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.

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.

Into the Dim Periphery: Hanson’s Fourth

In the last entry Howard Hanson was sitting in the audience—one of many notable musical figures—in the Kennedy White House in 1961 for the “return concert” of Pablo Casals.

This got me thinking about Hanson (1896-1981), one of those figures hovering at the dim periphery of my consciousness as the teacher of my own first composition teacher, Martin Mailman1611872.jpg (1932-2000). So I picked a disc—a CD this time—of Hanson’s Second and Fourth Symphonies, along with his Elegy, Op. 44, played by the Jena Philharmonic Orchestra under David Montgomery and released in 1997 on the Arte Nova label.

If anyone has heard a Hanson symphony these days, it’s probably the Second (“Romantic”), which has many attractive qualities to recommend it: the proposal of an American answer to the epic challenge of first-movement form; generous and heartfelt lyricism in the slow second movement; a third movement that seems to me to point toward the film scores of John Williams. (“Did you hear that?! That’s Star Wars!!” I yelled to no one in particular.) But I was more fascinated by a piece on the disc that I’d never heard, the Symphony No. 4, Op. 34 “Requiem.” For what it’s worth, the piece won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1944. It also belongs to an important micro-genre of twentieth-century orchestral music: the war symphony. With a subtitle like “Requiem,” I can’t imagine anyone hearing the work in 1944 wouldn’t have thought of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.”

It’s curious, then, that Hanson’s dedication reads, “in memory of my beloved father,” and listening to the work reveals that Hanson mostly eschews the sound and the fury of a world at war in favor of, yes, a more personal and modest grief, a suggestion of ritual (through recourse to lyrical lines that suggest Gregorian chant), and a certain ambiguity about consolation. The closing bars of the fourth movement, where Hanson separates the funereal intonement of the lower strings and timpani from the ethereal upper strings, creating a tonal, timbral, and material gulf between mourning “here on earth” and the accomplishment of “paradise,” is particularly powerful.

Nexus entry.

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But another reason for my fascination has to do with another war symphony, Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20 (1940). Okay, here it is. Britten’s movements: I. Lacrymosa, II. Dies irae, III. Requiem aeternam. Hanson’s movements: I. Kyrie, II. Requiescat, III. Dies irae, IV. Lux aeterna. And Britten’s dedication, whatever the origins of the piece, is “to the memory of my parents.” Britten’s work was given its première in Carnegie Hall in 1941 by the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli, but it was soon thereafter performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, who was so impressed that he engineered the commission of—well, let’s just say it—Peter Grimes. And finally, at least for now, Koussevitzky was a champion of Howard Hanson’s music, and it’s to the conductor’s memory that the composer dedicated his Elegy, Op. 44 (the last work on this disc). A more serious comparison of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Hanson’s Symphony No. 4 “Requiem” would seem to be in order.

Nexus exit.

At the national conference of the American Musicological Society this November (musicology alert!), I attended a concert of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at Kodak Hall, Eastman Theatre. How many times, I wonder, was Hanson in that hall? How many times did he hear his own music played there? And how many times was my own teacher there? Both places and pieces can remind us of relationships, but they do so in different ways. When I press play, Hanson sings his song again, because I’m listening.