Swiss Accounts

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Switzerland’s place in modern history has been exceptional. The nature of that exceptionalism has shifted its character depending on one’s point of view as framed by the historical moment. For example, what is most striking today about the Swiss is their apparent capacity to live in tolerable harmony (albeit not closeness) with one another despite sharp differences in language and religion. Its seems nothing short of miraculous that at a moment when ethnic and religious strife are obsessive barriers to peace in other parts of the world, in Switzerland Catholics and Protestants, Italians and Germans and French, and small communities high up in the mountains who speak the dying and arcane language of Romanche, all manage to maintain a federal democratic republic, transact business, sport a thriving tourist trade, and provide for their fellow citizens sufficiently to avoid extreme poverty and social degradation.

Indeed Switzerland has often been touted as an example of a type of democracy that we might well look at more closely as worthy of emulation. In retrospect one may have wished for the possibility of a Swiss-style solution in former Yugoslavia. That solution involves much greater autonomy for constituent states (the Swiss cantons) and therefore a much weaker federal government. Currently, it may be that Spain is moving toward a Swiss-style federal democracy, in which regions have vast self-governance compared to the American states.

But the multi-ethnic and multi-religious stable little miracle that is Switzerland has its own problems, limitations, and tensions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau idealized his native Geneva and took his place in history as a French philosopher. He was one of many French Swiss figures whose connection to France was far deeper than it was to German Switzerland, that is, to his own countrymen (toward whom many French Swiss have ambivalent feelings). By the same token, among the greatest of nineteenth-century Swiss writers was Gottfried Keller, a major figure in German literature. Of the three major regions of Switzerland, the Italian Swiss have enjoyed comparatively less affluence and prominence. The German Swiss portion has always vied with the French portion for industrial and economic dominance. Although the French Swiss made their mark in the watch-making industry, in finance, and in pharmaceuticals for example, it was the German Swiss, and primarily the radical Protestant Swiss, that advanced in industrial Europe. It is no accident that the MIT or CalTech of Europe is the ETH in Zurich, whose alumni include Albert Einstein. Many of the greatest Swiss, because of the small and insular character of the nation, have made their careers abroad. There are probably more Swiss living outside of Switzerland than within it. Honegger lived most of his life in Paris, and Martin spent considerable time in the Netherlands. Of the composers on today’s concert, only Othmar Schoeck stayed at home.

The Swiss are also historically famous for their hospitality because of their role as innovators in the business of tourism; Switzerland’s reputation as a resort destination has much to do with its mountains, lakes, and legendary scenery. All three Switzerlands participate in this. The Swiss landscape with its sublime mountains and lakes, is also the setting of many legendary stories and events, a magnet especially for the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectual. The novel Frankenstein was written in the shadow of Switzerland and the greatest scene in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is located there. It was to Switzerland that Liszt fled with his first mistress, Marie d’Agoult.

Switzerland’s reputation as a safe haven and a place for the restoration of health for Europeans also has to do with its long history of so-called political neutrality. Lenin took refuge in Zurich just as Richard Wagner did more than a half-century earlier. The list of émigrés from pacifists to revolutionaries is impressive and includes an endless array of literary and musical figures, such as the aging Richard Strauss. Political neutrality of course survived at the pleasure of the great European powers. The sociologist Max Weber once observed that neutrality in world politics probably cannot exist, and if it does, it is at the price of greatness, ambition, and importance. What have the great powers gained from tolerating a little mountainous landlocked piece of real estate in the middle of Europe? One of the answers rests in the legendary gnomes of Zurich, the banking industry that lent Geneva and Zurich their reputations as financial centers. Swiss banks have made themselves useful as literal depositories of wealth that could neither be traced nor extracted. This tradition was legitimately tarnished by Switzerland’s ambivalent and somewhat compromised relationship to Nazism and Germany during World War II.

The theme of today’s concert suggests that the multi-linguistic and religious heritage of the Swiss made a simple solution to framing national identity through culture difficult. Wilhelm Tell is a Swiss hero, but primarily for the Germans, and he is best remembered as a figure in German literature and Italian opera. The German spoken in Switzerland is broken into a manifold and colorful array of smaller dialects of which the Swiss are justly proud but the rest of German-speaking Europe regards with a mix of wonderment and bewilderment. Even the Swiss have difficulty understanding themselves. Therefore the language of schooling is High German. The French spoken in Switzerland has some unique vocabulary, but for the French Swiss, as Honegger’s career suggests, the center has ultimately been Paris, just as the dominant cultural trends for the German Swiss have come from Germany to the north and Austria to the east. Ironically, before the arrival of conductor Ernest Ansermet to Geneva, the musical culture of that city was dominated by German musical traditions. The Italian Swiss have a prominent role in history for supplying for years the highest percentage of the Papal Guard in Rome. Internal political and cultural allegiances appear to be hard to find among the Swiss except for pride in their unique historical status, love of the land, and a shared sense of exclusivity vis-à-vis everyone else.

