Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Conversations with Elliott Carter

If the Aldeburgh Festival began (almost) with a bang (see ‘Beside the Seaside’ below) it ended (almost) with the sound of a tiny cymbal - the final note of Elliott Carter’s Conversations which received its world premiere in Snape Maltings last Sunday. Performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano, Colin Currie on percussion and conductor Oliver Knussen on a rather precarious-looking chair, the seven-minute piece packs in a great deal within its short span. Luckily Knussen and his musicians played it twice on the night.

With two other recent pieces on the bill, Helen Grimes’ exuberant Everyone Sang (2010) and Charlotte Bray’s haunting violin concerto, Caught in Treetops (2010), it was an evening (indeed a weekend) for new music at the Festival. One hopes that Carter would have felt in good company. In 1994, in a piece reprinted in his Substance of Things Heard, Paul Griffiths wrote:

You do not have to be eighty-five years old to feel marooned in the past while time races on, but you probably have to be that age - and specifically to be Elliott Carter - to have the reverse feeling of desertion by time’s skidding hurriedly backwards from a point you thought was not only yours but everyone’s. At a public interview before the world premiere in Chicago of his newest orchestral work, Partita, Carter reacted passionately to a question about the future. How could he have any certain hope for his music, he said, when the last decade had seen a rush of young composers - by whom he probably meant anyone under seventy or so - ‘writing like Brahms, and doing it badly’? His tone was regretful, bewildered, but not bitter: he has too much gaiety of mind ever to turn sour - or indeed, ever to write like Brahms. We therefore have the paradox of an aged composer producing some of the most exhilarating music around, and doing so with majestic accomplishment (if that does not seem too settled a term for this athlete of the mind) in his new piece.

But perhaps the youthfulness is not so paradoxical; maybe only the old, in these jaded times, have their innocence intact, and stay able to be surprised by immediate sensory impressions, as Carter is evidently surprised and delighted by sounds. Simplicity and directness have always been as much his blessings as the vaunted ‘complexity’. (Why should this always be introduced as a problem? Who complains of the complexity of a forest?) Indeed, the abundance, to give it an apter name, comes out of a simple certainty about the nature of a composer’s task… [p.22]

Listening to Conversation on Sunday evening - how the piano often seemed primarily percussive and the percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, took on the more melodic role expected of the piano - we were reminded of a paragraph in Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler’s ‘centennial portrait’ of Carter:

Carter has drawn on existing traditions for key points of his creative process and his artistic philosophy, preferring to prolong and rejuvenate them rather than call them into question. This applies to his preservation of the idea of a self-contained work of art, set down in writing with maximum precision, and to his focus on working with conventional tonal material (for example, precluding electronic sounds and largely avoiding experimental performance techniques on conventional instruments). It applies equally to his understanding of the role of the performer, whom he employs primarily as an interpreter of his ideas and not, as in aleatoric music, as a ‘co-author.’ And finally it is no less applicable, at least in intention, to his understanding of listeners: although Carter has often said that he never thinks of the audience while composing, but only of the performers, his efforts to make the musical events audible, and his penchant for casting his musical discourse in quasi dramatic roles, doubtless spring from a desire to make statements of maximum concision and urgency and to communicate them to his listeners. [Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, pp.16-17]

Let’s hear finally from Elliott Carter himself, as quoted in Bálint Varga’s essential new book, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers:

Each of my works is an adventure into a new conceptual, expressive, and musical domain which I have not yet explored. Their style is not something consciously thought about, but is a reflection of the expressive and musical intention. To work out a series of stylistic devices and then use them as formulae bores me as a prospect and it bores me in others who do it. Self-repetition is to me a sign of fatigue. [p.43]

In a 1985 postscript to Varga, Carter wrote: ‘The plan of your proposed book seems interesting and I hope you have the best of luck with it. It is courageous of you to include something about an American composer—for all of us have had a very hard time penetrating European indifference to our work.’ There was certainly no indifference on Sunday evening, as rapturous applause followed that delicate cymbal note in the closing minutes of the 64th Aldeburgh Festival.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Beside the Seaside

The 64th Aldeburgh Festival opened last Friday with a bang. Several, actually - many from the gongs and tam tams in Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The second half of this thrilling concert was given over to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with an ailing Magdalena Kozena nevertheless giving a superb performance right down to the closings Ewigs. Such is the variety of the Festival programme, even after this big opening number there will be much more to enjoy over the coming weeks.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology is as essential an accompaniment as the highly-collectable Festival programme book. This remarkable collection of prose, poetry and images of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast has, at its heart, the Aldeburgh Festival in Benjamin Britten’s time and beyond. We celebrate both the Festival and the Anthology with excerpts from Steven Isserlis’ contribution to the latter, appropriately titled ‘Aldeburgh: A Magical Festival’:

