Friday, January 28, 2011

The Ogress of War: Leifs' "Saga Symphony"

There is to Jón Leifs' music a ruggedness, sometimes verging on brutality, impossible not to link with the scarred and hostile land the composer called home: Iceland. Virtually his entire oeuvre is inspired directly or indirectly by his homeland -- not uncommon for composers from historically "unheard" nations but rarely to the degree Leifs strove for. His most representative works are the orchestral pictures of famous Icelandic geological highlights: Detifoss (Europe's largest waterfall), Geysir (the eponymous spouting hot spring), Hafís (drift ice), and Hekla (a volcano that makes Eyafjallajökull look like a puffy pastry). Hekla has the oft-touted distinction of being the "loudest piece of classical music ever written," which you can judge for yourself with this youtube link.[1]

Leifs (1899 - 1968) was the first and probably still most prominent of professional Icelandic composers. Prominent - but not exactly the founder of a national school in the same manner as Bartok or Sibelius. For his style was so idiosyncratic as to border on inimitable, and many of his pieces were so gargantuan that performance venues in Iceland's nascent classical performance scene were out of the question, leaving his largest works unrecorded, and in some cases unperformed in his lifetime. Corrected now by the labels BIS's diligent release of his catalog and performance by the world-class Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the majority of Leifs' music can now be heard in all its tectonic glory (excerpts here from Osmo Vanska's conducting).

The largest work purely for orchestra he wrote, the Saga Symphony Op. 26 (1942) is one of Leifs' many pieces inspired by Icelandic lore. It was written while he was living precariously in Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife and children, but was not performed until 1950, six years after the Leifs were lucky enough to flee. Leifs enjoyed some initial success in Nazi musical culture, perhaps unsurprising given the shared bent for monumentality and Nordic hero valorization. However, his favor dried up, due in part to his Jewish ties, but also from suffocating distaste for modernism in fascist Germany.[2]

The Sagas of the Icelanders are a collection of prose accounts of prominent families - their battles, feuds, climbs and descents from power -- mostly written in the 12th century and recounting events of the 10th and 11th, during the earlier days of Viking settlement of Iceland. Taking a cue from Liszt's Faust Symphony (the first, and from his account revelatory, orchestral work he heard live), Leifs casts each of the Saga Symphony's five movements as a character portrait. As in the Faust Symphony, Leifs' movements distill personality traits more than they track specific narrative developments. In fact, symphonic development is also downplayed (which is not the case in Liszt) in favor of great floes of harmonically static material. This is not to say uneventful, however!

The first movement, which depicts the personality of the warrior Skarphedinn, gives a good idea of Leifs' musical tendencies. Skarphedinn is a hot-headed and acid-tongued hero from Njál's saga, the kind of personage who never makes a threat he can't back up with deadly force. Leifs' portraiture renders this propensity for violence with shocking orchestral hacks and hews, as if the conductor's baton were replaced by Skarphedinn's neck-seeking axe, daintily named "the ogress of war." Here is a representative passage from the middle of the long (16:30 minute) movement, including some marginally varied material from the symphony's first pages.

What stands out is the propensity for tutti thwacks from the orchestra, heard routinely but with high metrical unpredictability. This is an outgrowth of Leifs' lifelong interest, both compositionally and ethnomusicologically, with a style of Icelandic folksong called rímur, which is heavily and complexly accented. The irregular accenting can be heard in Leifs' earlier, directly rímur-inspired  Icelandic Folk Dances (op. 11). But in his mature style these have been thoroughly internalized, even "abstracted," so that they serve here as a kind of percussive manifestation of Skarphedinn's ferocity. In fact, having such  long passages of relative silence interspersed by unheralded orchestral blasts makes for an oddly flat affect, despite the violence; this is what you get with accents without a determinable tactus. Yet it also seems apposite to Skarphedinn's portrayal, who like many of the Saga characters, is psychologically opaque by today's literary standards. (Interestingly, Leifs suggested this movement came closest to being a self portrait. Yikes.)