What then is Swiss culture? Swiss democracy provides one answer. Despite their differences, the Swiss unite in a remarkable social welfare system and the almost puritanical rejection of wealth as a primary marker of public distinction. The operative principles of democracy, including military service, in Switzerland seem to be what help make the people of that land Swiss. But the generosity and benefits of Swiss democracy have always been severely limited to the Swiss themselves. Swiss neutrality has been maintained at the price of significant xenophobia and hostility to foreigners as anything more than visitors. During the Second World War, Switzerland was not particularly generous in opening its borders to desperate refugees. Individual Swiss citizens committed acts of heroism, but the federal government, dominated by the German cantons, evinced considerable sympathy for the Nazis beginning in 1933. Several of the Swiss cantons had their own police forces dedicated to monitoring foreigners. Citizenship remains impossible to obtain except by inheritance. The benefits of Swiss society work very well for the Swiss, but behind doors that have been tightly closed. Swiss xenophobia has always been apparent in the country’s enormous resistance to new circumstances, such as membership in the United Nations or the European Community. Switzerland was one of the last of the modern states to extend suffrage to women.

And yet one cannot fail to admire Switzerland’s institutions, particularly its schools, museums, nursing homes and hospitals, and the fairness with which access to these institutions is provided to its citizenry. In Switzerland one can still find remnants of direct democracy, town meetings, and regular referenda. But as Rousseau observed more than two centuries ago, the Swiss model probably works because of its small scale with a population that is not too densely distributed. Like England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Switzerland developed an admirable civic tradition of music making. In the schools and in the home, its heritage of musical institutions thrives to this day and includes fine conservatories and a host of amateur ensembles. The city of Zurich is one of the few cities that still have more than one excellent large retail establishment dedicated exclusively to the sale of instruments and sheet music in the traditions of domestic and classical concert music. New York no longer has any.

Switzerland’s avoidance by its very nature and structure of many of the traps of late nineteenth-century nationalism placed a peculiar burden on its artists. What has been the Swiss contribution to music, literature, and painting? Hermann Hesse, Arnold Böcklin, and Paul Klee were certainly geniuses of their respective arts. One cannot forget the great era of the city of Basel as well, once the professional home of Nietzsche and the Swiss Jakob Burckhardt, a giant in the study of modern history. In music, however, one tends to think of those composers who spent time in Switzerland, rather than native-born and trained composers. Even the great 1895 Tonhalle of Zurich, which Brahms (who lived for a time in Switzerland) helped inaugurate, was designed by Austrian architects in direct imitation of Vienna’s Musikverein.

But precisely because of the diverse and peculiar character of Swiss politics, and the centrality of Switzerland as a temporary home for distinguished transients (including Igor Stravinsky, Georg Solti, and Hermann Scherchen), a foray into Swiss musical life in the mid-twentieth century is an intriguing task. On today’s program we have three representative examples. The first is Othmar Schoeck, who was perhaps the most original composition talent of the twentieth century from German Switzerland. His reputation outside of Switzerland has been compromised not by the quality of his music—he wrote nearly three hundred songs of startling beauty. The American Symphony Orchestra has performed his early Violin Concerto. But he was indisputably a Nazi sympathizer, much like his contemporary Volkmar Andreae, the distinguished conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra. Schoeck was a classic example of the cultivated, civilized, German-centered Swiss, whose “neutrality” did not prevent the deformation of ethical judgment.

On the other extreme is Arthur Honegger, a French Swiss by birth, who became an important part of Les Six and spent his career outside of Switzerland. In stark contrast to Schoeck, Honegger’s political sympathies tended in the direction of communism. The third composer on today’s program is perhaps the most uniquely Swiss, Frank Martin. Like Schoeck, Martin identified with Switzerland, but he was a French Swiss—unencumbered by pro-German politics and more in sympathy with his country as a neutral place, the home of the League of Nations, and the democratic island of civility. Martin’s music boasts a refined eclecticism in its shifts in style. Son of a Calvinist minister, his primary influence was J.S. Bach. Martin’s music deserves to hold a much more central part of the concert repertoire from the twentieth century than it does. Honegger’s place in history was already secured in his lifetime by the admiration of listeners, performers, and colleagues ranging from Cocteau to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Many people may not even realize that Honegger was Swiss and not French. Martin, in contrast, is suggestive of the cosmopolitan musical culture of Switzerland and the peculiar advantages of being a Swiss artist, the ultimate insider as outsider. Freed from apparent complicity by virtue of citizenship in a neutral country, with the greatest explosions of violence in twentieth-century history, eclecticism did not represent either escapism or compromise as cowardice.

