Friday, October 28, 2011

In Memory of James Yannatos: Symphony No. 5, "Son et Lumière"

Last week, we got the sad news that James Yannatos — an accomplished composer and the longtime conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra — died at the age of 82.

During my first few years as a graduate student in Harvard's Music Department, and until he retired in 2009, Dr. Y was a ubiquitous presence around the music building. I only got to interact directly with him through a few brief conversations and a quick e-mail exchange about Nadia Boulanger (who was one of his teachers and is a subject of my own research). But his students raved about him — they were lucky to have had such a thoughtful, generous, and musically inspiring mentor. (See the Harvard Crimson obit for a sense of the impact his whopping 45-year tenure had on them.)

Although the Harvard community mainly knew Dr. Y as a conductor, he also left behind an impressive body of work as a composer — including several symphonies that we're fortunate enough to have on recordings with the man himself conducting the HRO in Harvard's Sanders Theatre. Today we'll focus on his Symphony No. 5, "Sons et Lumière" (1991), whose name, as he said, comes from the sound and light shows he would have witnessed in France — one of his many stops as a student before landing at Harvard.

These nighttime extravaganzas feature stimulating light displays on the fronts of buildings, with accompanying sounds, as a way of drawing attention to structures' histories. (Here's a neat example of Notre Dame getting the son et lumière treatment.) If Yannatos' "Son et Lumière" is a symphonic manifestation of a sound and light show, then the edifice it's meant to memorialize is nothing less than the globe itself, with its three movements entitled "Europe," "Asia Minor-Asia," and "Africa." As Yannatos himself wrote (according to these program notes), "The title alludes to past as well as to present events in which the political face of Europe and Africa is changing."

Of course, the early '90s were a heady time for the Western world, one in which many celebrated the end of the Cold War as well as a new image — however premature and, ultimately, naive — of a more unified global community. In other words, a perfect subject for a sound and light show.

Let's say that the "light" part of Yannatos' sound and light show comes from the orchestration — a musical parameter long understood and discussed in terms of visual perception. The orchestration in the opening has even been called a "collage of bright instrumental textures." A few things make it "bright": the emphasis on higher ranges, especially the soaring violins and solo trumpet ; creative percussion touches, like bells; and the overall clarity of the different parts and sections. Here's a segment from the opening:

If Yannatos' creative combinations of glistening timbres reflects the "light" part of the sound and light show, the "sound" part comes, perhaps, from the melding of snippets of national anthems and folk tunes (see here for a more detailed description). They're easy to miss because they're not all well known and because Yannatos masks them well — the regular shifts in instrumental combinations sometimes draw attention away from the pitches themselves. But appreciating the celebratory flavor of the work doesn't depend on recognizing the melodies. Here, in the first movement, some of you will recognize this sweeping, even plaintive reformulation of the Polish national anthem (listen here if you need a refresher).

Since we're talking about a sound and light show, it makes sense that Yannatos ends where he began, with the same harp glissandi and tense, quick alternation of notes in the strings we started with. That's because despite all the spinning of lights and swirling sounds, we're still recognizing one stationary object — here, the earth. (Yes, Sheldon Cooper, we know that the earth actually moves.) The movements' geopolitical titles suggest a journey, but the world is still the world, just as Notre Dame is still Notre Dame.

Yannatos also offered an alternative, more general interpretation — that his title "refers to vibrations and waves that move through real time and space in the form of sound and interplay between the various levels of musical sound and meaning, referring to our physical world as we live it, our sensory world as we see, hear and feel it, and our spiritual world as we attempt to comprehend it." Indeed, there's something visceral and physical about the way in which energy seems to ebb, flow, now suddenly build, and now quickly dissipate in the work. And this is hard for a building to express, no matter how much sound and light you add to it. Take the last minute of the first movement, where a triumphant chorale gives way to a calmer passage that picks up steam only to fade out into the distance:

The examples here have come only from the first movement, so you'll have to explore Asia and Africa on your own — or, as we at Unsung Symphonies hope, courtesy of some local orchestra finding a way to recognize Dr. Y's contribution to the Harvard Community, the Boston area, and the musical world at large (a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert in his memory of this or another work, perhaps?).

And it'll be interesting to see what kinds of tributes his students come up with. Here's one idea, hard to execute and maybe a little over-the-top: a son et lumière outside Harvard's Memorial Hall (home of Sanders Theatre), with Dr. Y's Symphony No. 5 as the soundtrack.
— Matthew Mugmon

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Innocuous as a Film Score: Williams' Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion

On October 25th, roughly two months before the movie is released in American theaters, John Williams' soundtrack for Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin will hit European shelves--thus ending a three year score drought from the 79 year old composer and sending starved aficionados into a frenzy. Short clips from the score have been steadily appearing on the internet, and one in particular--track 1 "The Adventures of Tintin," set to accompany the film's stylized main credits--quickly caught my attention. (Listen to sneak-peak here). Scored for chamber forces (clarinets and saxes, accordion, upright bass, harpsichord, muted brass, drum-set) and composed in a sprightly quasi-jazz idiom, it is sprinkled with synchronized fragments of themes and a walking bass through-line. Though vastly unlike the boisterous style Williams is best known for, it is an immediately familiar sound to anyone familiar with certain cues from Catch Me If You Can and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, particularly the manic "Knight Bus" cue from the latter (listen here).

Where does this hyperventilating style spring from? The answer lies in a concert work Williams composed in 1968, his Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion. The piece is worth examining not only for its place in Williams' oeuvre, but the way in which it was part of an important development in American music mid 20th century -- the birth and ascendancy of the modern wind ensemble, a creature we have already encountered in Giannini's 3rd Symphony.

The genesis of John Towner Williams (1932-) as today's preeminent film composer was surprisingly eclectic; after a stint arranging for the US Airforce band during the Korean War, Williams went on to study classical piano at Julliard while playing jazz piano in nightclubs. He made the fateful hop to the West Coast in the following year, studying composition at UCLA and playing piano for film studio orchestras. He would progressively graduate to arranging, then composing TV and film scores. Williams, of course, was not (and still is not) primarily known for his concert music, but over the course of his six decade career he has produced an impressive body of "art music," mostly for large orchestra. This includes 11 fine concerti, the most recent of which (oboe) premiered this spring with the Boston Pops, and two symphonic works.[1] 

The second of these symphonic efforts[2] , the Sinfonietta, was written free of a commission, but was picked up by the Eastman Wind Ensemble for performance in 1970, under the baton of Donald Hunsberger. Hunsberger inherited the position of conducting the EWE from its founder, Frederick Fennell, who essentially invented our modern notion of the wind ensemble as distinct from the military band. In the EWE, the obligatory doublings and arrangements common in earlier music for winds were replaced with single performers per part, an emphasis on extended technique, and original commissions from leading art music composers.[3] Hunsberger continued Fennell's legacy, particularly by issuing a series of printed scores with MCA Music and starting a recording series with the same label of new wind works with the EWE. The one single recording of the Sinfonietta's was thanks to Hunsberger's MCA series, placed on an 1972 LP where it was paired with Penderecki's Pittsburgh Overture and Mayazumi's Music with Sculpture. The recording, though re-issued in Japan in the late 90s, is now virtually unobtainable, and the clips I present below are from an admittedly low-quality bootleg.[4]

The Sinfonietta is a short but demanding work. Williams' early concert style can best be described as "dissonant," and here we find almost nothing of the catchy themes or rich harmonies that typify the composer's more public sonic persona. Instead, we get unvarnished atonality, couched not even in the triadic deformations and octatonic scales of his later aggressive concert works. The title "Sinfonietta" would seem to entail a smaller duration and scale than a full blown symphony (it is a descriptor adopted by many 20th century composers, most notably Janacek and Prokofiev), though it also serves as an escape clause from the rigor and importance ascribed to its parent genre. Williams' Sinfonietta is short--but hardly unprecedentedly so--hosting 3 movements instead of the usual four and lasting just short of 17 minutes.

