Unjust Obscurity?

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

The influence of history on today’s symphony orchestra concert repertoire is more complicated than might appear at first glance. We are, no doubt, the heirs and beneficiaries of the considered taste and judgment of generations of performers, amateurs, critics and audiences. The span of time of continuous listening and widely disseminated music criticism is about a century and a half; it began in the mid 1840s. A certain degree of stable consensus has emerged, comparable to the consensus with which we are familiar in literature and painting. No matter how historically contingent we admit our tastes in literature and painting to be (as opposed to claiming that our judgments are entirely “objective” and immune to history and culture in some formalist sense), we continue to acknowledge Dante and Shakespeare as doubtlessly great, just as we grant Leonardo and Rembrandt a permanent place in a pantheon of painters.

However, the total history of the forms of symphonic music is much shorter. There was no “classical” era, in the sense of antiquity, which the late eighteenth century could rediscover and assume as a model (as happened in art and architecture). Likewise, because of the advent during the seventeenth century of the orchestra in the modern sense, no “Renaissance” or “Middle Ages” bequeathed a body of work formally continuous in some obvious manner with the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century orchestral repertoire. We are participants in a relatively recent urban ritual, the symphonic concert.

Nevertheless, the Beethoven symphonies and the last Mozart and Haydn symphonies became the starting benchmarks of the concert hall canon (a term used here in its recent fashionable sense, not to indicate the musical form but a body of paradigmatic works) in the mid-nineteenth century. Works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz, Schubert and Brahms were added, followed by select works by composers from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Amidst the ebb and flow of taste a small group of out-standing orchestral pieces, from Mozart to Mahler, Strauss, Sibelius and Shostakovich has emerged as the standard repertory.

However, in contrast to painting and literature, we have become enthralled by the shadow cast by the perhaps 175 orchestral pieces that make up the standard list. We compare all non-canonic works to them. We persistently invoke masterpieces to denigrate lesser-known works, even by well known composers. It is as if we have lost the joy of listening; of following in our imaginations the invention, insight and skill of most of the fine composers from the past. We seem compelled to comment, immediately after first hearing, “but it is not x” or “it is flawed, unlike y.” We have lost perspective and patience. In painting, we are sufficiently pleased and appreciative of lesser works by masters and fine works by lesser figures to hang them in museums and to spend exorbitant prices to own them. In literature, we read with delight book after book from the past without comparing what we are reading to a handful of classics.

In the concert hall, we have become intolerant of the unfamiliar. We are bored too quickly at first hearing. We have become addicted to endless repetitions of the very same works. A cult of the masterpiece has developed, and we search–often in vain–for nuances in the repeated renditions. It is as if we were film buffs who had memorized every line and frame in Casablanca, awaiting eagerly our favorite moment, only to anticipate savoring it once more. Despite the understandable pleasure we all experience in recognition through memory and repetition, the situation has become so extreme that we are in danger of losing one of the great pleasures enjoyed by audiences in the past: the act of fresh discovery and response.

This concert is dedicated to the revival of the history of music as a living presence. We are performing works that are finely crafted and inspired in their own right, written by outstanding composers who used music to express ideas with power, intensity, authenticity and artistic and emotional commitment: music by leading figures from the musical past. The works, in formal terms, are as good in every sense as most of the paintings in our museums and works of literature in print from the past, with perhaps the exception of the 175 most valued examples. That a single work is not the Beethoven Fifth, the Dvorák Cello concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Debussy’s La Mer or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue ought not disqualify it from being listened to, even more than once.

The works on this program span the most prolific period for the creation of orchestral music. They mirror the importance and communicative power that the musical culture of the orchestral concert possessed before 1945. The modern audience can once again experience wonder and delight in the large repertoire that has all but vanished from the concert stage, without feeling compelled to judge works against an extremely limited paradigm. The concert canon must change and expand, not merely from the addition of new music but from the active reappraisal of the past if the concert experience is to remain vital to our lives. This concert has been designed to accelerate the contemporary embrace of the many overlooked historical treasures of orchestral music.

