Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Farewell to 2009

From Beyond the Stave will take a Christmas break until early January, but before we go we’d like to remind you of some of the books we’ve published this year. We hope that you’ll find at least one or two under your tree on Christmas morning.

It was, as always, our pleasure to turn the spotlight on to some unfairly neglected composers in 2009: Chris Walton’s Othmar Schoeck is an engagingly written portrait of a composer whose reputation is very much in the ascendant after years of comparative neglect; Erik Chisholm is another whose work should really be heard more often than it is, and John Purser’s biography of the man has been well-received; still awaiting Fate’s tap on the shoulder is Dane Rudhyar, whose interests in painting, philosophy, novel writing and astrology have perhaps overshadowed his modernist compositions – hopefully Deniz Ertan’s sympathetic biography will encourage you to investigate his music.

In the field of British music we published a new volume in the Aldeburgh Studies in Music series, Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives, edited by Lucy Walker and including essays by composer Colin Matthews, Piper biographer Frances Spalding, oboist George Caird, writer Claire Seymour and many others. The New Aldeburgh Anthology is a book for those drawn back to Britten’s Aldeburgh year after year for the music, writing and arts - and to all who care for the landscape, the sea and the ongoing life of the Suffolk Coast.

Michael Barlow’s Whom the Gods Love (Toccata Press) told the story of the short but intensely creative life of composer George Butterworth, whose life ended alongside so many others at the Battle of the Somme. Toccata also published two volumes of writings by British composers: William Alwyn’s Composing in Words, edited by Andrew Palmer, and the long-awaited second volume of Havergal Brian on Music (edited by Malcolm MacDonald), where the maverick English composer looks at works by Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg as well as Bartók, Berg, Busoni, Debussy, Dohnányi, Hindemith, Kilpinen, Mahler, Messager, Ravel, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Sousa, Szymanowski, Tailleferre, Varèse and many others.

Collections of essays of this kind provide enormously useful insights into the minds of composers, as does Bálint András Varga’s compelling book of interviews with György Kurtág which also includes his deeply moving homages to his friend and fellow-modernist, Ligeti. No-one with an interest in contemporary music should be without this superb publication.

The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss was the subject of Wayne Heisler Jr’s book, a richly interdisciplinary study of Strauss's collaboration with prominent dance artists of his time as well as his explorations of musical modernism. Ravel is the subject of Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound: written with insight and flair, it provides a long-needed reconsideration of Ravel's modernity, his teaching, and his place in twentieth-century music and culture.

Sterling Lambert’s Re-reading Poetry looks at Schubert’s multiple settings of Goethe: just as the poet maintained that his work could often be read in more than one way, so Schubert recognised that several of his settings of Goethe’s poems could be rewardingly revisited. A fascinating study of a neglected aspect of a great composer’s work.

Proust, Cocteau, Monet, Diaghilev and Colette were just some of the luminaries of French culture who gathered at the salon of the Princesse de Polignac, and Stravinsky, Satie, Falla and Poulenc all wrote music for her. The glittering world of fin-de-siècle Paris is beautifully evoked in Sylvia Kahan’s Music’s Modern Muse, her acclaimed biography of Winnaretta Singer and her times. Her second husband, Edmond, Prince de Polignac, was a respected composer and music theorist in his own right, and Kahan’s In Search of New Scales details his exploration of the octatonic scale and presents his groundbreaking treatise in English and in the original French.

Composer and critic Bayan Northcott’s collection of essays, The Way We Listen Now, was published to considerable acclaim under the Plumbago imprint earlier this year. Ranging widely over composers from the great European masters to American modernists, Northcott’s collection is a superb volume to sample or to read from cover to cover.

Another author incapable of writing a dull sentence is Daniel Albright, whose latest collection, Music Speaks, also ranges widely, but rarely strays far from opera. For Albright the opera house is the venue where the performances speak the most intricate and significant language invented by our culture - a language that speaks in music, words, pictures, and light.

Indeed opera lovers would have found much to enjoy from our lists in 2009. We were extremely pleased to be able to respond to readers’ requests to reissue Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp’s classic, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. This now joins Dean’s volume on the later operas for complete coverage of Handel’s works for the stage, available either separately or as a two-volume set. Another welcome return was John Lucas’s Reggie, available for the first time in an updated paperback under the new title, The Genius of Valhalla. A must for the many fans of the conductor or anyone interested in Wagner and his interpreters.

Gillian Opstad’s acclaimed Debussy's Mélisande is not simply a book about the opera, but looks at the lives of the three early interpreters of the role: Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte. Many reviewers remarked how convincingly Ms Opstad managed this complex narrative weave. Derek Katz presented an interpretive and critical study of the great Czech composer’s operas in Janáček: Beyond the Borders.

String players will welcome the two-volume set, Intimate Voices: The Twentieth Century String Quartet, edited by Evan Jones. Examining work by 21 composers from 11 countries, this study is a unique examination of a form used by many to confide their most personal thoughts.

Early music has once again been well served by the Boydell Press. Hermann Pötzlinger's Music Book, a study of the St Emmeram Codex by Ian Rumbold with Peter Wright, not only examines the manuscript itself but looks at the culture in which it was compiled. Emma Hornby’s keenly anticipated Medieval Liturgical Chant and Patristic Exegesis examines the relationship between text and melody in medieval music.

In the early 1900s August Halm was widely acknowledged to be one of the most insightful and influential authors of his day, yet today is music theories are less well known than those of his contemporaries such as Hugo Riemann and Heinrich Schenker. Lee A Rothfarb’s recent book looks at his life and the enduring interest of his critical writing. Music historians will also want Bernarr Rainbow’s introductions to the various music manuals he reissued, collected for the first time in Four Centuries of Music Teaching Manuals 1518-1932, edited by Gordon Cox.

Genetic Criticism and the Creative Process, edited by William Kinderman and Joseph E Jones, looks at the process of creative endeavour in an interdisciplinary context, emphasizing literature and drama as well as music.

Finally, where would you have found the most German speakers in the nineteenth century after Berlin and Vienna? Munich, perhaps, or Frankfurt? The answer is surprisingly New York City, and musicologist John Koegel has written a fascinating study of Music in German Immigrant Theater in New York from 1840 until 1940.

All of us at Boydell & Brewer, the University of Rochester Press, Toccata Press and Plumbago wish you the most harmonious Christmas season and a joyous start to 2010, the beginning of another exciting decade of music books from one of the world’s leading independent publishers!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Prince Edmond, Octatonic Explorer

In October we posted a series of extracts from Sylvia Kahan’s superb biography of Winnaretta Singer, Music’s Modern Muse. This week we turn the spotlight on her second husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac, and his discovery of the octatonic scale which is the subject of Professor Kahan’s latest book, In Search of New Scales. ‘A fascinating and valuable contribution to modern French musicology,’ enthused Robert Orledge in the Winter 2009 issue of the Musical Times, ‘Kahan shows herself ever aware of the social and cultural milieu in which Prince Edmond operated…[her] enthusiastic advocacy makes one long for recordings.’ Orledge concludes, ‘Prince Edmond was far more than a mere social appendage to a famous wife; as well as being far more than the “charming…big ironic bird” of Colette’s description.’

The ‘discovery’ of the octatonic scale by Edmond de Polignac—and, later, by Alexandre de Bertha—entirely independent of the collection’s earlier applications by German and Russian composers, can be attributed in part to a logical development in a tonal system that was rapidly becoming chromaticized. However, it may also speak to a deeper cultural need. If we look back on the history of another art form, for example, the first photograph was taken in 1826, but photography as a science was not invented until 1839. The imagination that wanted photography was ready for its reification only when it had reached a certain state in its technical advancement. Similarly, the Romantic musical imagination that dared to break the mold of conventional diatonic procedures, moving gradually into the realm of mediant-related harmonic progressions, would have to wait until 1867 for the scale governing some of those procedures to be reified, and another dozen years until that scale was theorized.

In the musical realm, a similar process of ‘evolutionary’ revolution in musical composition was surely at work as well. The time that has passed between Rimsky-Korsakov’s first version of Sadko—the tone poem, Op. 5 (1867), which introduces his first octatonic scale—and the second version—the full-length opera of the same name (1897), whose second scene is based, in large part, upon triads drawn exclusively from Scale C—is a full thirty years. And, as Allen Forte has demonstrated, Franz Liszt experimented with proto-octatonic thirds related constructions as early as 1858, but it was not until the composer’s very late period (1880–83), when he was writing highly atonal experimental works, that, according to Forte, ‘[Liszt’s] conscious manipulation of such structural properties seems incontrovertible.’ At the end of the manuscript of one such experimental work, Ossa arida (1879), Liszt wrote the following postscript: ‘Professors and apostles of the conservatories most strongly disapprove of the dissonance of the continuous thirds-construction of the first twenty bars, which is not yet customary. Nevertheless, so has he written. Liszt (Villa d’Este, 18–21 October 79).’ The year 1879 also marks the period of Polignac’s octatonic discovery: by then, the idea was unquestionably ‘in the air.’

