Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shadow Symphonies - The Truth Behind Beethoven's Masterworks

Unsung Symphonies is thrilled to welcome its second guest post, this time from NYU Music Professor Michael Beckerman. Professor Beckerman was kind enough to pass on to us a report he received from a Russian correspondent, Mitchell Bochermann, on the history of "side listening," which we reproduce below. Bochermann recently completed a monograph on the psychohistory of the "Love Story" theme and its use in skating competitions. We hope you enjoy his research and can report on some shadow symphonies of your own.

It was the two studies in Science and Nature that got things going. A group of Princeton scientists, all musical amateurs, claimed to find a group of shadow symphonies embedded within Beethoven’s works. Dr. Frieheer McGeer, formerly engaged with the mysterious collapse of honeybee hives throughout northwestern Europe, struck first with the following prescient comment: “If you listen in just the right way, you can hear fragments of two different symphonies within Beethoven’s Pastoral. I call these PSA and PSB and they refer to Pastoral shadows A and B.“ PSA A, according to McGeer (but later disputed in a randomized trial by Pollack and Jaystore) was actually the torso of a late Vanhal work, a programmatic overture known as “The Ambassador;” McGeer was able to tentatively (and surprisingly) identify PSB as an early Schubert piano sonatina, previously unknown. When McGeer and his other colleagues such as Ama Ada Unguent first advanced the principle of side listening it was not accepted by the majority of scholars as it is today. Using a little-known (and less well understood) homily taken from a late period lecture of Derrida now titled “The Gain and the Glance,” McGeer/Unguent theorized the existence of sonic shadows. Claiming that the ear could do precisely what the eye accomplishes in reading the so-called “Magic Eye” images, they first encountered a high level of derision, as had the Magic Eye inventors. But while the Magic Eye hid images of a mostly banal type—a chicken holding an Albanian flag or the word “Hola,”—the symphonies of Beethoven, and also several by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Brahms were discovered to hold smaller masterpieces within. And just as the validity of the Magic Eye could be proven by the agreement about what was being seen, listeners, at least most of them, rapidly became able to hear these shadow symphonies.

A personal favorite of mine is B4C4B (Brahms Fourth Symphony Chaconne Fourth Variant, B section) which contains the entire slowed down version of a Dittersdorf development section, though which one is not precisely clear. It was recently discovered that Mendelssohn “Italian” shares its Pilgrim’s March with a Czech Christmas Pastoral by Mrozek. The Mendelssohn/Mrozek is, as has been shown, the only example of a shadow symphony that contains vocal parts. Mrozek’s work was originally thought to be by Georg Zrunek, the pen name of Adam Vaclav Strcprst.

Mitchell Bochermann
Global University Site 34
Dneiper Smelting Plant
Russian Federation

Thursday, November 18, 2010

You're so 'romántica' - Chavez's Symphony No. 4

I wound up with today's symphony for the same predictable one-word reason I wind up with a lot of symphonies: Mahler. On the surface, there's very little that links Gustav Mahler and Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), the Mexican composer whose Symphony No. 4 — Sinfonía Romántica (1953) I explore here. But I'm just following in the footsteps of Leonard Bernstein, the great composer and conductor and even better expert at keeping a perfect crease.

In a concert during the New York Philharmonic's 1960 Mahler festival, Bernstein paired up this Chavez symphony with a selection of Mahler songs. Then, as today, conductors more often linked Mahler with other German-speaking composers than with Mexican modernists. In the 1950s, one of Bernstein's predecessors at the NY Phil, Bruno Walter, played a similar set of Mahler songs alongside works by Beethoven and Mozart.

But Bernstein was more likely than Walter to program Chavez during any concert, let alone during a Mahler festival. One of the many reasons for this was certainly Bernstein's interest in and awareness of new American music, broadly construed. Another may well have been the fact Bernstein and Chavez shared a close, influential friend in the outspoken American composer Aaron Copland. Copland wrote admiringly of Chavez's music; in 1941, Copland said that Chavez "succeeded in creating a music that not only is his own but is recognizably Mexican."1

I don't know if there's anything "recognizably Mexican" in the Sinfonía Romántica in particular. (It's worth noting, perhaps, that the piece was a Louisville Symphony Orchestra commission.) But we do know that Chavez was a key musical figure in Mexico — not just as a composer of seven symphonies, a number of ballets, chamber pieces, and other works, but also as a journalist and a leader of major Mexican musical institutions. And I've heard that Chavez was interested in Native American music; themes have been identified in Chavez's other works, including his Symphony No. 2, the Sinfonía India (1935-6). In a fascinating set of pre-concert lecture notes from 1960, Bernstein seemed to define Chavez's Mexicanness in the Romántica in terms of stereotypes — as a blend of Indian austerity (and here Bernstein mentioned Aztec idols) with Latin passion (and here Bernstein crossed out a passage about Spanish olive oil).

