William Schuman, Symphony No. 3

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 4, 1910, in New York City
Died February 15, 1992, in New York City
Composed in 1941
Premiered on October 17, 1941, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky
Performance Time: Approximately 31 minutes

When William Schuman completed his Symphony No. 3 in 1941, he had an illustrious advocate: Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky, an active supporter of American music. It was Koussevitzky who led the premiere of Symphony No. 3; he had already performed Schuman’s Symphony No. 2, and Schuman would go on to write his Symphony for Strings (1943) as a commission for the Koussevitzky Music Foundation.

Schuman shaped his Symphony No. 3 into two parts, each divided into two contrasting subsections and named for baroque precedents. The first section of Part 1, “Passacaglia,” refers to a slow work in the mold of a theme and variations, with an illustrious heritage in the finale of Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Schuman’s similarly solemn movement builds gradually from a lone viola to the entire string section to the winds and brass, and it follows Brahms’ example in its fiery contrasts of mood and sensibility, ranging from delicate melodic wanderings to sturdy climaxes. This leads seamlessly into the next section of Part I—the spiky, colorful “Fugue.” Especially exhilarating, early on in the section, is a stretto—a series of melodic imitations in quick successions—in the trumpets that serves as a rousing fanfare before a calmer pastoral passage for winds. Schuman’s textures accumulate quickly, with focuses on single instruments and sections giving way to full-bodied orchestral outpourings; one such accumulation gives way to a brief unaccompanied timpani solo with a response in the French horns and, soon after, an amassing of forces.

Part II returns to the passacaglia’s musical world, with an opening section (“Chorale”) that begins with another pensive string passage; wind instruments are invited in, starting with a languid trumpet solo over a hazy string accompaniment, and followed by a flute. Despite its similarities to Part I, the “Chorale” lacks the polyphonic mayhem of Part I. It leads to the animated “Toccata”—a term that suggests spontaneity and virtuosity. Schuman makes a special point to highlight percussion in this movement, particularly in the opening (in which a snare drum engages with various wind instruments) and in the electrifying finish.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

Whitman and Democracy

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Among the most arguably difficult of literary enterprises is the art of translation. Vladimir Nabokov was obsessed about the matter; his complicated and controversial views on the processes of transferring the sensibilities evoked by one language to another have themselves inspired volumes of commentary. The challenge resides in an irresolvable paradox: if the translator aims for laser-like accuracy of meaning, the intangible qualities of linguistic usage that allow us to employ language in more subtle ways than Google Translate are lost; but if one aims to replicate the artistry of the work, then the result is something other than the “original” work. This is evident in many of the great translations made by poets of the works of other poets. These are valued not as “accurate” but as artistic works in their own right: Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of The Divine Comedy, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck’s German translation of Shakespeare. These translations achieved recognition as autonomous new works. Fidelity to the original was no longer the main critical criterion. They became cherished because they resembled the translator’s other beloved original works.

To take it even further, because language is not a stable human instrument, within a single language, distance in time and place between author and reader may affect comprehension. Translating from one language to another over a wide timeframe deepens the problem. Modern English speakers from the American East Coast cannot comprehend the English of Shakespeare or even Jane Austen without some reflection. (Indeed, even the space between one generation and the next can be daunting.) But this is because language is a living thing. There is a decided family resemblance over time within a language, but the differences in usage and meaning and in rhetoric and significance are always developing. Hence reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Vladimir Dahl’s dictionary of the Russian language (Nabokov’s favorite) are so essential to readers—even native speakers.

The barrier that exists between languages has been responsible for one of the most powerful modern uses of language—the establishment of discrete large-scale national identity, particularly in the nineteenth century. The standardization of language in post-unification Italy or in Napoleonic France and certainly after the unification in 1870 of Germany was a crucial instrument in forging a unified modern national consciousness. Dramatic regional differences in these countries came under scrutiny and weakened. The masters of a national language—writers and poets—were celebrated as giving voice to a consciousness that was quintessentially emblematic of a nation; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, and Charles Baudelaire shaped the shared self-image of Germany, Russia, and France. Although the works of these writers have been translated into numerous other languages, these translations are often accompanied by a discouraging tagline, especially dear to “native” speakers: “You can’t really appreciate them unless you read them in the original language.”

One would be hard put to argue persuasively that Walt Whitman does not belong in the category of poets and writers who helped shape the dominant vision of the American nation. He expressed a quintessential American voice. His ecstatic, arresting eloquence celebrated democracy, freedom, and individuality that continues to capture American readers. What made Whitman’s poetry truly American was not mere patriotism or chest-beating about how great the country was (or could be), but rather the unspoken values of the country from which he came that allowed him to express individual and dissenting reflections of love, nature, sexuality, and humanity in poetry, just as his contemporary Herman Melville did in prose. Whitman’s poetry could only have come from a land that believed that it valued freedom, democracy, and plurality.

As we celebrate the bicentenary of his birth, the influence of Whitman has not diminished. Saul Bellow once jokingly constructed a genealogy in American letters in which Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl, was actually a direct descendent of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s vision inspired generations of artists, painters, and photographers, notably the circle around Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans, for example), as well as politically progressive composers such as Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. And Whitman was a favorite among émigrés fleeing autocracy and dictatorship in Europe.