It is not inconceivable that the early French modernists might have been influenced by Polignac’s music and theories. The public debates and articles surrounding Polignac’s ‘octatonic wars’ with Bertha would surely have been followed with interest by composers who read Le Figaro and the leading journals of music and culture. Claude Debussy, an octatonic composer (of the ‘fortuitous’ type, according to Taruskin), was introduced to the Prince and Princesse de Polignac in 1894 by musical salon hostess Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, and subsequently frequented the Polignac salon; an 1895 letter to Pierre Louÿs attests to Debussy’s interest in—and implied admiration of—Polignac’s music. Maurice Ravel (in Taruskin’s terms, a ‘true’ octatonic composer) began to attend the musical gatherings in the late 1890s, in the company of his teacher Gabriel Fauré. While both composers—especially Ravel—were influenced by the Russians, both would also have had many occasions to hear Edmond de Polignac holding forth on ‘his’ scales. It is impossible to prove Polignac’s influence with absolute certainty, but what is certain is that Debussy and Ravel can be placed in the Polignac salon—in Ravel’s case, well before the date of his first octatonic essays; therefore this indigenous source of influence cannot be ruled out.

In any event, Polignac’s octatonic compositions and treatise (transcribed, translated, and analyzed in part two of In Search of New Scales), and Bertha’s subsequent writings on the same subject, must now take their place in the history of the theoretical recognition of the collection. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1867 description of the ‘halfstep, whole-step’ scale will remain its first written reification, the first published description of the octatonic scales, originally attributed to Berger in 1963, must now be moved backwards to 1888, and attributed to Edmond de Polignac.

More information about Music’s Modern Muse may be found here, while further details of Prince Edmond’s octatonic adventure are here.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Handel’s Deidamia

BBC Radio 3’s Handel opera season draws to a close. Here we post the last of our excerpts from Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, where author Winton Dean offers some background to the opera broadcast on December 10th and 11th, Deidamia:

The post-Homeric story of Achilles in Scyros was popular with librettists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settings by Legrenzi and Draghi appeared in 1663, in Ferrara and Vienna respectively, and Metastasio’s version, written for Caldara in 1736, was subsequently set by other composers. The opportunities for transvestist disguise and sexual innuendo had a natural attraction for practitioners of opera seria with its dependence on soprano or alto heroes, and Rolli was not slow to exploit them.

Rolli’s source was not Bentivoglio’s libretto for Legrenzi, nor Metastasio, who approaches the subject with his usual high seriousness, nor Gay’s posthumous ballad opera Achilles (1733), which later formed the basis of Arne’s Achilles in Petticoats (1773). In Gay’s version Lycomedes is unaware of Pyrrha’s identity and tries to rape her, with predictable results; Deidamia does not appear till half way through the opera and is pregnant by Achilles, who has been itching to get to Troy from the first and uses the arrival of Ulysses with his gifts (late in Act III) as a convenient means of circumventing his mother’s precautions.

Rolli treats the story as a sophisticated ironical comedy which only the sufferings of the heroine redeem from outright cynicism. Apart from Deidamia and her father, none of the characters evinces any emotion beyond a superficial level. Achille is a thoughtless boy, Ulisse a self-confessed politician, the secondary lovers more than usually conventional. Yet the libretto is a skilful and consistent piece of work, free from involutions of plot and language. Its equivocal tone, seasoned with wit, is never offensive (Gay’s is much coarser). The parallel between hunting and war in act II is neatly turned and gives some backbone to the plot. The element of parody is not disguised; Achille’s opinion that Calchas faked the oracle, as Dent remarks, would have horrified Metastasio. Levity at the expense of classical and historical figures had of course been a commonplace of Venetian opera; Rolli follows the method of Agrippina in placing them in undignified postures rather than the earlier tradition by which their servants mock them in asides to the audience. He also employs an amusing brand of literary irony by appealing to the audience’s knowledge of future events. Achille’s destiny at Troy is an obvious example; more subtle is the hint that Ulisse’s wanderings on the way back to Ithaca (in fact the entire action of the Odyssey) are the product of Deidamia’s curse.

In its compound of flippancy and serious emotion, its ‘off-beat’ flavour and the light bantering tone of most of the dialogue, the libretto seems a natural successor to Serse and Imeneo, and may have been deliberately framed as such. It should have suited Handel down to the ground. Yet Deidamia is a disappointing opera, a sad culmination to his long and glorious career in the theatre. Despite half a dozen beautiful arias a good deal of the music sounds tired, wanting in tension and marred by long stretches of mechanical sequences and accompaniment figures. The notes come spinning out, but the governing brain seems preoccupied, as if Handel, having glimpsed in Saul the measureless possibilities of the dramatic oratorio, found the routine of opera seria more bother than it was worth to transcend.

If this is the explanation, we cannot be surprised. But the nature of the plot imposed a technical handicap. There were obvious advantages in casting Achilles for a woman, and Rolli as well as Handel clearly had this in mind from the start. As a result the one castrato in the company had to play Ulisse, who pulls the dramatic strings but is not at any time emotionally involved. This was to battle against the tide of the opera seria convention, in which personal emotion is the driving force of every principal character. a castrato who does not make love (except as a ruse de guerre) is almost unknown, and unique in Handel. But since he is the primo uomo he must have plenty to sing, and his part is padded out of all proportion to his dramatic merits. he is worth two or three arias; he has six, not to mention a duet and a substantial solo in the Act II chorus. No doubt Handel might have overcome this difficulty, as he overcame others as intractable, if his powers had been operating at full stretch; but Ulisse gave him little to bite on, and he failed.

The discrepancy is most glaring at the end of the opera, where, as in the final version of Imeneo, a wry coro is preceded by a duet in which one of the newly united pair remains silent. In both operas this unbalancing of the structure corresponds to an ironic twist in the story, even if it was conditioned by the conventional requirement that the primo uomo, though in neither case does he get the girl, must share the limelight with the prima donna. But whereas the climax of Imeneo communicates a dramatic truth, that of Deidamia is lopsided and unsatisfactory. a trio (as in Gay’s Achilles) and a coro with an undercurrent of pathetic emotion, perhaps in a minor key, could have met all requirements; if there must be a duet, we want to hear Achille, not Ulisse.

Nor do most of the other characters seem to have roused in Handel more than a flicker of interest, probably for a similar reason; their feelings seldom penetrate beneath the surface, even when they are not feigned. Deidamia herself is a shining exception. Handel would not be Handel if he failed to respond to a heroine who is suddenly deprived of her lover for political reasons which she cannot be expected to understand. Apart from one aria for Lycomede and one for Ulisse, all the finest music in the opera falls to her. She alone emerges as a full-length portrait, a high-spirited girl in whom misfortune strikes a flame of passion and defiance. As experience harrows her heart, her music assumes an increasing strength and eloquence. When she first appears, destiny is still smiling on the well-camouflaged union with Achille. Handel gives her two consecutive cavatinas in this scene, both with continuo accompaniment, the light touch reflecting the intimate note of contentment. This is underlined in ‘due bell’alme inamorate’ by the use of the lute with concertino cellos and harpsichord in the continuo (no double bass or bassoons). ‘Ma chi sa’, sung aside, is little more than a heightening of the recitative; but the minor key and changes of tempo (larghetto – andante – adagio – andante in twenty-two bars) warn us that her heart is engaged. Later, as she waits for Achille, she happily repeats ‘due bell’alme’, the tempo now largo instead of larghetto. The flexible form of this scene looks forward to the arioso of Gluck. In ‘Quando accenderan’ the minor key and an occasional touch in the harmony suggest the dawn of anxiety as Deidamia recalls Achille to his vows; but the ornament is facile. The same is true of ‘nasconde l’usignolo’, a conventional bird aria in which scale figures serve as a mechanical representation of flight. The music, though effective, is not much more distinguished than Rolli’s natural history.

Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 by Winton Dean. Available along with the companion volume by Dean and John Merrill Knapp, Handel’s Operas 1704-1726 which has recently reissued by the Boydell Press. For those of you yet to discover these monumental volumes, they are also available as a set for a special price.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Punctuating Music

This week we would like to revisit the theme of a book we published last year, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century, by cellist and teacher Stephanie Vial. In this post, Ms Vial takes up the subject of her book and demonstrates how punctuation has remained an important element in the way she interprets and plays music.

This past June in the Washington DC area, violinist Elizabeth Field and I directed the first Modern Early Music Institute: a chamber orchestra seminar designed for professional string players who wish to explore historical performance practices using their own modern instruments. As part of our introductory lecture, I read to the group an eighteenth-century sentence from the work of elocutionist Joshua Steele, his Essay Towards Establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech (1779). A firm believer in the close relationship between the expression and notation of music and language, Steele's writing itself - and particularly his lively use of punctuation (my pet subject) - proved to be as eloquent as his words. To enhance the sentence's effect, I verbalized each punctuation mark.

