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Rationalizing Loeffler’s Rat’s Nest


It all began innocently enough, but detoured into a rabbit hole. When COVID started pinching off live performances, clarinetist, writer, composer, and occasional TED Talker Graeme Steele Johnson sought to pick up work writing program notes for some of the few ensembles who had not lowered their shutters. One such assignment was for a group performing, among other things, the Deux Rapsodies for oboe, viola and piano, probably the most-performed piece by the elusive, enigmatic Boston composer and violinist Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935). In doing his homework, Johnson, a Texas-born member of the touring wind quintet WindSync who studied under David Shifrin at Yale and Charles Neidich at CUNY, came across a reference to an octet (no, make that Octette) by Loeffler for two clarinets, harp, string quartet and contrabass that had been premiered in 1897 but has lain dormant ever since. Fascinated, (“it was curiosity and serendipity”) Johnson went hunting it down, found Loeffler’s manuscript score and a set of parts at the Library of Congress, but with and on them a rat’s nest of corrections, additions, deletions, and fugitive thoughts that made creating a performing edition anything but straightforward. Create it he did, however, and he and his “dream team” ensemble have freshly embarked on a tour to present the results, partly by way of also promoting the premiere recording of the piece to be released by Delos in June. We caught up with him via Zoom for more enlightenment.

First, though, a word or several hundred about Loeffler (the only full-length biography available is this one by Ellen Knight from 1993). Though born in Berlin and educated in Germany, Martin Karl Löffler took elaborate pains to invent and insist, Gatsby-like, on a fictive biography that had him variously as Russian or Alsatian (places, among many others, where he did in fact spend some time in his youth, a consequence of his being a son of a peripatetic writer, polemicist and agronomist who was on the outs with the evolving imperial ambitions of Bismarck’s Prussia). As an outgrowth of Löffler père’s eventual political imprisonment, Karl Martin came to detest all things that would associate him with Germany. Having trained as a violinist under notable teachers such as Joseph Joachim, he sought employment in orchestras in France and developed a liking for the French way of doing things, as well as for the more “advanced” musical tendencies of the age. After losing a cozy gig in the private orchestra of a Russian aristocrat in France when the patron died, the newly minted Charles Martin Loeffler emigrated to the US in 1881, landing first in New York for a year working with both Theodore Thomas and Leopold Damrosch, then being recruited by Henry Lee Higginson as the assistant concertmaster of the year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra. In a 20-year career with the BSO Loeffler became one of its most popular performers, taking many solo outings such as premiering Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol and the first two Bruch violin concertos. His own compositions gradually emerged to the point where, by the time of his retirement in 1902, he was considered a composer at least as much as a performer. He also cut a figure in the Boston social scene, where his Francophile cosmopolitanism set him apart from most of his colleagues and ingratiated him to the smart set in the orbit of Isabella Stewart Gardner. His portrait by Sargent hangs in the ISG Museum.

Ironically, as Johnson points out, this very cosmopolitanism compromised his later reputation, at a time when a populist Americanism was all the rage, and composers who gave titles to their works in foreign languages simply would not do (though what could be more American than a self-invented history?) And one could profitably ponder the anomaly that people such as Aaron Copland, whose esthetic was formed through study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, led this crusade.

Writing in 1929 for the Boston Journal, Nicolas Slonimsky observed that “Loeffler is the Anatole France of music not only by the outward traits of countenance. His music is not so easily accountable…Its elusiveness, an eclectic style with a strong observant mind in constant attendance, its half-said words and half-sung melodies, all this is tantalizing and deceptive of simplicity. Loeffler remains aloof, and detached from the body of American music, because America is not yet made ready for his beatifical poise.” It also didn’t help that Loeffler’s cultivated refinement led him to revise endlessly and suppress so much of his work from publication.

