Siren Swan Song: Lord Berners’s Last Plié

268x0w.jpgHere’s the strange assignment I set myself. To listen critically to the late music of Lord Berners (1883-1950), the “last eccentric,” the “English Satie.” Friend of Stravinsky—you can read their published correspondence!—diplomat in the foreign service from 1909-20, painter whose exhibitions graced London’s Reid and Lefevre Galleries, novelist and autobiographer. Oh, and ¡¡¡LoRd!!!, by Jove. If you want a taste of the sort of thing at which his lordship excelled, give ear to the ballet suite from The Triumph of Neptune (1926) in this classic recording from 1937 of the London Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Fun, dry, spiky, clever—this is precisely the kind of Berners of which Master Igor was thinking when he condescended to note that it was “as good as the French works of that kind produced by Diaghilev.” And who of us, I ask you, wouldn’t blush at such condescension?

Nexus entry.

A particularly pedestrian method led me to late Berners. After lounging last week on Alcina’s island and mulling over Bloody Mary the week before that, and, after having observed that both are basically Circe stories, I thought it might be fun to search around for “siren” music. You know, in keeping with the lure-you-to-your-demise-through-song kind of thing. One spreadsheet search, et voilà: the complete ballet of Les sirènes (1946), Berners’s last ballet, penned and premièred just a few years before his death. Philip Lane is nice enough to include writer-choreographer Frederick Ashton’s full draft synopsis in the liner notes for this recording by the RTE Sinfonietta under the direction of David Lloyd-Jones, but it doesn’t get a listener very far. One is left with the impression that it’s all very silly and slightly absurd without being particularly acerbic or pointed. Sounds like the English Satie, all right.

But here’s the rub. I don’t hear that same kind of silliness in the music. Set “at dawn on a French watering-place,” where “Sirens are sitting on a rock combing their hair and singing the latest waltz,” it sounds much less like a sardonic play on conventions and much more like an affectionate longing for the time that gave them birth, a valentine shot backwards across the unfathomable darkness of the war.IMG_1785.JPGAnd how could I ever convince anyone of such a claim?

It’s tricky. Berners is clearly enamored of Debussy in Les sirènes: He borrows heavily from the sonic environment that Monsieur Croche unforgettably established in the first movement of La mer (1905). That makes sense, of course; the Sirens are at a beach, and a French one at that. But then they start singing a waltz. Really, they do: Berners asks for a wordless women’s chorus in what I suppose is another bow to Debussy, or else to Ravel. (Too much to hope that he would make a bow to Holst!) The waltz itself doesn’t sound like anything Debussy or Ravel would ever have written—La valse is light years away. Nor does it sound like the Waltz King cutting a belle époque rug. It does, however, sound a bit like Richard Strauss’s waltz language in Der Rosenkavalier, minus the opulence. And what does that leave us with? The foam-flecked waters of Debussy’s La mer with a splash of women’s chorus from the “Sirènes” of Trois Nocturnes, plus a well-behaved version of Richard Strauss’s nostalgic waltz idiom, all conveyed with a Satie-like knowing wink?

Berners’s most remarkable accomplishment, I think, is in skillfully creating a stylistic amalgam that sounds like a style, like a consistent voice. The problem is that the smoother the “joins” between styles, the less opportunity to mug for the camera, and so the less the music matches the absurdity of the scenario. In Peter Dickinson’s article on Berners for Grove Online, he explains that the English Satie “felt demoralized by the onset of war and told Gertrude Stein that he felt ‘confronted with the breakdown of all the things that meant anything to me.’” If this was true when Berners was writing Les sirènes, it must have been difficult to muster even a knowing wink. 41A0Z16FPSL.jpgNot difficult at all, though, or at least not emotionally dishonest, to affectionately craft a sort of pastiche-synthesis from the sounds of that loved and lost prewar world. Lane writes in his liner notes that Les sirènes, the first new work given by Sadler’s Wells Ballet at Covent Garden, by one of the only two Brits ever commissioned by Diaghilev, was “not a success,” “deemed to have been have out of touch with the times.” What does that mean, I wonder. I can’t help but think of the sound and character of Peter Grimes, which had its première at Sadler’s Wells the year before Les sirènes (albeit at a different location). It’s hard to think of the two works inhabiting the same two years, much less the same city, all while sharing the name Sadler’s Wells. The world was indeed changing.