The puzzling obscurity relative to the melody and measure of speech [comma] which has hitherto existed between modern critics and ancient grammarians [comma] has been chiefly owing to a want of terms and characters [comma] sufficient to distinguish clearly the several properties or accidents belonging to language [semicolon] such as [comma] accent [comma] emphasis [comma] quantity [comma] pause [comma] and force [semicolon] instead of which five terms [comma] they have generally made use of two only [comma] accent and quantity [comma] with some loose hints concerning pauses [comma] but without any clear and sufficient rules for their use and admeasurement [semicolon] so that the definitions required for distinguishing between the expression of force [open parentheses] or loudness [close parentheses] and emphasis [comma] with their several degrees [comma] were worse than lost [semicolon] their difference being tacitly felt [comma] though not explained or reduced to rule [comma] was the cause of confounding all the rest [period]

My recital garnered quite a few laughs and made the point I intended. No one writes in this elaborate manner - a single sentence the length of a paragraph, containing no less than three semicolons, sixteen commas, and a pair of parentheses! Today we prefer our sentence style to be succinct, to the point, and with a minimum of punctuated stops along the way. As Lynn Truss states in her clever and highly anecdotal book on the subject, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation: “Nowadays the fashion is against grammatical fussiness . . . People who put in all the commas betray themselves as moral weaklings with empty lives and out-of-date reference books.”

My book, The Art of Musical Phrasing in the Eighteenth Century: Punctuating the Classical “Period,” explores the analogy, frequently drawn by eighteenth-century musicians, between the use of commas, colons, and periods in language and the way musical phrases are distinguished and combined to create both simple dance forms and larger, more varied compositions. Part 1, in particular, is devoted to exploring the historical shift in attitude towards punctuation usage described above. This is key to understanding both the theories and applications of musical punctuation as well as why eighteenth-century musicians were so fond of the analogy. For performers, such an understanding is absolutely crucial.

The way our modern ears hear music is, I believe, very similar to the way we write and speak. We are goal oriented, unwilling to pause lest we lose sight of that goal, pushing ever forwards over bar lines towards harmonic resolution, which is usually to be found on a near-by, strong down-beat. Yet eighteenth-century musical phrases operate in essentially the opposite manner. Emphasis is generally felt at the beginnings of measures, releasing away from the bar lines. In addition the pauses of punctuation often occur at the point of dissonance, creating moments (to greater and lesser degrees) of suspension and anticipation. As I emphasize repeatedly in Part 2 of my book (which explores the interpretation of the written and unwritten rests which belong to musical punctuation), while it may seem natural to pause after a dominant chord has resolved to the tonic, to do so (with repertoire of this period) has the tendency of ending sentences prematurely. Instead, if the pause is allowed to occur before the resolution, a series of smaller punctuation points can be used to create a sense of energy, expectation, and forward motion. Far from resulting in the choppy style of which music from the classical period is so often accused, much longer sentences are achieved than otherwise would be.

Without punctuation, Steele's sentence simply makes no sense: words need to be changed; emphasis must be moved; the whole cadence and flow of the language must be altered. As we discussed with our MEMI group, the same must be done to eighteenth-century musical sentences if their punctuation is similarly misjudged. Because over time our instruments have become increasingly powerful with greater sustaining abilities, and our performing venues ever larger, our aesthetic of sound production has also changed. With it we have developed a new set of performance conventions such as beautifully seamless legato playing and the continuous use of rich vibrato to the point that in essence we employ an entirely different musical language than we did in the eighteenth century. New elements of expression must be found to replace those which the older language relied upon. It is no wonder that instructive editions of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, detailing additional accentual and dynamic nuance information for nearly every note, proliferated in the late nineteenth century. It has now been the effort of decades to clean up these well-intentioned, but misguided “excesses.” Yet in the end we will have achieved very little unless we face the challenge (and obligation) of relearning a language at once familiar but nevertheless distinctly foreign.

As a performer, what continually amazes me about the subject of musical punctuation is the constant care and attention one must give to it. It is not enough to merely read and understand the nature of a language. One must also be able to speak (or perform) it. Earlier this year, in February, I was working on a project developed by flutist Mary Oleskiewicz with keyboardist David Schulenberg to record six largely unknown, but remarkable flute sonatas by J.J. Quantz. As we worked, we found that though seemingly straight-forward, the minuet and dance-like forms proved to be particularly problematic. Unless we delivered exactly the right character, the precise degree of strong and weak accents on the beginnings and endings of the phrase units, and especially just the right amount of pause to convey the simple commas between the two-bar and the larger four- and eight-bar phrases, the movements fell completely and utterly flat. It was astonishing, when listening to playbacks in WGBH's new state-of-the-art recording studio, to realize how much more poised and skilled we had to be in our execution. It is not surprising, really, as simplicity can be difficult to convey. I devote the first chapter in Part III of my book to the punctuated nature of such movements, likening their form to the poetic verse of language, and as the opposite of that which is prose, or in music, recitative. The latter is irregular in its accent and meter and prone to sudden and unpredictable starts and stops. Verse on the other hand exhibits a contrasting rhythmic regularity. Both its punctuation and layout (its meter and scansion) has to literally leap off the printed page and become almost visible to the ear. To convey this orally requires an eighteenth-century like attention to the internal rhythm and structure of language ―a savoring of its beauty and elegance that is not at all goal oriented.

Recently, too, I had the privilege of performing three of C.P.E. Bach's extraordinary and dramatic string symphonies with The Vivaldi Project ensemble and guest conductor John Hsu. This often prose-like music with its striking juxtapositions of plaintive statements immediately followed and interrupted by dramatic, and at times harsh responses, can seem quite strange, even bizarre. How then do we make sense of it? With careful attention to the character and structure of the phrases and the nature of their relationship, of course. John Hsu's skill in perceiving and communicating such ideas is unparalleled. Although I must admit that I am not unbiased in this opinion as Hsu was my teacher when I was a graduate student at Cornell. In fact it was the desire to understand the why and how of what he knew that led me down the path to musical punctuation. It has been a year and a half since my book on the subject was published, but I do not believe I will ever be “finished” with it. The concept of musical punctuation, and the vast array of expressive devices associated with it, necessarily remains the foundation of my teaching, my exploration of unknown eighteenth-century works, and all my performances. It has become an undeniable and fundamental part of the musician that I am.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Philadelphia Story

Ralph P. Locke, editor of Eastman Studies in Music (University of Rochester Press) reported last year on some pretty wild doings in “Music City” (Nashville, Tennessee) when the American Musicological Society came to town. This year the meeting was held in Philadelphia and celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Society. His report focuses on the awards ceremonies held in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton City Center Hotel.

Scholarly meetings are rarely known for high theatricality. At the American Musicological Society’s annual gathering, though, there is that moment during the Business Meeting when, in front of more than a thousand seated conference attendees, awards are given out for particularly distinguished scholarly works of the past year.

Some awards are defined by the age of the author (“in the early stages of his or her career” or its opposite, which has various affectionate nicknames) or by the format of the scholarly product (book, articles, or conference paper). Others are defined by scholarly area: performance practice (e.g., Baroque ornamentation), Broadway and music theater, gay/ lesbian/ transgendered studies, and so on.

All the awards, though, tend to be announced in an exceptionally dramatic manner: the chair of the respective prize committee (or another member of the committee) reads a citation that describes the winning item, using a succession of phrases that tempt and tease the audience. Only in the final words does the speaker reveal the identity of the winning title and author.

This ritual was beautifully enacted in Philadelphia on 17 November 2009 by Paul Laird, reporting for the Robert M. Stevenson Committee, which singles out each year an unusually distinguished (nobody in the scholarly world ever declares something simply the “best”) scholarly product dealing with Spanish or Latin American music. The book was published by University of Rochester Press in its Eastman Studies in Music series, and had already garnered great praise both pre- and post-publication. The craftily crafted citation went like this:

The Robert M. Stevenson Committee for 2009 considered a number of fine sources for the award for the best piece of scholarship on an Iberian or Latin American topic. We chose a virtuosic study of a single, baffling source in which the author established its provenance; substantially illuminated the manuscript, the city, and the time from which it emanated; effectively contextualized the source’s iconography in a rich web of multinational references; and considered the music in terms of concordances and related repertories, both monophonic and polyphonic. The author began with traditional philological methods and constructed an impressive historical edifice around the source, raising issues concerning a multi-religious and multi-cultural community and finally offering a rich picture of the devotional practices of a confraternity, synthesizing medieval tradition and humanistic modernity. We are pleased to honor with the 2009 Stevenson Prize Lorenzo Candelaria’s The Rosary Cantoral: Ritual and Social Design in a Chantbook from Early Renaissance Toledo (University of Rochester Press, 2008).

