Surrealism and Music?: The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

This concert is designed to parallel the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of the work of René Magritte. Two principles of organization are at work: First, the listener will hear works written by Belgian, French and American composers who were contemporaries of René Magritte. Magritte, unlike Giorgio de Chirico, believed that music was an ally of surrealism. He maintained a lifelong interest in music. One of the composers represented here, André Souris, was his friend. Two of the pieces , Poulenc’s Les Biches and Edgar Varése’s Arcana, were written precisely during the years when surrealism emerged from Dadaism in France and Belgium. A third work, by Charles Koechlin,, begun in the mid 1920’s and completed more than a decade later, reflects the wide influence of surrealist aesthetics. The last piece, John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano, pays homage to the twentieth century composer whose conceptual innovations most closely parallel for music the challenge and significance of Magritte’s famous word paintings from the 1920’s and 1930’s and Magritte’s “Les Mots et les Images” (1929). In short, the listener is presented in this concert with a selection of the musical context in which Magritte worked from the mid-19920’s to the mid-1950’s.

Second, using the contemporaneity and geographic proximity of the composers on the program and their works (e.g. Brussels, Paris and New York, three cities where surrealism had a significant following) this concert seeks to explore whether there was in music a development parallel to surrealism during the first half of the twentieth century. Using Magritte as the model, can one describe and understand certain music from the same period as surrealistic in a way comparable to the way we identify surrealist writing and painting?

The irony in the hostility of French surrealism to music and André Breton’s disdain for Schopenhauer is that it would seem that music must have been a natural medium for much of surrealist ideology. Central to surrealism was the notion of an unmediated direct creative outpouring of the imagination, transcending the distinction of the conscious and the unconscious. A nearly mystical sense of unity and the belief in a higher and deeper definition of reality pervaded surrealist discourse. Surrealism sought to explode the distinction between resemblance and illusion, between the visible and the invisible. It was surrealism’s goal to transform the idea of representation and the distinction between the subjective and the objective. Surrealist artists celebrated the transcendence of apparent contradiction and sought to overcome the tyranny of reason, to unleash the atomatic and un-self-conscious dynamic of creativity. Furthermore, inspired by Freud they seized on his investigation of the unconscious within dreamwork to break out of the limitations of what appeared to be the ordinary consciousness of banal reality. The conventions of word usage, of naming perception and symbolic meaning, all underwent critical analyses and challenge.

The tradition of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics should have recommended music as an ideal vehicle for theses aspects of surrealism. As Schopenhauer and Wagner argued, music was the direct unmediated expression of the unconscious, transcending mere representation whether as a so-called abstract or absolute aesthetic medium, or as a programmatic vehicle as in opera, one which could accompany words and pictures. Music was alleged naturally to possess the direct creative force sought by surrealism. It surpassed the conventional limitations of speech and illustration; the distinctions between the real and the imaginary.

But it was not until 1946 when André Breton argued in an essay entitled “Silence Is Golden” that music can be a powerful force for the achievement of “incandescence”; that music could reveal an inner music of poetic language. He recognized music as “independent of the social and moral obligations that limit spoken and written language”.

As Breton’s 1946 essay makes clear, John Cage’s writing of the 1950’s possessed close similarities to surrealist rhetoric and strategies. Cage’s approach to the continuity of compositional process and his celebration of indeterminacy are conceptual parallels to the surrealist manifestoes of the 1920’s Cage’s most famous work 4’33” from the 1954 can be regarded as the moral equivalent to Magritte’s 1926 Ceci n’est pas une Pipe. Both Cage and Magritte attempted to penetrate the essence of silence in a revolutionary manner.

The difficulty, of course, is that music, unlike writing and painting–the most familiar surrealist media, was never constructed on an illusion of realism; on the imitation of nature, strictly considered. Even when musical realism became an accepted notion in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was clearly an artificial convention.

In the early days of Romanticism, in the writings of Jean Paul, Wackenroder and E.T.A. Hoffmann (despite the surrealist’ open disregard for these writers), music held the power which Max Ernst sought to achieve through surrealism, to turn “topsy-turvy the appearances and relationships” of reality and appearance and address the “crisis of consciousness.” Music became the instrument of the fantastic. Surrealism in painting, as Georges Hugnet argued in 1936, aimed to appeal “to the imagination and fancy” and to take “man out of himself”. Music always had the inherent capacity to link life and the dream. It was traditionally the closest to the “invisible forces” that surrealism sought to capture. Magritte’s recognition of music’s power made him an exception to his fellow surrealists. Musical symbols, particularly as evidence of the hidden, reappear throughout Magritte’s oeuvre.

