budding Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) attended her first composition recital. They remained colleagues and friends. In 1983, he wrote a forward to the first monograph on Bacewicz by Judith Rosen (Grazyna Bacewicz: Her Life and Works, Friends of Polish Music, USC, 1983)). His passion for her music was evident:
“When I think of Grażyna Bacewicz, I cannot limit myself to her music alone. I was fortunate to belong to that group of people who were bound with her by virtue of professsional friendship…She was bornwith an incredible wealth of musical talent, which she succeeded to bring to full flourish throughan almost fanatical zeal and unwavering faith in her mission. The intensity of her activities was so great that she managed, in a cruelly shortened life, to give birth to such treasures that any composer of her stature with a considerably longer life span could only envy.”
In 1935 Bacewicz competed in the famous first Wieniawski International Violin Competition receiving an honorable mention. The legendary Russian David Oistrakh took second place while the tragically short-lived Ginette Neveu, a French pupil of Flesch, seized the first prize. Bacewicz and Oistrakh became lifelong friends.Since childhood she composed with regularity, but under Boulanger’s tutelage she found the ideals of neoclassicism suited her strong interest in chamber music and concertante works. In an effort to make it competitive with the esteemed Warsaw Philharmonic, the conductor Grezgorz Fitelberg invited her to become concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra in 1936.
That year she married a physician and amateur pianist Andrzej Biernacki. During her two-year stint with the busy orchestra, Bacewicz learned much about orchestration and was able to perform her own Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1938. Then opportunities arose in her beloved Paris. The École Normale de Musique invitedher to supervise an entire evening devoted to her compositions in the spring of 1939. She returned to Warsaw just months before the September invasion.
Bacewicz initially nursed her wounded sister and spent the ensuing six years performing in private homes and coffee houses to sustain Polish musical life in Warsaw, despite the most daunting conditions. Her family was placed in a transit camp after the large Jewish population of Pruszków was removed and eventually liquidated. Around 650,000 Poles from Warsaw and its suburbs were sorted according to religion class, profession, health, and age. The Nazis quickly “Germanized” Lublin, some hundred milesfrom Warsaw, by increasing its population of Catholics and exterminating its Jews,however the Soviets captured the city in July of 1944. During this period she composed a concert overture, her first symphony, second string quartet, and first violin sonata. Her home became a refuge for the hungry anda sanctuary for Polish culture.
While Warsaw was being cleaned of rubble the family returned. Bacewicz was even more driven to compose. The thrilling and restless Second Violin Concerto was premiered in Lodz October 18, 1946. Her neoclassicism was now more instinctual and improvisatory with a spectacularly muscular cadenza in the first movement, an eloquently lyrical middle movement, and a joyful cadence in D major to finish. That year she travelled again to France to perform her celebrated late countryman Karol Szymanowski’s (1882-1937) Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoreux at Salle Pleyel in Paris, Paul Kletzki conducting. She was greatly influenced by Szymanowski and hadmet him at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he briefly held a prominent position but ultimately succumbed to tuberculosis.
Rosen has aptly addressed the style of Bacewicz’s music:“Though she personally objected to the categorizing of her music as ‘neoclassic,’ it is difficult to avoid the use of the term in describing her music. Perhaps one reason for her adherence to this basic style can be attributed to the social, cultural and even political climate in which she lived and worked.”
The ensuing period of Soviet governance was a decidedly mixed bag for music. Bacewicz joined the Polish Composers’ Union founded in 1945 to promote Polish music at home and abroad, foster competitions and, eventually to organize the “Warsaw Autumn” International Festival of Contemporary Music. The government established Polish Music Publishers to control what music could reach the public. Private publishing was outlawed in 1950. On the credit side music performance organizations proliferated beginning in 1948, and music scholarship for folklore emerged aggressively to promote nationalism.
Soon the doctrine of social realism began to dominate and discriminate against artistic freedom. An early victim was Lutosławski’s First Symphony completed in 1947 but banned for many years. Not surprisingly, the folk-inspired music of Béla Bartók provided a model of how to be self-expressed using an advanced musical language. Again Rosen is eloquent about these conditions: “Since creativity was in part controlled and stifled by outside circumstances, the fact that she composed with any originality at all at this time becomes proof of her innate musical genius. The quantity of creative output reaffirms her unquestionable drive.”
In 1948 she was recognized for her folk-influenced Violin Concerto No. 3,the Olympic Cantata written for the London games, and the Concerto for String Orchestra, her most important work of rigorous neoclassicism. The latter was given the National Prize which included a critically acclaimed performance by the National Symphony in Washington D.C. At the end of 1949 she was awarded the “Warsaw Prize” for artistic achievement, as well as charitable and humanitarian work.These recognitions led to many moreinvitations to serve on international violin competition juries.
Among 57 entries to International Composers Competition in Liège, Belgium, her 1951 String Quartet No.4, received first prize and became a required by the 1953 International String Quartet Competition in Geneva. Along with her Fourth Violin Concertoand Fourth Violin Sonata, the Fourth String Quartet garnered another National Prize for Bacewicz. If the numerological coincidence want strong enough, the Fourth Symphony, her last, was written in 1953. At age 44 Bacewicz was at her height as a pianist when she premiered the Second Piano Sonata in 1953 in Warsaw.
The work immediately excited audiences and artists, but it would be two pianists who kept the flame alive. Nancy Fierro a long-time member of the piano faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s College in LA, like Judith Rosen, was dedicated to women composers. She read about the sonata but cold not find the score originally published by the Soviet government. Fierro reached out to Rosen in 1973. Rosen tells the story:
“About ten years ago, an American pianist, Sister Nancy Fierro, wanted to add it to her growing performance list of works by wo-men composers. Not being able to obtain it directly from the Polish publisher, she contacted this author, who througha series of circuitous, but fortunate, events I eventually managed to obtain a copy of the score sent by a student who found it hidden in the storage compartment of a piano bench at the Warsaw Conservatory. In the ensuingyears through numerous concerts as well as a recording on the Avant label, Sister Nancy Fierro has helped to popularizethis piece in the United States.”
The other hero was the controversial but highly acclaimed Polish virtuoso Kyrstian Zimerman hailed for his eloquent interpretation of Chopin (1810-1849). He tells a different story: “I was still a student when I first got to know Grazyna Bacewicz’s works in the 1970s. At the time my repertoire included the Second Piano Sonata. This is a work I continue to perform at my recitals, and I should add that wherever I play it, it always goes down very well with audiences.” For her centenary, on February 5 2009, Zimerman began a series of five concerts devoted exclusively to her music in Lodz – the birthplace of her and Artur Rubenstein! Poland’s largest cities hosted the series after Lodz, in Posnan, Cracow, Katowice, and Warsaw to triumphant responses.
Her prolific production and service to the field did not diminish after 1954 when a car accident broke her pelvis, ribs and injured her head and face. Her mother, sister daughter and husband suffered minor injuries, but Bacewicz remained in a darkened hospital room for a long drawn out recovery. While she had been limiting her performances on the violin and piano to premiering her own work, by 1955 she made a complete break from performing to compose exclusively. Bacewicz’s catalogue of works includes four symphonies, seven violin concertos, a concerto each for piano, and viola, three symphonic works for string orchestra, as well as Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion, seven string quartets, two piano quintets, works for solo violin, solo piano, as well as variously scored chamber music.
Due to abiding confusion over his name– Moshe or Moisey Veynberg, Moishe Vainberg, and furthermore his children are known as Wajnberg – Weinberg is only now emerging as the leading Polish-Jewish voice of the Cold War Soviet Union.
We left him in 1953 burning the power of attorney papers that granted Shostakovich protective custodyover his young daughter in the event of his death. His circle of friends included such leading Russian artists, as composer Nicolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950), the Borodin Quartet, pianist Emil Gilels, violinist Leonid Kogan, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and the conductor Kurt Sanderling. Very little is known about the composition of the Fifth Violin Sonata likely to the low profile he needed to assume at this dangerous time. The opening movement is steeped in Russian feeling reminiscent of Tchaikovsky but with darkness and introspection. The second movement is dramatic, angular and fast with the drive of Shostakovich. The third movement has a character that recalls Prokofiev while alternating playfulness with irony. The fourth movement is a Mahlerian fantasy fitfully spinning themesfrom the earlier movements in a darkly spirited dance.
Weinberg's immense body of instrumental music includes twenty-two symphonies, four chamber symphonies, seventeen string quartets, six violin sonatas, sonatas for piano, solo violin and cello, and many of other chamber works. Weinberg's opera, The Passenger (1968) was given a concert premiere in 2010 and staged the following year by the English National Opera. Although he considered it his most important work, six other operas include Lady Magnesia based upon George Bernard Shaw, The Portrait based upon Nicolai Gogol, and The Idiot based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Given the current state of scholarship on Weinberg it may take several more decades before an understanding of his music is possible.
Lech Wałęsa, an electrician, union leader and populist Solidarity party candidate, founded the movement in 1980 and won the presidency in 1990. Pope John Paul II played an active role in destabilizing Communism in Poland and its neighboring states.He was the first and only Pole and Slav to hold the papacy (1985-2005). The Solidarity movement heralded the eventual collapse of communist regimes and their political parties across Eastern Europe.
Henryk Górecki, a reclusive yet politically active Catholic, was utterly immune to the allures of success, yet the most well-known Polish composer of the 20th century was owing to the chart-topping 1992 Nonesuch recording of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
His masterful Second Quartet (1991) followed the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold War. Its subtitle refers to Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, better known by its nickname “Moonlight.” His name recognition is now fading almost a decade after his death. Nevertheless he made an unheard of impact. The chart-busting sales of Górecki’s Third Symphony started in 1992 at Santa Monica’s non-profit radio station KCRW during pledge drive. Then station manager Ruth Seymour asked her listeners to sit down, or pull over, dim the lights with a glass of wine and candles, if possible. No member premium before, or since, has created such a sensation. The zeitgeist of the wall coming down, repressive regimes toppling, and serious voices offering consolation with deep knowledge of suffering spoke universally. Gregorian chant and Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) led the way for a new definition of crossover music.
Just as the war came to an end, the twelve-year-old Górecki fell and dislocated his hip. Misdiagnosis led to a serious infection and two years delayed treatment permanently damaged his pelvis. A Kafkaesque intervention resulted in twenty more months spent in a German hospital undergoing four operations and treatment for tuberculosis. By age sixteen a quarter of Górecki’s young live has been spent “speaking with death.” Despite chronic health issues, Górecki has a winning smile and a fierce determination to compose music.
By 1960, Górecki graduated with honors form the Polish National Academy, as a highly visible member of the so-called Polish Renaissance. Most prominent was Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), Lutoslawski, Woyciech Kilar (1933-2013), Kazimierz Serocki (1922-81) and Tadeusz Baird (1928-81). The latter two founded the Warsaw Autumn music festival in 1956. Górecki spent time in Paris absorbing Messiaen’s organ improvisations and the works of his students Xenakis, and Stockhausen. The American composer he idolized was Charles Ives. In 1967 Górecki declined a major commission for a work to commemorate the opening of the Auschwitz Museum. Górecki neither wanted the attention that the commission would undoubtedly spark, but the subject was too personally painful for him to consider under a deadline. Górecki’s sensitivity had much to do with the fact that the distances between Auchwitz (Oswiecim) and Czernica, where he was biorn, and Katoice where he lived his whole life formed an equilateral triangle.
Shortly before his fall at age twelve, Górecki went on a field trip to Auschwicz. In a BBC interview many years later Górecki remembered, “I had the feeling that the huts were still warm…the paths were made from human bones, thrown onto the path like shingles.”
Some of his relatives were victims of the Nazi camps. Górecki delved instead into an archaic 4-part song titled “Already it is Dusk.” Twenty years later he would return to it as an inspiration for his first string quartet – giving it the same name. By 1976 a prayer inscribed on the basement wall of cell no. 3 in Gestapo headquarters in Poland signed by Wanda Blazusiakowna: “18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944” crystalized Górecki’s need to address his Auschwitz experience. The elemental simplicity and naïve sincerity of the Third Symphony is either received, or it is not depending on the performance and the openness of the listener. In 1992 it shone more brightly contrasted by economic bad news, the aftermath of the Gulf War, and the optimism of the Reagan presidency had evaporated.
String Quartet No. 2 “Quasi una Fantasia” emerged from a decade of tension between the Catholic church and the Communist Party, and the ever-stronger Solidarity movement. “Almost a Fantasy” of course refers to Beethoven’s name for what is better known as the Moonlight Sonata, but, the full meaning is anyone’s guess. It is a fully mature and satisfying addition to the long history of string quartet literature. Hat shifts moods and formal preoccupations with as much mastery as he mastered in and of the forms Górecki embraced.
The determined slog of the opening movement’s cello buttresses the fragile state of the viola; the second movement captures the feeling of a dizzying folk dance in the composer’s beloved Tatra mountains. A Philosophical mood permeates the conversational thoughts of the third movement, while the breathless final dance picks up where the earlier revels left off. Delirious challenge dancing pits teams in a hormone and alcohol fueled rumpus. Suddenly, as though the spell is broken, the disembodied refrain of the Christmas carol Silent Night wafts through the air. The revelers trudge into the night as the melody hovers.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
Back to top
October 20, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field (2014) - Dylan Mattingly (b.1991)
Dylan Mattingly barreled southward on Interstate 5 –Berkeley and Highway 580 now long vanished from his rear view mirror. More than a year had passed since he delivered the commissioned score of Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field to pianist Kathleen Supové. Another ten months would elapse before she was ready to premiere the nearly two-hour work in New York’s Dimenna Center for Classical Music—Thursday, May 19, 2016.
For a while the fluctuating temperament of the California aqueduct cut back and forth under the great north-south asphalt conveyor belt.
Mattingly’s epic work gestated for nine months and was finally born as he finished his degree at Bard College. This coming-of-age far from home in New York State paralleled Achilles’ coming-of-age far away from Greece in what is now Turkey. Months spent attuned to the ancient plash and percussion of Aegean waves on Trojan sand seemed to fold up neatly as his tires sped toward Santa Monica. On a holiday weekend, this short trip was to visit the figurative painter Charles Garabedian arranged by visual art and music lover Raulee Marcus. LA Times art critic Christopher Knight observed what likely inspired her.
“His works draw on myriad precedents. Some are artistic—Matisse's brash color, Fra Angelico's Renaissance modesty, Picasso's stylized multiple viewpoints, Diebenkorn's fluid abstraction, the Mexican muralists' epic monumentality and more. Others are literary. There's Homer's Iliadand Odyssey, the Roman histories of Herodotus and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Garabedian doesn't illustrate these stories. Instead he reconfigures them, coaxing imaginative contemplation into view...manifestos extolling the irrepressible power of imagination”
In an interview conducted by Jennifer Samet for Hyper-allergic that was published weeks after Mattingly’s visit Garabedian said:
“Every time I walk into my studio and open the door, I am hoping I am a different person. I am hoping something different will happen. Of course it doesn’t, but I have that slight hope. The studio is magical,and it is not just a place where you work. You can lie downand sleep. It is a place where you create and where you are by yourself, you can be alone. Your studio can be a beautiful and nutty place, and it is.
I had read The Iliad when I started college at USC. I kind of liked it but I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But at one point, I became very interested in Homer. I just love the Greek tragedies. Those tragedies are something else. The writing itself is profound, butthere is simplicity to the imagery. In a complicated world, it is possible to reduce those stories to simple images. You can turn them into a compact understanding.”
For the last few months I have been painting Iphigenia. Iphigenia’s father sacrificed her, so that the fleet could sail off to Troy. She was bound and gagged so she couldn’t curse them as they sailed off. I think, if you have to have a subject, it might as well be tragic. You grow older and you see life in a simpler or different way, and it can be looked at tragically. Tragedy is not necessarily painful; it is just tragedy.”
On a balmy Friday afternoon, July 3, 2015, with his curious rouge-cheeked cockatiel Ajax perched on his hat, Santa Monica’s legendary artist – everyone called him Chas – navigated the classically white studio, tables strewn withart making tools and materials, to engage with paintings young and old. His lively banter intersected Mattingly’s stream of ideas. They both were infatuated with baseball and deeply in thrall to Homer’s retelling of The Iliad. The baseball paintings were from the sixties, but the Studies for the Iliad series spanned decades beyond. The huge gap in their ages entered the conversation. In just a few months, on December 29th, Chas would celebrate his 92nd birthday!
This self-aware 24-year old composer was comfortable living with history. His precocious ability to craft complex and communicative music may not be so surprising given his lineage. A cluster of significant musicians, a poet, and a painter, light up Mattingly’s family tree. Cellist Eleanor Aller was his second cousin, among many. She and her husband violinist/conductor Felix Slatkin co-founded the legendary Hollywood String Quartet (1947-61). Eleanor was the niece of Modest Altschuler, Mattingly’s great great uncle, an enterprising Russian Jewish conductor trained in the Moscow Conservatory who came to New York in 1893. Ten years later he founded the Russian Symphony Orchestra Society of New York City, which gave the U.S. premieres of works by Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Scriabin. After the First World War, he relocated to Hollywood where his cousin, D.W. Griffith’s film processor Joe Aller, helped him to score movies. Altschuler then founded the Glendale Symphony in 1924. Eleanor and Felix’s son, the multiple-Grammy-winning conductor Leonard Slatkin, revitalized the Saint Louis Symphony with recordings for EMI and RCA as well as Carnegie Hall concerts, and tours to Europe and the Far East– staying seventeen years before succeeding Mstislav Rostropovich at the helm of DC’s National Symphony Orchestra’s from 1996 to 2008.
Mattingly’s grandmother was the striking and accomplished painter Gladys Aller. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired her "Portrait of Helen" in 1937. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) attended her wedding to orthodontist Eugene Farber. Active as Gladys Farber with the Chouinard Art Institute set in 1960s, she also championed causes including clean air, nuclear disarmament andopposition to the Vietnam War.