Many of us, sitting in the audience, figured out quickly—this is of course part of the fun—just which “virtuosic study of a single, baffling source” was surely being rewarded. The University of Rochester Press and Boydell and Brewer (which distributes URP’s book outside of North America) congratulate Lorenzo Candelaria.

Professor Candelaria is now busy at work on a broader but, in its own way, equally “virtuosic” book: a richly contextualized study of sacred music in Mexico, from the Conquistadores to today. The tantalizing title: Music in Mexican Catholicism. The publisher, we proudly state in our closing sentence is, once again, . . . (drumroll, please!) University of Rochester Press.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Handel's Faramondo

This week’s Handel opera on BBC Radio 3 is Faramondo, first performed at the King’s Theatre on 3 January 1738. In the following edited extract from his Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, Winton Dean points out some of the problems surrounding the libretto:

The source of this story is Faramond, ou l’histoire de France, by Gautier de Costes de la Calprenède (1610–63), courtier and author of long-winded pseudo-historical romances. Faramond, reputedly the first King of France (420–28), belongs to the world of Arthurian myth. Apostolo Zeno’s libretto, first set by C. F. Pollarolo for Venice in 1699, abjured the comic and magical elements characteristic of seventeenth-century opera and treated the story seriously as political and military history, crossed as usual by interlocking love intrigues. It was subsequently set by Porpora (Naples, 1719) and Francesco Gasparini (Rome, 1720).

Gasparini’s libretto, Handel’s immediate source, made considerable alterations to Zeno; Handel’s was faithful to Gasparini’s, except in one crucial particular. as was to be expected, he reduced the aria ration of all the characters except Faramondo, Gustavo’s very considerably.

The libretto as it stands is hopelessly obscure. Presumably the intended framework was a contrast between heathen savagery on the one hand and Augustan Enlightenment on the other, and their different conceptions of honour. Gustavo and at first Rosimonda feel bound by their oath, Faramondo by heroic ideals of generosity and forgiveness. But it all rings hollow because their behaviour is simply not credible, even in terms of the operatic stage. The trouble goes back to Gasparini’s libretto. Zeno began logically with Sveno’s death and Rosimonda’s promise to execute ‘orribile vendetta’ on his killer. Gasparini chopped off Zeno’s first six scenes, which introduce most of the characters, leaving the plot squirming like a worm without a head. Handel then made his one major change, the drastic abbreviation of the recitatives. This is common enough in his operas, especially the later ones, but never so crushingly as here. Gasparini’s libretto contains some 1,240 lines of recitative, Handel’s a mere 540. As a result the plot becomes a whirlpool of inconsequence. Deprived of the dialogue that elucidates their motives, the characters behave like ventriloquists’ dummies, jerked into action by some unseen force. Little but violent action is left, much of it off-stage, and so beyond the audience’s grasp.

What is this internecine tribal warfare all about? Why, and where, is Faramondo fighting the Cimbri? What are the walls from which he emerges in act I, and why is he imprisoned by Rosimonda and not by Gustavo? The geography is chaotic. Do Gustavo and Rosimonda inhabit one palace, or two? What is Childerico’s position in the royal household? While it was inevitable that love interest should come to the fore, the two characters not amorously involved but essential to the story – Teobaldo, who started the trouble, and Childerico, who puts an end to it – are under-represented and almost elbowed out. Some of the action might be clearer in the theatre, but nothing could bring the whole contraption to life.

Other details suggest clumsy workmanship, perhaps a rushed job: a string of angry exits in recitative where the situation asks for the release of steam in an aria, and simile pieces at unsuitable moments. It is no surprise that each heroine likens herself to a ship in trouble; but Gernando, Adolfo and Clotilde in turn hold up act III by adducing more or less irrelevant parallels with the natural world. There are signs of botching in act II. ‘Combattuta’ must have been designed originally for Rosimonda – it is she, not Clotilde, who at this point is torn by conflicting emotions – and ‘sol la brama di vendetta’ for Clotilde, whom Gustavo has just insulted. The libretto actually gives this aria to Clotilde, and Rosimonda has the recitative immediately before ‘Combattuta’. All that was necessary to make this change in the libretto was to shift her exit back before the aria, a move that did not reach the English version, where Rosimonda by implication still has the aria. A possible reason for this manoeuvre was that Handel had discovered the gifts of his new prima donna Francesina, whom he cast for Clotilde, and saw in ‘Combattuta’ an opportunity for a brilliant soprano aria, whereas his Rosimonda was a mezzo-soprano.

All this raises a suspicion that Handel’s eye was not consistently on the ball. He may have had his fill of dark age blood-and-thunder melodrama. Berenice and Arminio had been a come-down after the glories of the Ariosto operas, and though Giustino promised a new approach he had not yet found the lighter tone of Serse and Imeneo. Strohm suggests that the libretto of Faramondo may have been chosen by Heidegger, and that Handel set it unwillingly. However that may be, it is a very uneven opera, with half a dozen peaks where some facet set Handel’s genius alight, chiefly in act II, but a good deal of routine matter.

Faramondo will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19th November and will be available on BBC iPlayer soon after. The above piece is extracted from Winton Dean’s acclaimed
Handel’s Operas 1726-1741. The earlier volume, written with the late John Merrill Knapp, and covering the years from 1704 to 1726, is available again now. Both volumes may be purchased together at a special price. As it’s still only the middle of November we won’t mention anything about perfect Christmas presents for anyone interested in Handel or the history of the opera.

Friday, 13 November 2009

'A storm of tears'

The weekend newspapers in the UK were full of articles on Alan Bennett, celebrating his new play, The Habit of Art, which opens this week. His subject is an imagined meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten as both approached the end of their lives (in reality, they went their separate ways in the early 1940s).

Auden’s relationship with Britten reached its creative peak in the 1930s, producing half a dozen major works and a number of songs. Philip Hensher in the Guardian, assesses the partnership thus:

For a few years the two came together; they were never truly compatible, artistically or as people, and their joint products are tantalising rather than fulfilled.

It is Hensher’s argument that Britten composed better operas with lesser librettists while it took a composer of the stature of Stravinsky to bring out the best of Auden (in The Rake’s Progress). Donald Mitchell, in his acclaimed series of lectures Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936, explains perhaps why Hensher feels a sense of disappointment:

It is absolutely necessary to see the thirties, for Britten, as an integral part of the continuous history of his growth as a composer, albeit a highly important part. If one can understand that the contribution he made to the decade was the result of being the personality that he already was, and also, and no less interestingly, that his post-thirties development shows an equivalent consistency, one is well on the way to comprehending the overall consistency of his life’s work. [p.21]

In an article in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett admits to finding Britten ‘a difficult man to like…glamorous though he must have been and a superb teacher’. He quotes Auden as saying, ‘Real artists are not nice people…All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue’ and continues:

Both Britten and Pears were notorious for cutting people out of their lives…friends and acquaintances suddenly turned into living corpses if they overstepped the mark.

Despite this, Tim Adams, in a long piece in Sunday’s Observer, points out:

In his notes to The Habit of Art Bennett suggests that he identifies himself in the play not with Auden but with Benjamin Britten, the poet's estranged friend and one-time collaborator. In their fictitious meeting in the play Britten is repressed and tongue-tied, next to Auden, who is anything but.

Once again, Donald Mitchell is illuminating on this point:

The poet’s fearsome brilliance of mind, prodigious learning and intellectual curiosity were embodied in a person whom Britten…found increasingly and dauntingly dogmatic and authoritarian in his views and attitudes; and the composer’s negative reaction was of course exacerbated – exaggerated – by his own sense of ‘inferiority’. [pp.134-5]

Mitchell further illuminates Philip Hensher’s point about the tantalising if unfulfilled nature of the Britten/Auden collaborations, pointing out that ‘the somewhat baffling texts of the framing Prologue and Epilogue in Our Hunting Fathers were the last to be tackled by the composer because their very complexity presented him with a particular musical problem.’ Britten was willing to go along with an element of verbal obscurity, especially when its source was an admired figure like Auden. However ‘once he was set tasks of immeasurable verbal difficulty to solve, challenges which he found positively anti-musical, the seeds of later rebellion were sown…we can begin to discern the cause of the friction that led finally to their going their independent ways.’ [p.136]

Bennett’s idea of having Auden and Britten meet again after several decades will certainly make for a fascinating evening in the theatre (audiences certainly anticipate it – the play is fully booked until 2010). One might even wish that they had collaborated again when Britten’s compositional powers were even greater than they were in the 1930s. However, we should not forget the enduring effect that Auden had on the younger composer, as this moving conclusion to Donald Mitchell’s Preface to the revised edition of his book demonstrates:

In 1973, when Britten was staying with us in Sussex, he responded to the unexpected news of Auden’s death, ‘with a storm of tears’, as I was to write later. (It was the only time I ever witnessed Britten weeping.) I have no doubt that in those tears, grief and gratitude were present in equal measure.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

György on György

Bálint András Varga’s recently published György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages is a compelling view of the composer at work and his unquenchable thirst for artistic and human impressions. Rather than trying to find a representative piece from the interviews to excerpt, we decided to use one of Kurtág’s pieces on Ligeti: these demonstrate the composer’s love and admiration for his great friend in terms that cannot fail to move the reader.

