Appalachian Spring: Bernstein and the LA Phil

R-4004737-1412008444-8505.jpegAaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score, Appalachian Spring, has already been the subject of two Listeners’ Club posts (here and here). But let’s return to this American masterwork once more and listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1982 Deutsche Grammophon recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You would be hard pressed to find a more exciting and soulful interpretation of the Appalachian Spring Suite, including Copland’s own rendition and Bernstein’s slightly faster “definitive” 1961 recording with the New York Philharmonic.

Appalachian Spring begins and ends with two overlapping chords which blend into hazy pandiatonic harmony. It’s a sound which seems to emerge from the American landscape: expansive, fundamental, and eternal. Time seems suspended. But then a new, blindingly bright voice suddenly enters, jolting us out of our daydreams (3:09).

Bernstein’s performance is infused with a sense of dance, rhythmic intensity, and sparkle. We hear this towards the end, around 20:13, as Simple Gifts develops into a sparkling rhythmic motor. There are also moments of sensuous repose. Listen to the way the music takes us into new, distant territory around 17:20. A few moments later, we turn a corner and suddenly find ourselves back at the opening. But this time, there’s a sense that the opening pandiatonic chords are reawakening and trying to remember. After the final climax of the piece subsides, we’re left with a moment of veiled introspection (22:24).

These are a few of the details which place this performance a few notches above so many other excellent recordings of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Take a few minutes and listen. Then, if you feel inspired, leave a comment in the thread below and share your own thoughts.

  • Find this recording at iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear a live performance of the complete ballet score with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony.

Lonely Broadway, Circa 1946

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Here’s an interesting historical coincidence from the golden age of American musical theater: At one fleeting moment in the late 1940s, there were three shows running on (or near) Broadway containing songs with strikingly similar titles. The shows had little in common in terms of style or substance. But the three songs, Lonely RoomLonely Town, and Lonely House share an obvious, if superficial bond.

Lonely Room

Lonely Room is a dark soliloquy, occurring near the end of the first act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the transformative, plot-driven musical which opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for a record-breaking 2,212 performances. The song offers a brief glimpse into the troubled, isolated world of Jud Fry. Fry, who lives in a smokehouse, is the show’s main villain and outcast. He is an anti-hero, the polar opposite of cowboy Curly McLain. Curly and Jud are embroiled in a romantic rivalry for the affections of Laurey Williams, a farm girl.

Lonely Room gives us empathy for Jud as a character, even though we don’t want to see him triumph over Curly. We are forced to enter the painful desolation of his inner turmoil and to acknowledge his humanity. He becomes a developed character rather than a stick figure “villain.” Our encounter is simultaneously disturbing and life-affirming.

Lonely Room opens with a grating dissonance. Its melody steps up chromatically, mirroring the rising heat of Jud’s emotions. It veers unpredictably into major before being pulled back into a stormy minor. Lonely Room unfolds as a stream of consciousness with its own dramatic arc. In The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (pg. 42), Dominic Symonds points out the song’s unconventional “A, B, B, C, A, A-extended” structure, noting that at the song’s conclusion, the “A” section is developed and extended “to reveal Jud’s dramatic journey through the song.” Rodgers and Hammerstein would develop this form further in Carousel (1945) with Soliloquy

Lonely Town

The jazzy, escapist musical comedy On the Town opened on Broadway in 1944. The music was written by a young Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics and book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The show’s plot follows three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during the Second World War. Lonely Town is Gabey’s lament at not being able to find romance in the big city.

Harmonically, Lonely Town is restless, constantly unfolding, and never quite going where we expect. Bernstein seems to give a sly nod to Puccini in the final bars of the song. Lonely Town melts into the solitary blues of the Pas de deux dance sequence.

Lonely House

Kurt Weill’s 1946 opera, Street Scene, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, premiered in Philadelphia and moved to Broadway in 1947. It is set on the doorstep of a tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two scorching summer days. (The curtain opens on a song called Ain’t it Aweful, the Heat?). Street Scene was based on Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of the same name. Weill offered this description of the story:

It was a simple story of everyday life in a big city, a story of love and passion and greed and death. I saw great musical possibilities in its theatrical device – life in a tenement house between one evening and the next afternoon. And it seemed like a great challenge to me to find the inherent poetry in these people and to blend my music with the stark realism of the play.