Nexus exit.

51Gg7jkaaBL._SY355_.jpgThis disc of late Berners also includes the suite from his ballet Cupid and Psyche (1938), which displays just as much craft, shares with Les sirènes a delight in dance and dated national styles (Viennese waltz, “Spanish” music through a Parisian fin-de-siècle filter, the occasional touch of Offenbach or Tchaikovsky). My favorite moment is the Entr’acte, which apparently depicts Psyche in her custom-made palace, where “she lives happily awhile.” The music is atmospheric, placid, suggesting a place outside of time. The flute solo that flits over the top of the gently rolling texture cleverly calls to mind another placid Entr’acte with a flute solo, the one from Carmen. The other piece on the disc, Caprice Péruvien, was arranged by Constant Lambert from Berners’s opera Le carrosse du Saint Sacrement (1923). It’s generally an essay in the “Spanish” mode so loved by early twentieth-century French composers, but without the strange magic of, say, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. It’s a bit of a task both to shake one’s perception of the nonsensical use of this idiom for the story of a commedia dell’arte troupe in eighteenth-century Peru and to forgive the music for not being Ravel, but if one can do all that, Berners’s undeniable fluency and apparent delight in writing in familiar idioms come through.

Beachcombing with La Stupenda on Alcina’s Island

This week I had the immense pleasure of spending time with Handel’s Alcina, in a classic recording with Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)—La Stupenda—in the role that earned her the sobriquet.

Nexus entry.Handel-Alcina-Bonynge-5a[London-3LP].jpg

I had been thinking of Alcina for weeks because of my recent fascination with “island music,” which has spawned a series of entries here on Sound Trove, but after last week’s dip into the waters of South Pacific, I could resist no more. For Alcina is not so very different from Bloody Mary: enchantress-queen of an irresistible isle, creator of a marvelous fantasy that a strapping young foreign “hero,” remembering his “girl back home,” reveals as illusory. Of course, Alcina is herself both enchantress and lover, whereas in South Pacific those functions are separated: Bloody Mary’s “extension,” her silent daughter Liat, serves as the object of desire. Both stories are ultimately Circe stories, Alcina more obviously so because her ex-lovers are literally turned into wild beasts, just as in the Greek myth.

The composer has an interesting function to perform here, because the music demanded of Bloody Mary and Alcina has to be music that cannot be resisted, music that would lure you to self-annihilation with a song in your heart.

page1-220px-Whispering_sheetmusic.pdf.jpg“Bali-Ha’i” is pretty convincing in this role; Rodgers achieves a suggestion of the mysterious, romantic allure of island vistas in a way that perhaps parallels the suggestion of the beauty of the mountains in the opening of The Sound of Music. But what about Bloody Mary’s other song, “Happy Talk”? Since writing about South Pacific last week, I’ve been thinking a bit about what sort of a song that is, and the more I think about it, the more I feel comfortable committing to the idea that it’s Paul Whitemanesque. (Listen to “Whispering,” if you’ve allowed yourself to forget what Whiteman’s orchestra had to offer at its best.) And what, pray tell, is Bloody Mary doing singing music in the Whiteman mode as she plays overseer-enchantress for her daughter’s big love scene with Lieutenant Cable? My take is that this music would have sounded seriously dated to the original audiences of South Pacific, that the out-of-touch and corny note it strikes either reveals Bloody Mary’s basic misunderstanding of what it would take to make the Cable-Liat relationship work or reveals to the audience that there is insufficient music here upon which to build a lasting relationship. It seems to me that there might also be racial dimensions of “Happy Talk” that might have been prompted by the dialect present in the lyrics. More pointedly, Rodgers seems to be referencing minstrelsy, and therefore making a weird link between “othernesses” that might nevertheless have been operative for his audience, including the diegetic “audience of one,” Lt. Cable. Ultimately, Cable’s “Younger than Springtime” can’t save his relationship with Liat from “Happy Talk.”

