Unjust Obscurity?

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert explores one aspect of the American Symphony Orchestra’s mission. We would like to offer a challenge to the habits by which orchestras set their repertoire. Why are some works repeated over and over again and others only occasionally performed? Why is it that some works are rarely ever heard? Implicit in the ASO’s mission is a healthy skepticism about the way we understand music history. The commonplace wisdom is that “history” is itself an objective judge. That means that if a piece of music doesn’t survive in the repertory over many generations it must not be a masterpiece or even worth hearing. The idea behind this is that somehow all works receive an equal and fair chance to be heard and to be judged as worthy of rehearing by generations of listeners. The truth of the matter is that for every work that survives in this manner there are works that have to be resurrected laboriously without the verdict of “history.” Perhaps the most famous example is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. After the first two performances, it was declared a failure and a bore. Nearly four decades after its composition, Joseph Joachim revived it by performing it persistently despite the objections of concert organizers. Future generations are grateful that he took the time and trouble.

We at the ASO also hope to puncture the exaggerated emphasis that many lovers of music place in the ideal of the “masterpiece,” we would like to encourage listeners to enjoy a piece of music, appreciate its magical and memorable moments, and even recognize weaknesses without feeling compelled to dismiss any work to oblivion simply because it is not an equal of a familiar and flawless masterpiece. Why shouldn’t we love and appreciated fine music the way we look at fine paintings and read fine books? Over the past few seasons, the ASO has revived works that past generations of listeners have been moved by and have appreciated; works of mastery and inspiration that have been belittled in some quarters because they still don’t seem as good as, for example, a Brahms concerto or a Mahler symphony. But if listening to the music of the past is to be a living experience, must we restrict ourselves to a diet of a very limited number of works form the enormous wealth of excellent music writing during the last two hundred years? The works the ASO is presenting today are not in any sense “second rate.” They are not “minor” works by “minor” figures in the history of music. The only way one can consider them minor is if we redefine our sense of proportion. Such a redefinition would render most of the artists whose pictures we cherish minor and most of the books we read and respect as minor. Why are some of us so impatient and judgmental when it comes to music?

Periodically the ASO devotes an entire program to works that we believe need to be performed more often. Obscurity is, of course, a relative term, and some in the audience may be troubled by the idea that any of the pieces on today’s program are considered obscure. Connoisseurs, for example, have a different definition of obscurity. But from the point of view of most music lovers and concert goers, none of these works are everyday fare. To hear them live or even on a recording is a comparatively rare experience. Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that our experience has been that the staff and above all the musicians of the ASO have come to believe in and respect the so-called “obscure” works we present. It is our hope that we successfully communicate this affection and admiration to the concert public.

In 1996, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the great American composers of the twentieth century, Roger Sessions. By today’s standards, his music may sound modern in an old-fashioned way. But in every style in history there are great and lesser practitioners. Even if a musical vocabulary of expression should experience an eclipse for a period of time, the genius of those few who used that vocabulary as an authentic vehicle should not be forgotten. Among twentieth-century modernists, Roger Sessions was a giant. His works will continue to electrify, fascinate, and move listeners despite changes in fashion. This Piano Concerto is a fine example of Sessions’s compositional mastery.

The Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck is less known than he ought to be. Those who know his music admire it for its subtlety and lyricism. His works deserve a wider audience. This Concerto is truly an undiscovered jewel. Since it is a lush and expressive violin concerto, it should appeal to virtuosos and audiences alike. There has always been a demand for Romantic violin concertos, and we hope that this performance will lead to other performances. The work is elegant and intimate. It was written for Stefi Geyer, a fabulous violinist form Hungary who was, among other things, Bela Bartók’s first love. She was a student of Hubay and a classmate of Bartók’s in Budapest. Bartók wrote his first Violin Concerto and the Two Portraits for her. Before World War I, she moved from Budapest to Switzerland, where she met Schoeck.

Psalm 114 of Mendelssohn is a less familiar example of the still-to-be-revived choral repertoire of the mid-nineteenth century. Although Mendelssohn’s music for chorus and orchestra was enormously popular a century ago, most of it has disappeared from concert programs. This is particularly the case for the shorter sacred works.