If I may be permitted a personal note: Switzerland extended the privilege of its enigma into my own history. My brother, sister, and I were born in Zurich. My parents lived there for twenty years, as foreign Jews from Poland, beginning with their entrance to medical school until their emigration to the United States. The members of my family who survived owe their lives to the Swiss. But for those twenty years my parents lived on six-month temporary visas and were routinely urged to leave. My mother was even once expelled from the canton of Zurich in the late 1930s and took refuge in Lausanne. Despite devoted and brilliant service to the medical school and the hospitals of Zurich, my parents were never granted the right to practice medicine outside of the university and were repeatedly denied citizenship (although both of them served well beyond the call of duty during the years of Swiss mobilization during the war). My siblings and I all grew up in a household defined by a mixture of nostalgia, admiration, and disappointment. Especially in light of the recent revelation of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis and the abject failure of the Swiss banking industry to honor the claims of survivors on the assets deposited in Switzerland by Jews who perished during the Holocaust, neutrality continues to be a puzzle. Does it indeed really exist? Nevertheless, this concert evokes the overriding sentiment within my family: that of gratitude.

Pacific 231 (1923)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“So many, many critics have so minutely described the onrush of my locomotive across the great spaces that it would be inhuman to disabuse them! One of them, confusing Pacific with the Pacific Ocean, even evoked the smells of the open sea. To tell the truth, in Pacific I was on the trail of a very abstract and quite ideal concept, by giving the impression of a mathematical acceleration of rhythm, while the movement itself slowed…Moral: – but no, I have been a music critic myself, and I prefer not to speak ill of a profession which has fed me.”

From I Am A Composer, by Arthur Honegger

The reputation as a specialist in program music clung to Honegger primarily because of one famous work: Pacific 231, composed in 1923. It is the most exciting representative of European music’s brief fascination with the age of the machine. Actually, it is the first of three “mouvements symphoniques,” the second of which is “Rugby,” and depicts the excitement of a sporting event, and the third, which reflects Honegger’s conscious decision to redefine himself as an absolutist, having no soubriquet whatsoever.

Contrary to popular belief, the name does not refer to an individual locomotive, such as the Wabash Cannonball or City of New Orleans, but actually to the axle pattern of a particular type of engine of American manufacture. Although employing a standard orchestra, the work is similar to the Ballet mecanique of American in Paris George Antheil, which had its maiden voyage in 1924. Where Antheil uses three different types of actual airplane propellers, Honegger, who in works like Joan of Arc at the Stake was extremely adventurous—in the substitution of saxophones for standard brass instruments, for example—keeps the instrumentation standard, but deftly creates new, inhuman sounds of the relentless machine. To twenty-first century ears, these sounds may portend the evils of mechanized conformity, but to the avant-garde of the 1920s, these were the sounds of inexorable “progress,” a term whose connotations were suspect at best.

So much so, in fact, that the entire genre of Soviet futurism grew contemporaneously with the popularity of the Honegger piece. Alexander Mosolov was the darling of the Russian progressives in 1927 when he premiered his Zavod [the iron foundry], a ballet which depicts the glorious productivity of the Soviet factory, complete with shaken metal sheets for just the right industrial flair. Sergei Prokofiev followed soon thereafter with The Steel Step, a two-act dance extravaganza that glorified first the collective farm and then the factory, even approximating the sounds of a piston and a giant saw. Although the Parisian press hailed Prokofiev as the “apostle of Bolshevism,” comrade Stalin was displeased by this type of dissonance. Mosolov was shipped off to Turkestan to study folk songs, while Prokofiev wisely remained in Paris. Each acknowledged their debt to Honegger’s original inspiration, Prokofiev even paying Pacific 231 homage at the end of his Symphony No. 5.