The composer’s father George Mattingly is a writer of poetry, fiction and essays, a photographer, publisher, and designer. He met Lucy Aller at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center, where she was an Antioch College work-study student. He had returned to the Bay Area from the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop. Is it any wonder then that such a lineage would produce an ambitious composer ready to make his mark? Early on Mattingly’s talent attracted the attention of John Adams (b. 1947) when the prominent composer attended a concert of the boy’s teenage band “Formerly Known as Classical” – all teenagers playing music composed in their lifetimes. Afterhearing Mattingly’s piece, Adams said “we should hang out,” which led to regular visits in Berkeley.
Tonight’s Santa Monica performance of Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field—only the third, and also the LA premiere—caused Mattingly to remember his visit with Garabedian.
“I was eager to speak to someone who had also been swept away in the tide of The Iliad when I met Chas in his studio, surrounded by paintings frozen in different moments of their lives — somethat had been just born, some were old and worn, lingering on the walls. It was a glorious shrine of imagination, not hallowed and clean like a cathedral, but littered with life in every direction. I arrived with a long list of questions to ask him about his work and his life, and I forgot them all when I walked through the door.
I was disarmed by his curiosity, and generous interest in life that made me feel like we were old friends, meeting for the first time. We talked about The Illiad and art, about aging, and the way that we chart a life through the things we create. That meeting, though brief, stands out to me in memory. Before I left, I traded Chas a copy of my score for a book of his work. Above an image of the sea, he signed his name and wrote an inscription — "it gets better as it goes along."
Chas died February 11, 2016. The following summer at the end of July, Mattinglymet the two founders of Jacaranda. As though navigating with a divining rod, the conversation found its way to Dylan’s Bakkhai Choruses,settings of Euripides in the original ancient Greek, for three sopranos and high baritone, two oboes, clarinet doubling bass clarinet, cello, double bass, percussionand microtonal keyboard completed in 2013. Owing to its originality and despite the difficulty of the music Jacaranda accepted the challenge of giving the work’s second performance – in Disney Hall for Noon to Midnight, November 18, 2017. Achilles… is Mattingly’s next major work. The composer provided an introduction:
“For hundreds of years, bards would travel the Aegeanand sing from memory the 15,693 lines of The Iliad. Each time the story might change a little bit depending on the bard’s surroundings and memory. With thousands of years between us and then, uncountable waves on the shore, a speckling across the universe of momentary loves and victories and breakfasts and hands running through hair, I wonder what The Iliad, in which I find myself, might look like — evolved in some cases like fish on land and in others torn asunder like the endless reconfiguration of the continents, or perhaps transformed like the green Saharaonly 10,000 years ago. These are the days I grew up in — from the divine intervention in a walk-off home run to the river gods in the Hudson to the soft breathing of someone sleeping beneath the window.”
The form of the work loosely follows that of the 24 booksof The Iliad Homer transmitted for the ages. While Mattingly prefers the Lattimore translation for its fidelity to the cadences of the original Greek, we have opted here for the booktitles of the Fagels translation for their story telling eloquence and to give reference points where the composer aligns and where he departs. A summary of the action has been condensed from numerous sources (in italics) followed by a paraphrasing the composer’s verbal notes.
Book 1 – The Rage of Achilles
Nine years into the Trojan War the Greeksare besieging Troy. A Trojan priest of Apollo offers the Greeks wealth for the return of his daughter, who is a captive of Agamemnon, king of Argos and commander of the Greek armies. Agamemnon refuses and Apollo inflicts a plague. After nine days,in a fury Achilles, leader of the Myrmidon Greeks,demands a meeting. Under pressure, Agamemnon agrees to return the girl to her father, but decides to take Achilles’s captive Briseis as compensation. Achilles declares that he and his men will go home. Odysseusreturns the priest’s daughter to Troy; Apollo ends the plague.
Homer invokes the gods and the muses so that they may speak through him. The performer calls for strength to complete the massive undertaking. The movement’s theme is a musical translation of The Iliad’s first line of Ancient Greek using the twelve beat patterns of dactylic hexameter.
II. Catalogue of Heroes
Book 2 – The Great Gathering of Armies
Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon urging him to attack Troy. Agamemnon heeds the dream but decides to test his army's morale first by telling them to go home. The plan backfires.The Greeks deploy upon the Trojan plain. Homer describes the origins of each Greek contingent. When news reaches Troy’s King Priam, the Trojans prepare for battle. Homer then describes the Trojans and their allies.
The “Catalog of Ships” in The Iliad is 500 lines of ship descriptions, with occasional regional shout-outs. Like the Biblical begats it is an endless stream of genealogical notes that are repeated several times, but feel non-recursive due to the pattern's length, which itself conceals the rhyming scheme.
III. First Winter
Book 3 – Helen Reviews the Champions
As the armies approach, Paris offers to end the war by fighting a duel with Menelaus, but loses heart and is ridiculed by his brother Hector, leader of the Trojan army. Both sides swear a truce and promise to abide by the outcome of the duel. Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, rescues Paristo join with Helen before Menelaus can kill him.
First winter is about a California boy in upstate NY findinghis place in a world of distinct seasons. This visceral experience of the seasons takes up a big part of the whole work because a new conception of time passing was crucial to the experience of growing up.
IV. Dance 1
Book 4 – The Truce Erupts in War
Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of all the gods is inflamed by her hatred of Troy. Zeus causes the Trojan Pandaros to breakthe truce by wounding Menelaus with an arrow. Agamemnon rouses the Greeks into battle.
The dances align with the books devoted to battles. The ancient tradition of dance was directly tied to preparing forbattle. Dancing was a military tradition teaching young men to move within the phalanx and move in step with other soldiers. In this conception, war is connected to beauty, movement, and how you align with everything around you in physical perfection.
V. Gods and Insects
Book 5 – Diomedes Fights the Gods
Diomedes kills many Trojans after being endowed with godlike strength by Athena. He kills Pandaros, and defeats Aeneas. As Aphrodite rescues Aeneas, Diomedes, a jealous suitor of Helen, attacks and wounds the goddess. Apollo faces Diomedes and warns him against warring with the gods. Many heroes including Hector join in. Supporting both sides the gods try to influence the battle. Emboldened by Athena, Diomedes wounds Ares, the god of war.
The Olympian view of human mortality: small as ants.
VI. First Spring
Book 6 – Hector Returns to Troy
Hector rallies the Trojans and prevents a rout. Diomedes andthe Trojan Glaukos, by exchanging of gifts, find common ground. Hector enters the city, urges prayers and sacrifices, and incites Paris to battle. After bidding farewell to his wife and son in front of the city walls, Hector rejoins the fray.
Spring is when you begin to understand the transitionfrom dormant to fecund. The kernel of this book is the vignette of Hector saying goodbye to his wife and son ,His son is frightened by the sight of his dad in a Trojan helmet. For the first time he sees his parent in a worldly context and grasps that he is alone.
VII. First Funeral
Book 7 – Ajax Duels with Hector
The duel lasts until nightfall. While the Trojans quarrel about returning Helen to bring the conflict to an end, the Greeks burn their dead. They build a wall and a trench to protect their ships and campsite. Paris offers to return stolen treasure and more to compensate for Helen. The offer is refused.
A pause from the fighting is taken to remember and burn the dead. The two funerals, this and the anti-funeral of Book XXII, are different from each other, but thematically related. Upon hearing the first themes together they slowly separate and move apart.
VIII. Dance 2, Second Fall
Book 8 – The Tide of Battle Turns
The next morning, the fighting begins anew. Zeus prohibits the Gods from interfering. The Trojans prevail and force theGreeks back to their wall. Night falls. The Trojans set up campin the field to attack at first light; their watch fires light the battle plain like stars.
The school year is conceived to first build momentum – to instill a feeling of hurtling towards something in mad preparation for winter.
Book 9 – The Embassy to Achilles
The Greeks are desperate. Agamemnon declares the war a failure, but Nestor encourages reconciliation with Achilles.The king sends a delegation composed of Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix to where Achilles has comfortably encamped next to his ships. Achilles and his loving companion Patroclus receive the delegation, which offers generous gifts, including the return of Briseis, if Achilles will return to the fight. Achilles angrily refuses Agamemnon and declares he would return to battle only if the Trojans attack and threaten his ships with fire. The delegation returns empty-handed.
Achilles serenades the ocean with his famous lyre. A brief history of Western Music across the last couple thousand years ensues. A thematic kernel is taken through a short journey of transformation through time. A nod is made to Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), whose 20-movement piano symphony provided something of a model of unifying thematic devices and contrasts over two hours. Music is the subject.
Book 10 – Marauding through the Night
Later that night, Odysseus and Diomedes venture out to the Trojan lines. They wreak havoc in the camps of Troy’s Thracian allies, killing them in their sleep.
This book is theorized to be non-canonical. Some scholars believe it was tacked on later because of the indefensible actions of the main characters. Their brutality contradicts the ancient aesthetics of war. Mattingly accepts the contradiction as a necessary revelation of flaws.
XI. For Jackie Robinson
Book 11 – Agamemnon’s Day of Glory
The two sides fight a bloody battle in the morning; Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Odysseus are all wounded. Achilles sends Patroclus from his camp to inquire about Greek casualties. Patroclus is moved to pity by Nestor's speech.
One of the great battles in The Iliad is this last relatively innocent conflict – the last scene where the characters seem still to believe in the joy and glory of battle. Robinson’s battle to integrate baseball began a new era that allowed the struggle of American History into the world of baseball while in its the golden age. Baseball is celebratedas a part of our collective history.
XII. Third Fall
Book 12 – The Trojans Storm the Rampart
The Trojans attack the Greek wall on foot, as an eagle drops a writhing snake into the scrum of soldiers. Hector’s friend, seer and lieutenant, interprets this as an omen of impending Trojan defeat. Hector ignores the omen and leads the onslaught. Overwhelmed, the Greeks are routed; the wall's gate is broken.
The autumnal momentum here is a force is pulling things apart. This fall is a prelude to the unlucky thirteenth movement where all ideals are shattered, and innocence is lost with the experience of aging. The invocation theme comes back three times, each time at a lower pitch and carrying with it an existential dread.
Book 13 – Battling for the Ships
Many collapse on both sides. The seer urges Hector to fall back and warns him about Achilles, but is again ignored.
Sounding initially like a funeral, many of the themes already heard coalesce quietly and slowly, like stars gradually moving into night. All the threads of heroism from the preceding movements are imbued with a sense of being lost. The context for identity is changing and old façades disappear. Inspired by long form episodic television [e.g. Battlestar Galactica (2004-09)], a deep feeling of suspense ends the movement prior to intermission.
XIV. Dance 3, Second Winter
Book 14 – Hera Outflanks Zeus
Hera seduces Zeus luring him to sleep, allowing Poseidon to help the Greeks, who drive the Trojans back onto the plain.
While “Lost” dwelled on the human condition, this dance of the Gods is thematically related to the first dance.
XV. Divine Rage/Ocean
Book 15 – The Achaean Armies at Bay
Zeus awakens enraged by Poseidon's intervention. Countering the growing discontent of the Greek-supporting gods, Zeus sends Apollo to help the Trojans, who once again breach the wall. The battle reaches the Greek ships.
Up to this point, the gods were just dabbling in human affairs, but here their power is tremendous and supernatural– the sound of something falling from the sky and crashing into the ocean. The invocation theme is destroyed by a massive wave.
XVI. Love, Death, Paleoclimates
Book 16 – Patroclus Fights and Dies
Patroclus cannot watch any longer. He begs Achilles to be allowed to defend the ships. Achilles relents and lends Patroclus his armor, but sends him off with a stern admonition not to pursue the Trojans. Patroclus leads the Myrmidons into battle and arrives as the Trojans set fire to the first ships. The Trojans are routed by the sudden onslaught. Patrocluskills a leading ally of the Trojans, the son of Zeus. Now in pursuit, Patroclus, ignoring Achilles' command reaches thegates of Troy, where Apollo stops him. Apollo and Euphorrbosset upon Patroclus, but Hector kills him.
This book, connected to the following one, is the center of The Iliad and the heart of the work. They are played attacca. Achilles is in love with Patroclus. He has done little in battle up to this point, but he joins the fighting with ferocity when Hector kills Patroclus. He becomes his true self, a terrifying majestic warrior. These movements link to the four that follow like a great chapter in six parts. Paleoclimates imagines the changing geography and weather surrounding the loves and deaths in the lives of every person, a recurring experience of emotion from ancient times to today.
Book 17 – Menelaus Finest Hour
Hector takes Achilles' armor from the fallen Patroclus as fighting develops around his body.
Despite the developing story, everything disappears but his love for Patroclus and heartbreak.
Book 18 – The Shield of Achilles
Achilles grieves and swears vengeance on Hector. Thetis, mother of Achilles, grieves as well, knowing that Achilles is fated to die young should he kill Hector. Lacking armor, Achilles is urged to help retrieve the armored body of Patroclus. Bathed in radiance by Athena, Achilles stands at the Greek wall and roars with rage. The Trojans are dismayed. Hector’s seer again urges him to withdraw; again Hector refuses. The Trojans camp on the plain at nightfall. At his mother’s request, Hephaestus fashions a new armor for Achilles, with a magnificently wrought shield.
The ghost theme is introduced. Seeing the devastation of loss, Achilles is driven by anger to exert himself to the fullest, achieving his most fearsome self in movement XXI.
Book 19 – The Champion Arms for Battle
In the morning, Agamemnon gives Achilles all promised gifts, including Briseis, but Achilles is indifferent. Achilles fasts while the Greeks take their meal, straps on his new armor, and heaves his great spear. His horse Xanthos, for whom Hera has granted speech, prophesies to Achilles his death. Achilles drives his chariot into battle.
Continuing with the dissolution of self, a terrifying process is driven by grief and rage.
XX. Fourth Fall
Book 20 – Olympian Gods in Arms
Zeus lifts his ban on godly meddling. They freely help both sides. Consumed by rage and grief, Achilles slays many.
Once again autumnal momentum produces resolve. An earlier theme is heard as a quiet iteration, resolute like a ringing bellthat propels into “Muddy River.”
XXI. Muddy River (Aristea "...if I had wings")
Book 21 – Achilles Fights the River
Driving the Trojans before him, Achilles forces half their number into the river Skamandros slaughtering them and filling the river with the dead. Angry at the killing, the river confronts Achilles but is subdued by a firestorm brought on by Hephaestus. The gods fight among themselves. The great gates of the city are opened to receive the fleeing Trojans, and Apollo lures Achilles away from the city through pretense.
Achilles’ aristeia, his finest hour, is where he attacks the river. You see everything that he can do in all his terrifying glory – his living essence. This movement quotes from Bob Dylan’s (b. 1941) version of Dink’s Song, first recorded by John Lomax in 1909, and sung by a woman named Dink. A muddy river is an image from the song. Suddenly time stops; the characters are in suspended animation. The quote distills to its essence, and then builds up to the sonic illusion of at least three hands playing.
XXII. Death of Hektor
Book 22 – The Death of Hector
When Apollo reveals himself to Achilles, the Trojans have retreated into the city, all except for Hector. Having repeatedly ignored the seer, he feels shame and resolves to face Achilles, despite the pleas of his parents Priam and Hecuba. When Achilles approaches, Hector's will falters. Achilles chases him throughout the city. Finally, Athena stops him with a trick. He turns to face his opponent. After a brief duel, Achilles stabs Hector through the neck. Before dying, Hector reminds Achilles that he too is fated to die in the war. Achilles dishonors Hector's body by dragging it behind his chariot.
More funeral music marred by dishonor – very desolate with a sense of departure.
XXIII. Ebbets Field
Book 23 – Funeral Games for Patroclus
The ghost of Patroclus comes to Achilles in a dream, urging him to carry out burial rites and to arrange for their bones to be entombed together. The Greeks hold a day of funeral games. Achilles gives out prizes.
Ebbets Field is the old field of the Brooklyn Dodgers that was demolished and turned into a parking complex. Ebbets Field, home of heroes, is an analog for Troy with Achilles dreaming of a place now gone that lives on in the sidewalks,cracks, the stairwells. It stands in for memories of places that permeate our lives but are no longer there.
XXIV. Last Spring
Book 24 – Achilles and Priam
Priam takes a wagon out of Troy, across the plains, and into the Greek camp unnoticed. He begs Achilles for his son's body. Achilles is moved to tears. The two lament their losses. After a meal, Priam carries Hector's body back to Troy. Hector is buried, and the city mourns.
This is the first great moment in literature of acceptance that loss and pain are not unique, or individual. To live in the world with other people requires acceptance of other people’s loss and pain. Everyone’s life is as real to them asyours is to you. The last half of the movement is something totally new. Rather than trying to wrap up everything, the best endings are beginnings – a time for reimagining theself – same notes, but a different person.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
May 19, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Fantasia Baetica (1919) – Manuel De Falla (1876-1946)
String Quartet No. 2 (1962) – Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970)
Three Impromptus for Piano (1950) – Gerhard
Awake (2013) – Tomas Peire-Serrate (b. 1979)
React (2011) – Peire-Serrate
Fantasia (1957) – Gerhard
Homenaje a Debussy & La Vida Breve/Danza No. 1 (1920) – De Falla
Toccata for Solo Piano (2016) – Peire-Serrate
Harpsichord Concerto (1926) – De Falla
How was it that the Spanish music composed by Russians and Frenchmen could so completely dominate 19th and early 20th century concert halls and theaters such that Spain’s own composers were left to wait in the wings? One might logically point to their respective music traditions and sheer numbers of citizens, consider politics, religion, diplomacy or fate, even speculate on the sway of far-ranging tours by pianist Franz Liszt playing his own spectacular Rhapsodie Espagnole — none would be untrue — but the real answer is Glinka.