The next movement portrays Gudrun Osvifrsdottir, of the sprawling Saga of the Laxardals. In a literary culture full of strong-willed women, she is perhaps the most powerful and complex, at turns blood-thirsty and pious, and a fount of snappy one-liners. Leifs begins her portrait with quieter hues, suggesting this will serve formally as the work's slow movement. But while more graceful in places than other movements, Gudrun's characterization is no shrinking adagio. The 
rímur-beats are still palpable, along with other bold techniques in Leifs' arsenal: block-chord progressions by thirds and (especially) tritones; massed octave melodies; and an emphasis on perfect fifths derived from another Icelandic tradition, two-part songs known as tvísöngur. While Leifs' neo-primitive idiom is often labelled as being predominantly homophonic and counterpoint-averse, there is actually a fair amount of contrapuntal layering happening here. Though more often than not it's interrupted by some accent-eruption or the like. Here is a passage, again from the middle of movement, showing Gudrun's commanding disposition.

The following three movements use similar techniques in evoking their respective characters. The third is most scherzo-like, portraying the comic braggart Björn who shows up towards the end of Njal's saga. This is the most whole-tone scale heavy movement (which in one motivic form offers a slight - very slight - aspect of cyclicality to the symphony). One can hear Björn here as he and his vengeance party travels through the Orkneys and Wales, making short work of those who stand in their way.

The next movement captures the anti-hero Grettir and his confrontation with the revenant Glamr, whom he bests in combat (only to succumb to Glamr's malediction to be an outlaw for his whole life). The movement is the spookiest of the lot, with extremely long passages of a sustained pitch (D) interrupted by increasingly frequent percussive jolts of terror.  
The final movement takes on Tormod Kolbrunarskald of the Foster Brother's Saga. Tormod is the image of the classic warrior poet; mortally wounded in battle, he has the gumption to yank the killing arrow from his heart and compose a lovely poem before expiring. Leifs lends him the most orchestrally swollen treatment -- in addition to a truly gigantic percussion arsenal (which, among other things hosts three differently tuned anvils, two differently sized stones, whip (!), and three shields of iron, leather, and wood), Leifs calls for six Bronze Age (and thus anachronistic) horns! Heed, then, the call of the Viking horn! (just try not to go deaf or induce palpitations in the process!)

--Frank Lehman
[1]: Just so that you don't think it's all eruptions, here is a bit of Leifs at his most austerely beautiful.
 And in case you thought there might be a connection in manner and subject-matter with another Nordic-preoccupied composer, Leifs loathed Wagner's influence and attested that much of his music was "a protest against Wagner, who had misunderstood the essence and artistic tradition of the North in such a detestable manner."Quoted in Bergendal, New Music in Iceland (1987, 47).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pushing the Envelope: Blitzstein's "Airborne"

I'm a sucker for aeronautics.

Over winter break, I spent some time at both the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. I looked up at the very X-1 that Chuck Yeager took across the sound barrier in 1947. I stood underneath a real Saturn V rocket — the same kind that propelled Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969. And I thought about my favorite pilots, Joe and Brian Hackett.

Yeager, Armstrong, and the Hackett brothers all pushed the outside of the envelope, taking their craft(s) to the limit and just a bit beyond. With his Airborne Symphony (1943-6), the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-64) seems to have done something similar to the symphonic envelope.

Our first unsung symphony of the new year stands out not just because it's actually very sung (and spoken, with a prominent narrator). It also contains choral outbursts, scary instrumental interludes, bizarre marches, and love songs. And the Airborne is the only symphony we've dealt with so far that's specifically about flight — both the history (and future) of human flight and the experiences of war pilots. The composer of The Cradle Will Rock — already well-versed in writing politically-charged music — knew something about all this. He served with the Air Force in London during WWII and got time off to produce the Airborne, for which he wrote both the music and text. When the manuscript was lost, Blitzstein rewrote it on Leonard Bernstein's urging.1

The Airborne officially has three movements, but each movement is broken up into several discrete numbers — our first clue that this is as much a mini three-act-musical play as a symphony. (Howard Clurman used the apt adjective "Broadway" to describe this piece.2) The first movement covers humanity's long-held dreams of flying; the second reveals the dangers; and the third draws a middle ground (or airspace).