Critics were of mixed opinion on whether Williams lived up, or down, to the diminutive title. One reviewer for High Fidelity Musical America claimed it "is too modestly titled; it is a real symphony in size and scope -- rather Hindemithian, but full of life and juice on its own."[5] A critic for Gramophone magazine was more mixed in praise, calling it "straightforward" and "well laid out," and that "there are some nice ideas, and some banal ones, but only in the first movement are they clinched by the overall form they give rise to."[6] The Gramophone critic shared with a less kind reviewer from The Music Journal a certain anxiety with Williams' status as jazz and film composer rather than classical artist: "Competently scored, appropriately laced with modernisms, it proceeds as innocuously as a film score--a medium, incidentally, at which Mr. Williams is said to excel."[7]

That last review smacks of irony in more ways than need to be tackled here. The Sinfonietta may be many things, but innocuous it certainly is not--and its vast bulk is far too strident to work as effective underscore. The opening movement is motivated largely by the clash of two loud, querulous themes. The first consists of widely spaced, homophonically moving chords for woodwinds, slowly ascending by semitone (in the first appearance, mm. 1-9, that upwards progress is deceptively small, a minor third from G5 to B5). The second theme is introduced at m. 27, something akin to a fugue subject,  although it is not privy to a standard fugue exposition (entries are loosely on A, B, Eb, and C). There is a whiff of something cinematically familiar to this theme, perhaps the "Conversation" from Close Encounters, but by and large it is more Miraculous Mandarin than friendly alien.

First Four Measures of Second Subject, Sinfonietta Mvt. 1 
The two themes contrapuntally collide for the first time at m. 56, and as soon as the brass takes up the second melody, a stretto quickly makes the already dense texture even more hazardous to navigate aurally. There is no doubt that Williams is capable of wringing a big "orchestral" sound from the wind ensemble at moments like this (both themes join at 0:25)

The first movement's middle section is more sparsely orchestrated, with small motivic cells being traded between instruments in a manner similar to early attempts at "Klangfarbenmelodie." However, these independent ideas begin to coalesce into firmer lines in 8ves. Once amassed, the woodwinds once again confront the stern fugue theme, now barely able to resist buckling under the pressure of the low brass. A final pronouncement of the initial homophonic theme brings the movement to an arch-like conclusion, only to disintegrate with an eerie sustained wind chord at its close. (for the truly curious, a 6z-16, which contains two semitone clusters a fifth apart).

The Sinfonietta's slow second movement is a procession of sorts, with quiet and steady pulse from timpani and pitched percussion undergirding its duration. The first 24 measures feature a dissonant conversation between three oboes, with (once again extremely loose) fugal introductions for all three. This yields to a lushly scored chord constructed mostly out of sus2 dyads, a jazz-cum-Ligeti sonority of the sort Williams would later claim was inspired by the ensemble scoring of jazz great Claude Thornhill. This passage is comparatively short-lived, however, and soon the drive of the opening procession returns with a vengeance, cresting with a gigantic climax chord similar to the culmination of the fourth of Webern's 6 Pieces for Orchestra. Here is the tail end of the oboe trio, leading into the rumination on that jazz chord.

And so we arrive at the final "Allegro Molto" movement -- and it is here we discover the original source for the "Knight Bus" style introduced at the beginning. Where a jazz mindset may have provided one or two complex chords in previous movements, here it dominates; a sense of rhapsodic group improvisation pervades, and represents the first of several real contributions Williams would make to Third Stream jazz: a style invented by Gunther Schuller that attempted to blend classical forces and forms with jazz sensibilities.[8]

Following a cacophonous opening, Williams thins the texture down to percussion, solo winds, and a very busy contrabass part. Playing solo or with their 2 other basses, the perfomer runs through a constant stream of 8th notes roving in scalar figurations -- an atonal walking bass, in other words. The material placed above this motor rhythm ranges from quirky to ominous. One can easily discern the seeds for various special effects of the "Knight Bus" cue here, from the off-kilter piano/vibes melody presented in major ninths to the car-horn imitations.[9] A recollection of that noisy opening "restarts" the walking bass, which collapses under the pressure of heavier brass lines, and it is not long before the whole movement slams into a wall of a pyramid chord and goes silent. Since, short of convincing an orchestra to play the whole piece, it is unlikely you can hear this work independently, here is the entire last movement.

Having lain dormant for decades, this final movement of the Sinfonietta for Winds and Percussion served as a fount for some of the most memorable movie music of the last decade. While it seems unlikely Williams will ever return to the genre of the symphony again, we should take comfort in knowing that in film music--and indeed in all music--no good idea, however obscure, ever lacks for a creative application in some surprising form.

---Frank Lehman
1.In this way Williams is part of the same tradition of film composers contributing to the concert hall as Korngold, Rózsa, Previn, and Herrmann, although none of his concert works directly utilize music from his film scores (with one exception, his Elegy for Cello and Orchestra.). Williams routinely downplays the importance of these pieces, claiming they are exercises of personal compositional growth and/or gracious "offerings" to performers with whom he has established a personal relationship; nevertheless, several are works of substance and deserve to be evaluated as "serious" contributions to orchestral literature.
2. His first symphony (1966), written at the prodding of his then mentor Bernard Herrmann, was premiered in America and then Europe, both times under the baton of his friend Andre Previn, in 1968 and 72 respectively. Williams, unsatisfied with the proportions of the piece, reworked it in the 1980s, but a performance of the revised symphony never materialized despited being programmed in 1987.
3. A terrific source for information on the development of the American wind ensemble is the volume The Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire, edited by Frank J. Cippola and Donald Hunsberger himself.
4.  Williams was to benefit twice more from his association with the EWE and Hunsberger. First with a commission to celebrate the school's 50th Anniversary that became his Nostalgic Jazz Odyssey (1971-72) and premiered alongside new works by Howard Hanson. The second was an all-Williams Eastman Philharmonia concert in 2001 initiated by Hunsberger.
5. High Fidelity Musical America, Vol. 22/1, 1972.
6. Gramophone, Vol. 50/1, 1972.
7. The Music Journal, Vol. 30, 1972.
8.  An excellent treatment of Williams' links to that style can be found in Greg Akkerman's 2004 dissertation, "An Original Composition in a Postmodern Confulent Style for Orchestra and An Analysis of Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra by John Williams." 
9. Even a respite at measure 67 (1:47) seems to have a correlate in a portion of the "Bus" cue where the bus interior squeezes down to fit through narrow spaces!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Basque Mozart Effect: Arriaga's First (and Only) Symphony

For some of the composers we've covered here, it is truly baffling that they aren't better known. These are the symphonists whose works are accessible, profound, perhaps even popular at the time of their premieres, but for some whim of concert programming, didn't quite make it into the canon.

Then there are those for whom obscurity--however undeserved--is not a surprise. Such is the case with the Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826), whose marginal status today is the result of a convergence of sorry circumstances: a brief life, a small output, and a musically non-mainstream nationality.

Arriaga's composing career was stunted because of his incredibly short lifespan. He died from tuberculosis 10 days before reaching his 20th birthday, although his teacher, the eminent François-Joseph Fétis, held that Arriaga's work ethic led him to counterpoint-exercise himself to death.[1] Arriaga developed into an extraordinary musical prodigy at the prodding of his organist father. At thirteen he penned his one and only opera, with an in-vogue Turkish abduction plot, Los Esclavos Felices (The Happy Slaves). Yet he was so shy that at its premiere in his hometown of Bilbao, he hid away until tremendous applause at its conclusion drew him out. He moved to Paris at age 15 to study at the Paris Conservatoire. His truncated tenure was highly productive, for what it's worth. He wrote arias, fugues, a cantata and Stabat Mater, three string quartets--works that stunned Fétis as well as the extremely difficult-to please head professor Luigi Cherubini. And a single Symphony in D.

