in: News & Features

April 8, 2012

Alex Ross to Talk on 20th-Century Sacred Music

by

Alex Ross in Naples

Although Lent for 2012 will have passed, the last lecture of this year’s Price Lenten Lecture Series, funded by the will of an 18th-century Boston cabinetmaker, print-seller, and sometime organist, William Price, will occur nine days after Easter. Alex Ross, classical music writer for The New Yorker and author of the highly acclaimed The Rest is Noise, about 20th-century music, will give a lecture, “Sacred Music of the 20th Century” at Trinity Church in Copley Square on April 17th at 6 pm.

Ross’s return to Boston (he was Class of 1990 at Harvard) features a lecture on a subject he first explored during his undergraduate years as a member of the staff at WHRB (“The Network”). Members of the WHRB cult audience may remember Ross; he planned its classical music programming.

WHRB President David Elliott reminisced about Ross, “He had a program on Sunday afternoons, ‘Music since 1900,’ a title he took from a book by Nicholas Slonimsky — Alex’s tribute to him, to use the title.  He explored all of 20th-century music in a way that was enlightening to our audience. Music they otherwise might not have heard, but if they did, it approached from a point of view that they otherwise might not have thought about. In his senior year, May 1990, he produced a major 60-hour orgy of Mahler and the fin-de-siècle, presenting all of Mahler’s music in chronological order [as orgies usually do] with music of other composers interspersed, to show their influences upon him and his on others. A phenomenal undertaking, worthy of thesis credit.”

Ross planned some of these programs with James C. S. Liu, M.D., a Boston internist (and a BMInt reviewer), who was a year ahead of him at Harvard.

“Pretty much everybody recognized that Alex was special from the beginning,” Liu said. “Harvard is full of smart, talented people, but Alex was easily one of the smartest people I’d met in my four years there. He was definitely one of the most gifted writers as well; even in college, his best writing could warp your perception of reality in the same way that any great artist does. We ultimately didn’t completely see eye to eye on things — he was more of the rebellious Young Turk, looking for creative new ways to bend and break the established rules.”

The “rebellious Young Turk” quality in Ross just got him the highly coveted Belmont Prize from Munich’s Forberg-Schneider Foundation. The prize, according to its mission, “honors innovation, daring, and courage, but nothing that prolongs the status quo. Innovations proceed from the arts; art patronage can only help to sustain them a few steps along the way…. But Belmont is also a token of admiration for Arnold Schoenberg, who declared war on empty pathos and embarrassing conventions in his protean artistic creations and forms of expression: ‘The heart must reside within the domain of the brain.’”

Trinity Church in the City of Boston (Copley Square), has an interesting music history. A staple of Christmas music, O  little town of Bethlehem, was composed by Phillips Brooks, rector of Trinity from 1869 until 1891. The Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris, rector from 1942 until his death in 1972, who took lessons from Nadia Boulanger when she was in Cambridge during World War II, also composed a church hymn, though it has never achieved the stature of his predecessor and in fact was omitted from the most recent American Episcopal hymnal.

Price, after whom the series is named, played the organ at King’s Chapel for a short time after he arrived in Boston, before his allegiances switched to the North Church, and then Trinity Church, where he was a member of the original Vestry and building committee —  and part-time organist. At his death, Price left a substantial amount in his will that was fought over by both King’s Chapel and Trinity Church. The courts decided that the fund would be administered by Trinity but that the income from the trust would be split equally between the two parishes — even after King’s Chapel renounced Episcopalism for Unitarianism following the American Revolution. The legacy has grown over the years to be substantial.

Many well-known organists have served Trinity, but the reception to more adventurous or modern music often has been chilly to ice-cold. When one 20th-century organist attempted to play more obscure music from the late Renaissance, it was not well received and he decamped. Another organist was told to limit himself to “statured composers — not that atonal crap.” That era has passed, and now organists have been able to perform a wider variety of music, including such 20th-century composers as Judith Weir, Tavener, and Judith Bingham, whose Clouded Heaven Emeritus Director of Music and Organist Brian E. Jones (and also a BMInt reviewer) included a few years ago on the church’s choir tour of Europe.