The piece itself is remarkable for its humorlessness. Hardly a “little engine that could” or “The Little Train of the Caipira” from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Pacific 231 rather begins demonically and only reinforces its Tartarean image on its brief run. The opening atmosphere is mysterious, leading almost immediately to an insistent, accelerating rhythm. A cry from the netherworld on the bass clarinet leads to an almost out-of-control wandering in the horn, reprised maniacally by the trumpet. Back-and-forth figures in the wind section are punctuated by warlike snare drumming that becomes almost arhythmic as the strings contribute pizzicatos at the oddest of places. At the height of its journey, this locomotive is accompanied by the music of Hell itself. The trip does not last long as exhaustion quickly overtakes the machine. Like the robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the monster cannot survive what it has wrought.

Symphony No. 5, “Di tre re” (1950)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Arthur Honegger was born in 1892 in France of Swiss parents and retained dual citizenship throughout his life. This allowed him to pursue his musical education on both sides of the border and, most significantly, spend his military service in the Great War on the Swiss side. Honegger was included in “Les Six,” a loosely connected group of composers who, in reality, had little in common. From this association, only Francis Poulenc remained his lifelong friend. In fact, except for Darius Milhaud and film composer Georges Auric, the remaining members (Germaine Tailleferre and Louis Durey) are but footnotes in modern French music.

Having developed a special relationship with conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Honegger came to America and taught at Tanglewood. His Symphony No. 1 premiered in Boston in 1931. Some years later, after suffering a heart attack subsequent to his Symphony No. 4, he was unable to attend when his Fifth Symphony, subtitled “Di tre re,” was also premiered on Massachusetts Avenue.

The appellation refers to the ending pianissimo note of D in basses and tympani that is the same for all three movements of this mysterious work. But the phrase could also be interpreted as “the three kings,” a possible religious reference, especially since Honegger had previously subtitled his Third Symphony “Liturgical.” The programmatic content, if one chooses to hear it, is akin to that other great twentieth-century symphony written after the diagnosis of a bad heart, namely the Symphony No. 9 of Gustav Mahler, or at least to its two middle movements.

While Mahler is saying goodbye to the rough and tumble of musical life and the politics of jockeying for conductorial positioning, Honegger is taking his leave of this mortal coil with the same sense of freneticism. All three movements are propelled by a driving force bordering on the neurasthenic. The first, described by its composer as a “march of human folly” is inexorable (compare to Mahler’s “To My Apollonian Brothers”). The second, a lively clash of cultures that pits the sophisticated with the ingenuous, the city with the country, the sacred with the profane, would be right at home in a Bruckner, and therefore a Mahler, symphony. The third movement is especially intense, ending with an unforgettable unraveling, a frightening sense of the ultimate quietude that envelopes us all.

Honegger’s death is not only foretold in this afternoon’s Symphony, but also inspired another powerful piece of music. Poulenc was so moved by his friend’s demise that he composed his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in his memory.

Concerto for cello and orchestra (1965-6)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Martin was truly Swiss in the way he fused French and German musical sensitivities. One of the first French-speaking composers to respond to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, he used it in a very un-Schoenbergian way; Pelléas et Mélisande (not Schoenberg’s but Debussy’s) looms as large as any Viennese model in his beautiful oratorio Le vin herbé (1938-41). From his experience with dodecaphony he distilled a highly personal way of using the twelve tones, combining chromaticism with both pentatonic (black-keys-only) and diatonic (white-keys-only) patterns.

Martin was first and foremost a lyricist—especially in his works that use melody instruments in a solo role. Commissioned by his old friend Paul Sacher (to whom we owe Martin’s best-known work, the Petite symphonie concertante of 1945) and inspired by the artistry of Pierre Fournier, Martin wrote a Cello Concerto that was premiered by the Basel Chamber Orchestra under Sacher, with Fournier as soloist, on January 26, 1967.

By the time this work was written, the septuagenarian Martin was long past outside influences, but that, interestingly, doesn’t mean he did not have to struggle to find the right style for the work. He himself confessed as much in a program note for the Concerto:

“In 1959, after having finished my Mystère de la Nativité, I saw myself confronted with a very delicate problem of style: in the Mystère, I had used a very bare and entirely diatonic musical language for the celestial world. Under the constant influence of this kind of music, the chromatics had somehow become foreign to me, and I was not capable anymore to come back to my normal language. Then, in 1960, when Pierre Fournier asked me to write a concerto for his instrument, I thought of a musical phrase that was entirely modal, and of such simplicity that, at that time, I was unable to continue in that direction. I therefore was compelled to put the composition aside and, to free myself from this “complex of purity,” I fled into the comic and wrote Monsieur Pourceaugnac (comedy by Molière). This gave me the freedom to make fun of my chromatic writing as well as my more academic method. This did me a lot of good and I forgot my dangerous struggle for extreme purity.”

