Archives for April 2015

Music and the University

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Music has long held a particular pride of place as a subject of formal education in the Western tradition. Part of the “quadrivium” of the seven liberal arts, alongside arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry, already from medieval times music was part of the indispensable training in thinking, and therefore a core constituent of true philosophical education. Knowledge of music was viewed as essential to the examined and just life. It, as an art, demanded that one command knowledge of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, the “trivium” that prepared one to master music, mathematics, and science represented by the remaining four liberal arts.

In comparison to the visual arts—with the possible exception of architecture (which is often compared to music)—music has therefore been held in high esteem in the university, the academy of higher learning. In the United States, it was the first of the arts to become a permanent faculty in the university. But within the arts and sciences university the teaching of music took on a quality quite distinct from the way music was taught in conservatories, music’s institutional equivalent of an arts academy, a place where one trained in a practical manner to become an artist. In the university, music was considered a core constituent of the Humanities.

The way music became defined in the American university was nonetheless not analogous to the way art history now has a place in the curriculum. The first professorship in music within the Ivy League was at Harvard. John Knowles Paine, a fine composer of orchestral music (and an ardent critic of Wagner) was its first occupant. He taught more than music appreciation. Horatio Parker taught at Yale and Edward MacDowell at Columbia. They too were composers and major figures in American musical life. Although learning to play an instrument was looked down upon (Harvard until recently did not give credit for instruction in instruments or performance), composing new music was not. As the late Milton Babbitt (the distinguished and exacting modernist composer who served on the Princeton faculty) is supposed to have replied when asked why no credit was given towards a degree in music at Princeton for studying an instrument: “does the English department give credit for typing?”

The proper subjects of study in music within the university therefore included history, theory, and composition. But from the very start of the career of music departments in our leading universities, particularly the Ivy League, music appreciation for the non major, and the support of voluntary amateur performance organizations, from choral societies and singing clubs, to orchestras and musical theater organizations designed to offer public opportunities to students to perform, were at the heart of the place music assumed at Yale, Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, and Brown.

When we lament the decline of audiences, we often neglect to cite as a cause the sustained failure of music departments in these elite universities to maintain, after the 1960s, a once honored tradition of music appreciation. In part as a consequence of a desire to professionalize music history, the kind of sweeping and often “easy” general survey course once associated with Harvard’s G. Wallace Woodworth, Cornell’s Donald J. Grout, and Columbia’s Paul Henry Lang has vanished, and with it the chance to nurture interest among unwitting undergraduates in the joy of music. It is interesting to note that Cornell was the first American university to hire a professional musicologist (Otto Kinkeldey) and the first to grant a doctorate in composition.

The Ivy League has had its generous share of distinguished musicians from its undergraduate alumni, including Charles Ives from Yale, and Leonard Bernstein and Yo Yo Ma, both Harvard alumni (as is ASO’s longtime composer-in-residence, Richard Wilson). But each of these institutions now boasts impressive departments that give Ph.Ds in musicology, music theory, and composition. They have taken on an indispensable role in the preservation and furtherance of musical culture.

Given that an alternative model of institutionalizing the teaching of music also thrives in the United States—the conservatory—as a free standing institution (e.g. Juilliard, Curtis, the Manhattan School, the New England Conservatory), or a unit of a large state university (e.g. at Indiana and Michigan), or a separate school within a private university (e.g. Eastman at the University of Rochester, Peabody at Johns Hopkins, and for that matter, the graduate Yale School of Music), the question might be posed: what has been the impact of the teaching of composition within the university, and outside of what by comparison some might deem a “trade” school, the music conservatory.