Chavez doesn't start his Sinfonía Romántica with anything Latin, Indian, Mexican, or American. Rather, the English horn presents a puzzling, tonally ambiguous melody that will resurface throughout the symphony. Across this clip (recording by Enrique Bátiz and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), but especially with the repeated short-long-long trumpet figure toward the end, I do sense the kind of starkness to which Bernstein may have been referring:

And perhaps this more flowing line is where the olive oil-like passion comes in:

But if there's anything really "romántica" about Chavez's fourth, it's probably the second movement. The first violins languidly offer the same melody the English horns started the whole symphony with, but they use it to kick off a luscious, polyphonic rhapsody for all the strings:

And this movement is all about soaring strings. For a few minutes I thought I was listening to Bruckner (thanks to the sequences and warm blankets of brass) or Mahler (because of the big leaps, high-register reaches and appoggiaturas):

But the return of woodwinds and of more complex textures jolts us back to reality at the beginning of the third movement. Our original English horn theme gets a new context, appearing here on the heels of the last movement's more playful main theme.

(And with that appearance, all you Méhul fans can credit yet another symphony to the cyclic tradition your favorite composer supposedly invented.)

Overall, the third movement brings the symphony an appropriately light, celebratory ending. It nicely contrasts with both the solemnity of the first movement and the emotional fervency of the second. But the mysterious concluding sonority creates a slightly unsettling final sensation after all the partying:

I don't know if that's a "romantic" ending to a "romantic" symphony, but it does make me crave olive oil. But I always crave olive oil, so you be the judge.

— Matthew Mugmon

1. Copland, Our New Music (1941) 205.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Slow, Sad, and Beautiful

Sad news to report -- Henryk Górecki, the Polish composer whose Second Symphony "Copernican" we've already written up, has passed away at 76 after a fight with prolonged illness. You can read more here, here, and here.

Górecki deserves a special tribute here, as somehow, against all odds, his Third Symphony "Sorrowful Songs" (1976) managed to defy the "Unsung" assumption for late 20th Century Symphonies -- the 1992 Elektra-Nonesuch recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw sold an unprecedented number of copies for a contemporary classical work, spawning 12+ rerecordings (!) and angering critics who mistook the symphony's glacial floes of grief and memory for simple monotony. All this popularity perplexed the supremely modest composer, of course. Hearing past the hype is not something we're used to asking at this blog (symphonic hype? we wish), but Górecki's Third really deserves to be heard with fresh, attentive ears.

Heartbreakingly, Gorecki never completed his Fourth Symphony, a work that was scheduled for first performance earlier this year by the London Phil, only to be cancelled because of his illness. Given that 
Górecki's compositional output slowed to a minuscule dribble in his later years, the importance of this work will be all the greater - that is if it eventually is completed by someone else and premieres posthumously (rest assured, we will cover it).

So many of 
Górecki's compositions are laments that it is almost impossible to single out a particular work to leave you with. So we'll go with the obvious choice and offer his Third. Here is the gargantuan aeolian canon based a hybrid of two Polish songs, "Oto Jesus umiera" and "Niechaj bendzie pochwalony" that grows to such an agonized climax before giving way to Upshaw's vocals on a 14th Century Polish Marian lament "O my son, beloved and chosen, Share your wounds with your mother..."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Lost" Romantic: Méhul's Fourth

Today we discuss a composer from the turn of the 19th Century whose four symphonies had until relatively recently fallen off the face of the (musical) Earth. During the Revolutionary Period, Étienne Méhul (1763-1817) was regarded as one of France's most popular and innovative composers of opera, labeled a "Romantic" in the rather early year of 1793. He was responsible for a 1790s golden age for opéras-comique with his then-inescapable historico-mythical stage works. In them, one might be struck by stylistic traits not usually found until the much later works of Richard Wagner (or at least Carl Maria von Weber): jolting modulations, a hefty orchestral role, and a thorough use of "reminiscence motifs" -- themes linked with important ideas that recur at various stages in the work. The commanding stature of his serious operas, along with a steady production of patriotic marches and choruses, led to a friendship with Napoleon himself, who commissioned works from Méhul directly. Though the popularity of his stage works waned somewhat with changes in taste after 1800, they were nonetheless highly praised by a generation of later composers, particularly Berlioz. 

Seeking to branch out into new sound worlds, Méhul set about writing a cycle of five symphonies during the Imperial Era, which otherwise boasted no significant new such works from any French composer. Orchestral culture in Paris deemed symphonies the proper province of the Germans, so that while Méhul's plunge into the genre would not have been expressly discouraged, he was swimming against the tide. Completed between 1808 and 1811, these five symphonies received quite positive reviews, but it seems that their place in posterity was damned by the barbs hurled by two influential critics, Cherubini and Fétis. The former dismissed the symphonies as musical "ephemera" while the latter sneered that they were "dry and pretentious" attempts at ersatz Haydn. (Quoted in Schwartz, 1987, 92).