Lonely House is sung by Sam Kaplan, a teenager who is in love with Rose Maurrant. The song expresses the sensation of loneliness in a large crowd. Here is a performance by Lotte Lenya, an Austrian singer and actress who was Kurt Weill’s wife:

Symphonic Snapshot: Mahler’s Second

Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910
Gustav Mahler in New York City, 1910

In 2011, Music Director Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with a free “Concert for New York” at Avery Fisher Hall. The program featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection,” a piece which opens with an anguished funeral march and culminates in a moment of ultimate transfiguration. In the final bars of the fifth movement, the traditional orchestra is suddenly augmented by the all-encompassing power of a pipe organ and a final proclamation rises up from the chorus:

Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you! 

Mahler’s deeply psychological music was ahead of its time. Largely misunderstood by audiences during the composer’s lifetime, it wasn’t until the mid to late twentieth century that the music began to resonate fully with audiences. Now we collectively turn to this music in times of grief and confusion. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” said Mahler. Transcending literal meaning, Mahler’s music communicates ultimate and eternal truth.

Coincidentally, the New York Philharmonic’s performance came within months of the hundredth anniversary of Mahler’s death in 1911. In many ways, Mahler’s music is infused in the orchestra’s DNA. In the final years of his life, Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic’s music director (between 1909 and 1911). His exhausting battles with the Philharmonic’s (at that time) small-minded and provincial leadership have been well-documented. Later, as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein passionately championed Mahler’s works.

We’ll return to Mahler’s Second Symphony in greater detail in a future post. For now, here are a few musical snapshots from the Philharmonic’s 2011 concert. The first movement, Allegro maestoso, opens with a ferocious snarl which immediately demands our attention. The strings make an opening statement and then the woodwinds enter with the next layer of this long musical narrative. We hear the searing, mocking sounds of muted trumpets and horns. The Dies Irae (the Latin chant representing the “Day of Wrath”) surfaces briefly. The movement climaxes with a shockingly dissonant fortissimo (14:46), which anticipates the sounds of the twentieth century. There are also moments of otherworldly beauty and repose. But we keep getting pulled back to the funeral procession with a musical voice which says, “Don’t forget me! I’m still here!” There’s something slightly unsettling about the sudden and unpredictable way the music alternates in mood in this big, unfolding cosmic battle.

At one point in this performance the audience, which seems sincerely engaged in the music, begins applauding, apparently mistaking a powerful climax for the movement’s end. Seasoned concertgoers might frown on applause between movements, especially during the long, dramatic arc of a Mahler symphony. But this applause also seems to suggest that there were audience members in the hall who were hearing this piece for the first time, making the New York Philharmonic’s gift to their community even more special.

The Second Symphony’s fourth movement, Urlicht (“Primal Light”) originated in Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). It moves into the remote key of D-flat major, far from the Symphony’s principal keys of C minor and E-flat major:

This excerpt from the final movement begins with a solemn statement of the Dies Irae in the trombones and unfolds into a triumphant moment of exultation. Mahler’s score occasionally asks wind players to raise their instrument’s bell above the music stand to increase the volume and direct intensity of the sound. In this clip you’ll see the horns raise their bells:

  • Find the complete “Concert for New York” on iTunes, Amazon
  • Hear Claudio Abbado’s 2003 performance with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Remembering Gunther Schuller

American composer, conductor, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller (1925-2015)
Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), Renaissance man of American music

 

American composer, conductor, horn player, writer, educator, and jazz musician Gunther Schuller passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Schuller’s compositions fused elements of jazz and classical music into a style he called “Third Stream.” His remarkably diverse career included principal horn positions with the Cincinnati Symphony and Metropolitan Opera orchestras in the 1940s and 50s, as well as collaborations with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others. In the 1960s and 70s, he was president of New England Conservatory of Music. He served as director of new musical activities at the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. More recently, he served as artistic director of the Northwest Bach Festival in Spokane, Washington.

Gunther Schuller talks about his musical development and the influence of orchestra playing, Scriabin, Ravel, and Duke Ellington in this 1999 conversation with David Starobin.