118001911.jpgAnd what about Handel music for Alcina? She also has her “Bali Ha’i” moment in her first aria, “Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai,” sung to the new arrivals to her island kingdom. In it she acts as a sort of tour guide, recommending that the newcomers visit the secret grove where she and her lover Ruggiero first, um, realized their mutual affection. Little does Alcina know (we suppose?) that she’s singing this to Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante. (Bradamante is apparently terrifically convincing as a man, since Alcina’s sister Morgana falls for him/her instantly upon seeing him/her.) Listening to Sutherland sing this single aria, one can well imagine the audience at Venice’s La Fenice immediately hailing her as “La Stupenda.” Her virtuosity here is effortless, graceful, entirely assured; she has numerous opportunities in the aria to demonstrate her famous trill, so accurate and even that it sounds like an instrument. How could Bradamante, worn out from travel and dressed up as a soldier, ever hope to compete with this exotic goddess of fioritura? I mean, just look at her: She’s not even trying that hard!

The appearance of effort, of workman-like virtuosity, is present in Alcina, of course (It is Handel, after all.) It’s particularly evident in the Jane-Fonda-meets-Arnold-Schwarzenegger sweaty swagger of “Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana.” Here Ruggiero has seen through the all the sorcery of Alcina and is ready to do battle against the “armed squadrons and bewitched monsters” she has amassed to stop him. So he sings about how Alcina, the “Hyrcanian tigress,” lurks, while showing through leaps and sequencing melismas how he’s the kind of guy who can hunt him some tiger. Handel even throws in (thrillingly!) horns to show that the folks in the orchestra know a legit huntsman when they see one. So as fun as the aria is—and it is terrifically fun!—it also makes itself a bit absurd as a classic case of overcompensation. Teresa Berganza sings it, as she often does the role throughout the opera, with a brightness signifying brash youth that touchingly (if you go for that sort of thing?) demonstrates how uncritical a consciousness Ruggiero possesses. He blows hot and cold because he really does feel that way, a mental child who was never any match for the subtle, calculating, and yes enchanting, Alcina. But he wins against her in all his bluster. How can we be comfortable with that?

One answer is that it’s not really Ruggiero who wins but Bradamante, and that the power struggle in the opera is really between the plot-women (Alcina and Bradamante). I would love to talk more about this, but. . .maybe another time.

51tniyOSHLL.jpgAnother reason we can accept La Stupenda’s humiliation and defeat is that Alcina isn’t always such a nice person. In Act III, in a final act of tigress-like desperation, she eggs on Oberto, a captive boy whom she allowed to remain human instead of turning into a beast, to kill a lion that approaches him. Oberto (Mirella Freni!) realizes that the lion is actually his father—in part because the lion nuzzles up to him—and calls Alcina, whom he had previously thought of as protector and friend, “Barbara!” (“Barbarous one!”) This is the real end of her world of enchantment. It makes me think of the moment at the end of Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) when Yubāba asks Chihiro to choose which pair of swine is actually her transformed parents as a last test before she will return her real name and release her from the kingdom of the spirits. (It’s a trap, but one Chihiro, like Oberto [and Admiral Ackbar], sees through.)

What happens after Oberto calls out Alcina is one of those remarkable moments in Handelian opera when it seems the composer is doing things he’s not supposed to be doing. He writes a ¡¡¡tRiO!!! in which Bradamante and Ruggiero are musically (and textually) pitted against Alcina. 1843832682.jpgAs Winton Dean writes in his magnificent Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741, this trio, a phenomenon “all too rare in Handel’s operas. . .stands beside those in Tamerlano and Orlando as a masterly summing up of a dramatic confrontation.” <1> And then? Well, then Alcina is utterly defeated, her magic urn broken, all her enchantments undone. The chorus of former rocks, waves, and beasts sings about their release “from the blind horror of night” (“Dall’orror di notte cieca”). It feels like the prisoners’ stepping into the light of the courtyard in Fidelio, like the broadcasting of the Letter Duet from Figaro over the loudspeakers in Shawshank Redemption. Winton Dean talks about Act III of Alcina as “trac[ing] the disintegration of Alcina’s personality.” How far she had to fall from the vocal heights of her first Act I aria!

Nexus exit.

There’s always so much more to say, but it’s time to bid adieu to Alcina’s island for now. But what sadness I feel at leaving such a beautiful illusion! There’s some consolation in knowing that Ruggiero felt exactly the same way when he sang this. . .“Verdant meadows, leafy woods, all your beauty will decay. . .”

<1> Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006): 321.

“Most people live on a lonely island” – South Pacific Remembered

“Oh, and then there’s this one: [sings first phrase of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’].” “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean that’s from South Pacific?” “Um, it’s only, like, the best song in the whole show.” “Wow. You know I’ve had that song on my mind for, like, most of my life. Decades. And I’ve just now realized that I never knew where it came from.”