One reason that surrealism is a more difficult concept in terms of twentieth-century music goes beyond the essential differences between music and the other arts. Music’s inherent non-representational artificiality became exaggerated during the first half of the twentieth century. The dominant forces of musical modernism celebrated the abstract potential of music. Surrealism was a revolutionary movement. It wanted to engender liberation from the political and spiritual evils most powerfully mirrored in the experience of World War I. But it used realist techniques so that the surface of the work could be readily approached. The concurrent musical revolutionary impulse was the embrace of an even more counterintuitive approach to writing music. The attack on the bourgeois conventions and on the status quo in music took the form of atonality, the emancipation of dissonance, the use of “raw” sounds, and the other innovation which made the smug audience uncomfortable.

This trend in modernism struck the surrealists as elitist and as a symptom of a hated art for art’s sake attitude. There were in the 1920’s, however, alternative modernist musical movements which defied the elitist and arrogant tendencies of what eventually became the “orthodox” modernism of Schoenberg and his followers. The composers represented in this concert were chosen because their music 1) suggests contemporary strategies and approaches comparable to the visual and literary surrealism of Magritte; and 2) mirrors a rebellion against the high-handed modernist conceits of musical modernism which claimed the existence of a progressive historical process in the development of musical style and 3) sought to achieve a revolutionary impact on the audience by permitting the listener an immediate access to the work in a manner comparable to the work of the surrealist painters. This required a self-conscious distancing from modern academicism and historical tradition.

Andrew Souris experimented with collage and simplicity to construct a nearly surrealist narrative. Poulenc juxtaposed identifiable fragments and used the history of music much as a painter uses recognizable images to change their significance and penetrate their meanings. Likewise, Koechlin mixed the literary and the musical and poked fun at twentieth-century modernism by constructing a surrealist musical narrative. In Souris, Poulenc and Koechlin bizarre contrasts pierce the surface of so-called reality to level more akin to the experience of dreaming. Varése’s Arcana was inspired, as Varése wrote in 1925 to his wife, by a dream sequence:

I was on a boat that was turning around and around–in the middle of the ocean–spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, very high–and on top an angel

–and the angel was you– a trumpet in each hand.

Alternating projectors of different colors: red, green yellow, blue–and you were playing Fanfare No. 1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent–blinding– you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning– and the alternation of projectors and incandescence became more frequent–intensified –and the fanfares more nervous–impatient… and then–merde–I woke up. But anyway they will be in Arcanes.

(Enclosed with this letter was the short score of Arcana.)

By use of repetition and an unusual sequence of sounds, Varése transformed musical space and obliterated the difference of musical and unmusical sound. Musical space and time became revolutionized in a way that is viscerally evident of the listener. It is as startling and unsettling as the radical canvases that Magritte painted in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Like many surrealists, Varése paid overt homage to Paracelsus and the traditions of alchemy which sought to help humankind pierce through to the ultimate unity of existence. A quote from Paracelsus stands on the head of the score of Arcana.

Last but not least, the sense of time and space and the relationship of performer and listener to the experience of music are entirely transfigured in a surrealist manner by John Cage, one of the towering figures of American Twentieth-century culture. Written when surrealism was perhaps at its peak of popularity in America, Cage’s works from the 1950’s, including the concerto, mirror the revolutionary simplicity inherent in the tradition of surrealism. The performance tonight was intended as an 80th-birthday tribute to the composer; it now must be heard as the ASO’s memorial.

It is hoped that listeners to this concert who have looked at and thought about Magritte’s paintings, can find in their response to these five works of music–spanning the time frame of most of Magritte’s career–parallels which can assist in their reflections not only on surrealism and Magritte but about twentieth-century musical modernism and the nature of music in contemporary life. Magritte and the composers on this program all sought to engender an active critical sensibility through art which ultimately could encourage a craving for unity, peacefulness, freedom, justice and creativity yet unachieved in this century.

Surreal Sounds Illicit Images

By Ellen Handler Spitz, Cornell University, Psychiatry

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Imagine silence and a cold indigo sky with a pregnant Magritte cloud that lowers over a landscape of uncanny imagery. Unpredictably, the clouds bursts. Air and space fill wit discordant sound, unintelligible words, perpetual motion that expends energy but takes objects nowhere. Torrents appear ready to cascade: slit bells and burning tubas; violins and bowties; great jagged boulders poised to smash; groaning, bleeding, falling birds; panes of splintering glass, surfaces at the point of cracking insidiously apart; melting clocks; live body parts; loaves of tooth-shattering bread. And below this eerily fertile sky, against of insipid sand, waves break incessantly, loud in their indifference.