After his death, Arriaga's relatives promoted an image of Arriaga as the "Spanish Mozart" (or indeed, given his birthplace in Bilbao, the "Basque Mozart" for members of Basque nationalist movements). The comparison is not just apt, it's spooky. Arriaga was born exactly 50 years (to the hour!) after the birth of W. A. Mozart. Like his predecessor/past-soul incarnation, Arriaga wrote in a mostly Viennese classical style, which was still the dominant popular and academic idiom of his day. He had a remarkable melodic verve and mastery of counterpoint, but died before these skills solidified into something truly revolutionary. Perhaps his failure to even glance the surface of the canon owes to the lack of overt "Spanishisms" in his music. Spain since Domenico Scarlatti had more or less slipped off the radar of mainstream European concert composition, and despite his promise, Arriaga neither established a national school of Spanish music at home, nor did he introduce a curious "ethnic" flavor that would have entranced central European audiences. No castanets, no jota rhythms. Though a few commentators have discerned vague "Latin flavor" in his melodic writing, Arriaga was a cosmopolitan composer at heart rather than a purveyor of local color.

The Symphony in D was written during Arriaga's time at the Conservatoire, and was probably performed there once. (At least the composer would have been able to hear his orchestral masterpiece, provided he wasn't still so shy to avoid the premiere.) It is a smoothly conceived and executed work, displaying more than just facility, but a real fluency with Classical symphonic form. The first movement is a churning allegro in D-minor, but it starts off with a lengthy slow introduction in the parallel key of D-major.[2] Things pick up with the entrance of the movement's Sturm-und-Drang exposition, full of dissonant thunderclaps and angsty string palpitations. Especially skillful is the motivic consistency; parts of the main theme and its transition are incorporated into the second subject in the relative major F. Here is a fairly substantial portion of the expo, leading halfway through the second theme. Listen for the 4 eighth-note rhythmic motif ba-ba-ba-BUM, where that last BUM always lands on a note much lower than the first.

[All excerpts come from the Concerto Koln Cappricio recording]

The symphony's slow second movement is based around a pair of unhurried themes framed once again within a sonata structure. The second of these is particularly beautiful, a lyrical melody one might easily mistake for Mozart (on a good day). Next up, a minuet+trio movement (no shock there), although the minuet is so jagged and full of tutti-alternating-with-concertino scoring that whatever gentility the dance might originally have boasted is surely purged here. The cheeky syncopation of the opening, combined with the extreme economy of melodic materials (scarcely more than arpeggios in 2-voice imitation) leaves a distinct and welcome Haydnesque taste.

Arriaga leaves the most impressive display of his burgeoning compositional talent to the last movement's Allegro con moto, where we are returned to the tempestuous mood of the opening. True, the throbbing accompaniment and troubled but energetic theme are heavily reminiscent of Mozart's 40th Symphony. But perhaps the commentator Alan Pedigo isn't totally off-base in claiming that the movement is "flavored with variations of the rhyhtm and melody of the Fandango and Andalucia."[3] The off-beat chords in the woodwinds anticipate more violent bursts when the first theme concludes and heads into the second theme area. We have, then, another rather dangerous dance.[4]

The development is short but in its way substantial, and at one point just happens to launch into a fuguetto based on the second subject. Where lapsing effortlessly and unexpectedly into fugue was a mark of Beethoven's late style, for young Arriaga it seems motivated by a combination of showing-off and free wheeling joy in counterpoint that Fetis so admired.

The modified transition section of the recapitulation is the most remarkable portion of the symphony. To understand what's happening here, we need to return to the exposition, and inspect the way Arriaga gets from the D-minor of the first subject to F-major of the second. The strategy there is already a little odd, as it involves a passage that very quickly takes us to a chromatic destination (C-minor) as part of a sequence falling in major seconds. The ultimate goal is the pitch Bb, which acts as the seventh of a downward arpeggiating C-dominant for F-major.

The question Arriaga must have posed himself is "how do I change this transition in the recap so that I end up *back* in D?" His answer is to re-position that chromatic event so that it affects A rather than the tonic D. The result is a shocking motion from A-major to Ab-major. True, that latter chord is transitional in character, leading to further semitonal droops all the way to Gb (bIV?!). But it remains an astonishingly bold musical shift to the single most remote key out there (Ab in the key of D is...bV?). The surprises continue, when Gb is reinterpreted as F# and climbs *back up* to Ab (now heard as G#), which settles on A major as the proper dominant that clinches theme number two.

For the analysis-oriented of you, here is a little reduction of the process as it occurs in both sections, lined up to show the similarities and divergences in strategy.
Harmonic Reduction of Transition in Exposition and Recap of Arriaga Symphony in D, Mvt. 4
Arriaga's symphony, despite these dazzling flourishes, is ultimately a rather conventional animal. Yet we must remember it was written while he was still a composer in training. Indeed, if his life were not cut so short, Juan Arriaga may well have become one of continental Europe's most widely sung symphonists.

---Frank Lehman

[1]. Recounted in Barbara Rosen's Arriaga, the Forgotten Genius: The Short Life of a Basque Composer. (17-18). Rosen's slim volume is an invaluable source for information on Arriaga, not just biographical, but with regard to his place in music history and the gradual attempts to revive his music.
[2]. Frankly, I feel the intro is the weakest part of the work; Arriaga basically lifts his beginning from the slow opening of Beethoven's 2nd symphony (by accident or more likely, star-struck imitation, I'd wager).
[3]. Cited in Rosen, 50.
[4]. That transition is achieved in part through a hearty "three-blind mice" figure for low strings that Rosen hears as a distant premonintion of Dvorak's 9th symphony, 4th mvt-- and it's hard not to hear it that way once attuned. (Rosen, ibid)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Milhaud's Symphony No. 1: "Choose Your Own Subtitle"

Unsung Symphonies is happy to welcome Louis Epstein, a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at Harvard University. Louis is writing a dissertation on funding for music composition in interwar France and has been promising to redress our shameful lack of Gallic symphonies over here for quite some time. It's worth the wait, as Louis's comprehensive take on Milhaud's First Symphony speaks to many of the problems at stake in 20th Century symphony composition (and reception) that we're constantly negotiating here at our blog!

Legion are the symphonies whose legacies depend, in part, on epic and provocative subtitles: “Farewell,” “Eroica,” “Titan,” "Apocalyptic" to name but a few. Darius Milhaud’s Symphony No. 1 bears no such subtitle – one possible reason for its relative obscurity to date – but I hope to change that now. As I reinvent the historiographical legacy of Symphony No. 1, I’ll audition three possible subtitles, each one more epic and provocative than the last.

I. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “Post-Neoclassical”

Milhaud, along with Stravinsky, was one of the major practitioners of the neoclassical aesthetic in music in the 1920s and 1930s. Eschewing huge ensembles, overwrought sentimentality, and “German” heaviness, Milhaud’s first attempts in the “symphonic” genre were his Six Petites Symphonies, which were really chamber works whose titles implied rejection, rather than embrace, of the symphonic ideal. To a certain extent, Symphony No. 1 continues in this vein by problematizing sonata form[1] and frequently employing chamber ensembles within the orchestra. The opening of the symphony is its most concentrated neoclassical moment: the winds carry the accessible theme, accompanied by pizzicato strings whose primary purpose seems to be staying out of the way.

The symphony’s neoclassical veneer persists through the first movement with but a few scratches. By the opening of the fourth movement, however, Milhaud’s exposed, tormented spirit is on display with a heavily orchestrated theme at odds with the typical neoclassical (read: “French” or “Stravinskian” ) priority of emotional detachment.

Yet following this moment, Milhaud turns his back on overwrought emotion, investing in sincerity and reduced orchestral forces once again.

Moments like these make Milhaud’s Symphony No. 1 an excellent candidate for the moniker “Post-neoclassical.” Unlike Stravinsky, Milhaud seems content to harness neoclassicism selectively, diverging from the aesthetic when needed to achieve contrast, or to heighten emotion, or to give all members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (the commissioning body) something to play. And the most evidently post-neoclassical move of all – writing a program symphony! – inspires my next proposed subtitle:

II. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “Deliverance

To Milhaud, his wife, and their son, this symphony was a ticket out of the crumbling French republic at the beginning of the Second World War, delivering the family from (certain) evil and (likely) death. Frederick Stock (conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) commissioned the symphony from Milhaud in mid-1939 to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary.[2] When the Germans invaded France, capturing Paris and forcing the capitulation of Mar'echal Petain, the Milhaud family fled, crossing the border into Spain and from there Portugal. Milhaud used newspaper articles and correspondence with his manager to prove that he had composed a symphony for an American orchestra and was expected to attend its premiere, and this was enough to earn him a coveted visa. The family exited Europe through Lisbon, arriving in New York on July 15, 1940.

