Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Our 100th Post: Going behind their backs

Born out of papers presented at a study day in April 2008, Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Work is a fascinating volume. Edited by Lucy Walker, it represents the most recent work in Britten scholarship, covering such areas as musical and non-musical influences on the composer (as varied as Ovid, the cinema and Shostakovich), studies of individual works, and a discussion of a work that was never written – the un-set libretto by Australian novelist, Patrick White.

In the following short extract from a much longer essay, composer Colin Matthews looks at the fraught question of publishing and recording unfinished and unpublished works. It is a subject on which he is unusually qualified to speak: for many years he collaborated with Deryck Cooke on the performing version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. In addition, he has been much involved with editing Britten's unpublished music, including the recent reconstruction of a clarinet concerto and three songs for
Les Illuminations which were omitted from the published version.

We would urge anyone interested in this subject to read his essay in its entirety, as we can only give a flavour of the argument here:

The most significant unfinished piece to have fully entered the repertoire is, of course, Mozart’s Requiem. There can be very few, if any, who would maintain that it should not be performed at all, as not representative of Mozart’s final wishes, but of course there has been controversy for over 200 years about Süssmayr’s contribution as regards both its extent and its competence; and as scholarship has become more focused, different versions have emerged, although none has completely won the day and supplanted the standard editions.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is a different case, since it seems just as likely that Schubert was content with it in its incomplete state as that he tried but failed to complete it. Like the Mozart Requiem, it has been a repertoire piece from the outset, as has the torso of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony; but here we have a different and tragic state of affairs. It is almost certain that Bruckner not only finished the Finale in sketch form, but completed a much larger proportion than survives in orchestral score. The chaotic dispersal of the manuscript after his death, with his friends appropriating pages of the Finale as souvenirs, means that – unless those missing pages turn up (which is not impossible even now) – the Finale cannot be reconstructed other than hypothetically.

As we move nearer to our own time – with the unlikelihood of discovering, say, a previously unknown Strauss symphonic poem – attention turns to juvenilia or to earlier versions of well-known works. Here the record industry, in its insatiable quest for novelty (as long as this does not mean recording genuinely new music) has been responsible for unearthing works that might be better forgotten.

The Thematic Catalogue of Britten’s music will comprise a completely open and unexpurgated account of everything he wrote. There will in future be no excuse for the kind of misinformation where, for instance, works are regularly described as having been ‘discovered’ at the Britten–Pears Foundation, as though they had been previously unknown or unrecognized. In fact the basic listing of works, including juvenilia and unfinished pieces, was made while Britten was still alive, and at his instigation. Myth and misinformation tends to become attached to ‘unknown’ works, and especially to the music that I have been discussing – Mozart’s Requiem most notably, of course, but at the first performance of the three completed movements of Bruckner’s Ninth, seven years after his death, the existence of even the sketches for the Finale was deliberately denied. Those musicologists who examined Mahler’s Tenth largely failed to grasp the scope of the work, or its scale; there are still some today who wish it had remained in manuscript and unplayed. No one, before Anthony Payne, thought to look properly through Elgar’s sketches; and the announcement of the reconstructed Third Symphony’s first performance in 1997 brought forth howls of protest from devoted Elgarians who would have preferred that Elgar’s wish that the manuscript should be burned – expressed once only and immediately contradicted – had been carried out.

Would Britten have approved of works that he had put to one side being revealed for all to see? Probably not. But would anyone argue, given the archive that we have charge of, that we should not make it as accessible as we can? This does not mean publishing or recording everything – far from it – but so long as this ‘unauthorized’ music is given its proper perspective, it can only add to our overall understanding of the composer. I have to admit myself to a particular fascination with the hidden workings of composers, and have learned far more from pursuing this path than from analysis, whose insights by comparison can sometimes seem a little cold and clinical – something Britten himself is known to have felt. He would have been somewhat dismayed at the idea of a study day being devoted to him, especially one which brought so much attention to the juvenilia – ‘here was no Mozart I fear’, he wrote, in typically disparaging tone, in the introduction to a collection of his early piano pieces – but I cannot help feeling that he would also have been secretly pleased.

