“Bodies of Sound in Space”

Varese: Arcana / Martin: Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra

Jean Martinon / The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

RCA LSC-2914


I like music that explodes into space.

Edgard Varese

One indication of a work’s significance in the post-Romantic era was the inverse of the criticism and hostility hurled at it after (and sometimes during) its premiere. Stravinsky, Ives and Riegger all experienced severe backlashes to their unconventional music. Such was the reaction to Edgard Varese’s Arcana when it premiered in 1927 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski. The haters of the unconventional, monumental work reached a consensus summed up by music critic Oscar Thompson: “There was no mercy in its disharmony, no pity in its succession of screaming, clashing, clangorous discords.”

And it’s true that to listeners in the 1920s, used to scandalous avant-garde pieces from composers like Henry Cowell and George Antheil, Arcana must have sounded like a new form of music altogether. Even now, used to digital manipulations and mixing as we are, it still sounds like some mysterious cosmological event. Hearing it for the first time, you’ll understand why so many conservative reviewers and general audiences were stunned by Varese’s symphonic experiment.

Varese was born in 1883 in Paris. His earliest musical influences were the unlikely pair of Richard Strauss and the great Bach transcriber Ferruccio Busoni. His first work, Hyperprism, appeared in 1923, after he’d relocated from Berlin to America and founded the International Composers Guild (ICG). The unorthodox scoring is for wind, brass and percussion. Varese’s pieces were incredibly difficult to compose (there are a half dozen in all) because of his rejection of all systems of composition; essentially, he had to create a new musical methodology of his own, from scratch. It would be like a painter compelled to invent color for each of her canvases. Ionisation (1929-33) is scored for 13 percussionists, and is based on molecular movements.

But it wasn’t until Deserts (1936) that the pioneering nature of Varese’s music became wholly apparent, as it was the first ever work to incorporate tape-recorded sound into its instrumentation. Varese was one of those innovators who’s ahead of the people who are ahead of their time. His Poeme Electronique (1958) is eight-minutes of proto-electronica, and was completed to be broadcast out of 425 loudspeakers at the World’s Fair in Brussels. 

Perhaps his most accessible work, Arcana is an attempt to make alchemy of pure sound, as the title suggests. (It’s based on Varese’s conception of the Renaissance alchemist, and possible inspiration for Frankenstein, Paracelsus.) Arranged in an 11-note “sound-cloud”, it’s an enormity of music–Varese termed it “absolute music” for a reason. It was based on a dream of his, and the fantastical elements seem built of surreal, bristling wavelengths that go from titanic to a climax that’s barely audible, like the dwindling echoes of a distant constellation. Cutting-edge scoring, with Varese’s trademark percussion at the fore, includes a string attached to one of the drums that, when swiped with a strip of leather, sounds like a ferocious roar. It’s a phrasal instead of thematic work, with distortions and quasi-variations: an alchemical whirlwind that takes order and transmutes it into chaos.

Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give a performance that totally meets Varese’s original somewhere in the deepest parts of space, with sound production that’s stupendous on this mid-1960s RCA recording.

The Sorrows of Young Berlioz

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

L’Orchestre National / Andre Vandernoot

Command Classics CC 33-11009


Hector Berlioz’s diabolical symphony is essentially a psychological self-portrait in sound. And it may not have come about if it weren’t for a particular woman whom he became infatuated with. Berlioz had always been a mercurial boy with some serious teenage angst. Later, his unbridled sensitivity would find a romantic, though unrequited, outlet in the form of Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson. It would turn out to be one of the most self-destructuve, albeit productive crushes in history.

Berlioz was born in 1803. Early on he was disowned by his mother for his theatrical proclivities. From the beginning of his musical career, Beethoven was his idol; he was especially struck by the Beethoven’s symphonies, which came to push at the boundaries of classical music with their wild emotions and Romantic grandeur. Using that Beethovian sublimation of the self in his own music, Berlioz finished his Symphonie Fantastique in the late 1820s, and it premiered in 1830. It was both an attempt to impress Harriet and to dramatize his raging feelings about her and his art all at once, sewing all his emotions on his sleeve. Harriet didn’t show up, putting a ribbon on his torment.

The Symphonie Fantasique is an emotionally tenuous tone poem. Its first movement opens with a lovely violin/flute combo while the orchestra roils miserably beneath it, symbolizing the Artist’s pent-up agitation about his beloved, i.e. Harriet Smithson. Following that is a waltzy Ball, where, ostensibly, she fails to appear. Afterwards, Berlioz channels his pastoral boyhood with a cowherd’s melody. He spies the woman of his dreams walking with someone else, and the orchestra mirrors his rage in a fit of convulsive blasts that completely shatters the tranquility of the setting.