Surrealism erupts into our space, even today so many years after its incipiency between the wars. It floods our ark of security. It retains its capacity to jar and unsettle us like an unexpected downpour, to thwart our plans and make us successively—or simultaneously—angry, irritable, bemused, by turns tolerant, even merry. The world we has always recognize shifts so that what we think ought to come next never does. We are discomforted. The art, poetry, music of Surrealism all strive not to lull but to intercept. Not to entertain but to infuriate. Not to soothe but to baffle, to goad.

And yet, the intervening time has produced ironies of its own, so that, viewing or hearing surrealism from the vantage point of the last decade of the century id also to sense a certain preciosity or false. It is to meet the absurd with the sardonic. For us today, after Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Vietnam, Cambodia, and an advanced postmodern computer/audio/video technology that alters sound and image at will, the shock value of a sewing machine meeting an umbrella on a dissecting table has decrescendoed. What remains is a strident theatricality to which we now can choose our response.

Indubitably to evoke the images of Surrealism and its disjoined history is to attend differently to its music. To that end, one straightforward way to anchor the slippery origins of the phenomenon might be to cite the appearance of Andre Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924. Breton, having grown disillusioned with Dada, the anarchic response of so many intellectuals and artist (in part) to the senseless carnage of World War I, saw the movement as capitulating gradually to institutionalism and thus sloughing off its revolutionary warhead. He felt it necessary therefore to supplant it with a notion he defined as permanently, incessantly defiant, nearly, the Surrealism which he described as beyond the control of reason, as automatic, accidental, concerned utterly with chance, nonconformity, and with the marvelous and the absurd, as, by analogy, in the domain of dreams.

Armed then with Breton’s Paris-based verbal format, Surrealism, initially a profusion of sproutings from and critiques of, Dada, advanced upon the scene of European culture. In part it can be viewed with hindsight as a prolonged but well-disguised reaction to war, smarting counterattack, a revolution against the status quo that supposedly had caused the dislocations of these artist’s youth. Politically, in the early thirties, a number of its adherents (among them, Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon) briefly espoused Communism, but Surrealist agendas meshed with other currents in European intellectual life as well, trends in contemporary philosophy and psychology, in particular, with the advent and aura of psychoanalysis, structural linguistics, phenomenology, and existentialism.

Most fascinating of all, Surrealism, with its slurring of the stops between illusion and reality, hallucination and perception, lent itself in highly differentiated ways to the diverse personalities of its cadre of devotees. Breton, for example, distrusted music, and his distaste for this art was shared by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico who said, “One never knows what music is about… There is no mystery in music…[Music] is something one takes before the meal or after, but which is not a meal itself.” Curiously, these odd sentiments may well have been acceptable to Sigmund Freud, a major font of inspiration for the Surrealists and a man who also found music the most difficult of all the arts to interpret. They were, however, utterly uncongenial to Magritte (who otherwise revered de Chirico) and to his circle of Belgian Surrealists, who printed music in their publications, used musical symbols in their paintings, and sponsored concerts. Andre Souris, composer, conductor, and member of the Brussels group, not only published with Paul Nouge, Louis Scutenaire, et al., but under their auspices performed his aleatoric music (music in which the composer intentionally leaves certain elements to chance). On Sunday evening, January 20, 1929, in fact, he conducted a concert of modernist works in a hall hung about with painted images by Magritte.

Magritte, of course, made dazzling use of musical symbols—the disembodied scroll and pegs of a violin, for example, or its strings alone, an uncanny gramophone, multitudinous spherical bells suspended in strange locations. He invented odd tubas and cut out of and into sheet music and overpainted it for his collage works. Despite the stasis and silence pervading so much of his work, moreover, the suggestion of sound if not precisely music per se is momentous: even his lifeless, sometimes mutilated, birds, betoken an absence of joy as music. He paints the crash of thunder, the thud of raindrops, the crackle of flames. And in shrill images like “The Secret Double,” where a woman’s skin is peeled away to reveal her insides filled with bells, or “The Listening Chamber,” where an enormous apple disturbingly fills an entire room, the notion Magritte conveys is that sound—musical perhaps—is absolutely primal and inescapable.