Selected Recordings:

Where the Word Ends was written in 2007 for James Levine and the Boston Symphony. In the opening of the piece, ghostly voices emerge out of silence, suddenly thrusting us into a dark world of apprehension. As the piece progresses, we hear faint echoes of the music of Anton Bruckner (9:48), Mahler, Bartok, and Stravinsky. At 21:27, a lonely, jazzy solo horn line briefly emerges. Where the Word Ends is a haunting dreamscape of color and sound.

In this live BBC Proms performance, Semyon Bychkov leads the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne:

The Chamber Music Society Of Lincoln Center’s recording of Octet, written in 1979, first movement:

The bluesy second movement, Passacaglia, from Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959):

Leonard Bernstein’s March 11, 1964 New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concert,” Jazz in the Concert Hall featured Gunther Schuller conducting his educational narrative, Journey into Jazz:

  • Find Gunther Schuller’s music at iTunes
  • Find books by Gunther Schuller at Amazon

The Joy of Wrong Notes

broken-piano-keysThe element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out.

For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467. Or listen to the Richard Rodgers song, In My Own Little Corner from the 1957 television musical, Cinderella. On the words, “own little chair” Rodgers veers unexpectedly to the “wrong” note and then quickly corrects it with the note we expected. The bridge section of the song moves even further afield before quickly and skillfully sliding back into the chorus. “Oh yes, that’s where we’re supposed to be.” The familiar chorus suddenly feels fresh and new because of where we’ve been in the bridge.

The examples above are relatively subtle. But once in a while the “wrong” notes begin to really step out of line and take over the piece. Here are eight pieces where “wrong” notes move beyond subtle into the realm of shocking:

Haydn: The Creation

Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, completed in 1798, is based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The opening Overture is a musical depiction of chaos. It’s filled with harsh dissonances and cadences which avoid a clear resolution, elements which audiences at the time would have found particularly shocking. There’s a hint of the revolutionary fire of Beethoven, who was about to begin his first string quartets in 1797 as Haydn began working on The Creation. At moments the music is so chromatic that it feels as if we’ve stepped into some unwritten Wagner prelude:

Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet

Listen to the opening of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and you’ll understand why it earned the nickname “Dissonance.” Completed in 1785, the work was dedicated to Haydn.

Chopin’s “Wrong Note” Etude

Frederic Chopin’s Etude No. 25, No. 5 in E minor is known as the “Wrong Note” Etude because of its dissonant minor seconds.

Prokofiev: Cinderella

The music of Sergei Prokofiev is full of quirky “wrong” notes. This excerpt from the ballet score, Cinderella is one example:

Ives: Symphony No. 2

The final movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 is an exuberant collage of American folk songs, hymns, and Civil War military songs. You might also hear hints of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The end of the movement is like the grand finale of a brilliant fireworks display. Listen carefully. Something surprising happens on the final chord…

Shostakovich: Polka from “The Golden Age”

Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1930 ballet The Golden Age offered a satirical look at cultural and political currents in 1920s Europe. The Polka lands somewhere between humor and sarcasm:

Schnittke: Stille Nacht

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) wrote this haunting version of Silent Night as a musical Christmas Card for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1978. Schnittke spent much of his life trapped behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. His music often evokes an atmosphere of gloom as well as biting protest. Pastiche and historical references frequently make up the ironic fabric of Schnittke’s music.

Wrong Note Rag

We’ll finish with music which perfectly sums up the joy of “wrong” notes. Here is an excerpt from the original Broadway cast recording of Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green:

Share your own favorite “wrong note” pieces in the thread below.

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Gem

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony, written in 1943, is one of those mid-twentieth century American musical gems that deserves to be heard more often. Following its National Symphony Orchestra premiere in March, 1944, conductor Hans Kindler declared that the symphony,

is without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me.

American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)

A year later, the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. But, with the exception of a few recordings, it has fallen largely off the radar.

The unfair perception of Walter Piston as a dry, Ivy League academic and later a twelve tone composer (as heard in his Eighth Symphony) may be partly to blame. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1894, Piston served for many years on the faculty of Harvard University. His students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham. As a music theorist he is remembered as the author of a series of respected textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony. Aaron Copland described Piston as, “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast.” But as conductor Gerard Schwarz noted, with the advantage of hindsight, Piston’s music goes beyond craft:

In some ways Piston was the dean of American music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull, academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. It is true that he uses classic forms, but with his own language. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realize that he was a master, an inspired composer.

