Tales of Edgar Allen Poe

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Edgar Allan Poe died 150 years and eight days ago. It is one of the great ironies in literary history that he has had far more influence in Europe than he has had America, his native land. This is not to say that Poe has not become a household word. American school children for generations have been exposed to “The Raven” and the Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Poe has also done very well in Hollywood, in large measure as a result of the advocacy of director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price. Though Poe wrote in a variety of genres, it is the author of horror and suspense, the creator of “Lenore,” that still has a grip on the popular imagination. But precisely his flirtation with the bizarre have prevented Poe from being widely accepted as a serious force in American letters. In the shaping of an American literary tradition, the Puritan legacy, the naïve optimism of a frontier mentality, the rhetorical majesty of Emerson and the epic power of Melville, have seemed far more pervasive and influential. Poe, whose writings have little to do with forging a national American identity, has traditionally been dismissed as derivatively European (though we might wonder how many pages of Poe a young American today is likely to have read, compared to pages of Emerson.)

It took Europe to recognize and convince America of Poe’s originality and significance. His neurotic characters and vague settings indeed did not seem “American,” but that doesn’t mean that Poe was Europhilic either. Rather, what interested Poe, and what in his writings spoke to many writers and artists especially in France and Russia, was the human mind in general, the psychological realm shortly to be explored by Freud, the Symbolists, and the Surrealists. Taking a step beyond E.T.A. Hoffmann, Poe used heavily symbolic narratives to explore our nightmares, and electrified such writers as Charles Baudelaire. It has not been until recently, however, that we have come to realize that in using condensed, overlaid narratives to dramatize the troubled mind, Poe proved himself American after all by transforming a genre that eventually became a seminal form in American literature–the short story.

In music, a similarly circuitous reaction occurred. European composers have long been inspired by Poe just as their literary contemporaries were, but American composers (with the exception of Edward Burlingame Hill) took little notice of Poe as a source for musical dramatization. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Poe’s peculiar mix of the supernatural and symbolic fascinated French and Russian composers who experimented with literary narrative and poetic texts as the basis for musical structure. Their sense of affinity between Poe’s writings and music perhaps rests in the amorphous, abstract, yet psychologically powerful qualities of Poe’s dramatic illustrations, which seem to resemble the qualities of music itself.

Appropriately, Poe provided the basis for one of the great mysteries of French music. Debussy worked for many years on a second opera, The Fall of the House of Usher, of which only an incomplete fragment remains, despite repeated efforts by noted musicians and scholars to construct a performable version. As the works of Schmitt and Debussy’s close friend Caplet indicate, Debussy’s fascination with Poe was not unique. When Russian intellectuals and artists, among them Turgenev, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev turned to Paris during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for inspiration and refuge from political oppression and cultural isolation, they asserted a singular resistance to Germanic culture (partly in response to the historical tensions between Germanic and Slavic politics and traditions). Through France, then, Poe’s ghost migrated to Russia. The connection in music history between French and Russian schools of composition is well-known. Hence the young Rachmaninoff encountered Poe (via Balmont) just a few years after Schmitt composed his Le palais hanté and Debussy was contemplating The Fall of the House of Usher.

The modern composer therefore has a substantial and even formidable tradition to draw upon when it comes to illustrating Poe in music. The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara implicitly confronts the French/Russian attraction to Poe by offering his own composition, based on “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.” Despite the striking development of a national school of composition in twentieth-century Finland, that country was for centuries caught between the twin dominations of Russia to the east and Sweden to the west. The music and culture of the countries of that geographical region–Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and northwestern Russia–display many common features, despite considerable difference in language and religion. Rautavaara’s text is based on the final two entries of Pym’s diary, which are also the final two paragraphs of Poe’s story (save the annotation). As Robert Layton points out, Rautavaara was attracted to the proposition of illustrating in music the inscrutable mystery represented by Pym’s fate.