In fact, the Concerto strikes a highly original balance between simplicity and complexity, or diatonicism and chromaticism. In a sense, it could almost be understood as a (friendly) tug-of-war between those two worlds. The work opens directly with the modal phrase Martin spoke about, played by the soloist unaccompanied in a slow tempo and in a lyrical romantic vein. A little later, the tempo speeds up, and the orchestra introduces a distinctly chromatic, contrasting new theme, and the two kinds of material alternate throughout the movement. Yet there are connections—bridges, one might say—between the two; Martin subtly “sneaks” chromatic half-steps into his modal melody and minor triads into passages that make use of all twelve tones. At the height of an exciting development, the opening melody returns in the orchestra, followed by a closing meditation for solo cello that corresponds to the passage with which the Concerto began.

The second-movement Adagietto begins with an orchestral introduction that evokes the rhythm of the sarabande, with heavily chromaticized harmonies. The soloist enters with a fervent arioso that evolves into a passacaglia (variations over an unchanging melody in the bass). These Baroque echoes are fused with Martin’s individual use of chromaticism, with tonal centers constantly shifting. The movement ends with a melodic phrase that recalls the Concerto’s opening cello melody.

In the last movement— “wild and harsh,” according to the tempo instruction— Martin’s complex chromaticism definitely gets the upper hand, impacting even the lyrical meno mosso passage for solo cello in the middle. The “wild” orchestral material is recapitulated in full, followed by a cadenza (once again recalling the modal melody, the “germ” of the entire piece) and an exuberant conclusion.

Nachhall, Op. 70 (1955)

By Michael Baumgartner

Written for the concert Swiss Accounts, performed on May 21, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The song cycle Nachhall [Echo], Op. 70, first performed at the Tonhalle Zürich on December 6, 1955 with the alto Elsa Cavelti, and under the direction of Erich Schmid, marks a culmination, in many respects, of the oeuvre of the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957). Written between October 1954 and February 1955 and orchestrated in May and June 1955, Nachhall was Schoeck’s last major achievement. With Nachhall he once again focused his efforts on the genre in which he had written a major part of his compositions, the German Lied. From his earliest youth until his final years Schoeck wrote more than 400 Lieder, most of them for voice and piano. Of particular interest are his song cycles. Some were conceived for voice and piano, such as Der Sänger, Op. 57 (1944/45) and Das stille Leuchten, Op. 60 (1946); some for orchestra, like Lebendig begraben, op. 40 (1926), Befreite Sehnsucht, Op. 66 (1952) and Nachhall; one for voice and chamber orchestra: Elegie, Op. 36 (1921/22); and one for voice and string quartet: Notturno, Op. 47 (1931-33).

Some song cycles are connected by a common theme, and for others Schoeck used poems only by a single poet (mostly of German, Austrian, or Swiss origin from the nineteenth century). Nachhall is based on the theme of the faithlessness of friends. In a world drenched in sorrow, melancholy, solitude, and death, nobody knows the other, and everyone is ultimately lonely. This pessimistic Weltschmerz attitude is present in the first eleven of the twelve poems that Schoeck chose for the cycle. They reflect the unstable psychic state of the poem’s author, the Austrian Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-50). After Schoeck suffered a heart attack in 1944, which forced him to give up his busy conducting career, he was more receptive to such poetry. Having felt increasingly lonely, despite the presence of his wife Hilde and beloved daughter Gisela, he believed his music was not being performed and appreciated any longer and that his friends had abandoned him.

Accordingly, after his withdrawal from public life, Schoeck altered his compositional style considerably, treating the musical material with economy and austerity. The twelve songs of Nacchhall are presented like a soliloquy with the content being highly personal and inward looking. Schoeck lets the voice dominate over the instrumental accompaniment and often employs alternative vocal techniques, such as parlando and quasi Sprechgesang. He does not link the songs with a general tonal scheme, nor with a common motif, but rather depicts the introspection and depressed mood of the poems through dark orchestral sounds and by keeping the voice in the low register. Then, an unexpected break happens: Schoeck ends the song cycle with the poem, “O du Land,” by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). The choral “O you land” brightens up the gloomy tone of the previous songs: the individual is removed from worldly sorrows and cares. Schoeck clearly struggled with the ending of Nachhall, a fact borne out by the three different versions of the choral. The one that he eventually selected emphasizes the contrast not only in the lighter treatment of the voice, but also in the use of an intricate contrapuntal voice-web, which is absent in the rest of the cycle. Nachhall ends with words of consolation and hope, words which later were engraved on Schoeck’s gravestone.