in: Reviews

November 1, 2008

Musical Diaspora and Exile: The Convulsion of Two World Wars. HMA Commission among Musical Presentations at CrossCurrrents.

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A three-day conference at Harvard on any subject is bound to be a fruitful occasion, unless, perhaps, the subject is economics. The one just concluded, CrossCurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000, Part 1 (1900-1950), on October 30 through November 1, was one of the best within recent memory. Seventeen formal papers and three concerts made for an invigorating three days. Those who want to continue the story will be welcomed next year in Munich, May 7-9, at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, for Part II, 1950-2000.

The conference kicked off on Thursday afternoon with a keynote lecture by Michael Denning of Yale: “Decolonizing the Ear: The Work of Music in the Age of Electrical Reproduction.” With a fascinating array of recorded examples, he showed how the multitude of cultures that gave birth to different kinds of music have been mutually transformed by the recorded availability of everything from native ritual sound to popular song and concert music worldwide. When we recognize that before the 19th century new music in Europe disseminated across national borders only relatively slowly through publication of printed texts, manuscripts, and pedagogy, we realize what a remarkable revolution in listening and hearing is represented by the invention of the phonograph and movie screen.

The first half of the 20th century was dominated above all by the convulsion of two world wars, and many historians of music, no less than of the other arts, use the Great War and World War II as prime points of reference in marking the major trends that still resonate in our own time. A central theme of the CrossCurrents conference dealt with musical diaspora and exile. German and Austrian Jews fled from the Nazis in the 1930s and contributed immeasurably to the arts in America; their story has been told several times, and many new details were revealed in the presentations here. In the wake of the Russian Revolution several of Russia’s best, notably Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, came to America and became citizens, while Prokofiev, after some significant successes in America, eventually returned to spend his last years in the new Soviet state. One who came to Boston and stayed was Nicolas Slonimsky, composer, conductor, and scintillating writer on music; his daughter, Electra Slonimsky Yourke, delighted the conference with readings from her father’s letters to his wife during the 1930s, as affectionate as they were informative about musical life.

It was fitting that the conference recognized the legacy of Nadia Boulanger, whose influence as a teacher was decisive for so many American composers from Copland, Piston, Thomson, and Harris to Charles Strouse and Philip Glass. Cambridge and Boston were a second home to Boulanger during World War II, when she taught at the Longy School, lectured at Harvard, and conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the first woman ever to do so. Her significance was highlighted by a special exhibition in the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library of composers’ manuscripts and Boulanger’s letters and programs bequeathed to Harvard. This exhibit will remain up for some time; the vast number of Boulanger’s documents that could not be shown will be available for research.

The influence of European traditions, especially the Austro-German, on American composers from the 19th century to the present day is a tired critical horse that has already been flogged for decades. Thus what was especially rewarding in the present conference was the ample discussion of the reverse phenomenon, the eastward influence, particularly of American jazz on European composers. Darius Milhaud’s name surfaced several times in connection with his well-known fascination with Harlem jazz, which was short-lived in his own development but decisive in masterpieces like La création du monde, the ballet of 1923 with scenario based on African legends. Paul Hindemith similarly had a flirtation with jazz in the 1920s, possibly absorbing some of his influence via France as well. Both of these composers had to flee from Europe, Milhaud by the skin of his teeth during the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, and Hindemith earlier than that, not long after his music had been banned as “degenerate” in his native Germany.

Composers driven from Austria and Germany by Nazism included Hanns Eisler, Stefan Wolpe, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Heinrich Jalowetz, and of course Arnold Schoenberg; and all of these received focal attention in various papers at the conference, with special attention given to the different kinds of success, and the frustrations, that these major figures met with before, during, and after their residence in the United States. The political hindrances of the American postwar years were a reflection of the onset of the Cold War in music, just as in literature and Hollywood. One still wonders whether Schoenberg, who had desperately defended the need for independent political action on the part of a formative Jewish nation during the 1930s when few in America were willing to listen, would have so emphatically proclaimed his support for monarchism in Europe if the HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist had not been so powerful in the late 1940s.