This is the kind of intensive social research you commit to when writing a blog about listening across the whole span of recorded history. The bit of conversation reported above, which I had with a colleague a few days ago after mentioning that I was writing about South Pacific this week, points to the way that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein have stayed lodged in the collective consciousness of several successive generations of Americans, even when they don’t fully realize it. They’re part of the soundtrack of our formative years, warp and weft of our musical identity, and therefore become a music of nostalgia. As you grow up musically, this sounds like a cache of kitsch that nevertheless stirs genuine pangs of longing. It’s as if all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals inhabit a “special island,” whispering “Come to me, come to me.”

I’ve been on a bit of an “island music” kick recently, so much so that I’ve decided to add a category for it to Sound Trove. Steel band music from Trinidad, music shaped by a childhood in Cuba, by contemplation of the Canary Islands, by poetry on New Zealand. But this time it’s different. South Pacific directly deals in all the things a music scholar reads about—exoticism, colonialism, musical tourism. Sticky wickets abound. For instance. . .

MI0002193571.jpgThe role of Bloody Mary, mother of Liat, the Tonkinese love interest of American Lt. Joseph Cable, was played in both the original Broadway production and the 1958 film by Juanita Hall. I’m listening to the original Broadway cast recording, one of the joys of which is reading the album notes, so here’s what the notes say about Hall: “. . .formerly was associated with the Hall Johnson Choir as soloist and as associate director. She later founded the Juanita Hall Choir.” Hall (1901-68), born in New Jersey and eventually trained at Juilliard, was also an African American, but when Richard Rodgers heard her, he wanted her cast in the role of the Tonkinese mother (and, later, in the role of Madam Liang in Flower Drum Song).

When, at the end of “Happy Talk”—during which Bloody Mary is overseeing and encouraging her daughter Liat’s love scene with American Lieutenant Joseph Cable—she asks playfully (and/or cloyingly), “Is good idea? You like?” it may increasingly concern listeners that this question is posed by a black American delivering lines in broken English to suggest a South Asian as written by white American males. Does it further complicate matters to point out that Hall was the first African American to receive a Tony (in 1950, for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical), for that very role? Does it complicate them further to point out that Rodgers, who had wanted Hall for the role on Broadway, asked that her voice be overdubbed when the film of South Pacific was made? (Bloody Mary is sung in the film by an uncredited Muriel Smith, the first African American to attend the Curtis Institute of Music.)

81ZY+rTp3CL._SY355_.jpgConsider some of the layers of racial politics here: those embedded in the source material for the story—that is, American soldiers’ experiences in South Asia during and after the Second World War; those found in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the source for the musical; those found in Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s adaptation; those found in the casting of the Broadway production of South Pacific; those found in the writing and casting of the 1958 film; our own in 2018. We can’t untangle it. It’s a mess. It seems clear that by casting an African American for a major Broadway production at a time when Broadway was segregated, Rodgers and others thought of themselves as activists to some extent. Beyond that simple point, pursuing the tale of appropriation, misrepresentation, and racial in/justice represented by South Pacific looks a pretty bewildering enterprise, so much so that we might do well to forsake the whole thing were it not for. . .

Nexus entry.

Bali Ha’————–i may call you any night, any day.” When Juanita Hall lands on that F sharp on Ha, all the longing to reach the island of your dreams, the music of your distant past, is hauled up from the depths of the murky subconscious. This can’t help but remind me of the raised fourth scale degree of “Maria” in West Side Story: also clashing with the tonic chord, also landing on the strong beat of the bar, also suggesting the longed-for “other.” Of course, it’s Tony who sings about his longing in “Maria,” whereas Bloody Mary is voicing the island itself in South Pacific. Her unforgettable line, with its “exotic” raised fourth, links exotic landscape with the world of dreams, the female voice with unspoken desires. All this is very familiar to fans of nineteenth-century opera, echoing links between desire and the “exotic” in Carmen and particularly Madama Butterfly.

ac2dbb3e74429149ae90ddc1d92586bb--carmen-bizet-mezzo-soprano.jpgIn some ways that’s unfair to Carmen and Butterfly. Both feature male protagonists who are deeply troubled. Don José, violent and jealous, ends up winning few friends in the audience when he murders the object of his desire; Pinkerton, selfish and ignorant, similarly makes himself a villain by leaving Cio-Cio-san in a situation where suicide is her best option. The men are not unsullied heroes; they’re weak and small and make life worse for others. So in a sense the longing called up by Bizet and Puccini in Carmen and Butterfly is shown to be a fruitless creation of witless men, their untutored desire a path to destruction that calls into question the entire exotic mode.