This exploration of Poe through the prism of European music reminds us that, though we often think of American culture as derived from that of our European forbearers, the New World was also quite influential on the cultural self-image of the Old World. A sense of European dominance has especially defined the field of classical music, where American culture seemed wholly the prisoner of European practices, attitudes, and training. But Poe’s presence in literature and music demonstrates that some of the most innovative artistic developments arise from a cross-fertilization of cultural ideas. America has emancipated itself from a self-imposed cultural subordination to the English, French, and German models only in this century, but America’s contribution and threat has loomed large among Europeans since the seventeenth century. Thus, as the example of Poe makes plain, nineteenth-century European culture is unthinkable without the existence and influence of the Americans.

Conte fantastique (1908)

By Roger Nichols

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Unlike Schmitt, who lived on until 1958 and came to be regarded, in the age of Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, as some kind of fossil, André Caplet died in 1925 from the effects of poison gas in the trenches of the First World War. He was only forty-seven.

His death was widely regarded as a great tragedy for French music. In the years before the war he had revealed himself as a fine conductor (he directed the premiere of Debussy’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, as well as being responsible for much of the orchestration) and as a promising composer. He won the Grand Prix de Rome the year after Schmitt with a cantata entitled Myrrha, beating Ravel into third place, and in the light of the Conte fantastique it is interesting to note that he must here have impressed the jury with his virtuosity in depicting a catastrophe: in this case “the sudden roaring of the floodwater.”

Like Sir Simon Rattle nearly a century later, Caplet began his professional life as a timpanist, in the Colonne Orchestra. It is possible at least that this experience sharpened his rhythmic sense, but certainly his music from his earliest compositions is largely free of that languid drifting associated with the so-called Impressionist school. He was also restrained in his textures, never using five instruments when three would do.

The Conte fantastique for harp and strings, inspired by Poe’s tale “The Masque of the Red Death,” was published in 1924, but was based on an unpublished “symphonic study” dating from 1909. It is impossible therefore, without seeing this study, to be certain of what in the Conte is post-war and what pre-war. What is unmistakable, though, is Caplet’s determination to rethink instrumental capabilities. Just as he did with the solo instrument in the Epiphanie for cello and orchestra of 1923, and before that with the voice in the Inscriptions champêtres of 1914, so here he liberates the harp from its traditional role of being purely pastoral, decorative, and decorous.

Poe’s tale can be read as a development of “The Haunted Palace.” Whereas in the poem the evil force invades arbitrarily, in the tale it is present from the start, giving the “deep seclusion” of Prince Prospero’s “castellated abbey” a provisional air. Caplet’s choice of the harp may initially seem odd, but in fact it works wonderfully well exactly because of the instrument’s 19th-century connotations — and indeed early 20th-century ones, as in the two Danses by Debussy and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Caplet employs this traditional language and these traditional textures in the central part of the piece in order to give it the feeling of a fairy tale: the cut of the melodies here is modal or pentatonic — both traditionally signifying “far away and long ago.”

His depiction of the Red Death, by contrast, draws on the most recent melodic and harmonic sources. The very first page of the score shows how far Caplet has moved in twenty years from orthodox, Prix de Rome platitudes. The harp’s first notes are marked “haletant” — “breathless.” Since the harp cannot breathe, and not breathing will hardly help the harpist, this may seem on the face of it a nonsensical instruction. But Caplet’s idea is surely that the phrase should give the impression of the harp as a wind instrument whose breath is abruptly cut off after just six notes, where the player is ordered to damp the strings (“étouffez”). Admittedly, the structure of this opening, of an idea gradually burgeoning between silences, is borrowed from Debussy (see the opening bars of Pelléas et Mélisande), but Caplet’s chromaticism comes nearer to Schoenberg; and it is perhaps relevant to note that Caplet conducted the first performance in France of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in 1922, before a scandalized audience. The harp’s third phrase here uses ten of the twelve chromatic notes to paint the picture of the Red Death stalking the countryside.

Any composer would have to incorporate somehow the chiming of the ebony clock to mark the hours of the revels, at which “the dreams are still-frozen as they stand.” Caplet chooses to give the harpist only the chimes of eleven o’clock and the more fateful ones of midnight, upon which the masked figure of the Red Death appears, “tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave.” The “buzz, or murmur” of the assembled company at this apparition is expressed in string tremolos, glissandos and harmonics that truly look forward to the textures imagined by Boulez thirty years later. Caplet’s death was indeed a great tragedy.