The essay from which this post is taken may be found in Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Work edited by Lucy Walker and published by the Boydell Press in the Aldeburgh Studies series. Unknown Britten, Colin Matthews’ reconstructions of rediscovered works by Britten is available on CD and download from the NMC online shop. While there, take a look at some of their other inventive releases including their Gramophone award-winning NMC Songbook.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Avoiding ‘triteness and false brilliance’

2010 marks the centenary of the birth of Samuel Barber. At the age of nine he told his mother ‘I was not meant to be an athlete – I was meant to be a composer.’ Apart from a dip in popularity in the turbulent 1960s, his music has always enjoyed widespread popularity: his Adagio for Strings appears in television documentaries, films and near the top of radio stations’ lists of ‘all time favourites of classical music’.

To commemorate the centenary, the University of Rochester Press will publish Peter Dickinson’s
Samuel Barber Remembered featuring interviews with Barber's friends, fellow composers, and performers, notably Gian Carlo Menotti, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Virgil Thomson, soprano Leontyne Price, and pianist John Browning. Based on a BBC Radio 3 programme first broadcast in 1981, the book also includes three of the very few interviews extant with Barber himself.

We begin a series of extracts from this fascinating book with a short piece, looking at Barber’s early reception in England.

The prolific American writer David Ewen, writing for a British public in the Musical Times in 1939, found Roy Harris “the most significant” among American composers but continued: “Samuel Barber promises to become the most important discovery since Harris.” Ewen heard Barber’s First Symphony at the Salzburg Festival in 1937 where it was followed by an ovation. He went on prophetically in terms rarely used by any British writer then or later: “Samuel Barber’s facility in self-expression, his extraordinary gift in formulating his copious ideas into a coherent and integrated pattern . . . his capacity for writing a line of melody, and his instinct for harmony and orchestration bespeak a formidable creative talent. . . . Samuel Barber is already a fine and original composer: there is every reason to believe he may ultimately develop into a great one.”

Harris has not stood the test of time, but the adulation accorded to Barber in America came early and was sustained, apart from a reaction that became perceptible in the 1960s. By looking at Barber’s exposure in London, we see how his music gradually made its way in a major cultural capital outside the United States without the assumptions of genius common on its home ground.

The first hearing of his music in London was with a group of young musicians from the Curtis Institute, including the Curtis Quartet, sponsored by the Philadelphia branch of the English-Speaking Union in June 1935. They gave three concerts of American music, the first at Lady Astor’s house in St. James’s Square that included the Serenade, op. 1, for string quartet, Dover Beach, and four other songs. Barber told his parents: “Lady Astor went behind the scenes during the concert and complimented my music by asking if I was dead yet!” The next time Barber’s music was heard in London seems to have been when the Curtis Quartet played the Serenade at the Aeolian Hall on November 25, 1936. The Times merely referred to “a rhapsodical serenade by Samuel Barber and . . . Turina’s La Oracion del torero—neither of them a work of great moment.”

More significant was the British premiere of the String Quartet given by the Curtis Quartet at the Aeolian Hall in November. As The Times reported: “It has a fine slow movement, a meditation that unfolds itself in spirals. Most composers find it easier to write quick movements than slow but Mr. Barber achieves a greater success with the more difficult task.” Indeed he did.

In June 1938 the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music was held in London. Copland was represented by El Salon Mexico. There was nothing by Barber in the official program—there never would be—but Boosey and Hawkes put on a recital in its studio that included Dover Beach sung by Victor Harding with the Cardiff Ensemble. According to The Times, “This was not modern in the sense that the other works (Lennox Berkeley and Alan Bush) were, for it matched the nineteenth-century words very happily, but it did not sound outmoded and rang true.” As it happens, Vaughan Williams lectured at Bryn Mawr College in 1932, met Barber, and heard him sing Dover Beach to his own accompaniment. According to Barber, Vaughan Williams congratulated him and said: “I tried several times to set Dover Beach but you really got it!”