The symphony begins with a heroic horn gesture that hints at the majesty of reaching the sky and ushers in the "Theory of Flight." (That theory is delineated by the "monitor,"3 or narrator — here, Robert Shaw, in this recording with Leonard Bernstein and the New York City Symphony Orchestra from 1946, featuring tenor Charles Holland and baritone Walter Scheff). The rising major second on "airborne" in the chorus is based on that opening horn motif — just without the middle note. Here's how the symphony opens:

In the "Ballad of History and Mythology," Blitzstein then takes us from ancient Mesopotamia through the 19th century. It's a laundry list of air-travel misadventures that Blitzstein wrote, he said, "for a negro voice" — Charles Holland in this recording — "because of what it might lend to the quality of" the number.4 Blitzstein's casting choice, and the blues-tinged melody, creates some distance between the white pilots whom the symphony's narrative privileges (and indeed whom the whole mainstream history of aviation privileges) and the black "character" who here is used just to set the stage. (Later, in the third movement's "Ballad of the Bombardier, we learn about a "white-faced nineteen-year-old" — certainly not one of the Tuskegee Airmen.) Here's how the "Ballad of History and Mythology" starts, and at the end of the excerpt, note the return of the "Airborne" theme:

We then land at Kitty Hawk for the Wright Brothers 1903 flight. The big first movement concludes with a soaring, mostly triumphant choral outburst of "Men are airborne!", whose tune plays on the opening's major-second twist. But an ominous dissonance strikes before the final chord, signaling that what lies ahead in the sky isn't all fun and games:

The second movement jolts us to reality and to the German side during WWII, as a chorus shouts robotically and joylessly about the joys of supporting Hitler. This grotesque march may have gotten a laugh, but to me, it seems just terrifying enough not to be funny.


But what follows is truly terrifying — a three-minute instrumental bombing of allied cities. (We know this because of the list of towns that follows, in the moving "Ballad of the Cities.") The theory of flight is now a full-fledged theory of fight.

Things lighten up in the final movement, with the jocular "Ballad of Hurry-Up" and its catchy (though not as catchy as the Village People) refrain "In the Air Force." The song pokes fun at how missions apparently begin in a hurry and then get delayed or canceled as pilots wait to take off.

That song would fit perfectly on Broadway, as would the "Ballad of the Bombardier" that follows. Here, a baritone, over a light wind accompaniment, tells of that nineteen-year-old soldier writing home to his Emily. As the soldier's voice takes over, the switch from winds to piano accompaniment brings us painfully but sweetly into the realm of the intimately personal. It's a rare moment of introspection in this rather outgoing symphony.

(By the way, Emily is a great musical name, as these Zombies and Art Brut classics demonstrate.)

A frantic "Chorus of the Rendezvous" returns us abruptly to the world of planes and guns and bombs. And the final number, about an "Open Sky," offers a new theory of flight that can never really come true. The chorus calls for the world to "Free the air for the Airborne," but the narrator cautions, "Not without warning!" Which really means not at all.

Blitzstein chose his subject well — human beings love flying and they love war. All this symphony needs is a 21st-century update, or a sequel, to navigate it to the standard repertory. Meanwhile, I'll settle for Wings reruns on USA.
— Matthew Mugmon

1. From Steve Ledbetter's liner notes to the BMG Classics release of the recording on CD, as Leonard Bernstein—The Early Years III, 5-6.
2. Ledbetter, 6.
3. Blitzstein used this term because "nearly all his lines are couched in the imperative mood." From Leonard Lehrman, Marc Blitzstein: a Bio-Bibliography, 366.
4. Lehrman, 366.