As we listen to the music of today’s concert, we may want to ask ourselves whether and how Surrealist agendas, expressed in pictures, find a specifically musical articulation. Surrealist pictures are, for example, often sophisticated, witty, and sometimes gratuitously cruel. They may elicit a jangle of pleasure and repugnance. They contest our usual modes of fitting form to content. For instance, can we hear today’s music equivalents for the way Surrealist pictures thwart ordinary relations of distance, dimensionality, scale, and inner and outer boundaries? How does this music figure in the Surrealist habit of shrinking the supposedly important while causing the insignificant, charged with sudden intense emotion, to loom large? How does the music represent and play with absurdity while conveying the anguish of loss and the ambiguities of separation.

We should remember too that the word “absurd” literally means “hard to hear.” “Surdus” in Latin is “deaf” or “unwilling to listen,” and Cicero used the expression absurde canere for “to sing jarringly, disharmoniously.” So that, perhaps to feel assaulted, to encounter a measure of disequilibrium, may be a sign that one is, in this case, truly listening! As we ponder the mix of emotional and cognitice consonances and dissonances evoked by this concert, we may, as in the best examples of Surrealist art, find ourselves brought to crises of existential malaise as well as, alternatively, to spells of antic merriment and delight, while at the same times we experience a distance inescapably imposed on us by the grim realities of our twentieth century history.

André Souris’ Collage

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

André  Souris (1890-1970) was one of this century’s most eminent Belgian musical figures. For most of his creative life he was attached to the surrealist movement. Souris was a close friend and colleague of Rene Magritte (despite periodic rifts toward the end of their careers). In 1926 Souris and a fellow Belgian, Paul Hooreman, started a quasi-surrealist journal called Musique and experimented with chance music. By 1927 both Souris and Rene Magritte collaborated with the leader of the Belgian surrealists, Paul Nouge, on the surrealist publication Adieu a Marie. As the leadership not only of Magritte and Souris but of one of Magritte’s oldest friends, the founder of the Belgian Dada and Surrealist movements, the musician E.L.T. Mesens, indicated, what distinguished the Belgian surrealists from their Persian contemporaries was a deep interest in music. Magritte’s brother Paul was a musician. The “official” photographic portrait of the Belgian Surrealists fating from 1034 included both Mesens and Souris as well as Magritte. Their main spokesman and theorist Nouge did not share André  Breton’s more classical surrealist disregard of music which Breton himself later disavowed in 1946.

Souris worked with Nouge in the theater and set many of his poems. At a concert staged by Belgian surrealists in January 1929, Nouge introduced the works by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Honegger (as well as Souris) on the program which Souris had selected. The hall was graced by twenty paintings by Magritte. In 1946, working with the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, Souris began his lone career as a film composer, writing the score for a film on the surrealist painter Paul Delvaux.

Souris’ concept of surrealism in music took the work of Satie as a starting point. He extended Satie’s effort to de-mystify music and simplify it. In 1925 Souris wrote “The coming of a new art hardly concerns us. Art has been demobilized elsewhere—one must rather live”. Souris’ conceptual effort to undermine the distinction between art and life places his work from 1920’s and 1930’s in a continuum which later would include Varese and Cage.

In the work on this program, parody, a Satie-like simplicity and nearly random linkages all can be heard. Like surrealist painters, the technique of collage—using found and banal elements in a radical extension of a practice first perfected by the cubist—is used by Souris to challenge the expectation of temporal art and structured form. In order to debunk the distinction between art and life, the contrast between concrete experience and aesthetic imagination—between intention and randomness—had to be challenged. In this work minimal textured and contrast occur in sequence, as if by spontaneous association. The music is stripped of the pretense of a formal coherence other than an apparently “automatic” association. This work, therefore sounds most like that quintessential surrealist game, the “”exquisite corpse”, in which a composition is made on a piece of folder paper by separate individuals each of whom has no idea of what the preceding person has done. The absurd and naïve (in the use of solo instruments and repetition) can be found in this work. They are cloaked behind a folk-like ordinariness and sparseness.

Souris, apart from his role in Belgian surrealism, was prolific as a theorist in the psychology and phenomenology of music, a historian (of lute tablature), a teacher, and a conductor. Particularly after 1945, despite a career as composer and conductor which took him regularly to London, Souris exerted considerable influence over the musical life of Belgium.

Charles Koechlin’s Les Bandar-Log

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was the grand old man of the French avant-garde and the unsung hero of the twentieth century French music. Koechlin’s longevity, extraordinary productivity, eclecticism and reputation as theorist and teacher (Poulenc studied counterpoint and composition with him from 1921-1924) all have failed to rescue his music from oblivion. Few Twentieth-century figures in music, however, present as fascinating and subtle a subject for exploration and rediscovery. In the context of a concert inspired by the work of a Belgian surrealist who spent almost all of his life in Belgium, it is ironic that perhaps Koechlin’s greatest triumph as a composer occurred in Brussels during the 1930’s.