South Pacific, while adopting these “exotic” markers almost unquestioningly, nevertheless deploys them amid a more complicated set of relationships. For example, male desire is often not exhibited in association with “exotic” music, but in group performances of American popular music: “Bloody Mary,” though about mock-desire, is nevertheless an introduction to the knot of male sexual frustration that is at its most overt in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and is satirized by Nurse Nellie in the drag burlesque of “Honey Bun.” It is against the backdrop of that collective expression of desire that the more nuanced stories of Liat/Cable and Nellie/Emil de Becque play out. And speaking of Emil de Becque. . .

61DGzzvnuxL._SY355_.jpgIt is he, the French planter with French-Tonkinese children, who sings “This Nearly Was Mine,” that song long lodged in the subconscious vault of my colleague. In the original Broadway production de Becque was played by Italian bass Ezio Pinza, who by that point in his career had just finished his twenty-second and final season at the Met (1926-48). There’s certainly something “other” about his voice, then, in the context of South Pacific: he’s the suave European sculpting vocal lines amid impulsive jabs of the American brash. Approximately, anyway. His musical “othering” doesn’t end there. Given an opportunity to work with an operatic vocalist, Rodgers and his orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), made the orchestra do more than boom-chuck-chuck. In “Some Enchanted Evening,” de Becque’s first-act “aria,” the strings sometimes echo his lines in a sort of canon, providing the “voice” of his dreamed-of duet partner. Then, in “This Nearly Was Mine,” at my favorite moment of the entire musical, the melody from “Some Enchanted Evening” starts to answer de Becque in the English horn but is cut off, never to return. The dream of finding love is “nearly” achieved, and then disappears forever. In the Finale, “Some Enchanted Evening” gets its reprise, and Nurse Nellie Forbush sings in answer to de Becque. His dream comes true, and he even gets a money note to prove it. The serious problem—that Nellie, from Little Rock, A.R.K., had to overcome her deep-seated prejudice against de Becque’s “mixed-race” children—is solved. Nellie and de Becque’s story seems to tell us that life is complicated and far from perfect, but if we’re very fortunate, we learn to see that imperfection is beautiful because it’s life.

Lt. Cable is not so fortunate, of course. He chooses to leave Liat, remembering his “girl back home,” but then makes the decision to go on a mission so dangerous that it kills him. This is a kind of anti-Butterfly, where Pinkerton’s stand-in is the one who kills himself out of grief, and Liat must go on living with the burden of memory. Rodgers gives Cable (performed by William Tabbert) a beautiful song, “Younger Than Springtime,” a parallel to de Becque’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” But Liat is voiceless in the song: the character never sings a note, and the orchestra never stands in for her. How could it work out when the orchestra won’t even acknowledge her?

Nexus exit.

You know how it is: So much more to say, and so many records. . .

Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.

When a Symphony is Like an Archipelago: Marco’s Symphony No. 5

The symphony is dead. Long live the symphony.

Last night I had the local classical radio station on in the car, and they started playing Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms is not my ¡FaVoRiTe! symphonist, and the Second isn’t my ¡FaVoRiTe! Brahms symphony, and yet. . . And yet. . .

I love this form. I love the experience of listening to a symphony. Live. On recording. I love talking about them, reading about them, thinking about them. I love studying scores of them, and, as a composer, from time to time I repress the urge to write one. Or at least to start writing one. y450-293.jpgI happen to think—and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does—that the symphony is one of the ¡gReAt IdEaS oF hUmAnKiNd!, in the way that Peter Watson places the invention of opera between chapters called “Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism” and “The Mental Horizon of Christopher Columbus.” <1> And so hearing Brahms Second at the end of a long day was my own little piece of heaven.

For the last entry two entries I’ve been listening to “island music”: the first, steel band music from Trinidad; the second, works by Tania León that are profoundly informed by Cuban culture. This week I encountered two symphonies that were new for me: Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado” and Symphony No. 5 “Modelos de Universo.” But the one I found most fascinating is also “island music,” in a sense.