The Bells, Sergei Rachmaninoff

By Robert McColley, Fanfare

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Rachmaninoff completed his choral symphony, The Bells, in 1913, and thereafter liked it best of all his works. Its origins are strange enough. A girl he had never met, who admired the poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), sent the composer an anonymous letter, urging him to set to music “The Bells,” which she included, in a very free Russian version by Konstantin Balmont. Rachmaninoff was inspired. He devised a highly original form that suited his inspiration perfectly: a symphony (with the conventional four movements) with three soloists, chorus, and large orchestra. Rachmaninoff’s gloomy finale had a distinguished precedent in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.

Poe’s poem was certainly the inspiration of both Balmont and Rachmaninoff, but the Russians actually changed its meaning. Poe’s exaggerated rhythms and repetitions, which delight some readers and offend others, are subdued, though to a degree restored in Fanny S. Copeland’s retranslation into English cited here. Most important were the significant additions Balmont made to three of the four stanzas. Balmont has added several lines to “Silver Bells.” To Poe’s evocation of carefree high spirits Balmont adds a meditation on death as a sort of heavenly reward: “That beyond illusion’s cumber, births and lives beyond all number, waits an universal slumber — deep and sweet beyond compare.”

This permits Rachmaninoff to introduce a dramatic contrast into his first movement, music brilliant and upbeat versus music sad and solemn. But here death seems rather gentle and reassuring.

In the second stanza, “Hear the mellow wedding bells, Golden bells,” Balmont is faithful to Poe. His version reflects the cheer, joy, and hope of the original. But not so Rachmaninoff: he introduces by various degrees the Dies Irae, centuries old, but appropriated by the composer as his musical signature. It dominates his powerful tone poem, The Isle of the Dead, and returns in two late works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances. Earlier Hector Berlioz had used it in his Symphonie Fantastique, as had Franz Liszt in his Totentanz. Once again the music benefits from the tension between two contrasting moods.

III Poe: “Hear the loud alarum bells–Brazen bells! What a tale of terror now their turbulency tells!” Balmont follows this faithfully until Poe, after suggesting the alarm concerns fire, quickly abandons its imagery. Poe concludes his stanza with various expressions of terror, anguish, and despair, but nothing further about their cause. Balmont describes a “ruthless conflagration” at considerable length. This is the scherzo of Rachmaninoff’s symphony, and a grim affair it is. There is no soloist in this movement and the chorus, no matter how expert in projecting words, will scarcely be understood in the many passages where it must sing against a raging orchestra.

IV Poe: “Hear the tolling of the bells–Iron bells! What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!” Once again, Poe is chiefly concerned with a sort of horror at hearing death-knells, while Balmont presses on to make certain we are contemplating death and dissolution: “Glad endeavor quenched forever in the silence and the gloom.” And again, “Heavy, moaning, their intoning, waxing sorrowful and deep, Bears the message, that a brother passed away to endless sleep.” (Rachmaninoff sets these lines especially memorably for his baritone soloist.) But in the second part of his stanza Poe summons up beings enjoy the death of humans: “They are neither man nor woman–They are neither brute nor human–They are Ghouls.” As often happens in Poe, the supernatural is invoked to deepen terror, never to comfort; heaven is an illusion but hell is real. Balmont, again more given to the concrete, replaces Poe’s shapeless ghouls with “a somber fiend that dwells in the shadow of the bells, And he gibbers and he yells, as he knells, and knells, and knells.” Poe ends his last, as he has ended all his stanzas, with bells, bells, bells, bells . . . and a summary line, “To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But Balmont must carry through the explicit idea of death, “While those iron bells, unfeeling, through the void repeat the doom: There is neither rest nor respite, save the quiet of the tomb!” Here Rachmaninoff, who has so far worked to deepen the macabre aspects of the poem, and brought back the Dies Irae with all its jagged frightfulness, now ends the stanza and the entire symphony with music that is quiet, warm and reassuring. A musical lux aeternae brings back the accepting and serene view of death that Balmont had slipped into the opening stanza.