It should be remembered that within the history of music, the institutionalized teaching has not always been viewed with approbation. The word “academic” is frequently used as a pejorative when speaking about art, including music. In Europe institutionalized teaching gained an unequal reputation, mostly as a barrier to innovation. In France, Berlioz ran afoul of institutions of formal instruction and the conservatism and moribund character of the Paris Conservatoire at mid century led to the establishment of rival institutions. In the Vienna Conservatory, Bruckner taught counterpoint, not composition; Mahler as a student failed to win the coveted Beethoven Prize for composition. History (and even the ASO) has long forgotten a long list of winners. Perhaps the most successful record in terms of conservatories with respect to nurturing composers can be found in Eastern Europe from Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In America, however, the existence of new concert and so-called “art” music in the twentieth century, particularly after World War II owes a special debt not only to the nation’s conservatories but also to the comprehensive university. Aaron Copland may have gone to Julliard, but Bernstein, Adams, Babbitt, Carter, Glass, Crumb, Husa, Krenek, Schoenberg, Sessions, Luening, Mason, Moore, Wuorinen, Hindemith, Shapey, Blackwood, Wernick, Piston, Milhaud, Richard Wilson (and all the composers on this program) as well as dozens of other major composers of the twentieth century (including Druckman, Tower, and Tsontakis at Bard) have owed either their education or a significant part of their livelihood to the faculties of arts and sciences at colleges and universities, not conservatories.

The inclusion of composition in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum of these non-conservatory institutions of higher education has fostered a closer link between new music and other disciplines, from mathematics to literature. It has helped sustain whatever broader consciousness and appreciation of music still persists in the educated public. In that regard, from the ear of Parker and Ives to today the presence of composers on the faculty has provided the amateur music groups within the university a contemporary repertoire, much in the spirit of Thompson’s Alleluia. Furthermore, the university has protected and nurtured a spirit of experimentation and the avant-garde in contemporary music. In the best sense, it has acted as a bulwark against crass commercialism. This last achievement has been accomplished in a manner complementary to a respect for music’s historical legacy, the great tradition of Western classical music.

So much for the past! Classical music, new and old, has never thrived as a business. It has been dependent on patronage from the 17th century on. It cannot compete as a dimension of the contemporary marketplace of entertainment that earns profits. In the decades ahead, the university, especially the well-endowed private universities—notably the Ivy League—will face the ever-increasing obligation to nurture, protect, and preserve a sophisticated (in the best sense) musical culture that is not commercially viable and not even popular. That protection will involve the research in and teaching of music’s past and theoretical underpinnings. It will involve also the education of future generations of composers. And it will require the support of the public performance of classical music, new and old, by amateurs and professionals alike.

A living and vibrant culture of classical music will increasingly be dependent on the university. The halls of academe will emerge as a refuge, a shield against a society increasingly governed by the rules and mores of “business.” Let us hope that those who govern our universities and those who support it will embrace that task and will prove equal to it. As the ASO joins with Cornell University to celebrate the founding of that great institution, we hope that the next 150 years will prove to be as fruitful and productive at Cornell with respect to music as the century and a half that preceded the year 2015 have been.

Randall Thompson, Alleluia

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born April 21, 1899 in New York City
Died July 9, 1984 in Cambridge, MA
Composed July 1–5, 1940
Premiered July 8, 1940, conducted by G. Wallace Woodworth, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood
Performance Time: Approximately 6 minutes
Instruments for this performance: a cappella chorus

Randall Thompson was an undergraduate and later a longtime faculty member at Harvard, but in between those stints in Cambridge, Mass., he also studied and taught elsewhere. After graduation, he worked privately with Ernest Bloch; over the years, he counted personalities as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, Frederic Rzewski, and Richard Wilson among his students.

Thompson’s most famous work is his Alleluia for a cappella chorus, written a few years before he joined the Harvard faculty. Here the composer showed that there was still plenty of great music to be written in the key of D major in 1940. But his was not the triumphant, celebratory D major of Handel’s Alleluia chorus from Messiah. In Thompson’s own words, ‟It is a slow, sad piece, and…comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‛The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”

The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Berkshire Music Center (now the Tanglewood Music Center) when it opened for the first time. Because of the war in Europe, the composer felt that a jubilant Alleluia was out of place, and composed a quiet, introspective piece, in mostly soft dynamics with only a single fortissimo outburst near the end. The harmonies are simple throughout, although some subtle chromatic inflections give the work a special flavor. The work is mostly homophonic, which makes the few contrapuntal passages all the more striking.

Written in five days at the beginning of July 1940, Alleluia was first performed on July 8, 1940 at Tanglewood, under the direction of G. Wallace Woodworth. (Affectionately known as Woody, Woodworth was a longtime professor and university organist at Harvard, where he also led the famous Glee Club for 25 years, in addition to being the director of the Radcliffe Choral Society.) To this day, Thompson’s Alleluia, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is performed at the opening of the Tanglewood Music Festival every summer.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.