Ross explained to BMInt, “When I was working on the Messiaen chapter of my book The Rest Is Noise, it struck me that the 20th century had produced an extraordinary corpus of sacred music—a body of work perhaps more significant, collectively, than the equivalent production in the 19th century…. From the beginning [of the 20th century], the avant-garde had a mystical urge. One could even regard The Rite of Spring as a religious work; the Russian title is, after all, more accurately translated as ‘Holy Spring.’”

“In addition to the above, I will talk about John Cage, whose spiritual path is difficult to describe briefly but seems essential to his development as a composer. When you place it in the proper cultural context, Cage’s famous “silent piece” 4’33” is very obviously not any kind of prank or satire but a work of meditative intensity. Of course, in the twentieth century the notion of what is “religious” or “spiritual” or “mystical” grows confusingly vague; …”

Asked if he planned to mention any composers less well known to the general public or any current American ones like Dan Pinkham, Hilary Tann, or Weir, Ross responded, “Alas, not everyone knows the work of the Swiss master Frank Martin; I will play the Agnus Dei from his Mass for Double Choir. I will also give listeners a taste of the hard-edged religiosity of Galina Ustvolskaya — radically different in style from the so-called “Mystic Minimalism” that has gained popularity in recent decades. One theme I wish to trace is the power of dissonance to suggest not merely earthly terrors and tragedies but also intimations of the sublime and the sacred. … I might play a selection from the haunting new Requiem of the young American composer Gregory Spears.

“This topic is immensely broad, and I can hope to offer, at most, a few glimpses, a few hints, a few beginnings. Messiaen will of course have the final word.”

So the question occurs to this long-time (since 1945) parishioner: is the intent of this lecture to foster more understanding, and therefore interest, in hearing more 20th-century sacred music at Trinity? A spirited lecture by Ross should make many converts.

The lecture, in the nave of the church, is free and open to the public.

Bettina A. Norton, executive editor of BMInt, was appointed first archivist of Trinity Church in 1970 by the Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris and served until 1986. She also wrote part of and edited Trinity Church: The Story of an Episcopal Parish in the City of Boston (1978) and ran a five-lecture series, “Mission vs. Museum?” at the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church in 1984/5.

22 Comments

  1. Mr. Ross is a fine writer but that’s about it.

    Here is another example of his silliness

    http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2011/03/the-more-things-change-the-more.html

    ‘Rapturous’?

    Everyone has their own aesthetic preferences of course and I would never seek to invalidate them, but this review of his seems disingenuous to me.

    I can get an “overwhelming dose of sonic information” from riding the New York subway for 80 minutes with a bunch of people who are “digging” the experience with me. But if I ride the subway I can at least bring a book, and I can wear earplugs if I want to.

    Everything I have heard about this “Inuksuit” work makes me think that it would be very boring.

    Again, I think Mr. Ross is trying to show how hip and smart he is by getting something out of the experience and writing about it. It sounds like another case of “classical music” for people who don’t love classical music.

    Finally, Alex should realize that his prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can never capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music which merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener. Alone of the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable.

    Comment by Clara_37 — April 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm

  2. Speaking Of HRB……has the format there really evolved at all..David Elliot has way too firm a grip on that institution-and it’s just too bad..