With Wagnerian brass declamations to start, and castanets ablaze, Mikhail Glinka’s (1804-1857) stunning 1845 Spanish Overture No 1 Capriccio Brilliante on the Jota Aragonesa catalyzed Russian music while inventing the Spanish showpiece, or espagnolade. Ironically, the guitar playing of Felix Castilla in Madrid inspired such extravagance. A few years later, the impressive Overture No 2. Recollection of a Summer Night in Madrid would introduce a banquet of four Spanish themes that fed generations – including another jota, a punto moruño for the slow section, and two seguidillas learned from a shepherd boy or zagal. Glinka, the highly educated wellspring of Russian music, had already composed two historically Russian operas, one in the prevailing Italian style of Donizetti and Rossini, and one betraying strong Russian traits. With the blessing of Tsar Nicholas, A Life for the Tsar was quite successful in 1836, but six years later, Ruslan and Lyudmila was not at all.
The Russian Connection
An inveterate traveler, Glinka headed to France where he reconnected with Hector Berlioz. Born a year apart, they were kindred spirits with revolutionary ideas. Berlioz’s already serialized Treatise on Instrumentation was being prepared for publication while he was at work on The Damnation of Faust. Berlioz promoted concerts including Glinka’s Symphony on Two Russian Themes, Valse Fantasie, and two overtures. They were a dynamic duo. In May of 1844, Glinka moved to Spain where he wanted to compose picturesque fantasies, and indulge a keen interest in hearing national folk music. Glinka eventually met Don Pedro Fernandez Nelasco Sandino who would remain his secretary and traveling companion for nine years until he returned to St. Petersburg as war broke out between France and Russia, and the Tsar became fatally ill with a cold.
The intoxicating “Spanish Dance” in Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) ballet Swan Lake (1876), and the softer (and lesser) “Great Spanish Dance” in Glazunov’s (1865-1936) Raymonda (1898) owe their very existence to Glinka’s fragrant nights in Madrid. With five compact movements, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1887 Capriccio Espagnole maximized Glinka’s orchestral opulence with a bounty of glamorous solos, spiced with exotic tambourines and triangles, and charged by high- wattage fandango rhythms – and castanets.
Berlioz, the maven of orchestral know-how armed the French to raise the game. But it would be Georges Bizet’s first mature work Carmen (1875) that would define Spanishness so completely that many accepted it as utterly authentic. A child prodigy who struggled with facility and cynicism before embracing realism, Bizet died suddenly after the opera – a heart attack. Carmen was sealed in the public imagination. Likewise, Emmanuel Chabrier’s imperishable Espana (1883) was so spectacularly brilliant it obliterated the rest of his output. The bravura ballet suite from Massenet’s opera Le Cid (1885) so successfully competed in the concert hall for Spanish excitement and color that the epic four-act tragicomedy from which it was drawn is now all but forgotten. Embracing the new Verismo style, in 1894 Massenet recast the hot-blooded Spanish troublemaker as Anita, La Navarraise, willing to kill for money to win her man. La Navarraise is sister of Azucena, the earthy gypsy in Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
As the century turned, Maurice Ravel’s sensational Rhapsodie Espagnole (1907), his one act opera L’heure Espagnole (1911) – rife with jotas, habaneras and malaguenas, and the infamous ballet Bolero (1928), reveals how kaleidoscopic and nuanced the espagnolade had become in the hands of a Basque. Ravel was born in the seaside town of Ciboure near the Basque Spanish border. His free-thinking, but nearly illiterate Basque mother had come there from Madrid.
Claude Debussy was neck-and-neck competing with Ravel when he composed Iberia (1908), three sections were surrounded in the five-part Images. Not having Ravel’s birthright and breaking away from the Russian showpiece, Debussy’s aesthetic was more nuanced, moody, pastel, unpredictable and, like Picasso in his pre-cubist Spanish period, a harbinger of the modern. Debussy’s titles betray a less extrovert but no less trenchant perspective on the Spanish experience: 1.Through the streets and the paths; 2. The fragrance of the night; and, 3.The morning of a festival day.
A Band of Apaches
Alborada del Gracioso Ravel’s morning song of a jester (1905, orchestrated in 1910) is where our story lines begin to converge. Alborada del Gracioso was dedicated to Michel de Calvocoressi, a multi-lingual expert on Glinka and Liszt, who would soon publish their biographies. It was part four of his piano suite Miroirs. Each of the five pieces of Miroirs was dedicated to a member of Les Apaches, which had started in 1902. This band of avant-garde poets, composers, critics and artists, many of them gay, became galvanized by their passionate advocacy on behalf of Debussy’s controversial new opera Pelléas et Mélisande. They adopted the name “Les Apaches” upon hearing a newspaper boy shouting a headline about the American Indians. The word resonated so immediately because it is also French for hooligans. The loose membership eventually numbered sixteen, including Ravel, Calvocoressi and the imaginary Gomez de Riquet. Saturday meetings were mostly held in the studio of Paul Sordes, a painter and set designer. In addition to several critics, a conductor, and a publisher, the upstarts included the incomparable Catalonian pianist Ricardo Viñes, romantically partnered with Ravel it is believed, poet, painter, and art theorist Tristan Klingsor, and the emerging composers Igor Stravinsky at the time of Firebird, the orientalist song writer Maurice Delage, Rome Prize winner Florent Schmitt of the Loie Fuller ballet La tragédie de Salomé – and Manuel de Falla.
A New Voice
Born two years after Ravel in Cadiz of Valencian and Catalonian parents, Falla moved from Madrid in 1907 to study in Paris, where he joined the Apaches – remaining until their disbanding in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI. He arrived in Paris with a first prize in piano performance and deep study into Andalusian music – especially flamenco, particularly cante jondo – cultivated by Felip Pedrell (1841-1922), the hugely influential guitarist, composer, teacher, and musicologist.
Falla was of course deeply attuned to the piano music of the famous child prodigy pianist, conductor and composer Isaac Albeniz, whose decidedly Andalusian 90-minute piano suite masterpiece Iberia was begun in 1905. Each of the work’s four books was premiered in successive years from 1906 to 1909, with each premiere in a different French location. Falla responded to Iberia with his Cuatro piezas españolas begun in 1906. Ricardo Viñes gave the first performance in 1909 at the Salle Érard in Paris, a month after the final book of Iberia was first heard. While delightful, only “Montanesa” rose to the comparison.
Sadly, just three months later, at age 48, Albeniz died of kidney disease after nine-years of struggle. Now only Francisco Tárrega the father of classical guitar music, Enrique Granados Albeniz’s pianistic alter ego, and the still emerging Joaquín Turina could authentically carry the torch of Spanish music. Then in December 1909 Tárrega would succumb to a stroke and die.
Falla’s first major work, the hour long opera La Vida Breve, was composed in Madrid and won a prize there, but the promised production never materialized, so he brought the zarzuela-influenced opera to Paris. But, such hopes would take until 1913 to be fulfilled. La Vide Breve, the story of a jilted gypsy girl who confronts her beloved at his wedding and drops dead on the spot, was revised immediately at Debussy’s prodding to gain more continuity among its traditional numbers arias, its wealth of flamenco guitar, and orchestral interludes. Despite its flaws of youth, the opera’s two Danzas have been copiously arranged; especially effective for solo guitar is Danza No.1, the earliest work on this program.
Falla’s most daring and ambitious work for solo piano, Fantasia Baetica, was commissioned by Arthur Rubinstein in 1919 and given its first performance a year later for Society of the Friends of Music in New York. With its austerity and percussive brilliance, the soulful flamenco sentiment is newly invented. It is likely from exposure to Stravinsky’s four hands arrangement of his 1913 Rite of Spring and Debussy’s twelve innovative Etudes of 1915.
As for any regional accent, Falla’s “sole intention was to pay homage to our Latin-Andalucian race.” Baetica is the ancient Roman name for the region known as the Iberian Peninsula that was under Moorish rule from the 8th to the15th centuries. The Fantasia hews to a primeval feeling when folk traditions were being forged from a confluence of culture.
Rubinstein dutifully premiered Fantasia Baetica, but it didn’t stick with him – a slight that harmed its adoption as an important piano work. Falla completed an equally innovative guitar piece Homenaje a Debussy that same year 1920. This highly nuanced work was among a set of compositions offered in a printed tribute to the late composer, who died painfully of cancer in March 1918, just months before France could exact its allied victory over the Germans, whom Debussy detested.
The inaugural edition of La Revue Musicale published 123 pages of scores from ten composers. Ravel contributed a duo that would become the first movement of his Sonata for Violin and cello. Stravinsky’s closing chorale soon was incorporated into Symphonies of Wind Instruments. One of Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs was included, as was La Plainte, au Loin du Faune, a piano elegy from Paul Dukas bewitched by Debussy’s Afternoon of the Faun. Also paying tribute was Eric Satie, Albert Roussel, Florent Schmitt, and Falla. Homenaje a Debussy is one of the ultimate challenges for a guitarist because it is like a cat's cradle - every line is in a delicate balance, somber but defiant, Spanish, but universal. The technical challenges are amplified by the internal affect necessary to project the whole. It must be noted that his mother, to whom he was extremely devoted, died suddenly in 1919.
Falla had relocated to Madrid during the war. Granados had been killed by a German submarine attack while crossing the English channel in 1916. Now the only major Spanish composer, he turned his attention to the modest precursor of El sombrero de tres picos (The Three Cornered Hat). The great Ballet Russe impresario Serge Diaghilev in the house for premiere of this chamber orchestra sketch. Soon the composer was at work on a two-act ballet with large orchestra, sets and costumes by the now famous Pablo Picasso. Léonide Massine adapted traditional Spanish dances to the story line while dispensing with the balletic vocabulary. The work was premiered in London at the appropriately named Alhambra Theater, a vast music hall in Moorish style reminiscent to the famous palace in Granada – that often hosted the circus! At long last the behemoth of Russian culture embraced a Spanish composer! Picasso wanted shouts of Ole! punctuating the battery of castanets while ushering in an all-too-fleeting soprano solo that telegraphs the authenticity of this enterprise. It would be Falla’s greatest triumph and largest completed work. The final dance with its vast and thrilling collage of ostinatos achieves the apotheosis of the espagnolade.
In many ways El sombrero de tres picos resonated with Stravinsky’s ultra Russian puppet drama Petrushka. But WWI had disabused Falla’s Russian friend of such richness and blatant nationalism. Instead irony and a fascination with jazz came through his Histoire du Soldat composed for a small ensemble in the seclusion of Switzerland. A reductive back-to-basics impulse prevailed in the twenties. A movement toward neoclassicism soon coalesced. Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments had already stepped into that sensibility, while the Wind Octet of 1923 became a defining statement.
Falla was intimately aware of Stravinsky’s music, so it is not surprising that his Concerto for Harpsichord and Five Instruments reveals a striking kinship with the music of his contemporary, while retaining an intensely Spanish identity ingrained by his education.
Falla’s teacher Pedrell was an ardent admirer of the Italian-born Domenico Scarlatti who served the Portuguese and Spanish royal families most of his life as court composer. Scarlatti bridged the baroque and classical style, which made him a distinctly interesting composer of harpsichord music during this reconsideration of the past.
Falla was drawn to the harpsichord and included it in the score of Master Peter’s Puppet Show premiered in 1923. The Polish doyenne of the harpsichord, no less than Wanda Landowska agreed to play the harpsichord part. This work was the first introduction of the instrument into the modern orchestra. Mutual gratitude led to the commissioning of a concerto, although it would take much longer to compose that Landowska had planned, to her annoyance.
The three-movement concerto uses a quotation from a Spanish Renaissance villancico by Joan Vasquez that was set by subsequent generations of composers. De Los Alamos Vengo, Madre (I come from the poplars, mother) returns in the third movement and lurks distantly in between. The poplar is a symbol of vulnerability due its pale bark, susceptibly to termites, and high rates of die-off. Falla was a weak child who suffered from tuberculosis and other ailments that led to exaggerated hypochondria. He formed a strong attachment to his mother and to his Moorish nanny. It would seem that he found an historical and personal signature tune that preceded even the musicology emerging about the Baroque and particularly J. S. Bach, with the help of Landowska and the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals.
Befitting a neoclassicist, Falla uses for the first movement a classic sonata allegro form, but roots it in his Renaissance theme, recalls the florid style of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, Furthermore, he introduces a melody strikingly similar to a tune in the Three-Cornered Hat, given to the violin, oboe and cello, to underscore his national identity. Landowska’s instrument included a modern 16’ stop to increase the bass, and borrowed heavily from piano construction in order to be heard in concert settings. This so-called revival harpsichord is the historically correct instrument for the many works commission by and for Landowska then and well into the 1960’s when the original instrument movement became dominant.
The austere hieratic quality of the middle movement evokes echoing chants and the laborious procession of Holy Week in Seville that Falla attended in 1922. Despite the composer’s deep religiosity, this music was considered highly avant-garde In Spain, cut off as it was from the general post enlightenment progress of the west. Audiences were puzzled and questioned the proficiency of the players owing to its cubist construction of displaced accents, ensemble irregularities, and sudden changes.
A sense of neoclassic balance is restored in the jaunty third movement reinforced by the return of De Los Alamos Vengo, Madre, and an infectious joie de vivre. Unfortunately, the Concerto was premiered paired with the lush and mysterious Nights of the Gardens of Spain, dances from the Three Cornered Hat, and excerpts from El Amor Brujo on the occasion of Falla’s 50th birthday. Next to such popular paragons of color, populism and tunefulness, this runt was hardly given a chance. Its chances of success were dealt another blow with the instrument’s fall from grace. When the great harpsichord works of this period are accorded the respect of historically informed performance practice, and the unique beauty of the instrument is appreciated, Falla’s singular achievement will be recognized as a masterpiece.
Roberto Gerhard’s music has faced many other obstacles to attaining the high regard it deserves. While he is regarded as a Spanish composer, born in Valls, near the ancient port city of Tarragona, his parents were not Spanish, and abutting wars caused life-long displacement from Spain at age 43. His strong Catalonian identity was always tempered by the necessary multilingualism of a child born of a German-Swiss father, and an Alsatian French mother. Yet his musical pedigree was Spanish.
Gerhard studied piano with Enrique Granados. Like Falla, he studied with Pedrell, an association so close he would write Symphony “Homenaje a Pedrell” (1941) twelve years before his actual Symphony No. 1. The passing of Pedrell in 1922 caused a crisis. Falla wasn’t taking students, and unlike his Spanish predecessors who migrated north, at that time Gerhard’s Parisian options looked insubstantial.
On the strength of his early works, Gerhard’s daring approach to Arnold Schoenberg was accepted. He became the great innovator’s only Spanish student working several years in Vienna and Berlin before retuning to Barcelona in 1929. His new sophistication was employed in music journalism. He connected with the prominent painter Joan Miró, navigated the increasingly polarized politics, and organized progressive concerts. Gerhard brought his teacher Schoenberg and fellow student Anton Webern to Barcelona. Gerhard organized the 1936 International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which was one of the last major cultural events of the Second Spanish Republic. The world premiere of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was the highlight of the ISCM’s inaugural day April 19, just three months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Then Falla’s close friend Federico Garcia Lorca was assassinated August 19, for his political activities and his homosexuality.
Gerhard’s affinities were clearly with the Republican cause and his ties to the Catalonia government were obvious. Both composers were on a watch list. Following Francisco Franco’s victory in 1939, Falla fled to Argentina where he would remain for seven years before his death, and Gerhard fled first to France before settling in Cambridge, England. Gerhard’s music was strictly prohibited until Franco’s death in 1975 – five years after the composer’s death.
Gerhard may have transplanted his life, but his music was steeped in well-received Spanish content. The Pedrell Symphony was composed in his modern tonal style. The full-length ballet Don Quixote also from 1941 was revised for a 1950 Sadler’s Wells production at Covent Garden featured Robert Helpmann as the Don and Margot Fonteyn as Dulcinea. The BBC orchestra championed the ballet’s suite of dances at the Proms in 1958. A Spanish translation of the Duenna, Richard Brinsley Sheridan satirical play set in Spain, served as the libretto for Gerhard’s triumphant first opera, a BBC Radio performance in 1949. After WWII his background in the twelve-tone technique and emerging serialism impelled Gerhard toward the prevailing international style emanating from Darmstadt, but tempered with an ineluctable connection to his roots.
The warmly Spanish sounding Three Impromptus for piano from 1950 show how gradually his language transformed, and the successive Fantasia (1957) for guitar, his only work for the instrument reflects how innately Spanish is the idiom despite its advances on compositional technique. A concurrent commission by Boyd Neel for a Harpsichord Concerto with string orchestra and percussion proved an opportunity to answer Falla’s work and advance his language.
The one movement Quartet No. 2 signaled a complete grasp of the international style -- remaining almost aphoristic like the piano Impromptus and guitar Fantasia in the brevity of its seven sections. The First Quartet while approachable and fascinating was more conscious of the great tradition to which it attained. Writing for Gramophone, Arnold Whittall observes:
The Second Quartet (1960-62) is more radical, more concentrated, showing that dialogues between active and reflective musics could be made fresher and more appealing in the absence of those history-laden Schoenbergian backgrounds. Though he aspired to employing all-embracing compositional systems, Gerhard was never their prisoner, and the skill with which he uses repetition for dramatic effect in this work shows that he was far from rejecting all aspects of traditional musical rhetoric.
While the composer points to a “magic sense of uneventfulness” which he describes as “time-lattices,” there are also moments that the writer Gary Higginson describes as “mad insectile activity – rhythmically fluid and crepuscular [using] a great many idiomatically unique effects for the strings like col legno pizzicato, glissandi with the fingernails and flageolet glissandi… its contrasts of dark and then brightly lit visions of a distant landscape continually hold the attention.” In short, the work is exciting and engaging in the hands of the most skilled performers. That the pace-setting Arditti Quartet championed both quartets bodes well for Gerhard and the many highly trained quartets today eager to champion deserving works of the last half century.
Tomas Peire-Serrate was born less than five years after the tenacious dictator Francisco Franco finally died in power. Spain has been in recovery ever since as the painful memories of the Spanish Civil War slowly subside. How such regional and cultural tensions continue to play out against the background of a creaky European Union remains a source of fascination if not puzzlement to the rest of the world.
All of the great Spanish composers since Isaac Albeniz studied and lived outside of Spain, with Pedrell as the pedagogical anchor in Barcelona and the keeper of pure Spanish traditions. So it is unremarkable on the one hand that Gerhard would flourish in London, while on the other opening the door to a more universalist conception of music less bound to the traditions of his place of birth, while being embraced in Spain with pride. His successors are now reaching maturity and a new chapter in the history of Spanish music is emerging. The three works by Peire-Serrate presented tonight cover a five-year period of recent composition in forms and instrumentation that invite an assessment, premature though it may be, of his possible place in the arc of Spanish music.
Written for Jose Menor, the recent Toccata for piano is, as one might expect, a dazzling tour de force that resonates with tradition, while pushing the boundaries into the 21st century. React, a clarinet quintet with strings, is the earliest work on the program. The Zagros Ensemble premiered it at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. Understandably, it shares a kind of rigor and intensity associated with the chamber music of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Magnus Lindberg, graduates of the Finnish academy a generation ahead of Peire-Serrate. Awake is warmer, more delicate, and drenched in subtle colorations harkening to the French tradition of Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and Boulez. The nuanced interactions among the five players are as wondrous to see as to hear.
Peire-Serrate was born in a suburb of Barcelona and obtained degrees in piano and music history before studying composition at Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona. From the Sibelius Academy, he moved to New York, where he received a master’s degree from NYU Steinhardt in composition for film and multimedia on full scholarship, earning the Elmer Bernstein Award upon graduation. Peire-Serrate is currently completing his PhD at UCLA while working in the film industry. He joins the legion of young composers drawn to the richness and opportunity of Los Angeles and the contemporary music community that makes it a great international center.
2018 © PATRICK SCOTT
March 17, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Quatre études de rythme (1950) – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
Psappha (1975) – Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001)
Piano Sonata (1952) – Jean Barraqué (1928-1973)
Even today, there is something profoundly unnerving about the whiplash change that happened to music in 1950 — in the wake of the war, and after the atom bomb — like evolution suddenly lurching forward to force life into light-speed mutation. This mid-century turning point is stranger still since it would equally cleave the life — born 42 years earlier in 1908, dying 42 years later in 1992 — of a key catalyzing figure.
Olivier Messiaen was hardly the only mortar in the pestle that brought total serialism into existence, but he taught its leading devotees, who touched the creative lives of nearly everyone then grappling with Anton Webern’s distillation of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Analytical purity in music seemed destined to emerge while the rearranging whirlwind of war settled down, leaving in its wake the sentimentality, religion, certainty, and national identities associated with a shattered old world.
This man near the eye of the storm had already endured relentless criticism for his wide-ranging musical tastes, for his surreal hyper-romanticism, synesthesia, nature worship, and the sincere naiveté of his Catholic faith. He embraced Indian ragas, birdsong, Indonesian gamelan, Peruvian melodies, Wagnerian leitmotifs, Medieval chants and fragments of ancient Greek meters. Still, Messiaen would play a critical role in launching a level of pure abstraction and rigor previously unknown to music — as a creator teaching by example, and as a musical analyst par excellence. His bravest and most singular students were Germany’s Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Romanian-born Greek Iannis Xenakis. His passionate friend and most cosmopolitan water bearer was Pierre Boulez; his most faithful surrogate was the American Betsy Jolas, and his most enigmatic disciple was Jean Barraqué.
Darmstadt provided the key locus for this epochal shift — a strangely poetic fact given its two-faced history: first among German cities to forcibly shutter Jewish shops at the twilight of Nazis power, a source of 3,000 Jews deported to concentration camps, but also home to prominently doomed leaders of the German resistance movement. The city would pay dearly as the allies bombed three quarters of its buildings. The historic core provided a trial run for the British firestorm technique that later decimated Dresden. Incendiary bombs circled the city before bull’s-eye blast bombs generated a caustic wind-powered fire that consumed everything within the perimeter. Upwards of 12,500 Darmstadt residents were incinerated, and some 70,000 were left homeless by war’s end in 1945.
Plain functional architecture was built over the ruins, often surrounding faithful replicas of historic structures representing the glory days of Jugendstil, Germany’s art nouveau. Home of the chemical giant Merck, which began as the Angel Pharmacy (Engel-Apotheke) in 1668, Darmstadt is now so identified with chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and the naming of newly-discovered elements that it has been branded the “City of Science.” However, like Lilies of the Valley that thrive in ashes protected there from cutworms, “purified” music emerged as an alternative identity. In 1946, the Darmstadt International New Music Summer School for contemporary classical music was founded with allied support from American Officers active in cultural exchanges and rebuilding initiatives. Darmstadt was in the American occupied zone where there were resources for music scholarships and the energy to find viable pianos. The New Music school proved uniquely attractive to a generation of well-educated and deeply curious pioneers. The Nazis had made musical innovation off limits for decades.
In addition to Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen, the Darmstadt Summer program attracted such avant-garde composers as Luigi Nono (married to Nuria Schoenberg), John Cage, Elliott Carter, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, and eventually Helmut Lachenmann. A 1954 lecture “American Experimental Music” by Wolfgang Rebner – a student of Paul Hindemith in Germany before leaving in 1939, who became a film composer/pianist in Hollywood and a regular performer at Peter Yates’s Evenings on the Roof – was likely the very first public assertion that an American tradition existed linking Charles Ives to Henry Cowell to Edgard Varese and to John Cage! It would take Yates another five years to take that ball and run with it.
In 1958, Nono coined the moniker “Darmstadt School” to embrace these prominent composers, as well as Earle Brown from the Merce Cunningham circle, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s teacher Franco Donatoni, the under-appreciated Belgian innovator Karel Goeyvaerts, and the electronic music pioneer Henri Pousseur. Barraqué and Xenakis were included in the Darmstadt School despite not having attended as students, as was Messiaen for his catalytic influence – regardless of a rapid retreat from serialism. Nono’s strong-willed nature and his controversial positions would effectively lead to the dissolution of the “Darmstadt School” by 1960.
During this ten-year period, Influential lectures were given about critical theory by Theodor W. Adorno, the controversial Marxist philosopher, sociologist, and composer. John Cage expounded upon chance operations; other cutting edge ideas were shared by the likes of Morton Feldman, Hans Werner Henze, Ernst Krenek, Rene Leibowitz, David Tudor, György Ligeti, Edgard Varèse, and Xenakis. Ground-breaking performers who championed avant-garde music, such as Messiaen student and future wife Yvonne Loriod, were also accorded prominence. Loriod, however, was primarily Messiaen’s muse, and her capacity to realize his idiosyncratic birdsong, synesthetic effects, and unique structural methodologies proved a potent source of inspiration.
In a 1948 Paris newspaper profile, gay author and journalist Robert de St Jean (partnered with the more famous American novelist Julien Green), described Messiaen as having the expected long hair of a professor of harmony, but unexpectedly, his facial expression, “remains very fresh and very open, with glimmers of childlike gaiety, sometimes, in his eyes.” Serge Koussevitzky’s commission of a huge ten-movement symphony for the Boston Symphony – a year away from completion – had elevated Messiaen to international celebrity. Leonard Bernstein would conduct the premiere at Symphony Hall.
When asked by St Jean which “masters do you recognize as having left their mark on your work,” he replied to the nonplussed interviewer “the birds.” Most masterful of all he said was “the blackbird, of course! It can improvise continuously eleven or twelve different verses, in which identical musical phrases return. What freedom of melodic invention, what an artist!” Messiaen went on to disparage Western ignorance of rhythm as centuries away from full mastery. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that his gigantic symphony with piano and ondes Martenot soloists would soon be succeeded in his focus by the only vehicle for such necessary experimentation, the solo piano.
During 1949, at the Darmstadt summer course, Messiaen sketched the middle movements of Four Rhythmic Etudes, a work that signaled, especially in its third movement “Mode of Durations and Intensities,” a significant new direction that would galvanize all who saw the score, heard or performed it. Every note would exist within a numerical organization of pitch, duration, dynamics, and attack. Instead of utilizing a 12-note series, with the formal generating contours of a melody, Messiaen used modal scales composed of 36 pitches, 24 durations, 12 attacks, and 7 dynamics.
Messiaen’s handling of duration, e.g. tempo, comes out of the three – high, middle, low – registers of the piano expressed in superimposed eight note, sixteenth note and 32nd note. Messiaen explains: "The durations, intensities and attacks operate on the same plane as the pitches; the combination of modes reveals colors of durations and intensity; each pitch of the same name has a different duration, attack and intensity for each register in which it appears; the influence of register upon the quantitative, phonetic, and dynamic soundscape, and the division into three temporal regions imbues the passage with the spirit of the sounds that traverse them, creating the potential for new variations of colors."
“Neumes Rythmiques,” Messiaen’s first stab at so-called total serialism, draws from his fascination with medieval plainchant, and traces therein of ancient Greek poetic meters. A neume is described by Paul Griffiths, the great musicologist, librettist, and biographer of Barraqué, as a “sign representing a segment of melody. Such signs appeared in chant books in Western Europe in the 9th century and in the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century; there are also neumatic systems of similar age from Japan and Tibet.” A neume is literally and etymologically a breath. It is the precursor of the note before the five-line stave was invented to exert more control over pitches. Messiaen alternates longer strophes, roughly equivalent to stanzas, or opening statements in poetic odes, with shorter refrains, or choruses. Iambic rhythm establishes the first strophe, which is designated by the composer as neumes, with fixed resonances and intensities.
Messiaen explains further: "In an interplay of transposition, the neumatic symbol as an indication of a sinuous melodic entity is now applied to a rhythmic motive. Each rhythmic neume is assigned a fixed dynamic and resonances of shimmering colors, more or less bright or somber, always contrasting"
The rhythmic etudes open and close with impressions of volcanic Papua New Guinea, where tribal culture strongly inhabited a Pacific Rim landscape rich with particularly exotic birds and ritual dances around bursts of fire. The terse opening “Island of Fire” represents the summation of Messiaen’s pianistic models from Liszt, Debussy and Ravel, as well as characteristics of his massive keyboard works produced for Loriod in the decade just ended. The closing “Island of Fire” features pounding toccata-like rhythms ornamented with complex nature-evoking riffs that suddenly give way – twice – to a simple open-air passage of elegant birdsong as might have been written by Mozart or Chopin.
Iannis Xenakis was something of a refugee staring down last chances when he arrived in Paris In 1947. A death sentence for political terrorism was on his head; his face disfigured by shrapnel from a resistance-related skirmish in Greece. This scenario seems all the more unlikely when looking back to a childhood shaped by governesses, and music discovered on the radio. At ten, after his mother died, Xenakis attended an English style boarding school on an Aegean island, surrounded by temples and statues where his early interest in music led to piano studies and an affinity for science. Astronomy and archeology captured his imagination.
On the first day of Athens Polytechnic Institute’s school year in 1940, Mussolini’s troops invaded the Greek capital ending his 18-year-old dream of life in the ivory towers of mathematics and engineering. Xenakis’ politics became extreme overnight. He was repeatedly arrested and incarcerated while sporadically studying physics, music, archaeology and law alongside his focus on mathematics. Xenakis was at the front of any street demonstration, with the right-wingers at first, then with the communist National Popular Army becoming commander of the “Lord Byron Unit.” Later, after the Germans evacuated and the British established martial law in 1945, a shell fragment smashed his jaw and dislodged his left eye. Given up for dead, his father found the teenager in the rubble and was able to get him to an operating room.
After three months in a hospital, incredibly, Xenakis returned to study at the haphazardly functioning institute, while carrying on clandestine activism that provoked more jailings. Less than a year later he presented his thesis on “Reinforced Concrete,” only to be thrust into a camp for prisoners, escaping, and then hiding for six months in an Athens apartment.
His 1947 flight to Paris with false papers was a new beginning. Soon Europe’s most advanced architectural thinker Le Corbusier would offer him an engineering job. Xenakis worked closely with Le Corbusier for twelve years at the end of which mathematics, architecture and music actually merged with the landmark Philips commission for a pavilion celebrating electronics in a new age at the Brussels World Fair of 1958.
Despite a challenging relationship with Arthur Honegger, study with him at the École Normale was short-lived as the more methodical Darius Milhaud replaced the Swiss composer. Xenakis’ probing temperament didn’t sit well with Milhaud either. The young architect wanted harmony and counterpoint lessons with Nadia Boulanger, the famous teacher of so many Americans. But this unusually skilled and intuitive Greek was already 25 years old and still a musical beginner. Boulanger had no patience for that.
It was only after pushing open Messiaen’s door at the Paris Conservatory in the late afternoon of 1951 that Xenakis found a mentor who recognized the way in which he was advanced beyond his musical schooling. Years later Messiaen recalled, how this “bearer of a glorious scar, but radiant with an internal light…[and a] piercing gaze gave me to understand immediately that the man I was looking at was… not like the others. He told me he wanted to be a composer. When I found out that he was Greek, that he had studied mathematics and that he was working as an architect with Le Corbusier, I told him, ‘Keep going with all that…and out of it make music!”
Also in late 1951, Karlheinz Stockhausen began auditing Messiaen’s class at the urging of a young Belgian composition student Karel Goeyvaerts, who had also restlessly moved from Milhaud to Messiaen. The score to Messiaen’s “Modes Values and Intensities,” profoundly affected Stockhausen as it had affected Messiaen’s private student Pierre Boulez.
Xenakis married the French novelist and journalist Françoise Gargouïl in 1953. That year Le Corbusier hosted the International Congress of Modern Architecture in Marseilles for a rooftop event. Xenakis arranged a joint performance of the latest electronic music by Pierre Henry (another Messiaen student), a progressive jazz group, and alternating traditional musics from India and Japan ― each emanating from a different vantage point on the roof.
Soon the two architects collaborated on creating the famous modernist landmark monastery at La Tourette from 1953 to 1960. Meanwhile the composition of Metastasis, a nine-minute piece for orchestra and the first important work by Xenakis, responded to claims by electronic music composers of the inferiority and obsolescence of live performance. In 1955, sixty-one solo players, including a large mass of individual strings, premiered a graphically designed score made by using a ruled parabola. Xenakis endeavored to reconcile coexisting conceptions of time, Newton’s linear flow and Einstein’s recognition of matter and energy affecting time.
To propel forward motion, the score prescribed changes in the density of sound, its intensity and register.
This ultra precise parabolic design influenced Xenakis’ conception of the Philips Pavilion, “a free-form hollow structure” with 375 speakers imbedded in the undulating walls and the means to project lights and images for an audience of 500 at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. The Pavilion was referred to by Le Corbusier as Poème Electronique, the name that would be exclusively applied to the eight minutes of electronic music by Varese to be played by the building as a condition of Le Corbusier’s participation. A synchronized eight-minute montage of images filled every angle of the space.
This World Fair was the first such international gathering since WWII ended, adopting as its optimistic symbol a giant structure resembling the form of an atom. The pair of architects settled on a floor plan for the Pavilion resembling a stomach from which giant tilting tent poles and wires supporting pre-cast concrete panels created a dynamic exterior. Xenakis also composed a brief electronic piece based on the sound of burning charcoal for the entrance.
The building was a sensation. After a battle for credit, Xenakis shared the glory with Le Corbusier (who had little to do with it) and was made an international herald of the new. Xenakis then left architecture and completely embraced music for all its potential, once harnessed to advanced mathematic theory. Messiaen would describe the swarming string music of Xenakis, as it coexisted with the composer’s constant invention — such as the creation of the graphic computer interface — “not simply the ancillary side-effects of a thought; they are not radically new, but radically other.”
It is likely, however, the corpus of nine percussion works spanning two decades (1969-89), that may best encapsulate the mental energy of the “radically other,” an equipoise between total serialism and indeterminacy. Persephassa, a 30-minute percussion sextet led the way in 1969 – a rite of spring in honor of the goddess Persephone – with exhilarating cross rhythms, eddies, tremolos, tempestuous “clouds” of texture, the otherworldly whistling of simantras, and what percussion guru Steve Schick describes as “interlocking rhythms to create a unified rhythmic field.” Psappha, the next percussion work from 1975 distills – in half the duration – the drama of silence created by the sudden cessation of Persephassa’s forceful sextet. The silences of Psappha are more deliberate and intimate in the hands of a soloist, the air of the island landscape more present.
Sappho, the lyrical poet of Ancient Greece universally admired by composers, is the subject. Seemingly wayward drumbeats play among silent reveries before persistently accelerating toward a challenge often encountered by performers of Xenakis. What Messiaen called “the charm of impossibilities” is made very real when facing the demands of these scores. Schick describes the conundrum well, “the impossibilities are really there: they can be found at the end of Psappha with Xenakis’s indication that each of the many simultaneously sounding notes is to receive three strokes. The resulting music at its most dense would have a single percussionist playing as many as 25 strokes per second on a group of instruments dispersed widely in a space.”
Given the composer’s ancient/futuristic commitment to the human production of acoustic sound coexisting with a predisposition to science and computer technology, it is as though Xenakis throws down the gauntlet and demands that we evolve our capacity, what the paleontologist, geologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called super-hominization: “It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist.” At minimum the performer can diminish the space between the instruments, the rest is technique and appealing to a higher power.
How Jean Barraqué produced as his Opus 1 – a Piano Sonata of formidable length and nearly insurmountable technical demands is something of a mystery. Until completing the work in 1952 Barraqué’s production of scores could hardly sustain his interest long enough to finish them, such was the pace of his auto-didacticism. Unsurprisingly, the material was mostly derivative and uninspired despite an inner compulsion to make the grandest artistic gestures, an unmistakable feeling that he was destined to further a great tradition.
Almost no clues exist as to how this came about. Messiaen’s non-religious childhood was defined by the years of WWI spent in the idyllic safety of Grenoble with his mother, brother and grandparents steeped in the greatest opera scores. A natural pianist and entertainer, he sang and put on shows in the living room. He was privately enchanted by bible stories. His father, a translator of Shakespeare to French, was a soldier at the front. His mother Cecile Sauvage, the well-regarded “poet of motherhood,” anticipated his birth in an epic poem. Fourteen years Messiaen’s junior, Xenakis initially shared similarly idyllic circumstances, but soon faced the harshest imaginable realities. Barraqué was six years younger still. He was conceived on Easter 1927, his mother noted, as his parents were religious and she envisioned her only child’s future in the church. His father was a butcher in a suburb of Paris, where they soon moved to improve his business prospects in occupied France. His biographer Paul Griffiths (The Sea on Fire, University of Rochester Press, 2003) describes his upbringing as “a wretched parody of family life.” Religious fervor was as real to the Notre Dame choirboy as was young Messiaen’s life-long faith. Until music wiped it out, utterly.
Recordings, first among them Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, then Beethoven and Bach obsessed the young Barraqué who populated his imagination with these great personages. Nothing else had much reality, certainly not school work. His life in the church may have led to study with the great blind organist/composer Jean Langlais in 1947. During that time Barraqué was suffering recurring bouts of mysterious nervous disorders now believed were related to his realization that he was homosexual.
The following year he became a non-enrolled student of Messiaen. Langlais may have made a recommendation based on the young man’s voracious curiosity. With an awareness of Messiaen’s classes, as Griffiths puts it, that “the past few years had been alive with revolutionary ideas about developing Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method of composition, reinvigorating rhythm, exploring new tone colors and leaning from the music of the world.” At the time fellow student Boulez was in an innovative heat of creative fire. Soon, unaccustomed to any higher education, Barraqué was thrust into Messiaen’s class in musical aesthetics and analysis at the Paris Conservatoire with three session per week each lasting four hours. That term Messiaen was focused on rhythm – Rite of Spring, ancient Indian ragas, Mozart, and plainsong. Barraqué’s writing at the time is nothing if not telling:
“For those who could use it, the time spent with Messiaen allowed that plunge…a great teacher conveys nothing: he’s there to disturb. What Messiaen will not do – and what some counted on him to do – is to set up a theoretical method of analysis. Only the works are there, magnificently radiant and devastating. Messiaen gave is his class the impresssion of a master who knows how to listen and be silent. One has to pass through some heavy experiences in order to preserve that respectful humility towards works – works no longer fixed in a splendid, distant past but alive forever with their on energy of life and death.”
Another year would pass in admiration of Bartòk while stepping in the direction of serialism. A catalyzing event was the 75th birthday of Schoenberg celebrated in Paris with an October 15, 1949 performance of the strictly serial, but deeply expressive Phantasy for violin and pianos, as well as the less strict and highly dramatic Ode to Napoleon for reciter and piano quintet, both recently composed. In the months before the concert he was immersed in earlier Schoenberg, and with fresh eyes for Debussy scores. Webern’s music had been recently published, was making the rounds, and proved hugely catalytic for the Messiaen circle. His influence is clear in Barraqué’s first serial work, tellingly title La porte ouverte (The Open Door), followed immediately by a solo violin sonata that also betrays the influence of Boulez, with whom he was intensely aware from a distance. Eventually they spent time together sharing scores.
Boulez remembers Barraqué at that time – with perhaps too much disapproval and hindsight from one who seemed to conceal his own sexuality – as a tense, overly complex alcoholic with bad work habits, one whose admiration of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche was unhealthy, in that he modeled himself as a classically cursed artist. Nonetheless, the Second Sonata of Boulez galvanized Barraqué to complete his own contribution to the canon of piano sonatas, which when finally revealed two years in gestation betrayed a work ethic that staggers the imagination. Much has been written about this work, and little of it helps explain its fascination or promotes understanding. Even Barraqué’s radio interview from 1969 most have left his listeners perplexed. He tackles the core subject of freedom versus rigor:
“In the free style the greatest role is played effectively by the dynamics and by the sort of rhythmic élan that sets up very striking contrasts. On the other hand, the rigorous style is written in a very contrapuntal manner, where cells of the basic structure are developed according to a principle of variation I call ‘in closed-open circuit’, that is, with all the variations on the rhythmic schemes, which are sometimes superimposed in two, three, four – up to four and even five parts – and which, above all, require the integration of silence, which progressively impregnates the work, so to say, and finally removes from it its contrapuntal and structural content to give way to silences – what I call ‘avoided’ music, silences that have an importance in the work.”
The handful of recordings began with Yvonne Loriod traipsing in and out of the studio to learn sections and perform them as her busy schedule allowed. It was finally edited together with a running time of 52 minutes in 1957. Whether she would have adopted similar tempi in live performance cannot be known. Subsequent recorded interpreters Roger Woodward and Herbert Henck have a consensus running time of 46-48 minutes. Considering the outright esoteric nature of this repertoire, CD buyer comments on Amazon are fulsome and extravagant. The adjective count may be off the charts, but the intelligence and thoroughness of these reviews is also absolutely stunning. The Loriod and Woodward recordings each have 2.5 million views among others on YouTube!
Eighteen years have passed since the Barraqué Piano Sonata was last performed in Los Angeles, yet the interest in this Mt. Everest of piano works seems undimmed. One can only hope that the rarity of live performances will diminish as the training and intelligence of pianists continues its magnificent trajectory, as access to recordings proliferates, and as the curiosity of performers and audiences demand the “charm of impossibilities.”
© PATRICK SCOTT 2018
February 24, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Chant de Linos (1944) – Andre Jolivet (1905-1974)
Sonata for Two Violins (1999) – Eric Tanguy (b. 1991)
Oiseaux Exotiques (1956) – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
La Mort du Nombre (1930) – Messiaen
Quatour III (1973) – Betsy Jolas (b. 1926)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894, arr. 1920) – Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
The famous symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé struggled for eleven years to get his masterpiece published, all the while considering theatrical options and stage directions. He was cool to the idea upon first hearing about it; after all, many now considered Mallarmé’s the greatest poem of French literature. A piano reduction helped soften his resistance months in advance. Confidently, the 32-year old Claude Debussy insisted that the 52-year old poet attend the first orchestral performance of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. As it happened that very day, December 22, 1894, the precipitous judgment of treason landed in the Dreyfus Affair. The public, fanned by falsehoods in the press, was fixated on the trial with its trumped up charges and increasingly evident strains of anti-Semitism.
However, the cultural tastemakers were otherwise preoccupied with Mallarmé v. Debussy. Symbolism was an art movement that celebrated the dream state, transfiguration, sensuality, ambiguity, and the inner world of imagination. Debussy was drawn to the movement’s breakthrough poets and painters. Claude Monet had just purchased Giverny, the estate where his so-called impressionist paintings would change art history.
Harvey Lee Snyder, who has devoted an entire book to this work (Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World, Amadeus Press 2015), captures the sense of ardent anticipation and doubt preceding the premiere, “…can any composer capture the mythic symbolism at the heart of the poem? Can music possibly simulate the opulent language, or evoke the languor, the torrid atmosphere of a sylvan afternoon, or portray the erotic ambitions of the faun.” Mallarmé would live only four more years.
The 20-something conductor was unknown; the hall was undistinguished. For Mallarmé, his verdict would come after an especially long and uneven concert – wayward Glazunov, vivacious Saint-Saens, pompous Franck, mixed with unremarkable songs and bonbons by lesser-known and now-forgotten French composers. Debussy’s Prelude arrived at the end of the evening as it does tonight. "I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé."
The audience was equally thrilled and demanded an encore with such insistence that the prohibition of encores was swept aside. The intoxicated orchestra was all too willing to comply. Unwittingly, they witnessed together the dawn of modern music. Finally, music had thrown off Germanic formalist restraints and moved past Richard Wagner’s grandiose and intransigent chromaticism to celebrate the sensual and ephemeral underpinned by structures far subtler and intrinsically more progressive than Western music had ventured before.
Meanwhile the Dreyfus Affair polarized French politics for twelve years of degradation and reversals with long-lasting implications. By 1912, Paris audiences had polarized – on the one hand more conservative and reactionary, and on the other more daring and insatiable. The press however, continued to exploit these polarities for profit. For its third season the sensational Ballet Russe offered the public Vaslav Nijinsky, its impresario Serge Diaghilev’s new young star dancer performing his own radical choreography for Debussy’s score. The translation of an esteemed poem to music held in high regard would be further changed. Léon Bakst overpoweringly lush scenery and inspired costumes heightened Nijinsky’s stage action and riveting personification of the Faun. The movement was not only unfamiliar, but also onanistic and overtly erotic. Acting as dramaturge, Jean Cocteau helped Nijinsky with his poor grasp of French to navigate the elusive poem. The Louvre’s collection of Greek vases provided ample inspiration and clear models for Nijinsky’s satyr/faun.
The audience was stunned. The sculptor August Rodin stood and cheered, others booed; many were enchanted by the sublime merger of music and mime. The painter Odion Redon, Mallarmé’s close friend, rhapsodized on what he imagined would be the late poet’s reception. Rodin observed about Nijinsky, “Form and meaning are indissolubly wedded in his body, which is totally expressive of the mind within...” However, the dominant newspaper Le Figaro’s editor Gaston Calmette substituted for his critic’s insightful and positive review a front-page opinion attacking the ballet by means of a classic sex panic:
“Anyone who mentions the words 'art' and 'imagination' in the same breath as this production must be laughing at us. This is neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over explicit miming of this misshapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile, was greeted with the booing it deserved.”
A scandal ensued. Many more would follow in quick succession as the 20th century flexed its artistic muscles on the brink of a war’s gathering storm.
Before his famous interaction with Mallarmé, Debussy had begun work on his only opera, his magnum opus Pelléas et Mélisande based upon the 1892 play by the Belgian-born symbolist playwright, poet, and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The initial composition was completed in 1895. Orchestration began in 1898 once a production commitment was in place. Yet another four years would pass before rehearsals began. The score was in every way unprecedented, so much so that it would take an unheard of fifteen weeks of rehearsals. Sixty-nine of them were conducted with Debussy present. Yet this vast innovative canvas in five acts was quite well received. In little more than a decade Pelléas et Mélisande had surpassed 100 performances at the Opéra-Comique by the time World War I cast a devastating pall. An ardent nationalist, Debussy was devastated by the German triumphs. Just six months before the Armistice of November 11, 1918, Debussy succumbed to rectal cancer, dying younger even than Mallarmé.
Interest in Pelléas et Mélisande faded with the rise of post-war anti-sentimentality, the profane Dada movement, and France’s growing love affair with Jazz. Even so, Debussy’s opera was of paramount importance to Olivier Messiaen’s artistic development. For his eleventh birthday December 10, 1919, the boy received the complete score of Pelléas et Mélisande. All the men of his family had enlisted for military service so he spent the wartime years with his younger brother, mother, grandmother and profoundly blind grandfather in mountainous Grenoble.
To pass the time he made miniature stage sets and held colored cellophane to the light shining down on them from the window. He taught himself to play the piano from Gluck’s Orpheé. After a few months he found he could hear the score in his head. The family was entertained at night by his singing and playing the parts in operas by Mozart, Berlioz and Wagner. While in this ideal childhood retreat he taught himself to play Debussy’s Estampes (1903) and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1908). A voracious appetite developed for Shakespeare, of which his father was an accomplished translator. Poetry was also on his radar, as his mother was Cecile Sauvage, the French “poet of motherhood.” She introduced Messiaen to Keats and Tennyson, whose medieval ballad The Lady of Shallot inspired the boy’s first composition.
Just weeks before Messiaen’s birthday, in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances to present carefully prepared weekly concerts of “Mahler to the present” for serious music aficionados. Attendance at open rehearsals was encouraged. Complicated works with the most advanced language were repeated as many as six times to promote comprehension. Before the Society closed in 1921 due to Austrian hyperinflation reaching 14,250 percent, some 353 performances of 154 works in 117 concerts were produced.
The members-only organization barred critics and applause or booing of any sort. In Vienna during that time it was common for thrill seekers and provocateurs to disrupt performances of new music with whistles and catcalls. For the first two years Schoenberg excluded his own music to make way for his protégé’s Alban Berg and Anton Webern, as well as Stravinsky and Ravel, Busoni and Bartok, Ravel and Debussy, among many others.
Schoenberg established the model for a rotating Vortrags-meister (Performance Director). Among other prominent musicians Webern and Berg served in that role, as did his future brother in law violinist Rudolph Kolisch and founder of the Kolisch Quartet. Special arrangements for reduced forces of orchestral works were often made to keep the repertoire current and to foster analysis. One such Performance Director was Benno Sachs, about whom little is known except that he made tonight’s deliciously effective 1920 arrangement of Afternoon of the Faun, using the harmonium often favored by the society to help fill out the texture. Tonight we are using an exceptional pedaled harmonium owned by the composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003). Its earlier provenance has yet to be established.
Messiaen’s five-minute piano work The Lady of Shalott was posthumously published. A decade would pass before he would feel confidant as a composer. From 1928-29 the best-known and most frequently performed piano works are the Preludes, owing much to Debussy’s model, but establishing a strong and recognizable voice. Two works for organ and an orchestral work would precede La Mort du nombre. The twenty-two year old Messiaen wrote the quasi-symbolist poetic text with its enigmatic title. La Mort du nombre represents a dialogue between two souls experiencing separation.
However melodramatic or unconvincing to our 21st century sensibilities the text may seem on the page, Messiaen imbues it with synesthetic intensity that implies an orchestra and looks forward to the great masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time. The tenor expresses suffering with apocalyptic images that betray the influence of Edgar Allen Poe – “Bells of horror! Horrible mixture! Wall that crushes me! The earth opens up, the stars fall, the world is swallowed up!” Nowhere is the influence of Pelléas et Mélisande more evident, or the distance shorter to Debussy’s unfinished opera Fall of the House of Usher.
The contrasting soprano music is of such sweetness and luminosity contemporary critics complained of the music lacking stylistic unity. At least one writer heard the violin music as not very far from Jules Massenet (perhaps the popular “Meditation” from the opera Thäis?), and the abundance of pearly arpeggios beholden to Fountains of the Villa d’Este by Franz Liszt. The beauty and sincerity of the dominant melody, however, cannot be denied, as cannot the clear foreshadowing of the sublime movements that usher in the final moments of the Quartet for the End of Time written a decade later in captivity.
Few have ventured to explain the meaning of the work’s title, which may explain the infrequency of performances. The great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger – whose massive influence upon composers of the early part of the 20th century was only eclipsed by Messiaen’s towering and unabating influence on music of the last seventy-five years – helped organize the first performance in 1931, despite her lack of conviction about the composer’s talent. Importantly, he struggled with many obstacles up to the very last minute to secure the high level of artistry that would become a hallmark of virtually all of his successive premieres across six decades to come.
Debussy’s Greco-Roman interests were shared by one of Messiaen’s close friends Andre Jolivet. “My art” the composer said, “is dedicated to restoring music’s original sense, as the magical and incantatory expression of the spirituality of human communities.” After an immersion in the music of Debussy and Ravel, the young Jolivet was galvanized when he heard a concert of Schoenberg. Soon he sought out the avant-garde American transplant Edgard Varèse, who accepted him as his only European student. The ancient instruments of flute and percussion would figure prominently throughput his varied compositional output. His Cérémonial for six percussion instruments gave homage to Varese.
In 1935, Jolivet and Messiaen founded the Spiral Concerts to give themselves performance opportunities. In short order Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier joined them. A common set of musical values emerged. This quartet was opposed to the cynicism of Dada and the fashionable worldliness of Les Six. They were averse to neoclassical borrowings from the baroque, and dedicated to the primacy of melody, sincerity and humanism. “Young France” (Le Jeune France) was formed in 1936. However, as war approached and the four composers matured into their thirties, the group identity faded, while the friendships remained.
In 1944 Chant de Linos (The Song of Linus) began as a competition piece for flute and piano that helped launch the career of the great flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. Jolivet immediately expanded the virtuosic piano part for string trio and harp for premiere the following year by Rampal. Due to the intricate and riveting ensemble writing, and the showcase it provides the flutist, Chant de Linos would become Jolivet’s most popular work.
Linus (Linos in Greek) was the son of Apollo, god of music, poetry, art, medicine, sun, light and knowledge and son of Zeus, and Terpsichore, one of the nine muses and goddess of dance and choral performance. It was his duty to instruct Orpheus and Heracles in music. After chiding him for a series of errors, the hotheaded Heracles killed Linus with his own harp. Without the tragic ending, other mythological sources have as his mother Calliope the chief of the muses, and crediting Linus with the invention of melody and rhythm. She was revered for her ecstatic eloquence in reciting epic poetry. Jolivet’s score describes the work as a threnody, a funerary lamentation, an expression of grief interspersed with cries and dances. The quintet is extremely challenging due to the exposed unison writing that does not always lie idiomatically for the strings. This exciting journey features treacherous shifts, nearly impossible metronome markings, and an atmosphere that alternates lament with risk. For these reasons this highly effective quintet is infrequently programmed.
After Messiaen returned from a prisoner of war camp in Poland to a teaching position at the Paris Conservatory, where among his students was the incomparable pianist Yvonne Loriod, and the Second World War ended, four extravagant works were premiered in quick succession: Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos; Three Little Liturgies of the Divine Presence (1944) for piano, ondes martenot, chorus of sopranos and medium orchestra; Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (1945), a 20-movement piano symphony; and the 10-movement Turangalîla Symphonie (1945) for piano, ondes martenot, percussion solos and very large orchestra. Each premiere featured Loriod. The extravagantly orchestrated melodies soaring in ecstasy, juxtaposed with a gnarly counterpoint of complex rhythms and ample dissonance was polarizing in the extreme. A new direction followed forthwith at the century’s midpoint with Quatre Etudes de Rhythm for piano.