The exilic theme carried over into the two evening concerts. Thursday evening featured a fine saturation of two pianos, with a special premiere, Teletalks by American-French composer Betsy Jolas, who was jointly commissioned by the Crosscurrents conference and the Harvard Musical Association. A discussion between the composer and the musicologist Vivian Perlis preceded the performance. Teletalks is a 20-minute piece in several movements, partly in dialogue form (one piano queries, the other answers) and partly epigrammatic in brief gestures; a brittle, pointillistic, atonal harmony sometimes was followed by chorale-like chordal passages that sang with decorative details, and one heard a sonorous sensitivity to melodies two octaves apart between the pianos. These pieces are doubtless more difficult to play than they sounded, but are probably within reach of most good conservatory pianists, and one can recommend them as a significant addition to the two-piano repertory that has always been relatively small. Likewise Jolas’s callingecallingec, a short piece offered as a gift to Elliott Carter for his 100th birthday (December 11, 2008); it is based on and amplified from Jolas’s earlier callingec, written for Carter’s 80th.

The Thursday concert began with Steve Reich’s Piano Phase, an early example of the composer’s characteristically ultra-repetitive style, with an eight-note pattern repeated between the two pianos and then the two shifting out of time with each other as the pattern gradually changes. The performance was stunning; to maintain the absolutely necessary metronomic precision and then to displace it systematically requires an intensity of concentration that is hard to imagine. It was followed by Drei Stücke für zwei Klaviere (Three Pieces for two pianos) of Györgi Ligeti that can best be described as études – one in clear dissonant chords framed in octaves, the second in smeared textures, and the third in complex but steady passage work weaving in and out of upper and lower registers. But the climax of the evening was clearly Edgard Varèse’s Amériques, his earliest surviving major work, composed in 1918-1921 soon after the composer’s arrival on these shores. Most listeners know Amériques as a work for very large orchestra, in either its original version or the substantial revision of 1927. This version was Varèse’s, the earlier version arranged by him for two pianos eight hands; it was discovered among the composer’s manuscripts in the Paul Sacher Archive in Basel. and Thursday’s performance was in all probability a world premiere. It was exciting to hear this massive and unusually loud piece stripped of all its opulent orchestral color and reduced to a uniform synthesis of line, texture, and rhythm. The opening melody for alto flute, for instance, is repeated several times later in the work in the middle of complex textures that drown it out in the orchestral version, but it was plainly audible every time in this one. Stravinsky wrote about this work and Varèse’s somewhat later Arcana, before he ever heard them: “They look as though the shadow of The Rite of Spring had fallen over them.” He was right, though the composer who is literally quoted in Amériques is Schoenberg (from the Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16). Hearty congratulations to the excellent team of four pianists: Winston Choi, Amy Briggs, Lisa Kaplan, and Amy Williams, especially Amy Williams, who played in every piece in this concert.

On Friday the Chiara Quartet featured three large-scale works. Bartók’s Sixth Quartet, not as familiar as the favorite Fourth and Fifth, has nevertheless been well known ever since it was first heard in 1941. The sad countenance of this piece – each movement begins with a Mesto introduction – reflects the apprehensive years just before the Second World War that drove Bartók out of Europe and into the unfamiliar and hardly welcoming American culture that protected him for the last five years of his life. His more popular Third Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra are happier works than this quartet, and one might suggest that Bartók’s psychological adjustment to America succeeded even while he was dying of leukemia; if he had lived another year or two past 1945, he would have witnessed a resurgent acceptance of his music everywhere.