In 1933 Koechlin wrote a ballet L’Errante for the “Ballet Russe,” choreographed by Balanchine with sets by the surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew. Like the surrealists, Koechlin shared sympathies with communism. In the interwar period he sought to write music for “the people”. Koechlin’s own estimate of his artistic credo revealed further similarities with surrealism. Surface style was of little concern. Rather his art was “dictated” by the interior imagination, by “intuitive power”, and by an “unpremeditated” instinct. At the same time a quite traditional sense of form emerges from his works which might be compared with the compositional and imagistic conservatism of the nearly photographic pictorialism of many surrealist painters.

As Les Bandar-Log illustrates, Koechlin possessed an uneasy relationship to musical modernism comparable to pictorial surrealism’s rejection of many modernist aesthetic strategies. It was the way in which musical elements were organized and formulated rather than the distinct originality of style which concerned Koechlin. Koechlin, like many surrealists also embraced cinema. Among his most interesting works is a work entitled Seven Stars Symphony in seven movements (entitled Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, and Charlie Chaplin).

Les Bandar-Log is part of Koechlin’s nearly lifelong effort to set Kipling’s The Jungle Book to music. It was first sketched in 1923 and written out in 1939 and orchestrated in 1940. Subtitled “Scherzo of the Monkey’s”, it is based on “Kaals Hunting” from Volume 1 of Kipling’s book. It was premiered in 1946 in Brussels and is perhaps Koechlin’s best known work. It was recorded by Antal Dorati in the mid 1960’s and used for a ballet by Anthony Tudor.

This work shares with surrealism a sharp critical intent toward assumptions of the communication of meaning through sounds, images, and words. Koechlin utilizes nearly all the stylistic elements of twentieth-century musical modernism. Taking the idea of the monkeys making sounds in the forest as his premise, Koechlin attacked the delusions and arrogant claims of twelve-tone writing, neo-classicism, polytonality and atonality. It is as if Koechlin approached this work as a surrealist painter who generates the appearance of a narrative (much in the way Magritte did in the painting entitled The Murderer Threatened from 1927) and who then inverts meanings, time and spatial relations for the viewer. Taking the ironic subject of the “primitive” monkey, Koechlin opens the work with a depiction of the “calm of the luminous morning”. This calm is interrupted by the “procedures of modern harmony”. The monkeys are vain and seek to display their “secrets”. They lurch from romanticism to neo-classicism and “pretend” to return to Back. However within this satire “there is a genuine homage to polytonal language and even to atonality”.

Koechlin, like Magritte, toyed with different styles—photographic realism, impressionism, cubism—but in the end returned to his own virtuosic vocabulary. The orchestration is splendid. Out of distorted juxtapositions and a seemingly disjointed and allusive set of episodes comes a coherent musical reconfiguration. An underlying unity is revealed through disparate parte. Despite themselves, the monkeys manage to make the forest sing. Koechlin mixes illustration with transformation, through a sequence of musical images mediated by reaction of the listener and the plot of the score (e.g., how the monkeys act and finally flee the arrival of the lords of the jungle). Musical illustration and narrative are turned on their heads through the manipulation of the modernist strategies which depict human behavior as if humans were monkeys in a jungle. A dreamlike and almost cinematic effect is achieved.

Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra

By Mark Swed

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

The piece John Cage always professed to be the favorite of all his work was his most famous and controversial score, 4’33”. Written in 1953, it calls for a performed (in the case of the premiere it was as pianist) to sit silently for the allotted time. But not only was 4’33’ Cage’s favorite piece, it was also the one he was most proud of having “composed.” As he often said, he wrote it note by note; all the noted, however, were silent.

That remark is usually taken as a joke by an irrepressibly witty man; and the piece as either a masterpiece of conceptual art or Dada, or as, itself, a joke. But, in fact, Cage was neither a conceptual artist (although he inspired the whole modern movement), a Dadaist (although he became the patron saint of the neo-Dada Fluxus movement in the 1960’s), nor really a Surrealist (although there has probably never been anything more surreal on the lyric stage than his Europeras 1 and 2, with their random arias, movements, sets, costumes, lights and even plot synopses.

Cage was completely serious in his remarks about 4’33”. He was, from the start and remained to the end of his life, what many, both of his admirers and detractor, have never fully credited him as being, a composer who really did compose note by note, however, much he expanded the definition of what the notes may be and how one might compose. And he really did compose his silent piece note by note, and the notes added up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds. He was inspired to compose it by Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings of the time, and he felt that he had done something equivalent of making a painting using only white paint.