The following is taken from the opening of Kurtág’s speech read in the presence of Ligeti at a ceremony in Munich in May 1993, where Ligeti was presented with the Siemens Prize. Kurtág is inhibited about speaking in public, but put together a beautifully inventive series of memories presented as scenes in a kind of theatre, as he explains in his introduction.

Dear György Ligeti,
Honored ladies and gentlemen,

How to speak—when one is not a master of words? How can I evoke scenes from the time we spent with Ligeti without having a minimum of eloquence at my disposal to connect my narrative with what came before and afterward?

If I could compose my memories like music I would have to tell them simultaneously —the chief strands in the middle—as if on a podium—and then imagine the scenes—for example, what Ligeti experienced earlier and I only know from his or others’ descriptions—let’s say high up—in a back corner—the consequences of the central events also somewhere at the side or the top center; and a series of merely illuminating incidents over the course of many years—so to speak—all around us.

So, first scene (central—on the podium):

Christmas Eve 1957—according to a telegram I still have, at 11:02 p.m. — Paris—Gare du Nord. Ligeti arrives in Paris for the first time in his life. I wait at the station. The pianist György Szoltsányi, my friend and our host that evening, finds it strange that someone should want to travel so late on Christmas Eve. He invites Ligeti as well to his home at 48 Boulevard Garibaldi.
“The metro is still running,” I say.
“No, let’s walk!”
And without hesitating Ligeti leads me through the streets of Paris, I who have lived here for over six months—naming every intersection and the streets beyond.

(back corner, top, left):
Ligeti’s early childhood. His obsessive pastime: perusing maps and memorizing them by heart—among them the map of his dream city, Paris—while already working on his fictitious country, Kylwyria.

(front, top, right):
The spirit of the Kylwyria construct seems to be hereditary—also in his early childhood, his son Lukas spent years writing the encyclopedia of his invented planet, with examples from its scientific history, literature, fine arts, and music.

(front, top, left):
The musical examples from this encyclopedia will later form an important starting point for my Játékok—or Games—for piano (and now a summary—all around us): For a long time, a lifetime, Ligeti led me onward. No, I must correct myself immediately: I followed him—sometimes right behind him and other times years or even decades later. I call it my “Imitatio Christi” syndrome. The first years of our friendship were marked not only by his intellectual leadership. Without being immediately influenced, I oriented my taste—even steps in my private life—according to his example.

(podium, center):
The Budapest Academy of Music, twelve years earlier—the beginning of September 1945. The entrance examination in composition. A very serious looking, friendly but distant young man, perhaps also distant because of his glasses, waits beside me. He seems older, but as I flip through his compositions it strikes me that he is a generation older. Choral works, probably also the second Cantata. From the Latin text I assume not very logically that he is a Calvinist theologian. There are also instrumental works and I see, or rather feel intuitively, that these are no student compositions. They comprise a self-contained, mature world, reigned over by a striking order in the note texture. My feeling: I have met a master.

(still on the podium, center):
Early July 1958. Now it is I who arrive, and he who waits for me at the station in Cologne. He talks about Stockhausen’s most recent works on the way to the hotel and then straight on to the radio station where I would listen to the recordings over the next two days, telling me of the Groups for Three Orchestras with three conductors, and of its Alban Berg-like violin cadences and the segments with the dramatic, wildly jostling and quarreling brass instruments. These are the sections that strike me the most vividly when I hear the Groups in Stockhausen’s presence at the studio. Artikulation, also a new work, overwhelms me entirely. I experience the work as the first true Ligeti—marked by a density of events, a directness in its statement and a fine balance of humor and tragedy that still seem to me unsurpassed, even compared with his later development.

(top, back, right):
I speak of my impressions from those days, not of the absolute value of the compositions. But even later these two—Artikulation, Atmosphères—remain for me absolute masterpieces—representing two basic aspects of Ligeti’s work. Apparitions seemed to me rather a station on the way to them.

(top, front, left):
Today I view Apparitions entirely differently, but my loves nevertheless remain: Artikulation, Atmosphères.

(top, front, right):
After my return to Hungary—we would not see each other for ten years—I began my new life with Opus 1. From then on, my ideal and aspiration was to formulate in my language something similar to what I had experienced with Artikulation in Cologne.

(top, back, left):
He had written me in Paris: “You must get to know the studio in Cologne before you go back to Hungary”—knowing how difficult it would be for me to leave the country again. And in fact, these two days were musically far richer and more meaningful for me than the entire year in Paris. What I failed to see was that although he earned practically nothing for years, he underwent great sacrifices to pay for my room and board.

The piece continues in Bálint András Varga’s György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages (one of ReadySteadyBook’s selections of the month for November 2009), available now from all good booksellers. It is followed by a speech given in 2007 in Berlin in memory of Ligeti. Kurtág begins, ‘Obituary, speech of mourning? For me he’s more alive than ever.’

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Marion Scott, our map and guide

Marion Scott entered the 20th century with her ears tuned to the future, writes Pamela Blevins. As a violinist, she often programmed new music in her recitals. In 1908, she formed her own string quartet to champion contemporary British music, some so new that the ink was barely dry on the manuscript page. As a regular contributor to The Music Student from about 1911 to 1918, she enlightened readers about the latest chamber music and wrote extensively about the work of contemporary women composers and performers.

As the 20th century progressed and music moved in different directions, Marion moved with it, always staying open to new music that often stirred controversy and provoked outrage among critics and the concert-going public. Never one to dismiss a work because it strayed from accepted norms, she embraced the “radical” music of her day and wrote about it with an insight and clarity that opened the minds of her readers. She made the seemingly inaccessible, accessible. As a critic/commentator for the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Listener, the Radio Times and other publications, she introduced new works by Bartok, Webern, Tippett, Luytens, Dallapiccola, Britten, Messiaen, and many others to her readers.

One of Scott’s guiding principles in music rested in her belief that “Design in music is desirable, if that music is to be intelligible. Without it, great music is impossible. For design is not a machine-made pattern. It is the projection into the human consciousness of a divine and beautiful order. …Just as the laws behind natural phenomena do not die, so the realities behind music continue to exist whatever the changing phases of concrete music. Design is one of the hardest obligations for a composer to fulfill.” She found that design even in the most abstract music.

On an “arctic” February night in 1929, Marion attended the British premiere of Bartok’s third and fourth quartets performed by the Hungarian String Quartet. She regarded Bartok as “a composer who is a focal point in the work of his generation” and described his Third and Fourth String Quartets as “testaments in music’s new language”.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, she observed: “On the whole the third quartet is the more approachable of the pair, even though ordinary listeners will feel in either that they enter upon the unknown region. ‘No map there, no guide,’ as Walt Whitman would have said. Yet though old maps are of little use, Bartok’s music gives evidence of powerful design throughout. It has the same kind of strength and sparseness met with in modern architecture.” In both quartets, Scott found “melodic material…in a minority” and that Bartok seldom used “more than the minimum necessary for thematic differentiation. …Of beauty in the sensuous style there is next to none”. Bartok “constantly employs harmonies drawn from the upper series of the harmonic overtones, and matches them by sound effects drawn from the non-normal kinds of string tone”.

But Marion found both quartets full of “harmonic character, exhilarating rhythm, patterned ideas, and swift logic. … Even on a first hearing it is possible to feel the strength which has bound all these elements of sound and modern mentality into firmly consistent works. Bartok’s style may be – and is – stark, but it is never dark, and never shallow. He has the dramatist’s, not the film producer’s gift.” She came to regard Bartok as “one of the greatest, and most dynamic musicians of modern times”.

She faced the challenge of Webern’s String Trio, op. 21 with an equally open mind. “Webern’s thin sounds, skewed phrases, and silences are about as much like ordinary string music as Shakespeare’s ghosts that did ‘squeak and gibber’ were like human beings. Even the programme note described the two short movements as ‘wraiths’. But this must be said: If they are wraiths, they are so in their own right; they are not phantoms of older music. Maybe that is because they have never lived. Will they later? – that is what matters. Is this exposition of Schoenberg’s theories by Webern the foreshadowing of a new era in music? Remembering that steam from a kettle and the twitching of a frog’s leg are now historic as first hints of steam power and electricity, must we regard Webern’s music as a portent of things to come? Time alone will show.” (No date.)

In 1929 Marion became the first person in England – as far as I know – to produce an in-depth study of Paul Hindemith and presented her findings before the Royal Musical Association. (Donald Tovey wrote his essay in 1936.) I think it is fair to say that some who attended her lecture were wary of Hindemith’s new music. After all he was regarded then as the enfant terrible of Europe, a composer who embraced atonality and whose music was too cerebral and abstract for some. W.W. Cobbett who attended the lecture admitted his "ignorance” of Hindemith and acknowledged that after Scott’s talk, he left “knowing” on the subject.

