Monday, October 18, 2010

Impossible Symphony - Kastner's "Les Cris de Paris"

Unsung Symphonies is proud to announce its first guest post, from Harvard Professor of Music Alex Rehding! In addition to his wide-ranging work in music theory, the history of ideas, and aesthetics, Alex is always on the lookout for new obscure works. In today's post, he explores a genuinely "unsung" symphony, a work from the composer J.G Kastner that has not been performed before, and for certain reasons may never be!

The name of J. G. Kastner (1810-1867) hardly counts as a household name in the symphonic repertoire. This is, at least in part, because everything about him evades
easy categorization: Kastner was always exceptionally good at crossing boundaries. As a musician born and raised in Alsace—a region located on the border between France and Germany that had been in constant territorial dispute for the last one thousand years—this must have come quite naturally to him. Born Johann Georg Kastner, he soon became Jean Georges after he moved to Paris in 1835 to study at the famous Conservatoire. Much of what we know about Kastner nowadays stems from the three-volume biography that his widow commissioned after Kastner’s untimely death. The German-language biographer, Hermann Ludwig, was eager to tie Kastner more firmly to a Germanic sphere of influence and its more prestigious symphonic tradition. As a result, the image we have of Kastner—such as it is—is furrowed by the same kind of rifts as his native Alsace.

This year marks Kastner’s 200th birthday on March 9. This joyous event was, arguably, somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries Chopin and Schumann. Kastner has suffered from being not-quite-a-scholar and not-quite-a-composer. He earned his place in music history primarily with a hybrid genre called livre-partition or “book-score.” The livres-partitions collect information on a given musical topic— dances of death, the sirens, army songs, the city cries of Paris, and others—in the form of a learned (but rarely scholarly) treatise, and then top it off with an original composition on the topic of the treatise. The compositions that conclude Kastner’s learned works are often called “symphony.” This title may seem misleading, given that most of these works include vocal parts, but in fact they follow in the French tradition of symphonic works, of which Berlioz is the most famous representative, which not only include instrumental music but also vocal forces, including choruses and dramatic scenes.

In 1888 the German musicologist Philipp Spitta pointed out, in a review of Ludwig’s biography, that none of Kastner’s compositions had ever been performed. Spitta noted that Kastner seems surprisingly unconcerned about this circumstance, and speculated that perhaps regular concert audiences are not even right for his music: the compositions are firmly bound to the intellectual and physical context from which they stem, and readers who will have the stamina to plow through an entire treatise, Spitta surmised, will have the required musical literacy as well to work through the score.

It seems that in the intervening one hundred and twenty years the performance situation did not change much—until last year, when the Ensemble Clément Jannequin recorded a version of Kastner’s Grande symphonie humoristique vocale et instrumentale Les Cris de Paris (1857), which Spitta considered to be Kastner’s most successful work.

What the Ensemble Jannequin produces, to say it upfront, has fairly little to do with Kastner’s partition—it is an eight-minute excerpt of sections from the substantial symphony, adapted for the forces the vocal ensemble normally operates with: they replace Kastner’s extravagant orchestral forces with piano, organ, and lute sounds. The excerpts they put together focus on the humorous episode of the “dormeur” (sleeper) and his lovely serenade, which is repeatedly disturbed by the rude shouts of the market vendors.

The livre to which Les cris de Paris forms the partition, is a study—we might almost want to call it a musical ethnography—of the street cries of market vendors of Paris in a by-gone age. Kastner tirelessly collected, transcribed, notated, and classified the hundreds of calls that made up the soundscape of urban Paris and that were fast disappearing in the course of the industrialization. If any reader wonders why the cris de Paris are all so surprisingly musical, rhythmic and diatonic, a ready answer can be found in the partition, which weaves all these different sound snippets into a dense symphonic web of motivic relations.

The whole project is carried by a prominent sense of nostalgia, and was eagerly studied by French musicians of subsequent generations. It is not for nothing that the first vocal entry we hear in this recording is “Restez, ô mes songes fidèles” (stay, my faithful dreams). The Ensemble Jannequin subtly underlines the melancholy relationship of Kastner’s work to an irrevocable age by adopting archaic, though historically accurate, French pronunciation in their performance, which by the nineteenth century was outmoded—pronouncing, for instance, “trois” and “noix” with a nasal diphthong.

The dense and virtuosic polyphonic texture here suggests a closer relationship with operatic stretti than with symphonic genres. The Ensemble Jannequin is primarily interested Kastner’s work in so far as it creates a link to Clément Jannequin’s famous sixteenth-century chanson “Les cris de Paris.” (In his livre, Kastner criticized Jannequin for his insufficiently “scientific” approach to his material, which sacrificed authenticity in the service of following the rules of counterpoint.)

The boisterous and rambunctious excerpts that the Ensemble Jannequin singles out, however, do not necessarily convey the impression that the symphony as a whole would make. Despite the “humoristique” overtones of the whole symphony, the score ends with a tender (and extremely quiet) chorus, which completes a whole day of noises in the cityscape of Paris.

It is worth studying the score as a whole—not only for the virtuosic web of market calls that Kastner weaves into his music, but also for the progressive instrumental effects that Kastner employs, including harp harmonics, and the sheer profligate orchestral forces that Kastner’s boundless imagination conjures up (including a march that requires forty different brass instruments). In the end, one can only agree with Spitta, that this is a music for which performance is secondary. It revels, more than anything else, in its status beyond boundaries as an impossible symphony.

--Alex Rehding


  1. It's interesting to think that in an era well before sound recording, Kastner's musicalized "Cris de Paris" may be our best sonic record of that urban space! I wonder if there are 19th century musical attempts to capture the flip-side of the coin, the encroaching sounds of industrial life. I guess without the threat of those sounds vanishing, folks like Kastner wouldn't be so eager to preserve them.

    Also, this really does remind me of what happens in the middle of Vaughan William's 2nd Symphony "Lento" movement -- lots of little interpolated London street calls that I'm sure were on their way out at the time of composition (1914).

  2. I don't know who would be more proud - Berlioz, Henry Brant or Dick Higgins!

    Any chance of knowing the exact length of the piece? Also, what is the exact orchestration of the piece? How many more of these "treatise" compositions did he write?

    Great blog, BTW!

  3. Thanks for your interest -- The whole piece is a full-length symphony in three lengthy movements in multiple numbers. The whole thing is more a symphony-cantata à la Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette. The orchestration varies hugely from number to number; I haven't counted the instruments, but it's *lots*. The scores of all of Kastner's works are available on the web:,_Jean-Georges%29

  4. Thanks! Looking over the score, it doesn't seem that the music is too demanding to play or to listen to. It just requires a large orchestra with a budget.