A wonder. A miracle? Wunderrosen. That’s how Hartleben translates Giraud’s original “roses de clarté.” I’m trying something a bit different above – “roses of translucent white” – in the direction of the miraculous. The poet pines, longing to collect petals of moonlight, proclaiming that he can be assuaged only by scattering them over Colombine’s brown tresses. Double entendre? Perhaps. But it doesn’t have to be. I was reminded of those petals today, walking along the creek that runs next to Mission San Juan Capistrano, the air alive with migrating American snout butterflies (Labytheana carinenta), the dance of their multitudinous wings a minor miracle.
But another minor miracle has always captivated me in “Columbine.” Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, reciter, and piano – a unique gathering, as with each of Pierrot lunaire’s twenty-one movements – it features neither wind instrument until m. 33, the moment when Pierrot fantasizes about scattering the petals. To suggest this, Schoenberg loops three sonorities, the record skipping ten times to end where it began – the clock’s hand stilled, an image of petal-counting, eyes-glazed-over, lovestruck bliss. The violin meanwhile carries on in lyrical abandon, dolce espressivo, as it has for much of the movement, in parodic heartache as the poem describes. Those chords, though. . .a minor seventh chord (without its fifth) in the piano, descending; ascending perfect fourths in the flute and clarinet (in A). I’ve loved those blissed-out, petal-plucking chords since the first time I heard them, since the first time I sat down and listened to all of Pierrot. So much went over my head, I’m sure, but those three chords lodged in my ear for good.
When the opportunity arose to produce a performance of Schoenberg’s masterwork, my colleague Ken Metz and I thought we should invite composers to submit new “preludes”: inspired by any aspect of Pierrot lunaire, written for subsets of the Pierrot ensemble (vocalist, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, piano), and under three minutes in length. The timeline was short, but dozens of composers submitted. We were able to program twelve pieces, one of them mine: an ode to those three chords, with textures and gestures that point to other favorite moments here and there. It’s a way to pick petals along with Pierrot and to scatter them, too. You can hear what grew from Pierrot in eleven other composers’ sound gardens on October 28 and 29 in San Antonio.
What do you really know about Pierrot lunaire? Only what you’ve been told? Or did you have a Pierrot-obsessed moon-phase, a craze? Did you drink it in, drink it up, a fine madness? Twenty-one gems – baroque pearl-wonders, each movement a new proposal for putting together sound and image, deeply rooted in the future-fevered past. This is a story, told in twenty-one parts, of a thing that will have happened: a production, staged, of Arnold Schoenberg’s masterpiece, spun from the fabric of Albert Giraud’s poems, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben.
First things first: a form for us. In threes. Each of Giraud’s poems is rendered in three stanzas, and in each there’s the ritual repetition of a line. In each of the twenty-one poems, 3 stanzas: 4 lines + 4 lines + 5 lines = 13 lines. In each of the twenty-one poems, the ritual line is placed first, then third, then last, as if it’s slipping, falling, fallen: first a prophecy, then an action, then a memory and summary. In “Mondestrunken” – “moondrunk,” “drunk with moonlight,” “moon-soused,” “moontoxicated” – the ritual line is, “Den Wein, den man mit Augen trinkt,” which I’ve adapted above to get a triplex of the diphthong “long i.” So, we are warned: Pierrot will drink wine with his eyes. Then it happens: Der Dichter. . .berauscht sich (“The poet. . .gets drunk”). Then, finally, we remember what transpired here in a riot of instrumental color and expressionist vocalization.
And that’s what we come back for, isn’t it? The music showing us, bizarrely suggesting to us the world of this bizarre poetry. In “Mondestrunken” Schoenberg shows us as much as he can: the twinkling of the wine-light, falling in the piano, with drops of the stuff plunking in the pizzicato violin. The rush and trilling flute flutter of the high-tide of moonwine, the throaty yearning gestures in the violin sounding the poet’s sweet and gruesome longing. The ensemble eruption of the poet in ecstasy, the strings’ soaring with the poet’s head, lifted moonwards to drink in as much as possible, the grotesque gurgling as it floods the body – that moonwinelight, imbibed through the eyes. This is the first and quasi-prophetic part of the ritual, in anticipation of the staged production – on October 28 and 29, 2022, in San Antonio, Texas, at the University of the Incarnate Word. Full of anticipation, we raise our heads heavenward to quaff Schoenberg’s heady brew.
Sometimes an album
is like a snapshot. Summer 1967: the summer of Sgt. Pepper’s, when the
world of “popular music,” whatever that was, became something else. The snapshot
was of a changing world, a record of kinesis between this and that, the high jump
captured in mid-air, time miraculously frozen. But Sgt. Pepper’s is an
easy example: an album that wanted to be understood as a moment, that knew it
would be a moment before it was one, as the gathered dignitaries on its iconic cover
so memorably demonstrate. (What else could have convinced them to show up?)
British (Scottish, we should say!) composer Sally Beamish also gives us a snapshot with her album The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, which is also the name of the last work on it, essentially a one-movement concerto for saxophone and orchestra. Released after the decade of her meteoric rise (the 1990s) but before her more recent acknowledgment as a major composer of the last quarter century, the album includes works that chart that rise and articulate her compositional journey, a gradual tapping into a deep well of creativity that connects to her identity.
The Caledonian Road (1997), first work on the album, is named after the road in North London where Beamish’s family went shopping when she was growing up. As she explains in the liner notes, the road really was the road to the north – to that place the Romans called Caledonia, the frightful region beyond the reach of Empire. This was also the place to which Beamish moved in 1990, a move described as “the most important of her career.” So The Caledonian Road, while seeming simply to point to Scotland, is also autobiographical and has to do with Beamish’s personal road to Scotland. The sound of the north seems to be present in at least two ways in the work: through a pastoral style conjured by lyrical wind lines over string drones and through specific reference to a complex of musical sources – “ancient bells,” horn calls, and fragments from the St. Andrews Music Book (that is, W1. . .that is, Wolfenbüttel 1, that is, Cod. Helmst. 628, which, as every musicologist of a certain age knows, is one of the major repositories of the Magnus liber organi). Beamish had brought these sources together before in St. Andrew’s Bones (1997), a work for horn, violin, and piano, which was also inspired by the ruins of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in the county of Fife in Scotland, ruins the composer had heard described as “like the rib-cage of some long-dead god.” And so the work is autobiographical in layers, touching on the composer’s childhood and on another work of hers, with its related but distinct set of referents. One of the most unusual qualities of the work to me is its essentially non-dramatic nature. Despite the fact that the largest number of “bell bursts” is saved for the end, the end is really no louder or more impressive than other moments throughout the work. The notes describe the work as being in “variation form,” with variations marked off by those “bell bursts,” combinations of chime sounds and orchestral renderings of bell resonance. Some variations are more active, some more lyrical, and the whole is loosely arranged in a kind of arc shape, with the most active, densely contrapuntal variations inhabiting the central section and the variations with sparser textures bookending the work.