The closing work is by Karol Szymanowski. Szymanowski was one of the great composers of this century. Although his two violin concertos are reasonably well know (but not played as often as they should be), most of Szymanowski’s music, particularly the great opera King Roger, still awaits systematic advocacy by conductors, vocalists, and instrumentalists. Several years ago, we performed a very early, neo-Straussian work, the First Symphony. We now present one of Szymanowski’s masterpieces, the Stabat Mater. It reveals Szymanowski’s distinct music language. As the program notes indicate, this work was written for performance in either Polish or Latin. We have chosen to perform the work in Latin for two reasons. Too often Szymanowski is praised in a somewhat condescending manner as a great “Polish” composer. The implicit prejudice is that form some national cultures of Europe–for example, those of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary–different criteria should be applied. Some well-known names are considered as great nationalist composers, but are less regarded if viewed from a so-called universalist, international context. One, for example, rarely speaks of Beethoven or Bach as “German” composers (unless one is a die-hard German nationalist). Yet we persist in speaking of Szymanowski in relationship to his identity as a Polish citizen. No doubt Szymanowski was s fierce Polish patriot, but Brahms was as much a German patriot and we don’t speak of Brahms as a German c composer in quite the way we refer to Szymanowski as Polish. Therefore, we will perform the Stabat Mater not in Polish but in Latin in order to underscore the fact that this work can stand comparison to other great settings of this Latin text. It is a profound work of religious faith designed for listeners all over the world. Furthermore, in the score there are some slight musical variants depending upon which language in which the work is sung. Ironically, in most cases the Latin, I believe, strengthens the musical line. In an era when the work of Gorecki has become wildly popular, it is both appropriate, enlightening, and sobering to listen to the great spiritual and music achievement of Karol Szymanowski.

Psalm 114, “When Israel Out of Egypt Came,” for Double Chorus and Orchestra, Op. 51

By Felix Mendelssohn

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As a composer of sacred texts, Mendelssohn is chiefly remembered today for the oratorios Paulus (1836) and Elijah (1846), two pillars of his oeuvre that early on secured his fame in the Germany of the Restaurationzeit and the England of the Victorian period, where they were frequently performed at numerous public music festivals conducted by the composer. Yet these two works were accompanied by an impressive, though now largely forgotten series of psalm settings for varying scorings of chorus, soloists, and orchestra, that also figured prominently in the European concert life of the 1830s and 1840s. This series began with Mendelssohn’s version of Psalm 115 (Op. 31 of 1830, originally set to the Latin text of the Vulgate) and continued with renditions of Psalms 42 (Op. 42 of 1837), 95 (Op. 46 of 1841), 114 ( Op. 51 of 1839, performed today), 98 (Op. 91 of 1843) and finally, 2, 43, and 22 9composed for a cappella chorus and soloists in 1843 and 1844).

Psalm 114 was premiered in Leipzig on New Year’s Day, 1840, but then withdrawn by the composer for revision before he released it to the press the following year. Among the changes Mendelssohn effected was the recall of the opening measures to serve as an introduction for the final, crowning chorus on “Hallelujah! Singet dem Herrn in Ewigkeit” (“Alleluia! Sing to the Lord forever”). This felicitous change strengthened the structural cohesion of the work and underscored the essential organic unity of its various parts.

The Psalm is a compact, powerfully moving expression of communal faith. No soloists are heard here; rather, Mendelssohn relies on an expanded eight-part chorus, which declaims the entire text of the psalm. The conspicuous use of the chorus brings to mind the oratorios of Handel, especially Israel in Egypt (1739), a perennial favorite of Mendelssohn with obvious ties in subject matter to Psalm 114. Handelian, too, is Mendelssohn’s occasional indulgence in word painting, as in the second portion of the work, where the third verse, “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back,” is depicted by a wavelike bass line in the bassoons and violas subsequently taken up forcefully by the entire string section. (The vividness of the text may explain in part Mendelssohn’s decision to dedicate the composition to J.W. Schirmer, a painter from the Düsseldorf academy.)

Mendelssohn organized his setting of the psalm into six through-composed sections, the first four of which treat the eight verses of the psalm in pairs. The first movement (lines 1-2: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion.”) offers a majestic exordium, with the chorus initially divided between the make and female forces. The essential motivic idea of the music, a rising, stepwise line into the tenors and basses, is answered by a descending figure in the sopranos and altos. The two figures are designed to work together in combination, and Mendelssohn makes great use of their contrapuntal juxtaposition, as toward the end of the first movement, where they are extended to form two descending and ascending scales.

The second movement (lines 3-4: “The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.”) shifts from the major to minor mode; there is a contrast, too, in the treatment of the chorus, which now frequently doubles its parts, so that the eight-part ensemble is more often than not thinned to a four or five-part texture. The highly expressive third movement (lines 5-6: “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? Thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back? Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams; and ye little hills, like lambs?”) forms the emotional core of the composition, and is scored for the eight-part chorus with accompaniment limited to the bass strings.

