Requiem for the 20th Century

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

The second half of the 20th century, particularly in the years between 1945 and the fall of Communism in 1989, was preoccupied with a baffling and disturbing historical paradox. How was it that after a century of astounding industrial and scientific progress, accompanied by a remarkable extension of literacy and culture, the so-called civilized world beginning in 1914 (when the 19th century actually came to a close) became a theater of senseless violence and barbarism? An intolerable contradiction between the claims of civilization and culture and the political realities of the 20th century became obvious. The perhaps thoughtless expectation had been that progress, measured by education, culture, and the expansion of liberty through the abolition of slavery and serfdom and the extension of democracy, would lead to a politics of reason and tolerance, and thus the end of violent conflict. Instead, an unbroken cycle of carnage began in 1914 that peaked in 1945. That year the unambiguous revelation was made visible: that the “cultured” countries of Europe, led by Germany, had successfully exterminated well over 6 million civilians, Jews, and Roma and several ethnic and gendered minorities. A deep irony pervades the techniques used by the Nazis, which were consciously emblematic of the very progress that was supposed to lead humanity to a higher standard of civility: the spread of written language, the efficiency of bureaucracy, and the wonders of technology. During the same period, Communism, a movement committed to radical equality, became corrupted by Stalinism from within. Between the 1930s through the 1950s over 18 million Soviet citizens were eliminated. Despite its venerable culture, Japan devastated its Pacific neighbors from China to Hawaii. And China itself, under Mao, indulged in horrific purges again in the name of Communist equality. Japanese aggression and also fear of Communism led the United States to assert its dominance by deploying the most destructive device then known to humankind, sparking a nuclear contest that placed the fate of the entire species in jeopardy.

This paradox was not lost on the artists, writers, and composers who needed to confront the hypocrisy of a post-war “normalcy” after 1945. The only legitimate step toward the “normal” was the end of World War II. After its conclusion, the ethnic conflicts, the violence and inequality that festered beneath the surface for much of the 19th century, subsided briefly with attempts to resolve them. But they exploded again after 1989, as they had in the first half of the 20th century, and that legacy continues to this day. The most baffling questions facing 20th-century composers who wanted to continue to write, broadly speaking, in the cultural tradition of music of the 19th century, given the human and ethical catastrophe so starkly visible in 1945, were: how, for whom, and for what?

The venerable tradition of philosophical speculation since the 18th century that linked the beautiful to the good, aesthetics to ethics, seemed bankrupt and fraudulent. What then was the purpose of writing such music in the wake of the tragedies? For one thing, the beauty, symmetry, and harmony of classical and romantic music had been the preferred art of the oppressors and killers. Admiration of it and its practice clearly provided no insurance whatsoever for being good or at least better.

The three pieces on today’s program are brilliant examples of three very different attempts to grapple with the desperate and fundamental challenge to the vocation of music making after 1945, which was unknown to the composers who made up the canon of classical music from Bach to Mahler. The oldest work on the program, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was clearly inspired by this composer’s confrontation with World War II. Already in the 1930s, Vaughan Williams wrote a piece that can be considered a meditation on the darker forces of history: the Fourth Symphony (performed by the ASO in 2006 for a program about the impending Second World War). The First World War had a traumatic impact on Vaughan Williams, and the thought of another on the horizon was a devastating prospect. His next symphony, the pastoral, nostalgic Fifth, has been considered a bridge between his expression of fear of the future in the Fourth, and the grim realization of the return to violence in the Sixth Symphony, which we are performing in this program.

This symphony reveals a need shared by composers writing after 1945 to avoid any hint of the sentimental and the concession to easy listening. Since trivialized and commercialized attributes of beauty turned out to be collaborators with radical evil in modern times, the experience of music had to be arresting and challenging in a manner that could begin to redeem the power of musical art as a critical instrument of humanism.