But what are the notes of 4’33”? They are durations, rhythms that were selected by use the chance operations, in this case by using mathematical charts of durations and a complex procedure of applying the I Ching, the Chinese book of oracles, to determine the moves of the chart. And there is no better single piece than this evening’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra to understand how this can make interesting music, or how 4’33” can be music, and even why Cage would continue prolifically for nearly forty years after 4’33”, rather than find silence the end of the road.

The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra was composed two years before 4’33”, at the midpoint of the 20th century and at one of the most extraordinary transitional periods in both Cage’s career and in modern music. The young progressive postwar composers, and especially the Europeans, wanted, like just about everyone else, to rebuild the world on new principles. They wanted a music not tied to the Teutonic principles of order that had commandeered musical thinking for centuries. And they turned to Anton Webern, who wrote tiny, jewel-like pieces, made of distinct kaleidoscopic sounds. (Yes, Webern was himself a composer who came straight out of the Germanic tradition, and he became a pathetically misguided Nazi sympathizer at the end of his life. But his music really was new, and the Nazis would have none it.)

Cage, like has colleagues and friends in Europe, especially Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, admired Webern’s music. And the Concerto for Prepared Piano often sounds Webernesque in its delicacy, in the crystallization of instrumental colors and the isolation of short musical gestures. Cage, moreover, had studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, as Webern had earlier been disciple of Schoenberg in Vienna. And Cage, like Schoenberg and Webern, composed using systems. Only Cage’s systems and his intentions were entirely different.

Schoenberg’s principles of 12-tone music, which Webern expanded upon, were based primarily on harmony, and Cage always admitted that he had no feeling for harmony. It was rhythm that fascinated him. His early works of the late 1930’s and the 1940’s are primarily rhythmic music for percussion, with the composer always looking for new and usual ways to add color and variety to a percussion ensemble ( and one the typically unusual percussion instruments in the Concerto for Prepared Piano is a radio). In 1940, when asked to compose a dance piece on an African theme to be given in a theatre with only room for a piano, Cage discovered that he could turn the piano into a percussion orchestra by inserting various objects, like wood screws and clips, in between strings, and thereby invented the prepared piano.

But by the late 1940’s, Cage had reached a crisis, the only real crisis he ever had as a composer. He had been increasingly utilizing unconventional instruments, sounds and composing techniques to obtain still somewhat traditional ends, that is to express emotions in music. But he found that audiences often completely mistook expression, finding in it something he had not intended. So he felt that he had to free his music from himself, from his own likes and dislikes.

In the Concerto for Prepared Piano, Cage did this through constructing a matrix of blocks which contained what he called “pre-orchestrated combinations of sounds” and then developed a system of making moves to organize the sounds into preordained metric structures. “By making moves on the charts,” Cage wrote to Boulez, with whom he was regularly corresponding at the time, “I freed myself from what I had thought to be freedom, and which actually was only the accretion of habits and taste.”

In the first movement of the concerto, the moves are the least rigorous and only for the orchestra; the solo part is freely composed, reminiscent of his earlier prepared piano music. In the second movement, both the prepared piano and orchestra parts are taken from the charts using movements in concentric circles; here the pianist is beginning to give up personal taste. For the third movement, he created a new, more abstract chart, and employed the I Ching to determine all the material for the prepared piano and orchestra, allowing more and more silence in, and ending each rhythmic cycle in the movement with five bars of silence. The effect is as if Cage’s ego gradually fads away throughout the concerto, with silence gaining increasing impact, thus making this, perhaps, the most ethereal concerto in all the literature.

From this point on, there was never any turning back for Cage. In the more than a hundred scores he was still to write over the next four decades, he remained devoted to the I Ching, and with seemingly limitless imagination he never repeated himself, finding way after way to create a new music freed from his ego, but just about always recognizable as Cage. So in the sense that Cage wanted to set the people free, as Robert Hughes has written of the Surrealists’ intent, he was a Surrealist. And like the best Surrealists, his freedom was always the result of painstaking structure. But where Cage parted company with at least some of the Surrealists was the he wanted to find a way for art to make you free without being foolish. The Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra is a very beautiful and even touching realization of that concept.

Edgard Varése’s Arcana

By Jonathan W. Bernard, Associate Professor, University of Washington

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

In October 1925 Varese, visiting France for a few months, wrote to his wife back in New York:

The two Fanfares I dreamed—I was on a boat that was turning around and around—in the middle of the ocean—spinning around in great circles. In the distance I could see a lighthouse, a very high—and on the top an angel—and the angel was you—a trumpet in each hand. Alternating projections of different colors: red, green, yellow, blue—and you were playing Fanfare No.1, trumpet in right hand. Then suddenly the sky became incandescent—blinding—you raised your left hand to your mouth and the Fanfare 2 blared. And the boat kept turning and spinning—and the alternation of projections and incandescence became more frequent—intensified—and the fanfares more nervous—impatient…and then—merde—I woke up. But anyways they will be in Arcana.