My first performance at Aldeburgh was as part of a short masterclass seminar given by the distinguished Danish cellist Erling Blondal Bengtsson. I remember playing the Prelude of Bach’s fifth suite at the end-of-course student concert; about ten minutes after I’d finished, Britten arrived. So alas, I just missed my only chance to play to him. I did, however, get to play Bach to Imogen Holst, who was a friend of my teacher, Jane Cowan. As a result of that, I became friends with ‘Imo’ (well, if a rather bumptious teenager and a distinguished eccentric in her late sixties can be called friends), and she invited me to play her lovely piece for solo cello, The Fall of the Leaf, at a concert that marked her seventieth birthday in 1977. (I received my first-ever national review for that, the Telegraph graciously describing me as ‘the talented Roger Isserlis’.) Later, she invited me back to the festival to give the first performance for many years of her father’s only work for cello, Invocation. So my early memories of Aldeburgh are very much bound up with her. I really don’t think that a character like Imo’s could exist now. I remember her speeches to audiences: bending from the waist down, she would inform them, in the sort of voice now heard only in nursery schools, that they were about to have a ‘lovely, lovely time’. They would sit there meekly, putty in her hands.

At the concert in which I played The Fall of the Leaf, Peter Pears sang songs by Quilter and his contemporaries, with Roger Vignoles at the piano. I listened backstage and was bowled over by the performance; when they came offstage, I was ready for them. ‘That’s the best performance I’ve ever heard of British music!’ I gushed. Peter Pears looked at me a little strangely, as well he might; to him, having introduced so many of the greatest works ever written by a British composer, it must have sounded very foolish. Well, it was a silly thing to say; but I was young…

Another striking memory is from 1974, when Rostropovich was finally allowed out of the Soviet Union and was able to give the premiere of Britten’s Third Suite for solo cello, which had been written for him some years earlier. Again, Britten was sitting in the box; I remember thinking how frail he looked – but he was still a strong presence. We knew that we were listening to history in the making. Since then, I have performed that same Suite (the only one of the three that I play) several times at the Maltings; on each occasion, I have glanced towards the darkened box and imagined that Britten’s ghost was sitting there. It is quite an eerie feeling!

As I think of Aldeburgh and Snape, other memories come tumbling into my brain: the sight of Joyce Grenfell striding into a concert, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was stirring up among her fellow audience members; Peter Pears and Murray Perahia getting to the very heart of Schumann’s Dichterliebe; Olly Knussen’s torso heaving with enjoyment of a somewhat risqué joke, with his co-director Steuart Bedford sitting with cocked head and knitted eyebrows, doing his good-natured best to understand it; my friend the pianist Paul Coker watching with amused concern a temper tantrum of mine backstage including (I’m ashamed to admit) some kicking of a dressing-room wall, when I felt my cello hadn’t been speaking properly during the first half of a recital; my mother attending a Bach recital I gave in the beautiful Blythburgh church, shortly before she died; Stephen Hough being thrilled by the sound of Britten’s piano, kept at the Red House; and so on. Variety has always been a hallmark of the festival and its associated activities, every visit offering a new and different experience.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology, edited by Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie, is available in paperback, hardback and a limited edition. More books on Benjamin Britten, music associated with Aldeburgh and the history of Suffolk may be found here.

Pronunciation note: Aldeburgh almost rhymes with Marlboro rather than Nuremberg.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Selling Serialism

Luigi Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to work within the twelve-tone system, and is considered one of Italy's most important composers of the twentieth century. As Brian Alegant writes below and in his recent book, The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola, the emotion in Dallapiccola’s music makes his version of twelve tone an exciting place to start for anyone who thinks they won’t enjoy it.

Anyone who has had to teach twelve-tone music knows that it is a “hard sell.” Having taught music majors for nearly a generation, I can say without hesitation that no other genre of classical music inspires such a hostile reaction as serialism. I have seen and heard students, performers, and even critics denigrate it as abstract, tortured, inhuman, and more about numbers than music.