Brisk horn fanfares now introduce the fourth movement (lines 7-8: “Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob; Which turned the rock into a standing water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”), a brightly scored chorus that features imitative writing and a dissonant, shifting figure for the metamorphosis of rock into water. The movement ends with a subdued pause; then, the opening measures of the work return, a preamble to the radiant fugal conclusion. Steeped in the Bachian and Handelian traditions, Mendelssohn here displays the contrapuntal craftsmanship for which he was renowned during his time. The Fugal subject comprises two short motives, a rising figure for “Hallelujah,” and a descending one for “Singet dem Herrn in Ewigkeit.” Through the course of the fugue, these two motives are subjected to a variety of artful manipulations; and their origins in the opening of the Psalm are made clear by the concluding measures of the work, in which Mendelssohn revives text from the first two verses of the psalm.

To some extent, Mendelssohn’s psalm settings impress as preliminary studies for his more ambitious oratorios. This may explain the relative obscurity of a work such as Psalm 114, which did not survive will the late nineteenth-century reaction against Mendelssohn, whom George Bernard accused of “despicable oratorio mongering” and “kid-glove gentility.” But perhaps Sir George Grove, editor of the celebrated music encyclopedia and an early biographer of Mendelssohn, came closer to the mark: “The Jewish blood of Mendelssohn,” he observed about Psalm 114, “must surely for once have beat fiercely over this picture of the great triumph of his forefathers, and it is only the plain truth to say that in directness and force his music is a splendid match for the splendid words of t he unknown psalmists.”

Concerto (Quasi una fantasia) for Violin and Orchestra in B-flat major, Op. 21

By Chris Walton, Head of Music Section at the Central Library of Zurich

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Othmar Schoeck was born in Brunnen, a village on the shores of Lake Lucerne, on September 1, 1886. His father, Alfred Schoeck, was a noted landscape painter in his day. His gifts were inherited by a son to the extent that he, too seemed destined for the same career. The music gifts of Schoeck Jr. proved stronger, however, and so in 1904 he abandoned his painting studies and enrolled at the Zurich Conservatory. In 1907, he was discovered by Max Reger, whose composition class at the Leipzig Conservatory he subsequently joined. In 1908, Schoeck returned to Zurich, where he spend the rest of his life. Besides composing, Schoeck was active as an accompanist and as a conductor. In the latter capacity he directed the symphony concerts in St. Gall from 1917 until 1944, when a heart attack caused him to retire from the podium. Schoeck suffered constantly from ill health thereafter; he died of heart failure in 1957.

Schoeck’s oeuvres include eight operas, three of which have enjoyed several successful productions in recent years: Venus (1919-21), Massimilla Doni (1934-36), and Penthesilea (1923-27), all currently available on CD. Schoeck is, however, primarily known as a composer in the German Lied tradition. More than three hundred Lieder for voice and piano, composed over a period of more than fifty years, form the backbone of his output, and are currently being recorded in their entirety on the Swiss CD label Jecklin.

Schoeck wrote three concerti, of which two (the concerti for cello and strings and for French horn and strings) are products of his old age. The Violin Concerto, Op. 21, however, was composed in 1911-12. It owes its conception, at least in part, to the composer’s youthful infatuation with the Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer. Stefi had come to prominence as something of a Wunderkind whose talent was paired with great physical beauty. Just a few months before Schoeck began his prolonged but unsuccessful attempt at seduction, Bela Bartók had attempted the same with equal persistence (and equal lack of success). Schoeck was accustomed to rapid conquests, but the voracity of his sexual appetite was more than matched by Stefi’s prudishness. He later claimed that he and Stefi had written each other passionate love letters (which was apparently more than Bartók could have claimed), but that physical contact had been limited to a single kiss. It was, he said, as if Stefi’s body had been protected by a coat of armor. (Schoeck even maintained in later years that she was the only woman he knew who had never submitted to his charms.) After having been snubbed, Bartók had poured his unrequited feelings into a violin concerto, and this action was repeated by Schoeck, albeit quite independently, some two years later. There is little doubt about the source of Schoeck’s inspiration; a discarded sketch for the fourth movement bears the angry inscription “Dic chaibe Stefi!” (“Bloody Stefi!”).

Although Stefi received the dedication of the Concerto, it was first performed in its entirety by the concertmaster of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Willem de Boer, on March 19, 1912 in Bern (he had premiered the first movement on its own some months earlier). Stefi remained on excellent terms with both Schoeck and Bartók, while their admiration for her remained undimmed over the following decades. Stefi never allowed the Concerto Bartók had given her to be performed in her lifetime; Schoeck’s Concerto, however, became a mainstay of her repertoire. She not only performed it many times, but in the late 1940s made its first recording (now deleted), under the renowned English recording engineer Walter Legge.

When written, the Violin Concerto was Schoeck’s longest work, and only the fourth he had written for orchestra. Stylistically, it owes much to its Romantic predecessors, in particular the concerti of Brahms and Bruch, while Schoeck’s lack of confidence in dealing with large-scale forms is reflected in the subtitle Quasi una fantasia. The emphasis is altogether on broad, flowing melody rather than on motivic development (as one might expect from a composer whose oeuvre had hitherto consisted mostly of songs). And yet, the strength of Schoeck’s melodic inspiration more than compensates for the relative “formlessness” and no doubt accounts for this concerto’s sustained popularity (there are currently three recordings available on CD). Schoeck’s later works may show greater maturity and formal subtlety, but few capture the freshness and innocence of expression he achieved here.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1956)

By Andrew Imbrie, Professor Emeritus, University of California at Berkely, and former student of Roger Sessions

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The music of Roger Sessions is generally acknowledged to be of crucial historical importance: it has been given more lip-service than that of any other American composer. Critical comment has largely concerned itself with its uncompromising stance, the complexity of its language, the thickness of its texture. His aesthetic position is routinely compared with that of Copland, the populist champion of “Americanism,” in contrast to which Sessions has been perceived as elitist, cosmopolitan, and oriented toward Europe. As time passes, it is now perhaps possible to view this dichotomy in a more charitable light: both Copland and Sessions were prime movers in the coming of age of American music. Copland reinforced our sense of national artistic identity, while Sessions connected us with the rest of the world–which today is seen to include much more than Europe. And it is a measure of both composers that both have won international acclaim.

The questions of the “difficulty” of Sessions’s music still deserves critical attention. It cannot be resolved here, but perhaps a hint might be of help to the listener of good will. The sensation of complexity is often the result of an initial confusion over how to identify pattern, consistency, and clarity of discourse. The acoustic thickness and dissonance of Sessions’s harmonic language, for example, is undeniable. Yet if one begins by giving this quality the benefit of the doubt, one can then turn one’s attention to such things as phrasing, rhetoric, and goal-orientation. One soon perceives that the relations and the balance among phrases, the interplay of voices, and the overall contour (the “long line” in Sessions’s own words) are not only clear, but eloquent, poetic, and imaginative. The phrases are interrelated, and ultimately add up to a complete statement. As the listener gains confidence, the harmonies cease to cause a sense of confusion and become rich and colorful, now that they are perceived in context. This has been my own experience, and there was nothing “academic” about the thrill involved!

Sessions’s Piano Concerto was commissioned by the Juilliard School of Music for its fiftieth anniversary, and is dedicated to the memory of Artur Schnabel. It was first performed on February 10, 1956 by the Juilliard Orchestra in New York, with Beveridge Webster as pianist, and Jean Morel conducting.

The work begins quietly with an undulating piano accompaniment and an arching melody stated by the clarinet and answered by the flute. This statement-counter-statement structure is then extended and liquidated, until a rapid transition accelerates the motion to a fast, vigorous pace. Now the piano initiates a gesture in several short, emphatic phrases, which are then taken up by the orchestra. A conversation between soloist and orchestra then ensures, which culminates and resolves. A second theme is now played by the piano, lyrical in its gradually rising vocal contour, which also becomes more animated as the phrases follow one another and as the orchestra joins in. After this flurry subsides, the piano once more recalls the opening of the lyrical theme, which takes a new turn and, with gentle orchestral support, concludes the exposition.

What follows could be labeled a “development section.” It is relatively brief, and is based partly on short melodic fragments featuring repeated wide skips, and partly on types of eighth-note figuration, which are indeed derived from earlier material; but here there is no reference to “themes” overtly emphasized in the exposition. This texture breaks down as the climax of the movement approaches, in which, finally, the orchestra plays sustained chords as the piano abates its frenzy and resolves peacefully into the opening of the recapitulation. Here we return to the tempo, texture, and theme of the opening, which is now however more harmonically static–until a sudden accelerando catapults us into the allegro again, which then subsides into a condensed version of the lyrical second theme. The ensuing culmination soon subsides as well, and ends quietly on a single tone (E above middle C) which keeps changing color as various solo wind instruments overlap. This connect us directly to the second movement which follows without pause.