What does such a form suggest if the title points to journey, to a road, and if the notes argue for a sort of narrative dimension where one eventually arrives in a physical and spiritual Caledonia? In thinking about this, it has seemed to me almost as if Beamish structures the work so that the road to the future leads to the past and that the activity of the central section, its agitation, is the movement – a great exertion – that leads back to the beginning. The elliptical journey suggests the preordained, moving forward only to find that the destination was within you, was you yourself in some version you sensed but did not fully comprehend. This is less the unfolding of a drama and more the dawning of enlightenment, the recontextualization of ever-present material.
The idea of moving into the future to get to the past is also present in the second work on the album, The Day Dawn. Without having read the notes, my first thought was that the saturated, slow-moving string sonorities at the beginning were reminiscent of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs because of the texts, concerned with mothers and children, and more particularly with the loss of children. And then I read the notes. Beamish wrote the piece, as it turns out, as an act of public mourning for a friend of hers whose young daughter had died. Perhaps, therefore, Beamish was deliberately referencing Górecki, or perhaps she couldn’t escape him. But the idea running through the piece, of a parent, a mother, trapped in mourning, greeted by sunshine on the day of the funeral after a week of rain, also suggests the world of Kindertotenlieder, and more specifically of “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn”: “Now the sun will rise brightly, as if nothing bad had happened in the night.” But where Rückert and Mahler are mired in irony, beset by self-doubt, and Górecki makes grief so beautiful that you never want to leave it, Beamish shows us a way out.
That way is an old Shetland fiddle tune named “The Day Dawn,” which was played to celebrate the Winter Solstice, “to mark the dawn of lengthening days,” according to the notes. The tune is heard at its clearest at the very end of the work, a sort of Ivesian solution to form, as if it could only be pieced together a bit at a time over the course of the work. When it is heard in this clearest version, however, it is without the vim and vigor of dance: a vessel that needs to be filled, the shape of life that needs to be stepped into. And here I’m reminded of another line in Rückert’s “Nun will die Sonn’”: “Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken / Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!” – “You must not become the darkness yourself but must commune with eternal light.” (That’s my attempt, but I’ve often seen it in English as “you must not enfold the night within you but must sink into eternal light.”) How do you enter into the light that exists beyond mourning? Beamish uses that old Shetland fiddle tune to suggest a potent cure: music, dance, activity, the land, home, the rootedness of those things, their ability to subsume individual grief in a larger story, all of which means that life does go on after loss. It’s a kind of ancient wisdom, the wisdom that has the mother dance all night at a wawa verlorio to mourn her child. To live into the future, Beamish has us travel deeper into the past.
Time breaks down
in music, becomes a kind of riddle. Brevity stands for length, forward stands
for backward. We are time travelers, set adrift in a timeless soundscape.
Beamish, as I’ve
said, lets the last work on the album, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone,
give its name to the whole. And the way that work plays with sound and time
will now seem iconic for the album and composer. The material, according to the
notes, comes from various places and times: an old Swedish herding call, “psalms
and chants coming from different traditions,” “blues,” though I think this is an
oversimplified way to describe a much more sophisticated jazz-inspired idiom,
which sometimes steams and screams like Coltrane and sometimes simmers and
sneaks like a gumshoe in postwar film noir. Beamish is kind enough to describe
the form of the work in her notes, and I would gloss her description as “accumulation,
arrival, dispersion.” The arrival happens a little over halfway through the twenty-minute
work and is a true climax on an album of few overt climaxes: an explosive, gripping
burst of C major, which the composer describes as “the moment at the solstice
when light enters the prehistoric tomb.” That arrival shatters conventional
time. It serves as a sort of portal into a place where jazz and ancient chant
exist in swirling simultaneity – a universal “hymn” in the Ivesian sense of a
thousand different voices singing their thousand different songs at once.
Gradually the elements released by this C-major arrival, which seems to me a
cousin of the Sanctus from Britten’s War Requiem, scatter and fly away,
but a cycle has been established: seasons flow, and the solstice will come
again, letting past and present dance together until the tomb goes dark.
The other piece on
the album, I’m not afraid (1989), is also fascinating. An early work,
one that Beamish apparently considers crucial in her compositional development,
it is a sort of response to six poems by Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya (1954-2017),
which are read (by the composer!) as the chamber ensemble provides an accompaniment
that is part filmic underscore, part expressionistic Pierrot-like
mimesis. The clown logic of the piece may connect to the poet’s history. A
Christian dissenter in the Soviet Union, imprisoned for almost four years, who
wrote poetry throughout her imprisonment, some of which was smuggled out on
scraps of paper: this is the sort of grim grotesquerie that would seem to require
the surreal distancing techniques of Pierrot to achieve anything other
than the bleakest tragedy. I would love to write about Stravinsky in the work,
about the special role for oboe, and yes, about clown logic, but for this entry
maybe it’s just as important to note that in 1989 Beamish was already “singing”
the song of the dispossessed, of the woman imprisoned, yearning to seize freedom.
On this album she has shared that sound of yearning, in her own human voice,
before showing us the ancient destination that lay on the path ahead.
You see, sometimes an album is like a snapshot. . .
Mayday! May Day.
May 1st. As good a day as any to celebrate beginnings.