Horatio Parker, Dream-King and His Love, Op. 31

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 15, 1863, in Auburndale, MA
Died December 18, 1919 in Cedarhurst, NY
Composed in 1891
Premiered March 30, 1893, at Madison Square Garden in a concert for the winners of a National Conservatory of Music competition with Parker conducting the Conservatory Chorus and Anton Seidl’s orchestra
Performance Time: Approximately 12 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle), 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and tenor soloist

Horatio Parker is mostly remembered today as Charles Ives’ teacher at Yale, yet he was an important and prolific composer in his own time. He was one of the most prominent American Romantics whose Latin oratorio, Hora novissima, was performed with great success not only in the United States but in England as well.

Parker had studied with George Chadwick in Boston and Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. Before his appointment at Yale, he briefly taught at the National Conservatory in New York under the directorship of Antonín Dvořák, and it was there that his cantata Dream-King and His Love won first prize in a composition contest, with Dvořák as the chief adjudicator.

The text of this cantata is an anonymous English translation of Traumkönig und sein Lieb by Emanuel von Geibel (1815–84), a German poet whose works were set to music by Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf (among many others). A fair maiden slumbers in her room; as she is wooed by the handsome Dream-King, the room turns into a resplendent palace where she is made Queen and receives her King’s caresses. But then, alas!, dawn breaks and the lovely vision vanishes, leaving the maiden in a state of great distress.

The cantata takes us, in quick succession, from an ordinary bedroom to a magnificent fairyland; a solemn marriage ceremony and a tender wedding night are followed by a rude awakening. The text offered Parker many opportunities for sumptuous word-painting. The lyrical scenes are accompanied by lush chromatic harmonies; the magical transformation is represented by lively rhythmic motifs and the royal wedding, appropriately, by a polonaise. The closing moment—the evanescence of the dream—is fashioned into a major dramatic climax, lest we take the story too lightly. For the Romantic imagination, where dreams are more important than the real world, and the darkness of the night preferable to the light of day (as in Tristan), the loss of such a precious moment is truly tragic. Parker captured these tragic feelings perfectly in his music, which earned great accolades at its premiere in New York on March 30, 1893.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.

George Rochberg, Symphony No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 5, 1918 in Paterson, NJ
Died May 29, 2005 in Bryn Mawr, PA
Composed 1955–56
Premiered February 26, 1959, in Cleveland by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell
Performance Time: Approximately 30 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, tenor drum, suspended cymbal, bass drum, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, gong), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

George Rochberg’s posthumously published memoirs, Five Lines, Four Spaces, open with the story of the Second Symphony and its premiere by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra on February 26, 1959. (Szell had been one of Rochberg’s teachers at the Mannes School of Music in the 1940s—another, at Curtis, was Rosario Scalero, who had also been Samuel Barber’s teacher.) The fact that the composer singled out this particular work in the first chapter of his book indicates that he considered it an important milestone in his career.

Rochberg is best known for his later break with modernism and his return to tonality after the 1960s. For many years, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where his students included Stephen Albert, Maryanne Amacher, and Stephen Hartke.

The second of Rochberg’s six symphonies is a product of the composer’s modernist period. Yet Rochberg was never the kind of modernist who would put dissonances before feelings, or experimentation before experience. In a letter to one of his closest friends, Hungarian-Canadian composer Istvan Anhalt (1919–2012), Rochberg called it a ‟compressed, hot, concentrated work,” emphasizing its strong emotional foundations.

In music composed according to the twelve-tone system, the melodies and harmonies are derived from the tone-row and its various transformations. The rhythm, the orchestration, and the overall form of the piece, however, are free for the composer to shape without any external constraints whatsoever. Rochberg’s symphony, in five movements played without a pause, is pure drama from beginning to end. A complex first movement—in turn seethingly intense and gently lyrical—is followed by a wild scherzo, a somber Adagio, and a varied recapitulation of the opening section. A slow, and rather tragic, coda ends this symphony, about which musicologist Alexander L. Ringer once wrote in The Musical Quarterly:

[It] astonishes as much by the novel sounds drawn from the traditional orchestra as by the melodic-rhythmic wealth derived from a single twelve-tone row…Rhythmically, as in the melodic realm, Rochberg has succeeded in creating the unity in variety that marks the true master.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.

