Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween Hangover - Sorabji's 1st Organ Symphony

Last night, while you were walking around your neighborhood in your "scary" costume, eating Twix,1 and generally having a good time, I was doing Halloween for real.

It was party time for you, but I spent nearly two hours listening to frightening organ music. And I lived to tell the tale.

That two-hour chunk of organ music was actually all one piece — Khaikosru Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 1 (1924). I came across the English2 composer's name last year because of a somewhat snarky article he wrote in 1928 in The Musical Times urging more performances of Mahler's music.

So I figured that Sorabji was OK with long symphonies. What I didn't quite expect before I looked at the timings on Kevin Bowyer's apparently rare recording was a scarily long third movement that alone spans 47 minutes. But at 2 hours total, this symphony is actually a baby. Though I know little about Sorabji's other two organ symphonies, apparently they're both much longer.3 What's more, Sorabji's actual (orchestral, not organ) Symphony No. 3 ("Jumi") makes Mahler's Ninth look like a piano miniature. In "Jumi," the third movement alone lasts 2 hours. (So if you have a minute, check out the set of about 8 billion Youtube clips of the strikingly realistic digital version of "Jumi," which will have to tide you over until some orchestra actually decides to play it.)

All this makes perfect sense if you remember that Sorabji (1892-1988) was really a rock star ahead of his time. Approaching "Jumi" or the Organ Symphony No. 1 isn't so daunting if you treat it like the Flaming Lips' legendary Zaireeka, the album you're supposed to listen to on four different stereos simultaneously (and the only CD I know of with instructions for proper use). My brief experience with the blend of towering chords and labyrinthine polyphony in the Organ Symphony suggests that next time, I might want to bring some friends over (on some night besides Halloween), lie down, and just let the music wash over everyone in the room.

If Sorabji was half Flaming Lips, he was also half XTC. That excellent group stopped playing live in 1982 because of Andy Partridge's stage fright. Maybe Andy took a cue from Sorabji, who stopped performing on the piano in 1936 for similar reasons.4

Back to fright night,5 and on to the Organ Symphony. All it demands are a really good organist and an organ with 4-5 manuals, or keyboards (in other words, a really big organ). The first movement is a passacaglia with a perfectly reasonable 81 variations. Here's the bass ostinato on which it's built (on the organ, the feet play it on the pedals):

This tune does show up again toward the close of both the second and third movements, giving this long symphony a (slightly) cyclical feel. You should be able to detect the first half of the theme here, toward the end of the fugal second movement (the only time I found it in this movement):

Back in the first movement, though, that tune lurches in rhythmic disjunction with the other voices. This conflict heightens its already haunting quality and, on Halloween, can make you feel like Zombies are closing in on you from different directions. Here are the first four variations, and I hope you can pick out the ominous bass figure each time:

These kinds of textures dominate the symphony. So the opposite kind — enormous blocks of notes hurled at the listener — actually provides some stability. Here's a clip from near the beginning of the third movement, where a long, soft, chromatic chordal passage builds to a polyphonic frenzy that contains that same kind of rhythmic discord:

What I found most surprising about this symphony on my first listen was that the extra-long third movement — the least clear in form — was actually the easiest to follow. The frequent pauses gave me both a chance to catch my breath and a sense that I was following a series of narrative episodes rather than an intellectual unfolding. If I were scoring a silent horror film, I'd probably go straight to this third movement and choose a passage like this one:

The main point here is that I survived Halloween night without any Bach Toccata-related nightmares. This is remarkable, because Bach is a big part of this symphony, and of that last clip in particular — and not just because of the instrument or the counterpoint. What you might not realize about that last passage, about 40 minutes into the movement and serving as a kind of overall climax, is that Sorabji gives us the famous B-A-C-H (Bb, A, C, B) figure in those wild block chords you just heard. It happens seven times, an ostinato that trumps the first movement's passacaglia foundation. Sorabji even wrote "BACH" in the score. Every single time. Irony or not, it's pretty intense hearing the pedal part trying to get its groove back underneath that weight of the great German master.

