Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Lied by example

The 75th volume in our Eastman Studies in Music series is a study of German Lieder edited by Jürgen Thym, Of Poetry and Song. Within its William Morris covers is a truly interdisciplinary study of the relationship between text and music written by two musicologists and two German-literature specialists. In this post, Thym explains how this quartet came together and the rationale behind their collaboration:

Of Poetry and Song: Approaches to the Nineteenth-Century Lied constitutes a kind of symposium, a (mostly virtual) get-together of scholars with a common interest and a similar approach to the subject matter. Our conversations extended over decades. Sometimes we met at conferences, sometimes we offered separate contributions at the same conference session, and sometimes two of us teamed up on a conference paper or article. In retrospect, it may even seem that the four humanist-musicians (or were we musician-humanists?) constituted a school.

It was by no means foreordained that the quartet of scholars represented through selected writings in Of Poetry and Song would recognize each other as like-minded and belonging together, as disciplinary boundaries and careers in very different institutions separated rather than united us. And yet, from very early in our academic careers, we pursued studies in the German Lied informed by the insight that the song is a compound genre whose aesthetic character is determined by the interaction of poetry and music and that such studies are most successful when the expertise in musical and literary matters comes together in one individual or, alternately, when scholars of Germanistik and musicology (or music theory) collaborate.

There were additional common underpinnings. Very early on we were united by a dissatisfaction with the state of research on Lieder around 1970, which, with a few notable exceptions, may be characterized as a divide between music scholars, often analyzing the Lied with little or no regard for the poem that inspired the setting (as if a song were just a piece of chamber music), and specialists on Goethe or the German Romantic poets, insisting on the primacy of the literary text (or the interpretation of a particular critic) as determining the quality of a setting. And when attention was paid to the Lied as the setting of a poem, authors commented, almost exclusively, on the images of the poetry or the emotional content of the words and how these aspects found their equivalents and analogues in the musical setting.

While not denying or denigrating the importance of these dimensions in the setting of Lieder, the four authors insist on treating the poem and its setting as a complex phenomenon in which different dimensions of language and music work together (and, at times, also conflict with each other) in order to establish a network of communicative meaning. Meter and rhythm, rhyme structure and sound values, verse structure and stanzaic organization, and the succession and connotation of images establish a complex organism that can be subjected to a variety of interpretations. And the composer, by responding to some or many (certainly not all) of these dimensions, establishes a correspondingly complex organism, the Lied that constitutes an interpretation of the poem.

The quartet’s approach is thus unashamedly structuralist—perhaps no surprise in view of the dominant paradigm in academia during the years when we first formulated many of these essays, but our approach is also open to meaning and expression. We believe that it is futile to neatly separate structure and meaning—in fact, the latter comes into being through the former. And here is perhaps a lesson to be learned, or reaffirmed, at a time when paradigms have changed in the humanities—we indeed live now in a completely different, post-modernist, era. The essays, hopefully, may suggest some ways in which close analysis and factual knowledge can help inform the search for meaning(s), and, vice versa, a search for meaning(s) can invigorate analytical and factual studies.

When did the four authors become a school unified by similar convictions in studying Lieder? There was no fanfare, heralding a new beginning; no manifesto, asserting the righteousness of our cause; not even a conference session in which all four, jointly, introduced their approach on text-music relations to their colleagues in Germanistik and musicology. (It even seems doubtful that we ever got together as a quartet.) And yet, communication and collaboration slowly began to take root more than thirty years ago. Two members of the quartet, Ann C. Fehn and Rufus Hallmark, worked together in the late 1970s on their magisterial study on Schubert’s pentameter settings, announcing their findings at various professional conferences and publishing them in two different essays (condensed in Of Poetry and Song into one chapter).

When Fehn moved to the University of Rochester in 1982, accepting a combined academic and administrative position, she quickly reached out to me (I had just become chair of musicology in the University’s Eastman School of Music), invoking one of our common interests, German Lieder. “Would it not make sense to meet once a week or every other week,” she argued, “to talk about something non-administrative?” The collaboration undertaken as an escape from administrative burdens, was, in a way, an extension of the work Fehn had begun with Rufus Hallmark. From investigating the declamation of a particular poetic meter (line structure, as it were), we moved to larger poetic forms: the ghazel (taking a cue from Harry E. Seelig who had worked on Wolf’s settings of this poetic form), the sonnet (clearly an extension of the pentameter studies by Hallmark and Fehn), and free verse (arguably a follow-up to Seelig’s unpublished lecture on Goethe’s “Ganymed”).

It was especially the infectious energy, gentle persuasiveness, and generosity of spirit of Ann C. Fehn who inspired the scholarly collaborations that, in due time, led to dialogues and lectures at professional conferences and, finally, also to publications of an interdisciplinary nature. It is futile to speculate about the directions that the collaborative efforts of the four authors might have taken, if the life of Ann C. Fehn had not have been cut short, at age 44, in November 1989 after a long illness. But so many of the essays collected in Of Poetry and Song owe their existence to, or were inspired by, her intellectual curiosity, organizational skills, and, ultimately her astute insights on issues pertaining to the German Lied, that the symposium may be considered a record, a memorial as it were, of a collaboration of scholars that saw its heydays in the late 1970s and 1980s and whose echoes have continued in the work of the three surviving members up to today. For that reason the book is dedicated to the memory of Ann C. Fehn.