Scott had researched Hindemith’s life and studied his music, an odd choice for a lecture, it might seem, coming from a woman in her fifties who was standing on the threshold of becoming an internationally acclaimed authority on Haydn. Marion had read the entire scores of three of Hindemith’s early atonal operas with librettos so daring that she doubted they would make it past the English censor (one wonders how she got the scores into England). Marion observed that “Paul Hindemith is an apostle of Atonality and Linear Counterpoint. But he is also a real person in music -- a genuine composer who gives off music as a piece of radium throws off energy. That is what makes him interesting, and his music worthy of study.”

In drawing links between the musical designs of Bach and Hindemith, Scott observed that “composers of today, with Hindemith in the vanguard, have revived the structural designs of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. ...It may be said without irreverence that Hindemith’s masterful and quite terrible music for the mob in his opera Cardillac would have been impossible if he had never known Bach’s supreme treatment of the crowd in the St. Matthew Passion.” She held Cardillac in very high regard.

“Hindemith’s concentration and economy function at their highest power throughout the opera. …The contrapuntal parts, tingling, darting with vitality, are complex in appearance, clear in reality. Two of the most tremendous effects in the music are made by means so simple that one almost gasps on realizing how violently – on account of the context – one reacts to them. The first is the dead silence when Cardillac murders the Cavalier; the other is the long soft common chord of E flat on which the opera ends. For two hours Hindemith has held one…in a clenched fist, listening to his atonal, strangely staccato style. Then at last comes this diatonic, legato chord. The fist opens, one drops out, exhausted and amazed.”

Scott’s understanding and appreciation of Hindemith are clear yet she felt something was missing: “[Hindemith] is too radically a musician to evade for ever the great emotions that go with genius. If they thaw the little piece of ice that lies in his artist’s heart, the effect will be amazing.”

After World War II, Marion welcomed the opportunity to review concerts of contemporary music and found London “as music minded as ever, and infinitely more so than it was ten years ago”. She covered the “outstanding” Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in July 1946 that united countries so recently at war.

On Luigi Dallapiccola’s Songs from Captivity for chorus, percussion, harps and two pianos: “Only the last two movements were given at this concert [Boethius’ Invocation and Savonarola’s Farewell -- the first movement is Mary Stuart’s Prayer]. Technically they are distinguished by fine craftsmanship: and though not atonal they are fundamentally modern in their harmonic texture. But what winged the music straight into the sympathies of the hearers was its intensity of feeling. ‘These are they which came out of great tribulation’ one said to oneself.”

On Olivier Messiaen: “…another work was performed which also came out of captivity, but in this case it took the form of a mystical, apocalyptic quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano…called Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. Here was a man to whom in captivity had come the vision of that transcendental freedom where Time is nothing and Eternity everything. His eight movements were each touched with a strange, unworldly quality; some were exceedingly lovely, and the scoring had often an almost ethereal frugality which yet was never untender, except where the composer intended fierce effects, as in the ‘Danse de la fureur’, which was plangently aggressive.”

“It was,” she wrote “a strange experience to come away from these concerts that had brought together so many nations, and then to turn up a little alley between shells of buildings and come suddenly upon a view of one of our own quiet griefs – a great devastated area…of open ruins…[where] now grew pink willow herb, wild fern and golden yellow weeds, in a great silence beneath a half moon…”.

For more on the music and life of Marion Scott, see Pamela Blevins' Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, available from your favourite bookseller.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

When all the notes are right: Songs, Sex and Schoeck

‘He sums up Schoenberg in twenty minutes and then spends half a bloody hour on some guy called Othmarrrr Shirk’ – I still remember the disgust with which a Scots fellow student rolled his broad Rs around Robin Holloway’s approach to music history. The occasion was Robin’s lecture course on the twentieth-century, back in 1983 in Cambridge. He had indeed dealt with Schoenberg remarkably swiftly that day (though memorably, as always – I shall never forget his summing up of the Wind Quintet as a work ‘masterly in every way except that all the notes are wrong’, which really says it all). And it was true that he had also spent a lot of time – in relative terms – on a Swiss composer called Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957), hitherto unknown to almost all of us. As it happens, I was probably the only one who had heard of him, as I’d accompanied a student’s final song recital the year before, whose programme had included ‘Herbstentschluss’ from the cycle Elegie. The song was utterly compelling. And when Robin played us the second movement of the song cycle Notturno in the recording by Fischer-Dieskau and the Juilliard Quartet, I was hooked. Being something of a Germanophile – I’d first gone to German-speaking Europe at the age of 14 with our local youth orchestra and had since spent every summer there – I was already on the lookout for a possible doctoral topic on something suitably German. Schoeck was Swiss, but German Swiss, and I reckoned that he might do as well as anything more northernly Teutonic. So I went to Robin, borrowed his Schoeck scores and records, and he put me in touch with Derrick Puffett, a friend from his own Oxford student days who had done his doctoral thesis on Schoeck’s song cycles.

I visited Derrick not long after, staying on a camp bed in his rooms in Wolfson College (being a student from the distant industrial north, I didn’t have the money for a hotel of even the flea-ridden variety). When I told him I was thinking of doing a doctorate on Schoeck’s operas, he said: ‘Don’t bother with that. What we need is a biography’. ‘Oh, OK’, I replied, and that was that.

Further visits to Derrick followed over the next months, I went to Zurich to do some research in the Schoeck archives at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich – making many friends who have remained friends ever since – and I got a place at Christ Church Oxford to begin my doctorate the next year. As luck had it, Derrick at the exact same time got a job in Cambridge, so we sort of crossed, metaphorically speaking, at Tring. I was allowed to retain him as my main supervisor (thus seeing rather a lot of Tring from the window of a bus over the next couple of years), but was also assigned an Oxford man in order to have someone on the spot. This was John Warrack, who was somewhat bemused, admitting readily that he knew little about Schoeck. While most of my work was obviously with Derrick, whom I visited in St John’s Cambridge about once a term, I remember my conversations with John with no less fondness, and owe him far more than I think he ever realized.

It was clear that visiting Switzerland in the summer holidays wasn’t going to be enough to get the information I needed to write a biography, so after a year in Oxford I applied for a postgraduate scholarship from the Swiss government. I left for Helvetia in July 1986, intending to return to Oxford a year later, but in fact have never lived in England since. Once the doctorate was done, I survived for a while as a freelance translator of everything from chocolate adverts (sadly no free samples) to TV thriller scripts. Then it was off to Munich on a Humboldt Fellowship, researching into Richard Strauss. But in 1990 I found myself back in Zurich with what one’s mother always calls ‘a proper job’, running the very same music library whose avid visitor I had been during my studies.

My Schoeck biography finally came out – in German translation – in 1995. I had sworn back in the mid-80s that three or four years researching into an obscure Swiss composer would be enough for any healthy young fellow, for as such I regarded myself. But I found that the man’s music had a remarkable hold on me. It wasn’t anything exclusive or obsessive, thank god (my desert island discs remain Parsifal, the Magic Flute and Mendelssohn’s Octet), but rather like the advert for a certain beer back in England, I still find that Schoeck reaches parts that many other composers don’t. Of course he also wrote some weak music. But of his three hundred songs with piano, the majority are very fine, while his best half-dozen works (above all the instrumental song cycles Lebendig begraben and Notturno) are wonderful and can bear comparison with the greatest works of the age. His orchestration at its best has the luminescence of Berg and the delicacy of Ravel. Of how many composers could one say that?

My research also led to close ties to the Schoeck family, in particular to the composer’s nephew Georg, his wife Elisabeth and their seven children (yes, seven, and they’re not even Catholic!). Elisabeth became godmother to our first daughter, who bears her name, while our third child and only son has Elisabeth’s eldest daughter Salome as his godmother; he is also named after Salome’s three brothers: Alvaro Wolfgang Konrad Walton. (Confused? Never mind, so’s my son.) As I write this, I’m about to go off to the Schoeck family home in Brunnen, where the eldest son (called Alvaro, of course) is getting married tomorrow. Perhaps unusual for composer families, the Schoecks have always been wholly supportive of my research, helping wherever they could, and never once batting an eyelid whenever I criticized in print their ‘Denkmal-Onkel’, as they occasionally call him. As Derrick once said of another composer: it’s a poor tribute that confines itself to praise. And as a family of scholars, the Schoecks knew that any serious biography can’t discuss the good without offering a critique of the bad. Two years ago, Georg and Elisabeth died within five weeks of each other; I miss them still, much, just as I often think of Derrick, who died just before his fiftieth birthday over a decade ago.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death approached in 2007, I began to think about publishing the original English version of my Schoeck biography. After all, most of his works have since been released on CD, which means that the potential Anglo-American reading public now has access to the actual music (a complete recording of his songs on eleven CDs was published back in the 1990s on the Swiss label Jecklin, featuring singers such as Ian Bostridge, Kurt Streit, Lynn Dawson and Christiane Banse). But there were two problems. First, I had in the meantime published so much more on Schoeck, and had discovered so much more about him, that I couldn’t really regard the old book as up-to-date any more. Secondly, the rights to the book lay with the original publisher. So I decided to write a whole new book.