Things turn dark from there. March to the Scaffolds presents the antagonist on his way to the gallows, having murdered his beloved, accompanied by the cheap sounds of a marching band. The theme he gave Harriet plays briefly, before cut short by the sudden swipe of the guillotine. The crowd applauds. A drumbeat is heard. Yet, in horror movie fashion, it turns out all to be a troubled dream.

In the last movement, the dream veers into a witches’ Sabbath, where sorcerers and creatures convene for a demoniac ritual. A church bell summons everyone to a nightmarish dance. It took Berlioz several years to master the fugue, and, tellingly, it’s a fugue that provides his final soundtrack to hell. Then the music goes haywire. His beloved actually does not snub him this time; she shows up to gloat over his circumstances. It’s a frightening extravaganza in imagery and sound, reveling orgiastically in its hero’s undoing and annihilation. Audiences had never heard anything like it.

But it wasn’t until the second premiere, with finally taking up his offer to attend, that some real drama manifested itself outside of the symphony. After the performance, Harriet realized that the work was a thinly veiled portrait of how Berlioz felt about her, and she agreed to meet with him. At the assignation, one of the weirdest wedding proposals ever would occur.

During a subsequent date, Berlioz took from his pocket a huge amount of opium, more than enough to kill the composer, and then he swallowed it without further ado. Right then, he asked her to marry him. Completely frazzled, she said yes. Berlioz calmly took a second vial out of a different pocket, which happened to be an antidote, which he took. They married in 1833, and it’s not shocking, considering Berlioz’s temperament, that the marriage didn’t take, and they separated not long afterwards.

Among the plethora of good and bad performances, this stereo version on the Command Classics 35MM label, is a solid, if obscure, recording, but with the bonus of neat abstract expressionist designs.

New England Romanticism

Mrs. H.H.A. Beach: Sonata for Violin and Piano / Arthur Foote: Sonata for Violin and Piano

Joseph Silverstein, violin / Gilbert Kalish, piano

New World Records NW268

Like Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn before her, Amy Beach (or Mrs. H.H.A. Beach if you want to be patriarchal about it) was a phenomenal composer and pianist severely limited by the arbitrary obstacle of her gender. The milieu she was raised in,  mid to late 19th century New Hampshire, wasn’t much more liberating than her female forebears’ had been. In particular, the classical music world had always been totally male-dominated. A woman composer or soloist had to prove herself by being a superhumanly skillful musician. Which is exactly what Amy Beach happened to be.

Beach, nee Cheney, born in 1867, was what we’d call a child prodigy. At the age of two she could play counter-melody like it was nobody’s business. Still in her teens, she went on to a celebrated career as a soloist, well-known for her performances of Moscheles, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Then she got married. Her new husband demanded that she rein in her busy performance schedule. So, besides her family who wished her to just settle down, she had to contend with Mr. Beach. He gave his consent for her to compose, but with the shitty stipulation that any music bear her married name. In 1896, she composed and had premiered her “Gaelic” Symphony, which did for Irish-American tunes what Dvorak had done for spirituals and New World harmonies. It was the first ever symphony by a woman.

Indeed, she helped promulgate a national American music, becoming part of the so-called Second New England School of composers, which included Edward MacDowell, Arthur Foote and others who comprised the “Boston Six”. Her Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, op. 45, debuted in 1900, with Beach herself soloing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor (1897) of Amy Beach has started to achieve something of it’s overdue prominence. Beach and Franz Kneisel (then conductor of the BSO) premiered the piece. A haunting solo from the piano introduces the theme, which expands into a Romantic outpouring from both instruments. The 2nd movement is a plucky tune before turning more sensuous, while the Largo con dolore is full-bore Romanticism with a tangibly yearning thrum. An Allegro con fuoco wraps up the sonata with an exuberant momentum that nonetheless doesn’t lose sight of it’s tender core.

Equal parts Brahms and Rachmaninov (and some weirdly modernist moments you might encounter in the neoclassical homages of Prokofiev or Stravinsky), the sonata has a strong American folk-song vibe. This recording from New World Records comes with the added bonus of the Violin Sonata by Beach’s colleague Arthur Foote, and some fantastical sleeve art you probably wouldn’t associate with East Coast chamber music.

The Hitmaster

Rossini Overtures: William Tell and the Famous Five

Herbert von Karajan / Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia 33CX 1739


Give me a laundry list, and I will set it to music.