If the composition of Arcana had begun with the effortlessness of a dream—as the musical notation accompanying this account in his letter seems to show—to continue from these initial ideas proved anything but easy. Originally intended to be ready by early 1926, so that Leopold Stokowski could consider including it in a program to be given at Carnegie Hall that spring, Arcana was not actually finished for another year after that, and during all this time Varese worked on nothing else.

For Varese, writing music was always difficult. His rejection of all compositional “systems” forced him to invent every piece essentially from scratch. Often compared his approach to that of the scientist/inventor, in fact, and referred to himself, not as a composer but (in his words) “a worker in frequencies and intensities” whose methods were scientific in spirit if not in specific procedure.

Small wonder, then, that Varese in the midst of his labors would have thought of Paracelsus, the 16th-century physician whose lifelong efforts to introduce some measure of order into the chaos that then passed for pharmacology partook of both chemistry and alchemy. For Paracelsus, the arcana were the hidden powers that “can change us, bring about transmutations, can renovate and restore us”; the specific, “immaterial talents” of substances that drive out disease. And capturing these powers in effective medicines was as much a task for magic as for experiment. Varese’s own quotation of Paracelsus on the flyleaf of his scare stands as an acknowledgement of his precedent for his own melding of art and science.

Others in the arts of the 20th century had become fascinated too with magic, superstition, and alchemy, notably the surrealist, for whom imagination, as for Varese, reigned supreme. Although it is unlikely that Varese felt much affinity with the surrealists as a group—he would have been put off by their distrust of music and their embrace of Freud, not to mention their leftist politics—it is true enough that their works and his bear many signs of their common interest. Some of these are suggested by Varese’s recounting of his dream; others are evident in the vast, phantasmagorical web of sound spun by Arcana itself, in which seeming recurrences of events previously heard often take on a distorted, even hallucinatory quality.

“Each of my works discovers its own form,” said Varese; the traditional terminology of musical form is not of much use in describing what happens in Arcana. Which is why the listener may not be prepared for the shock of the ending, truly one of the most terrifying moments in all of Varese: what might be called the “alchemical moment,” in which Varese (like Paracelsus) reaches far back before his own time, to retrieve the parallel fifths and fourths of early polyphony, before the final serious of explosions blasts the fabric of the work apart, this time for good. These dark undertones seem somehow appropriate for a piece that is in many other respects robust, “full of sun” as Varese characterized it, the crowning achievement of his most productive decade, but which immediately preceded his slow descents into the depression and creative paralysis that eventually silenced him for fifteen crucial years of his maturity.

Poulenc’s Suite from Les Biches

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Despite the fact that Andre Breton, the most prominent surrealist writer, despised Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), the great French writer and cultural personality, as a “notorious fake”, during the mid 1920’s the experimentalism of Cocteau, the composer Erik Satie and a group of young French composers who looked to Cocteau and Satie as inspirations—“Les Six” (Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, Durey and Tailleferre)—had much in common with the first wave of surrealist thinking of the 1920’s.

Cocteau admired Satie for his daring and simplicity. “Les Six” and the surrealists both rejected the pretensions of visual and musical impressionism, of Debussy and Renoir. Likewise the complex and mystifying surface of modernism, particularly in music, seemed to Cocteau and the surrealists as a continuation of an artificial, nearly Wagnerian elevation of the aesthetic over the everyday; the perpetuation of a dated dichotomy between experience and ordinary life on the one hand and imagination and art on the other. Furthermore, both groups were driven by a sense of generational revolt, a need to shock and pierce the surface of bourgeois respectability.

In 1920 Cocteau organized a “Spectacle-Concert” in Paris. This even imitated a music-hall evening. It was filled with dancing, clowns, acrobats, and theater. Cocteau sought to infuse the staid concert ritual with aspects of the séance and the circus. Popular and dance music was included alongside works by Poulenc and Milhaud. As Souris’ surrealist concert of 1929 later underscored, what avowed musical surrealists shared with Poulenc and Milhaud was an attraction to prepetition, circularity, spontaneity, playfulness and the rejection of essentially German notions of music development and progression in favor of techniques of abrupt juxtaposition and satire.