The context of the war emerges audibly – even programmatically – throughout Milhaud’s symphony. The end of the otherwise serene first movement tempers its innocent, pastoral topic with rumblings of something dark in the cellos and bass clarinet.

The second movement opens with a fulfillment of that sinister promise. After the first presentation of a violent, angular theme, Milhaud offsets it against itself by half a measure, marking with a very real displacement the confusion and despair of wartime. It's worth comparing several recordings to see how this effect can be exploited. The first is Michel Plasson’s 1992 performance with the Toulon Symphony, which softens the drama of this moment through technical polish.

In the second, Leopold Stokowski’s 1943 performance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the manic tempo accentuates the uncertainty of Milhaud’s melody - appropriate for a wartime recording.[3] If you learned about this Milhaud symphony through Stokowski’s recording, you would be forgiven for immediately associating it with World War II - this performance drips with violence and pathos.

Following the pastoral first movement, the martial second movement easily might evoke the trampling of the folk by an invading force. The languorous and melancholy third movement suggests dejection, resignation, and calm uncertainty. We've already heard the beginning of the fourth movement, a musical representation of servitude if ever there were one. Following this theme, though, another emerges - a peppy sea-shanty in the winds.

Near the end of the movement, the two themes compete for preeminence. In the battle between Germanic heaviness and an Anglo-Saxon-influenced folk tune, only one can survive . . .

To find out which theme wins, you'll have to take a listen on your own (or just think about who won the Second World War). Then again, there's a strong chance that this theme - and the whole symphony - isn't about the war at all. The dates of the symphony tell the story. In his autobiography, Milhaud reports that due to illness and writer’s block, he didn’t start composing until after war had broken out, in November 1939. (So it is about the war!) Consistent with Milhaud’s general compositional facility, he finished the work in short order on December 19th, 1939, meaning he wrote the entire thing during the so-called “dr^ole de guerre” in France, before the German invasion, and well before Milhaud knew he would need to flee the country.  So a program that traces the various stages of the war – calm, defeat, desolation, ending with a battle between servitude and liberty – seems historically inaccurate, even if it does make for a nice story.

Still, there’s no denying that Symphony No. 1 deserves the subtitle “Deliverance.” For one thing, the work undoubtedly saved Milhaud and his family. And even if its content couldn’t possibly comment on the war at hand, there’s no reason it can’t make more of a universal claim - maybe something timeless about good vs. evil. This, too, is a projection not easily born out by the historical record, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

This admission brings me to my final subtitle proposal.

III. Milhaud Symphony No. 1: “American

Yes, Milhaud was born in France and spent his entire life a French citizen. Yes, this piece was composed entirely in France. Yet what could be more American than a classic immigration tale in which an upstanding individual flees persecution only to make a major contribution to the culture of his adopted land? Milhaud even considered Symphony No. 1 to be his first “Opus Americanum,” his first work (of many) to be premiered, printed, and promoted in the United States. Pace Milhaud, I would argue that his first “American” music dates from the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he became fascinated by Harlem jazz.[4]. And Milhaud didn’t merely essentialize “America” as a one-trick, jazzy pony. His particular brands of polytonality, syncopation, orchestration, and interest in rural musics all constitute affinities between his work and canonical “American” modernist music of the early 20th century. A particularly representative moment comes in the middle of the first movement:

The third movement seems to constitute the greatest nod to Americana, with its omnipresent blue notes, “Summertime”-like languor, and emphasis on wind timbres.

Ultimately it’s less important that the piece sound American (since we still don’t really know what “America” sounds like) than it is that the piece and its composer stake out a clearly defined place in American musical culture. With a commission and premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and an early second performance by Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Mihaud's musical style clearly appealed to American tastes. Through his many years of teaching at Mills College, his numerous commissions by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a surprising number of other American orchestras (San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans, and more!), Milhaud’s music did more than interlope on American musical life – his work helped define it.

My subtitles for Milhaud's First Symphony highlight how reception can color our perception of a piece, and they point to an age-old dispute about the nature of "programmatic" music. (Does the Eroica sound heroic if we don't know the title?) In truth, one could audition any number of subtitles for any symphony - but only time will reveal which subtitle proves most apt. For Milhaud's Symphony No. 1, will it be "Post-neoclassical," "Deliverance," "American" - or would you choose something entirely different?
--Louis Epstein

1. Recapitulations are only nominally related to expositions; themes come in Mozartian groups rather than Beethovenian oppositions. See Roger Nichols, Liner Notes to Michel Plasson recording.
2. Stock also commissioned Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Miaskovsky's Symphony No. 21, Harris's American Creed, Kodály's Concerto for Orchestra, Glière's Fête ferganaise Overture, Casella's Symphony No. 3, and Walton's Scapino Overture – plenty of fodder for future Unsung Symphonies posts! See
3. It’s worth noting that the second recording can be found on the same album as two other Stokowski wartime performances, one of Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 1 “Exile” (see what I mean about epic subtitles?) and Copland’s Symphony No. 2 “Short” (not so epic).
4. In fact, Milhaud’s efforts at incorporating elements of jazz into art music predate those of Copland, Virgil Thomson, and other American composers who knew his music

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What The Parasitic Hymenopter Tells Me: Aho's "Insect Symphony"

Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's Seventh Symphony  (Hyönteisinfonia, "Insect Symphony") may be the most high-minded work ever to depict the trials and travails of the dung beetle. The fourth movement, with the charming subtitle "The Dung Beetles (Grief over the Stolen Ball of Dung)", is an exercise in the effortful accumulation of orchestral volume and energy -- the ever-rising tessitura and chromatic scales turning over themselves bring to mind the adjective "rolling."

[All excerpts come from Osmo Vänskä's recording on the BIS label]

For what purpose is this energy expended, and what forces are behind the theft of its product? The answer lies in the source material for this symphony. In 1987, Aho (1949-) submitted his second opera, Hyönteiselämää ("Insect's Life") to a competition put on by the Savonlinna Opera Festival that would reward the winner with a performance to mark the 350th anniversary of the host town. Aho's submission was an adaptation of the popular post-war Czech play Pictures from an Insect's Life by Karel and Joseph Čapek. It is an at times viciously satirical piece of theater in which a drunken vagrant projects anthropomorphized traits onto the various insect species he encounters, and inserts himself into their petty lives. The dung beetles are portrayed as greedily industrious (spending their lives accumulating hard-earned "capital" in the form know what) and easily devastated by the theft of the material fruits of their labor. Kind of gives "Sisyphean" a different aroma, doesn't it?

The two other competitors in this festival were Paavo Heininen and Einojuhani Rautavaara, and the prize went to the former for his opera Veitsi (The Knife). Determined not to let his material from his insectoid opera go to waste, Aho turned to compositional tactic we've seen before from frustrated opera composers: turn it into a symphony! We've already featured two Unsung Symphonies that originate this way: Henze's Fourth, derived from his König Hirsch; and Rautavaara's Sixth, derived from his Vincent -- which, you guessed it, was the other losing entry from the Savonlinna competition! But don't worry, both Aho and Rautavaara's operas went on to have very successful premiers after the fact (why, the Insect Symphony had its Japanese premier in 2009!)[1]. You can hear the composer's own words on the process by following this link to YouTube.