La Mort de Tintageles

By Philip Hale

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

The Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Melisande and the 1894 play Le Mort de Tintagiles is remembered today more for his influence on music than for his literary achievement. Few writers have so thoroughly captured, in their own day, the imagination of composers (including Fauré, Debussy, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg) through language and narration. The literary movement we call “symbolism” provided a framework ideally suited to the late romantic, impressionist and early expressionist musical vocabulary of the fin de siècle. Charles Martin Loeffler arrived in America from Europe as a man of twenty. He joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a violinist and became an important figure in that city’s musical life. This work is a narrative tone poem organized along the lines of the story. Lush orchestral colors and the immediacy of the thematic material define the work. For the modern audience, this piece offers a fine opportunity to reflect on how music, without pictures or words, can evoke and convey a story line. The figuration of the material, the vivid harmonic gestures and the use of repetition and clearly defined episodes work effectively, however, independently of any assumption of familiarity with the literary narrative. The power of the purely musical merges with the so-called extra-musical as Loeffler magnificently engages and surprises us. At its premiere in 1898 critics found the work both modern and decadent. Loeffler, who had used two viola d’amore instruments in the first version, revised the work for one solo viola d’amore in 1901. It is this later version which is being used in this concert.

The viola d’amore is an eighteenth-century string instrument with seven strings placed over an equal number of sympathetic strings. Many concert goers may associate the instrument with Vivaldi, but its singular timbre and sound appealed to other fin de siècle composers, including Puccini, who used it offstage in Madama Butterfly. The story of Maeterlinck’s play is recounted by Loeffler at the head of the 1905 published orchestral score as follows:

“La Mort de Tintagiles,” little drama for marionettes, is in five short acts. The characters are the tender boy Tintagiles; his older sisters Ygraine and Bellangere; Aglovale, the warrior retainer, now very old and tired; and the three handmaidens of the Queen. Tintagiles is the future monarch of the nameless land in the strange years of legends. He and his sisters are living in a gloomy and airless castle far down in a valley; and in a tower that shows at night red-litten windows lurks the enthroned Queen. The serene ancients portrayed death as beautiful of face; but this Queen in the nameless land is not beautiful in any way; she is fat as a sated spider. She squats alone in the tower. They that serve her do not go out by day. The Queen is very old, she is jealous, she cannot brook the thought of another on the throne. They that by chance have seen her will not speak of her – and some whisper that they who are thus silent did not dare to look upon her. ‘Tis she who commanded that Tintagiles, her orphaned grandson, should be brought over the sea to the somber castle where Ygraine and Bellangere have passed years, as blind fish in the dull pool of a cavern.

The sea howls, the trees groan, but Tintagiles sleeps after his fear and tears. The sisters bar the chamber door, for Bellangere has heard strange muttering in rambling, obscure corridors, chuckling over the child whom the Queen would fain see. Ygraine is all of a tremble; nevertheless she believes half-heartedly and for the nonce that he may yet be spared; then she remembers how the horror in the tower has been as a tombstone pressing down her soul. Aglovale cannot be of aid, he is so old, so weary of it all. Her bare and slender arms are all that is between the boy and the hideous Queen of darkness and of terror.

Tintagiles awakes. He suffers and knows not why. He hears a vague something at the door, and others hear it. A key grinds in the lock outside. The door opens slowly. Of what avail is Aglovale’s sword used as a bar? It breaks. The door is opened wider, but there neither sight nor sound of an intruder. The boy has fainted, and the chamber suddenly is cold and quiet. Tintagiles is again conscious and he shrieks. The door closes mysteriously.

Watchers and boy are at last asleep. The veiled handmaidens whisper in the corridor; they enter stealthily and snatch Tintagiles from the warm and sheltering arms of life. A cry comes from him: “Sister Ygraine!” a cry as from someone afar off.