You made it this far, which means your heart can stand the shocking facts about (and sounds of) Sorabji's Organ Symphony No. 1. And remember, my friend: future events, including actual performances of Sorabji's symphonies, will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you're listening to Sorabji, and that's why you're here at Unsung Symphonies.6 Now do yourself a favor and check out the modern Sorabji, XTC's Andy Partridge, in a rare live performance of one of the greatest songs ever.

— Matthew Mugmon

1. They're all Twix. It was a setup.
2. According to Paul Rapoport in Grove, Sorabji — whose mother was Spanish-Sicilian and father was Parsi — didn't care for the "English" label.
3. So say Allistair Hinton's liner notes to the recording.
4. See Grove and Chalkhills for this striking connection.
5. Yama Hama!
6. Text adapted from Ed Wood, Plan 9 From Outer Space, but applicable to nearly any situation involving scary stuff.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Paradise Regained - Weigl's Fifth "Apocalyptic"

This should sound like a gutsy way to start a symphony even to the most jaded listeners among you:

In performance, the effect will be even more striking. This work begins with the filing of orchestral musicians into the concert hall, warming up their instruments like normal. This isn't a transcribed preamble to a concert like Edgard Varèse's Tuning Up (1947) but genuine, if highly predictable, span of "chance" music. As the buzz of non-music suffuses the hall, the conductor takes the stage and instructs a quartet of low brass players, positioned oddly on a raised platform, to sound a theme. Their sharply-etched annunciation stands in starkest relief against the disorderly backdrop. The brass quorum call thus issued, the warming up musicians fall in line, proposing a handful of mysterious motifs that will soon coalesce into this symphony's main thematic subject.

This is the beginning of Karl Weigl's Fifth Symphony "The Apocalyptic" (1945), from a movement dubbed "Evocation." It's a rhetorically direct strategy, to wring order out of a swarming musical chaos, routine since Beethoven's 9th first premiered in 1824. The outlines of the brass melody are also familiar, the downward agglomeration of perfect intervals resembling Beethoven and perhaps even more, the grand columns that buttress Anton Bruckner's symphonies. In the long competition of composers striving to out-inchoate each other's openings, Weigl's is the logical extreme; to my knowledge, no such an audacious version of the ex nihlo archetype had been attempted prior to this 1945 work. It is the more surprising because Weigl was no avant-garde composer, and this is no experimental symphony. Nothing remotely as strange occurs for the duration of the long (50 minute) symphony. For all its potency in establishing the mood of this work, the opening of the "Apocalyptic" is a weirdly one-off event.

The great expanse of the rest of the "Evocation" movement presents a dense network of sonata themes. Some are knotted in the vein of early Schoenberg, like this the first subject proper, straining the ears with its tangle of counterpoint and hovering tonality (listen to the progressive enchroachment of the brass summons):

Others are broad, even benedictory like this secondary theme:

In full Brucknerian fashion, there's a false climax at the end of (what seems to be) the development section, evoking the life out of that introductory brass theme. This is not music that minces its words.

Karl Weigl is not a household name for the same reasons that Zemlinsky, Schreker, von Schillings, and Schmidt are not. While an inventive and prolific composer, his music continued up the late-romantic branch of Mahler and Strauss long after the history-hogging offshoot of atonality had broken off. Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna 1881, Weigl was situated at the absolute center of Viennese musical culture for several decades. He studied with the luminaries Fuchs, Adler, and Zemlinsky, participating with the latter in his progressive "Society of Creative Musicians" along with Schoenberg and Webern -- pals until their musical paths diverged so radically. He went on to become Mahler's right hand man at the Vienna opera, acting as vocal coach and rehearsal conductor. Weigl garnered prestigious positions and critical praise for his music through the 20s. But the rise of the Nazi party dragged this prominent composer's reputation down considerably. With Hitler's annexation of Austria, the Jewish socialist managed to emigrate to the United States like so many other German composers. Adjustment to American life was difficult, but he eventually secured teaching posts at various schools of music on the East Coast. But deprived of the renown as a composer he enjoyed in Europe, he was forced to retreat into composition without performance.