The original doctorate had been a ‘life’, with the music discussed only in passing. But since it was unlikely that a book on Schoeck in English would prompt a rapid flood of further studies of him, any new biography would have to go the full Monty and deal with the music as well as the man. So I went ahead and wrote it in my last year as a professor in Pretoria, before we returned to Switzerland. Having already brought out a book with a Boydell imprint (my Richard Wagner’s Zurich), I was keen to repeat the experience, and so approached the University of Rochester Press. To my delight, they accepted it. The manuscript was dreadfully long, but upon re-reading it, I saw that there was much ballast that could be excised easily. I naturally hope that the result is a leaner, fitter Schoeck. It’s a pretty meaty Schoeck all the same, as the text alone is over 150,000 words, not counting the bibliography and all. But still – I hope – within the bounds of what the average public is prepared to read. And it has some very nice photos.

The second biography parallels the first in many ways, but that’s only because they are both about the same composer writing the same music, married to the same wife and with the same friends. I could no more change my ‘cast list’ than could a Beethoven biographer leave out nephew Karl, the Immortal Beloved or Beethoven himself. But my two biographies are in fact very different, especially because the new book discusses the music in some detail (offering a plethora of music examples compared to the first book’s none). I’ve also allowed rather more sex to penetrate the new book, as it were, and there’s a bit more deconstruction too (though to the reader, I hope it will smack more of common sense than of anything remotely theoretical). The more observant reader might even spot a reference to the Dead Parrot Sketch in the first chapter – as I plummet into middle age, I become ever more convinced that mainstream musicology can only benefit from a good deal more Python. As for me personally, I can never read Adorno without thinking of the Spanish Inquisition.

What’s been oddest for me, writing this new book, is that the quarter-of-a-century since I began its predecessor has seen the passing of most of the witnesses upon whose memories I depended so much. When I started my research on Schoeck, he had been dead for just twenty-six years, and many of those who had known him were still alive. I also found them remarkably candid – aged 70, 80 or more as they were, they obviously felt themselves too old to be embarrassed about anything. Thus it was that as a twenty-four-year-old student, I on one occasion sat listening to a lady in her 70s, reminiscing about her mother’s death-bed confession of how fantastic Schoeck had been between the sheets. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book for more details. You’ll also learn how the humble sandwich takes on a whole new meaning in Schoeck scholarship.

As I wrote the book – and as I write now – the faces and (above all) the voices of the men and women I interviewed, but who are now no more, were and are as fresh as when I met them. In some cases, even their exact words and their tone of voice are etched into my memory. I realize now that they in their turn had equally vivid memories of Schoeck himself, and how lucky I was to meet them. They are almost all dead, so Schoeck researchers present and future must content themselves with second- and third-hand information. I shall remain ever grateful to have been granted instead the privilege of such proximity to the source.

Othmar Schoeck is available from all good booksellers, along with Chris Walton’s previous book, Richard Wagner’s Zurich. Read a sample from Schoeck here and an earlier post by Chris here. We congratulate Chris on winning the 2009 Max Geilinger Prize.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Living with the Polignacs

We will be taking a short break while we ply our trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair next week (hall 8, stand number C926 in case you’re passing by). To keep you entertained during our absence here is a rather longer-than-usual post by Sylvia Kahan, teacher, pianist and author of two superb books, In Search of New Scales: Prince Edmond de Polignac, Octantonic Explorer, and Music’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac. Here Ms Kahan introduces us to this talented, unusual and – dare we say, glittering couple:

My fascination with Winnaretta Singer-Polignac began with an occurrence of pure serendipity. In 1991, at the "a.b.d." point of my doctoral studies at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, I was looking both for a thesis topic and for an interesting program for my final degree recital. I decided to plan the recital first. Atop my piano was a pile of music that I had always wanted to perform but had never gotten around to learning. The piece at the top was Ravel's famous "Pavane pour une infante défunte." I opened the score, and glanced at the dedication: "A Madame la Princesse E. de Polignac." After reading through Ravel's stately and poignant work, I returned to the pile of music. The next piece on the pile was Stravinsky's Piano Sonata. I was amazed to see that this work, as well, was dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac! "Who is this woman?" I wondered. The next day, I looked through New Grove; the Princesse's name was nowhere to be found. But the coincidences continued the following week, when a soprano came to my apartment to rehearse. "Let's start with 'Mandoline' by Fauré." I opened the score - and my jaw dropped, for, yet again, above the mélodie, was another dedication "A Madame la Princesse de Polignac."

Around the same period I chanced upon a slim volume by Bruno Monsaingeon, Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Here, Boulanger told of the Princesse de Polignac:

Princess de Polignac's salon was one of the centres of artistic and musical life in Paris between the wars. Princess Edmond was an American and adored the arts. The birthday present she wanted as a girl of fifteen was a performance of a Beethoven quartet. Her collection of paintings was fabulous, and it was while arguing over the purchase of a painting that she met the man who was to become her husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac. It was even said that he finally decided to marry her in order to gain Monet's Turkeys, which was part of his future wife's collection.

She must have been at least thirty and he twice her age. As he himself was the son of elderly parents, she claimed that her father-in-law was born under Louis XV. Living in Paris, London or Venice, passionate about music, she had made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth in company with Chabrier and Fauré, and became one of the last great patrons in history. Everywhere she went, Greek was translated, Latin was translated, music was made. She'd arrive in London and an hour later, you'd be playing music or reading poems. How many soirées we all went to or helped with, where we played lots of Monteverdi, Schutz's Resurrection, Carissimi's Jephte, and then all the works she commissioned!

Much ill was said of her; but I only know her great generosity; she was not blind—she would discriminate. And with discrimination, she gave a great deal and is owed a great deal. There was the famous evening when her butler entered, appalled, "Madame la Princesse, four pianos have arrived. . . ". Stravinsky's Les Noces was to be played for the first time.

After reading this, I knew I'd found the topic of my doctoral dissertation: the salon of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac. Ten years of continuous research later, the dissertation re-emerged as a book, Music's Modern Muse.

Winnaretta Singer-Polignac still fascinates today. Her parentage was exceptionally colorful: she was the 20th child (of 24) of sewing-machine magnate Isaac Merritt Singer, who was born in poverty and died one of the richest industrialists in the world. Her Parisian mother, Isabella Boyer, was reputed to be the model for Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty. The story of Winnaretta's birth in the Yonkers, New York mansion that Isaac named "The Castle" goes as follows:

At the time of Winnaretta’s birth, her father was busy renovating The Castle, intent on filling his house with the most up-to-date appliances and sumptuous furnishings that money could buy. A new coal furnace was installed to stave off the winter cold. The rooms were filled with costly and elegant furniture. Behind the main house, a hothouse was constructed in the form of a palace, with four separate wings for the different varieties of exotic flowers and plants. “We have just picked a bushel of oranges,” Isabella wrote to her mother, “and we have the most rare flowers all winter.” But oranges in winter could not replace the lively bustle of New York City. Twenty-three-year-old Isabella keenly felt the solitude of country life.

The Singers’ home on Fifth Avenue had always been filled with Isaac’s business associates and friends, but in Yonkers the Singers were isolated, ignored by the local population. The only people her own age that Isabella saw were Isaac’s older children. In addition to caring for two infants, she had to minister to the needs of a fifty-three-year-old husband who was beginning to suffer from rheumatism and the other encroaching discomforts of middle age. Isaac’s ailments had no effect on his virility, however: only a few months after Winnaretta’s birth, Isabella found, to her dismay, that she was pregnant once more. She suffered a miscarriage in June, but was pregnant again by September. Finally, Isabella insisted that she could no longer endure the rural existence: if she must continue to bear children, she wished them to be born in Europe. This time her husband acceded. In November 1865, Singer sold The Castle and its possessions—including the canary-yellow carriage—to a hat manufacturer, and sailed for London with his growing brood.

Early photographs of Winnaretta posed with her mother and three brothers when she was about three years old show a very serious-looking little girl. In these family portraits, Winnaretta’s chin juts out and the corners of her mouth turn downward, taking the shape of an upside-down “U.” This unfortunate configuration of features became a cause for comment by contemporary chroniclers in her adult life; one wonders therefore what sort of reaction Winnaretta’s seemingly “negative” demeanor may have evoked in those close to her during her formative years. The pretty and vain Isabella may have rejected a daughter who was not fashioned sufficiently in her own lovely image. The extant letters from Isabella to her own mother, which extend through Winnaretta’s fifteenth year, lend credence to this theory: after writing in March 1865 that her two-month-old daughter “is getting on very well,” Winnaretta is never again mentioned in her mother’s letters.

