Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Symphonies and Babies: The Case of Ruth Crawford Seeger

Plumbago Books will shortly publish the latest volume in their ever inventive Poetics of Music series, a collection of Bayan Northcott’s writings called The Way We Listen Now. Chosen largely from his columns in the Independent and BBC Music Magazine, these pieces demonstrate how Northcott moves ‘with enviable ease across the chasm that separates critics from the criticized,’ in the words of Christopher Wintle. ‘Like Keller before him, [he] develops his ideas through an agglomeration of occasional pieces – features, reviews, talks, programme notes and so forth.’ This is a book, as we publishers like to say, that belongs on the shelf of everyone with an interest in music. The following extract from a piece on Ruth Crawford Seeger is typical of his engaging style:

Do we really progress? Reviewing a London concert in The World in 1892, Bernard Shaw recorded: ‘When E. M. Smyth’s heroically brassy overture to Antony and Cleopatra was finished, and the composer called to the platform, it was observed with stupefaction that all that tremendous noise had been made by a lady.’ Even in 1975, Time magazine was evidently capable of proclaiming ‘Men compose symphonies, women compose babies’.

Behind the social and professional prejudices that made for such suppression, feminists would doubtless detect a more atavistic male fear: that if women should actually succeed in composing both babies and symphonies, what then? How else to explain Mahler’s notorious insistence that his young bride, Alma, should renounce her own compositional aspirations and devote herself to his? Granted, he ultimately relented – chided for his view of women by Sigmund Freud, no less. And one might have thought such attitudes had become rarer in our ostensibly more liberated era. Or has that liberation brought problems of its own? Consider the case of Ruth Crawford Seeger.

Born in 1901, daughter of a Midwest Methodist minister and variously raised in small-town Ohio and Florida, she proved gifted enough to enter the American Conservatory in Chicago in 1920. There she received a traditional training while absorbing more modernist and mystical enthusiasms of her piano teacher Djane Herz, a direct link with Scriabin. But if such early Crawford scores as her Music for Small Orchestra (1926) contain their darkly numinous textures, they also show a leaning towards constructivist schemes and atonal harmony. In due course, this was to attract the attention of that ubiquitous impresario of radical American music, Henry Cowell, who found a patroness to bring her to New York. Soon such pieces as her fiercely rhetorical Suite No. 1 for Five Wind Instruments and Piano (1927) began to be heard among works of Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse, Carl Ruggles and Cowell himself in what was then known as the Ultra-Modern manner. In 1930-31 she became the first woman to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, travelling to Europe to consult Bartόk and Berg and drafting what were to remain her three terse masterpieces: the Three Chants (1930) for women’s chorus, the Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg (1930-32) for contralto and three ensembles, and the extraordinary String Quartet (1931).

For, already, events were in train that would stop her in her tracks. In 1929, Cowell had arranged for her to take some lessons with his own teacher, Charles Seeger. A mind of commanding scope, Seeger had been a conductor and composer until most of his music was lost in a fire, and he was to end up as one of the founding fathers of ethnomusicology. But in the 1920s he was very much the theorist of the Ultra-Moderns, seeking through his concept of ‘dissonant counterpoint’, to establish the basis of an authentically American new music independent of European influence. Initially, Crawford was put through a strict course of permutational schemes and anti-tonal part-writing, which she developed in her four Diaphonic Suites (1930-31) for one or two instruments. Gradually lessons turned into a collaboration on Seeger’s projected treatise, and then into a romance. After Seeger had divorced his first wife, he and Crawford were married in 1932.

In 1936, Seeger was summoned to Washington to serve in the Federal Music Project as part of the New Deal enterprise to create an inclusive and optimistic all-American culture. To this Crawford was to contribute over the next 15 years by collecting, transcribing, editing, arranging and publishing hundreds of American folksongs, while simultaneously pioneering their use in basic musical education – not least, in that of her own children. In marrying Seeger, she had become stepmother of his son Pete, who in due course was to emerge as the leading light of the post-war folk- and protest-song revival. And two of her own four children by Seeger would also make their impact: Mike Seeger as an advocate of Deep South folk music, and Peggy Seeger with her husband, Ewan MacColl, as stars of the British folk revival. Indirectly, Crawford’s selfless work in traditional music was to exert a huge posthumous influence.

What of her own music? In 1938, she revised the String Quartet for publication, also arranging its slow movement for string orchestra. The following year she fulfilled a radio commission with a brief but joyous orchestral folksong fantasia entitled Rissolty, Rossolty – her sole tonal piece. But for the most part, she seems to have reasoned, as many creative women have to, that, with luck there would still be time enough for her more radical music in later life. In 1952 she at last got round to completing a new Suite for Wind Quintet full of implacable ostinatos and hard-edged invention. Might she have gone on to assimilate the still newer innovations of the post-war avant-garde? Alas, within months she was dead from cancer at 52.