Aho is one of the shining lights of Finland's post-Sibelius musical efflorescence. A student of Rautavaara, Aho has surpassed his mentor in symphonic output, 15 to the grand old man's 8. The first six establish the musical landscape Aho feels comfortable inhabiting, alternatively neo-Classical (with a penchant for fugues and distorted familiar forms) and rigorously modernist.[2] The cross-pollination of these idioms naturally suggests a post-modern outlook, but Aho is no slavish practitioner of any "ism". Indeed, that high-mindedness I mentioned in relation to the dung beetle episode is emblematic of the Insect Symphony as a whole -- it is both the product of and a sly criticism of post-modernism (perhaps a redundant claim for a post-modern work!). Aho, in his commentary on the symphony, emphasizes the flagrant stylistic and tonal (in emotional, not musical terms) discontinuities between its six movements, each of which sounds like a direct repudiation of the one that preceded it, but in his words "nowhere do we find a unifying synthesis of all the extremely disparate material that has been presented."[3] Stylistic allusions and disruptive "pseudo-quotations" run rampant, but at the same time there is a carefully managed emotional arc. Individual movements are cohesive (leading some to deem it more of a suite than a symphony) while at the same time only really resonating in relation to the work as a whole. In Aho's words, "The movements support each other because of their underlying opposite natures, and they cannot be performed in any other order. The symphony...accords with Mahler's conviction that the symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything."

Gustav Mahler probably didn't have bug larvae in mind when he made that all-encompassing claim for the genre, but considering the millions upon millions of species of insects that dwarf humankind in variety and biomass on this planet, perhaps Aho has it right. An accurate symphonic portrait of the world damn well better feature our six-legged overlords prominently!

Rather than attempt to capture or mimic the multitude of sounds that come from the insect world (try this instead), Aho extracts human-like character traits and renders them with orchestral magic. The symphony's first movement, "The Tramp, the Parasitic Hymenopter and its Larva," introduces us to the character of the drunken vagrant who hallucinates the personalities of the rest of the proceedings. With tuba and muted brass melodies tottering and tripping over themselves, we can glean how Aho adapted vocal lines from the source opera.[4]

You need only hear the first second of the next movement to understand what Aho meant by the "opposite natures" of these musical portraits. "Foxtrot and Tango of the Butterflies" introduces a wildly syncopated (and tonal!) dance set, with alto sax, trombone, and clarinet piping weirdly "off" two-step tunes. The scene from Čapek's play with the butterflies is like a soap-opera involving unrequited romance and lover's recriminations.  Aho's dense overscoring and chromatic skids and slips lends the movement a dizzy energy redolent of Ravel's similar choreographic disassembly in "La Valse." One isn't left with a particular desire to spend an evening with these social butterflies.

The Dung Beetle's ordeal comes on the heels of this manic dance scene, and is followed (should I say "negated") by a diaphanous scherzo depicting "The Grasshoppers." These sprightly creatures are depicted with quicksilver chord progressions garbed in flitting orchestral colors. Despite its surface impatience, there is more wholesale melodic repetition in this movement than elsewhere -- we get to know and love this light motif for the nervous creatures quite well by movement's end.

The symphony's concluding two movements are its most substantial. Number five gives us a glimpse into the musical culture of the insect world's implacable colonists -- "The Working Music of the Ants and War Marches I and II." The ceaselessly regular procession witnesses the orchestra carting away major seconds with grim determination towards an unknown goal. Streams of these intervals converge into a massive onslaught as the movement progresses, and Aho unleashes some particularly extravagant percussion instruments to keep the ants in line. By the time the it reaches a grotesque and Shostakovich-esque parody of a pompous military march, it seems Aho has in his sights an indictment of fascistic militarism, or at least, a bad experience involving fire ants.

With that fifth movement, Aho's Seventh symphony turns a corner -- in his words "Satire and comedy eventually give way to tragedy; the sensitivity and beauty of the ending are also combined with feelings of profound loneliness and alienation." And so we are provided the final portrait, "The Dayflies and Lullaby for the Dead Lullabies." Unvarnished triads and sweet textures are the norm now, and the lullaby, scored for two violins congenitally joined at the major third, sounds like an artificially-honeyed Richard Strauss confection. But there is deep pathos here too. Dayflies (a.k.a. mayflies) spend at most a day or two of their lives in their adult forms (some last barely 30 minutes) before expiring, hopefully having successfully mated during their brief taste of life. A shockingly brutal climax in the middle of this sweet movement gives way to an extended elegy for these entomological ephemera.

Considering their momentary lives, I find it poignant that Aho allots such a lengthy and slow meditation for the mayflies' expiry. The cello eulogy is one of the most haunting endings to a symphony I've heard from the 20th century.[5] It is a devastating conclusion to a work that up to this point has held the listener at arms' length with its sense of musical travesty and play. All traces of the symphony's satirical venom is drained by this stage.  Perhaps this is the critique of post-modernism Aho speaks of -- to be able to wring the deepest pathos from the death of a mayfly.

--Frank Lehman

[2]. See Kimmo Korhonen Inventing Finnish Music (2007, 156-160) for a nice contextualization of Aho in the vibrant Finish musical scene.
[3]. Kalevi Aho 1998 (From liner notes to BIS-CD-936)
[4].  Your guess is as good as mine as to the role played in all this by the "parasitic hymenopter", hymenoptera being the order that includes termites, bees, and ants.
[5]. There may be an element of Mahler 9 or Tchaikovsky 6 in this depressive ending, but what I hear most resoundingly is the strange and beautiful conclusion to Rautavaara's 5th (perhaps his boldest and most punch-to-the-gut powerful symphony).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ghost in the Machine: Leonardo Balada's 'Steel Symphony'

The wistful, lovely sounds of modern machinery have long fascinated composers. Especially in the 1920s, the clanging of factories and the rumblings of engines permeated musical scores. Inspired by futurism, composers like George Antheil (in the Ballet mécanique) brazenly built the sounds of machines into their works.

While this excitement about mechanical sounds has certainly suffused music of the later twentieth-century, it has gone far beyond simply imitating and reveling in modern noise. You could argue (as Flora Dennis and Jonathan Powell have in their Grove article on futurism) that movements like serialism and minimalism are related to the futurists' fascination with machines.

But some music of the later twentieth century is cut directly from the same cloth as pieces like the Ballet mécanique or Arthur Honegger's train-inspired Pacific 231. Enter Leonardo Balada (1933-), who was born after the 1920s musical tech-craze but produced at least one symphony that could have fit right into that movement.

Balada, born in Spain, composed several symphonies and has taught at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pa, since 1970. So it's fitting that he'd make one of those symphonies intimately linked to the industrial landscape of his American town. The Steel Symphony was premiered by Donald Johanos and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1973. And as the composer acknowledged in the liner notes for Lorin Maazel's 1986 recording with the same group (heard in the clips here), he used the sounds of local steel mills for inspiration.

The symphony begins like Weigl's Fifth, with the sounds of an orchestra tuning. Perhaps that was the easiest way to suggest the beginning of the workday in a steel mill, the tools literally tuning up for a day's work:

Soon, a blanket of ominous sounds covers the listener. Layers of pedal points, striking intervals, and ghostly, sliding strings make this clip sound more like a march of war than a day at the factory:

Clearer rhythms and tunes do show up in this symphony — eventually. The regular pulsing of a machine nearly becomes an all-out dance before it's rudely interrupted (by the foreman?), and one of Balada's favorite devices, the frantic scurrying of strings, takes over:

Overall, the form of this one-movement work alternates between the dance-like, mechanical passages and broader, more rhapsodic, unpredictable, and pedal-point heavy ones, like this:

Balada's Steel Symphony came toward the end, rather than the beginning, of an industry's heyday. Back in the 1920s, machines were exciting — even though the First World War taught everyone how harmful they could be. In the early 1970s, when Balada wrote his Steel Symphony, though, the prospects for steel in Pittsburgh — whether Balada knew it or not — were getting bleak. So Balada's symphony gives us something of a look back. In his liner notes for the Maazel recording, David Wright suggested that the timpani heartbeat-like rhythm at the end is an "unabashed tribute to the symbiosis of human and machine." But we could instead hear the fading of that heartbeat rhythm as a prediction of the death of a big part of a city's identity, or as a musical depiction of an industry's last gasp:

But I don't think futurism itself is dead. It's just taken on new forms. As this clip reveals, there's hope yet for the connection between music and machines.