The Bartók was followed by another “process” piece by Steve Reich, Different Trains, for amplified string quartet and tape, the electronic complement including filtered string quartet sounds and human speech. This work, whether depicting the relentless mechanicity of trains crossing America during the Great Depression or abstractly hauling human cargo towards the gas chambers of Auschwitz, is painful to listen to. It doesn’t try to be pretty or even dramatic. One could hear the clicking of the rails, the cry of steam whistles, and snatches of half-heard voices, all blended together, but, unlike Thursday’s sample, remaining in phase and uniformly strident for about 20 minutes.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Third String Quartet, op. 34, completed in 1945 and discussed elsewhere in these Boston Musical Intelligencer pages, is a significant rediscovery. Its complex post-romantic chromatic harmony goes well with a more conventional late 19th-century flavor, in several ways resembling Schoenberg’s two early quartets in sound and even in substance – the opening theme of the first movement, for example, is very similar to a prominent motive in Schoenberg’s very difficult String Quartet, op. 7, of 1905. Korngold was well known in Vienna as a Wunderkind composer; his opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) achieved a major success in 1920 when he was 23 years old. (The Schoenberg circle resented the influence of Korngold’s father, a powerful critical voice in Vienna; the hostility was mutual but it was soon overshadowed by the darkening scene in Austria.) In 1934 Korngold and Schoenberg were both resident in Hollywood, and the younger man became a successful composer for the movies. The last three movements of the Third Quartet include material from three of Korngold’s screen successes – Between Two Worlds, The Sea Wolf, and Devotion – but the integration seemed completely successful, and the styles are completely homogeneous. Korngold died, almost completely forgotten, in 1957. In this well-deserved resurrection I remembered the late Larry Mowers, longtime librarian at the Isham Library at Harvard’s Music Department and an avid enthusiast and collector of Korngold’s music, who would have shouted in vindication. The Chiara Quartet gave a delicious performance, with superb tone and expression.

The final event of Crosscurrents was a piano recital by Bruce Brubaker, head of the Piano Department at the New England Conservatory; he was assisted by two Harvard undergraduates, Konrad Binienda and Kenric Tam. The program featured avant-garde works of the 1950s, three of Silvano Bussotti’s Piano Pieces for David Tudor (composed 1959) and Earle Brown’s Twentyfive Pages (1953). The graphic scores of Bussotti’s pieces were exhibited on stage prior to the performance; they look more like Paul Klee’s drawings than conventional notation, and one assumes they are mere visual cues for any manner of improvisation. Brown’s pieces are mostly in the form of permutable verbal instructions; the scores were shared by the three players, who moved around on stage between two instruments, one pianist (Binienda) already playing while Brubaker took his bow after the piece just played. The music itself sounded like a mixture of widely-spaced notes in single attacks, either loud or soft and little in between; occasionally there was a coincidental unison or octave that sounded like a major event. In between these major works came another “train” piece, Hope Street Tunnel Blues III by Alvin Curran (1983), in which a single chord is repeated in intense martellato for more than 10 minutes with only a single second-long interruption – it was to Brubaker’s credit that he survived this exhausting ordeal without any visible sweat, though he did admit later that when he first worked on the piece he couldn’t get through it without stopping. “It’s like running a marathon,” Brubaker wrote in his program notes. “Perhaps physical actions are the music, as much as the sounds? It’s struggle and it’s ritual.” Fortunately for the listener, the repeated pattern was eventually varied, even going so far as to include some good old-fashioned stride piano when, one surmises, the composer got off the train.

Here is a listing of the papers presented on the last two days of the conference:

1 Comment

  1. The final concert was really amazing! The piano piece by Alvin Curran seemed to bring sounds out of the piano and the room that I would never have thought possible — waves of resonance, pulsing, blues-inflected masses of vibration. Bruce Brubaker is a virtuoso for the 21st century. Wow!! In the Bussotti pieces he made sounds of such fragile delicacy — it was as emotionally powerful as the Curran in a completely different way.

    Comment by deena — November 6, 2008 at 11:25 pm

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