And yet, most scholars would agree that twelve-tone composition is among the most important musical developments of the twentieth century. Even a partial list of composers who experimented with—or fully embraced—serialism is staggering: Babbitt, Barber, Bartok, Berg, Boulez, Britten, Carter, Crawford, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Mamlock, Martino, Mead, Morris, Nono, Perle, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sessions, Schnittke, Skalkattos, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Webern, and Wuorinen, among many others. And most scholars would also agree that Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) is among the most accomplished and admired serial composers. His output includes ballets, choral music, concertos, film scores, piano pieces, song cycles, orchestral pieces, and operas. Dallapiccola enjoyed international fame as a lecturer, teacher, and author, and he was a member of the national academies of arts in the U.S., France, and England.

I have been entranced by Dallapiccola’s music ever since I heard David Burge play the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera. I have been listening to his music ever since with increasing appreciation and admiration, and I use his works to introduce twelve-tone to my students (with overwhelmingly positive results).

The scholarly literature on Dallapiccola is vast, and comprises a host of books and monographs, countless articles, and an ever-growing number of dissertations and theses. As a result, we know quite a bit about his oeuvre: namely, his predilection for self-quotation and symbolism, his fondness for intricate counterpoint and systematic designs; his penchant for languages and text setting; his stylistic eclecticism; and his appropriation of Anton Webern’s techniques. And yet many facets of Dallapiccola’s music await further explanation, chief among them a gradual but inexorable absorption of Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques.

In simplest terms, this book does not ask why Dallapiccola composed twelve-tone music, but, rather, how. It examines his repertory through a technical lens and traces the evolution of his praxis over a thirty-year period. In so doing, it highlights facets of his music that have not been previously disclosed, and sheds light on compositions that have been virtually ignored. Ultimately, it aims to complement the existing research in order to understand more fully his technique and his language.

This book attempts in several ways to fill in some of the lacunae in the state of Dallapiccola research: it sheds light on several twelve-tone works of high quality that have been virtually ignored; it discusses these works in depth, so as to help readers understand them analytically and engage with them aurally; it builds upon recent developments in the post-tonal theory by Allen Forte, David Lewin, Andrew Mead, Robert Morris, Joseph Straus, and myself; it documents the composer’s seemingly limitless invention and his extraordinary skill and delight in text setting; and, most of all, it endeavors to continue the conversation on this important composer and his serial compositions, whose enchantments and challenges are so richly rewarding.

The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Brian Alegant is published by the University of Rochester Press. Anyone interested in the life and work of Dallapiccola should also seek out another Rochester publication, The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Raymond Fearn, which is available in paperback from your favourite bookseller.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Good Music for a Free People

During the revolutions of 1848 two dozen members of an orchestra left Berlin for America to bring their music to new audiences. With their repertory of symphonies, opera selections and social dances they helped shape an audience for orchestral music at a seminal time in the history of the public concert. In her new book, Good Music for a Free People, Nancy Newman looks at the history of the Germania Musical Society, as they called themselves, and their effect on their adopted land. In this piece, written specially for the Stave, the author describes how she came across the orchestra and their fascinating story.

My first encounter with the Germania Musical Society was through Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Lawrence Levine’s provocative book had ignited a debate across disciplines about the historical relationship between so-called classical and popular music, a subject that interested me deeply. The Germania Musical Society makes a brief appearance for having played a pivotal role in the emergence of the symphony orchestra as a regular feature of American musical life. Its members were a group of young Berlin musicians who immigrated to the United States in 1848 and presented nearly nine hundred concerts to approximately one million listeners over the next six years.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that German immigrants had a profound effect on American musical practices, what intrigued me was Levine’s characterization of this particular group’s motivations. The orchestra members wanted “to further in the hearts of this politically free people the love of the fine art of music through performance of masterpieces of the greatest German composers”? Why would their listeners’ freedom have mattered? What did political liberty have to do with appreciation of the foremost classical compositions during “the century of artistic autonomy,” as Carl Dahlhaus described it? The relationship between absolute music and political thought was also of on-going interest, and the Germania Musical Society offered a new perspective on this complicated topic.

Following Levine’s trail led me to Skizzen aus dem Leben der Musik-Gesellschaft Germania, a brief memoir by Henry Albrecht, viola and clarinet player for the orchestra. This little-known account raised more questions than it answered. For example, Albrecht describes the members’ departure during the 1848 Revolutions in terms of their adversarial relationship to patronage. The prevailing system in Europe did not produce ideal musical results because it encouraged currying favor. Although noble courts were musically sophisticated and employed “virtuosi of the first rank,” nearly all the musicians sought to exhibit themselves through “exceptional mannerisms.” Albrecht claims that as a result, “a performance rarely appears totally flawless.”