Of Poetry and Song is edited by Jürgen Thym and published by the University of Rochester Press this month. For further information about this or the previous 74 books in the Eastman Studies in Music series, please visit our website.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

‘Que la musique sonne’

There are few composers - at least among those who lived beyond their three score years and ten - whose musical output can be contained on two CDs. Edgard Varèse, whose work is celebrated over three evenings at the Southbank Centre this weekend, completed and published a relatively modest amount of music, but his influence on the work of a wide range of musicians continues - 45 years after his death.

Anyone captivated by the range of Varèse’s music - whether through the Southbank or Sage, Gateshead, celebrations or Riccardo Chailly’s award-winning recordings - should investigate Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary edited by the Paul Sacher Foundation’s Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann. ‘No-one interested in this composer, or indeed the 20th century modernist adventure as a whole, should be without [this book],’ wrote Bayan Northcott in BBC Music Magazine in 2006.

Exquisitely illustrated with material from the Varèse archive, the book contains essays by a range of contributors. There are, of course, pieces on the major compositions, alongside others on the lost early works - destroyed in a Berlin warehouse fire; the influence of jazz on his work (it is said that Charlie Parker begged Varèse to teach him composition); the truth about that mythical phone call from a teenage Frank Zappa; his influence on American music; the Whitney connection and his New York patrons; even the art collection of Varèse and his wife, Louise.

One of the most thrilling pieces is ‘Converging Lives: Sixteen Years with Varèse’ by his pupil, assistant and music executor, Chou Wen-Chung. In 1937, Chou was a refugee at 14,

Somehow, despite the chaos and the smell of death around me, I learned of Ravel’s passing, and it dawned upon me that not all composers were dead historical figures. Transfixed by the idea that there were actually ‘living’ composers, I resolved to be one myself.

Some years later, having studied music at the New England Conservatory, Chou found himself in New York, searching for a teacher. He met Colin McPhee who told him, ‘Varèse is your choice,’ but warned him ‘Varèse is a volcano. His music consists of explosion after explosion…you must resist him or you will be buried.’

Varèse telephoned and invited me for a visit. When he asked to see my music, I was embarrassed to show him the first movement of Landscapes (1949)…In this piece I had tried to let fragments of ancient Chinese melodies drift across the sonic space of a western orchestra without conforming to western concepts of musical structure. So I could hardly believe it when I heard him say, ‘Come next week at the same time.’ Wondering how I could afford his tuition, I hesitated. He exploded, offended that I thought he was offering to teach me for money. He then explained how he had benefited from Debussy, Busoni and Romain Rolland without paying ‘a sou’. All he wanted was for me to ‘pass on the heritage’. Then he added with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘but perhaps you will find me a big old Chinese gong someday?’ He did not have to wait for long. In his later years, he was often shown in photos playing the enormous tam-tam I gave him. After his death, Louise gave me his favourite Chinese gong which he had bought on the street in Paris at about the time he finished Ionisation. This exchange of a tam-tam for a gong must have some symbolic meaning.

Chou goes on to describe how he came to edit Varèse’s work after his death, including a definitive version of Amériques for Chailly. ‘His art rests on a delicate balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian, or logical construct and metaphorical suffering,’ he claims. ‘While I would spare no effort collecting information regarding Varèse’s intentions, planning and sketches, I would also attempt to examine every issue from his viewpoint emotionally as well as rationally.’

The book ends with a series of statements from other composers, including Pierre Boulez (‘Was he ever tempted to imagine that he was born too late in a world too young?’), Elliott Carter (‘After his death he was played much more frequently and with greater care. How he would have been cheered by this!’), Dieter Schnebel (‘I can still picture him, fifty-five years [after encountering him at Darmstadt] as if he were standing before me.’), Peter Eötvös - who collaborated with Frank Zappa, shortly before the latter’s death, on some as yet unreleased recordings, and others.

Anyone within reach of London or Gateshead this weekend should treat themselves to the music of Varèse, a pioneer who remains unique, and this superb book. How many other composers have influenced jazz musicians, composers such as Birtwistle and Schnittke, and rock musicians from OMD to Can to jazz-rock combo Chicago?

Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, is published by the Boydell Press in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation. There is a limited quantity of this lavishly-produced volume left, and further reprints are unlikely. More information about the Southbank concerts may be found here.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A very European American composer

In this final extract from Peter Dickinson’s Samuel Barber Remembered the interviewee is the pianist, John Browning (1933-2003). Browning premiered Barber’s Pulitzer prize-winning Piano Concerto in 1962 and had chalked up almost 150 performances by 1969. Browning’s relationship with the composer was warm and collaborative, as this fascinating interview - conducted in New York City in 1981 - reveals:

JB Sam and I met in 1956. I was making my debut with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, and his Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance was being premiered. And then Schirmer’s commissioned the Piano Concerto and Sam called me and said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘Of course. I would be very honored.’ I didn’t get the last movement until about ten days before the premiere, so I was practicing about fifteen hours a day trying to get it memorized because it’s frightfully difficult.

PD What discussions did you have with Sam Barber about the kind of music it might be? Did he come to you with sketches?

JB Sam had a very interesting way of writing for artists. He would have any of us for whom he was writing a work come up to the country house at Mt. Kisco and play through everything we knew for three, four, or five days. Mr. Horowitz did it, Miss Price did it, I did it. And he would get a feel of what he thought our strong points were. For example, Horowitz taught him a tremendous amount about the sostenuto pedal, the middle pedal, and he began to use that a great deal. I brought up things my teacher Rosina Lhévinne had told me about flutter pedals and dividing runs two octaves apart instead of one, which makes a much bigger sound. So, in a way, we all contributed in our fashion to ideas he then went with. For example, he ended the first draft of the first movement pianissimo, and both Mr. Leinsdorf and I, in hearing it, thought: 'Maybe we could suggest that it might end fortissimo so the slow movement would come out of nowhere.' And Sam was always wonderful in that way; he always listened to the performer, and if he hadn’t wanted to change it he wouldn’t have, but he thought 'it’s a good idea,' so he did.

PD Were there other places like that?

JB There were some passages in the last movement that were almost unplayable, particularly at the tempo that it goes. And I said: 'Sam, I just cannot seem to get through them. Can’t we do short cuts? I think it will be just as effective.' And he said: 'Let’s take it over to Mr. Horowitz. If he says it can’t be done, then it can’t be done.' And we took it over. Mr. Horowitz said: 'Sam, I’m afraid John is right. It cannot be played at that tempo.' [laughs]

PD He’s sometimes described as a conservative composer. What kind of a composer does that make him?

JB I think, perhaps like a good performer, a good composer wants a work to succeed—just as we try to make the performance of a work as successful as possible. Now, there have been composers whom we have called 'ivory tower' composers who, it seemed to us, were not writing with the public in mind—people like John Cage. I think in the case of Barber and certainly Britten, these were men who cannot be viewed as contemporary; they must be viewed as we would view Bach or Rachmaninov, who was certainly not a twentieth-century composer. It doesn’t matter when he wrote. It just doesn’t matter. The music is of its own genre. And I think Sam is very much the same way. Certainly, there were contemporary things, but I think Sam achieved a rather eclectic sound—he sounds actually less American than, say, Copland. And yet it was Nadia Boulanger who taught Copland and many other Americans, but Sam never worked with Madame Boulanger.

PD Does it matter that he doesn’t seem to be American—or perhaps he does to you?

JB I think that in some of the early works like Knoxville, where the poetry was very clearly American, then the sound was more so. As he went on I think the later works became far more Scriabin-ish, far more into a kind of European sound, not that wide-open spaced sound we think of as being American.

PD What is the Barber sound?

JB I think the one thing that stands out is the absolutely superb mastery of counterpoint. Really, Sam was a contrapuntal composer. When one looks at the fugue of the sonata, I do not know of another piano fugue as successful since the Brahms Handel Variations or as well written. He studied Bach every day, and he was so comfortable in these forms that they were a natural language. One had the feeling that he was every bit as comfortable with a four-part fugue as Bach was, that he could have written it down like a good crossword puzzle, in ink! That kind of security. I think later on particularly the harmonies were very turn of the century—very Russian almost—but with functional basses. As I say, Sam was perfectly capable of writing twelve tone or dissonance if he wanted to. He always said, “I never want to get trapped in a form or a method.”

PD What sort of a person was he?

JB He was a very complicated man. He had a very dry wit. He could be very aloof and very snobbish; he could also be very 'old shoe' and very comfortable. He loved to have prominent friends very well placed, but he did not use them in a bad way at all. Of course, he and Gian Carlo Menotti had a long association for well over thirty years. I think Sam could be very difficult, at the same time very loyal: he was wonderful to me, he was wonderful to Miss Price. He stood by his artists, if that makes sense. He was an extremely intellectual man; he read constantly; he was fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish—absolutely fluent. He was truly a very cultivated man. He, in a sense I think, almost thought of himself as more European, oddly enough, because he had lived a great deal in Europe, with the house in Santa Cristina in the Dolomites. He loved Europe, the boat trips of the old days, the European atmosphere. He was a man who became increasingly irritated by the square, modern buildings. He would have been much happier in a nineteenth-century house.

The complete interview with John Browning - as well as others with the likes of Copland, William Schuman, Leontyne Price and Barber himself - can be found in Samuel Barber Remembered, published by the University of Rochester Press.