— Matthew Mugmon

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shredding Sequences: Glazunov's Fifth

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) is one of those figures in music history with the misfortune of holding onto one style while living across the great divide that separates 19th Century Romanticism and 20th Century Modernism. A composer of prodigious technical skill and legendary musical memory, he is best known today for his violin concerto and ballet music, though judging by recording releases, his symphonies are also beginning to get a well-deserved second look. He rode the wave of Russian romantic nationalism initiated by Balakirev, exceeding his older models Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in symphonic output with 8 completed symphonies and a ninth left incomplete at his death (of course). A glittering orchestrator, nimble contrapuntalist, and harmonic wizard, Glazunov nevertheless had little taste for the musical revolutions well underway by the time he accepted the directorship of the St. Petersberg Conservatory in 1905. The majority of his large-scale compositions were finished before 1910, and his historical import in the 20th century resides in his influential if conservative tenure at the conservatory, where he ardently supported newcomers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich if never quite comprehending the direction they were taking Russian music.

Glazunov completed his Fifth Symphony in B-flat Major Op. 55 "Heroic" in 1895. His own personal voice was well-established by this point - a synthesis of nationalistic and cosmopolitan influences, Tchaikovsky minus the pathos, Kuchka minus the parallel 5ths. This work, according to musicologist Richard Taruskin, had an out-sized influence on the first opus of one Igor Stravinsky (his skillful but hardly earth-shattering Symphony in Eb).[1] The connection to subsequent work from a later composer (however much a stylistic dead-end) is the more fitting given the eclectic influences from earlier composers readily audible in Glazunov's Fifth. He rolls out the first movement's maetoso's broad introductory theme like a Wagnerian leitmotif, sounding more Rhein-maiden than Volga-boatman. The performance here is Valeri Polyansky with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, from a great Brilliant Classics set:

This theme, along with many of Glazunov's harmonic twists throughout the movement, recalls Wagner quite a bit. Like basically every other composer from the last quarter of the 19th Century, he selectively infused his works with elements dutifully gleaned from the German composer, even though his own aesthetic temperament certainly did not line up with Wagner's. Following a lengthy slow intro, the first movement's sonata form gets underway with a first subject that speeds up and lyricizes that opening theme. The more dance-like second subject is a close relative to the first, and during the dramatic development section it becomes hard to tease apart which is guiding the way (especially given Glazunov's penchant for sounding them at the same time in invertible counterpoint).

If Wagner looms heavily over the first movement, then it is Mendelssohn dancing lightly that we hear when we move on to the second movement's Scherzo. The fleet-footed wind writing has Mendelssohn's elfin prints all over it, but the music is most appealing in how Glazunov's Russian rhythmic and harmonic sensibilities pucker the overall sound. (We can also hear the first of several, typically very innocuous motivic references to the first movement)

A different world entirely is presented by the Andante third movement. Two minutes of searching  harmonies come before anything resembling a full theme is established:

These lush and dark progressions set a scene of nocturnal romance, but one continually threatened by outside forces. More than any specific musical similiarity, this tone of forbidden ardor is why I think some commentators have linked it with Tristan und Isolde. (The menacing, chromatic brass chorales that deter the lush harmonies at intervals contribute to the effect as well. But don't worry, the affair ends happily, in a radiant Eb-major, flanked on both ends by major third relations).

The final movement's vigorous and rhythmically jolting Allegro is pure Glazunov, seven minutes of sustained orchestral fireworks in a somewhat loose rondo structure, with 3 or 4 themes ripping past each other in quick succession. In it he manages to combine two of my favorite 19th century stylistic hallmarks -- beefy pedal points and head-scratching chromatic sequences. The second main thematic area combines both. It starts off with a threatening theme over Eb/D# pedal with a suggestion of 3+3+2 metrical subdivision. This gives way to a brief melancholic melody, still churning with unrest thanks to a constantly throbbing bass line. This is interrupted by the threatening theme once again, rearing its head in a more aggressive guise. The far-out sequence that concludes the section goes on for a bewilderingly long time, but still manages, in my professional opinion, to rock. [2]

Heck, here's the whole final movement, performed by the USSR State Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov. He breathes more fire into the finale, although there are some pretty weird tempi choices.

--Frank Lehman
1: Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions Volume 1 (205-222)
2: Part of the ass-kicking nature of this sequence owes to the way Glazunov mixes major and minor third progressions, all the while navigating downwards by semitone -- this manages to make a progression that at its core might sound like a lessening of intensity, and increase or decrease its tension at Glazunov's orchestrational discretion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Opera that Never Was: Busoni's Piano Concerto

Today's Unsung Symphonies riddle: What looks like a piano concerto, smells like a piano concerto, and sounds like a piano concerto, but isn't a piano concerto?

The answer: Ferrucio Busoni's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with Men's Choir, op. 39 (1904) by Ferrucio Busoni (1866-1924). Don't let the name fool you. It's really a symphony and an opera rolled into one.

I'm exaggerating, of course. This early work by the Italian pianist and composer does lots of things you'd expect out of a concerto. When I see that genre designation, I tell myself that I'll hear a short-ish symphony that highlights one or more solo instruments. Like a good concerto, Busoni's work does feature the requisite interplay between soloist and orchestra. With passages like this one at the end of the fourth movement (recordings here by John Ogden, the John Alldis Choir, Daniell Revenaugh, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), we can easily hear it as a showpiece for a virtuosic pianist:

But a few surface elements make it a little harder to pin down this work. For starters, it has five big movements — a bit unusual for concertos, but not for symphonies. And that fifth movement, as you might have guessed from the work's title, is a stirring number for chorus and orchestra. Again, a bit unusual for concertos, but not for symphonies. Oh, and the whole thing lasts about 80 minutes, significantly outdoing one close runner-up as a symphonic concerto, Johannes' Brahms four-movement Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat. (The underrated Wilhelm Furtwängler also wrote a long piano concerto, but it apparently only has three movements.)

One more thing: Busoni's concerto also has cool artwork (the print on the score is by Heinrich Vogeler).

As it happens, Busoni's (not) piano concerto didn't even start out as a (not) piano concerto, but rather, as a (not) opera. Busoni wrote that he was planning a "Gesamtkunstwerk" — a "total artwork" — "with acting, music, dance, magic" on Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin. What actually popped out was this dazzling five-movement colossus of a concerto. The most overt reference to his original project was the choral fifth movement, and the whole concerto has been said to contain his ideas from the planned work and another operatic false start, Sigune.1

But the links to opera run much deeper. The musicologist Antony Beaumont wrote that the concerto's "inherent theatricality and its monumental proportions indicate that this is a veritable Bühenweihfestspiel [stage-dedication festival-play] of a concerto," and he pointed to its original seven-movement plan, in which the original third movement was a "Recitativo stromentale".2 In light of this potential link to Wagner's Parsifal, it's not surprising that Busoni called Wagner "a contemptible, little Saxon, with boring music and some strokes of genius,"3 because it tells us he was thinking a lot about Uncle Richard. Wagner in particular (as you might have noticed in the harmonies above), and operatic gestures in general, infuse this piano concerto.

Like any good narrative work, the work brings us in mid-action. A lilting string passage in the first movement, "Prologo e Introito," might as well have been going on for ages before we hear it:

(This sounds a lot like the start of Schumann's Second Symphony, but without the trumpet to tell us immediately that this is a beginning.)

While in a concerto we might expect the movements to end with a bang, here (except for the final one) they tend to fade out ominously, which tells us to anticipate something new right away. Here's how the otherwise rowdy second movement, "Pezzo giocoso," ends (and note how the final chord seems to show up out of nowhere):

Just as Busoni hoped for his big Aladdin musical, the movements are loaded with what might be heard as snippets of songs, dances, and maybe even magic. The long, slow third movement, "Piezzo serioso," is this concerto's emotional center of gravity, and the persistent timpani at the end — like gunshots in the distance — could accompany a nightmare scene:

This clip from the first movement, in which the solo oboe takes up that opening lilting melody, might well work with a scene of spells and charms:

And this passage toward the end of the scherzo-like fourth movement "All'Italiana," sounds like a zany recomposition of the mega-endings of many 19th-century Italian operas — or maybe it's closer in spirit to a Chopin Tarantella. Here you'll notice more ominous timpani and the fact that all this wackiness leads into the cadenza you already heard, above:

In these clips, we've heard the piano here and there, but what does it really do in this work? Unlike in a "real" concerto, strict exchange between piano and orchestra doesn't really hold this piece together. A dramaturgical sensibility actually seems to be what drives it forward. The piano part participates in, rather than defines, the piece's structure. And this makes the piano more of a character in a drama than a convenient carrier of information about the piece's supposed genre. (Busoni apparently thought of this piece as a "Symphonie italienne."4)

In the fifth movement, the piano recedes. It's is just another instrument in the orchestra, the scenery for a cosmic opening. Before the chorus enters with the stunning "Hymn to Allah," the rising string figures herald the text's advice to "Lift up your hearts to the power eternal."