Johnson contrasts his reconstructive task for the Octette, when confronted with the pile of corrigenda and second-and-third thoughts revealed on Loeffler’s manuscripts, with that of, say, Deryck Cooke in reconstructing Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, wherein the editor had a shortage of information on which to base his solutions; Loeffler’s was a case of TMI in spades. Johnson had to sort through the alternatives available to come up with the ones he considered truest to Loeffler’s esthetic intentions. He also surmises that although Loeffler professed to disdain the critical opinions of mere journalists, the mix of good and not-so-good reviews the premiere performance received (William Apthorp in the Boston Evening Transcript praised it; Philip Hale—later BSO program annotator—in the Boston Journal, and several other critics, viewed Loeffler’s “Symbolist” affinities as baleful) may actually have influenced some of Loeffler’s revisions. Hale was in fact the first to use that sobriquet for Loeffler, lumping him not only with the poets like Maeterlinck and Rimbaud, but also with composers like Debussy and Fauré. This is, in Johnson’s view, hopelessly simplistic, even if one could determine what Symbolism in music entails. “Our vocabulary is not adequate to capture” what Loeffler was about, so it’s best just to listen.

Johnson solved the dilemma of cornucopious data points by selecting among the alternatives but leaving ossia passages where possible. At least Johnson didn’t have to contend with the problems John Kirkpatrick had in assembling Charles Ives’s chicken scratches into critical editions: Loeffler’s hand was, he said, beautiful and always legible. The many disagreements between manuscripts of the score and the parts introduced another layer of confusion.

Another feature of the Octette (indeed, an inherent one) that attracted Johnson was his enjoyment of large-force chamber music, a kind of halfway house between chamber and orchestral music with its balancing of sonic force and linear clarity. For the recording and the current concert tour Johnson has brought in an ensemble of top-tier mostly New York-based freelancers, including David Shifrin himself as second clarinet, with harpist Bridget Kibbey, violinists Stella Chen and Siwoo Kim, violist Matthew Lipman, cellist Samuel DeCaprio, and bassist Sam Suggs. Of course Octette’s unusual instrumentation can make it challenging to program. To this Johnson responds that it can be made to fit nicely with works engaging its sub-ensembles, particularly involving harp, such as the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the clarinet (indeed one of the works his current group will use at certain performances will be the Brahms Clarinet Quintet). The Delos recording also includes a few arrangements Johnson has made of other pieces, including Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and one of Loeffler’s songs, “Forgotten Sounds,” (Timbres oubliés, of course).

The premiere of Johnson’s reconstruction, which he modestly describes as the second public performance of the piece, after its 1897 premiere (it got a private hearing chez Gardner shortly thereafter), occurred on March 8th in Phoenix as part of the Phoenix Chamber Music Festival; subsequent public performances come on May 22nd at the Library of Congress in Washington, May 23rd at the Morgan Library in New York, June 9th  (two days after Delos officially releases the recording) at the Stissing Center in Pine Plains, NY. A private performance will take place in Boston in December.

Having been given a musical sneak peek (your pithy rhyming suggestions for such an aural experience are welcome in the comments) at the recording, we can make some attestations subject to the caveat that the shared file format did not yield the full-fat reproduction expected on the release version: First, the piece itself is worthy of Johnson’s labors and an audience’s attention and, though a relatively early entry in Loeffler’s œuvre, it is full of the eclectic influences and original sonic juxtapositions that make him a unique figure; second, the performances are expressive, technically polished and well balanced, and we expect that the sonic quality will equal Delos’s usual high standards.

So what is the draw for readers of the Intelligencer for the Loeffler rediscovery when the only currently scheduled public performances are out of town? For those not inclined to travel to Washington or New York, or even the just-over-the-border Stissing event, there is of course the recording, which Delos releases on June 7th as a CD and also on the usual streaming channels (with one preview track available on May 10th), and we submit that this brainchild of an oddly neglected local composer from one of Boston’s glory eras can and should now find its way in the repertoire. It might even stimulate more such musical archaeology, both generally and specifically with respect to earlier generations of New England composers, to further undermine the increasingly tattered theory that, as Johnson put it, “time is an efficient filter of quality” in music (or other artistic endeavor). Readers may enjoy this recording of Second Boston School piano solos based on BMInt pubisher Lee Eiseman’s research at the Harvard Musical Association. Things need not exclusively be old and shopworn or new and shiny, they can be old yet new again…nor does a masterpiece need to be heaven-storming to qualify as such.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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

  1. “… Deryck Cooke in reconstructing Mahler’s Tenth Symphony … had a shortage of information on which to base his solutions…”

    The above is *horseshit*. For one thing, Cooke did not ‘reconstruct’ anything. He produced *a performing version of the draft* — as the cover of the printed score actually says.


    Comment by Mark Doran — May 7, 2024 at 5:17 am

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