The next work chronologically is Schnittke’s oratorio Nagasaki. If a legitimate debate surrounds the dropping of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, there is no comparable such question about the dropping of the second bomb: it strikes us as an entirely gratuitous act. Nagasaki was written at the height of the Cold War, a period of deep mutual suspicion between the Soviet Union and the United States, and at a moment in the 1950s when the fear of nuclear war was at its peak. Americans everywhere were building fallout shelters and school children were hiding under their desks; the prospect of an apocalypse hardly seemed remote. The mushroom cloud became the emblem of human fear, irrationality, and the instinct to self-destruct, as Stanley Kubrick so powerfully showed in Dr. Strangelove. Alfred Schnittke, arguably the greatest Russian composer after Shostakovich, created this powerful work just as he graduated from conservatory as a young man. The rebellious irony and obsession with history that characterizes Schnittke’s later and better known works suggest that in certain respects the young composer was not so far removed from the better-known mature composer, despite overt differences in style. Resistant to being anyone’s apparatchik, the young Schnittke was a natural born dissenter. Yet this oratorio also reflects the powerful idealism of a young artist eager to command the mimetic capacity of music, to capture the too easily repressed horror at the use of nuclear weapons.

The “newest” work on this program is also the most famous. György Ligeti’s Requiem became inadvertently immortalized when Stanley Kubrick (again) used it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey (along with another work from the 19th century that has, also because of this film, become ironically synonymous with images of human evolution: Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra). Schnittke’s oratorio was a product of the rather rigid and terrified 1950s. Ligeti’s music emerged from the more expansive and colorful 1960s when political utopianism and radicalism experienced a brief, intoxicating upsurge. Here is modernism at its best. Ligeti, himself a survivor of the Holocaust, understood that it was an ethical imperative to fashion music in a new way that would be adequate to contemporary life but at the same time reflective of the highest aspirations we associate with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Using the framework provided by the ritual confrontation with death and the pain not only of loss, but of survival, the Requiem is a masterpiece in which simplicity and complexity are reconciled with Ligeti’s unparalleled ear for sonorities. One has the immediate sense that Ligeti found a unique and distinctively modernist way of expressing a dimension of the human experience and condition that could only be achieved through music—and at that a music the character of which does not flinch from confronting both the horror and the hope embedded in the history of the 20th century.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 6

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 12, 1872, in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1944–47, revised in 1950
Premiered on April 21, 1948, at Royal Albert Hall in London by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult
First Recording by ASO founder Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic on February 21, 1949
Performance Time: Approximately 33 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone), 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses.

“With regard to the last movement of my No. 6, I do NOT BELIEVE IN meanings and mottoes, as you know, but I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by [sic] a sleep.’” Despite its bluster, this declaration, made in 1956, hints at an inner narrative for the Sixth Symphony that the composer was loathe to reveal. After the premiere of the score in 1948, Vaughan Williams had vehemently disputed the British music critic Frank Howes’ description of the Sixth Symphony as a “war symphony.” Like many composers, Vaughan Williams wanted to have his aesthetic cake and eat it: he did not want to dictate to his listeners, but did not wish to disguise fully that the Sixth Symphony had “extra-musical” origins. During rehearsals for the premiere, Vaughan Williams confided to the pianist and composer Howard Ferguson, “I call [the symphony] the ‘The Big Three’”—“The Big Three” being Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt meeting at Yalta in 1945.

From the mid-1930s onward, Vaughan Williams, who was a veteran of the First World War and had witnessed the horrors of the trenches at first hand, watched with foreboding as Europe descended once again into madness. A firm internationalist in politics while a cultural nationalist at home, Vaughan Williams supported ardently the Federal Union, an organization that proposed a union “of free peoples under a common government” in order to effect the “prevention of war, the creation of prosperity, and the preservation and promotion of individual liberty.” In 1936, he composed his cantata, Dona Nobis Pacem, which is at once a plea for peace and a harrowing depiction of the disruption and destruction that follows inevitably in the wake of war. Two years later, Vaughan Williams visited Germany himself to accept, after much soul-searching, the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize. He was repulsed by what he saw in Nazi Germany and attempted fruitlessly to give the prize money to the Quaker relief agency for refugees. A short while later, because of his outspokenness against fascism, Vaughan Williams’ own music was banned by the Nazis. Even before this incident in Hamburg, Vaughan Williams was assisting Jewish refugees to safety, including the distinguished composer Robert Müller-Hartman and his family. He spent countless hours helping refugees resettle in Great Britain and canvassed others for financial assistance towards this goal. Characteristically, Vaughan Williams never spoke of these activities in later years—but by the mid-30s he knew exactly what was going on in Nazi Germany. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Vaughan Williams was well aware of the price that he would pay for such activities if the Nazis succeeded in conquering Britain. (The British government supplied him and other leading anti-fascist cultural figures with pills of quick-acting poison that were to be taken if the Nazis managed to cross the channel.)

