Ballet mécanique, Buried Alive, Ulysses

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert James Joyce, performed on Oct 6, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

GEORGE ANTHEIL (1900–1959)
Ballet mécanique (1953 version)

OTHMAR SCHOECK (1886–1957)
Lebendig begraben (“Buried Alive”), Op. 40 (1926) U.S. Premiere

MÁTYÁS SEIBER (1905–1960)
Ulysses (1947) U.S. Premiere

Among the most musical of writers, Joyce, whose light tenor voice might have made him a career, was concerned that his words should sing, in prose as much as poetry. This inner music has commended his work to song composers from Samuel Barber to David Del Tredici and beyond, while his radical musicalization of literary form and language made him a totem to avant-garde composers of the generation of John Cage and Luciano Berio. Little of this would have pleased him. His musical tastes, exclusively vocal, ran from Elizabethan lute songs to the opera arias and parlor ballads beloved of recitalists, and extended very little into the twentieth century. Nevertheless, he did make connections with the first two of this evening’s composers. The third, with a vivid musical realization of his central book, completes this portrait of the artist as a musical man.

George Antheil was the first composer (of many) to dream of making an opera out of Ulysses. He arrived in Paris from New York in 1923 and took an apartment over the bookstore run by Sylvia Beach, who had published Joyce’s novel the year before. That location gave him entry to the city’s artistic milieu, which was ready to listen to a cocksure young revolutionary with charm. He became Ezra Pound’s pet musician, meanwhile planning a Ulysses opera based on the “Cyclops” episode, a venture Joyce seems to have condoned but not assisted. Only three measures were written down: a disproportionate fragment given the scale on which Antheil intended to write, for an ensemble including sixteen player pianos and other futurist equipment. Our best guess as to how the opera would have sounded must therefore come from the big project for similar forces he did achieve at the time, the Ballet mécanique.

This is not so much a musical work as a phenomenon. The original scheme was that Antheil’s piece should be performed in conjunction with footage the art-film pioneer Dudley Murphy, another American in Paris, put together in collaboration with Fernand Léger. However, the two components were created independently, and the score turned out to be twice as long as the film, which was shown by itself in 1924. There was also the problem of how to synchronize sixteen player pianos. Accordingly, Antheil revised the first half of his score for a more practical setup, with all but one of the player pianos replaced by regular pianists, and this version was performed in Paris in 1926 and here at Carnegie Hall the next year. Though Antheil made a third, trimmer version in 1953, there was no further performance until 1989. Since then, the first version has been performed with digital help, and all three have been recorded, as has a realization of the score accompanying the film (on the DVD Bad Boy Made Good).

Our performance—without the film, but then the orchestra will produce enough visual stimulus—is of the 1953 revision, which is scored for four pianos, two xylophones, glockenspiel, other percussion, timpani, two electric bells, and two airplane propellers, all playing for 15 minutes or so. Antheil idolized Stravinsky, and had reached Paris in time to catch the first performance of Les Noces, as you will hear. In a note he wrote after his ultimate reworking, he spoke of how the music is governed not by harmony, as traditionally in western music, but by the ‘time-space’ principle (that is, by pulse and ostinato), working through the numbers from two to eight and back again. He suggested, too, that his composition expresses “the barbaric and mystic splendor of modern civilization; mathematics of the universe in which the abstraction of ‘the human soul’ lives.” “More locally,” he went on, “the first ‘theme’ may be considered that of mechanical scientific civilization; the second and third barbaric ones.” How such a style could have worked with Joyce’s richly referential, sophisticated and yet colloquial text remains an enigma.

Joyce seems to have had more contact with composers in Zurich than in Paris. Residing there during World War I, he became acquainted with Busoni and with Busoni’s teenage U.S. student Otto Luening. He returned to the city several times for medical treatment, and it was there that he died. On one of his return visits, in 1935, he was impressed by a performance of Othmar Schoeck’s Lebendig begraben (Buried Alive) and translated one of its poems, by the Swiss writer Gottfried Keller (1819–90). That translation, included in this program, was soon set by Barber.

