Honegger: Rugby and Musical Scrums

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

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgHonegger’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, Honegger uses 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.

Sources Cited

Bateman, Anthony. Sport, Music, Identities. Oxford: Routledge, 2015.

Waters, Keith John. “Rhythmic and Contrapuntal Structures in the Music of Arthur Honegger” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Rochester University, 1997).

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Colin Matthews

It’s probably not surprising that listening to the OST for The Empire Strikes Back (for the last entry) would put me in the mood for Gustav Holst. There’s The Planets, after all, which John Williams has referenced (mined?) in a variety of ways throughout the Star Wars saga.

117042209.jpgBut the record I pulled off the shelf this week was not The Planets, but Holst’s Sāvitri (1908), a stunning one-act opera clocking in at about 30 minutes, with a B-side that I’d never heard: The Dream-City, a ten-song cycle that composer-conductor Colin Matthews arranged and orchestrated from Holst’s Twelve Songs, Op. 48 (1929), on poems by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940). Matthews’s The Dream-City (1983), like Holst’s Op. 48, is by no means well known, but it’s frequently attractive and occasionally fascinating. Matthews organized the ten Holst songs into three “parts” and, in addition to having orchestrated them “more elaborately, perhaps, than Holst might have allowed himself,” he contributed some “linking material” to weld certain songs together. The third part, for example, connects three songs in one unbroken set: “Rhyme,” “Journey’s End,” and. . .wait for it. . .“Betelgeuse.”

Nexus entry.

MV5BZDdmNjBlYTctNWU0MC00ODQxLWEzNDQtZGY1NmRhYjNmNDczXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR87,0,630,1200_AL_.jpgAnother week, another ‘80s movie reference. Behold, I bring you: Beetlejuice (1988). Granted, the weird nightmare landscapes that Michael Keaton’s poltergeist-purveying title character slinks through in Tim Burton’s film are a far cry from the wisps of dreams in Humbert Wolfe’s poems. But something does tie together that bizarre film, Wolfe’s poetry, Holst’s settings, and Matthews’s orchestration: the strangeness of our fantasies about death.

“Rhyme,” jittery and unsettling, is about the power of that particular characteristic of poetry to disrupt the natural order, to jolt us “out of space and time.” “Journey’s End,” written in a sort of faux naïve father-son dialogue, depicts the afterlife as the cold, dark, and silent “room” of a coffin. Holst’s music (and Matthews’s beautiful orchestration) goes much further, revealing the numinous through its arching lyricism.

By placing “Betelgeuse” last in the cycle, Matthews sustains this meditation on an afterlife “out of space and time”: “On Betelgeuse the gold leaves hang in golden aisles for twice a hundred million miles,/and twice a hundred million years/they golden hang and nothing stirs,/on Betelgeuse.” TheMagiciansNephew(1stEd).jpgThis science-fiction-like vision of death—which reminds me of the terrifying frozen world of the White Witch’s home planet in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955)—becomes a marvel in Matthews’s rendering. He has forged a sonic Betelgeuse in the environment of his orchestration, with sly references to Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to ground the autumnal quality of the poetry in the musical language of the Romantic orchestral song cycle. In the recording, soprano Patrizia Kwella barely touches consonants and uses light vibrato or straight tone throughout while perfectly placing every pitch, aiding the sense of the strangely beautiful and otherworldly, her voice attaining the quality of an instrument beyond the human frame. (She sounds like a glass harmonica at times!) Perhaps Kwella and Matthews were thinking of the 1968 recording of Holst’s Op. 48 by Peter Pears and Britten, in which Pears attains a similar diction-light placidity? Or perhaps Matthews heard Britten and Pears perform it live, since shortly after the recording was made he became the composer’s assistant.

Nexus exit.

I admit that it’s a bit perverse to have “gone nexus” on the LP’s B side without lavishing attention on Sāvitri, which is, well, a truly wonderful work. How do I love it? Let me count the ways. Or at least briefly mention a few of the things that I love about it.