(Busoni might not admit it, but this sounds like it could fit pretty well at the end of Parsifal.)

The piano does rear its head throughout the movement, and particularly toward the end, with the same big arpeggios it started with when it first appeared in the first movement — one of the ways this whole work maintains some structural coherence. (Themes appear and get manipulated from movement to movement, and for more on that, as well as the origins of some of them, see Beaumont's introduction to this piece in Busoni the Composer.)

No matter how much I enjoyed Busoni's piano concerto, one thing is for sure: when it comes to musical treatments of Aladdin, Peabo and Regina have already said it all.

— Matthew Mugmon

1. From a letter to Egon Petri, quoted in Antony Beaumont, "Preface," in Ferrucio Busoni, Concerto für Klavier und Orchester mit Männerchor, op. 39 (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1994) 166.
2. Ibid.
3. Ferrucio Busoni, Selected Letters, trans. and ed. Antony Beaumont (New York: Columbia University press, 1987) 166.
4. Beaumont, Busoni the Composer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 74.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Atonal Accessibility? - Perle's Sinfonietta II

Although we've dealt with very few hardcore atonal works here at Unsung Symphonies so far, there does exist a (somewhat sporadic) thread of symphony writing among composers of a...less-than-tonal persuasion. The founding trinity of mainstream atonality, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, all composed multi-movement orchestral works -- some symphs in all but name (Berg's 3 Orchestral Pieces), others in barely anything other than name (Webern's Symphony Op. 21). I venture that their ambivalence towards the genre stems from conflicting urges for 1) non-repetition and the abandonment of set forms and 2) a certain penchant for familiar containers with a lot of cultural cachet to ground their experimental impulses.

One composer who felt this atonal ambivalence with special acuteness was the American George Perle (1915-2009). Enraptured with the wide open possibilities of Viennese atonality from an early age, Perle nevertheless felt Schoenberg left behind an unfinished project. Perle believed that Schoenberg's 12-Tone Method (also known as serialism) was a partial and unsatisfactory way for dealing with these new resources. As prominent a music theorist as he was a composer, Perle set out to discover a more musical basis for picking this note over that. In a series of influential books and articles, he ended up formulating what he called "Twelve Tone Tonality," a system that allowed for many of the gestures of traditional music -- cadences, "mode" and "keys", and most importantly a real sense of directed chord progression -- without any of the trappings of tonal pitch selection or syntax.[1] Perle wrote the majority of his own music according to this system. But rather than existing simply to validate his music theoretically, Perle's special brand of "Tonality" was deeply committed to accessibility.

Someone suspicious of atonality and its reputation of ugliness and difficulty would do well to give Perle's Sinfonietta II a listen. He composed this in the fall of 1990 during his three year tenure as the San Francisco Symphony's composer-in-residence. It was performed in February of the next year under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt. Newspaper reviews were quite lavish with their praise, and especially quick to emphasize how enjoyable, or in the words of Sacramento Bee reviewer William Glackin, how "happy" a work it was.[2] The San Francisco Examiner called the Sinfonietta "disarmingly communicative" (expecting something else?), while the San Jose Mercury News basically dubbed Perle the spiritual successor of France's "Les Six": "Nothing is trite; nothing is a rerun; nothing panders to popular taste."

Like the duration (a fleeting 16 minutes), the orchestra of Perle's Sinfonietta II is quite small, save for the percussion section, which keeps its four performers busy with thirteen colorful instruments in strategic reserve. The outer movements, labelled Scherzo I and Scherzo II, are siblings in terms of structure and ethos, both playful romps with a clear ABA form. Orchestration is usually tidy and open, the opposite of Berg and Schoenberg's dense-thicket approach, closer in spirit to Webern's crystal lattices. But that's basically where the Webern similarities end, because Perle projects a sense of fun and extroversion completely alien to that more rarefied style. Melodies and motifs crop up repeatedly, meaning that Perle keeps the listener from worrying about where they are in the piece. The attention span of these ideas is quite short, leading to a manic, scurrying quality that persists throughout -- at several times, especially in the second Scherzo, there is a strong suggestion of cartoon music!

The first Scherzo sets off with a handful of tricks: first a climb up an arpeggiated diminished seventh (I mean, err, presentation of the interval-3 cycle mode-1...), then a harmonized flute phrase, a pair of cello interrogations followed by more arpeggios, and a set of strident but not-too-dissonant string chords:

The harmonic materials, the play of rhythms, and the quickly alternating orchestral colors are characteristic of the whole movement. The B-section "trio" introduces a nervous triplet pattern for strings, over which the flute and piccolo rush in a panic, soothed and egged on at intervals by vibraphone and brass whole-tone arpeggios.

To me, the second Scherzo is the funnier of the two. There is right off the bat a strong contrast between annoyed insistence (the strings' upward bounding, dissonant theme) and mellow sheepishness (the wind and pizzicato answers). After each urgent string statement, a corresponding gesture of deflation seems to follow. Particularly striking are the unvarnished clarinet major thirds and the short passages of honest-to-goodness jazz scoring for brass and percussion -- what better way to puncture an insecure atonal phrase's sense of angsty importance?!:

I have no doubt this work's pitch design is rigorously organized, but the impression is the exact opposite of what you'd expect coming from a theorist of 12-tone quasi-mathematical structure: this is academic atonality, thoroughly defanged.

The heart of this short work is the second movement, "Chorales and Diversions." Hearing it on Pandora (on mNørgård channel, no less) first made me interested in Perle's Sinfonietta, and it is the movement I find myself returning to the most. A rondo in form, the movement sandwiches some eerie passages of rather Bergian sound between statements of a lyrical chorale melody, given almost exclusively to a solo bucket-muted bass trombone. The theme respires in and out like a Bach chorale glimpsed in the dusk, and is harmonized homophonically with some truly lush lower string writing. Here is the entire first section of this nocturnal movement:

George Perle may be the only composer of resolutely "atonal" music for whom I've noticed the label "conservative" repeatedly applied. Sometimes this is in reference to his choice of musical forms. But elsewhere it seems "conservative" is the only word we have for composers who attempt to eschew abstraction for its own sake, and instead choose to ground their music in a consistent and accessible system like traditional tonality. Ultimately, it's as unsatisfyingly simplistic a label as would be "progressive." Better to take Perle at his own word:

"There's this mystique that there's an elite of specialists for whom contemporary music is written. I don't write up or down to anyone. I'm just doing what composers have always done. Some people have written about me as though I were a composer of inaccessible music. But my experience has been that people who listen to my music are amazed by how accessible they find it." [3]

--Frank Lehman
1: The foundations of Perle's theory are two interlocking organizational parameters. The first is the inversional array, which relates notes of the chromatic scale to stable pitch axes (often about a tritone) - this hinge is his equivalent to "key." The second is the interval cycle, which selects a number of pitches based on some symmetrical partition of the scale, such as minor thirds or major seconds - this furnishes the sense of "mode." Both are prominent aspects of the styles of not just Berg and co., but of Bartok, Debussy, and even composers further back into the 19th Century. In compositional practice (and Perle's analyses) the interactions of these two factors can become exceedingly complex, but the important point is that they help produce points of reference and stability that keep the listener from ever becoming too lost.
2: Reviews excerpted at (not surprising that they are so positive!)
3: Quoted in For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening (Steinberg and Rothe, 147)

Monday, March 7, 2011

The next Eroica? Tan Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1

For the last 180 years, it's been tough for symphony composers to get out from under Beethoven's shadow. We've dealt with lots of symphonies on this blog that seem to go beyond anything Beethoven could have ever even dreamed of doing. (If you don't believe it, check them out on the right.)

