Just in time for the celebrations marking the centenary of the first performance of The Rite of Spring, in Paris on May 29, 1913, a cylinder recording has turned up in a storeroom at the Hotel du Prince in Geneva. Probably unplayed for a century, it preserves with astonishing clarity a discussion involving the scenarist NICOLAS ROERICH, the impresario SERGE DIAGHILEV, the dancer-choreographer VASLAV NIJINSKY, and the work’s composer.
It has been about a hundred years now since classical composers automatically turned to literature for inspiration. Walt Whitman was perhaps the last universal philosopher of the written word to appeal widely to musicians. Expansive, idealistic compositions by Vaughan Williams (A Sea Symphony), Delius (Sea Drift), Hindemith ("When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd") and many others are still vividly with us to prove the point... But in the decades since, our culture has veered off in realistic, therapeutic and scientific directions. Self-actualization of the dramatic sort depicted in romantic verse now seems naive and self-indulgent to us. We do not model ourselves any more on sweeping literary notions of heroism, duty and suicide. They embarrass us slightly. And this probably explains why one doesn't very often come across Fountainhead Symphonies, featuring Howard Roark standing naked at the edge of a cliff, or tone poems devoted to Portnoy's activities of self-discovery in the coat closet. Occasionally, somebody still thinks of himself with sufficient grandiosity to try pulling off a musical Hamlet or Macbeth, but these days we take it all with a grain of salt. Narcissism has migrated to opera, where it can become camp.
A portion of the rich but sometimes neglected trove of American symphonies was given a welcome exposure during the valuable Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall in early May, thanks to the ongoing commitment to this repertory of music directors David Alan Miller and Leonard Slatkin. The beneficiary composers, Morton Gould and Charles Ives, both stand apart from the mid-century symphonic mainstream, also neglected, of Piston, Sessions, Schuman, Harris, Diamond, et al. It was a fascinating juxtaposition, particularly since Gould’s symphony has been largely absent since its premier in 1947, and most of Ives’s works had to wait lengthy intervals before receiving their first performances.
Since the resurrection of certain large and important Mozart works, Idomeneo being the main example which only came back to theatres and concert halls again around 60 years ago, much of his sacred music remains unsung or at least rarely heard. The Requiem mass, the C minor mass, the Coronation mass, Ave verum corpus are more or less ubiquitous, and do deserve many hearings. There are certain others a little less often heard, but there remain very many masses, mainly short youthful ones, litanies and fragments, starting from Mozart's childhood in the late 1760's through the '70's, with many fewer in the '80's when he was writing his finest operas. These sacred pieces, as well as the church sonatas which are thought to have been played as part of some of the masses, and also I might add Mozart's ceremonial masonic music which also has a particularly strong and direct metaphysical sense (though masonic music has its own peculiar style), approach the universe in a very Mozartean way, surprisingly similar to his secular music, even though they respond to different texts or purposes. These sacred pieces' clear dramatic sense makes them well suited to the concert hall, even if they can loose some of their gravity in the more modern workaday venues. Still they aren't operas and obviously the separate religious importance matters greatly whatever the occasion which sees them played, even if both Mozart's sacred choral and secular music span human existence with such deep and sensitive empathy. Mozart's thoughts and music-making about the divine are al the more powerful when one considers that though he wrote less sacred music in the 1780's, at the same time (or at the latest by 1790), he greatly desired the job of St. Stephen's cathedral composer, to the point of volunteering to assist the aging incumbent.
Molotov cocktail hour. Writing a three-act play while imprisoned under orders from the Czar probably wasn't as romantic as it sounds. But when the play is as good as Gorky's Children of the Sun (premiered in 1905), the feat is impressive, all the more because it took him only a month. Gorky means "bitter" in Russian, and he had taken it as his pen name when producing reams of revolutionary journalism on behalf of the rising Bolsheviks. Yet this particular play isn't bitter, revolutionary, or tilted toward gritty realism the way The Lower Depths is. That earlier play made Gorky world famous, luckily for him, since it took a protest by eminent foreign writers to coax the Czarist police to release him from the Peter and Paul Fortress, his new play drying on the page.
“So we beat on, boats against the currents, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Nick Carraway’s concluding insight in The Great Gatsby is one of the great closing sentences in literature, and one of the great images of our human helplessness to escape the past. It’s also the line that ends John Harbison’s Gatsby opera, which—13 years after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera—just had its first complete Boston performance, in a concert version produced by Emmanuel Music (the musical organization Harbison co-founded in 1970 with Craig Smith at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, mainly to play all of Bach’s cantatas as part of every Sunday’s liturgy). Harbison is now Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel, which has long been associated with his music, including the very first public performance, in 1997, of the first two scenes from The Great Gatsby.
Crossing the color line. In the twentieth century Russian music became a standoff between revolution and counter-revolution, the irony being that the White Russian composers who fled the Bolsheviks were the true revolutionaries while the Reds who stayed to endure Soviet rule were forced to toe the line of backward-looking conservatism. But the music isn't easily color-coded. Vladimir Jurowski led a concert of neoclassical Stravinsky and romantic Prokofiev that betrayed almost no revolutionary instincts, ending with the painful wail of the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony, whose Soviet credentials were never pure enough to satisfy the apparatchiks of the Composers Union.
By the skin of his teeth. As a bizarre offshoot of the workers' paradise, Soviet ideology boasted of creating a New Man, with possible help from the apes — before DNA was discovered, crackpot experiments that involved interbreeding humans with lower primates were conceived. The only success was fictitious, a creature named Orango who began life as a French journalist before being injected with chimpanzee serum. He is the sullen, furry anti-hero of a satirical opera begun by Shostakovich in 1932, and although the weirdness of the libretto may have been a stumbling block, another was probably political: Orango spoofed the decadent West (the creature uses his intelligence to become a stock market manipulator but retains a King Kong-like appetite for blondes). Did Orango's brutish manners shave a bit too close to Stalin? Or did he dangerously mock the promise of a New Man?