Here’s a question for you: What does it mean to write a first symphony? Perhaps for Beethoven it meant self-assertion, a way of setting himself apart from his classical forebears. Perhaps for Brahms it meant living in a world after Beethoven and composing in the company of his by turns inspiring and oppressive ghost. Perhaps for Mahler it meant showing that the symphony had a place in an age of Wagner and Strauss, that it had sufficient epic pull in a concert culture of program music. Perhaps for Bruckner it meant a path toward the divine. Perhaps for Prokofiev and Shostakovich it meant something about returning to the classical origins of the form, reminding a twentieth-century audience that symphonies didn’t have to be hour-long plummetings into the pool of Weltschmerz, although they knew plenty about that. And after the wars? And in the U.S.? Perhaps it came to mean something like. . .self-assertion, at individual and national levels, or living in a world after. . .well, after lots of things—a world of post-ness—or a claim that a first symphony could possess epic pull or was a path to the divine or that it could still manage classical deftness. In fact, it gradually came to mean all those things and more: an overburdened opportunity, and so very irresistible for it, even in a post-symphonic age. I caught the symphonic bug early myself and attempted a three-movement Symphony No. 1, not that anything particularly useful came of it except perhaps an appreciation for composers who could manage it better than I. And it so happens that two fellow San Antonio composers are even now laboring away at symphonies (Brian Bondari, and James Syler, on his second).
The album I
listened to for this entry contains a Symphony No. 1, of course, a work that
scored the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Some of the aims of this particular first
symphony are probably similar to those proposed above. Possessed of an immense
lyrical wealth akin to late Mahler or Berg or the agonizing side of
Shostakovich, it has about it the atmosphere of the epic. At the same time it’s
three relatively brief movements taken together clock in at a modest seventeen to
eighteen minutes, terser even than most of Papa Haydn’s. The composer (still
living) was, as the awarding of the Pulitzer indicates, an American, and here’s
where things get more interesting. Does it sound like the great American
symphony, and if so, how?
I heard Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s First Symphony long ago as an undergraduate but then hadn’t heard it in the intervening (ahem) years until I recently pulled it from the shelf of the listening library in order to revisit what I understood as an important American work in the genre. Zwilich [pronounced ZWILL-ik] was, after all, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, a mighty accomplishment in the early 1980s, which, although it was post-many things, was also pre-many others. I speculate that the prize committee heard in Zwilich’s First something that did sound American to them, not in a flag-waving sense but in a finger-on-the-pulse one, and that they also understood that the composer’s accomplishment represented an important part of the American story, as indeed it did and does.
But the thing
that strikes me so powerfully as I return to this symphony is how skillfully
Zwilich makes a Euro-American hybrid. I hear the aching strings of Mahler and
Berg—she was a violinist first, and it shows—but the texture is far leaner,
clear and direct, even Coplandesque at times, primed for effective communication
with a larger, American public. In the liner notes for the album, Zwilich
explains that she had “long been interested in the elaboration of large-scale
works from the initial material.” That might sound like a Schoenbergian way of
talking about what happens in symphonic space, but when you listen to the
opening of the First Symphony, you hear a major third once, then a second time,
then a third time, and that repetition establishes the rising motive that
becomes a theme. This strategy—the straightforward communication through
repetition of a simple initial idea, a germ, that will give rise to the rest—is
more appropriate to Beethoven’s Fifth than to most works with such notable modernist
credentials. Mass communication of classical music, like Texaco sponsoring
broadcasts from the Met from 1931 to 2003, sounds pretty American, doesn’t it?
But more is needed to make that communication work than the repetition of an ascending major third, however beautifully varied or artfully orchestrated. And Zwilich does give more. The central developmental section of the first movement doesn’t sound like but is informed by melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestrational logic reminiscent of the action-oriented music of late-1970s and early-1980s big-budget Hollywood film scores. More specifically, I hear the development section as a cousin of John Williams’s score for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). There’s probably more to say about specific connections between film scores and (latent) narrativity in Zwilich’s symphony. Richard Dyer writes in the liner notes that, despite the fact that the composer usually waits for commissions, she began her First Symphony before she had one, and that the “first fifteen bars,” from which “everything in the work arises,” she felt “compelled to write.” Who knows what lies behind this, what it was that compelled her? But the lyrical language of the work, which moves between anguish and repose, opens the door to the narrative imagination. We needn’t walk through. It’s easy enough to accept Zwilich’s work as “absolute music,” and my suggestion about a certain affinity with contemporaneous film scores is about the materials of music: notes, rhythms, and textures. Moreover, these notes, rhythms, and textures link what was going on in the classical season of orchestras in the late 1970s and 1980s and what was going on (or starting to go on) in the pops season. Finger on the pulse indeed.
As always, there’s
so very much to say. A work like Zwilich’s First Symphony deserves lengthier
exposition, a rich and nuanced reading: it is a worthy and wonderful work, and
important since Zwilich has to date written four other symphonies. Go listen to
it if you haven’t, or listen to it again if you’ve forgotten it. But this album
contains two other fine works as well—Prologue
and Variations (1984) and Celebration
(1984)—all played admirably by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under
John Nelson. Celebration particularly
fascinated me on this listening, unmistakably evoking the opening of Mahler’s
First Symphony and anticipating the Tarantella movement of Corigliano’s First
Symphony. If neither of those works seem particularly celebratory in those
places, then you’ll understand something of my fascination with the rhetorical
riddle of Zwilich’s title. And discovering for the first time or rediscovering
something fascinating is well worth celebrating.
Again the (almost) random pick leads me home. Last time I listened to Canadian composer Violet Archer only to discover that she had taught at my alma mater. This week I reached for an album of music by Judith Lang Zaimont, who certainly has a place somewhere in the greater pantheon of significant contemporary composers: frequently played, referenced, and commissioned. And the first piece on the album, Wizards, was a commission by. . .wait for it. . .the 2003 San Antonio International Piano Competition. Well, I used to write program notes and give pre-concert talks for SAIPC’s concert series; moreover, esteemed fellow San Antonian Ethan Wickman has recently been commissioned to write the required piece for the Gurwitz 2020 International Piano Competition, the revamped and renamed SAIPC.