Indeed, what is extraordinary about Whitman is the extent to which he gained an enormous following in Europe in translation. It was reminiscent of the European enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Many of these Whitman translations were rather undistinguished, but somehow, the essence got through. Whitman inspired German and British composers to set his words to the medium of music that demands no translation, at least on the surface. Whitman’s international influence debunks the myth that translation cannot work and is without value. Indeed, Homer and Virgil have triumphed in translation, as have all the Greek tragedians. The Divine Comedy has made its way beyond readers of Italian. For all the complaints leveled at Constance Garnett’s translations of Tolstoy, the popularity and reputation of War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the English-speaking world owe a permanent debt to her work. The music you will hear tonight sidesteps the controversies about translation and nationalism in favor of an example of the universality of the humanistic sensibilities contained in Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Three of the composers on tonight’s program came from German-speaking Europe, albeit from distinct linguistic regions. Kurt Weill was born in Dessau. Franz Schreker had his roots in Austria and spoke a Viennese dialect, and Othmar Schoeck was a proud Swiss with a lifelong allegiance to the peculiarities and beauties of Swiss German. The main work on tonight’s concert is by an Englishman with political sympathies that were easily associated with Whitman.

Whitman was one of the first American poets to gain a foothold as a major literary figure with readers who are not native English speakers. It is the international reputation of Whitman, his role as a conveyor of the most cherished of American hopes and dreams—democracy and inclusion that inspired a unique aesthetic—that the ASO celebrates in this bicentenary. Whitman’s success in speaking to peoples well beyond the borders of America speaks well for the enterprise of poetry—the power of language, despite the difficulties of translation. Poetry, like music, can communicate, despite seemingly unbridgeable differences in history, religion, geography, and ethnic identity. Whitman’s poetry was a natural candidate for music. The composers on our program shared divergent political views, but Whitman inspired them to create a common ground of the imagination.

Othmar Schoeck, Trommelschläge

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 1, 1886, in Brunnen, Switzerland
Died March 8, 1957, in Zürich, Switzerland
Composed in 1915
Premiered on March 5, 1916 at Tonhalle, Zürich, with the Tonhalle-Orchester
Performance Time: Approximately 5 minutes

The horrors of the First World War intruded upon the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck personally: the only manuscript copy of one of his songs was destroyed when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. The song was lost at sea forever, along with over a thousand men, women, and children. Of course, Schoeck was far more horrified by the loss of life and the barbarism unleashed by the war than by the loss of a single song. He clearly understood that this cataclysm had changed everything, including, as it turned out, his own lush late-Romantic musical idiom.

Schoeck’s turn toward Expressionism can first be heard in his brief, violent, and harrowing Trommelschläge, Op. 26, for chorus and large orchestra. German-speaking composers who sought to comment musically on the First World War faced a paucity of German-language poetry that dealt with war, so Schoeck turned to the American verse of Walt Whitman. Sometime before August 1915, Schoeck’s friend, the painter and poet Gustav Gamper, introduced the composer to Whitman’s poetry through Johannes Schlaf’s 1907 German translation. Schoeck turned to “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” one of Whitman’s Civil War poems, finishing the score of Trommelschläge (“Drum Taps”) on August 16.

Schoeck wrote pessimistically to a friend, “I have vented all my anger about the present into a choral piece. It will perhaps break the neck of my position in Zürich.” The position to which he was referring was his conductorship of the Lehrergesangverein, one of Zürich’s leading choral ensembles. Predictably, the singers detested Trommelschläge, which they considered to be a bewildering example of musical ultra-modernism. Some of the singers ceased attending rehearsals as a protest. The choral society’s president begged the choristers to refrain from criticizing the score publically before its premiere. Despite these ill omens, the work proved to be a critical and audience success. Schoeck’s conception of a five-minute work that transformed both chorus and orchestra into a gigantic demonic drum proved overwhelming to its first listeners. In later years, Schoeck proudly asserted that Trommelschläge was his “first piece of modern music.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Kurt Weill, Four Walt Whitman Songs

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 2, 1900, in Dessau, Germany
Died April 3, 1950, in New York City
Composed in 1942–47
Premiered in 1947 for Concert Hall Records, with tenor William Horne and pianist Adam Garner
Performance Time: Approximately 18 minutes

Unlike some émigrés who fled Europe ahead of the Nazi menace, Kurt Weill never indulged in backward glances or nostalgia. Even before he became an American citizen on August 27, 1943, Weill had proudly declared in a radio broadcast that he had “never felt as much at home in my native land as I have from the first moment in the United States.” Musicologist Kim H. Kowalke has related that in 1937, Weill declared to the playwright Paul Green, “I have the feeling that most people who ever came to this country came for the same reasons which brought me here: fleeing from the hate, the oppression, the restlessness and troubles of the Old World to find freedom and happiness in a New World.”