Gioacchino Rossini

An early Columbia mono recording, this sampling of Rossini’s overtures has all the hits, and some obscurer ones, you could ever want in one album. Rossini was the one-man hit factory of early19th century opera. Rousing trumpet fanfares? Yep. Dances you’ll be humming for days? Got em. Huge rampaging finales? For sure. Historically, the overture was used to fluff the audience for the meat of the opera to come, hinting at various themes and melodies that would soon be sung.

Rossini’s operas revitalized the operatic form itself. In his works, beautiful melodies just seem to spill out effortlessly, building to huge climaxes, for which his name has become practically synonymous. Probably his only equal in the realm of the comedic opera is Mozart, and Rossini’s style might be even more distinctive. Outside of William Tell and The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie might be his most characteristic work. It’s like some Ur-overture combining the various devices that make his works so unflinchingly Rossini-esque, and unlike anyone else’s.

Taking the form of a semiseria 2-act opera, The Thieving Magpie is based on an 1817 comedy about a young girl who’s about to be hung for stealing some silver. The girl is saved at the last minute, when it’s discovered that the real thief is a magpie with an appetite for heists. (Coincidentally, magpies are some of the smartest non-mammals in the animal kingdom, with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, so maybe TTM isn’t as farfetched as we might believe.) The girl is saved and the trickster magpie takes her place.

Rossini finished the opera, so it’s said, a night before the premiere. He was locked in a room, and as he completed parts, he tossed sheet music out the window to a waiting copyist, who then transcribed the individual orchestral parts. The overture begins with a couple of drum-rolls before welling into a militaristic march that then changes pace, introducing a slew of enchanting melodies, including an incredibly popular tune in the woodwinds. That, of course, is followed by the obligatory crescendo announcing the start of the finale. Refrains from earlier are interspersed throughout the orchestra, until overture moves to its rousing climax, which could simply be called a “rossini” for its sheer propulsion.

All the Mountain King’s Men

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Grieg: Peer Gynt (Incidental Music)

Oiven Fjeldstad / London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6049

Slay him! The Christian man’s son has seduced
the fairest maid of the Mountain King!
Slay him! Slay him!

May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me

Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!

-Lyrics to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”


Everybody has heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” somewhere or another. The whole Suite was riffed by Duke Ellington in 1960. Nero & The Gladiators charted at number 48 with their version of the Mountain King. Nineteen sixty-seven brought a new version by The Who (“A Who-freakout arrangement” said one reviewer), which was followed by Electric Light Orchestra’s 1973 rendition; various metal bands have also jumped on the Mountain King bandwagon. Cinematically, it’s been used in Birth of Nation and Fritz Lang’s atmospheric M, along with such disparate places as The Social Network (the rowing scene with the Winklevoss twins), and even in Trolls. Even Mad Men has used the piece. Alton Towers, a British theme park, has Mountain King in their promotional videos.

Along with several other suites from Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King permeates pop culture perhaps even more than the big hits of Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner. Grieg was commissioned to do the music for Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. The play follows that well-known commoner-abducts-a-bride-on-her-wedding-night-and-abandons-her-so-he-can-travel-the-world trope, and because of the sordidness of the work, Grieg was at first reluctant to set it to music.

He finished the incidental music in 1875 while vacationing in Italy. The play was staged in 1876 in Oslo; it was an opulent production, with Grieg himself conducting the local orchestra. He then re-orchestrated the music again in 1885, and the play had a revival in 1902. In a final version from 1908 based on new material, Grieg once more retrofitted the work: now it comprised 23 individual pieces and lasted for about an hour and a half, replete with soloists and a chorus.

Because of its length, that version is rarely performed in its entirety, and instead the work was arranged into 2 suites, with the most popular pieces among them. And how popular they are. Not one to short-shrift his audience on ear-worm melodies without a ton of depth (he’s like Saint-Saens in a colder climate), Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites are like metonymies of classical music itself to a lot of people who don’t otherwise listen to classical music.  There’s “Anitra’s Dance” for strings, and “Morning” which, by my count, has appeared at the beginning of every Loony Tunes short out there.

And finally the big number: “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, referred to above in its many contemporary iterations. Basically, it’s a brief, simple theme in F major repeated faster and faster, in ever increasing volume, a la Bolero, until it reaches it’s ear-splitting, rambunctious zenith.

An early London reissue, this Stereophonic release has an unabashedly campy sleeve design. The anti-hero sits lounging in what appears to be the getup of some Swiss yodeler. Standing on a pedestal facing him, a blond Salome-type bombshell is attempting to charm him with her whiles, or so it would seem.

Surprise!

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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 94 “Surprise” & 101 “Clock”

Pierre Monteux / Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

RCA LSC-2394

Strange as it sounds today, Franz Joseph Haydn was a celebrity in late 18th century England, on par with someone like Bruce Springsteen or Bjork in Iceland. He was recognized in the streets, and huge crowds turned out for the premieres of his many, many symphonies. Being the most famous composer of his day, he could get away with a joke on the audience when he felt like it. Haydn had just finished his stint as the Esterhazy’s personal music director when he arrived in London and conducted his Symphony No. 94 in 1792, the second of the 12 London symphonies. As usual, a throng showed up to hear it.

The Andante second movement starts off placid enough, but as the pianissimo main theme comes to a close, hardly a minute in, an incredibly loud fortissimo chord taken up by the whole orchestra erupts from nowhere. According to anecdotal testimony, the chord was a spur-of-the-moment decision of Haydn’s (he was conducting) to rouse an audience member in the front row who’d gone to sleep. The sleeper was of course brought immediately to his senses, and stood bolt upright to tremendous embarrassment. The episode, as great as it sounds, probably isn’t quite true. One of Haydn’s biographers asked him if the chord was meant as a prank, and the composer responded that no, he’d just wanted to introduce a totally unexpected element into his symphony. Which he certainly did.

What’s more shocking than the “surprise”, perhaps, is the fact that it’s not repeated when the theme returns. This leads to a palpable sense of playful dread that’s a little like re-winding a jack-in-the-box and not have it spring out after it’s scared the bejesus out of you the first time. (Hence the sleeve art.) The rest of the symphony follows a strongly Haydnesque framework, with a Minuet and Trio leading to a fast-paced Allegro molto, which culminates with a timpani coda.

In this and the Symphony No. 104 Monteux brings his understated polish and drama. Haydn isn’t often lauded for his humor, but in this symphony it’s on full display.


	

Future Music

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(Essay originally appeared in Entropy)

When George Antheil was three-years-old, he wanted a piano for his birthday. Instead of a normal-sized one, his parents gifted him a toy version instead. He brought the imposture down to the basement, he said, and smashed it to pieces with a small hatchet.

That violent episode, he recalled years later in a taped interview, was an indication of where his theories of music composition would turn.

With the premiere of his Ballet mecaniqueat the fashionable Theatre de Champs-Elysees on July 19, 1926, the effect was comparable to his demolishing a piano onstage. Parallels were drawn instantly between the performance and the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which had been met with an equally riotous backlash. However, there was something different about Antheil’s kinetic music. The ballet is a 19-minute glimpse into the latter part of the 20th century. It’s an outrageous stomping titan, with inklings of what the future might sound like: mechanical, sarcastic, hyperactive—simultaneously a warning and a glorifying of technologies to come.

More here

Prokofiev’s War Symphony

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Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5

George Szell / Cleveland Orchestra

Odyssey Y35923

Between them, Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the poster boys of Soviet-era music. During WWII the former’s Symphony Nos. 5 and 7 (“Leningrad”) were like the soundtracks to propaganda posters, filled with patriotic tunes and horrifying marches depicting the brutality of battle. The latter, however, was a bit more unfettered and experimental in his approach, probably because he wasn’t under the same crazy compulsion as the more popular Shostakovich to win Stalin’s approval and carry the banner of social realism to the ears of the masses.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, op. 100–which premiered in 1944 just as his countrymen were victorious at the River Vistula–commemorated a turning point for Russia. He completed the symphony at a Soviet Composers Union retreat, calling it “A symphony about the spirit of man”.

The symphony opens with an expansive theme, played by the flute and bassoon before being taken up by the strings. A second theme comes along and converges with the first, underlined by a soft melody. Then the movement erupts into a coda with a blaring wall of sound. The snappy Scherzo is vintage Prokofiev, an off-kilter dance that could have been filched from one of his ballets.

From there the symphony turns darker in the penultimate movement, culminating with a coda shared between the piccolos and string section. Shapes and gestures define the last movement until the clarinet chooses an original theme. With incredible power, the many themes of the entire symphony are extrapolated into a grandly blistering finale that absorbs and reconfigures everything that’s been heard up to that point.

Shortly after it premiered, the 5th was imported to America, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony and became an instant classic. Gramophone placed it at number 9 on their list of the 10 greatest symphonies, behind Aaron Copland’s 3rd Symphony and ahead of Shostakovich’s 10th. Szell’s recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, in a sealed album reissued from Columbia is a favorite for many listeners.

Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great  virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.