It is an opera with only three roles—Death, Sāvitri, and her beloved Satyavan—in which Holst gives Death the first word. (Like Wagner, Holst wrote his own librettos, in this case adapting the story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata.) 518Pw2aGHgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDeath sings the opening section alone, without orchestral accompaniment, which might initially suggest Wagner’s strategy at the beginning of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but in Holst there’s no prelude to set up the emptiness of the opening song. And then, magic! Sāvitri joins Death in an unaccompanied duet and reveals that his song has been running through her mind. So the first character we hear is actually the thought of another character. The stark tension between the two vocal parts seems to prophecy Peter and Ellen’s bitonal duet in Britten’s Peter Grimes, which is similarly unmoored from orchestral accompaniment. Composer-scholar Raymond Head claims that Sāvitri features Holst’s first use of bitonality (“Holst and India (III)” Tempo 166 [September 1988]: 37), and given that Britten acknowledged his debt to Holst’s harmonic thinking, the Sāvitri-Grimes link seems intriguing.

Another favorite moment is the use of women’s chorus to accompany Sāvitri’s song to death (“Welcome, Lord!”), which sounds like the very best of the Anglican choral tradition, and so glosses the Hindu mythology of the story with the resounding strains of a British paradise. If that seems uncomfortably colonial, well. . .how could it not? Holst was inevitably a tenant of his times.

I’m not sure it counts as a “favorite moment,” but I’m also amazed by the conversation (argument, really) that Sāvitri has with Death, over the course of which she essentially tricks him into not taking the life of her Satyavan. The deliberately archaic language of the libretto echoes Wagner, certainly, but I’m more fascinated by the musical logic of this section of the opera. The succession of tempos, the modal shifts, the way the orchestra supports the drama—all suggest the logic of Wagner while remaining satisfyingly Holstian. But it’s more specific than that. I almost feel that this particular collection of tempos and moods comes from something: Tristan and Isolde’s conversation at the end of Act I, perhaps? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but seeking an answer is a quest well worth taking up sometime. Meanwhile. . .

So. Many. Records.

The Yoda Clause: Yoda Claus

It’s Christmas. Time for Star Wars.

star_wars_yoda_ugly_christmas_sweater_front_S22587920U_SUGAR_RED_01__15820.1447108644.jpgJust how deeply the connection between Xmas and the ultimate space opera, exemplified by an ever-growing corpus of Christmas Yoda memes, has embedded itself in the collective consciousness is difficult to say, but it’s clear that Disney grasps it. Of course they trot out a new Star Wars movie every Christmas for those of us who woke up one CRT-blasted, C-3PO-cereal-sated morning to our very own AT-AT. With extra pack of D batteries. They know what we want for Christmas.

If such thoughts make me fret about being predictable, about consumer bingeing, about overthinking memes, it is immensely restorative to sit and listen to the double album of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), always my favorite single film of the franchise. In the last entry, while listening to the final movement of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, I had exclaimed excitedly at the mere hint of mildly crunchy American neo-romantic brass fanfare, “That’s Star Wars!” And now I lay claim to my Xer birthright and treat myself to a pre-Episode VIII session of OST, John Williams-style.

61ikIF+eP1L._SY300_.jpgJohn Williams (b. 1932) gives so generously—too generously, I’m sure many have said—and so the experience of listening to a soundtrack album by him is like discovering a secret cache of fascinating deleted scenes. Of course there are many brilliant cues that appear more or less unscathed in the film. One is the opening of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” the tune that everyone knows from Star Wars and the one that seems to me most like Wagner, because it both retains its identity in various contexts and suggests multiple powerful referents (the third movement from Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata being the most obvious). Another is the moment when Yoda raises Luke’s X-wing from the swamp on Dagobah, which is given over almost entirely to the music to “narrate.” (Hey, he gives Luke a present—he really is Yoda Claus!)