It is tempting to imagine that, had time allowed, she could have come as close as any woman to balancing and fulfilling the demands of creativity and childbearing, of professional achievement and social commitment, of sustaining tradition and advancing the new. But it is not so simple. What of the role of Charles Seeger? In submitting Crawford’s already striking talent to a disciplined fine-tuning, he may have enabled her briefly to realize her most striking pieces; but, in marrying her, did he also subordinate that talent to his own desire for a renewed family life? In any case, how had Crawford managed to establish herself in a notoriously masculine and, in the era of Ives, Varèse and Ruggles, aggressively macho profession? Was it by denying her femininity in pursuing as hard and uncompromising a style as any of them? Back in 1953 when she died, such matters were difficult to determine, since, apart from the String Quartet (already an acknowledged influence on the teeming heterophonies of Elliott Carter’s mighty String Quartet No. 1, 1951), most of her exiguous catalogue remained unpublished and little known.

Only over the last couple of decades has the true quality and stature of her achievement become apparent with the publication of Judith Tick’s detailed and sympathetic biography; the appearance of studies by David Nicholls and Joseph N. Straus revealing the conceptual and technical ingenuities Crawford packed into a surviving catalogue of a mere 15 works; the belated edition of her pioneering monograph The Music of American Folk Song (originally intended as an appendix to Our Singing Country by John and Alan Lomax); and not least the recording of all her music under the devoted supervision of Oliver Knussen and others. By now, it is clear that the half-dozen best of her pieces stand with a handful of scores of Varèse and Ruggles as the essential classics of the Ultra-Modern era. Maybe she lacked a little of their visionary grandeur; but then she never had their chance to get her hands on a large orchestra – let alone to wax passionate and violent with it, as Shaw prophesized. Yet her achievement was arguably more various in its radicalism and more steely in its definition.

The full version of this piece may be found in The Way We Listen Now and Other Writings on Music by Bayan Northcott, edited by Christopher Wintle. Published by Plumbago Books and distributed by Boydell & Brewer, it will soon be available from all good booksellers in cloth and paperback. The book also includes drawings by Milein Cosman and Michael Daley and ranges far and wide across the musical horizon, from Bach to Judith Weir.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Handel Opera Revival

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting a complete cycle of the composer’s operas. These can be heard every Thursday at 2pm (UK time) as well as over the internet for a week after each broadcast. It is easy to take such a wealth of material for granted in these anniversary years, but as Winton Dean points out in one of the epilogues to his acclaimed Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, it is only relatively recently that these works have been performed at all:

The revival of Handel’s operas in the modern theatre, after not one of them had been performed anywhere between 1754, when Handel was still living, and 1920, has been among the most remarkable phenomena in the history of the art. But it is not a straightforward story, and not all its implications are fully understood. There were hurdles, both musical and dramatic, to be surmounted. The art had moved from opera seria to Gesamtkunstwerk, leaving a huge gap to be bridged by public taste. Looking back, one must conclude that the movement got off on the wrong foot, and has not always retained its balance since.

In 1920 a shaky start was inevitable. When in that year Oskar Hagen and his colleagues at Göttingen set the ball rolling with their production of Rodelinda, followed soon after by Ottone, Giulio Cesare and Serse, their achievement could be likened to Samuel Johnson’s comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on his hind legs: it was not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all. An idiom based on the solo singer, the da capo aria, secco recitatives, castrato heroes and an almost total absence of ensembles was the absolute antithesis of the current fashion for huge orchestras, rich post-romantic harmony and plots heavy with symbolism as exemplified by Wagner’s successors and the operas of Strauss, Pfitzner and Schreker.

It is hardly surprising that Hagen virtually rewrote Handel’s operas, rescoring them (recitatives included) for a massive orchestra, making devastating cuts, chopping up every aria by shortening ritornellos and abolishing da capos, rewriting stage directions wholesale, dragging in music from elsewhere, and transposing all high male parts down an octave, seemingly from a distaste for the unnatural and unmanly voice of the castrato. These versions were immensely popular in Germany and produced in dozens of cities over the next few years. a pattern was set, and arrangements of further operas by different companies soon followed. By the outbreak of the second World War nineteen of Handel’s operas had been revived in German theatres, nine of them at Göttingen. The more extreme distortions were dropped fairly soon, but Hagen’s arrangements (modified) could still be heard in Munich and elsewhere in the 1960s. The annual Handel Festival at Halle, founded in 1952, continued for some years to perform the operas with inflated scoring, slow ponderously accented recitatives, long pauses for scene changes during acts and automatic octave transposition. The results can be studied in a 1959 Halle recording of Poro, heavy with superimposed brass, which even renamed some of the characters, or in ten German recordings of Giulio Cesare up to 1970, where an opera composed for six high voices with two small bass parts is torpedoed and sunk by five basses and a tenor.

Germany did at least show interest in the operas, leaving the English-speaking countries far behind. There Handel remained fixed like Jehovah in his everlasting seat, revered as a great choral and religious composer, a pillar of the state and the Anglican Church, erected in the eighteenth century and reinforced ever since by the frequent repetition of three or four oratorios. Up to 1955, by which time Germany had seen twenty-five of the operas on the stage, precisely four had been presented in Britain, each in a single production by an amateur or ad hoc company, and three of the same four likewise in the United states – all between the wars and not one in a regular opera house. In Britain the oratorios, appreciated sooner for their dramatic qualities, had received far more stage performances than the operas.

The climate began to change with the foundation in 1955 of the Handel Opera Society in London, with Charles Farncombe as conductor, followed four years later by two further enterprises, the brave attempt by Frances and Alan Kitching at Abingdon to recreate the flavour of a Baroque performance, albeit on a diminutive scale, and the first of a series of productions at the Barber Institute of Birmingham University, conducted by Anthony Lewis and Ivor Keys. none of these offered much in the way of spectacle. The staging was elementary, though there was some first-rate singing, especially at Birmingham; their significance lay in their demonstration (despite occasional backsliding) of the crucial importance of restoring heroic male parts to the correct pitch.

About the same time a reaction against the ponderous blowzy treatment of the orchestra traditionally inflicted on Baroque music (that of Bach in particular) was giving place to a more historically orientated style based on smaller orchestras, lighter textures, springier rhythms and in due course idiomatic ornamentation, vocal and instrumental, led by practical scholars such as Thurston Dart, Arnold Goldsbrough’s English Chamber orchestra and Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (founded in 1959). among other things this allowed the countless felicities of Handel’s orchestration to shine through the murk. a few years later Christopher Hogwood went one step further, substituting period instruments (or facsimiles) for their modern equivalents. The movement was soon international, but its effect on Handel’s operas was unevenly distributed.

Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 is available from all good booksellers. Further extracts will appear on this blog throughout the year.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Exploring the Many Facets of an Art and Practice, Part Two

Ralph Locke continues his short history of the Eastman Studies in Music series

Two important batches of music books have appeared outside the Eastman series.Some interesting manuscripts written by performers tended to take a tone that was not scholarly and was even healthfully opinionated.With the eager support of Robert Easton and his successors Sean Culhane, Tim Madigan, and now Suzanne Guiod, I therefore proposed such books as stand-alone items. Again, we seem to have guessed right, as these books sold well. One of them gained particularly glowing reviews—The Percussionist’s Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams, by a remarkable West Coast master of multiple percussion, Steven Schick.

Needless to say, as time went along, the board members and I were not able to resist the offer of important manuscripts from some members of the Eastman faculty. These manuscripts go through the usual full review process, with confidential readings at several stages by specialist scholars at other institutions. Eastman Studies authors who are current or former members of the Music Theory and Musicology departments include Elizabeth West Marvin (co-editor, Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz since 1960), Matthew Brown (Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond), David Beach (Aspects of Unity in J. S. Bach’s Partitas and Suites), and Kerala J. Snyder (Dieterich Buxtehude: Organist in Lübeck, revised edition; its CD contains splendid performances by, among others, Eastman Professor of Organ Hans Davidsson).

A book, like a hill, can be alive with the sound of music. The Percussionist’s Art contains, tucked into a little pocket, a thrilling compact disc of many of the pieces that Schick discusses in detail. The Press has similarly provided CDs for Eastman Studies books on such topics as Indonesian music (The Gamelan Digul), the great Chinese erhu player Abing (Musical Creativity in Twentieth-Century China), and, most recently, some forgotten but charming, and socially revealing, operettas (Music in German Immigrant Music Theater: New York City, 1840-1940). One Eastman Studies title contains not one but two CDs: Composing with Japanese Instruments, a practical guide (widely used in its original Japanese version) by the eminent composer Minoru Miki.

At the time of this writing, the Eastman Studies series has released more than sixty titles, and many more are in the pipeline. We are pleased that our books have been so well received in the scholarly world and also by reviewers in the general press.
Particularly heartening was this phrase from a review in Music and Letters of Scott Messing’s two-volume Schubert in the European Imagination: “offers yet more evidence that the University of Rochester Press has become a highly significant player in the field.” The appearance of the series’ fiftieth title—Music Theory and Mathematics—in February 2008 brought welcome attention to the Press as a whole, as has Boydell’s music-book blog which requested this piece from me.

As prices rise and libraries and individuals trim back their book purchases, many Eastman Studies books have been helped by a subvention from the author’s home institution or a scholarly society. No fewer than seven Eastman Studies books dealing in part or whole with music in the United States have received a welcome boost from the Howard Hanson Institute for American Music. The latest Hanson subvention is for a forthcoming two-volume study of the string quartet since 1900, in which American composers John Cage, Elliott Carter, Mel Powell, Milton Babbitt, and Shulamit Ran rightly sit shoulder to shoulder with Debussy, Sibelius, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich.

But, regardless of shifts in technology and funding, Eastman Studies aims to remain a major purveyor of serious—and, in many cases, also brightly engaging—discussion of music for both the specialist and the general reader. We do not hesitate to include musical examples and sometimes even provide them in abundance. Still, certain books restrict themselves (wonderfully) to words alone: for example, renowned music critic Paul Griffiths’s exquisitely edited collection of some of his most fascinating reviews and essays, The Substance of Things Heard. I can only thank the boards of the University of Rochester Press and of Boydell and Brewer for sensing the need for high-level books on music and realizing that a series run by a team of scholars could meet that need.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Exploring the Many Facets of an Art and Practice, Part One

This year the University of Rochester Press celebrates its first twenty years of innovative publishing. In the first of a two part post, Ralph Locke, Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music (pictured, right), outlines the history of the Eastman Studies in Music series which is one of the jewels in the Rochester crown:

Music is a curious field. Nearly everyone loves some kind of music, and some people love many kinds. But, unlike novels or poems or plays or paintings, musical works cannot easily be represented in words or visual images, the two primary communications systems of the book trade. Furthermore, musical notation—the basic way in which the compositions of the great Western tradition are set down, from Gregorian Chant to composers of today such as Steve Reich—feels opaque to many music lovers, even ones who attend concerts or opera regularly or have, at some point in life, studied an instrument or sung in a chorus.

The net result has been a looming gap, for several centuries now, between the aspects of music that music professionals take for granted and the ways in which music has tended to be written about in books, magazines, and newspapers. This gap provides academic and other niche publishers with an opportunity, one that the Eastman Studies in Music series has attempted to fill for some fifteen years.

It was in the early 1990s that Robert Easton (URP’s first Director) and Jürgen Thym (Professor of Musicology and, at the time, the department’s Chair) asked me if I would develop a music series for the nascent Press. I gratefully said yes. I had edited a scholarly journal for a few years, I had published a monograph based on my dissertation (through University of Chicago Press), and I was co-editing a multi-author book (for University of California Press). I thus had some sense of the amount of additional work that editing a book series would probably entail (URP had minimal staff in its early years) and of the likely stumbling blocks.

I was no less aware of the rich possibilities. A healthy university press, I felt, would speak well to the world about the often-hidden merits of the University of Rochester, and a music series—the name, everyone agreed, needed to be Eastman Studies in Music—would raise awareness more specifically about the high-level work that goes on in the Eastman School of Music. I also urged that the call for manuscripts set no constraints on subject matter or methodology. Quality and significance would be paramount. I dreaded the thought of rejecting a project because it dealt with the “wrong” century, genre, or country, because it focused heavily on archival fact-collecting, or because it relied upon one or another current in music analysis or cultural criticism. I was also concerned, at least at the outset, that the Eastman Studies series not publish too many writings by Eastman faculty members, lest it appear to be a kind of vanity press. The series, I felt (and still feel), should simply draw on the expertise of musicologists from Eastman and other universities in order to maintain the highest standards of excellence.

I thus put together an editorial board in which the Eastman folks were slightly outnumbered by members from major research universities, although once the reputation of the Eastman Studies series was secure, I began to feel comfortable having a precisely balanced board.

The first authors to be published in the series were a varied and distinguished lot. Margaret G. Cobb, the doyenne of Debussy studies, contributed an urgently needed revised edition of her famous book The Poetic Debussy. It went on to sell out in hard cover and paperback alike. (Like many URP books, it is now available again, thanks in part to advances made in the technology of on-demand reprinting.) Joscelyn Godwin’s Music and the Occult: French Musical Philosophies, 1750-1950 likewise made it into paperback. So did the first of several Eastman Studies books on organ music: Lawrence Archbold and William Peterson’s French Organ Music from the Revolution to Franck and Widor.

Clearly, we realized, our concept was working. And, just as clearly, we were getting—because of my own scholarly proclivities—an overabundance of titles on French topics. We gradually vanquished that problem, with books on such topics as music publishing in sixteenth-century Venice, fugal theory in the Baroque era, Bach, Wagner, “the pleasure of modernist music” (e.g., Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ligeti’s music in the film 2001), and numerous aspects of music and musical life in the United States. A distinctly American book, Elliott Carter’s Collected Essays and Lectures, quickly became one of the Press’s all-time best-sellers (in hard cover and paperback) and remains in print today—to the satisfaction, we hope, of the renowned composer, who celebrated his 100th birthday this past December.

To be continued...