The sister, haggard, with lamp in hand, agonizes in a somber vault, a vault that is black and cold; agonizes before a huge iron door in the tower-tomb. The keyless door is a forbidding thing sealed in the wall. She has tracked Tintagiles by his golden curls found on the steps, along the walls. A little hand knocks feebly on the other side of the door; a weak voice cries to her. He will die if she does not come to him and quickly; for he has struck the Queen, who is hurrying toward him. Even now he hears her panting in pursuit; even now she is about to clutch him. He can see a glimmer of the lamp through a crevice which is so small that a needle could hardly make its way. The hands of Ygraine are bruised, her nails are torn, she dashes the lamp against the door in her wild endeavor, and she, too, is in the blackness of darkness. death has Tintagiles by the throat. “defend yourself,” screams the sister: “don’t be afraid. One moment and I’ll be with you. Tintagiles? Tintagiles? Answer me! Help! Where are you? I’ll aid you – kiss me – through the door – here’s the place – here.” The voice of Tintagiles – how faint it is! – is heard for the last time: “I kiss you, too – here – Sister Ygraine! Sister Ygraine! Oh!” The little body falls.

Ygraine bursts into wailing and impotent raging. She beseeches in vain the hidden, noiseless monster….

Long and inexorable silence. Ygraine would spit on the destroyer, but she sinks down and sobs gently in the darkness, with her arms on the keyless door of iron.

Concerto for Piano Left Hand

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Franz Schmidt’s music has always been the object of fanatical advocacy by a small group of connoisseurs. His opera Notre-Dame (1904), the oratorio The Book of the Seven Seals (1937), the four symphonies and the various smaller orchestral works have always had a loyal following among highly discerning musicians. Among the most enthusiastic Schmidt adherents was Hans Keller, the eminent Austrian musician and critic who emigrated to England in the 1930s and who left an indelible and brilliant mark on twentieth-century English musical life. More than any other composer on this program, Schmidt earned within his own lifetime the reputation of an unjustly neglected master. There is little doubt that the symphonies deserve to be heard more often. They, in my opinion, are equal to the much better known works of Sibelius. In part what prevented Schmidt from receiving his deserved recognition was his personality. (A similar case was that of Hans Pfitzner.) Schmidt, a loyal child of the Habsburg Empire who lived for most of his life in Vienna, was both a fine cellist and pianist. He served for many years in the Vienna Opera orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. In that role he developed a burning envy and hatred for Gustav Mahler and Mahler’s brother-in-law, the great violinist and concert-master Arnold Rose, whose quartet premiered much of Arnold Schoenberg’s early chamber music. Schmidt later quit the orchestra to teach piano at the Vienna Conservatory; Jealousy, bitterness and arrogance were Schmidt’s distinguishing character traits. He always felt disregarded as a composer and denigrated – unfairly – as a mere player, whose music was a pale pastiche or imitation of the styles of others. As this ambitious Concerto indicates, Schmidt’s musical architecture, thematic impulses, uses of instruments, as well as the sequencing, mode and development of musical materials owe a great deal, curiously enough, to the Viennese tradition as realized by those arch-rivals Brahms and Bruckner. This concerto was commissioned in 1934 by Schmidt’s fellow Viennese, Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the great philosopher Ludwig and scion of one of the city’s most musical and distinguished families. Wittgenstein lost one arm in World War I. He proceeded to commission works for left hand alone from Schmidt, Strauss and Ravel. Schmidt also wrote a magnificent quintet for Wittgenstein, as well as a solo toccata.

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 15 (1907)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Before the mid-twentieth century-the era of Penderecki and Lutoslawski-the two greatest figures in the history of music in Poland were Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski. Like Chopin, Szymanowski was an ardent Polish patriot. But unlike Chopin, Szymanowski lived mostly in Poland (with periods of extended stay in Vienna and Paris) and devoted much of his career, both in the early stages and at the end of his life, to furthering the cause of music in Poland. Like his more famous but comparable contemporaries, the Czech Leos Janacek and the Hungarian Bela Bartók, Szymanowski struggled to confront the powerful influences of the German and French musical traditions and, at the same time, craft a distinct style derived in part from the inspiration offered by his homeland and its linguistic and cultural traditions. However, Szymanowski (particularly after 1918) sought to develop a universal and spiritual but distinctly lyrical modernist musical language of expression. This ambition led him therefore to non-Western and oriental sources for ideas and literary texts. Szymanowski is best remembered for two stunning violin concertos, a magnificent Stabat Mater, the opera King Roger and a host of songs and chamber music.

Szymanowski wrote four works which were to be catalogued as symphonies. No. 4 was a Concertante for piano and orchestra. No. 3 was a work for chorus, soloists and orchestra. Only two works in the purely instrumental format survive. The better known of the early symphonies, No. 2 from 1909-1910 was later edited and revised with the help of the distinguished Warsaw composer/conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, Szymanowski’s friend. The work on this concert, the First Symphony in F minor, Op. 15, although performed in 1909 in Warsaw, was never published, revived or revised. It is therefore obscure in two senses. First, like the rest of the composer’s music, it is too seldomly performed outside of Poland. Second, within Szymanowski’s oeuvre, this work has been given short shrift as a bit “crude”, and not representative of the gifts and achievements characteristic of the mature Szymanowski.

This performance can therefore test the conventional view of this composer’s early work. Only two movements exist. Taken together, they make a powerful musical essay. True, the influence of Richard Strauss and the traditions of Liszt and Wagner are clearly evident. But, as in the case of early Brahms (where the influence of Schumann can be detected easily), there is a compelling immediacy of invention and a wholly original instinct for drama and orchestration less prevalent in Szymanowski’s later works. In this work for example, Szymanowski innovates in the formal structure–in the way the seams within the movements are sewn together by harmonic change and orchestration. He chooses — courageously — to end the work by avoiding the cadential cliches of his time, leaving the listener with a startling mix of finality and ambiguity. Although the composer referred to his first symphony in later years as a “monstrum contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral,” the brash youthful energy that comes through is convincing. Perhaps the work has suffered because of the title. If it were regarded less as a symphonic fragment, and more as a two-part symphonic tone poem, the work might have taken its rightful place alongside the great Strauss tone poems from the same period. This work can be compared to Bartók’s Kossuth from 1903, a fine youthful symphonic essay by another great twentieth century composer written under the spell of Strauss’ example.

Overture from the Music to Shakespeare’s Tragedy, “King Lear” (1859)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

The evolution of concert music in Russia and Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth century can be understood as governed by a continual tension and uneasy symbiosis between Western European influences and the desire by composers to develop a distinctly national musical idiom. At stake in the case of Russia was a struggle among artists and intellectuals over the soul of the nation as essentially either Western or Eastern. Balakirev was perhaps the most formidable and influential of Russia’s unusual group of late nineteenth-century composers. His works range from the relatively obscure Incidental Music for King Lear, originally written in 1858, the overture of which opens this program, to more famous later works such as Islamey, the “oriental fantasy” for piano. Balakirev attempted to utilize the formal procedures of Schumann and Liszt and also integrate so-called “folk” elements, not only from his native Russia, but from Bohemia, Poland and Spain. Other Russian composers, such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, who also struggled to reconcile the Russian with the Western European, were profoundly influenced by Balakirev. His orchestral music, particularly the two symphonies in C and D minor, and his many overtures are all too rarely performed. This work was inspired in part by Vladimir Stasov, the influential critic and composer. The choice of a Shakespeare text was not arbitrary. During the second half of the nineteenth century, in part to demonstrate that the language and culture of the Slavic peoples were in every sense the equals of the German and French, translations and productions of Shakespeare became immensely popular. Since Shakespeare had been appropriated by the French and German in translation, nationalist intellectuals used Shakespeare to demonstrate that Slavic languages (often looked down upon by snobs and aristocrats as culturally inferior) could transmit the English original of the world’s greatest playwright just as well as German or French, whose claims to cultural universalism and cosmopolitanism seemed more secure. Not surprisingly, many nineteenth-century Russian and Czech composers were eager to write symphonic music designed to accompany or evoke popular nationalist productions of Shakespeare’s plays. In this overture, Balakirev uses a distinctly Russian sound but develops the material along conventional, Schumann-like structural lines. The result is a rich, robust, and economically-organized musical drama. The thematic contrasts, the color and pace of the work transmit the grandeur and pathos of Shakespeare’s tragedy.