The entire recapitulation was about two-thirds the length of the exposition: one sense that these proportions serve to bind the first movement to the rest of the work, and prevent any perception of finality, such as will occur at the analogous point in a classic concerto, with its balanced proportion as and its formal requirements of cadenza and extended orchestra coda.

The second movement is essentially a protracted dialogue between soloist and orchestra as equal partners. The melodic material is florid, and as the movement proceeds, increasingly rhapsodic, as the tempo gradually increases. At the climax the rhetoric turns tragic and at the return of the slow tempo the sonorities become dark and opaque.

There is, accordingly, a buoyant sense of release when the last movement emerges. It is imbued with the inimitable Sessions energy, drive, and optimism. Its thematic structure is subtle, wherein motivic cross-references abound without coalescing into formal thematic restatements. One is conscious primarily of the elastic rhythmic deployment of similarly elastic motivic units, of surprises, extensions, condensations, interruptions–all controlled by an unfailing sense of overall line and proportion.

Stabat Mater for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 53 (1926)

By Richard E. Rodda, Case Western Reserve University

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Karol Szymanowski (pronounced shee-man-ov-skee) was the preeminent Polish composer of the first half of the twentieth century. He showed exceptional musical talent early in life, and began his professional studies in Warsaw in 1901. Seeking wider horizons than he Polish capital could offer, he moved in 1906 to Berlin. His compositions of the years before the First World War were heavily influenced by the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss, though they carry something of his own individual harmonic and melodic stamp. Szymanowski returned to Warsaw from 1909 to 1911, and then moved to Vienna for the next two years. It was during that time that he made several trips to the European Mediterranean and North Africa, and his direct contact with the ancient, early Christian and Arab cultures of Italy, Constantinople, Tunis and Algiers profoundly alters his artistic temperament. He abandoned the Germanic post-romanticism of his earlier works, and turned instead to the music of Debussy and Ravel, Stravinksy, and the Russian mystic Scriabin to help in defining is new tonal language.

The early 1920s saw Szymanowski again reconsidering the stylistic basis of his compositions. Having absorbed the influences of Strauss, Ravel, and Scriabin, he turned to his own country for renewed inspiration, and became intent on finding a national identity for contemporary Polish music based on the songs and dances of its people. He found his richest native source in the music of the mountain folk of the Tatra region, and he spent much time in their chief city, Zakopane. In 1927, he was simultaneously offered the directorships of the conservatories of Cairo and Warsaw, and it is indicative of his loyalties at the time that he accepted the post in Poland. Szymanowski achieved his greatest success and prosperity in the early 1930s, when his compositions found a large audience and he came to be regarded as the most important figure in modern Polish music. However, his health, never robust, began to fail, and he resigned the directorship of the Warsaw Conservatory in April 1932, thereafter devoting himself entirely to his creative work. He died in Lausanne on March 28, 1937.

The seed that blossomed into Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater was planed during his visit to Paris in 1924, when the Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer), heiress to the sewing-machine fortune and a devoted patron of the arts in turn-of-the-century France, proposed to commission from him some sort of “Polish Requiem” based on old religious verses and musical styles. He was still unsettled about the subject of the piece early in 1925 when two events, the death of his teenage niece Alusi Bartoszewiczowna and a commission from the Warsaw industrialist Bronislaw Krystall for a work commemorating his wife Izabela, led him to the traditional church texts, and he settled on the Stabat Mater, a thirteenth-century sequence (i.e. a sacred Latin poem with most of its lines in end-rhyme), usually attributed to the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi, which tells of the piteous anguish of the Mother of Christ as she stands before the Cross. By 1925, the verses has already been treated by Josquin, Palestrina, Lass, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, Dvorák and others, but Szymanowski chose to set them not in their original Latin but in a Polish paraphrase by Josef Jankowski. (The score, printed in both Polish and Latin, would seem to allow for performance in either language, however.) He chose for the solemn tragedy of the Stabat Mater not the colorful, folk-inspired idiom that touched most of his other works of the 1920s, but an austere language derived both from the Renaissance church polyphonists and form archaic Polish chant and religious music. Though its words were specifically religious, Szymanowski, who was never much drawn to sacred music, intended that his Stabat Mater be universal rather than dogmatic. “I sought an inner experience,” he wrote, “endeavoring to give a concrete, concise form to what is most real and yet most intangible in the secret life of the mind.” The result, according to the French critic André Coeuroy, is “one of the most original religious compositions ever written.”