Winnaretta entered the world of patronage during her first marriage, to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard. The marriage was an unhappy one, given Winnaretta's nascent lesbianism, but her aristocratic milieu gave her the opportunity to establish herself in Paris's music circles:

That summer, the Scey-Montbéliards made the round of villégiatures, or country house visits, an obligatory part of the aristocratic calendar. They traveled with Winnaretta’s brothers down to the Château de Tencin, the Grenoble estate of the Marquise Joséphine (“Mina”) de Monteynard, where Winnaretta and the Marquise spent their days painting and playing through the latest songs by Fauré. From there the Sceys continued on to Bayreuth to attend performances of Parsifal and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That summer Meg Baugnies had arranged a mysterious “lottery,” whose proceeds allowed the impoverished Fauré and fellow composer André Messager to fulfill their unrealized dream of traveling to Bayreuth. Fauré was ecstatic to be in attendance, but he was puzzled by some unspecified behavior of Winnaretta’s, which prompted him to write to Meg, “Madame de Scey-Montbéliard is three parts mad!!!” It was a madness that clearly appealed to the composer, however. Upon his return to Paris he gave Winnaretta a gift of a little piece of music, a one page manuscript in his own hand bearing the comical title Pensée fugitive mais définitive—“Fugitive but Definitive Thought, by Roger Jourdain, transcribed for three hands and one foot by G. Fauré.”

In November 1888 the Scey-Montbéliards traveled to Paignton for a series of balls and festivities given in honor of the coming-of-age of Paris Singer, who had married in 1887, and was now a family man and the new proprietor of the family estate. Other than brief mentions in newspaper articles, there is not much indication of how the Prince de Scey spent his time during his marriage. But it is clear that while Winnaretta may have paid obeisance to social convention on the surface, privately she did what pleased her, with or without her husband. She continued to entertain her avant-garde friends. An anecdote concerning Chabrier recounted by Francis Poulenc, who had had the story confirmed by Winnaretta herself, reveals the extent to which the composer felt free to speak “in the vernacular” in front of his hostess. One evening after the performance of Gwendoline, Chabrier dined with the Princesse de Scey. When his hostess had passed him asparagus, he leaned over to her, and said in an easily audible stage whisper, “You eat that, Madame, and it will make your urine stink!”

A second marriage, to Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer and a homosexual, proved to be much more fortunate. It was a true love match for both Winnaretta and Edmond, and their love, while not sexual, was consummated through their mutual love of music:

With Edmond at her side, Winnaretta began her second career as an aristocratic musical hostess in Paris. Despite the fact that the Carriès and Fauré commissions had not been completed, Winnaretta decided nonetheless to “open” her atelier in early 1894, albeit without the intended fanfare. By day, the newly renovated atelier was Winnaretta’s painting studio; by night it became a recital hall. Measuring ten by twelve-and-a-half meters (roughly thirty-three by forty-one feet), the room was large enough to seat comfortably one hundred people. The vaulted ceiling was two stories high; a narrow balcony, built around the upper story’s west and south walls, housed the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ, whose pipes rose impressively to ceiling height. Below, the room was decorated in Louis XVI style, with Winnaretta’s favorite colors of blue and green predominating. Two grand pianos dominated one wall. Despite the formal décor, the wood-panelled walls gave the room a warm, homey atmosphere.

On Tuesday nights during that first winter of their marriage, the Polignacs hosted a series of “organ soirees,” where the great organists of the capital —Gigout, Widor, Vierne, Guilmant, Fauré—performed on the Cavaillé- Coll. Le Figaro reported on Winnaretta’s “organ evenings, so highly sought after in Parisian high society,” helping to add luster to her growing reputation as a musical hostess. On other evenings, chamber music was played. Still other gatherings featured Edmond’s music, often accompanied by Winnaretta or Fauré. Not all those who frequented the Polignac salon were there to hear the music, however, nor were they prepared to respect the musical interests of those who were. Some of the guests were there simply to see and be seen in the newest salon in the Parisian social landscape. Many of them had no qualms about jostling their spoons against their teacups, concentrating their attentions on their neighbors’ garb, or, worse, chattering to their neighbor through the course of the performance. Some of the husbands, required to accompany their wives on their social rounds, simply slept through the sonatas or the arias. But for the true mélomanes in the crowd, those who had come expressly for the performances, the seriousness of purpose surrounding the execution of the music must have been a welcome surprise.

The Polignacs' music room became the hub of the Parisian musical avant-garde. The "first wave," which included Debussy and Ravel, came to hear daring new works in acoustically ideal surroundings. Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, and Colette would figure among the writers who chronicled their impressions of hearing music in the Polignac salon.

After Edmond's death in 1901, Winnaretta devoted the rest of her life to promoting his memory by commissioning new works of music from modernist composers. The list of composers who were recipients of her largesse is long and impressive: Fauré, Stravinsky, Satie, Falla, Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre and Kurt Weill, among others. Winnaretta's original idea was to create a body of repertoire that was suited particularly to the small space of a home music room. Stravinsky received the first commission:

Listening to Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Winnaretta experienced something of an epiphany, setting her on a path that would define the rest of her life as a patron. She was struck by the opera’s small dramatic proportions and play-within-a-play format, which included comic elements and characters drawn from the Italian commedia dell’arte. The music too was written for small ensemble, a chamber orchestra of thirty-six players. In short, Ariadne was a work that might fit comfortably into a sufficiently capacious home space like the Polignac salon…She started to imagine her salon as the ideal place to launch a new repertoire reflecting this new style, and she decided “to ask different composers to write short works for me for small orchestra of about twenty performers.” And the first composer who came to mind was the one that most represented to her the future of musical modernism: Stravinsky. By the time she returned to Paris Winnaretta’s plan was fully formulated. She wrote to Stravinsky on 20 November.

You know my very great admiration for your talent. You will not be surprised then that I thought of you in asking you to write for me a pantomime, or a symphonic work, which would belong to me and which I would have played in my music room which you are familiar with. It would obviously have to be a short work and for a small orchestra—maybe 30 to 36 musicians. Will you permit me to propose that you accept for this work a sum of 3000 francs—and to ask you if it could be finished around the 8th of April so that I can have it performed at my house around the end of April or the beginning of May.

Stravinsky apparently responded to the plan with enthusiasm, offering Winnaretta the exclusive rights of performance until such time that the part would be published. She jumped into the details of the plan with fervor:

Does the following orchestra suit you? 5 1st violins, 5 2nd violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos (or 3), 1 bass, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 harp, 1 percussion. The performance date could be put off until the month of November next if your work prevents you from being ready earlier. I had thought of a piece which could last around 15 minutes.

And two days later:

To my list of yesterday there could be added perhaps a piano and a celesta—but do what will suit you best. Do you have something for 2 pianos or 4 hands that I could play?

It is astonishing to read these words, in which Winnaretta essentially dictates the orchestration of the proposed work to the composer, but Stravinsky did not seem to take offense; on the contrary, he got into the spirit of things:

Now having thought about my future work I have decided to compose a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. So here are the instruments that I would need: 2 Flutes (the 1st changing to the piccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets (the 2nd changing to the Bass Clarinet), 2 Bassoons (and the Contrabassoon if that would be possible), 2 Horns in F, 2 Trumpets in C, 2 Tympani, a Grand Piano (of course), a Harp, 2 Quartets (2 First Violins, 2 Second Violins, 2 Violas, 2 Cellos) and a Double Bass. . . . Unfortunately I have nothing to offer you in the way of 2- or 4-hand music except an old thing (4 Études pour piano—rather difficult besides) that you wouldn’t like, I’m certain.

Winnaretta was a formidable, headstrong woman whose fortune and sphinx-like inscrutability allowed her to hide in plain sight. But "Tante Winnie," as she was called by her familiars, had a mordant sense of humor. One of the most famous stories involves her pulling rank with her querelous friend Madame Legrand:

Paul Morand, a young attaché in the French foreign ministry and a budding author, chronicled many of these dinner musicales. Morand’s recollections of Winnaretta’s lively dinners include incisive descriptions of “the celebrated Madame Bulteau . . . whose hard jutting chin contradicts the sweetness of her gaze,” and of Athelstan Johnson, British chargé d’affaires in Budapest, “his face shriveled up under the ice cube of his monocle,” who softened only when he heard the marvelous Borodin string quartet that followed the meal. Morand’s best-known anecdote concerns Winnaretta’s querulous friend Madame Legrand. The cantankerous “Cloton” visited Winnaretta so frequently that she practically lived at avenue Henri-Martin. She was born into the socially prominent but cash-poor Fournès family, and Winnaretta’s life of ease never ceased to arouse her ire. One evening, in a fit of jealousy, she spat out furiously, “Don’t forget that the name Fournès is worth more than that of Singer.” “Not at the bottom of a check,” replied Winnaretta.

Music’s Modern Muse and In Search of New Scales are both published by the University of Rochester Press available now from all good booksellers.