But back to the album. The pianist for Wizards is Young-Ah Tak, who won the silver medal at the 2003 SAIPC and who manages the formidable challenges of Zaimont’s work with assurance and verve. The liner notes explain that the composition is divided into three sections: Spell CASTER, Spell WEAVER, and Magister – SORCERER. As I listened, I tried to imagine the sort of wizard Zaimont was conjuring with her tracery of ornament and thrumming chords. It occurred to me at a certain point that perhaps different “wizards” of 20th-century keyboard music were being evoked: hints of Messiaen, Ravel, Prokofiev, more distantly Scriabin. But at a certain point Zaimont asks for a pizzicato effect—achieved, I think, by reaching into the piano and using the finger to dampen the string—and instead of suggesting prepared piano it points to a kind of orchestral range of color present throughout the piece.
So again, what “sort of wizard” is Zaimont conjuring with her pseudo-orchestral palette? Here I have to preface further comments with an apology and a justification. First, I am sorry for what I’m about to say; it might be a bit irresponsible, lazy, postmodern, self-indulgent, inappropriate, inauthentic, and therefore far from ideal. But. . .a blog should have a certain spirit of freedom, don’t you think? So much for the apology. Now for some justification. Many moons ago at a national meeting of the American Musicological Society I heard a (clearly memorable) paper about George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae during which the presenter made the claim that certain passages in Crumb’s work echoed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, an association that resonated in part because of the intermediary of Disney’s classic Fantasia (1940). (Dinosaurs = leviathan = ballaenae?) You see there? I have the AMS on my side. All that to say that the contour of Wizards, from the finely wrought filigree of the opening to the explosive ending, suggested to me not just Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but also the intermediary of that particular sequence in Fantasia, replete with the initial visual hocus-pocus of the sorcerer changing a phantasmagoric bat into a butterfly, Mickey’s later violent axing of the poor broomstick, and the unstoppable flood. Obviously no one needs to hear Zaimont’s Wizards in this way, but I can’t help but wonder if some hazy childhood memory played a role in the creation of this colorful and effective work.
association I made as I listened to Zaimont’s album was with ¡¡¡BeNjAmIn BrItTeN!!! In fact, the
association was suggested by two different aspects of Zaimont’s unusual Virgie Rainey: Two Narratives (2002),
written for “soprano, mezzo, and piano.” This suggested to me Britten’s Canticle II: “Abraham and Isaac”, perhaps
for no other reason than that both pieces are narrative in nature and they are lengthy
works, in the art song tradition, written for two singers. The justification
for two singers in Britten’s work is made clear in the title: two voices, one
high and one low, take on the roles of father (Abraham) and son (Isaac). The perspicacious
reader will know that Britten doesn’t always use the voices this way: for example,
Britten uses the two together in close voicing to suggest, gloriously, the
voice of God.
The two voices in
Zaimont’s piece don’t have this titular justification, or at least that’s how
it seems initially. Virgie Rainey is a single character in Eudora Welty’s collection
of interrelated short stories, The Golden
Apples (1949). The first narrative is about Virgie’s response to the death
of her mother, Katie. She walks down to the Big Black River, takes off her
clothes and floats there for a while, “always wishing,” after she has returned
to the bank and put her clothes on, “for a little more of what had just been.” The
second narrative, markedly different in character, is about Virgie Rainey as a
pianist – or, rather, about her limits as a pianist. “Für Elise was always Virgie Rainey’s piece,” the section used in Zaimont’s
second narrative begins. The passage then shifts quickly into a description of
Miss Eckhart, Virgie’s piano teacher, and the conflict between them over the teacher’s
“worship” of her metronome and Virgie’s refusal to “play another note with that
thing in her face.” The passage then moves on to Virgie playing piano for the
picture show, “the world of power and emotion,” where she only got to play Für Elise in fragments to accompany the
One might be
tempted to think that the two voices, soprano and mezzo, have been used in a way resembling Britten’s Canticle II: that two characters are being suggested in the two
narrative passages. In the first, the two women could be the mother and
daughter; in the second, the piano teacher and student. But Zaimont hasn’t
written the music this way. Obvious conflict, the stuff of musical drama, doesn’t
exist between the vocal parts; instead, they generally function as part of a single
instrument, a chorus of two. Or perhaps Zaimont is suggesting something about the
simultaneous sounding, through one set of words, of the narrative voice (Welty’s
voice) and the characters (Virgie, Katie, Miss Eckhart) who inhabit the world.
But these issues of musical narration weren’t what suggested Britten to me. Instead, it was the weirdly virtuosic treatment of shards of Für Elise in Zaimont’s piano writing for the second narrative. This is out of keeping, of course, with Beethoven’s original and with the idea of a girl playing Für Elise incessantly in rural Mississippi with a piano teacher who wants to subject her to the will of the metronome. There’s a lot of irony to unpack here! Who is the virtuoso? Is the more virtuosic Für Elise an indicator of Virgie’s spirit of resistance, of the magnificence of her Beethoven-like will? Or is the virtuosity authorial: the presence of Welty (and Zaimont) in what is otherwise a mundane, non-virtuosic space? However one might read it, I was reminded of the extraordinary piano sequence in Act II of Britten’s Turn of the Screw (1954), when the boy Miles plays a twisted version of. . .well, what is it, anyway?. . .Mozart? Clementi? Whatever it is, it’s either terrifying or humorous, depending on your mood. Anyway, as Miles plays his sick Mozart, the Governess and Mrs. Grose sing together, “O what a clever boy; why, he must have practiced very hard.” This grouping of a child practicing strange distortions of a familiar (banal) classical idiom and two women singing in a sort of unified utterance is just too close to Zaimont’s second narrative not to mention the correspondence. Of course, Virgie’s “crime” is different in detail from Miles’s, though both are rendered as unlikely antiheros, children defying authority, influenced by some dark and lingering ghost.
As a final note, it’s well worth listening to the other pieces on this disc, which are all attractive and played well: Astral (2004) for solo clarinet, Valse Romantique (1974) for solo flute, ‘Tanya’ Poems (1999) for solo cello, and ‘Bubble-Up’ Rag, a “concertpiece” for flute and piano. The effect of the whole, in fact, is to encourage one to go searching for works by Zaimont for larger ensembles to see how they relate to her chamber style. Homework for a future entry. . .