Noting a debt to the Germans is indeed warranted, but the negative assessment is not. Cherubini and Fétis's vituperation seems to have been the determining factor against the dissemination of Méhul's symphonies, overcoming the sporadic revivals of his music in the 19th Century. (Schumann, after Mendelssohn performed the First Symphony, was guardedly impressed). "Stick to opera!", it seems, was the judgment history placed on Méhul. Correspondingly, the idea that there was an influential French symphonist before Berlioz sputtered and languished until very recently.(1)

In 1979, while researching Berlioz, musicologist David Charlton discovered to his astonishment the orchestral part manuscripts for the 3rd and 4th symphonies of Méhul, whose full scores had long gone missing (the 5th remains incomplete, possibly never finished). His editorial reconstructions were published in 1982 in a full volume of Méhul symphonies, and a CD recording from Nimbus Records came out seven years later with all four performed by Michel Swierczweski and the Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Now, we seem to be witnessing an upswing in the  reception of this composer, as tonight (Nov 9, 2010), the world will witness the first British performance ever of Méhul's Fourth Symphony in E Major (1810)! The work will "premier" at a concert with the Orchestra of the Enlightenment, alongside other music of Parisian vintage from Cherubini, Berlioz, and Mozart (Symphony No. 31). An article in the Telegraph by Richard Savill boldly announces to the world the importance of this event: "Lost Étienne Méhul symphony set for London premiere."

While articles trumpeting the arrival of "new" or "discovered" Classical works often are guilty of some sensationalist imprecision, Savill's article rightly points out some of the remarkable features of the Fourth Symphony. Foremost of these is the allegedly prescient use of "cyclic form," usually defined as the integration of thematic ideas across multiple movements. Journalists and musicologists alike salivate at the prospect of locating a "precedent" for some later widespread practice, and Méhul, that consummate weaver of reminiscence motifs, seems like a prime candidate for such. (and, it should be said, attendant reevaluation in history textbooks, all of which I surveyed bear scant or no mention of Méhul at all). Remarkably, the cyclical principle did not become widespread practice until quite far into the 19th Century; symphonic movements even after Berlioz's generally held their movements at arms length, thematically speaking. What has always seemed to me an obvious idea -- perhaps being raised on Dvorak's 9th will do that to you -- took an exceedingly long time to become stylistic norm.(2)

The cyclic linkage in 
Méhul's Fourth occurs between the 1st Movement's slow introduction and a leg of the 4th spasmodic Allegro theme. Beginning the 1st is a stately harmonic progression that sculpts out E-major in no big hurry.

In the 4th movement, we hear that progression and its melodic outline sped up and decorated by a swift bum-bada-bum-bum rhythm (at the very end of the clip) that courses through the entire movement -- easily the best of the four in my estimation

Certainly a clever incorporation, but not exactly the overthrowing of all symphonic shackles Savill's article makes it out to be. Frankly, I find the more compelling "cyclical" element to be the reuse of an adventurous sequence (for which Méhul had a decided knack) from 1st Movement's first subject. In the 4th movement, it comes fast on the heels of the example above, adding yet more nervous energy. It's a more abstract kind of connection than we're used to in thematic recollections, and it suggests tighter formal control than I think Méhul's critics were willing to grant him. For convenience's sake, I've merged the two instances of the sequence into one example.

There are smaller hints of recall between the two outer movements, but I feel like this connection above all "makes" the boundlessly energetic 4th movement, as if we were hearing 1st on speed. The inner movements don't participate in this game, but have remarkable components as well. The 3rd movement, totally rewritten after some critiques of the original (apparently over-contrapuntal) is a Haydnesque minuet, managing even in its stripped-down veneer to sound arch, even a bit tipsy at moments. The 2nd movement Andante is, to my ears, without precedent in terms of symphonic orchestration, consisting for 58 measures of nothing but an intensely lyrical (aria-like?) cello melody supported by bass pizzicato. And yes, that's the NPR motif appearing briefly in its second sentence (around :52).

One of the greatest pleasures of this symphony is hearing how that initially spare type of orchestration is fleshed out  as the movement progresses, as you can begin to hear at the end of the above clip. It is clear why Berlioz would cite Méhul again and again in his instrumentation treatise as a surpassingly sensitive and experimental worker of the orchestra.(3)

We await the U.K. premier of the Fourth -- ultimately it is up to the public to judge whether Méhul's symphonic oeuvre is, like Charlton says, a seismic jolt of unheard masterpieces or just another historical curiosity. To those willing to probe a little beyond the headlines, however, one will discover a wily and resourceful composer, having absorbed everything Haydn through Beethoven could teach at that moment and pushing his own limits as a composer of opera.

--Frank Lehman

1. Charlton's editions with commentary of the First Symphony and 3rd through 5th provided a great deal of the background for this post.
2. Early precedents of course exist (Matt brings up Haydn's Symphony No. 31 "Horn Signal" as one of the first, and of course we have Beethoven's 5th, written a little earlier than Méhul's 4th but basically unheard in France for several more decades)
3. Examples culled, of course, from his operas -- I found no evidence that Berlioz ever heard any of Méhul's symphonies.