Nexus entry.

MI0001105480.jpgMarco’s Fifth Symphony has seven movements, each of which is named after one of the seven main Canary Islands: I. Achinech (Tenerife), II. Ferro (Hierro), III. Avaria (La Palma), IV. Maxorata (Fuerteventura), V. Tyteroygatra (Lanzarote), VI. Amilgua (Gomera), VII. Tamarán (Gran Canaria). (As an aside, I’ll admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to the piece is because in the last few years I’ve read a fair amount about the connection between San Antonio and the Canary Islands.)

Things get a bit more complicated here. In extensive program notes, Marco (b. 1942) explains that the symphony was commissioned by the Festival of the Canaries and that he wanted, therefore, to create an homage to the islands, which he claims to know “inside out (better than the natives, I expect),” as a kind of testament “to their progressive destruction.” Despite the titling of movements, though, the composer had “no desire to commit the tactlessness of appropriating Canarian folklore. . .an easy, opportunist way out, as well as being a sort of profanity, that would have harmed both the folklore and the symphony itself.”

Instead, Marco wanted to create a “universal work for the Canaries that would carry their name across the wide world every time it was performed.” <2> (This makes me think of the Dalai Lama approving the recording and distribution of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with the idea that every time one pressed play, the prayer was renewed, like a disembodied prayer wheel.) And how does a composer make a symphony universal, other than by omitting any direct reference to music and folklore of the Canary Isalnds? Marco attempts this by tying his work to others in the symphonic tradition. He references the famous opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra repeatedly. Arguably, that’s a different kind of opportunism; at the very least, it’s the ¡MoSt ObViOuS wAy! of involving an audience in a conversation about the music, through the music.

Marco also explains that there are “hidden references to various well-known Fifth Symphonies” elsewhere, especially in the transitions. But three other “non-Fifth” symphonies occur to me as models of Marco’s symphonic universe. One is Mahler’s Third, a six-movement work with titles that most often point to the natural world as inspiration. Another is Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Sinfonie (1948), with which Marco’s Fifth Symphony shares an unorthodox number of movements, many featuring titles that point to a personal cache of complicated referents. A third is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), the symphony after symphonies have died, which famously uses the scherzo from Mahler’s Second (1894) as a “vessel” into which many text and musical quotations are poured.

Berio’s scherzo movement, with its apparently self-defeating environment of hyper-quotation, might seem the most apt comparison, especially when Marco writes something like, “Once creative innocence has been irrevocably lost, one has no choice but to be ironic about one’s own creation.” MV5BMmNlYzRiNDctZWNhMi00MzI4LThkZTctMTUzMmZkMmFmNThmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzkwMjQ5NzM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgIn other words, it’s difficult to hear Also sprach, especially after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Beethoven’s Fifth and not roll your eyes. But when ironic experience is repeated so often, it loses its ironic edge, becomes instead simply an environment. That environment a palimpsest, endlessly written over, just as Marco’s movement titles have traditional island names and parenthetical “colonized” names, just as the symphony as a genre is a model that is written over again and again. What is left is a place of depth, a place where unfathomable things have happened and are recovered only partially, through a veil of imperfect memory, Marco Polo repeatedly trying to describe the glories of Venice for a mesmerized Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Nexus exit.

Ultimately, in his Fifth Symphony Marco claims to have given the listener “seven formal models,” inspired by various theories of the universe, “translated into seven abstract and exclusively music movements,” the “techniques of construction” for which the composer does “not want to tire the reader by describing.” No matter. On the island of symphonies, there’s enough to hear without all that.

References

<1> Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005).

<2> Tomás Marco, Sinfonia No. 5 “Modelos de Universo ‘88/89”; Sinfonia No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado ’87,liner notes by Harry Halbreich with program notes by Tomás Marco Indigéna, aurophon AU 31812, 1991, compact disc.

Placing Tania León, Indígena of the In-Between

For the last entry I listened to an album with origins in Carnival on Trinidad: steel band music, preserved for posterity (thanks, Nonesuch!) as it was in the mid-1960s. No performers are mentioned by name on the album; it’s just The Westland Steel Band, so that the listener is encouraged to conceive of “music as culture” instead of as an account of the intersection of the complex lives of complex individuals.