Like Jolivet before him, Messiaen was asked in 1952 to compose a competition piece for flute and piano. Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird) represented his most accurate transcription of an actual birdsong to date. The piece pointed the way to Messiaen’s advent as a new kind of ornithologist, one who could hear the high-speed complexity of birdsong with it inhuman dynamic range and unique timbres, remember it, transcribe it to western notation and set it in its natural habitat, some substitute, or an imaginary landscape – as music.
Messiaen’s synesthesia has been reported only as color hearing, but as brain research advances, and as actual synaesthetes share their experiences using more scientific rigor, it seems apparent that Messiaen’s sensorium was more multifaceted and intrinsic to his creative personality than previously understood. More than just color hearing, his experience might also have associated smell with sound, taste with color, and any combination of senses with memory. And thus Messiaen was aided in integrating this uniquely personal ornithology within a seemingly boundless creative output. Such polysynesthesia might also provide ways to better understand his unique approach to Catholicism.
The following year, Messiaen tackled the first of his five “bird” concertos for piano and varying sized orchestras, the amply scored Rèveil des Oiseaux (Birds Awakening) represents an avian dawn chorus. Oiseaux Exotiques, its more modest successor, was quickly composed across the end of 1956 and early 1957. The work has attained classic status owing to its compactness, highly distinctive cadenzas and an unforgettable coda. It is more straight-forward to conduct that the other concertos, though no less daunting for the virtuoso soloist. The massive Catalog d’oiseaux, made up of 13-pieces in seven books for piano solo followed in 1958. With nary a trace of religion, the postwar Messiaen offered abstraction dis-guised as birdcalls. Across the entire decade, his chaste love affair with Yvonne Loriod was extramarital. Only until his institutionalized wife died in 1959, was Messiaen able to marry the pianist – secretly in Japan after a respectful three years with his former student and close friend Pierre Boulez as witness.
Despite some harsh criticism of the two bird concertos in the press, there were those who felt Messiaen had finally broken free of the perceived sentimentality of his wartime music. In a 1961 article for Le Figaro, Claude Rostand disparaged the “earlier swoonings…dubious melodies…excesses of sound, with flashy, overloaded effects,” and turned around to praise Oiseaux Exotiques as “infinitely more spare…more sober and has a livelier edge, more clarity of line.”
A throng of important students joined Loriod, Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis including the Paris-born American Betsy Jolas. During WWII her family returned to the U.S. where she schooled first at New York’s French Lycée, and then Bennington College. She was active also as a keyboard accompanist and singer with the progressive Dessoff Choirs in NYC. Like Messiaen, Jolas was blessed with highly cultured parents, however her mother Maria McDonald was the translator, and her father Eugene Jolas was the poet. He founded the magazine transition in 1927 following his daughter’s birth. Until 1938, and the rumblings of war, transition featured the most exciting painters, composers and writers. Famously, he published in serial form the entire Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce as “work in progress.”
Jolas was a sympathetic student with extensive academic and performance experience of Medieval and Renaissance music, and an intense fascination for Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. In 1946 the Jolas family returned to Paris, where she continued her education with Darius Milhaud and Messiaen. A bond of trust eventually developed with Messiaen that made her the natural choice to cover for him at the Paris Conservatoire in 1971, when his international touring became especially demanding. She succeeded Messiaen with a permanent appointment in 1978.
String Quartet III was composed in 1973 with the subtitle “Nine Etudes” as a nod to Debussy’s innovative piano Etudes. The individual studies range in length from less than a minute to several minute-long explorations of aleatoric structures reflecting her interest in the kind of improvisation embraced by Boulez after digesting John Cage’s radical chance operations. She describes herself as a “fellow-traveler” with Boulez, but one who always took the side of beauty. This refusal to fully embrace serialism and break with the past was considered by some “feminine.” Her identification with such composers as Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-55 – 1521) and Stravinsky and may also have delayed appreciation of her significance, despite many distinguished awards from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Berlin Prize, Prix de la Ville de Paris, American Academy of Arts, and French Legion of Honor in 2011, to name only a few.
About “Nine Etudes” Jolas wrote:
“After Quatuor I for strings (1958) and Quatuor II for coloratura and string trio (1964), here again is a true quartet for strings. I have attempted in this work to present a contemporary view of some characteristic elements of string technique in the form of nine etudes, each of which, following Debussy’s example, deals with one particular aspect of this technique: pizzicato, harmonics, aleatory (No. 7 is in memory of Purcell’s Fancy on one note), vibrato, etc. Several movements are played without pause. Commissioned by the Kindler Foundation, Quatuor III was completed in September 1973. The first performance was given at the Textile Museum in Washington, January 7, 1974, by the Concord Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated.”
Tonight we celebrate the 50th birthday (January 27) of Eric Tanguy with his Sonata for Two Violins from 1999. Tanguy began serious music study at a young age with the enigmatic spectralist composer Horatiu Radulescu. Jolas and fellow Messiaen student Gerard Grisey deepened his education at the Paris Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1991. A resident of the Académie de France in Rome (1993-1994), Tanguy was a guest of the Tanglewood Music Center (1995) on special invitation from Henri Dutilleux. A close friendship developed with the older composer until his death in 2013. Affettuoso, in Memoriam Henri Dutilleux for large orchestra was commissioned by Orchestre de Paris and followed later in 2013. Esa-Pekka Salonen gave the U.S. premiere with the LA Phil in 2016.
His Nouvelle Etude was premiered by Jacaranda’s discovery Steven Vanhauwaert at Piano Spheres in 2015. To a standing ovation, the U.S. premiere of his Trio (2011) was given by Jacaranda with the Pantoum Trio, Tereza Stanislav, violin, Cécilia Tsan, cello, and Vanhauwaert. Tanguy has become one of the most widely performed and broadcast French composers today with over 100 works in nearly every genre published by Boosey & Hawkes/Salabert.
The 1999 Sonata for Two Violins is a marvel of assimilated influences across the waning 20th century. With superb and idiomatic craftsmanship (violin is his instrument), the 30-year old composer’s confidence is as striking as his music is accessible. The blistering speed of the outer movements contrasts the serenely French reverie within.
The composer writes:
"The Sonate pour deux violons by Eric Tanguy is also in three movements, each movement having his own specific harmonic characteristics. The first movement is based on the idea of interacting syncopations, crotchets and quavers. This composition technique aims at an expression of obsession, which is further increased by the mixture of lightning-fast cascades of triplets. The second movement develops from motifs and figurations between the two instruments, which flow into one another in a sensual way, balanced by two solo cadenzas. The third movement, particularly quick, develops the idea of escape, game of response, a kind of frenetic whirlwind."
The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned Tanguy’s Second Cello concerto and gave its premiere in 2001. For several years afterward he toured the work extensively before his sudden decline from cancer and death shortly after his 80th birthday in 2007. Such a brilliant and peripatetic spotlight thrust Tanguy into the forefront of composers today, making evident a heritage that traces its roots through him to Jolas, to Messiaen and to the “father of modem music” Debussy – the creator of a “new music for the modern world.”
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
January 20, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
The People United Will Never be Defeated! (1975) – Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938)
Gay Guerilla (1979) – Julius Eastman (1940-90)
For two decades composer/journalist/author/professor Kyle Gann wrote music criticism for The Village Voice. He writes with considerable authority. Around the turn of the previous century Gann identified Ben Johnston’s one-movement String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace,” composed in 1973, as one of the essential works of the 20th century. “Had Ben never written another work, the Fourth Quartet would have been a sufficient blueprint for how music could expand its resources magnificently in the 21st and 22nd centuries.”
Gann’s clear-eyed focus as a composer was on the work’s concentrated theme and variations structure, and how each variation simultaneously exploits sophisticated microtonal and rhythmic innovations with such dense abandon that the score amounts to a nearly inexhaustible source book. More obvious to the listener, however, is the quartet’s deep humanism and almost magical thrall of the anti-slavery song that provides the work’s theme – and a means for accepting with pleasure about twelve minutes of what is fairly avant-garde material. “Amazing Grace” is both popular and influential, even though it still poses daunting challenges for quartet players.
El Pueblo Unido
Of comparable success is Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated! – 36 Variations on a Chilean Song “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, an activist folk group. Rzewski wrote the hour-long piano work two years after the violent military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet September 11, 1973 that cut short the term of Chile’s first democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende – the same year “Amazing Grace” was written. Ortega’s protest song, a prime example of the nueva canción Chilena, was made widely popular by the Chilean music group Inti-Illimani formed in 1967 by politically disenfranchised university students.
Rzewski attended a concert by Inti-Illimani in the Upper East Side’s Hunter College in 1974 with the pianist Ursula Oppens (b. 1944). Prodigiously talented with a formidable education, she had received numerous scholarships and awards including the 1969 gold medal of the Busoni International Piano competition, and had co-founded the new music series Speculum Musicae in 1971. A kindred spirit and accomplished composer/performer of new piano music, Rzewski had returned from Italy in 1971 after studying with Luigi Dallapiccola, and after founding the Rome-based collective Musica Elettronica Viva with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum in 1966. MEV experimented with primitive synthesizers and performed daring, often riot-producing improvisations. That fateful Hunter College concert occurred just weeks after the resignation of President Nixon, August 8, 1974. Like the rest of the audience, Rzewski and Oppens left the hall singing The People United, a resolute earworm that lasted for days.
Inti-Illimani and many similar groups fled Chile after Pinochet forced 5,000 civilians into a soccer stadium for questioning and torture. More than two-thirds were brutally executed, including the teacher, poet, theater director and famous singer of nueva canción Chilena Victor Jara, who was shot 44 times in the gut after his wrists were broken. His corpse was dumped into the street. But, instead of deterring dissent as was intended, a martyr was born for the now international cause. The hugely popular folk singer-activist Joan Baez immediately produced an album in tribute to Jara and his movement entitled No Nos Moveran (We Shall Not be Moved, 1974). The title track is a song of resilience and determination.
What was this all about?
Allende entered politics as an upper middle class physician with a liberal political outlook – following in his father’s footsteps. He publicly condemned Hitler after Kristallnacht in 1938, and worked for the victory of the Popular Front party becoming Minister of Health until 1941. In the decades that followed, he ran for the presidency three times. The wildly famous and twice exiled poet Pablo Neruda was nominated for the presidency in 1970, but threw his support to Allende, who finally won in a three-way run-off election.
The arts, culture and education flourished in Chile from 1970 to 1973. Progressive music festivals brought together classically trained musicians with folk artists, indigenous peoples and their instruments in genuine exchange. Record amounts of housing were built and thousands of scholarships offered; inflation dropped significantly and wages increased broadly after the establishment a minimum wage. Neruda received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 despite misgivings about his politics. However, Allende’s wholesale nationalization of key industries and the re-establishment of ties to communist Cuba created enormous friction and political backlash. Following the military coup and its aftermath, Chile was dealt another blow.
Ariel Dorfman, the acclaimed playwright (Death and the Maiden), novelist (Darwin’s Ghost) and essayist (newly published Homeland Security Ate My Speech), recently looked back in a recent New York Times opinion piece: “I can still remember my shock and sorrow the day I heard that Pablo Neruda, Chile’s greatest poet and one of the towering figures of 20th-century literature, had died. It was Sept. 23, 1973.” The Pinochet dictatorship announced that his death was from prostate cancer.
“Even if there were reasons to doubt every syllable that emanated from the junta as they tortured and murdered, persecuted and exiled Allende’s followers,” Dorfman continued, “it did not occur to me that they could have been stupid enough to assassinate Neruda himself.” Neruda’s widow, perhaps out of fear or denial, adamantly supported the government’s stated cause of death. “Nevertheless, decades later,” writes Dorfman,
“denunciations from Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, mentioning a lethal injection [in the stomach] administered to the poet hours before his death led a Chilean judge to exhume the author’s body and seek help from foreign forensic organizations to determine the true cause of death. And now 16 experts have announced that Neruda died of a bacterial infection rather than of cancer cachexia, as fraudulently stated on his death certificate. Although they offered no evidence of foul play, their research has caused a certain amount of speculation. Contrasting with the inevitable circumspection of the forensic professionals, many Chileans — pundits, politicians, intellectuals, joined by one of Neruda’s nephews — take it as a given that an execution took place.”
The message of Ortega’s “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” strengthened as the days unfolded and the resolve of the Chilean people coalesced. That the nueva canción Chilena – soon transformed by Rzewski’s hands into what now must be considered high art – has generated renewed interest in 2017 – with proliferating performances – speaks to the mounting sense of resistance and universal longing for liberty. Dorfman continues:
“Whatever the truth about his death, its effect was stunning. Neruda’s funeral on Sept. 26, 1973, became the first act of public defiance against Chile’s new rulers. How could they fail to accompany on its final journey the body of the poet who had celebrated the human body in all its sensual desires and deepest despair?
That funeral was also a blueprint for how the resistance would eventually defeat Pinochet in the arduous years to come: by taking over every tiny and large space available, by pushing back the limits of what was permissible, by stating, in the face of bayonets and bullets, that silence would not prevail.”
A final report with further forensic analysis of the Neruda case is expected in 2018. We must be reminded that the truth can be found despite the worst possible odds, and arrogant destructive power does not have the last word, however long it takes to be quelled.
President Richard Nixon had been openly hostile to Allende after years of CIA propaganda against him and lavish financial support for his opponents. As Oppens and Rzewski walked into the autumnal breezes, perhaps the song they sang together resonated with the newly sworn president’s declaration just weeks before, “our long national nightmare is over.” For Chileans, however, Pinochet’s regime lasted until 1991. The courageous spirit of Chilean inclusiveness and diversity inspired Rzewski. The People United Will Never be Defeated! was dated September-October 1975 and dedicated to Oppens.
The Buffalo Generation
A remarkable new music scene developed in Buffalo at the State University of New York, which strived to be thought of as the ”Berkeley of the East.” Extensive vision planning helped to create a new social dynamic for music that would bring performers and composers closer together without the necessity of teaching duties. Financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation helped create a new paradigm for collaboration that opened in March 1964 – the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts. At the center of the center was the warm and charismatic personality of pianist/composer Lukas Foss (1922-2009), a naturalized Jewish-American born in Berlin. Under his leadership nothing quite like the scene in Buffalo existed elsewhere, before or since. Renee Levine Packer, who worked at the center as an administrator and authored the scene’s definitive chronicle This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo (Oxford University Press, 2010), understood the historical models and like-minded programs it generated:
“Although these groups were comparable to the Buffalo center for their dedication to fostering the composition and performance of contemporary music, each was different in practice. Most used professional freelancers from their communities or faculty members and ad hoc performers. None had an ensemble brought together to live in a community for the sole purpose of the study and performance of new music. None presented as broad a cross-section of repertory with allegiance to no one school of thought, and, indeed, none incorporated as broad a representation of international composers and performers.”
Foss initially recruited 18 of the most progressive and accomplished young artists to be fellows. Percussionist/composer John Bergamo, who would later become a leading figure at CalArts, fellow percussion innovator Jan Williams, who would remain in various capacities as composer, conductor and director until 1980, and avant-garde jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger signed up. The LA-born soprano Carol Plantamura who was active in Rome with MEV joined the collaboration, as did the non-English speaking Italian experimental composer Sylvano Bussotti.
Pianist Fred Myrow, who had strong links to rock music, would become a prolific film composer. The late violinist Paul Zukovsky, a child prodigy and competition winner would gain notoriety as Einstein in the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach. The 35-year-old composer George Crumb would find his voice with the now classic anti-Vietnam classic Black Angels for amplified string quartet in 1970. This extraordinarily talented assemblage also included a flutist, clarinetist, and trumpeter/composer, another violinist, a violist, guitarist, and another soprano, as well as a baritone, and the conductor Richard Dufallo.
Already professors at the University of Buffalo when the center opened, the German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel, and the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur, who was closely associated with the Darmstadt school and electronic music, felt liberated by the arrival of so many fellow travelers. The had accepted positions with the understanding that sleepy Buffalo would became the most exciting American city for new music.
John Cage’s frequent collaborator the composer/pianist David Tudor followed in the second year along with trombonist/composer and extended technique pioneer Vinko Globokar. In that spring, Rzewski took a break from MEV and Rome for a semester to join the Buffalo scene. Cornelius Cardew, the notorious English experimentalist and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen followed in 1966-67. With rock star looks, the formidable but elfin pianist Yuji Takahashi stayed for two years.
After the center’s groundbreaking Columbia/CBS/Sony recording of Terry Riley’s In C, March 27-28, 1968 that overdubbed ten musicians including Jan Williams on marimbaphone, the San Francisco composer overlapped Takahashi’s stint in the spring of 1969. Julius Eastman became a Creative Artist the following fall. The university made him full faculty the following year, and with extensive performing responsibilities, including touring Europe, he stayed until 1975. David Del Tredici, who had already begun his Neo-Romantic devotion to Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, completed Vintage Alice during his 1972-73 stay – many years before he became an outspoken champion of gay identity.
Rzewski spent the spring semester of 1974 in Buffalo. His breakthrough work Coming Together (1972), was given the first of many shattering performances by Eastman as narrator, March 31, 1974, at Buffalo’s Albright Knox Gallery, and ten days later in Carnegie Hall. Eastman had already performed some five times as a pianist in Les Moutons de Panurge (1970), Rzewski’s ironic response to Riley’s minimalist landmark In C.
In Coming Together, however, Eastman’s uncanny stillness reading the letter of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman), convicted bomber, organizer, and inmate of Attica Prison, profoundly dwelled on how time is affected by place, and “a greater coming together.” The maximum-security prison was only 35 miles from Buffalo. The memory of what happened there would not soon be alleviated.
Stage actor Steven Ben Israel, who was a member of New York's Living Theatre in 1973, may have better matched the racial identity of this particular leader of this most notorious prison rebellion, however Eastman embodied the black empowerment that demanded humane conditions in a massive prison designed for a thousand fewer prisoners, 63% of which were black or Puerto Rican, than were actually housed in the brutal architecture. Eastman took possession of the audience’s collective imagination while Rzewski played a dizzying piano in an undetermined ensemble that numbered eight for this occasion. Eighteen months later The People United Will Never be Defeated score was given to Oppens.