Another favorite moment is during the chase through the asteroid field, the music for which is so very exhilarating that C-3PO’s scream of terror seems like a natural extension of the climactic brass line. 3341011519_b1981fa824.jpg(How did this little piece of magic happen? Did John Williams hear Anthony Daniels’s scream and think, “Hm, the brass need to do something like that. I’ll write a screaming brass line. C-3PO screams, the brass scream, we all scream. . .for asteroid fields.”) A fraught favorite is the truly beautiful “Love Theme,” which finally gets the orchestral treatment it deserves in the closing scene of the film, as Luke and Leia, his arm around her, stand at the window on the medical frigate, looking out over the sweep of the whole galaxy. Right, so the only time we have the “Love Theme” as we’ve longed for it, it’s for. . .sibling embrace. Granted, they (and we) aren’t supposed to know this yet. But does this use of the “love theme” inject an intentional dose of ambiguity about the Luke/Leia relationship into the saga? Like Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent in The Deathly Hallows? Like Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre before the “reveal”? I’m pretty sure that the younger me just heard this moment as the uncomplicated and entirely sufficient love of all things Star Wars. Living in the nexus for a few decades has a way of complicating things.

All the moments just mentioned are easy to hear in the film. But then there are moments that the OST reveals that either didn’t make it into the film or that are obscured in a scene by (possibly) well-meaning foley artists or other sound design wizards. Two that struck me on this listen to the Empire double album were. . .

“Yoda’s Theme.” So this might not have been one of JW’s most impressive creations. It sounds a little like Close Encounters, a little like E.T., so much so that Williams might be accused of extraterrestrial stereotyping. The OST track has at certain moments a surprisingly saccharine quality, and listening to it changes my impression of who Williams thought Yoda was, at least in 1980. Too cloying, too sweet, too easy. The filmmakers knew better, so they cut out the overly sweet bits.

And then there’s “The Battle in the Snow,” which must count as one of the great tableaux in all the Star Wars movies. The emergence of the imperial walkers from the mist is one of those unforgettable filmic images. In the film itself the sound effects people go crazy here, adding all sorts of (arguably appropriate) battle noises. But the OST track reveals some shockingly creative music, much of it buried or absent from the film’s final cut. In the double album’s liner notes, John Williams describes this cue’s “unusual orchestration, calling for five piccolos, five oboes, a battery of eight percussion, two grand pianos, two or three harps, in addition to the normal orchestral complement.” He goes on to explain, “This was necessary in order to achieve a bizarre mechanical, brutal sound for the sequence showing Imperial Walkers, which are frightening inventions, advancing across a snowscape.” Five piccolos and oboes playing together?! That really is a frightening invention!! The more stunning thing to me, though, is the presence of piano timbre, which seldom comes through in the film.

Nexus entry.

Unknown.jpegThis reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Bill Gokelman (Chair of the UIW Department of Music), who had played the piano part for some excerpts from Star Wars (as performed by the San Antonio Symphony) some years ago and was stunned by the demands placed on the pianist. With so much piano activity, why is there so little evidence of it in the film? Why hide the piano? Is it too human a sound, suggestive of real people playing real instruments? It’s certainly a sound that never emerges from Wagner’s pit. Or maybe the timbre itself comes across as too American neoclassical? Whatever the filmmakers might have thought when dusting the piano under the sonic rug, when I hear John Williams’s “frightful invention” on the OST, the reference that leaps to mind is George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924), a fitting source of inspiration for the “dance” of AT-ATs on ice. Do you hear that, Disney? “AT-ATs on Ice.” There’s a fertile idea for a post-Episode IX theme park attraction. Yoda Claus can lift an X-wing from the impenetrable muck of Dagobah, so I’m sure he can manage a Star Wars ice show. Just don’t skimp on the lightsabers. Oh. And ask him to bring back C-3PO cereal. At least for the holidays.

Nexus exit.