As a child of the turbulent last century, it is hardly surprising that at least four of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, the Third (1921) through the Sixth (1947), are touched by warfare in some fashion. Indeed, certain commentators have viewed the tormented and dissonant Fourth Symphony (1934) as a searing critique of the claims of nineteenth-century idealism—an idealism that failed decisively in the last century—as embodied in the triumphalism of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Vaughan Williams ironically takes Beethoven’s formal plan as a model while negating its trajectory from darkness to light: the British composer’s Fourth Symphony ends with the same howl of fury with which it began.

Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony goes even further than the Fourth in rejecting nineteenth-century symphonic rhetoric. In his Sixth Symphony, which is cast in four movements played without pause, Vaughan Williams begins with a scream of protest and ends, like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth and Mahler’s Ninth symphonies, with a somber slow movement. Unlike Tchaikovsky or Mahler, however, Vaughan Williams’ finale is far from autobiographical: it is a chillingly impersonal Epilogue for the human race. The lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (IV, i) that Vaughan Williams cited as a key to the “substance” of the fourth movement are part of a beautiful but bleak speech by Prospero that contains lines that must have seemed agonizingly pertinent at the beginning of the atomic age: “The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,/ The solemn temples, the great globe itself,/ Ye all which it inherit/Shall dissolve/And, like this insubstantial pageant faded/Leave not a rack behind.” In a choral setting of this text composed in 1951, Vaughan Williams makes the connection between these words and his symphony explicit by quoting the haunting final vacillating chords of the tenebrous Epilogue at the words “shall dissolve.”

But the finale is hardly the only movement of the Sixth Symphony to contain music that depicts the grinding force of human self-destruction. The harrowing second movement is filled with reminiscences drawn from the brutal movement entitled “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Op. 32 (1916). As Holst was his closest friend and colleague, Vaughan Williams surely knew that “Mars” had been finished immediately before the start of the First World War. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams inserted brass fanfares into the scherzo that he had used previously to depict the Nazi “Siegfried” bombers in his score for the British propaganda film, Costal Command (1942). The trio of this scherzo, with the saxophone soloist playing a diabolical riff on “Swanee River,” was inspired by the deaths of the members of a jazz band who perished in the bombing of an underground nightclub, the Café de Paris, during the Blitz. Only after suggesting the brutality of this slaughter—an incident that forms the climax of novelist Anthony Powell’s roman fleuve, A Dance to the Music of Time—the music of the scherzo dissolves into near silence as Vaughan Williams ushers his listeners into the uncanny realm of the Epilogue, a limbo in which survivors can only lament: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

György Ligeti, Requiem

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania
Died June 12, 2006, in Vienna
Composed Spring 1963–January 1965
Premiered March 14, 1965, in Stockholm by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen with soloists Liliana Poli and Barbro Ericson
Performance Time: Approximately 29 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 contrabass clarinet, 1 E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 1 bass trumpet, 1 trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, tamtam, slapstick, tambourine), 1 celesta, 1 harpsichord, 1 harp, 26 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, soprano soloist, and mezzo-soprano soloist

“One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death.” In a single eloquent but understated sentence, György Ligeti summed up the aesthetic and expressive reasons that led him to compose his Requiem. That Ligeti had close acquaintance with death is unquestioned given the circumstances of his youth. Born in Transylvania to a family at once Hungarian and Jewish, he was sent to a forced labor camp in 1944. Ligeti’s teenaged brother perished in the Mauthausen concentration camp and both of his parents were sent to Auschwitz. Astoundingly, his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti studied with Zoltàn Kodàly at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. In the midst of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Ligeti escaped to Vienna and soon made his way to Cologne, then a hotbed of the musical avant-garde. He soon tired of the unhealthy atmosphere created by his colleagues in Cologne: “There [was] a lot of political fighting because different people, like Stockhausen, like Kagel, wanted to be first.” From the time that he left Cologne to the end of his life, Ligeti eschewed all dogma as a man and as a composer. As he declared to a British interviewer in 2003, “I am extremely far away from messianic thinking.”