Considering all that came before and all that went into the work, it seems supremely poetic, and with no small amount of irony, that she gave the world premiere in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial Piano Series at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.
The epic hour-long protest classic is often compared to J.S. Bach’s Aria and 30 Goldberg Variations. The composer Christian Wolff (b. 1934) has written eloquently about this kaleidoscopic work, its sources and structure. On the former, Wolff observes, “It was about the time that Rzewski...began to associate himself with jazz musicians such as Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, and developed an interest in popular political music, including songs of the Italian left...the songs of Hanns Eisler and the new Latin American music form Cuba and Chile, the Puerto Rican folk music in New York and the songs of Mike Glick.”
After extolling the work’s resemblance to tonal Romantic piano music, its experimental harmony, and use of serial technique, as well as repeated notes and extravagant new sonorities, Wolff draws attention to, “the catching of harmonics after a chord attack, as well as the whistling by the pianist, crying out, slamming the piano lid, all techniques suggesting experimental music – and the free, informal kind of performing sometimes found in blues and jazz.”
Also, like the wondrously clear structure of Johnston’s “Amazing Grace,” despite its complexity, the prospect of following the extensive formal logic of The People United is not difficult. Again, Wolff explains:
"The opening song is set in thirty-six bars, which are followed by thirty-six variations and then an expanded repetition of the song setting. Throughout the variations there is a continuous cross-referencing of motifs, harmonic procedures, rhythms, and dynamic sequences. These in turn are contained within the organization of the variations. The variations are grouped in six sets of six. The sixth variation of a set, itself in six parts, consists of a summing up of the previous five variations of the set, with the final sixth part of new or transitional material. (It has been suggested that the first five variations of a set are the fingers of a hand, and the sixth unites them to make a fist.)”
Roots & Minimalism
The octet with voice Stay On It (1973) was Eastman’s first important work to survive as his clear entry to the history of so-called minimalism. That there was a black voice with a significant African-American perspective at this important turning point of Western music is a topic of considerable interest today – as Eastman is discovered and re-discovered more than twenty-five years since the tragic dismemberment of his body of work. At the end of his life, conditions of addiction, poverty, homelessness, flawed decision making, homophobia, and it must be said, the cruelty of institutional racism undermined the safekeeping of his oeuvre. What remains today is unpublished although in the safe keeping of his younger brother, former bassist with the Count Basie Orchestra Gerry Eastman, who manages distribution of manuscript copies. Eastman’s biographer Renee Levine Packer, the erstwhile administrator of the center and keen chronicler of its trajectory, observed the linkage of Eastman and Rzewski at this time when key works of Riley, Glass and Reich were gaining ground in the public sphere
“All in all, Eastman’s admiration for Rzewski’s work of this period makes considerable sense. If the modular structure of In C provided a manifest precedent for questions regarding notation and ensemble coordination, Rzewski, for whom minimalism was merely a means to an end, offered an appealingly messy approach to pulsation and repetition. In Rzewski’s hands, pulse-pattern minimalism was never rigidly non-referential. Unlike early Reich and Glass, the “outside world” of politics and the vernacular was readily embraced.”
After quoting a participant in many performances of Stay On It contrasting their common ground with Rzewski being “aggressive and hard-nosed” and Eastman as “malleable and sensual” she observed, “Eastman drew most of his musical conclusions by breathing the same air and feeling the same vibrations as his more commercially successful counterparts.”
That being said Eastman’s so-called “Nigger series” – Evil Nigger (1979), Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerilla (both c. 1980) each for four pianos certainly demonstrates Eastman’s later and total integration of these two sides, so well contrasted in Stay On It. Evil Nigger has an energetic grandiosity that recalls Rachmaninov before its growing dissonance and structural reduction. The esprit de corps is heightened by the cuing calls at key moments of “1, 2, 3, 4!” that heightens audience involvement!
At 55-minutes, Crazy Nigger is more than double the length of its predecessor. Eastman’s “organic form” is in full display described by Kyle Gann in his trenchant program notes to the three-disc treasure trove of historic recordings. “Every phrase contains the information of the phrase before it,” he explains “with new material gradually added in and old material gradually removed: minimalism’s additive process expanded to the level of phrase structure.”
The form of Crazy Nigger is so elaborately drawn out that some extraordinary textures emerge slowly with rivulets of melody and an engulfing darkness of bass notes that require sixteen more hands belong to eight pianists in the audience in a coup de theatre! Luciano Chessa, in the anthology portion of Packer’s book edited by Mary Jane Leach considers Gay Guerrilla “Eastman’s most powerful tribute to the modern fight for gay rights and one of his most compositionally memorable – and moving – works...if all of Eastman’s music but this one were to disappear, Gay Guerrilla would still be enough to guarantee him a firm place in the history of twentieth-century music.”
Eastman’s father, Julius Sr. was named after Julius Caesar. He trained to be a civil engineer and got work managing water systems. His wife Frances was devoted to piano study. Their middle class life in Ithaca included a grand piano, but did not include religion. Eventually their eldest boy’s talent and autonomy gained expression singing for St. John’s Episcopal Church choir, where he was a paid boy soprano. He learned that his talent had worth. From an early age Julius was willful, obstinate and had an air about him that his father read as effeminate. Frances was protective and concerned only with the boy’s development claiming that before he was born she had a sense that he was special. At age ten he asked for a beginning piano book that seemed as easy to read on the piano as a textbook. His voice changed at age fourteen darkening into an extremely resonant bass baritone.
Renee Levine & Julius Eastman center with Morton Feldman and other Creative Associates at the Albright Knox Gallery. Suddenly this slight and spindly boy had an identity as a singer that could rivet an audience with a commandingly large voice. Racism was hardly evident in Ithaca, where the black population was small and educated. Julius participated in science club and his high intellect was accepted. As the boy matured, however, his options seemed to narrow in the eyes of his school counselor despite good grades and prizes for singing. Perhaps ironically and with a hint of sexual rebelliousness, Julius chose to sing Stormy Weather at his class graduation. Nevertheless his talent was being nurtured by observant others who had connections to Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, where he enrolled in 1959 as one of two black male students and three Latinas among one hundred plus students.
Eastman lived at the YMCA, and his homosexuality was now apparent enough that friendships were limited. Weighing only 125 pounds, it must be considered that he suffered from malnutrition. He wore glasses. His shyness and technical sophistication as a pianist compared less well to the many Anglo students who entered with more privilege. So the young Cuban, Mexican and Brazilian women students became his close companions. Composition would soon supplant his interest in being a pianist and his grades improved markedly.
With a final recital in 1963 made up exclusively of his own compositions earned him a diploma from Curtis. Before entering the Buffalo Center, the intervening five years showed his enterprising nature and opportunities that his talent and mentors helped manifest. He was selected by the conductor Eugene Ormandy for a minor part in a production of Der Rosenkavalier and assigned a German coach with decided success. Of even greater impact was his casting as Tiresias in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra and the great Lili Chookasian as Jocasta. He was then asked to tour the U.S. and Europe as a member of the sensational Gregg Smith Singers in 1968. After a stint as a dance accompanist, he joined Foss’s many-splendored enterprise in 1969.
For the audience new to Eastman’s music the most distinguishing feature of Gay Guerrilla is his surprising interpolation of an unlikely but highly recognizable theme – the reformation’s battle hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) written in 1528 by none other than Martin Luther, the namesake of Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course J.S. Bach famously incorporated the hymn in a 1723 cantata of the same name featuring four soloists, chorus and chamber orchestra. Lukas Foss was a noted Bach conductor and may have employed Eastman as the bass soloist.
On this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the puzzle of this choice deepens as one considers the Protestant stance against Catholicism’s doctrine of earning grace, rather than it being an intrinsic spiritual state. Martin Luther’s pronounced anti-Semitism only muddies the waters. Kyle Gann opts for a perverse use of the quotation, “being quite subversively transformed, given the intention implied by Eastman’s title, as a gay manifesto.” In the context of such a manifesto coming ten years after the 1969 Stonewall Inn origin of gay liberation, another interpretation may be that by appropriating this famous music – especially after reading the four versus that Luther wrote to his own melody – Eastman triumphantly ennobles what had been long rejected as unspeakable.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
November 18, 2017
Noon to Midnight, Walt Disney Concert Hall
Fantasmagoriana (World Premiere, Co-Commission) – Mark Grey (b. 1967)
I. The Revenant
II. The Grey Chamber
III. The Fated Hour
Three Choruses from Bakkhai (2013) – Dylan Mattingly (b. 1991)
Chorus I, Chorus III, Chorus VII
Mount Tambora was the largest volcano to erupt since Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. An ancient Roman painting survives depicting Bacchus framed by the dizzying pre-volcanic form of Mount Vesuvius, and giving us a sense today of what was lost in the heart of ancient Rome. Only two hundred years ago, however, the Indonesian island of Sumbawa – home to the Tambora stratovolcano – would model lasting climate consequences for the modern world now contemplating nuclear winter. With the greatest force yet recorded, Mount Tambora’s first eruption in April of 1815 propelled a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil upward followed by ten billion tons of pulverized rocky material and ash. Three shafts of fire eventually merged into one column nearly 150,000 feet that dwarfed the 14,000-foot high mountain as it was reduced by a third – all the while gushing molten lava.
Year Without a Summer
Lesser eruptions followed building upon a much smaller but highly polluting 1814 volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Global temperatures dropped over one degree with a related death toll of 90,000. A massive epidemic of typhus was unleashed by the cold. Crops failed globally; monsoons magnified the flooding and torrential rains in Asia. In America, summer temperatures ranged within hours between 95 degrees to near freezing. A retired President Thomas Jefferson was nearly bankrupted by his crop failures. The worst famine of the 19th century brought about riots, burning and looting many European cities, as the coldest decade in recorded history prevailed. Eighteen hundred people froze to death. Many months after the eruption, the climate change effect was so pronounced that 1816 was dubbed the Year Without a Summer. The English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner captured the vivid yellow sunrises and sunsets caused by Mount Tambora’s pollution in paintings such as The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire. The cataclysmic events also inspired him to imagine the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a spectacular 1817 watercolor using scraped encaustic. While the eruption may have had a lasting effect on Turner’s unprecedented use of color, several writers responded to the prolonged gloom by giving birth to the Gothic Horror genre – and what is now being dubbed by movie studios: the dark universe.
The promiscuously bisexual Lord Byron was granted an acrimonious divorce in March of 1816 after little more than a year of marriage. Charges of incest with his half-sister, mounting debts, and nagging scandals that generated the epithet “mad, bad and dangerous to know” forced his exit from England in April. Byron’s epic narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (two cantos in1812, and two more in 1818), which gave him overnight fame, inspired the symphonic poem Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz. Like his disaffected hero, Byron wended his way through Belgium and Germany before settling at Lake Geneva from May to November.
Due to a congenitally deformed foot Byron traveled with his own personal physician, John William Polidori, a young specialist in sleepwalking who happened also to be a writer. The two strikingly handsome travelers met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Geneva. She introduced herself as “Mrs. Shelley.” The young literary couple had been traveling with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, a thwarted singer, actress and would-be writer, who had dallied that spring with Byron immediately after his divorce. The volatile Clairmont was instrumental in bringing the “Shelleys” together, and also had a hand in the travel plans that reunited her briefly with Byron. The following year she would give birth to his daughter Allegra; Percy and Mary would actually marry.
Polidori augmented this medical employment with a publisher’s fee to maintain a diary including celebrity gossip of which there proved to be a rich trove during June of the Year Without Summer. Byron and his doctor companion took up residence at the Villa Diodati, a mansion in the village of Cologny, while the “Shelleys” and Clairmont took the smaller lakeside Maison Chapuis.
Cold rain fell incessantly in Geneva that summer. Nearby, in western Switzerland a conical ice dam began to form at the tongue of a glacier. After two years of relentless growth and fitful human efforts opposing nature, the mass of ice would collapse in a catastrophic flood. Such an atmosphere of mounting dread and unremitting gloom left this house- bound quintet near a log-burning fire reading in French from Fantasmagoriana, a recently translated collection of German ghost stories. Byron proposed, in moment of restless invention after hours of talking, often past midnight – and drafts of laudanum – that they “each write a ghost story.”
Monsters Among Us
Mary was unable to conceive an idea for several days. Polidori was inspired by a fragment written by Byron that would become The Vampyre, the short story published in 1819, and the first tale of the undead re-animated by the harvesting of hot fresh blood. They discussed Galvanism, the recent discovery of animating a recently dead frog, for example, when its nerves were touched to an electric current. On June 16, several hours past midnight came to Mary the terrifying idea of harnessing natures power to revoke the finality of death:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
What began first as a short story became a vastly influential novel published anonymously in 1818. Multiple editions sustained speculation about which of the Shelleys wrote what. The latest iteration of the story will be the opera Frankenstein by Mark Grey to premiere in Brussels at the newly renovated Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 2018-19. Grey has already extracted a Frankenstein symphony that was premiered by the Atlanta Symphony In 2016 marking the anniversary.
The composer’s research into the anthology of German ghost stories gave inspiration to a three-movement chamber symphony Fantasmagoriana co-commissioned by Jacaranda and the LA Phil for the new music marathon Noon to Midnight. Scored for string quintet, wind, quintet, trombone and percussion, its three movements have suggestive titles: I. The Revenant; II. The Grey Chamber; and III. The Fated Hour.
Bakkhai is a revolutionary tragedy by the most remarkable of ancient Greek playwrights at the end of his life. The work was given a prize-winning posthumous premiere in 405BC. Euripides makes civilization’s first argument for the opposing natures of control (Pentheus) and freedom (Dionysos). As such, Euripides pits the rational and analytic against the instinctive, and sensual, yet the latter – aligned as it is to the animal world – gives potential access to the force of spirituality.
Nonetheless, interpretations of this complex story of the charismatic god Dionysos, conceived by Zeus with Semele, a human, disguised as a human to undermine the rule of Pentheus, and ultimately inspire his Bacchantes, a cult of women outsiders, to a killing frenzy in which they tear Pentheus limb from limb, have changed over the centuries as the nature of the conflict and the understanding of power gets reexamined.
Dylan Mattingly has set the entire text of the play in its original ancient Greek as a cantata with the more accurate transliteration of the tile Bakkhai. All of the play has been incorporated. The work was completed in 2013. All seven choruses were premiered in Brooklyn by Contemporaneous directed by David Bloom. The instrumentation is 3 sopranos, high baritone, 2 oboes, cello, bass, re-tuned piano, and 2 percussionists. Mattingly has done extensive scholarly work into microtonality, as well as ancient Greek music and drama.
The following are two excerpts from a lengthy essay:
“There are numerous barriers between us and an understanding of the choral poetry and music of Greek drama from the fifth century B.C. But perhaps the strongest limiting factor in our ability to recreate a sonic world from 2500 years ago is the dependence of our own concept of music upon the irrepressible tropes and traditions of the modern world. We define music by the soundscape that surrounds us. For us to imagine a different music, we must unlearn some of our own experiential knowledge of what music is. Because of this critical problem, it is unsurprising that a good deal of the attempts to recreate the music of ancient Greek tragedy is based in anachronistic projection.
The modern Western predilection for the twelve equally spaced notes in each octave on the piano, known as equal temperament, hinders our vision of a tuning system based entirely by the natural mathematical relationships between the notes. Likewise, the dominance of steady time signatures in all types of current music impedes our ability to imagine a music with a fundamentally unsteady beat. Although it is a Sisyphean task to approach ancient music from a clean musical slate, I will do what I can to bring about an understanding of the music of the Bakkhai, in as much of the ecstatic glory that Euripides poured into it.
The following material is divided into four parts. The first is a background of ancient Greek music and the Bakkhai in particular, and an attempt to clarify the aspects of the art form that may have been obscured by a scholarship steeped in the language of Western classical music. The second part is a complete scansion of the meter of the choruses of the Bakkhai. Third, I have written a guide through my own music for these choruses, written not as an attempt to precisely recreate the sound of ancient Greek music, but rather to use a comprehension of Euripides’ words, rhythms, and notes to build something that presents an emotional conception of the Bakkhai but is in itself entirely new. The fourth part is the music itself.”
And, specific to the music at hand this evening:
“The first and most important thing to clarify is that this music is not a reconstruction. It is not an attempt to recreate the potential sound of the music from 404 B.C. when the play was premiered. Although it is impossible for us to know exactly what that music would have sounded like, I feel fairly certain that it did not sound like this.
The music that I have written is very much my own, inspired musically by my own life as well as my own experience of and interpretation of the choruses of the Bakkhai. That said, the music attempts to use the premises that have been discussed…in order to create something that is true to the emotional content of the Euripides tragedy. This music is not what Euripides’ own music would have sounded like, but perhaps it sheds some light upon what his music would have felt like…
The instruments and singers in the ensemble are required throughout the work to tune to the just-intoned piano [synthesizer], although because these instruments (and singers) can achieve a great variety of microtones, they are also able to explore just-intoned harmonic zones beyond that of the fixed piano tuning. The instrumentation serves to juxtapose the ecstatic high voices and reeds with a very bass heavy rhythm section consisting of the cello, bass, bass drums, and often the piano.
The chorus in the Bakkhai are importantly foreigners, a group of women who have “left the hills of Tmolus to adore Bromios,” the music must be universal in its penetrating allure, but simultaneously strange and alien—unlike anything heard before in Thebes. Often I attempt to evoke a sort of imaginary folk music, complete with its own roots in the combination of its imaginary religious and imaginary popular strands of music. There are various elements throughout the music that come from each of those zones, the most easily ascertainable one being tonality.”
Mattingly has a very original voice. Despite the strenuous demands of performing this music the integration of all seven choruses into the whole is an extravagant dream that should not be unrealized for much longer. Hopefully, both Grey’s opera Frankenstein and Mattingly’s music theater work Bakkhai will both soon be heard in their entirety all the better to hear and understand the legacy of John Adams their enthusiastic mentor.
© PATRICK SCOTT 2017
October 21, 2017
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Varied Quintet (1987) – Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
String Quartet No. 9 (1988) – Ben Johnston (b. 1926)
Jardin des Herbes (1989) – Karen Tanaka (b. 1961)
Two Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1982) – Steven Stucky (1949-2016)
Symphony No. 3 (1995) – Philip Glass (b. 1937)
The growing presence of exotic tunings in classical music helps, by contrast, to unconceal the power of equal temperament, its inherent limitations, and diminishing dominance. This transformation – however incremental, subtle and under-appreciated – is among many accelerating changes in global climate, human migration, power dynamics, gender identity, and data access altering worldviews today.
Among the planet’s sixty-three generally recognized scales and modes, equal temperament dominates with only five. While equal temperament was a consolidating force during the Age of Enlightenment, its global impact can be traced to a business concession made when the industrial revolution overtook the production of pianos from artisans in the 19th century. Just intonation, Its functional opposite, is based on the physics of sound occurring as an overtone series, be it a vibrating string, or a column of air – the human windpipe, or a flute, for example. The intervals between notes are naturally uneven and tuned by ear. With equal temperament, however, all twelve notes are multiples of the same basic interval. This simplified system is a schematic standard that allows for enormous complexity, due to the ease of shifting from scale to scale.
Volcanoes & Tigers
A twentieth century American movement to compose music using just intonation emerged in the northeast quarter of the Pacific Rim’s ring of volcanoes. Harry Partch and Lou Harrison, the movement’s west coast tigers, were harbingers of micro tonality. After a privileged childhood in multicultural Portland Oregon, study in Los Angeles with Arnold Schoenberg, and conducting the world premiere of Symphony No. 3 by Charles Ives at Carnegie Hall, Harrison adopted scales and tunings derived from various Asian musics, some rooted in ancient China, and indigenous music – such as the Indonesian gamelan in later years. Partch invented wholly reimagined instruments to expand just intonation and accommodate his original 43-tone scale. However, it is his invaluable supporting research that drives the growing impact of Partch’s conceptual work.
The older Partch was key to Harrison’s ultimate rejection of international modernism. The hobo scholar’s exhaustive Carnegie-supported research into the mathematic theories of sound from ancient Greece – attributed to Pythagoras, his school, and Ptolemy (AD 100-170) the Greco Roman scientist living in Alexandria, Egypt. Ptolemy’s persuasive book, Harmonics, the theory and mathematics of music, gave Partch a touch-stone for much further musical archeology in Britain. Even more consequentially, he discovered a reprint of the 1877 English translation of Sensations of Tone (1863), the first scientific study of sound and human perception. Its author, the pioneering German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz invented a resonator to, among other things, chart sonic waveforms. Partch sought to reconcile ancient theories with what was considered modern science.
Genesis of a Music
Partch’s 1947 manifesto Genesis of a Music devotes three whole chapters to his theories of scales, tuning, just intonation and the mathematic principles necessary for building fantastical instruments to perform within a microtonal system. Genesis of a Music summarized over 200 years of Western music in a examination Alex Ross calls "the most startling forty-five-page history of music ever written".
The book totally expanded the consciousness of the twenty-three year-old Johnston when it was published in 1949. Years earlier In Macon, Georgia – at age twelve, accompanied by his grandmother – Johnston first learned about Helmholtz from a lecture on Debussy and acoustic theory. By August 1950 he and his new wife Betty Hill moved to coastal Gualala, California – due west of Sacramento in Redwood country. As an apprentice, Johnston mostly helped Partch build and tune his unique instruments, but it was not his calling. With Partch’s blessing, the following year Johnston began study of polytonality at Mills College in Oakland with Darius Milhaud, who was at his teaching peak. During that year he composed a setting of John Donne’s poem A Nocturnall Upon Saint Lucie’s Day for baritone and piano. Shortly before he graduated from Mills a teaching position with duties to play for dance classes opened up at the University of Illinois, Champagne Urbana. Johnston remained there for thirty years extending Partch’s theories to their ultimate fruition using traditional instruments. Given the adaptability of string players, its is not surprising the core manifestation of Johnston’s theoretical work was composed for the ensemble at the core of Western chamber music – his utterly distinctive set of ten string quartets.
Was it coincidence or destiny that Partch’s treatise was published in 1949, the year when serialism first emerged as the ultimate codification of the twelve-tone system. Father figure of the entire Germanic tradition culminating with Schoenberg’s protégé Anton Webern, J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was strongly blamed by Partch for his sanctioning embrace of equal temperament. However, as Bach scholarship has matured around his 250th birthday, which fittingly coincided with the millennium, this idea has been thoroughly discredited. Recent scholarship reveals Bach’s frustration with the idea of even temperament. Partch seems to have conflated well tempered (The Well-Tempered Clavier) with equal tempered. The California maverick’s bias may have derived from Bach’s singular orientation to the keyboard. However, the so-called father of Western music actually advocated for a more flexible territory between just and even temperament.
Partch did pioneering work in ancient music, while musicology was just emerging as a serious discipline, so his need for a scapegoat can be forgiven. The free-thinking Partch railed against the intrinsic hegemony of “equal-tempered tuning, which meant that composers could not absorb the scales of other world traditions; and the urge to make music ever more instrumental and abstract." By contrast, as he put it, the traditional vocal declamation with string accompaniment of China, Greece, India, and the Arab world are corporeal – more about being physically (in the Walt Whitman sense) than doing, striving and arriving. He saw equal temperament as the music of colonization and subjugation. Not unlike the English language, equal temperament is quite viral.
Partch’s hitchhiking, sexually self-expressed distain for the constraints of capitalist conformity resonated with Harrison. The atom bomb changed the world utterly for him. Working for world peace required a transformational set of tools. Among them, just intonation has certainly more currency in the world than Esperanto, the synthetic language Harrison championed. His bicoastal visibility and close friendship with bicoastal John Cage, his sunny personality and a more favorable orientation to the musical mainstream than Partch, helped him gain early attention. Harrison’s sphere of influence eventually expanded with his emergence in the sixties as openly gay – and partnered for life with the instrument builder William Colvig.
Decades before Johnston arrived in Oakland to go to Mills College, Harrison had explored the rich Bay Area dance scene centered at the girl’s school as a dancer, musician and composer in his twenties. Lester Horton (1906-53), the most influential California choreographer to follow Ruth St. Denis in Los Angeles, was invited in 1938 to bring his dance company and teach during the Mills summer session giving Harrison many opportunities for self-expression. Many years later in 1980, Harrison was invited to return to Mills to inaugurate the newly created Darius Milhaud Chair in music composition for a fixed term. He taught “Intonation in World Music” aside the resident Kronos Quartet and shared music making with Terry Riley.
Varied Quintet vs the Varied Trio
The renowned percussionist Willie Winant helped Harrison establish the Mills College gamelan. In gratitude the composer wrote a quintet featuring percussion for Winant, with Harrison playing harp, violinist David Abel, Julie Steinberg on harpsichord, and Colvig playing a tubular bell he made to which the ensemble tuned in just intonation. Winant struck and caressed a vibraphone, tambourine, drums, bakers pans and a set of tuned porcelain bowls played with chopsticks from India known as a jaltarang.
UC Berkeley celebrated Harrison’s 70th birthday two months early with a concert including the Suite for Violin and Gamelan and the premiere of the Varied Quintet in 1987. Since the harpist and bell player were a busy and committed couple, and the cartage for the fragile harpsichord and bulky harp added hassle and expense, a version that the Abelz-Steinberg-Winant Trio could tour became an obvious and immediate undertaking. To clinch its portability and popularity, the quintet was recast in equal temperament with the help of pianist Steinberg. Formed in 1984, the trio specializes in music of the Pacific Rim, North, Central and South America. Mills hosted the actual May 1987 birthday concert including premieres of three extraordinary pieces: Varied Trio, Ariadne danced by Eva Soltes – who dedicated many years to the production of a brilliant full length bio-documentary on the composer – and the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan. The A-S-W Trio then went on to celebrate Harrison’s birthday in several cities.
The extraordinary popularity of the trio version with its distinctive scales makes a strong case for the trio version with equal temperament, but the subtle colors, textural delicacy, and bright bell in just intonation make the quintet cherishable, more so for the fourth movement’s far more idiomatic neo-baroque French rondeau – Harrison’s tribute to the lavish sensuality of the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Quartet No. 9
During Harrison’s birthday year Johnston was finishing work on his Quartet No. 9 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina where he located after early retirement. The Palo Alto-based Stanford String Quartet premiered the work in 1988. Bob Gilmore, who edited Johnston’s collection of writings Maximum Clarity (2006, University of Illinois) writes in the book’s chronology that the ninth quartet “consciously evoke[s] earlier classical idioms as part of a new emphasis that becomes increasingly apparent in Johnston’s music of these years, and which he discusses in “Position Paper” published in Perspectives of New Music: that of exploring how European music might have developed had it been freed of the constraints of equal temperament. This form of musical revisionism, distinct in technique and intent from the neoclassicism of his earlier work.” This important book follows in the footsteps of Partch with four large chapters: On Music Theory; On Musical Aesthetics and Culture; Some Compositions; and On Other Composers.
Gilmore observes in his notes to the 2006 Kepler Quartet New World Records CD, that this revisionism is:
“Especially clear in the third movement, a lyrical and fully Classical slow movement that invokes Haydn, but with melodic embellishments that are not possible in the language of the great Austrian Composer. The scherzo-like second movement perhaps suggests shades of Mendelsohn, but opens up his idiom to new harmonic adventures made possible by just intonation. The energetic finale…[is] classical in impulse (with perhaps a hint of a jazz walking bass). But the most extraordinary movement is surely the first, where Johnston achieves a real compositional tour de force in creating a six-minute movement, the pitch world of which remains entirely between middle C and the C an octave above and yet retains our interest throughout. Here the richness of just intonation with its luminous pure intervals and their microtonal variants, lets us hear as never before one of Western music’s most familiar clichés: the C major scale.”
Gilmore trusts that this Janus-like quartet will help listeners discover “new sounds and untried harmonies.” As writer, critic and composer Kyle Gann observed in 1995, String Quartet No. 9 uses intervals of the harmonic series as high as the 31st partial with “potentially hundreds of pitches per octave,” in a way that is "radical without being avant-garde," and not for making "as-yet-unheard dissonances," but to, "return...to a kind of musical beauty," that he feels has been eroded in Western music by equal temperament.
A Pervasive and Persistent Legacy
Several generations of composers now have moved beyond equal temperament in their embrace of noise via John Cage, electronic music, and the computer-assisted scientific analysis of sound underpinning the spectralist movement. So-called World Music has gained purchase in concert halls previously devoted only to Western music. The issue has become less contentious as is evident in Karen Tanaka’s Jardin des Herbes. The harpsichord with its origins in a world less defined by theoretical tuning is easily and often re-tuned for specific periods of music. The work succeeds in virtually any tuning, but thrives in the micro climate of just intonation. Her love of nature and concern for the environment has influenced many of her works, including Questions of Nature, Frozen Horizon, Water and Stone, Dreamscape, Ocean, Silent Ocean, Tales of Trees, Water Dance, Crystalline series, and Children of Light.
Tanaka was born in Tokyo, Japan where she began piano and composition lessons as a child. She moved to Paris in 1986 helped by a French Government Scholarship to study with Tristan Murail and to work at IRCAM as an intern. In 1987, she was awarded the Gaudeamus International Composers Award at the International Music Week in Amsterdam. She studied with Luciano Berio in Florence in 1990–91 supported by the Nadia Boulanger Foundation and a Japanese Government Scholarship. In 1996, she honored with a fellowship at Tanglewood. In 1998 she succeeded Toru Takemitsu as co-artistic director of the Yatsugatake Kogen Music Festival. In 2005 she was awarded the Bekku Prize.
After her 2012, selection as a Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab fellow for feature film, Tanaka served as an orchestrator for the BBC's TV series, Planet Earth II in 2016. Her works have been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, LA Phil, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Brodsky Quartet, and the BIT20 Ensemble. The prestigious Nederlands Dans Theater is among numerous dance companies that have featured her music.
Tanaka has received commissions from Radio France, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of England, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Michael Vyner Trust for the NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, for cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano, and the National Endowment for the Arts for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Chester Music, London, Schott Music, New York, and Editions Bim in Switzerland publish her music. Tanaka lives in Los Angeles and teaches composition at Cal Arts.
Poetics of Steven Stucky
Following the tragic loss of Steven Stucky in January of 2016, Jacaranda and pianist Gloria Cheng wanted to remember the composer in this fifteenth season. Cheng had performed his Album Leaves on the inaugural season in 2004. Together we wanted to remember an extraordinary composer and dear friend. Cheng will devote her next CD entirely to the music of Stucky, so it was decided that a public performance of these valedictory songs would give the artists a public hearing of a lesser known work prior to its world premiere recording.
John Donne (1572 -1631) wrote the lion’s share of his Holy Sonnets over two years 1609-11. The form of his sonnet is based on a Petrarchan model ending with a rhyming couplet. The first eight lines follow the normal ABBA ABBA rhyming pattern, but the remaining six lines rhyme with an atypical CDCE EE. The sonnets are composed in iambic pentameter – five groups of unstressed syllables followed by one that is stressed. He was the leading representative of the metaphysical poetic movement that reacted against the conventional surfaces of Elizabethan poetry, and has proven to be a favorite source over the centuries for composers attracted to the invention of his metaphors, sensuality, and vibrant language.
This pairing from Donne’s most famous sonnets was given this beautiful setting before a clear trajectory was evident that Stucky would contribute greatly to making Los Angeles the center of contemporary music it is today. His relationship with the LA Phil was the longest such association between an American orchestra and a composer. He was appointed Composer-in-Residence by André Previn in 1988, and was Consulting Composer for New Music working closely with then Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen to expand contemporary programming, award commissions, and develop educational programs. The latter included mentoring pre-college composers under the groundbreaking Composer Fellows Program. Stucky hosted talks in the Green Umbrella series most memorably with Marc-André Dalbavie and Leif Ove Andsnes. Notable LA world premieres included Stucky’s Symphony (2012) by the LA Phil, and Piano Sonata performed by Cheng in the Piano Spheres series at Zipper Hall.
As conductor, Stucky frequently led the LA Phil New Music Group. Soloist Michala Petri joined the group for the US premiere of his recorder concerto, Etudes (2002). He conducted world and regional premieres of his contemporaries and mentors, such as Donald Crockett, Jacob Druckman, William Kraft, Witold Lutoslawski, Christopher Rouse, and Judith Weir.
While Two Holy Sonnets of John Donne is not about issues of tuning in particular, the work reveals a probing mind and a sophisticate ear that seem to transcend any perceived limitations of equal temperament
Undermining ET: Glass at 80
Arguably the most famous and financially successful composer on the planet, Philip Glass has indefatigably applied his pliant minimalism to every classical music form, repeatedly and with and such determined energy that his the art gallery beginnings seem like ancient history. Looking to the rigor of his relentless teacher Nadia Boulanger reveal more about how he developed the capacity to write an unending stream of operas, ten symphonies, and concertos for every imaginable soloist or group.
Conductor Dennis Russell Davies led the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987) that was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for Paul Zukofsky and dedicated to the composer’s late father. Glass's remembered that "his favorite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos. So when I decided to write a violin concerto, I wanted to write one that my father would have liked." The Concerto was so persuasively performed and recorded in 1992 by Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, that the die was cast for more orchestral concert music.
Davies told Glass at the time of his success: "I'm not going to let you…be one of those opera composers who never write a symphony". Glass promptly responded with two three-movement symphonies "Low" (1992), and Symphony No. 2 (1994). The first combined themes from tracks on the 1977 David Bowie/Brian Eno album Low, a crossover gambit perhaps. Moving more directly toward symphonic tradition, Symphony No. 2 is described as a study in polytonality making reference to the seemingly unlikely French tradition of Milhaud, the Swiss Arthur Honegger, and Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos, who emerged with the help of Milhaud.
Davies commissioned Symphony No. 3 (1995), for his Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra using nineteen string players. Having perhaps worked through a return to his Boulanger past in Paris, the result was authentic, more transparently polished, and intimate. Finally Glass found a symphonic style upon which to generate seven more. The symphony’s third movement reuses the baroque chaconne as a formal stratagem and, as such, betokens the composer’s growing interest in Bach. The result is structurally taut and cohesive. Glass describes the shape and what gives the work its unity:
“The opening movement, a quiet, moderately paced piece, functions as prelude to movements two and three, which are the main body of the Symphony. The second movement mode of fast-moving compound meters explores the textures from unison to multiharmonic writing for the whole ensemble. It ends when it moves without transition to a new closing theme, mixing a melody and pizzicato writing. The third movement is in the form of a chaconne, a repeated harmony sequence. It begins with three celli and four violas, and with each repetition new voices are added until, in the final [variation], all 19 players have been woven into the music. The fourth movement, a short finale, returns to the closing theme of the second movement, which quickly reintegrates the compound meters from earlier in that movement. A new closing theme is introduced to bring the Symphony to its conclusion.
That being said, the overtones of nineteen solo strings can create a haze that is not helped by rooms with less than ideal acoustics. As the composers works have moved into the classical music arena like, perhaps, and invasive species, it was logical and welcome when Michael Riesman, Glass’s erstwhile music director arranged the work for string quartet plus viola and cello. This vastly successful reduction has been named String Sextet, however its origins should not be mistaken or disguised. Interestingly, the String Quartet No. 5 was written around the same time. It was eventually recognized as the finest work in the form by Glass. Hearing the two works side by side shows a fundamental kinship, so it was natural to have the Lyris Quartet, which made its Jacaranda debut playing the Glass fifth return to this sensibility for Jacaranda’s fifteenth season.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2017