Weigl wrote his Fifth Symphony at the conclusion of World War II. It is dedicated to "the people of the United Nations" and bears the inscription "to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt" -- a gesture identical to that of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (a former student) in his dedication to the F-sharp Symphony (1952). The timing and appellation "Apocalyptic" suggests that this is a war work; Weigl, an ardent pacifist, conceived of his Second Symphony as a response to the Great War. But there is little external evidence indicating what exactly Weigl meant in programmatic terms. I suspect he was making a nod towards Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, sometimes also referred to as "Apocalyptic," for the spirit of Bruckner infuses much of this work, particularly the massive 3rd Movement Adagio "Paradise Lost." Unquestionably the heart of the symphony, it is its most bald-faced musical anachronism, gorgeous but seemingly immobilized under the 19th century symphonist's shadow. Here is a sample of the only slightly updated Brucknerisms, swelling climaxes and all.

Paradise for Weigl, it would seem, is a Bruckner slow movement in double variation form. (When it comes to direct references, which are numerous, I hear more of Bruckner's 7th "Lyric" symphony than the 8th). Against the dominance of Viennese atonality that Weigl could never accept, the power of such sweet tonality was indeed "lost."

The "Apocalyptic's" second and fourth movements are most literally eschatological. The second, titled "The Dance around the Golden Calf," is a sardonic, very Mahlerian scherzo with certain modal touches that Llyod Moore (author of the one recording's liner notes) hears as distinctly "Jewish." (So who exactly is the target of sardonic energy here?). The fourth movement, "The Four Horsemen," is eventful but not necessarily the fire-and-brimstone you'd expect from the title. Rather, elements of previous movements (particularly "Paradise") clash against the backdrop of a semi-serious march themes. You'll be hard pressed to locate Famine, War, Death, or Pestilence individually here, or even a clear-cut sense of victory or defeat. The ending, a sudden blast of celebratory bells, sounds perfunctory and pessimistic. All of this is quite a contrast to the work's unearthly opening sounds. It is a gesture which, for all the symphony's beauty and teeth-gnashing, Weigl never feels the need to corroborate.

Weigl never survived to hear the eventual premiere of this work at the hands of Leopold Stokowski in 1968, although it was highly praised when finally heard. I freely admit I only picked up the BIS recording of this work because of the extravagant cover art. Thomas Sanderling's conducting of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is stellar, especially for such a red giant of a work, but without other recordings, I am in no position to say if it's truly definitive. Only one other Karl Weigl symphony has been recorded, the Sixth, by the same forces.

--Frank Lehman

Monday, October 18, 2010

Impossible Symphony - Kastner's "Les Cris de Paris"

Unsung Symphonies is proud to announce its first guest post, from Harvard Professor of Music Alex Rehding! In addition to his wide-ranging work in music theory, the history of ideas, and aesthetics, Alex is always on the lookout for new obscure works. In today's post, he explores a genuinely "unsung" symphony, a work from the composer J.G Kastner that has not been performed before, and for certain reasons may never be!

The name of J. G. Kastner (1810-1867) hardly counts as a household name in the symphonic repertoire. This is, at least in part, because everything about him evades
easy categorization: Kastner was always exceptionally good at crossing boundaries. As a musician born and raised in Alsace—a region located on the border between France and Germany that had been in constant territorial dispute for the last one thousand years—this must have come quite naturally to him. Born Johann Georg Kastner, he soon became Jean Georges after he moved to Paris in 1835 to study at the famous Conservatoire. Much of what we know about Kastner nowadays stems from the three-volume biography that his widow commissioned after Kastner’s untimely death. The German-language biographer, Hermann Ludwig, was eager to tie Kastner more firmly to a Germanic sphere of influence and its more prestigious symphonic tradition. As a result, the image we have of Kastner—such as it is—is furrowed by the same kind of rifts as his native Alsace.

This year marks Kastner’s 200th birthday on March 9. This joyous event was, arguably, somewhat overshadowed by his contemporaries Chopin and Schumann. Kastner has suffered from being not-quite-a-scholar and not-quite-a-composer. He earned his place in music history primarily with a hybrid genre called livre-partition or “book-score.” The livres-partitions collect information on a given musical topic— dances of death, the sirens, army songs, the city cries of Paris, and others—in the form of a learned (but rarely scholarly) treatise, and then top it off with an original composition on the topic of the treatise. The compositions that conclude Kastner’s learned works are often called “symphony.” This title may seem misleading, given that most of these works include vocal parts, but in fact they follow in the French tradition of symphonic works, of which Berlioz is the most famous representative, which not only include instrumental music but also vocal forces, including choruses and dramatic scenes.

In 1888 the German musicologist Philipp Spitta pointed out, in a review of Ludwig’s biography, that none of Kastner’s compositions had ever been performed. Spitta noted that Kastner seems surprisingly unconcerned about this circumstance, and speculated that perhaps regular concert audiences are not even right for his music: the compositions are firmly bound to the intellectual and physical context from which they stem, and readers who will have the stamina to plow through an entire treatise, Spitta surmised, will have the required musical literacy as well to work through the score.

It seems that in the intervening one hundred and twenty years the performance situation did not change much—until last year, when the Ensemble Clément Jannequin recorded a version of Kastner’s Grande symphonie humoristique vocale et instrumentale Les Cris de Paris (1857), which Spitta considered to be Kastner’s most successful work.

What the Ensemble Jannequin produces, to say it upfront, has fairly little to do with Kastner’s partition—it is an eight-minute excerpt of sections from the substantial symphony, adapted for the forces the vocal ensemble normally operates with: they replace Kastner’s extravagant orchestral forces with piano, organ, and lute sounds. The excerpts they put together focus on the humorous episode of the “dormeur” (sleeper) and his lovely serenade, which is repeatedly disturbed by the rude shouts of the market vendors.

The livre to which Les cris de Paris forms the partition, is a study—we might almost want to call it a musical ethnography—of the street cries of market vendors of Paris in a by-gone age. Kastner tirelessly collected, transcribed, notated, and classified the hundreds of calls that made up the soundscape of urban Paris and that were fast disappearing in the course of the industrialization. If any reader wonders why the cris de Paris are all so surprisingly musical, rhythmic and diatonic, a ready answer can be found in the partition, which weaves all these different sound snippets into a dense symphonic web of motivic relations.

The whole project is carried by a prominent sense of nostalgia, and was eagerly studied by French musicians of subsequent generations. It is not for nothing that the first vocal entry we hear in this recording is “Restez, ô mes songes fidèles” (stay, my faithful dreams). The Ensemble Jannequin subtly underlines the melancholy relationship of Kastner’s work to an irrevocable age by adopting archaic, though historically accurate, French pronunciation in their performance, which by the nineteenth century was outmoded—pronouncing, for instance, “trois” and “noix” with a nasal diphthong.

The dense and virtuosic polyphonic texture here suggests a closer relationship with operatic stretti than with symphonic genres. The Ensemble Jannequin is primarily interested Kastner’s work in so far as it creates a link to Clément Jannequin’s famous sixteenth-century chanson “Les cris de Paris.” (In his livre, Kastner criticized Jannequin for his insufficiently “scientific” approach to his material, which sacrificed authenticity in the service of following the rules of counterpoint.)

The boisterous and rambunctious excerpts that the Ensemble Jannequin singles out, however, do not necessarily convey the impression that the symphony as a whole would make. Despite the “humoristique” overtones of the whole symphony, the score ends with a tender (and extremely quiet) chorus, which completes a whole day of noises in the cityscape of Paris.

It is worth studying the score as a whole—not only for the virtuosic web of market calls that Kastner weaves into his music, but also for the progressive instrumental effects that Kastner employs, including harp harmonics, and the sheer profligate orchestral forces that Kastner’s boundless imagination conjures up (including a march that requires forty different brass instruments). In the end, one can only agree with Spitta, that this is a music for which performance is secondary. It revels, more than anything else, in its status beyond boundaries as an impossible symphony.

--Alex Rehding

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No strings attached - Giannini's Third, for Wind Band

It was my dad’s birthday this past Monday. And as I think about everything he’s taught me over the years, one stands out in particular: orchestral music sounds pretty good when you leave out most of the orchestra.

When I was growing up, every so often over the summer we’d head down to D.C. from the Maryland suburbs and sit on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to hear service bands perform pieces composed for wind band.1 And just as often, or maybe even more often, we’d hear wind band arrangements of orchestral classics. For these latter pieces, I occasionally thought something was missing. Once you’re used to the fluid turns in the violin that start “Night on Bald Mountain,” it’s hard to get used to choppy clarinets handling the same passage, as interesting as it might sound.

But it also works the other way around. Compare the prim and proper lyrical theme in the orchestral re-arrangement of “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the much more boisterous —and, I think, appropriately march-like — original version for wind band (recording quality strategically chosen to play up contrast).

Anyway, around the time of our trips to the Capitol, my dad mentioned Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 (1958) and his own experience playing the tuba part with the All-Maryland High School Band at the Baltimore Civic Center in 1965. Giannini’s Third is the composer’s only symphony to be composed for wind band, and it appears to be the most famous of the Philadelphia-born composer’s five symphonies. Maybe its status as a symphony specifically for wind band helped give it a cultural lifeline, a unique and enduring avenue into a particular repertory. A number of symphonies were composed for this kind of group, but there are, of course, many more for standard orchestra. That may mean that a brand new symphony has an easier time competing to survive if it’s specifically for wind band. Call it natural symphonic selection.

Here’s how this particular symphony came about: The Duke University Band asked Giannini to write something, and according to the composer, “I can give no other reason for choosing to write a Symphony to fulfill this commission than that I ‘felt like it,’ and the thought of doing it interested me a great deal.” That’s a good enough reason, and Giannini reported that when asked how it feels to compose for wind band (and not for orchestra, chamber groups, or voice), he “can only answer, ‘There is no difference. The band is simply another medium for which I try to make music.’” 2

Add to that the fact that there’s nothing really puzzling, shocking, or experimental about Giannini’s Third (except maybe that it’s for wind band but isn’t otherwise strange), and you have a vivacious work that wind bands can really use to please crowds and that also carries the dignity and historical weight associated with the name “symphony”. Giannini seemed to want us to hear this composition as a straightforward wind-band play on a classical symphony. It has four movements, in the standard order of fast-slow-fast-fast. In the liner notes to the Mercury Living Presence recording, he even diagrammed the structure, specifically calling the first and last movements sonata forms. The second is looser, and the third is a scherzo. In other words, Giannini didn’t use the unusual medium as an excuse to do something wild and crazy. And he wanted us to know it.

This might explain why, at times, the Third sounds like a wind band transcription of a symphony for orchestra — and it suggests to me, at least, that Giannini really conceived this symphony as an orchestral piece. When I hear the second theme of the first movement, I wonder if I ought to be hearing soaring strings instead of massed winds. This shouldn't surprise us — Giannini himself was a violinist. The part I’m talking about is in the following clip, after the hymn-like trombone passage and solo clarinet response.

On the other hand, in the finale, the second theme is a solid march, and I think strings would detract from it (here it is the second time we hear it, toward the very end of the movement):

In the second movement, Giannini sensitively blends and contrasts the available wind band timbres. It, too, has its “orchestral” moments, but my favorite parts are when solo instruments play off each other, as in this lullaby-like moment for flute and clarinets:

In the third movement (the scherzo), Giannini gives us some nice range and timbre contrasts (piccolo, flute, and snare vs. bass clarinets, bassoons, and sax) around an undulating clarinet figure — and toward the end of this clip, the brass work their way into the texture:

My dad didn’t know the piece before playing both the first and fourth movements in Baltimore in 1965, but it led him to buy a recording of the whole thing (the same one, with A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, from which the above clips are drawn). As my dad recalled this week, “I thought it was great to be picked for the All-State band. All the band members traveled from all over the state to perform in Baltimore, which, to me at 17, was pretty far from home (Hillcrest Heights in the D.C. suburbs). They paired us up so that two students spent a night living with a family the day before the concert, which was given as part of the Maryland State Teachers' Association yearly meeting.” Click here for some collected snapshots from the actual program booklet, which my dad generously scanned for use here. Zoom in on the tubas.

So, as a special treat, here’s the recording of the entire fourth movement — my favorite in this symphony — from that exact 1965 Baltimore Civic Center Concert, featuring my father, Marc Mugmon, on tuba. It was conducted by Richard Higgins, who headed both the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Wind Ensemble. Enjoy!

— Matthew Mugmon

1.“Wind Band” might not be the preferred nomenclature. "Band," “Symphonic Winds,” “Symphonic Band,” “Concert Band,” “Military Band,” or “Wind Ensemble,” please. Wind chimes don't count — serenity now!
2.From the liner notes to the Mercury Living Presence recording by A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.