Leon Kirchner, Music for Cello and Orchestra

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 24, 1919, in Brooklyn
Died September 17, 2009 in New York City
Composed in 1992
Premiered on October 16, 1992 by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by David Zinman
Performance Time: Approximately 19 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, bongos, chimes, snare drum, tenor drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, vibraphone, wood blocks, claves, temple blocks, antique cymbals, bass drum, tamtam), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and solo cello

For twenty-eight years (1961–89), Leon Kirchner—a brilliant pianist and conductor as well as composer—was professor of composition at Harvard University, where he held the chair previously occupied by Walter Piston. Arnold Schoenberg’s former student thus became the teacher of, among others, John Adams, who writes in his 2008 autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: ‟Kirchner was one of the most intuitive musicians I ever encountered…[He] could never find a way to make his own musical instincts fit into the straitjacket of a rigorous method.” Elsewhere, Adams commented: ‟What makes his music lasting in my mind are those great exploding arches of counterpoint and the erotic lushness of the harmonies.”

Both of those features are strongly in evidence in Music for Cello and Orchestra, a piece Kirchner wrote for Yo-Yo Ma, who was another former student of his. The commission came from the Philadelphia Orchestra and was underwritten by the noted homebuilder and environmental activist Maurice Barbash and his wife, the well-known New York music patron Lillian Barbash, in honor of their 40th wedding anniversary. The first performance was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra under David Zinman’s direction, with Ma as the soloist, on October 16, 1992.

Although the cello is clearly the protagonist, it is sometimes treated as part of the orchestra, or one in a group of soloists that frequently includes a solo violin. There is nearly always more than one melodic line going on at the same time, confirming Adams’ observation about Kirchner’s use of counterpoint. As far as the lush harmonies are concerned, they range from dense atonal chromaticism to unabashedly Romantic sounds that at one point evoke distinct Wagnerian memories.

These two worlds, a harsher and a gentler one, seem to be directly contrasted throughout the piece, as if engaged in a struggle for dominance. At the end, Romanticism emerges victorious with some ethereal cello harmonics to which the English horn adds one last lyrical counterpoint.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard College.

Roberto Sierra, Cantares

by Roberto Sierra

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 9, 1953 in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico
Composed in 2014–15
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbal, tamtam, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, temple blocks, marimba, güiro, glockenspiel, maracas, vibraphone, bongos, congas, claves, tom-toms), 1 piano, 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and chorus

When I was asked to write this work my initial impulse was to compose music that would evoke lost voices in time. I searched for texts that dated back in history and memory, and the inspiration for the first movement was drawn from a 17th century manuscript book of prayers that contains the hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin written in Quechua and published in 1631 in Cuzco, Peru. This early syncretic attempt is fascinating and triggered in my mind many questions about how this music may have unfolded. At the end I decided not to reconstruct the sound or the way the hymn would have been played, but rather create my own modern reflection on a beautiful text and four voice polyphony written around 400 years ago. The text combines both the ideas and concepts coming from the Quechua culture and the Christian concept of the mother of God.

Canto Lucumí traces its ancestry to Afro Cuban ritual music of West African origins. The text consists of incantations that have been phonetically transcribed into Spanish. The meaning of the words is sometimes obscure, but what really interested me was how they sounded and their fascinating rhythmic quality. The floating nature of music and the use of extended vocal techniques of sibilant noise and percussive sounds enhance the mystery already embedded in the original texts.

The orchestral interlude is a meditation on the two previous movements and brings together the intervallic structure that has dominated both the melodic and harmonic content of the work. An interval sequence of a minor third and a second is the seed that generates the musical fabric. This intervallic sequence also determines the central note for each movement. The idea of 3 and 2 also permeates the rhythmic cells used throughout the work.

In Suerte lamentosa, a 1528 poem is superimposed to another 16th century text by the Spaniard Bernal Diaz del Castillo; is the telling of tragic events that occurred during the conquest of the Aztec Empire. These narratives offer two perspectives: one from the viewpoint of the invader and another from those fighting the invasion.

Roberto Sierra is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Cornell University.