Barber’s First Essay was given at the Proms on August 24, 1939. The Times reported: “This short and simple piece is well constructed from not very appealing material. . . [T]hough it does not suggest a composer of outstanding originality, it avoids triteness and false brilliance. The points are well made by a practised hand.”

By 1945 the Toscanini recording of the Adagio for Strings had come out, and Gramophone declared: “Barber has an eloquence that I like: he lets himself go, and finds a richness of string speech that will be cordially enjoyed. It is shapely, well-knit music, conservative in idiom, expressive, dignified; music of a good brain that . . . also makes one believe in the composer’s heart.” The recording also impressed William McNaught: “This work has come to the front for good reason. . . . [I]t holds the attention by steady growth and plan: not many composers put such faith in sustained equable strength and reposeful movement. . . . [O]ne returns again and again to this griefless elegy to observe how much meaning can be patiently drawn from a slow, conjunct diatonic melody in contrast to the garrulous haste and bustling figures that are the fashion.”

The Adagio for Strings was in the Proms on 5 August 1945; it was also played by the New London Orchestra under Anatole Fistoulari at the Cambridge Theatre on September 16 and by the New London Orchestra under Alec Sherman on December 15, 1946. Now the Adagio was firmly established in England and would soon go further.

Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute will be published in March. Further excerpts will follow on this blog.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Lost in the Stars

Towards the end of last year, Alex Ross included Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno, performed by baritone Christian Gerhaher with the Rosamunde Quartett on the ECM label, among his recordings of the year. It is indeed a stunning recording – a warmly expressive performance by Gerhaher with superb playing by the Munich-based quartet – which will certainly enhance Schoeck’s growing reputation. For anyone fortunate enough to have received this superb CD in their Christmas stocking, here is Chris Walton on the Notturno, extracted from his equally splendid Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works published last year by the University of Rochester Press:

Schoeck’s torrid, obsessive, on/off affair with the Genevan pianist Mary de Senger from 1918 to 1923 had been punctuated by intermittent infidelities on his part and by broken promises of marriage on both sides. But as Schoeck admitted himself, it had proven the engine for a surge of creativity resulting in his operas Venus and Penthesilea, the orchestral cycle Elegie and many songs. One melody in particular – taken from the final scene of Venus, used as the main theme of a piano piece dedicated to her and reused again in the Elegie – was associated by Schoeck specifically with Mary. Ten years later, trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage to the German singer Hilde Bartscher, Schoeck remembered his affair with Mary and the music it had inspired as a kind of lost “golden age” in his compositional career.

It is no coincidence that Schoeck told his friend and biographer Hans Corrodi, just at the time when he began work on the Notturno, that “at least that suffering with Mary had been fruitful,” for the Notturno seems to have represented for him an attempt to rekindle the creative spark that had led to his earlier works. To judge from the remarks he made at the time, he was aware that his recent music bore little trace of the white-hot inspiration that Mary had provoked. Conjuring up her metaphorical shade to help him overcome his present shortcomings might thus have been a perfectly conscious act.

It certainly worked, for it is generally accepted that the Notturno displays Schoeck at the very height of his powers (it would even impress Alban Berg in early 1935). But it is noteworthy that the “Mary” theme is never given in its original form. The Andante appassionato alone features some forty transformations of it [see above], but none of them identical to the real source. It is a musical expression of that trick of memory we all know, whereby a familiar tune haunts one’s mind but evades all attempts to notate its precise contours. This mirrors perfectly the motto of the movement. This interlude probably represented several intermingled desires on the part of Schoeck. Its mantra-like reiteration of the “Mary” theme in its multitude of transformations is on the one hand a quasi-shamanic summoning up of a former muse to aid him in the present. On the other, given that Schoeck was at the time in a deeply troubled relationship, this sudden obsession with Mary’s theme—“always drawing near her, but never reaching her”—is surely also an expression of loss, of regret that things had not worked out differently a decade before, of an ideal that can never more be attained. In this sense, the avoidance of exact quotation could signify Schoeck’s intention (whether subconscious or no) to “hide” these now illicit desires. Hilde, as yet, knew nothing of Mary. But for Schoeck this perhaps made the act of concealment even more necessary.