The album I listened to this week—Indígena, featuring music by Tania León (b. 1943)—also has a connection to Carnival in the Caribbean, this time in Cuba. 515J6W88JEL.jpgBut perhaps it’s better to read the composer’s explanation of the work’s background: “Growing up in Cuba was a kaleidoscopic experience with sound. . .You have all of these revelers in the back of my home, preparing themselves for the Carnival. Even when I was actually trying to play Chopin or Tchaikovsky or, you know, I mean, Czerny, they would parade in front of the house, I would stop playing the piano, go, see the revels pass by, and when they pass by, we all dance, you know. And then, when they were gone, everybody went back to their chores. I went back to the piano; I continue practicing. . .Of course, upon my return [to Cuba, years later], I realize that the revelers were not there anymore, and these are just my memories.” [1]

In January 2018 there are lots of places one can go to read about Tania León’s life and career: her own website, Grove, several dissertations and scholarly articles. But here are three pieces of information, culled from those sources, to provide a bit of context or to send you looking for more. The first is reported almost every time León is introduced in print. She claims five distinct sources of heritage: French, Spanish, Chinese, African, and Cuban. She “take[s] pride” in each and “represent[s] all of them.” [2] Second, she was a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and served as accompanist, and later music director, resident composer, and conductor of its orchestra. Third, León is currently working on a new opera—with libretto by Thulani Davis aided by “historical research” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—called Little Rock Nine, about those extraordinary black students who began attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. [3]

What do we take from these three pieces of information? Something about race or ethnic identity? Something about musical influences? Something about the production of contemporary concert music in late-20th-/early-21st-century America? If you read any interviews with or writings about León, it quickly becomes apparent that she resists attempts to make her into the voice of a particular ethnicity (and/or gender). Marc Gidal discusses this at length in a 2010 article for Latin American Music Review, ultimately arguing that Homi Bhabha’s phrase vernacular cosmopolitanism is a useful concept for understanding composers such as León, finding in it a way “to join contradictory notions of local specificity and universal enlightenment.” [4]

Local specificity. Such as? Well, for example, in Indígena (from which the album takes its name), after a spiky and dissonant, almost Varèse-like opening, León “conjures up a comparsa, the group of revelers that roams the streets during Carnival season.” A solo trumpet even quotes an “authentic comparsa melody.” [5] This is local knowledge. And universal enlightenment? This is achieved through the expert use of orchestra—a sign for universalism, however problematic—with ample evidence of mastery of the musical modernist’s toolbox. Read against the interview with León quoted above, Indígena becomes more than a juxtaposition of distinct cultures, coming together for a multicultural extravaganza. A new creature is made, growing from exile and loss, memory and a wealth of contemporary experience. The title of León’s piece, Indígena, is not an answer, but a question. She is not saying, “Listen to my indigenous, Cuban authenticity in the context of a universalizing orchestral treatment.” Instead, she is asking us to consider what in-between place she is an indigene of, from what “cosmopolitan” city-state of the mind she has picked up all these intriguing elements. Those synthesized elements are capable of communicating broadly, in part because of connections they spark with people who recognize the individual elements, in part because her audience includes fellow in-betweeners who also live a synthetic existence. Indígena seems to ask the listener to consider how we all come to create our sense of belonging in this world when we’re made of so many fragments, disconnected from their original context.

Nexus entry.

Having felt myself invited, I journey. When listening to this album of León’s music, so many fragments and elements come to mind from the world of twentieth-century concert music. The second track, Parajota Delaté (1988), which means “For J[oan] from T[ania]” was written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which Joan Tower (b. 1938) was longtime pianist. The ensemble—flute, violin, clarinet, cello, piano—is of course the Pierrot ensemble, and the experience of listening to the piece for me was like listening to a telescoped version of Pierrot lunaire (1912), with textural, timbral, and rhythmic ideas pointing to specific songs in Schoenberg’s twenty-one-movement work. 51zrYS4zNmL._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe connection is suggested in part because of the episodic nature of Parajota Delaté: a gait is established, then arrested and joined to the next by an interlude, as often in Pierrot. I hear fleeting references to “Enthauptung,” “Serenade,” “O Alter Duft.” Is León suggesting some alternate reading of the Pierrot narrative or exploring the ensemble in a way that playfully interacts with one of the touchstone works of the twentieth century? According to Ellen K. Grolman’s Grove article on Joan Tower, the composer “sometimes offer[s] musical salutes in titles of her works” (e.g., Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, in response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), so there’s also a kind of echo in León pointing to Tower (and, more obliquely, to Schoenberg) through a work for her and her ensemble.