Rather than express fearful anxiety about Beethoven's domination of the symphony as a genre, the Chinese-born composer Tan Dun did something remarkable: he took Beethoven to task. In Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1: Eroica (2008), Beethoven is — so the composer claimed — not an overwhelming presence to be feared or matched, but rather, a "mentor" to be loved. (Thanks, by the way, to the folks at Amusicology for the tip to investigate this symphony.) But I don't buy the "mentor" line.

Before I continue, I should say that it's difficult — and maybe misguided — to discuss this composition without doing so in terms of its history as a Google/YouTube commission. But I'm going to do it anyway, because learning to appreciate it as a work of art that could one day stand somewhat apart from its gimmicky genesis is the only way it will possibly outlast Google or YouTube as anything more than an oddity. You can read elsewhere about how this piece came about and how its real was apparently on YouTube (a delightfully awkward video made up of auditions, some of which probably shouldn't be there). Here, we're going to ignore some of the contexts and look instead at how the piece is put together.

The symphony's roughly four-minute length is itself a nod to new technology, since four minutes is about as long as most people are willing to commit to any particular YouTube clip in the first place (unless it's an episode of Charlie Sheen's Korner). In this way, the new Eroica really is a digital symphony, best consumed on a laptop or an iPad in between brushing your teeth and taking out your contacts.

Just as Beethoven's symphonies have so often been read as battles and struggles, one way to understand Dun's Eroica is as a battle with Beethoven, a struggle to move the symphony, as a genre, once and for all past the big symphonikahuna and into the digital age. Dun combines elements of Beethoven's music (including literal quotations, as we'll see) with such un-Beethovenian innovations as car parts for percussion.

(Note: I suggest opening this clip in another tab and following along with the timestamps here.) The mysterious opening (2:38) screams struggle. Sudden crashes create a sense that we might be in for a long journey from darkness to light, Beethoven style.

But the sudden appearance of a majestic brass chorale-like theme (3:14) is a smack in the face of Beethovenian organicism and order. At first, it doesn't seem to make any sense. You have to earn climaxes like these, and they usually show up at the end; they don't just pop up out of nowhere less than a minute into a symphony. Perhaps Dun is telling us that in a post-Beethoven, YouTube world of digital shorts, you don't have to earn these climaxes at all. The tune itself is nice, but the harp doubling the brass is a little awkward.

After hearing the theme again in the cellos, and finished by the horns, we encounter what I'll call the "Beethoven section" (4:23). Here, an intense galloping rhythm, played by the whole orchestra, envelops some of the same sounds from the startling introduction, along with some new ones. We soon learn why we're in triple meter, because at 4:51, we hear the waltzy opening theme of the Eroica (soon violently interrupted by the "new" sounds). Perhaps this is the final degradation of Beethoven's symphony before the YouTube age begins.

At 5:54, we suddenly get the original march-like chorale-like tune but with the less dignified galloping melody weighing it down somewhat. The almost corny cymbal crashes (6:07 and 6:13) seem to tell us that Beethoven and his original Eroica have been defeated by this whirlwind version of the symphony's most memorable theme. The world has left the original Eroica behind.

But the noisy coda (6:55) lasts just a little longer than you'd expect, and its refusal to end is delightfully surprising, and probably the best moment in the whole work. Notice the relentless, continual cadencing, almost as if Dun is hammering away at the nails on Beethoven's coffin. Beethoven's Eroica has already been defeated, but Dun and the YouTube Orchestra are just making sure.

Despite its unevenness, I really enjoyed Dun's first Internet Symphony, especially its cinematic effects and the contrast between big, brassy sounds and interesting percussive hubbub. And maybe the piece is a crucial step in the evolution of the symphony. Now that the oppressive weight of Beethoven is off our shoulders in the world of the digital symphony, it's time for someone to write Internet Symphony No. 2: Charlie Sheen vs. Mark Zuckerberg.
— Matthew Mugmon

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tcherepnin Station: Symphony No. 1 in E

In 1927, the Russian-born Alexander Tcherepnin (son of the composer Nikolai) joined an elite group of musical minds — including such greats as Richard Wagner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Igor Stravinsky, and Guns and Roses: his music caused a riot.

If you've heard of Tcherepnin, it's likely through his piano works, which every kid loves to play — including this kid. Long ago, I remember performing that Op. 5 No. 1 bagatelle, reveling in the dissonance and thinking I was a rebellious teen for choosing Tcherepnin over Beethoven. (Sadly, playing Tcherepnin probably was my most rebellious act. And I probably had to do Beethoven that year, anyway.)

But it was Tcherepnin's Symphony No. 1 in E that made his listeners antsy. In Paris, on October 29, 1927, the percussion-only second movement was apparently too much for the audience.1 Tcherepnin would go on to write three more symphonies, but he must have needed a break after his first one — the Second was composed in 1945 and was first heard in 1951, in Chicago. As far as I know, the Chicago audience remained calm throughout that concert.

Although I didn't scream and yell when I first heard Tcherepnin's First the other day, I'll admit that the composer's concept of "Interpoint" threw me off a little (he capitalized it, but from now on, I won't). It's a kind of interaction between voices or lines that calls attention to the spaces between the notes, rather than the way notes sound at the same time. Breaks in one instrument's lines are highlighted because another voice actively fills in those breaks. Sometimes, this creates a pointillistic effect that breaks down our sense of each line as continuous. Here's an extended intrapuntal section among strings and various winds from the first movement:

This episode, which leads to movement's climax, can be heard as the logical extension of something else Tcherepnin does in the symphony — the trading of motifs from instrument to instrument that Tcherepnin sets up early in the first movement. Here, the voices seem more coordinated and thus less "intrapuntal," but interpoint is just one step away:

What has been pointed to as perhaps a more classic kind of interpoint, and less pointillistic than the example in the first movement, comes in the third movement, which is built on three duets. The first, here, is for horn and trumpet. (If you're into Medieval music and you hear something that sounds like hocketing, you're on the right track — they've been described as related.)

The next intrapuntal duet is for clarinet and timpani:

The third (and most haunting) is for violin and double bass.

At the end of the movement, these intrapuntal duets are themselves blended. (For a detailed discussion of how this all works in this excerpt, see Nicolas Slonimsky's "Alexander Tcherepnin Septuagenarian," in Tempo 87 (Winter 1968-9) 20-1.) I'm willing to buy that there is some order here, but on just a few listens, three combined intrapuntal duets sound a little out-of-control to me. Judge for yourself:

It apparently wasn't the interpoint, but the percussion-only second movement that made its first audience uncomfortable. It has been described as a recomposition of the first movement without pitches, a "skilful, purely rhythmic version of the themes from the first movement."2 Since he kept it very short, at under three minutes, Tcherepnin might have known an all-percussion movement was a risky move. Today, this sounds pretty tame, and I couldn't help but think the movement could have been longer. Here's a clip:

Interpoint is a good starting place, but there's much else to discover — melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically — in this rich work. (Including in the fourth movement, which I found the most satisfying.) But we'll let Tcherepnin himself send us off for more listens. Looking back on this symphony in 1964, Tcherepnin clearly thought it was something special. He considered it well ahead of its time and pointed to "serial thematic construction," "medieval Polyphonic artifices," the "bird-calls used as motifs" and a "desire to get away from conventional pitch": "All of this happened before the birth of dodecaphonic music, before Messiaen's looking to bird-calls for thematic materials, before the esoteric use of rhythmic patterns by many a Western composer, and long before the liberation of music from conventional pitch that became dear to post-Second World War composers."3 What do you Tcherepnin-aficionados think?
— Matthew Mugmon

1. From the liner notes by Julius Wender, of the Tcherepnin symphonies and conertos recording by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with Lan Shui and Noriko Ogawa, p. 9. Also see Enrique Alberto Arias, "The Symphonies of Alexander Tcherepnin," in Tempo 158 (Sept. 1986) 23-31.
2. Ibid.
3. "Alexander Tcherepnin: A Short Autobiography," Tempo 130 (Spring 1979) 16.