That same year, Green sent a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to Weill as a celebratory gift. The choice of poet was hardly at random, as Green gave Weill the work of the most American poet imaginable, a book that eloquently welcomed aspiring future citizens of the United States just like Weill. The composer had certainly encountered Whitman in Germany—German readers were familiar with Leaves of Grass through a number of expert translations. In 1926, years before his emigration, Weill saluted an upcoming broadcast recitation of Whitman’s verse in Der deutsche Rundfunk: “Walt Whitman was the first truly original poetic talent to grow out of American soil.”

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Weill quickly composed three settings of Whitman’s Civil War poems: the first, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is martial and defiant; the second, a setting of Whitman’s famous poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is touching and poignant, with gentle echoes of Mahler’s Lieder; and the last, “Dirge for Two Veterans,” is both bluesy and deeply moving. In 1947, Weill revisited Whitman with a setting of “Come Up from the Fields, Father.” He positioned this as the third of his Four Walt Whitman Songs, which were recorded by tenor William Horner for Concert Hall Records. (“Another émigré composer to America, Carlos Surinach, orchestrated “Come Up from the Fields, Father” in Weill’s manner.)

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Franz Schreker, Vom ewigen Leben (From Eternal Life)

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 23, 1878, in Monaco
Died March 21, 1934, in Berlin, Germany
Composed in 1923
Premiered in 1929
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

Franz Schreker was celebrated principally as a dramatic composer during his lifetime: his first success came in 1908 with a pantomime, Der Geburtstag der Infantin, based on The Birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde. In 1910, Schreker completed his masterpiece, the opera Der ferne Klang, which enjoyed a veritable triumph at its 1912 premiere in Frankfürt am Main. Schreker consolidated his reputation as a leading German opera composer in 1918 with Die Gezeichneten. Music critic Paul Bekker ignited a firestorm of controversy by comparing Schreker to Wagner. In 1920, Schreker was appointed director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, one of the most prestigious music posts in Germany.

By 1923, however, when he composed his two “lyrische Gesäge” on passages adapted from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Schreker’s reputation had begun to wane. His 1924 opera Irrelohe garnered only an equivocal success; his next opera, Der singende Teufel, which premiered in 1928, was a disastrous failure. Due to right-wing pressure that resulted from his father’s Jewish heritage, Schreker was forced from his post at the Hochschule in 1932. This humiliation, combined with mounting financial difficulties, placed Schreker under enormous emotional and physical stress. He died of a stroke in December 1933, just short of his fifty-sixth birthday.

Schreker was extraordinarily responsive to literature: he wrote his own libretti for his operas. His two settings of Whitman’s verse, translated into German by Hans Reisinger, are testaments to Schreker’s ability to evoke fully poetry through music. These two songs resemble a concise lyrical cantata more than two disparate lieder. The text of the first song of Vom ewigen Leben comes from the twelfth poem of Calamus—“Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone”—in the ordering found in the final 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass. The text of the second is found in the sixth section of Song of Myself: “A child said, ‘What is the grass?’” Using a sensuous harmonic idiom hovering delicately on the brink of atonality paired with shimmering orchestral timbres, Schreker probes the metaphysical import of Whitman’s poetry in a manner both insightful and achingly beautiful.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, A Sea Symphony

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert A Walt Whitman Sampler, which will be performed on October 17, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 10, 1872, in Down Ampney, England
Died August 26, 1958, in London
Composed in 1903–09
Premiered on October 12, 1910 at the Leeds Festival, England
Performance Time: Approximately 70 minutes

In 1892, Bertrand Russell recommended Walt Whitman’s poetry to a fellow undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge: the aspiring young composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whitman’s poetry was well known in Britain by that time. William Michael Rossetti, brother of both Christina and Dante Gabriel, published a bowdlerized selection of verse drawn from the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass in 1868. Whitman later repudiated these excisions, exclaiming, “Damn the expurgated books! I say damn them!”

Vaughan Williams, who had been searching for poetry that transcended the parlor-bound interiority of much Victorian verse, recognized at once that Whitman’s celebration of panoramic vistas and pantheistic rapture was exactly what he needed in order to escape from the world of polite oratorios, cantatas, and anthems that made up the bulk of British choral music in the 1890s. While his teachers Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood had tentatively begun setting Whitman’s poetry at the end of the nineteenth century, Vaughan Williams’ passionate love of this verse—he carried a pocket volume of Whitman into the trenches during the First World War—resulted in a series of visionary scores. His “choral song,” Toward the Unknown Region, was successfully performed at the Leeds Festival in 1907; three years later, his massive and original choral symphony, A Sea Symphony, was premiered at the same festival, conducted by its nervous composer on October 12, his thirty-eighth birthday.

Despite the precedent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, there was no choral symphony as such by a British composer when Vaughan Williams began to sketch A Sea Symphony in 1903. Unlike its German predecessors, the chorus and vocal soloists were integral parts of Vaughan Williams’ conception of all four movements from the beginning and pervade the texture throughout. The majestic opening is like the sudden revelation of a teeming seascape that evokes Turner’s grandiose nautical canvases. A quotation from Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius, at the words “And on its limitless, heaving breast,” announces that this symphony is not mere tone-painting, but rather a transformative voyage of the spirit into transcendent and mysterious realms.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.