On the Last Frontier (1997)

By Robert Layton, Author of books on Sibelius, Grieg and Berwald

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The most recent addition to the repertory inspired by Edgar Allan Poe comes from this end of the century — and from Finland. On the Last Frontier, a fantasy for chorus and orchestra, is hot off the presses, being composed as recently as 1997. Its text draws on the evocative closing paragraphs of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which the composer read as a boy translated as “The Secret of the Deep” Einojuhani Rautavaara celebrated his seventieth birthday last year and belongs to the same generation as Aulis Sallinen. He was eleven at the outbreak of the winter war when Stalin launched his attack on Finland, and spent his student years first in post-war Helsinki where he studied with Aarre Merikanto. Later on with the aid of the grant Sibelius himself had received from the Koussevitzky Foundation on his ninetieth birthday, he continued his studies at the Juilliard School and at Tanglewood where his teachers included Persichetti, Copland and Sessions. His breakthrough had come a little earlier in 1953 with A Requiem for Our Time for thirteen brass and percussion, which won the Thor Johnson Competition in Cincinnati.

Of course Sibelius cast a long shadow and one which successive generations of Finnish composers could not escape. Writing in his immediate wake as did the generation of Leevi Madetoja and Erkki Melartin, his fingerprints are invariably visible though one composer, Aarre Merikanto who had studied with Reger and Scriabin was an exception, and it was no doubt his example that fostered Rautavaara’s exploratory outlook. (One parallel with Samuel Barber whose aunt was Louise Homer may be worth mentioning in that he, too, had a celebrated singer in the family, the soprano Aulikki Rautavaara who appeared in Glyndebourne’s early seasons and made 78 r.p.m records of Sibelius songs.)

On his return to Europe, feeling the need to broaden his musical horizons still further, Rautavaara took lessons from one of the then leading figures in the central European avant-garde, Wladimir Vogel. But while he embraced dodecaphony with works like Praevariata (1957) and the Second String Quartet (1958), his was no slavish adoption of serial techniques and the Third Symphony (1961), for example, uses it with great expressive freedom.

Throughout his creative career Rautavaara has remained open to new ideas. His most popular work, the Cantus Arcticus, a concerto for birds and orchestra (1972) uses tape, aleotoric elements and modal harmonies that have reminded some commentators of Ravel and Sibelius, while in the opera-musical, Apollo contra Marsyas, jazz is an important component. Yet for all his eclecticism, Rautavaara retains a distinctive voice of his own, and it is his musical imagination that reigns supreme rather than any self-conscious pre-occupation with style or effect. Like Sibelius, there is a strong affinity with the vision and sounds of the natural world. His music is (to use an overworn expression) accessible, in that he does not erect unnecessary barriers to communication. Indeed he enjoys much the same popular appeal as his slightly older contemporary, Aulis Sallinen. His output is no less extensive though his seven operas have not enjoyed quite the same exposure. Writing about his Violin Concerto (1977), Rautavaara cited Kundera describing symphonic music as “a journey through a world without borders,” and in the finest of his works, his ideas unfold as do the seemless events of a journey.

On the Last Frontier goes back to childhood inspiration before he would have known how to organize musical ideas on paper. He recalls (in his liner notes for its premier recording) that he read in his father’s library a story by Edgar Allan Poe. By the end of the book, he writes, the realistic narrative had taken on an altogether different character and the closing paragraphs of Pym’s narrative assume an almost mystical character. Its description of the voyage towards the Antarctic pole, resonated in his memory all those years and when he came across a set of Poe’s collected works in English he naturally looked for it. Finding himself on the threshold of his seventies, and feeling that he, too, was approaching the mysterious last frontier, he adapted the final paragraphs for his “fantasy for chorus and orchestra.” The evocation of this landscape became in his own words, “the core and frame of a longer narrative, around and in between which the orchestra weaves its own rich colorful texture…The orchestra’s role is to tell the tale in a way that is beyond the scope of words — but perhaps expresses it better than words can.”