Throughout the 1920’s, however, the differences among “Les Six”, the modernist credos of Busoni and Schoenberg and the views of surrealism remained blurred. Despite an aversion to the Wagnerian ambitions of Schoenberg’s musical modernism, the surrealists, even the neo-classicists and the followers of Satie and Cocteau all shared the mantle of revolution and the desire to shock and overturn what was perceived as the tyranny and superficiality of received taste, rationality, convention, morality and consciousness. Underlying these artistic movements was, after all, profoundly critical political sensibility. Art needed to serve the transformation of the political system and cultural values and conceits which had resulted in the senseless carnage of World War I.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote Les Biches in 1923 as a ballet for Serge Diaghilev and his “Ballet Russe”. It was premiered in 1924 with sets by Marie Laurencin. The Choreography was by Nijinska. The ballet scenario was essentially surrealist in the sense that it was, in Milhaud’s words, the result of “full fantasy” unencumbered by the usual conscious effort “to describe, to suggest, to express, to comment upon”. The blurring of the distinctions between reality and imagination and between logic and fantasy was an explicit intention of Les Biches. Even its title mirrored the inextricable unity inherent in language use. The title directly exploded the surface appearance of contradiction. It refers at one and the same time to hind, the female deer, and darling. In line with the surrealists’ defense of “automatic” writing and free association, the title came to Poulenc spontaneously in a taxi. The ballet was decidedly erotic and playful.

The set of Les Biches might be compared profitably with a surrealist canvas, particularly Magritte’s Le Monde invisible/The Invisible World (1954) and La Chambre d’ecoute/The Listening Room (1952). The background was all white and the only object on stage was an enormous blue sofa. The revelation of the seemingly limited meaning of objects was achieved in the ballet through the use of the blue sofa changing character. The penetration of the distinction between the seen and the unseen and the alteration of the idea of the visible occurred through sudden changed created by turning the sofa around and using it as a mobile character. The subject of the ballet, if there was one, was sexual pleasure.

The ballet score launched Poulenc’s career. The music has been compared with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella from 1920 because of Poulenc’s evident use of 18th-and early 19th-century musical forms and gestures. The work is a suite of events It presents a mix of styles, parody, rapid contrast, interpolations of jazz elements, allusions to the past, and clear appropriations. Like pictorial surrealism, it avoided a modernist surface. Rather it used easily grasped musical events—the simple and familiar—in order to jettison established associations between music and experience. The work is like a surrealist word-game which employs recognizable musical images in humorous but provocative and psychologically penetrating ways. Cocteau noted, “I doubt whether this music knows it hurts”. As in surrealist painting there is, as Nancy Perloff has observed, a “tragic sound lurking beneath the tuneful surface”. In 1939, Poulenc reorchestrated the ballet and produced the orchestral suite performed in this concert.

Magritte, About the Exhibition at the Museum

By Elyse Topalian, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Written for the concert Surrealism and Music? The Musical World Around René Magritte, 1930-1975 performed on Nov 13, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

The surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967) once said that he painted to evoke the mysteries of the world. His work, on view in a major retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 22, are filled with familiar images in contexts that confound and perplex – businessmen raining down from a gray morning sky, a giant apple that inhabits an entire room, an idyllic landscape with a boulder in place of a cloud, a black locomotive bursting forth from the interior of a fireplace. These “painted dreams” are often disquieting, always witty, summoning up through their bizarre conjunctions ambiguous or alternative realities. Conjurer though he was, Magritte also reminds us of the limitations of canvas and paint, as in his image of a pipe, which he labeled with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe.”

Despite the themes in his art, Magritte lived a life that was almost startlingly proper and uneventful. With the exception of a few years in Paris in the late 1920’s – when he came under the influence of such artists as Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro, and then joined up with the surrealists – Magritte lived most of his life in his native Belgium. Often bowler-hatted like many of the men in his paintings, he made a habit of painting in his dining room and then clearing his paints away in the evenings before dinner. Magritte supported himself, his art, and his wife through the 1940’s by working as a commercial graphic artist, and in the late 1950’s finally achieved international recognition and financial success as an artist.

During the past three decades, Magritte’s images and ideas have been borrowed and appropriated to such a degree in art and popular culture that many of his admirers do not even know him by name. We see Magritte whenever we look at the CBS television logo (an adaption of the eye in The False Mirror) or at the apple on the Beatles album; and we see his influence in the work of countless artists, from Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg to Saul Steinberg and emerging artists like Robert Gober. The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum takes viewers back to the source of these inspirations, to the unadulterated, fantastic vision of an artist who created some of the most memorable and important art icons of our century.