The Germanians, in contrast, were willing to sacrifice their egos for the sake of the ensemble. “In the performance of orchestral works, every member realized that it was his holiest duty never to exhibit an exceptional, individual artistic mannerism.” To me, this articulated a fascinating paradox: by coming to the cultural wilderness of the United States, the Germanians sought the freedom not to show off. Even more surprising, they gave their desire for an alternative to patronage a form that was explicitly political. Not only did they seek an environment that was democratic, but they organized themselves accordingly. They drafted a constitution and agreed to share equitably in rewards and obligations. Aware that in leaving Berlin the orchestra became their sole means of support, the members pledged to place the welfare of the group above self-interest. A social-utopian motto, “One for all and all for one,” was adopted.

Good Music for a Free People makes Albrecht’s fascinating memoir available in English in its entirety for the first time. It also chronicles the orchestra’s travels to the major cities and small towns of the Eastern seaboard, west to the Mississippi, and to southeastern Canada. The ensemble offered Americans first and repeat hearings of works by major composers—especially Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. They familiarized listeners with current opera repertory by playing overtures and excerpts by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Auber, and Verdi. The Germanians performed with many of the era’s traveling virtuosi, including singers Jenny Lind, Henriette Sontag, and Teresa Parodi; violinists Ole Bull, Camilla Urso, and Miska Hauser; and pianists Alfred Jaëll and Otto Dresel.

At the same time that they helped forge a “classical” canon, the Germanians varied their programs with lighter genres such as polkas, waltzes, and potpourris. A good number of these works were original compositions by members, especially conductors Carl Bergmann (who later conducted the New York Philharmonic) and Carl Lenschow. The diversity and eclecticism of the Germania’s repertory had not been explored previously, however. I analyze how their programs changed over time in response to audiences in Baltimore, Boston, and other cities. During the orchestra’s final year, debates over whether they should segregate their repertory into lighter and more demanding concerts were aired in Dwight’s Journal. The controversy affords unique insights into contemporary attitudes toward the social significance of the public concert as a place where heterogeneous audiences gathered. Ultimately, the Germanians’ manipulation of their repertory reflects a struggle to define the semiotic arena of the arts and leisure by those who served it.

Much of Good Music for a Free People is concerned with events of the 1840s, a remarkable decade in transatlantic history. The Germanians were part of a great movement of Europeans, dislodged by economic and political upheaval, to the New World. German-speaking immigrants became known as “Forty-Eighters,” so named for the Revolutions of that year. The merging of their diverse and often innovative practices with the dominant culture would have a deep impact on many areas of American life.

The 1840s also saw experimental forms of music-making by “private orchestras,” modeled after the touring ensemble of Johann Strauss, and in “promenade concerts” in Paris and London. In these forums, audiences for orchestral music grew from a few hundred to several thousand enjoying “mixed repertory” concerts indoors and out. Such democratization of musical experience helped solidify the middle class’s consciousness of itself. These first truly “popular” musical events led to the realization that the same processes of commodification and mass mediation—sheet music production, instrument sales, and journalism—worked equally well for both serious and lighter genres. And the image of the United States as a place where musicians operated exclusively within a market economy increasingly tempted individuals and ensembles to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing. The Germanians’ origin as a private orchestra situates it within a formative stage of the “culture industry,” the Frankfurt School’s term for the institutions and practices that shape the commodification of art.

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay posits that the intellectual ferment of the 1840s make it “the most extraordinary decade” of the nineteenth century. For the first time, abstract German philosophical thought began to be applied to social and political matters. Social utopians Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Étienne Cabet had embarked on a similar path, and their adherents pursued the implications of their systems in France and abroad. Music critic John Sullivan Dwight, for example, lived in the Fourierist community Brook Farm on the outskirts of Boston. Before he left Berlin, Albrecht read Cabet’s utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie. Shortly after the orchestra disbanded, he went to live in Cabet’s model community in Nauvoo, Illinois. The ideology of “Icarian communism” played an important role in shaping Albrecht’s idealized view—his utopian vision—of the Germanians’ attempt at self-determination.

In many ways, we are still living with the ramifications of musical, cultural, social, and political developments that occurred during the 1840s. It is my hope that the Germania Musical Society’s extraordinary story will shine new light on the possibilities unleashed during that eventful decade.

Good Music for a Free People by Nancy Newman is available now from your favourite bookseller. Excerpts will follow over the coming weeks in this blog.