Beyond a neoclassical structural purity, the Second Symphony doesn’t conform easily to any distinct stylistic category. At moments it may remind you of the sonorous chorale-like orchestration of Piston’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. As with Hindemith, who could play almost every instrument and wrote a wide array of sonatas, Piston had a deep understanding of orchestration. “I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers” he said. As the second symphony unfolds, it’s easy to sense the instruments coming to life, suggesting distinct personas. At times, they engage in a soulful conversation (as in the second movement’s lamenting dialogue between the clarinet and flute).

As Carol J. Oja points out in this article, Piston was an “internationalist” who did not actively seek to develop a distinctly “American” musical style. But there are moments in the Second Symphony when it’s easy to catch a hint of the blues. Additionally, there’s a feeling of Ragtime swing in the spunky melody that pops up around the 2:00 mark in the first movement. The fugal counterpoint that follows sparkles with a fresh, innocent mid-century American vibe. Despite these lighthearted adventures, the first movement ends with a solemn brass chorale, sinking back into the atmosphere the music seemed to be trying to escape in the opening.

The second movement emerges out of a single horn tone. A lonely bassoon line spins into a short canon in thirds with the low strings. By the time the clarinet begins its soulful, extended statement, we already have a sense that the music is striving, reaching higher towards some unknown goal. The flute picks up where the clarinet leaves off, taking the conversation to a new level of intensity. The movement alternates between collective anguish and serene beauty (listen to the glistening violin entrance at 15:30).

Here is Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the Seattle Symphony, originally released on the Delos Records label in 1992:

  1. Moderato 0:00
  2. Adagio 10:07
  3. Allegro 21:51

Additional Links

  • View the New York Philharmonic’s score to Piston’s Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Bernstein’s markings.
  • Listen to the Seattle Symphony’s recordings of Walter Piston’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies.

Washington’s Birthday

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Washington’s Birthday, the first movement of Charles Ives’ Holiday Symphony, emerges out of the desolate, snowy gloom of a midwinter night in rural New England. The music feels strangely amorphous, as if we’ve suddenly slipped into a dream.

As we enter this sonic dreamscape, it’s easy to get the sense that we’re joining music already in progress. Who knows where or when it began? Drifting from one hazy moment to the next, we gradually become aware of a growing hubbub of voices. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a spirited barn dance. Fragments of old American folk melodies float in and out of our consciousness and begin to blend into a growing, joyful cacophony. With one shocking, climactic chord, our strange dream shows signs of turning into a nightmare. But then, just as suddenly, the night begins to wind down. Amid the final echoes of a fragment of Goodnight, Ladies, our ephemeral vision evaporates…

Here are the opening lines of Charles Ives’ description of Washington’s Birthday:

Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

Leonard Bernstein’s recording with the New York Philharmonic:

Visit Listeners’ Club posts featuring other movements from Ives’ Holiday Symphony, Thanksgiving Dayand Decoration Day.

Written in 1909

Composed in 1909 and revised and published four years later, Washington’s Birthday is an adventurous journey into atonality. Similar music was pushing the boundaries in Europe. 1909 was the year Anton Webern wrote the groundbreaking Five Movements, Op. 5.  The same year, Claude Debussy began writing his twenty four Préludes for solo piano. Listen to the hazy impressionism of the second Prélude from Book 1, Voiles. This music is constructed on the same whole tone scale Ives uses in the opening of Washington’s Birthday.  

In 1909 Mahler finished Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). Ravel began work on the ballet Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky was a year away from completing The Firebird.

Pass the (Deflated) Football

Deflated-NFL-Football

The Listeners’ Club isn’t a sports blog, so I have no insight into this weekend’s Super Bowl matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I’ll also leave it to the Columbia University physics department to investigate allegations that the Patriots gained an unfair advantage by using purposely deflated balls.

But, in honor of Super Bowl 49, here is Pass the Football from Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical, Wonderful Town. The lyrics were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. In any other songwriter’s hands this would have been a fairly straight forward comic song. Bernstein seems to have been incapable of passing up an opportunity to have fun with witty musical details. The song opens with Coplandesque voice leading. A reoccurring chromatic scale which jumps wildly between octaves accentuates the humor: