Icare (1952)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Was Igor Markevitch himself Icarus? Irresistibly evoking the legend of the young pioneer who flew too near the sun, Markevitch’s composing career looks in hindsight very much like a prematurely concluded flight, bold in conception and dazzling in achievement, after which everything else in his life ranks as anticlimax. The parallel can be continued, however, only if we imagine Icarus managing an emergency landing and devoting himself thereafter to airport management or air traffic control.

Born in Kiev in 1912, Markevitch was taken to live in Paris in 1914 and in Switzerland two years later. Returning to Paris in 1926 to join Alfred Cortot’s piano class at the École Normale, he also studied with Nadia Boulanger, though by her own testimony “he knew the secrets of counterpoint before he was born.” He graduated at sixteen, and was soon taken under Serge Diaghilev’s wing–”I was his last discovery,” he recalled years later.

The last original composition in an output of over twenty works was completed when Markevitch was 29. (The 1943 Icare is a recomposition of L’Envol d’Icare, written eleven years before.) Emerging from World War II service with the Italian Resistance, he seems to have concluded that music had moved in directions that no longer stimulated the composer in him. Suppressing his output, he turned thereafter to conducting and musicology. Only a few isolated performances, such as Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 Icare with the New York Philharmonic, bridge the gap until 1979, when he decided to allow publication of his oeuvre by Boosey & Hawkes. In recent months the first three discs in a Marco Polo series of the complete orchestral music, conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, have made a considerable impact, the first volume actually garnering a Grammy nomination for “Best Orchestral Performance.” Finally, it seems, Markevitch’s time has come.

It is hard to imagine how a composer in his twenties–known as a composer to a mere handful of music-lovers today–could have been a dominant figure in a decade like the 1930s: other such Boulangerie alumni as Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Jean Françaix were getting into their creative stride, while Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Schoenberg were already in their prime. Yet Bartók himself, three decades Markevitch’s senior and hardly a man given to extravagant praise of colleagues, wrote to the 20-year-old composer after the premiere of L’Envol d’Icare: “You are the most striking personality in contemporary music, and I am delighted, Sir, to profit from your influence.”

What, then, is Markevitch’s long-disregarded music actually like? The sheer sound of it is unique. He uses the orchestra with thrilling virtuosity,treating all its instruments with a freedom and imagination that place him among the greatest orchestrators in the history of the craft. Trumpets are as likely to carry a Markevitch melody as horns; the percussion section is used, notas a mechanism, but like the heartbeat in a natural organism. A 1930s critic described him as “un mystique sec.” Certainly his art is mystical, and certainly its vigor and clarity are diametrically opposed to mysticism’s usually vague and wispy image.

Like many great artists Markevitch the composer is a creature of contradictions. So was Markevitch the man. Working for Boosey & Hawkes in the early 1980s, I got to know him well. I have known musicians who were monsters of egotism and others who were marvels of sensitivity to other people’s feelings and needs. He, in perhaps unique measure, was both. The combination made for a fascinating human being. And the blend of passion and asceticism–of fire and ice–is another combination of opposites that stands at the root of his equally fascinating music.

Orchestral Variantions (1957)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If Nadia Boulanger became famous for teaching American composers, one of her first remained her most famous: Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Copland, who sailed to France to study with her in 1921, said of her later, “Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky, and knew it cold.”

In hindsight, it could be said that there are two Aaron Coplands. One, of course, is the composer of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid, the most popular composer in American history and for many the very symbol of an American classical symphonic music. The other is a modernist composer of thorny, somewhat atonal and dissonant works that span his entire career, from his shocking Piano Concerto of the 1920s to flirtations with European twelve-tone technique such as Connotations and Inscape. The second Copland is almost unknown to general audiences, as obscure as Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and many another craftsman better known within academia than to the public. The exception to this, however, may be Copland’s Piano Variations of 1930, which, despite their rigor and austerity, have nevertheless enjoyed a reputation as one of the first great works in the American piano repertoire.

This may be why, in 1957, after Copland had left his accessible Americana style behind and was working within a more challenging and European-influenced idiom, he returned to the Piano Variations he had written twenty-seven years earlier and orchestrated them as the Orchestra Variations of the present concert. In certain respects the decision was an odd one, for the Piano Variations were striking for their idiomatic pianism. The piece’s opening gesture relies on an effect almost unknown in previous piano music: a low C sharp is held silently, and other notes are struck sharply to make the C sharp ring via sympathetic vibrations. In the Orchestra Variations, that C sharp is held softly by a horn after a clangor of brass and percussion. And yet the orchestration possesses its own idiomatic pleasures, and no commentator on the Orchestra Variations has failed to note how well the new work achieves its own personality.

Formally, the orchestral work sticks closely to the original; only in a few places are extra contrapuntal lines added, and complex meters rebarred for easier ensemble performance. There are twenty variations, and although Copland later stated that they were meant to be cumulative in effect, he also admitted that he wrote them without knowing what order he would eventually place them in. Every one of them spins off from a four-note motive: E C E-flat C-sharp. After a flute and oboe duet in Variation XI, Variation XII begins the build to the closing climax, the final variation breaking into a kind of Stravinskian ragtime that is part of the Boulanger legacy.

D’un matin du printemps (1918)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Nadia Boulanger’s life was one lived surrounded by composers. Arguably, the most crucial composer in her life was her younger sister Lili, with whom her relationship was fraught with guilt, envy, and love. Six years older than Lili and a tireless worker who demanded perfection from herself, Nadia watched her younger sister excel in music more easily than she had. Where Nadia had a cold demeanor and put people off, Lili had an easy grace and more feminine air, and when Lili became, at age nineteen, the first woman composer to win France’s distinguished Prix de Rome for composition, she attracted national press attention in a way that Nadia never would.

Yet Lili Boulanger was a sickly child, and by age three had developed what was then called intestinal tuberculosis–now called Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis–that doomed her to a fragile life of ill health. With the onset of World War I, both sisters volunteered for war work, and the effort helped wreck Lili’s health. She died a few months short of her twenty-fifth birthday, mourned by musical France, and Nadia never composed again.

In her brief life, Lili Boulanger wrote more than fifty works, ranging from choral pieces such as Pie Jesu (played at her funeral) and the grand Du Fond de l’Abime to a number of brief chamber pieces popular today. D’un Soir Triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de Printemps (Of a Spring Morning), traditionally paired together, are orchestral versions of such chamber works, the first also existing in a version for cello and piano, the latter originally a sprightly duet for flute and piano. That they belong together is obvious from the opening motives, which though contrasting in speed are nearly identical in melody, beginning with a dotted-note motive E-G-E-D-E. The Sad Evening is worked out in bittersweet harmonies with Debussyan parallelisms, the Spring Morning in a flightier idiom of quickly changing keys; both are heavily modal. Dating from 1918, these are the last works that Boulanger was healthy enough to copy out herself, and even so, dynamics and expression markings were filled in by her sister.

Nadia Boulanger: Teacher of the Century

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Nadia Boulanger: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

If one imagines a history of twentieth-century music written around 1970, one would assume that such a history would describe twentieth-century musical modernism as a phenomenon shaped by two dominant and somewhat opposing figures: Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Both men might be legitimately charged with an egocentrism that made them consciously present themselves as the founders of modernist traditions. Throughout his career, Schoenberg maintained a powerful role as a teacher, but for all his irrepressible tendency toward authoritarianism, he was generous in giving his time to younger colleagues (such as Alban Berg or John Cage), particularly those eager to follow in the master’s footsteps. In marked contrast, Stravinsky never taught in the formal sense. Nevertheless his work and aesthetic outlook became the impetus for a school of composition which seemed explicitly to compete with the tradition that Schoenberg sought to create. Writing at the end of his life from Los Angeles in 1949, Schoenberg noted that American music was in the first instance characterized by apathy and a “commercial racket.” But he then commented that “there is a great activity on the part of American composers, la Boulanger’s pupils, the imitators of Stravinsky…they have taken over American musical life, lock, stock, and barrel…”

The individual whom Schoenberg mentioned so derisively was Nadia Boulanger. It would be hard to imagine a more charismatic and forceful personality in the history of twentieth-century music than Boulanger. She began her career as a composer studying under Fauré, but eventually turned to performance in keyboard (she also studied with Charles Marie Widor) and conducting. She was central to the rebirth of public performances of pre-classical music during the first part of this century, particularly music from the Renaissance and Baroque. Boulanger’s first performance in the United States was as the organist in the premiere of the Symphony for Organ by her most famous pupil, Aaron Copland. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct the major symphony orchestras in the United States. One of her last appearances was here in New York with the New York Philharmonic in 1962, when she conducted works by her sister and the Fauré Requiem. With characteristic elegance and generosity, she dedicated the Sunday afternoon performance to the memory of Bruno Walter, who had died the night before.

Boulanger first gained a reputation as a teacher at the Ecole Normale. From 1920 on, she was on the faculty of the American Conservatory at Fontainbleu. During World War II, she taught in the United States. Boulanger’s teaching was firmly rooted in her allegiance to Stravinsky (whose Dumbarton Oaks Concerto she premiered). Before World War II, she had already become the teacher of choice for aspiring composers. In addition to those on tonight’s program, her pupils included Jean Francaix and the Americans Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Elliot Carter, David Diamond, Walter Piston, Louise Talma, Elie Siegmeister, and Marc Blitzstein.

The history of modernism in America across all the disciplines is rooted in the confrontation between nativism and Europe’s pervasive influence. The iconoclasm of Charles Ives and the experimentalism of Henry Cowell were self-assertive reactions to the continued dependence of Americans on European models. In the 1920s, Paris became a veritable Mecca for painters and writers as well as musicians. In the United States, the role played during the 1930s and 1940s by such towering émigré figures as Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, and Ernst Bloch produced an American following for German and Austrian innovations.

Apart from the specific history of European influences transmitted through teachers in this century, when we consider the influence of teachers in general terms, we try to understand the degree to which the student assimilates the ideas and perspectives that have been taught, as well as the process through which an independent identity is forged. Haydn’s reputation as a teacher of Beethoven is well known, but what precisely did Beethoven learn from that experience? Certainly Thomas Attwood actually studied with Mozart, but in the end to what effect? Schoenberg’s influence on Berg and Webern is unmistakable, but how do we assess shared influence in the context of the striking differentiation of style and ambition? In the case of American musical modernism, however, we also confront the larger question of nationalist cultural ambition. Why did so many quintessentially American-sounding composers emerge from the classroom of Nadia Boulanger?

Perhaps the answer lies partially in Boulanger’s pedagogical approach, which may contains some ironic clues on the matter of influence. Can one speak of a uniform impact on Boulanger’s students, particularly the American ones? The disciplined modernist Neoclassicism with which Boulanger was associated did result, one might argue, in an American school of which Aaron Copland was the most elegant exponent. However the orchestral version of the Piano Variations on tonight’s program comes from a period of Copland’s music which predates the era of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and the Third Symphony, works which have in whole or part become emblematic of Copland’s musical rhetoric. Boulanger’s teaching in the case of many of her American pupils inspired compositional strategies which tolerated a more conservative, accessible style and ones which lent themselves to narrative and dramatic uses related to the stage and film. But when one considers the work of Elliott Carter, for instance, one would be hard-pressed to find an overriding common thread in the music of Boulanger’s American pupils.

We might therefore conclude that what made Boulanger a great and magnetic teacher not only for a cadre of famous composers but for many other distinguished musicians who studied with her was less the imposition of an aesthetic than the transmission of discipline and the encouragement of individuality. Indeed, the sheer range of her pupils’ styles and development is astonishing. Perhaps it was her decision to abandon her own compositional aspirations that allowed her avoid competition or impose her will on her pupils or, as in the case of Schoenberg, to experience jealousy and resentment regarding the creative success of her students. The one common element she shared with Schoenberg, however, was an abiding and imaginative interest in the history of music. Schoenberg’s attention as a teacher was focused on Mozart and Brahms; Boulanger introduced her students to the wonders of Monteverdi and Gesualdo.

Nadia was not entirely immune to competition, at least as far as Lili Boulanger, her younger sister, was concerned. But perhaps no where else are the personal qualities that made her a great teacher more in evidence than in that relationship, for her career demonstrates any sibling rivalry Nadia may have felt was eclipsed by her recognition and nurturing of Lili’s prodigious talent. That the music of Lili Boulanger remains in the repertoire is very much a result of the advocacy of her elder sister, who was Lili’s first and perhaps most influential teacher. The person closest to Boulanger after her sister on tonight’s program was no doubt Copland, whose career she helped to launch. Easley Blackwood, whose sixty-fifth birthday is celebrated this year, may be a figure less familiar to audiences in New York, but inhabitants of the second city, Chicago, are far more familiar with his music. In addition his compositional achievements, Blackwood is a formidable pianist; his performances of Ives’s Concord Sonata and Boulez’s Second Sonata are legendary. In addition to his First Symphony, another early work, the Chamber Symphony, Op. 2 (bearing the influence of his other famous teacher, Paul Hindemith) is a remarkable achievement, all the more so given the youth of the composer. In recent years, Blackwood has turned his attention to music written on the basis of a microtonal system of tuning.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures on tonight’s program is Igor Markevitch, best known among music lovers as an extraordinary conductor and teacher of conducting. As the Icare on tonight’s program hints, among Markevitch’s most celebrated achievements as a conductor were his performances of Stravinsky. His output as a composer was limited; like Gustav Mahler, his primary identity during his lifetime was as a conductor, especially in Stockholm, Montreal, Havana, and Paris. He shared with Boulanger a background in the French-Russian traditions of twentieth-century music. Not surprisingly, Markevitch was an enthusiastic exponent of twentieth-century music and was responsible for the first recordings of the music of Lili Boulanger.

Though there may not be much commonality in the compositional achievements of Boulanger’s students as represented on tonight’s program, there is one important characteristic that they do share, wherein perhaps lies Boulanger’s finest legacy. Blackwood, Copland and Markevitch showed early on a profound commitment themselves to teaching others. Too often in this century, individuals of enormous talent who have taken the vocation as a “creative artist,” whether in the visual or the performing arts, have developed a contempt for the role of the teacher. It is an idiotic adage that “those who can do; those who can’t teach.” By this logic, the truly successful artist should not have to teach, engendering a sense of superiority and suspicion about those who do. In the history of music especially, this attitude cannot claim an honorable historical tradition. The list of great composers who taught with enthusiasm is probably longer than the list of composers who shunned teaching as beneath their dignity. Nadia Boulanger evidently demonstrated to her pupils not only that a first-class, demanding and genuinely supportive teacher is indispensable to artistic development, but that being such a person for others can also be rewarding. In 1958, the year following his three years of study with Boulanger, Blackwood accepted a position at the University of Chicago where he has been a powerful force for the past forty-one years. Copland served as chair of the faculty at the Berkshire Music Center for twenty-five years. The inestimable contribution of Tanglewood to American music has much to do with Copland’s influence. Markevitch’s achievements in the instruction of conducting nearly matched his renown as a conductor, and exceeded his success as a composer. It is only recently that his compositions have begun to attract their deserved attention. Perhaps Lili Boulanger would have demonstrated a similar commitment had she not died at so tragically young an age. Therefore this concert might well be viewed not only as a recognition of the most successful and influential music teacher of the century, but also an acknowledgement of her triumph in communicating the significance of teaching in itself to her own pupils. We celebrate not only the continuing tradition of twentieth-century music-making but also of music-teaching: a crucial synthesis of the continuance of traditions with the will to innovation.

Symphony No. 1, Op. 3 (1958)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Easley Blackwood has been associated with the University of Chicago for over three decades, and is also a phenomenal pianist, known for his performances of Ives’s Concord Sonata, as well as for repertoire by more obscure composers such as Casella and Szymanowski. He studied with Boulanger, and wrote his First Symphony in 1955 while still in Paris, very much under her influence. The Symphony has much that is French about it, notably the recurrence of material from one movement to another: a cyclic tendency found in works by Franck, Saint-Saëns, and other French symphonists. Here, the primary recurring element is a three-note motive C-E flat-D, first heard when the strings enter during the introduction, and found in many of the themes.

The first movement’s slow introduction pounds out, in the brass section, motives from which the movement will grow. Following the initial allegro outburst comes a rather languid oboe solo as second theme; Blackwood oversimplifies when he states that it is in A major, for its reliance on the chromatic opening motives (notably major and minor thirds in forms such as E-G-E flat) obscures the key. The andante comodo is almost impressionistic, its tonality blurred by major-minor thirds up until the sweet B-flat major ending, and its series of wind-instrument solos reminiscent of the slow movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. As third movement Blackwood writes an almost conventional scherzo with trio. The outer parts are variations on an angular theme first given by solo clarinet; the trio starts with solo horn and is based on the three-note motive of the first movement, treated canonically. (Of the symphony’s many internal canons, this is the most obvious.) The finale, though referred to by the composer as a variation of the first movement, is much milder. Often alternating between two seventh chords (major and half-diminished), it dies away surprisingly quickly after a low-key climax.

Though not acerbically dissonant by recent standards, Blackwood’s First Symphony is a product of his youthful modernism. By his own admission, his style became considerably more conservative after 1980, to the point that he has sometimes (as in his Cello Sonata) written “postmodernistically” in a deliberate nineteenth-century idiom.

Nadia Boulanger

05/13/1998 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes