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Chausson and Charles Munch: In Brief

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On a Saturday evening some 70 years ago I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra live for the first time. Melville Smith, then director of the Longy School, had given me two tickets he couldn’t use. Charles Munch conducted. Before the intermission came Honegger’s Symphony no. 1; the program notes mentioned harmony that “trends toward C major,” which amused me and my 9th-grade classmate George Nelson — it must have meant that the symphony was “modern.” After the intermission we heard Schubert’s “Great” Symphony in C Major, a work I had never heard before, but George knew it well. “This symphony begins with a solo horn,” he said. (Actually it turned out to be two in unison.) I was deeply impressed by the experience, and especially by the slow movement, but never imagined that I would write a book about this symphony a few years later (2011).

Eventually I began to go more often to hear concerts in Symphony Hall and to watch Charles Munch. I was blown away by my first experience of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion under Munch’s direction, in 1957. That year he also directed the premiere of David Diamond’s Sixth Symphony, which was savaged by the critics the next day, but I had gone there to hear Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. In college I went to Symphony much more frequently, sometimes packing a brown-bag sandwich and skipping a Friday morning class to get in line for 90-cent rush seats (second balcony center). In 1957 I heard the Boston premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon, which used up so much rehearsal time that Bruckner’s Seventh, which rounded out the program, suffered in accuracy. I wonder if Munch really loved Bruckner, in any case.

In the summer of 1959 I was a junior student at the Berkshire Music Center studying composition with Lukas Foss [more HERE]. Leonard Bernstein normally administered the conducting program at Tanglewood, but he was somewhere else that summer, and Eleazar de Carvalho had taken charge. A handful of “active conductors” got extensive directing time with the BMC orchestra; Charles Dutoit was one of these, as were Harold Farberman of the BSO’s percussion section (30 years later I had very good lessons from him at the Conductors Institute in South Carolina), and a very able Norwegian, Sverre Bruland; the younger conducting students, not “actives,” included John Harbison. Charles Munch was on campus, of course, directing BSO concerts. Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts, the Requiem, was on the menu, and Lorna Cooke de Varon and Alfred Nash Patterson took turns rehearsing every available choral voice, including all the composers’, for the eventual performance, and so it was that I sang as an anonymous chorister under Munch’s direction, just that one time. Munch took no part in running the BMC, which was overseen that summer by Aaron Copland, Ralph Berkowitz, and a few others. Weekly concerts by the BMC Orchestra were mostly directed by the “actives” and by de Carvalho and Seymour Lipkin; but on one occasion, Charles Munch came to conduct Fauré’s Suite from Pelléas et Mélisande, which at that time was still not often heard in America. The flute solo in the third movement, the Sicilienne, was played by my classmate Neal Zaslaw, who is now professor emeritus at Cornell and general editor of the latest edition (2023) of the Köchel catalogue of Mozart’s works; Munch gestured to Neal for a well-deserved bow afterward.

Around that time I was up in the main house as Charles Munch, accompanied by his assistant, Leonard Burkat, stood in the front hallway. In the one and only time I ever spoke to the great man, I cautiously went up to him and said, “M. Munch, when will the Boston Symphony perform Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat Major?” Barely looking away from what occupied him at the moment, he replied, “Yes, sometime soon, perhaps next year — it is a beautiful piece of music, isn’t it?”

[The BSO has played the Chausson Symphony 46 times, beginning under Vincent d’Indy in 1905. This weekend’s performances are the first since 1993.]

I wrote more on Chausson HERE

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Mr DeVoto, thank you for this glimpse into the early period of your music education. I have a copy of your book, but confess it is too technical for me (I am a poor pianist). In high school in the 1960s in Philadelphia we were encouraged to attend the Friday afternoon concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy. It was free for us. That was when my love of classical music began. Four years later I was a desk clerk at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, 2 blocks north of the Academy of Music and Ormandy lived there when in town. He would occasionally come to the desk and collect his mail. He was a gentleman. I have never heard the Chausson piece but I will today assuming it is on Spotify. I am still “blown away” by great performances, most recently when I heard Bartok’s opera, and last season’s Celebrity Series recital by Igor Levit. But even late last night I listened to a recording of Barenboim playing Mozart’s piano concert in A minor, and played it twice.

    Comment by Rich Carle — February 17, 2024 at 9:15 am

  2. Thank you for such a delightful reminiscence.

    Comment by Stephen Martorella — February 17, 2024 at 10:44 am

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