Le palais hanté, Op. 49 (1904)

By Roger Nichols

Written for the concert Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, performed on Oct 15, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In January 1936 the musical world of France was holding its breath. After the death of the revered composer and teacher Paul Dukas, the election was taking place for his successor in the Institut de France, that summit of glory for all French notables, and among the candidates was Igor Stravinsky, recently enrolled as a citizen of France. Surely the composer of Le sacre du printemps and Oedipus Rex was bound to trounce all opposition? In the event, Stravinsky received a mere four votes. The winner, with twenty-eight, was the sixty-five-year-old Florent Schmitt.

The politics of the French musical world have often appeared to put those of ancient Byzantium in the shade and, while it was quite natural that a genius like Stravinsky should make enemies, there were no doubt other currents operating which an outsider will probably never be able to chart. But for Stravinsky’s conqueror to have been Florent Schmitt has a certain historical rightness.

Schmitt was born in the department of Meurthe-et-Moselle in Lorraine in 1870. After musical studies in Nancy, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889 where his teachers included Théodore Dubois, André Gedalge, Massenet and Fauré. Every year from 1896 to 1900 he tried his hand at the competition known as the Grand Prix de Rome and in that last year won it with his cantata Sémiramis. Like all winning students, he then spent three years in Rome, from where he sent back to Paris the regulation annual envois — large-scale choral or orchestral works demonstrating progress made under the influence of the Eternal City.

Schmitt’s last envoi, a setting of Psalm 47, “O clap your hands, all ye people,” published in 1904 (performed by the ASO on April 13, 1997), achieved considerable popularity for some years in France and elsewhere with its blend of the grandiose and the voluptuous, as did his “wordless drama” La tragédie de Salomé. Both works, being based on Biblical themes, could be seen as belonging to an established composing tradition and audiences hearing them would undoubtedly have known, without the benefit of program notes, what they were “about.” Schmitt’s Étude pour ‘Le palais hanté’ d’après Edgar Allan Poe (“Study for ‘The Haunted Palace’ after Edgar Allan Poe”) was, on the contrary, aimed at an elite.

Since it was published in the same year, 1904, as Psalm 47, it is tempting to regard Le palais hanté as in some sense complementary to it. If the former was a final gesture of conformity to the Establishment, the latter tapped into a private, reclusive stream that had been running through French intellectual life for many years. The popularity of Poe, in translations by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, may possibly have stemmed from the turbulence of French political life since 1789 and the lesson it taught that all things in this life are transitory and that, however good and stable institutions may appear, the ghost of evil ever lurks just round the corner. Whatever the reason, in 1890 Debussy was already planning a work based on some of Poe’s writings and two years later the adolescent Ravel was making “very gloomy, very black” drawings for “Maelstrom” and “Manuscript found in a bottle.”

Schmitt’s achievement in Le palais hanté‚ was to marry the feeling of doom inherent in the story with the texture and lineaments of the Lisztian symphonic poem. Although Wagner has always been recognized as a strong, even overpowering influence on French music in the thirty or so years leading up to the First World War, there was an almost equally strong counterinfluence to be found in the orchestral works of Liszt, especially the Faust Symphony; where, as Ravel said, “you find the main themes of The Ring, and so much better orchestrated.” One problem for Schmitt in Le palais hanté‚ was that, while Liszt’s symphonic technique was all about relevance and growth, Poe’s story tells of arbitrary dissolution.

Schmitt solved the problem of “relevant irrelevance” mainly through his use of the orchestra. Although his best work was done by 1914, his orchestration shows a mastery and individuality worthy of many a greater composer. Through this mastery and control he is able to convey that the haunted palace is still the same place as the unhaunted, but that its spirit and atmosphere have changed, and not for the better.

Finally, to return to the Schmitt/Stravinsky imbroglio with which we began, it is instructive that Schmitt was so enthused by Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird in 1910 that he renamed his house “Villa Oiseau de Feu.” Stravinsky, on the other hand, soon grew tired of this early work, which showed all too clearly its 19th-century roots. Le palais hanté‚ likewise does not explore new paths. But the Institut, in choosing Schmitt before Stravinsky, was at least rewarding proven worth, even if in an established idiom. As has often been said, “to have an avant-garde, you have to have a garde.”