It may seem ironic that one of the great modernist writers should have fastened on a composer generally regarded as conservative, but only if we forget that people — even modernists — are complex creatures, and that Schoeck’s conservatism can be overstated. We can hear reverberations from Wagner in Lebendig begraben, but we can hear, too, a highly refined orchestral style and a deep sense of unease. Schoeck wrote the 40-minute score in 1926, immediately after what may be his greatest opera, Penthesilea, based on Kleist’s play. Keller and Kleist both were aware of murmurings below the language they were using, and Schoeck followed them in this. The grand Romantic dream of unfettered expression has turned into a sullen nightmare or a Frankensteinian monster; the work of art turns out to have purposes of its own, and is prepared for the darkest consequences. It is not safely buried, but speaks.

Lebendig begraben, which plays continuously, is more concert monodrama than song cycle, carrying the soloist through episodes of recitative and lyricism, and rising at times to a passionate vehemence. The orchestration gathers gloom from the prominence of low reeds and strings, horns, and organ, and rich depth from the frequent division of the strings into eight parts or more, but is astonishingly varied. Among many passages to be noted are the opening of the fifth poem, with its orchestra of reeds, muted brass and low strings; that of the seventh, having bell sounds from piano, harp, and tam tam; the whole of the eighth (the one Joyce translated), supported just by piano, organ, and bass drum with brass and string soloists; the next, brilliant with high piano and celesta joined by harmonics from strings and harp; and the start of the twelfth, featuring just celesta and high violins. The outer sections, more fully scored, are no less fascinatingly colored.

Joyce in Zurich and Paris (and earlier in Trieste) was an exile by choice; Mátyás Seiber, a Hungarian Jew who was working in Frankfurt when Hitler came to power, was obliged to leave, and settled in England, where he lived as a teacher and composer ready for anything: string quartets, film scores, popular songs. The 50-minute Ulysses (1946–7) is one of his biggest works, though it draws on only a tiny part of the novel, from the middle of the penultimate chapter, the “Ithaca” episode, where the meeting of Bloom (Ulysses) and Stephen (Telemachus) is conveyed in a sequence of questions and answers. The passage that seized Seiber’s imagination is that where the two men go out into Bloom’s garden to contemplate “the heaventree of stars,” to quote from the first of the five question-answer pairs set in the five movements.

As an admirer of Bartók and Schoenberg (though taught by neither), Seiber was alert to the possibilities of germinal motifs, and Ulysses does much with the three-note idea played on cellos and basses right at the start, consisting of a rise through a major third followed by a fall to the minor—an idea that may have been sparked by a portion of the text he omitted: “And the problem of possible redemption? The major was proved by the minor.”

The first movement establishes the pattern of tenor soloist alternating with chorus—a pattern that recalls, and perhaps was meant to recall, the Passions of Bach. Seiber’s liking for Baroque forms and figures reinforces the relationship. The “answer” section of the second movement is set as a passacaglia that incorporates a fugue, allegro vigoroso, for the words “of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules,” and ends with a quiet coda. Conversely, the third movement is a lively choral fugue in 6/8, on a subject that extends the basic motif to make a twelve-note row, broken by a contemplation for the soloist. The fourth movement, a “Nocturne-Intermezzo” marked “Hommage à Schoenberg,” is derived from two chords out of that composer’s piano piece Op. 19 No. 1, and the finale aptly returns to the heaventree music of the opening, starting with more twelve-tone fugal writing, for solo strings, on a different row developed from the three-note idea.

Joyce’s parade of astronomical and geological knowledge in the “Ithaca” episode is, deliberately, a little absurd. Seiber’s music, however, hears only the wonder.

Paul Griffiths, ©2010, all rights reserved.
Mr. Griffiths has written extensively on 20th-century music, and has served as music critic at The Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His books include A Concise History of Modern Music and the novel Myself and Marco Polo.