Last time I listened to a disc of concertos by R. Murray Schafer, but only after I had scoured the listening library database for every last recording by said Canadian composer. This led me to a 5-disc compilation, Ovation: Volume 2, which does indeed feature a disc of R. Murray Schafer’s music that includes his first concerto, written in 1954 for harpsichord and eight wind instruments. But that’s for some other time. This time I couldn’t resist the first disc in the set, featuring an assortment of pieces by another Canadian, Violet Archer (1913-2000), covering an almost 40-year span, from the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet and Piano of 1944 to the finale from the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello of 1981.
Can I share something about process? I like my first listen to happen before I read the notes. So I listened, not knowing anything at all about Violet Archer or her music. When I got to the Divertimento for Saxophone Quartet (1979), I was struck by what I heard as a debt to Bartók, particularly in the third movement (marked “Festive”). More specifically, I heard one of my favorite movements of the Bartók quartets, the middle movement of the Second Quartet, a barn burner if ever there was one. Then once more, in the final work on the disc, the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, I heard echoes of Bartók’s quartets, but. . .what can you do? What young composer, having heard Bartók’s quartets, would not want to seize hold of that inimitable kinesis, that frolic and force and ferocious fire? So I thought Violet Archer perhaps stumbled inadvertently into the shadow of the Hungarian master. Then I read the liner notes. Turns out that Violet Archer, ahem, studied with Bartók in New York in 1942. So there’s that. This was no accidental traipse through a shadow, but the transmission of something tangible from teacher to student. Archer earned her Bartók merit badge.
Similarly, when I heard Archer’s Landscapes (1951), a trio of settings of short texts by T. S. Eliot for choir, I heard something like Vaughan Williams at a distance, or at least that era of British composers, occasionally even in the direction of ¡¡¡BrItTeN!!!. And then the notes. Another of her teachers was Douglas Clarke, himself a Brit, who studied with Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. Archer was, like Clarke, an organist, and it’s tempting to imagine that the transmission of that early twentieth-century British choral idiom was carried on a current of liturgical music that they both played. Alas, there’s really none of that choral liturgical music on this album, although there is an art-song-like setting of Psalm 23.
And now something I missed. Upon listening to the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, & Piano (1944), the earliest work on the album, I heard in its sardonic style, its playful half-poisoning of familiar dance idioms, the stamp of Shostakovich. But the notes revealed that her longest period of composition studies was under Paul Hindemith, from 1947-9. And once I read that, even though her study with Hindemith came after the composition of the Sonata, I could now hear an early affinity with Herr neue Sachlichkeit. My favorite thing about Archer’s Sonata? Repeated, and I would say unmistakable, wisps of Sobre las olas (Over the Waves, 1888), the waltz by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868-94) that would eventually be adapted into “The Loveliest Night of the Year” for the 1951 film The Great Caruso, starring Mario Lanza. Not that Archer could have known that in 1944, which begs the question: What’s it doing in there, besides parading around its insouciant self? A little searching revealed that Sobre las olas supposedly had a long association with (fun)fairs in the United States, in part because it was a tune available on Wurlitzer fairground organs. If that’s where Archer got the idea to use the tune – she was an organist, after all? – then its use seems of a piece with the “classic” neoclassical aesthetic set forth by Cocteau in Le coq et l’arlequin, bringing fairs and circuses and machines into the concert hall.
Speaking of concert halls, here’s something else from the liner notes that piqued my interest: Archer’s “Cradle Song” (1949), second in a set of four songs on this album, had its première in 1952 at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). Elsewhere in the notes the writer says that Archer was composer in residence at “Texas State University” before moving on to the University of Oklahoma; I can only imagine that NTSU/UNT is what was meant, and indeed there’s a brief bio of Archer on UNT’s website on a page listing former composition faculty. All that to say that Archer, this composer whose music I found when searching for R. Murray Schafer recordings, was professor at my alma mater, taught in the program where I would receive composition degrees some four decades later. And who was one of her students but Larry Austin, who by the time I was working on my degree had become a composition professor there himself. Small world, eh?
When from time to time I’ve thought of Larry Austin (1930-2018), one of the things that most frequently pops into my head is the concert where I first heard his Canadian Coastlines (1981). (Picture eight instrumentalists with headphones, each hearing a different clicktrack, with everything routed through a massive central mixing board, wires strewn all over stage.) The piece itself was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in writing it Austin derived musical phenomena from maps of, yes, sections of the Canadian coastline. As a student I heard an anecdote about the piece where John Cage, Austin’s longtime friend, “seemed enthralled by the piece, and after the performance very enthusiastically said, ‘Larry, it was beautiful; I didn’t understand it.’”  I’ve often told that anecdote as a way of illustrating Cage’s aesthetic preference for unknowability, but just this week, through my encounter with the music of Violet Archer, Austin’s teacher, the piece has come to mean something more to me.
For Canada is a presence in several pieces on the Archer album. That presence is perhaps at its most unmistakable in the song cycle Prairie Profiles (1980), for the unusual combination of baritone, horn, and piano. The work was commissioned, like Austin’s Canadian Coastlines, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was written “in honour of Alberta’s 75th birthday.” Of all the pieces on this album, Prairie Profiles includes the most extreme effects: explosive, terrifying, raw, stark – all qualities that seem worlds away from, for example, the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano. Take the first of the songs, “Buffalo Jump,” where a moto perpetuo line in the piano’s lowest range suggests the stampeding of untold numbers of bison as they plunge off a cliff, after which there is simply silence. The combination of mad violence and bleak emptiness, an uncompromising stare into the elemental, reminds me again of The Monk by the Sea, which I mentioned in my entry on Schafer, and of that composer’s The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveler. Here are forces beyond human control, which music grasps in a way that suggests a parallel with Larry Austin’s incomprehensible sonic projection of coastlines. A mystical response to the magnificence of nature informs these pieces. And there they were: Archer and Austin, teacher and student, writing pieces a year apart for the CBC, having been brought together first some thirty years earlier in Denton, Texas, united in their awe before an unknowable vastness and in their attempts to sound out something of that unknowability.
But I barely mentioned the Divertimento for Saxophone Quartet (1979), an admirably accomplished work, or the Ten Folksongs for Four Hands (1953), by turns attractive and quirky, or “Red River” (from the choral cycle Landscapes), the piece from the album I’ve now listened to the most. Well. May life provide us all with more opportunities to hear the world’s Violet Archers and to come to understand that they may well have walked the same hallways we did.
 Thomas Clark and Larry Austin, “Coasts: On the Creative Edge with Composer Larry Austin,” Computer Music Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 21-35.
“Well, there’s another completely cool thing I knew nothing about.”
This was my feeling after hearing Tyler Kinnear’s paper on R. Murray Schafer’s The Princess of Stars (1981), an opera that is meant to be performed (and has been several times) on a lake. Hearing excerpts from the work, the sound of a human voice blending with the elements, I could understand how the same person who wrote this music also coined the term soundscape. This music exists as an environment, a particular combination of the concert and natural worlds. Take the natural world away and the piece would lose a central aspect of its identity. During the paper and since, I’ve been thinking about the connection between Schafer’s Princess, part of a twelve-work cycle called Patria, and another late twentieth-century extravaganza of avant-garde opulence, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle, which has an opera for each day of the week. I don’t understand the connection at the moment and am resisting the urge to search for it, in part because I think it would require digging into the twelve-part Patria in earnest, and, well. . .so many albums! As a stopgap, though, I determined to seek out all the albums with pieces by R. Murray Schafer (b. 1933) we had in the listening library, to see how they related to the extraordinary noises I heard during Tyler Kinnear’s paper.
The short answer is: There’s no short answer.
The longer answer is:
What a remarkable composer R. Murray Schafer is that he should write something that sounded like that excerpt I heard from The Princess of the Stars and also write the three pieces on the first album I listened to: Flute Concerto (1984), Harp Concerto (1987), and The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller (1991). I should perhaps say that the third of these pieces is, in the words of the composer, a “double rhapsody for violin and orchestra” – that is, not precisely but almost a concerto, even though it came about in a concerto-like way, as a commission from violinist Jacques Israelievitch. As the title suggests, there are two presences in the soundscape of the piece: the earth itself, sounded by the orchestra, and the traveler, sounded by the violinist. The liner notes to the album (credited to the composer and Robin Elliott) say nothing about the origin of the work’s title, as evocative as it is. I thought perhaps Milton, but a hesitant, wincing peek into the rabbit hole of Google search results yielded only obscure references to Zoroastrianism and to the song “Darkly Splendid World” from British band Current 93’s album Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre (1993). Perhaps the origin of the title is very obvious, but somehow I doubt the piece’s connection to either of these eyebrow-raising finds, either as descendant or influence.
The other possibility that occurred to me as inspiration for the title was Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker (1776-8), which in my mind always suggests Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808-10). Arguably the spirit of Schafer’s double rhapsody is poised between these two works. In Friedrich’s painting, the human is anonymous, voiceless, insignificant in the face of the vast and unknowable. In Rousseau, we are invited to “walk along with” the solitary writer, to trace the steps of his thought as he observes the world. In Friedrich, we never find the human; in Rousseau, we never escape him. Schafer’s violin is in a sense a Rousseau sort of presence, rhapsodizing, yes, in ways virtuosic and expressive, lyrical, fiery – really, in all those ways that we expect the violin to behave in a twentieth-century concerto. The surprise comes with the orchestra’s part of the double rhapsody, which often seems to operate according to entirely different principles. The darkly splendid earth inhabits this soundscape but is not subservient to the traveler in terms of texture or material. Its climaxes need not involve the violin at all, even as an obbligato element, and they need not respect the sovereignty of the soloist by getting out of the way. This is a darkly splendid earth like Friedrich’s rendering of the sea. According to the notes, the unconventional relationship between soloist and orchestra was even more pronounced in the first draft of the piece. I find myself wondering what the experience of it is like in live performance. Does the violinist seem like the monk before the orchestral sea, staring up into the ether to the backdrop of fathomless churning?
The other two pieces on the album would seem to have a much less obvious connection to the Schafer of Princess of the Stars. First, they are called concertos, and each has the traditional three movements. The album notes point out that the Flute Concerto from 1984 was only Schafer’s second work to bear that generic title, the first being the Concerto for Harpsichord and Eight Wind Instruments from 1954. So, after a thirty-year gap, Schafer came back to. . . classical form. This is a different sort of soundscape, maybe not something that Schafer would even identify as such: a sort of soundscape of the mind comprised of an inheritance of works. Here the individual concerto stands in relationship to its own ocean of repertory, which inevitably threatens to subsume any individual concerto. Are we hearing an enactment of genre or a single work? What we hear is, of course, the tension between those two options. I’ll mention just one aspect of each concerto that gripped me, that seemed to claim a certain independence.
In the Flute Concerto, this happened in the slow second movement, by far the longest of the three. The album notes point out that the movement “uses microtonal pitch inflections in imitation of [Asian] music.” Nothing more specific than that. But in the cadenza at the very end of the work, the flute (played by Robert Aitken, who commissioned the work) unmistakably evokes the shakuhachi, a sound that the listener has not been prepared for in any specific way but that points to an important source of extended techniques for the contemporary flutist – i.e., world flutes – and to the international and arguably intercultural orientation of avant-garde music in the last quarter of the twentieth century and beyond.
In the Harp Concerto, what gripped me was the identity of the principal motive that runs through the entire work. (Nexus entry.) I think it’s difficult to ignore that the motive powerfully resembles the one that opens the concluding March from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943). Could this possibly be a coincidence? Given the popularity of Hindemith’s work, I don’t see how. That other evocations seem to be scattered through the work – echoes of Bartók, Britten, Beethoven, possibly of Berlioz – suggests that the weight of the concert inheritance was very much on Schafer’s mind when writing the work. It is such an attractive work, but it’s hard to conceive that this is the composer of the opera on the lake. Perhaps Schafer is simply supremely good at wearing different hats. Or perhaps the symphonic repertory itself is functioning as a sort of environment that soloist and ensemble inhabit and traverse. It is their darkly splendid earth. (Nexus exit.) However conceived, the concerto seems to have been a useful form for Schafer to continue to explore the relationship between the individual voice and that voice’s inevitable participation in a larger soundscape. And now Patria’s on my ever larger listening list. . .
“This was like a first shot of heroin to me. I became hooked thoroughly on Ives.” So said John McClure (1929-2014), famed producer of some of the great Stravinsky and Bernstein albums for Columbia Records, about his experience of hearing the Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860,” each of the movements of which connects to the American transcendentalists: I. “Emerson”; II. “Hawthorne”; III. “The Alcotts”; IV. “Thoreau.” I had a similar reaction to Ives, though I can’t remember if the first piece of his I heard was Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Question, or the Second Piano Sonata, because once I had encountered the first, I sought out the others in quick succession. I do remember, though, that the first time I heard Ives’s Concord Sonata, my experience was, bizarrely, not that Ives’s was quoting someone else, but that someone else was quoting Ives. At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’ll take the trouble to explain.
It happened that, in the late 1980s, when I regularly fired up the Walkman to ease the passage of homework that didn’t particularly compel me (Shame!), I would often pop in a cassette of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s 1986 album The Way It Is. The second track, “Every Little Kiss,” opens with Hornsby’s piano solo—hardly a surprise, as that was sort of how he carved out his unconventional place in the popiverse of the Reagan years. Through repeated background listening I memorized “every little” nuance of that opening solo.
¡¡EnTeR tHe UnIvErSiTy YeArS!!. . .when I encountered Ives, as described above, and was stunned to discover that Hornsby’s opening solo was lifted straight from the opening of “The Alcotts.” Hornsby has never made any secret of liking Ives, so I think this gesture is a straightforward homage to an important musical influence and not an attempt to communicate anything connected with the household that gave the world Louisa May Alcott. Nevertheless, so fascinated was I by this connection, and by the phenomenon of initially encountering Ives’s music as something someone else had quoted instead of as a compendium of quotes itself—and the opening of “The Alcotts” is itself a compendium of quotes, as I would later learn from J. Peter Burkholder’s All Made of Tunes (Yale Univ. Press, 1995)—that I quoted the opening of “Every Little Kiss”/“The Alcotts” in a piece I wrote at university, “Job Work,” a setting of a poem by James Whitcomb Riley for tenor and chamber winds. (Here’s the really self-indulgent part—sorry.) I used the quote for Riley’s lines “And shout in glee such a symphony/That the whole world understands.” The opening of “The Alcotts” is a sly re-harmonization of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, so by using the Ives-via-Hornsby quote for this line, I think I must have been saying something about how the quotation and re-quotation of Beethoven points to a “symphony that the whole world understands.” But the more interesting point to me now is that my recognition of the phenomenon of quotation sparked further quotation, a compositional quirk I’ve never really been able to shake.
It was illuminating, therefore, to sit next to a (ahem) certain Ives scholar at the last American Musicological Society meeting in Rochester, and to briefly discuss, while we were waiting for Susan McClary’s talk to get underway, quotation in Ives. I said something about how different an experience Ives must be for students now, many of whom don’t know any of the tunes that Ives quotes. (Lots of people have said this; I was just being banal.) The Ives scholar pleasantly but firmly made the point that identifying a particular tune was not necessary for an enjoyment of Ives’s music—that, in fact, perceiving the quotation of style was sufficient, an argument he had been making for a very long time and one that he continued to promote through publication and, I’m happy to say, in casual conversation.
I’ve thought about that conservation frequently in the intervening months, wondering if my knowledge of, say, classical repertory and hymn tunes, makes Ives fascinating to me because of my familiarity with specific pieces or because of the concomitant familiarity with certain styles. The answer isn’t an either/or. Yes, it does mean something to identify specific quotes in Ives; it enriches the listening experience significantly. But suddenly I catch myself and wonder if what it enriches is the process of reflecting on the listening experience, and if, during the experience of listening itself, style “leads” and specificity of quotation is less significant. To identify a specific quotation is to stand outside the experience of listening, to a certain extent. (If all you’re thinking about during “Ice Ice Baby” is “Under Pressure,” you’re not in the musical moment, right?) The frequency of quotation in Ives’s music, taken with listeners’ varying abilities to identify specific pieces, would seem to suggest that the experience of listening to his music is a dance between in and out, between riding along on a current of style and considering a concatenation of distinct phenomena from a distance. This inside/outside dance that potentially characterizes listening to Ives can be initially disorienting, confusing, but it can also be terrifically exciting, because you’re not sure what the composer is asking of you. Are you in or are you out, and where should you be? There’s something about it that feels like our experience of music as an entire field; Ives seems to me always to be asking his listeners to tie the experience of a specific work to a larger conception of the messy way in which music permeates our lives. He’s after a kind of honesty that breaks down the wall between concert experiences, private musical moments, and walking around in public environments. It’s the American experimental road that leads to John Cage: a proposal for perpetual conceptual revolution that accepts all experience as fundamentally musical.
How delighted I was to encounter on YouTube a documentary and full performance of the 1965 première of Ives’s Fourth Symphony by the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton (principally) of Leopold Stokowski. The film was shot for National Education Television, which would later morph into PBS, and includes interviews with John McClure (from which the gem that opened this entry), charmingly dotty podium remarks by Stokowski, and some artful shots of the orchestra tackling what was clearly a dauntingly complicated work for them.
But the recording I listened to for this entry was the 1974 recording of the Fourth Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under José Serebrier, who was one of the assistant conductors for the televised première under Stokowski. The atmosphere of quotation begetting quotation that Ives inspires seems echoed, therefore, in the link between the NET film and the LPO recording. This quality is brought out in Serebrier’s extensive program notes, which often reference the 1965 première. In the spirit of Ives, I can’t resist a quotation: “I shall never forget that winter morning at Carnegie Hall, when Stokowski had scheduled the first rehearsal of the Ives Fourth. He stared at the music for a long time, then at the orchestra. I had never seen the score, and my heart stopped when he turned to me and said, ‘Maestro, please come and conduct this last movement. I want to hear it.’ After it was all over, my arms and legs still shaking, I complained that I was sightreading. Stokowski’s reply was, ‘So was the orchestra!’” If they were sightreading on that first day, one of the remarkable things about the première was it was especially well prepared: Stokowski asked for (and got) a number of extra rehearsals, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation. (See the NET documentary at 7:55 for Stokowski’s explanation, delightfully redolent of the absent-minded professor.) But Serebrier’s recording brought with it almost an additional decade of opportunity to live with the work’s challenges and possibilities, and so it inevitably sounds more refined.