One of Ligeti’s towering achievements of the 1960s is his searing Requiem, which is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, double chorus and orchestra. Lasting approximately twenty-nine minutes, the Requiem was Ligeti’s most extended score to date when he completed it in 1965; the work was premiered in Stockholm on March 14th of that same year, somewhat ironically sharing the program with that hymn to nineteenth-century German idealism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As noted above, Ligeti composed his Requiem at a time when he had decisively rejected the post-war European avant-garde: communication with his listeners became of paramount importance. One result of his aesthetic volte-face is that Ligeti created a Requiem that—for all of its innovative techniques and utterly distinctive sonority—is in the grand tradition of Requiem masses by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. Ligeti does not set the Requiem mass in its totality, however, but divides the most despairing portions of the liturgical text into four movements: a sepulchral Introit, a vertiginous Kyrie, a terrifying Dies Irae, and a haunting Lacrymosa. Ligeti divides the chorus into twenty-one disparate parts, which enables him to employ in the Kyrie a technique of dense, intertwined contrapuntal strands that he called “micropolyphony.” Within the context of his Requiem, Ligeti uses “micropolyphony” to evoke a sense of communal mourning. By deploying such an unusually subdivided choral texture with breathtaking skill, Ligeti was able to conjure up the sound of a seemingly limitless number of mourners, a crowd of witnesses who keen not just for the ones who are lost, but also for themselves.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Alfred Schnittke, Nagasaki

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born Nov 24, 1934, in Engels, Russia
Died August 3, 1998, in Hamburg
Composed in 1958
Broadcast premiere in 1959 by the Moscow Radio Symphony
Public premiere on Nov 23, 2006, in Cape Town by the Cape Philharmonic conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes with soloist Hanneli Rupert
Performance Time: Approximately 37 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 4 oboes, 1 English horn, 4 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 9 French horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (triangle, wood block, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tamtam, glockenspiel, xylophone, musical saw, vibraphone, chimes), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 1 organ, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, and mezzo-soprano soloist

Alfred Schnittke’s career was surrounded by ambiguity from the start. His father, who was Jewish, was born in Frankfurt and immigrated to the Soviet Union in 1927, so that Schnittke’s name, history, and ethnicity were perceived as marginal within Soviet official circles. As Schnittke told the author Georgy Feré, “And thus we—both half-German, half-Buddhists—are like people on the sidelines.” Even his first lessons in music, which occurred in 1946 while his father was stationed in Vienna, took place outside of the Soviet orbit. Schnittke wrote later, “I felt every moment there to be a link of the historical chain; all was multi-dimensional; the past represented a world of ever-present ghosts.” For Schnittke, the shock of the past was not the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, or Tchaikovsky, but Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. This aesthetic foundation led to trouble after Schnittke’s career began in earnest, given that his models inevitably invited the charge of “formalism” from those envious of his talent.

The origin of Schnittke’s oratorio, Nagasaki, was strictly practical, as it was assigned by his teacher Evgeniy Golubev as a “graduation exercise” from the Moscow Conservatory. Golubev had suggested that his pupil set the poem “Nagasaki,” by the much-lauded “official” poet Vladimir Sofranov, who took as his subject the dropping of an atomic bomb on that Japanese city by an American warplane on August 9, 1945. In a move sure to irritate Sofranov, Schnittke excised parts of his poem while keeping its overall expressive arch from disaster to rebirth. Furthermore, Schnittke augmented Sofranov’s text with Russian translations of shorter poems by two Japanese authors, Toson Shimazaki and Eisaku Yoneda.

Schnittke completed his oratorio in 1958, graduating successfully from the Conservatory. Influenced by Shostakovich (who defended Schnittke’s score), Stravinsky, and Carl Orff, Nagasaki was, in the composer’s words, given a “first-class berating” by the Secretariat of the Union of Composers USSR in the autumn of 1958. Unexpectedly, however, Radio Moscow recorded Nagasaki in the spring of 1959; it was broadcast throughout the USSR and to Japan on August 6, 1960, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.