In the last song of the first movement (also the final poem that Lenau wrote before he descended into madness), the poet looks down into a river and sees his own soul flowing past, weighed down with sorrow. The second movement of the Notturno is an instrumental scherzo with trio, in which the narrator describes a nightmare. The recapitulation of the scherzo overlaps with the end of the trio in a superb dramatic stroke. The third movement, cast as a rondo, is highly chromatic, and perhaps the closest Schoeck ever came to the style of Alban Berg.

The brief fourth movement is a desolate depiction of autumn in 5/4 meter, which Schoeck later claimed to have written at the time of the Elegie, though in stylistic terms, with its chromaticism and the fragmentary nature of its quartet accompaniment, it firmly belongs here. The fifth and final movement opens with another version of the Mary theme, this time with its intervals expanded to span more than an octave. The first song (“Der einsame Trinker”—“The Lonely Drinker”) represents a lapse in quality, noticeable only because of the compelling nature of the music before and after. The second song comprises only a two line poem (“O solitude, how gladly I drink / From your fresh woodland well”), and there then follows an interlude in sonata form as a kind of parallel to that of the first movement (though here there is no development section).

The final song is a setting of one of Gottfried Keller’s last poetic sketches. When Schoeck’s friend René Niederer brought it to his attention, he sketched it on the back of a visiting card, though in doing so he missed out three words by mistake (and intuitively improved it in the process, as he thereby removed a repetition of the word “Auge,” “eye”). In this brief prose poem, the narrator addresses the “Heerwagen,” the constellation known in English as the Plough, and imagines his soul being carried along on it, “innocent, as a child; I shall look far into the distance to see whither we are bound.” This poem might even have appealed to Schoeck on account of its superficial similarity to the final text (by Stefan George) of Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet—the work that in its combining of the genres of string quartet and lied was the Notturno’s most significant precursor. Both texts are cast in the first person, both tell of other planets or stars, and both end with the poet soaring away in a quasi-pantheistic merging with the universe.

Schoeck sets this final poem as a chaconne. A final transformation of Mary’s theme is heard at its opening, with expanded intervals, hovering above the long held whole-note chords of the accompaniment. It soon sounds again, in augmentation, in the first violin, accompanied by fragments of itself in even greater augmentation, repeated over and over in the lower strings. Its contours haunt the remainder of the song.

In its gradual process of transformation, the “Mary” theme has already left its original form far behind. On the final page of the score it seems to dissolve away altogether until at the end—as the narrator’s soul is carried away into the stars—barely a memory of it remains. Whether or not this “casting off” of Mary’s theme was for Schoeck an act of personal catharsis acted out in the very substance of his music, the overall effect of the final song is undoubtedly cathartic for the listener after all the conflict that has preceded it.

We do not know how Hilde reacted to the Notturno, though the manner in which it proclaimed to the world her marital strife must have caused her deep embarrassment. When Schoeck took her on a few days’ holiday to Paris straight after the premiere, it was perhaps meant to divert them both from the problems he had so directly depicted in his music. The Notturno’s first and third movements in particular are among the darkest creations to have come from Schoeck’s imagination, and their depiction of the abyss of depression surely has few parallels in their time. But the final Keller setting, with its predominantly white-note harmony, somehow succeeds in resolving all the torments that have gone before. Where Lebendig begraben had failed to carry through its dramatic trajectory to its close, the Notturno saves its finest moments till the very end.

Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works by Chris Walton is available from your favourite bookseller. The musical example, above, is taken from the first violin part of the opening movement of Notturno and is copyright 1933 by Universal Edition. The CD of Christian Gerhaher’s performance is released by the ever-inventive ECM.