Still, it is a revelation to listen to Serebrier’s recording while following along with the 2011 Charles Ives Society Critical Edition of the score, with each movement edited by a different scholar from the variety of sometimes conflicting sources. (This extraordinary publication includes a CD-ROM with scans of all of Ives’s manuscript material for the work.) Looking at Wayne D. Shirley’s edition of the fourth movement, for example, shows how much either was excised from or never incorporated into the edition prepared by the staff of the Fleischer Music Collection, used for the 1965 première and the 1974 recording; following the course of almost any single part reveals that much more is possible than got realized under Stokowski or Serebrier. And, well, who can blame them? Ives asks for an entirely different ensemble for each of his four movements, pushing past Richard Strauss into a kind of proto-Gruppen orchestral environment, particularly in the finale. All this in a work of the 1910s and ‘20s. Not that Ives would have recognized the finale in the 2011 Critical Edition as his, per se. As William Brooks brilliantly proposes in the preface to the edition, in the face of the impossibility of creating a single definitive edition of the finale from a multiplicity of sources, “The workable anarchy of Ives’s music is better manifested in his manuscripts than in publications; and it is the manuscripts which you [Who, me?!?!]—through whom Ives’s music sounds—can and should enter. There can be no Ives urtext, no approved edition. In the re-formed world universal access to the manuscripts will bring into being an ever-expanding sphere of visions, performances—‘editions,’ if you will—all shaped for particular times, places, circumstances. I look forward to your contributions.” This quote resonated powerfully with me as I sat there in the stunned aftermath of the last movement, thinking about the beauty of what I heard and the promise of what I didn’t hear but could almost imagine. (More of it is present in other more recent recordings, incidentally.) Could there ever be enough instruments, enough parts to satisfy Ives’s all-encompassing vision? Could there ever be enough refracted and refracting quotations to answer the call? Brooks says no, but he looks forward to a Borges-like infinite gallery of responses. How wonderful to imagine that in writing about it we come to constitute a version of the work.
I think that the idea of being unfinished, as with my entry on Mahler’s Tenth Symphony,needed to inhabit the center of this one, and that other conceptions I initially had for it—that I should mention links between Three Places in New England and the first, second, and fourth movements of the Fourth Symphony, or that I should write about “place” and the slow third movement, which has to me more than a touch of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth–simply must wait. There’s great and perhaps infinite promise, after all, in what’s left unfinished.
From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.
Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. The recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.
The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”
In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.
What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.
And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. He’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.
One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.
I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. But this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.
Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz (Professor of Music, University of the Incarnate Word)
Honegger’s Rugby, a piece inspired by that sport, would seem to represent an unusual phenomenon in art music. My search to find similar pieces has revealed that there are not many that relate directly to a sport or a game. (I welcome readers to add to my initial list!) Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes, for example,which of course deals (no pun intended) with a card game. Honegger may have been inspired by Debussy, whose Jeux features an attempt to connect musical rhythm with a bouncing tennis ball. However, Jeux is not directly inspired by the game of tennis. That most eccentric French composer, Erik Satie, did write Sports et Divertissements for piano solo, but the only actual sports subjects in the work are tennis and golf (unless you think Satie thought of yachting and fishing as sports). Bohuslav Martinů composed Half-Time, inspired by football (soccer). (Bateman 2015) I am not sure whether Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908) should be counted as another example, since it’s mostly about watching the game (and eating at it), but even if it is, there are not that many popular songs that turn sports into music.
One reason for the small number of sports-related pieces of art music is that team sports such as rugby and soccer were a development of the later nineteenth century, so composers before that time simply didn’t have them to write about. Before the nineteenth century, the hunt was a sort of sport, and there is much music inspired by its sounds and rhythms, but it would be a stretch to call it a team sport. Suffice it to say that there are not many pieces of concert music that aim to depict or are motivated by a team sport. But I would like to suggest another reason that composers have avoided writing pieces about team sports by discussing Honegger’s Rugby at more length.
Here, then, is Honegger’s statement about the piece:
“I very much like football (soccer), but I prefer rugby. I find it more spontaneous, more direct and closer to nature than football, which is a more scientific game. I am aware of a carefully controlled rhythm in football and for me the savage, brusque, untidy and desperate rhythm of rugby is more attractive. It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. All it does is to try to express, in my own musician’s language, the attacks and ripostes of the game, and the rhythm and color of a match at the Colombes Stadium; I honestly feel it is only right to name my sources. That is the reason why this short composition bears the title of Rugby.” (Waters 1997)
Honegger distances himself from “program music,” focusing instead on the kinetics of rugby expressed through pitch and rhythm. One would assume that the words “brusque, untidy, and desperate” would connote dissonant pitch collections and rhythmic conflict. Here I’m particularly interested in how Honegger treats rhythm, because that is an important aspect of his most well known music.
In Pacific 231, for example, Honeggeruses a rhythmic crescendo as a formal organizational principle. (Waters, 1997) It’s easy to hear this principle in the piece’s gradual change to faster rhythms on a hypermetrical level, because it evokes a train leaving the station, increasing its speed, and slowing down to arrive at its destination. The locomotive motive, if you will, integrates well with a plan in which rhythmic crescendo and decrescendo combine with rhythmic displacement and polyrhythm to create an arch form structure that parallels a familiar real-world event.
A similar use of rhythmic crescendo informs the structure of Rugby; however, the effect here is less successful. I think the problem lies in the game of rugby itself and the nature of team sports in general. I think that the way a rugby game unfolds in time does not create a fitting model for musical form, because the rhythmic ebb and flow of the many events in a game conflicts with the rhythmic crescendo employed in Honegger’s piece.
Perhaps the kinetic profile of a game such as rugby or basketball could be used as a model for musical form if the game could be temporally stretched, so that one event in the game could occupy a much larger time span in music, like a slow-motion replay in musical terms. Imagine that the speed of the players could be reduced to that of performers in Japanese noh theater. If this could be the speed of a game of rugby, then music might provide a more suitable architectural parallel. To look at the situation in reverse, I suppose a game like rugby is like a piece of music that has too many different and unrelated changes in rhythmic structure, too many climatic points. How many times can music effectively portray the same sets of recurring events such as scrums without losing its focus and overall momentum? Honegger must have struggled to fit his compositional process onto rugby, a struggle happily absent from Pacific 231.