The only solo piano work on the album, Rituál (1987), seems to me to possess a sort of dance logic. The opening—sonorities built from accumulating ascending pitches—is like a body in a crouched position gradually opening up, gaining height and exploring space. A contrapuntal section with jazz-tinged harmonies gives way to a one that K. Robert Schwarz describes as having a “savage, brutal rhythmic power.” [6] That description of a solo piano work inevitably calls to mind Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911), though Bartók’s suite Out of Doors (1926) might be a more apt comparison. Then the next work on the album, León’s A la Par (1986), for piano and percussion, just as inevitably descends from Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Both A la Par and Bartók’s Sonata are in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast(er) design, and both find ample room for the atmospheric and the kinetic, though of course Bartók’s rhythmic drive draws from a different source. The two works inhabit different timbral universes, too, with Bartók’s score favoring timpani and “old-world” percussion and León’s highlighting “new-world” percussion (e.g., toms, marimba, vibraphone. . .bottles!)

The final work on the album, Batéy (1989), was written with “Dominican-born pianist and composer” Michel Camilo. MI0001119973.jpgIt’s a work of about twenty minutes for six amplified voices and percussion, on a text created by the collaborators in a mixture of Spanish, Yoruban, a Cuban dialect, “nonsense syllables,” and a little English. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981), another work situated at the fruitful intersection of art music and a distinctive linguistic and spiritual heritage. In Batéy’s third movement, “Rezos” (“Prayers”), composed entirely by León, I hear a debt to Luciano Berio’s choral writing, particularly as found in “O King,” the second movement from Sinfonia (1969). The final word in “Rezos” is the English word “DREAM!” which references the famous speech by Martin Luther King. Why? A batéy is a slave village at a sugar plantation; the text of the piece fittingly centers on labor and oppression, on the one hand (and also weather, which perhaps signifies powerful forces beyond our control), and, on the other, the freedom achieved through ritual, community, and music. Perhaps this collection of ideas suggests parallels with the civil rights movement in the U. S., which in turn anticipates León’s current operatic project, Little Rock Nine.

Nexus exit.

Does all of this make León speak a language of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” as Marc Gidal proposes? I wonder if León would prefer to think of it in terms of inviting her listeners to hear as vernacular cosmopolitans.

[1] American Composers Orchestra, “Composer Portrait: Tania León,” August 2, 2007, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpXH149-bBY.

[2] Tania León, Indígena, liner notes by K. Robert Schwarz, CRI eXchange 662, 1994, compact disc.

[3] Carmen Pelaez, “‘The Little Rock Nine’: Composer Tania León Hopes Opera Fosters Important Dialogue,” NBC News, September 25, 2017, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-rock-nine-composer-tania-le-n-hopes-opera-fosters-n803931

[4] Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States: Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2010): 40-78.

[5] León, Indígena, 6.

[6] Ibid, 5.

More to Three Ds than Death: Honegger’s Fifth Symphony

Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz, Professor of Music (University of the Incarnate Word)

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgArthur Honegger (1892-1955) suffered a health crisis in 1947 and did not live too many years beyond that, but he had one more symphony in him. Symphony No. 5 (1950) is subtitled “Di tre re,” with re referring to the note D, which ends every movement. Does this D, with its association with Requiem settings, point to death? Probably so, but to my ears this three-movement work (played here by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Charles Dutoit) also evokes devotion, delight, and defiance, three D-words I’d like to add to describe aspects of the symphony. I hear the first movement as devotion to Honegger’s art and faith. Yes, there is some very sour dissonance in the chorale-like first theme, but the landing places are typically rich extended chords that possess a soaring devotional quality. The climactic trumpet part sounds at once like a plaintive cry to God and a declaration of faith. The second movement is scherzo-like and comparable, in a way, to the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, revealing a sense of humor about the human condition. The adagio sections in the movement offer a contrast, perhaps the promise of a soothing afterlife. The third movement is the boldest, and I hear in it a striving for strength, a will to persevere despite any obstacle. I want to cheer the piece on as it raucously unfolds, anchored by assertive brass statements. I don’t feel despair (another D word). I think Honegger knew that music had more to offer and that he had more to leave behind.