    Comment by Steve Brown — April 9, 2012 at 12:34 am

  3. I already have received three telephone calls about the pamphlet on Trinity. The church does not have any copies of the original, which sold for $2.95; I found one used book on Amazon (with the erroneous publishing date, 2000) for $28.99. I do have xeroxed copies of my contribution, the essay on the current church building, with a new introduction, though the third-generation illustrations are not very good.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — April 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

  4. Clara_37 wrote: “…his prose, even at its most lapidary and eloquent, can never capture even a minim of the essential character of a piece of music which merely a single hearing of the music itself would afford but a casual listener. Alone of the arts, music addresses and speaks directly to the center of feeling, bypassing altogether, and with no need of the interposition of, the intellectual faculty. For one to imagine that one could capture and transmit even the smallest part of the essential character of such a thing through the agency of a medium that requires the fullest interposition of the intellectual faculty to even begin to comprehend is, well, unimaginable.”
    ————————————————————-

    Is it your habit to lift, in toto and verbatim, the words of others and present them as your own?

    Nasty habit.

    ACD (A.C. Douglas)

    Comment by A.C. Douglas — April 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm

  5. ACD wrote:”…Is it your habit to lift, in toto and verbatim, the words of others and present them as your own?”

    ————————————-

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    Best wishes.

    Comment by Clara_37 — April 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm

  6. **** Steve Brown wrote: Speaking Of HRB……has the format there really evolved at all..David Elliot has way too firm a grip on that institution-and it’s just too bad…

    Yes, Steve, you are for sure correct. There is one “however” in all of it. Will WHRB have ANY classical music exposure without David Elliot and what quality might it have if it will? Sure, the WHRB is very much autocratic single-man show. Do you know a lot of people who will do the job and care the touch?

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 9, 2012 at 7:21 pm

  7. Plagiarism ≠ imitation.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 9, 2012 at 11:42 pm

  8. Poor dear benighted BMInt folks, STILL fretting about classical music radio in Boston. Give it up! It’s done for! Who needs it?

    Let’s say you want to hear what the BSO is up to on a Saturday night …

    First you’re smacked with the assertion that it’s “made possible by” (detestable craven phrase), among other commercial enterprises, a cancer treatment center.

    Then come several minutes of Ron Della Chiesa, who once began a broadcast: “And now, from the Fenway Park of classical music …”

    Sad to say, Americans don’t know how to do classical music radio. There’s no tradition behind it.

    In my experience, the presentation nowadays offends least when it’s brief, direct, formal, and polite.

    When it’s not, what come at you is a mixture of drive-time chirpiness, coerced celebrity worship, and some rather dreary people getting in touch with their feelings (“Sheer mysticism!” a suddenly overcome Richard Knisely once exclaimed for our benefit after a live studio performance).

    In short, it’s hell out there. Except, locally, for two important exceptions.

    As to WHRB, that station’s fearless classical-music programming wouldn’t exist but for David Elliott. May he live to be 500. God’s truth, WHRB gives a fuller and clearer picture of the richness that is on recordings than any station I know of in this hemisphere. Like it or not, one is always learning from them.

    And Cathy Fuller knows — deeply — what she’s doing. She’s a treasure.

    The next subject: Elsewhere.

    I recommend this as a good use of one’s time on Saturday mornings: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01fhxdr.

    And if a sort of virtual tuner cum program guide for Elsewhere be needed, http://theairthisweek.blogspot.com/ may suit. I don’t much mind its Rube Goldberg-ish qualities, since I fashioned the thing myself. Welcome to Aladdin’s Cave …

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 9, 2012 at 11:59 pm

  9. Alex Ross penned a profile in the New Yorker some 8-9 years ago where he professed to having some limited musical/cultural upbringing.-Come to find out he went to St Albans in DC..Get real pal!

    Comment by Steve Brown — April 10, 2012 at 12:50 am

  10. For the record, Clara_37 commented here with the words of A.C. Douglas from one of his, (quoting him), “rants and screeds” from 2004 which I point to here:

    http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2004/09/it_aint_no_joke.html

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 10, 2012 at 6:49 am

  11. I thank Lee Eiseman for his corrective comment, but just for the record, I consider the Sounds & Fury entry pointed to by him to be neither a rant nor a screed but a thoughtful entry in what was then (in 2004) an in-earnest inter-blog “skirmish”, as I called it, that included a contribution by Alex Ross on his blog, The Rest Is Noise, on which contribution my entry was a comment.

    ACD

    Comment by A.C. Douglas — April 10, 2012 at 9:57 am

  12. Richard Buell writes, Then come several minutes of Ron Della Chiesa, who once began a broadcast: ‘And now, from the Fenway Park of classical music …'”For the record, last fall, when Ron Della C. was signing copies of his book at Symphony Hall, I lingered, chatting with him during the playing of some warhorse, probably by Strauss, that I didn’t care about. I brought up that phrase, “the Fenway Park of music,” and congratulated him for it, and encouraged him to use it again. He informed me that it was not his own, but had been put into his script by his producer. So he deserves neither credit nor blame for it.Mr. Buell doesn’t like it. I consider it delightful, but then I’m a Red Sox fan and like yo affect a degree of provincialism. Quot homines, tot sententiæ.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 10, 2012 at 4:27 pm

  13. Joe Whipple, Richard Buell,
    I have no problem with Ron Della Chiesa and I do like the man and his work. I happened to like his reference to Symphony Hall as “Fenway Park of classical music” and I like it despite that consider baseball game as a refuge for provincial simpletons.

    From my perspective: this retarded parochial pomposity with which American culture treat baseball is very appropriate to be associated with what we have going on in Boston’s Symphony Hall.  Mr. Della Chiesa and whoever writes script to him are just messengers and they serve their target audiences and the audiences’ expectations.  Today many of the BSO goers behave like they are at baseball game and if you tell them that Mahler insisted for a long break after the Resurrections’ first movement in order audiences can eat their hot dogs then you will see a lot of them will do exactly that.

    We all would be less concerned about Ron Della Chiesa if what come after his announcement were exciting enough to forget him.  Well, unfortunately it is not the case most of times and it is a bit ironic that Ron’s announcement and Bell’s historical perspective sometime the only memorable thing we have after the broadcasts were over. 

    So, in this context I find what Mr. Della Chiesa does is very appropriate. The West Wing ‘s Toby Ziegler  suggested to Will Bailey that once he engage pop culture references in his speeches than he gives to his work a shelflife of 12 minutes. Since most of the nowadays BSO performances are not “keepers” I find the use of the baseball language very suitable:  after they hear Ron says it the belching and farting Fenway sophisticates squirt another layer of Ketchup atop of Fenway’s sushi and turn their radios up.    The apple shall not land far from its tree and a show shall going on…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 11, 2012 at 7:53 am

  14. My what rich soil for comment this article has tilled! First things first, what’s this about “the WHRB cult audience”? I beg your pardon. Granted there’s way too much “Renaissance” vocal music (so often turgidly sung) for most listeners, but the repertoire otherwise is wide-ranging. Then: “David Elliot has way too firm a grip on that institution — and it’s just too bad.” This is pitiful; were it not for him the station’s classical music programming would have devolved to pop over two decades ago.

    Okay, three. Romy gets the point: “Sure, WHRB is very much autocratic single-man show, but…” But, indeed!Then enters the usually perceptive Mr. Buell, who once did a very handy feature for the Globe, “On the air this week”: “Americans don’t know how to do classical music radio. There’s no tradition behind it.” He might try listening to CM (Classical Music) radio in Los Angeles (KUSC, highly traditional), what’s left of it in San Francisco (KDFC, reduced in power from its former glory), and in San Diego (XLNC, from across the border, yet). Even Los Vegas has a trad CM station! And I believe Chicago, too. (But forget New York, alas.) He’s quite right though when he says, “The presentation nowadays offends least when it’s brief, direct, formal, and polite.” No kidding. But, “When it’s not, what comes at you is a mixture of drive-time chirpiness, coerced celebrity worship, and some rather dreary people getting in touch with their feelings.”

    Ah Mr. Buell, still the writer of old! I have compiled a longish list of the fatuities uttered by GBH/CRB soi-disant radio stars, intending to confront management with it. But you know what? Hasn’t happened, because I decided that they would just say, “Sorry, Mr. Johnsen, but that’s good radio.”
    Richard concludes, “As to WHRB, that station’s fearless classical-music programming wouldn’t exist but for David Elliott. May he live to be 500. God’s truth, WHRB gives a fuller and clearer picture of the richness that is on recordings than any station I know of in this hemisphere. Like it or not, one is always learning from them.” O yea, O yea.

    Ron Della Chiesa has been a presence on Boston FM radio since the mid/late Sixties, when he was on WBCN. He might be a trifle lightweight, but he’s solid. As for baseball, I think we’ll all be waiting until the ends of our lives for the play-by-play intro of a Red Sox game, “And now, from the Symphony Hall of baseball…”Hey, a question. Does anyone else miss John Thornton, Nirmal Danier, Kim Kirchwey, Andrew Sihler, John Devine?

    Finally, Alex Ross’s (the great Alex Ross’s?) orgy with all that Mahler was something to behold, although for the record it was the undersigned who first undertook to play the complete Mahler, and in chronological order. That was 1963 and it took seventeen hours.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — April 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm

  15. What does one have to do here to achieve reliable paragraph breaks? My first two got hopelessly jammed together.

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — April 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm

  16. “shift + enter” does paragraph breaks-

    Did I fix Romy’s and Clarks’ correctly?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 11, 2012 at 5:11 pm

  17. I remember John Devine (oh, of course, I am John Devine – thanks for the nod Clark) and does anyone remember my program “Music of the 20th Century” which featured recordings from the Louisville Contemporary Music Festival of works by Menin, Riegger, and other Americans that never seemed to be getting AirPlay anywhere on Boston’s enviable collection of CM outlets? This was in 1965 and was followed by the U.S. premiere of Britten’s WAR REQUIEM which I was proud to present thanks to a colleague at London records.  Ah “ou sont les nieges d’antan?”

    Comment by John Devine — April 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm

  18. Looks like poor Alex is a parvenue!

    Comment by clarkjohnsen — April 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm

  19. OK, I cannot resist. Sure I remember John Thornton, Nirmal Danier, but also Mike Troderman, Peter Ross, Nicholas Anagnostis, … are we forgetting anyone?And I heard a good deal of that 1963 Mahler orgy.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — April 12, 2012 at 11:20 pm

  20. How could I have forgotten William Pierce, Janet Baker Carr, … ?

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — April 13, 2012 at 11:43 pm

  21. Thought experiment. What if concert audiences nowadays were as well-informed about what they were hearing as the crowd at Fenway Park with its deplorable practices is about baseball?

    I ran this by a BSO member of my acquaintance once, and he said: “We wouldn’t feel safe.”

    Back in the dear dead days when WGBH radio was an unapologetically educational enterprise, G. Wallace Woodworth of the Harvard Music Department faculty conducted a program called “This Week’s Symphony.”  Many’s the listener he must have introduced to sonata form and the rudiments of music theory and performance practice. For music examples he was especially partial to 78 rpm recordings of BSO performances under Serge Koussevitzky. I particularly remember his describing the trombone solo towards the end of Sibelius 7 as “plangent.”

    This must have been a preparation for one of Charles Munch’s rare ventures into that repertory. It seems that this was the only Sibelius symphony he ever conducted. The trombone solo then would have been by the newcomer William Gibson, successor to the Russian-born Jacob Raichman, whose slightly “woofy” timbre helped give the Koussevitzky-era brass choir its distinctive, not completely blended sound.

    As for challenges to the responsible CM announcer of that period, what about  “L’Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris”? Janet Baker Carr on WXHR (96.9) had that one down cold.

    As must be obvious I am extremely old.

       

    Comment by Richard Buell — April 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm

  22. By inference (and fact), Richard, also am I.

    I remember that rolling off her tongue.

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — April 14, 2012 at 6:20 pm

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